3:17 The Complete Story

This is all 28 parts of my recent fiction serial, in one post.
It is a long read, at 20,550 words.

3:17. That was the time shown by the red numerals on the digital alarm clock next to the bed when I woke up for no apparent reason. The little dot next to the number three was at the top, indicating it was morning, not afternoon. I had never got around to changing the setting to a twenty-four hour display.

The feeling I had was more uneasy, than scared. I hadn’t been dreaming, at least not that I could remember, but I definitely recalled sensing a presence of some kind next to the bed. Once awake, I felt thirsty, though I was reluctant to get up to go and get a drink. Whenever I did that, I rarely got back off to sleep, and I had a long day ahead of me. So I settled back onto the pillows, but as predicted, sleep didn’t come.

Once I was on the crowded train, having to stand was a blessing, as it kept me awake. It was my second day working at the smart new development, and yesterday I had met Janice, who was in charge of the sales there. Dockside View was one of the company’s prestige blocks, and Janice was determined to get all the flashy apartments sold by the deadline. They were throwing a lot of staff at the project, which was why I was now commuting into the centre, instead of walking to the corner to sell semi-detached identical houses, and commercial lots nobody was interested in.

Janice was a woman who didn’t tolerate fools, and she had made it clear she hadn’t asked for me, so expected me to impress her. To be honest, the demand for the property was high, and I had spent the previous day juggling viewing appointments. Getting the deposit was everything. Our performance targets were based on deposits taken. If the sale fell through later, nobody on the sales team cared. We had done our bit.

From the station to Dockside View was a twenty-five minute walk. So I bought a coffee from the vendor outside to perk me up enough to face it. In our brochure, it was described as a ‘Pleasant fifteen-minute stroll’. That made me smile, after walking fast for twenty-five minutes yesterday, and only just getting there by my start time. And the scenery on the way was hardly pleasant. Lots of building work going on, cement mixer lorries crammed into small cobbled streets, and builders shouting up at crane operators.

Neil smirked at me as I walked in. He was standing close to Janice, and he had worked with her on the Britanna House development previously. I marvelled at how he could look so crisp and fresh after travelling in all the way from Kent. Not a crease in his suit, and his white shirt was so clean, it seemed to reflect the light.

He jumped in before I could dump my empty paper cup in the bin. “No drinks in the sales area, Darren. You were told that yesterday. Don’t forget you have a nine-fifteen, you should ring them to let them know you are ready and waiting for them”.

I would dearly loved to have leaned across and head butted him. But I needed the job.

Walking outside to ring the client on my company-supplied mobile, I suddenly realised I had only four percent battery, and had left the charger at home. I couldn’t even creep around the corner for a cigarette, as Janice had banned smoking for the duration of the sales. “They will smell it on you, Darren. That’s a sales-killer, believe me”. My Russian customer had a name I couldn’t pronounce, so I just called him ‘Sir’. After assuring him I was at his service for the nine-fifteen appointment, he just hung up with no goodbye.

Now I had to face going back inside and asking Neil or Janice if they had a phone charger. I hung around for a few minutes, hoping Desmond would show up. He carried a big rucksack that they made him store under one of the sales desks. He probably had everything in there, incuding a charger, I bet.

Then I remembered he had the day off, because he had worked last Saturday.

When I had to ask Neil if he had a charger, he had a strange look of victory on his face. His perfecly trimmed and oiled hair repulsed me, and I wanted to mess it up, with a rough hand.

“I do have a charger, Darren. But you might want to think about bringing your own one in, or at the very least charging your phone while you are sleeping. Here. Take it into the storeroom, you can plug it in there”.

I thought that if I started hitting him now, the police would have to drag me off of him before I killed him.

While my phone charged, I had fifteen minutes to kill. I decided to throw caution to the winds, and go around the back of the building and enjoy a cigarette. If Janice could smell it on me, I would blame it on the crowded train carriage and hope for the best.

How was I to know that the Russians would turn up early?

When I went back inside, sucking two mints, Neil was euphoric. “Oh dear. Your Russian couple turned up, and you weren’t here. Janice has taken them up to view the apartment. I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes when she comes back down”. If I had been carrying a knife, I am sure I would have stabbed him, there and then.

Not once. Probably more than fifty times. Until I was sure he would never utter another word.

But I ignored his jibe, and checked on my ten o’clock clients. They had sent a text to tell me they were cancelling. I wondered if the day could get any worse.

Then it did.

Behind what would become the Concierge Station, red lights were flashing, and a high-pitched beeping sound was going off. Neil was finally in a flap, and on the phone to the Fire Brigade to confirm the alarm had gone through to them, as it should have done. He turned to me. “They are on the way! We have to follow the full fire evacuation procedure! Assemble fifty yards away, in the car park outside!”

There was only me and Neil, so we went outside as directed, and stood in the almost empty car park. I took the chance to light a cigarette, and smiled as I asked him. “What about the two Russians, and Janice?” He grabbed his phone, and dialled Janice, turning to me looking pale. “The lifts won’t work during a fire alarm. They will have to walk down. I’m sure they will be alright, if they take their time”. He shook his head at the phone. “She’s not answering”.

As he said that, there was a hollow boom from high above us, and we looked up to see a flash of yellow flame, followed by a plume of smoke reaching up to the top of the building. I took a drag on my cigarette, secretly hoping that the next thing I saw would be Janice deciding to jump, rather than burn.

The fire engines turned up before Janice appeared. It was a long walk down, and her smart suit was smoke-stained. The two Russians looked very exhausted, and walked to their limousine with white faces, ignoring the shouts of the firemen that they should be seen by the paramedics, who had just arrived.

I made a mental note that I had probably lost that sale.

Janice was remarkably calm, to give her her due. She was still on the ball too. “Darren, Neil. Get onto your next appointments. Cancel them, and try to rearrange. Whatever you do, don’t mention anything about fire and explosions”. Neil was straight on it, but I didn’t bother to tell Janice that my phone was still on charge in the store room, and the firemen were not about to let me in to get it.

When we saw the firemen had tackled the worst of the smoke and flames, I turned to Janice. ” I forget now, what apartment were they viewing, Jan?”

She didn’t even turn to look at me as she answered.

“Number three, on the seventeenth floor. 317”.

At first, what Janice had said didn’t sink in. We hung around for a while, and then the fireman in charge said we could go and retrieve our personal possessions. They suspected a gas leak in the apartment, and an electrical fault, but that had to be investigated by the Gas Company, and the Fire Investigation Branch. Police officers had sealed off the approaches to Dockside View with their striped tape, and we were not going to be allowed back to carry on working, obviously.

It was when I had got my phone and given Neil back his charger that the number clicked inside my brain.

Seventeenth floor, flat three. 3 and 17, just like the time on my bedside clock when I had woken up that morning. Janice was gabbling into her phone, arranging for head office to send security guards down to watch the development over the full twenty-four hour period. With the investigators coming and going, we were not just going to be able to lock up the sales floor as usual. And once the news got out, it was unlikely we would have any potential customers to worry about anyway.

When her call was over, Janice turned to us. “There’s not going to be anything happening work-wise here today. Darren, you might as well go back to where you usually work and report in there. Neil, you can stay here with me, help fend off any enquiries about flats, and make sure all the viewings know they are cancelled. Can you go and find me a coffee and a sandwich, honey? Large Americano, and maybe a chicken and pesto panini? There’s a love”.

I grinned at Neil’s chances of finding anything like that around there. The nearest decent coffee places were inside or near the station. He had a long walk. As I had already been dismissed, I set off for the station. The last thing I wanted was to have to do that walk with Neil crowing about staying behind to help Janice.

Diverting into a couple of shops on the way, I picked up two special offer DVD films for two ninety-nine each, then a microwave Chinese and a six-pack of Stella for later. No way was I intending to go back to where I usually worked. They wouldn’t be expecting me in, and I was sure Janice would be too busy to ring my manager to tell him. Once the news got out, he would probably know anyway, but I would just say that by the time I got back, it was close to finishing time. John was okay, he wouldn’t care.

By the time I got to the station, it was mid-afternoon, well before the rush hour. The place was almost deserted. Along the concourse a guy wearing the hi-vis coat of the train company was fixing a large paper sign into a display case. I walked up to him, and waited until he had finished, and had closed the case. Then I asked him when the next Southend train was due to depart. I was only going to Basildon, but needed that line.

He checked a huge Casio digital watch that looked like a museum piece, then turned and pointed. “You can check on the indicator board you know. But seeing as you asked so nicely, it leaves at fifteen-seventeen. That’s three-seventeen to you mate”. I thanked him and walked away, then realised I hadn’t asked which platform. Heading for the indicator board to check, I suddenly stopped dead. 3:17? Not again.

On the train, the uneasy feeling I had during the night came back. But this time with knobs on.

I had woken up thinking someone was in my bedroom at 3:17 AM. Then the flat that had caught fire and exploded was number three, on the seventeeth floor, 317. I wasn’t supposed to be getting a train home this early, and my arrival at the station had been completely random, delayed by the short shopping trip. Only to find that the next train home was at 3:17. That was a lot of coincidence to swallow, even for someone as sceptical as me.

Now I was beginning to wonder if I should have actually got on this train.

When I got home and sat down, I could feel my eyes were heavy. But I wouldn’t let myself sleep that early, or I would regret that later. I opened my laptop. Not my work one, the older one I rarely used now. Then I started a word document and began to make notes about all the 3:17 coincidences. I had a feeling there were going to be more, but I had no idea what any of it meant.

That done, I blitzed the Chinese, and necked it while watching the first of the two films I had bought, washed down with a couple of the cans of lager. It was one of the Fast and Furious films. I loved films about cars, especially films you could watch without having to think too much about what was happening on screen.

My mate Joel rang my mobile when I was on my third can, wanting to know if I fancied meeting him down the pub. I fobbed him off, telling him quickly about the fire at Dockside View, and lied about having a busy day because of that. He was impressed, as he had seen it on the news. “Wow, you were in that? Tell me more”. I said I would tell him next time we met up, and got back to the film, opening a fourth can.

Lack of sleep, and the lager, meant that I didn’t see the end of the film.

I must have just curled up on the sofa and conked out, until the noise woke me up. The telly was a blue screen, and the lamp was still on beside me. The sound was coming from outside the door, on the stairwell leading up to my flat. It was immediately apparent what it was. A ball bouncing down the stairs.

I didn’t even need to check the time on my phone to guess it would say 3:17. But I did anyway.

And it was.

Surprised that none of my neighbours were up complaining about someone bouncing a ball down two flights of concrete stairs, I went to my front door and opened it. The motion-sensor light lit up the landing, and there was nobody to be seen. The door of the flat opposite was closed, but Philippa was a stewardess, so might well have been off flying somewhere. Or sleeping soundly and not heard the ball. Not wanting to call out, I walked down the first flight to the centre landing. There was nobody to be seen.

Then the light went out.

As I turned to walk back up to my flat, the noise of the ball bouncing down the stairs in my direction was so close to me, I swerved to the side, expecting the heavy-sounding ball to hit me. But there was no ball, just the sound. I went back in my flat and locked the door behind me with the deadbolt. I had no idea why I was so scared, but I was, and feeling cold too.

After getting undressed and brushing my teeth, I went to bed. I set my phone alarm to wake me in time to get ready for work, but when I lay down in the dark, I no longer felt sleepy. For the next hour or more, I went over everything in my life that might relate to the number 317. I even broke it down to the 3, the 1, and the 7. No birthday matched. No address I could think of matched, and nothing that I knew about had ever happened at that exact time.

Just when I was drifting off to sleep again, I suddenly added the numbers together in my head, and got 11. So I went through it all again, but could come up with nothing where a number 11 was significant.

When the alarm went off, I had probably only been asleep for an hour.

It was nice to have a lie-in and then casually wander up to the corner where I worked. Mason and Walker sounded like a good name for an estate agent, though of course there was no real Mason, or Walker. Just another gimmick of the huge property company we worked for, along with the stylish dove grey paint work, set off by the pale yellow pinstriping. Although I was on time, I was the last one in that morning.

It was often mentioned that I lived the nearest, but was the always the last member of staff to appear.

John the manager was at his larger desk at the back, and grinned as I walked in. “What did you do to upset Her Highness, The Lady Janice? She rang first thing to tell me she doesn’t want you back at Dockside View once sales start again”. I shrugged and told John that she probably fancied me, and wanted to resist the temptation. Junior was already on the phone hustling. Standing up as normal, which he claimed energised him. His pink shirt and lime-green tie combination looked like a kid’s sweet.

I doubt the bosses would have been so keen on his new braided hair look, if he hadn’t been the top salesman at Basildon branch.

Kelly asked if I wanted coffee, and I nodded. Then I forced myself not to look up her skirt as she leaned over to get the mugs out of the cupboard. She was only eighteen, and I was far too old for her. So I had to keep telling myself. Behind me at the window desk, Penny was jingling the keys to the company Mini. “John, okay if I take the car? I have an early valuation in Wickford”. John nodded, adding “Come straight back though. Darren will need the car for a job later”.

I didn’t much care for driving around in that grey and yellow mini, with the company name and number plastered all over it. But it was a better option than using my own car and having to pay extra for business insurance. At least it was only six months old, and had a great satnav in it too. I liked to get out in the country lanes and give it some stick around the bends. When Kelly brought my coffee over, I thanked her and fixed my gaze on her face. Anything rather than be distracted by how low-cut the front of her top was.

When she got out of the admin side and into sales, she was going to sell a lot of property, no doubt.

John dropped a folder on my desk. I could tell by the buff colour it was another commercial. I only got the crap jobs. “Mr Coughlan, midday. The address is in there, a vacant lot with no residential planning. He reckons it might be ideal for used cars. He wants it priced for rental, or selling complete. As usual, he will do a good deal for cash”. I flicked through the folder, and pulled a face at the photo of the lot. On the corner of a busy main road, what looked like a half-sized field of mud surrounded by a mostly collapsed wire-mesh fence.

Coughlan was a nasty bit of work, who used our company all the time. He was a so-called Traveller. Or in my words a Pikey, an Irish tinker. He did all sorts of wheeling and dealing, just barely the right side of the law, and the wrong side too. I had no time for Pikeys. They didn’t pay tax, cheated old people with dodgy roofing jobs or tarmac drives that never got finished, and many of them were notorious fly-tippers, shitting up the few nice areas of countryside we had left. That was his main business, disguised as waste removal contracting. But as far as the company was concerned, he was a good customer.

When I checked the address where I had to meet him, I spat a mouthful of coffee all over the paperwork.

317, London Road.

Until Penny got back with the car, I went through the motions of ringing a few prospects, and chasing up the outstanding offers on some terraced houses in Pitsea. With the market doing well, sellers were geting edgy about accepting low offers, and playing the dicey game of holding out for the full asking price. There was no point talking to anyone at work about the weird 317 business. They might think I was losing it.

In between calls, I jotted down almost every combination of the numbers, realising I had forgotten to reverse them. So I ended up trying to think if 713 had any relevance, then I tried 731. But for the life of me, my mind was blank on all of it.

Penny dropped the keys on my desk. “The tank’s half full, so you should be okay”. She never had a lot to say to me, and made it very clear she didn’t think much of me. When I started there, she had only been there a few weeks herself, but that didn’t stop her acting like she was somehow in charge of me. Her husband was a copper in London, a detective of some kind. She liked to boast about all the serious cases he was involved with. She was his second time round, so considerably younger.

Coughlan wasn’t there when I parked the Mini outside the dismal-looking lot. I got out of the car and made my site appraisal in ten seconds flat. It would need a lot of work on the ground before anyone would use it, and once you allowed space for a portakabin or office shed of some kind, you would be lucky to squeeze ten cars onto the front. Then there was water, sewage, and power. It would cost a fair bit to have all those reconnected.

The big four by four arrived, and he put two wheels up on the kerb as he parked it. I looked at the shiny car, less than six months old, by the registration number. Not much change out of sixty grand for that top of the range model, and I doubt he even had insurance. How come nobody ever asked where some Pikey got all the money to pay for that?

His face was red as usual, high blood pressure probably. The beer-belly strained his shirt buttons, and hung down over his belt almost covering the fly on his trousers. As he walked forward with his hand extended, someone got out of the passenger side of his car. A woman. He had seen me a few times previously, but never asked my name. After the briefest of handshakes, he got straight to business. “Well, what do you reckon? How much are we looking at? Straight sale, or better a monthly rental”.

Before I could answer, the woman walked forward from the car. She was wearing a black coat over a black dress that reached down to her ankles. Her long hair was also jet black, and certainly dyed. She seemed to be about a hundred years old, but when she spoke, her voice boomed. “GERRY! STOP! COME BACK!” Coughlan jumped at the sound, and turned quickly, walking back to the woman. He bent down to listen as she whispered in his ear. Raising an arm, she pointed a bony finger in my direction, then moved it slowly to my left, then my right. He bent down again to hear her next whisper, then nodded his head.

Without walking back, he called to me from the side of his car. “Don’t bother. The deal’s off, we will use someone else”. With that they both got back in the car, and he drove off at speed, as if being chased by the police. Part of me was glad to see the back of him, but I knew John would be pissed off that I hadn’t secured the sale.

Back behind the agency, I parked the car, and walked down the alley. Then I popped into Sammi’s and bought a packet of cigarettes, a diet coke, and a Twix. That would be my lunch. I handed over two notes, a tenner and a fiver. As was his habit, Sammi counted the change into my hand, as I watched his turban bob around.

“Two pounds, one pound, Ten, fifteen, seventeen”. I looked at the coins in my hand. A two-pound coin, a one pound coin, ten pence piece, five pence piece and a brown two pence.


John waved me over when I walked in. He took me into the corner and spoke very quietly. “I have just had Mary Coughlan on the phone. They are taking all their business away from us. That’s rental management of twenty-six properties, plus anything they buy or sell. She says she is transferring it all to Drake and Molloy, and wants me to send the files over in a taxi. I asked her what the problem was, and she said to ask you. So I’m asking, and I want the truth”.

My story was true, and I told John that, and exactly what happened. Before I could talk to Gerry Coughlan about anything, the old lady called him back. She whispered something to him, pointed at me, and he said the deal was off. That was all I knew, and I swore to John I hadn’t done a thing wrong. John sighed. “Old lady Coughlan might be in her eighties, but she’s as sharp as a tack. Her son Gerry never goes against her over anything. She pretty much rules the roost. I didn’t bother to tell her that Drake and Molloy is part of the same company as us, but that’s not the point. We will lose branch revenue, and that won’t look good”.

As I didn’t know what else to say, I shrugged and went back to my desk. Better make it look as if I was trying to sell something. As luck would have it, the next phone call was from the prospective buyer of a smart two-bed semi with a conservatory, a short walk from the station. It was a corner plot, so was unusual in that it had a double garage to the side. He had viewed it twice, and wanted me to make an offer to the seller. One of the best properties on my own list, it was for sale at three hundred and twenty thousand. The buyer wanted to offer ten grand less, so I told him I would put that to the owner and get back to him.

It took me three calls to track down the guy, who was driving on the M25 and speaking from his car. “Three-ten you say? No, that’s not enough. We have had seven viewings, and the interest is still high. Ring him back and tell him three-seventeen, and it’s off the market. Let me know what he says”. I looked down at the pad on my desk, and the numbers I had written down during both conversations. 320, 310, and the last one, 317. Even before I rang the buyer back, I knew he was going to say no.

And of course he did.

Many people might have been shaken up by all this 317 stuff, but I was beginning to find it just plain annoying. That many number coincidences were just impossible, but they were all there, and could mostly be explained. As for Ma Coughlan, I had no idea what had rattled her chain. Maybe she hadn’t liked my crumpled grey suit and striped tie.

Time to talk to someone about it, and I knew the only people who would take me seriously were Joel and Mark. On the way home from work, I rang both their mobiles, suggesting we meet at the KFC for some grub, then head into the White Horse for a few beers. Unlike any of the chain pubs in town, The White Horse was old school, and we could still find a quiet corner to sit in. They both jumped at it, as I suspected they might.

My only two friends from school, Joel and Mark had been around since we were all eleven years old. We stuck together to avoid the bullies, none of us were any good at sport, and we didn’t attract any of the cool guys, or the better-looking girls. Joel had left without taking any exams, and gone into his dad’s business as a kitchen fitter. After having a trial for Colchester in his teens, and not being picked for the squad, he nonetheless became a self-proclaimed football expert. An avid fan of Southend United, he went to every home game, and most of the away matches too.

Mark never went anywhere. He worked from home in a converted garage, as a software support person for a tech company. To be fair, he earned well, much more than me, and he could do the job in his underwear if he wanted to.

Outside the KFC, I saw them coming toward me, both grinning.

We ate the KFC out of the box as we walked to the pub. Joel and Mark were both happy to be out, and were acting like going for chicken and a few pints was a big deal. Neither of them had a girlfriend of course, and none of us had any real mates except each other. Mark had never been out with a girl. He just couldn’t handle the chat, and froze up completely around women. Joel had a girlfriend once, but she got fed up with football being more important, and dumped him after six months.

Compared to those two, I was mister lover man. Two girls when I was still in my teens, though neither lasted long. Then I met Danielle. She was out on a hen night for one of her friends, and they had surrounded me and Joel, insisting we kiss the bride to be. After that, Danielle hung around chatting, and eventually asked me to be her date at the wedding the following Saturday. She was one of six bridesmaids, not an unusual number at weddings around Basildon.

I was flattered by her asking me, so made a good job of being her date. After that, we became a couple. Though we seemed to spend most of our weekends at her friend’s weddings, as almost everyone she knew got married in those first two years we were together. By year three, we had started getting serious, and her dad gave me a talking to about never upsetting his lovely daughter, and needing somewhere better for us to live than my one-bed flat.

Then she went to a hen weekend in Ibiza and met Gregory, a fitness instructor from Stanford-Le-Hope. She broke up with me over the phone soon after she landed back at Stanstead, and I always had a sneaky feeling he was standing next to her when she did that. Since Danielle, I had more or less stopped bothering with women. But that didn’t stop me wishing that Kelly at work was older than eighteen.

In The White Horse, I got straight to the matter over our first pint. I didn’t want to wait until those two were sozzled, and talking nonsense. I told them all about the 317 stuff, from the first dream-like experience, down to the change from Sammi in the shop, and the seller saying he would take three one seven for his house. Mark was wide-eyed. He spent a lot of time reading crap online, and was well known to believe anything. At one time, he had seriously tried to convince us the world was flat. Joel was shaking his head. “It’s bollocks, Dazz. Just coincidence, that sorta fing”. He gestured to our glasses. “Same again, boys?”

Joel didn’t have much education, and even less class. He adopted the harsh manner of talking that he got from his dad, who was originally from East Ham. Mark was deep in thought. When Joel got back with three more pints, Mark slipped a pen out of his coat pocket, and walked over to grab a paper napkin from the bar. Joel was grinning like a loon. “That bouncy ball fing, Dazz. Don’t reckon it’s anyfing to do wiv me, and my footy career, do ya?” I ignored that rubbish, and looked over at Mark. He was busy scribbling down some numbers. He had done a lot of computer courses for his job, and was great at things like Code, and other stuff I didn’t understand.

When he had finished, he slid the napkin over to me, and tapped it with his pen. “Lottery numbers mate. You should get a ticket for Saturday. There’s a rollover jackpot this week”. I looked at the paper. You had to choose six numbers for entering the lottery, and he had made them up from 317.

1, 3, 4, 7, 11, 31. Keen to explain, he talked me through it. “The one, three and seven are self explanatory, mate. Then add the one and three to get the four, add them all together to make eleven, and use the thirty-one as your biggest number. Joel’s eyes were wide at that point. “Bugger me, Dazz, I reckon fat boy’s cracked it”. Mark winced at the nickname. But he only had himself to blame for stuffing his face for the last twenty years, and never going out except to drink or eat.

But the lottery though. Why the hell not?

Joel was obviously getting bored. He said he had to leave, as he was up early for a big kitchen job in a barn conversion out near Battlesbridge. Once he had left, Mark got two more pints in, and came back with a pile of napkins. He wanted to know lots of dates and numbers. My birthday, my mum’s birthday, the address of my parents’ house and their landline phone number, and any number I could recall that might ever have pertained to me that I could remember without going home to look it up.

I rattled them off, his head nodding as he jotted each one down, shuffled the numbers around on the paper, and then asked another question. Then he suddenly stopped and looked up. “Show me your bank card, I’ve just had a thought”. I reached into my inside pocket for my wallet and got my bank card out. Mark grabbed it and gave it a quick scan. Then he punched the air, and shouted “YES!” so loudly, the barmaid looked over to see what the fuss was about.

“Look at the expiry date, Darren. 03/17. March next year. But it’s 317! And the three-digit security number on the back? Go on, look”. I looked, it was 713. That gave me a chill, I must admit. I hadn’t thought of checking my bank card, and could never remember the expiry date or security number anyway.

But try as he might, he couldn’t make anything from all the other numbers I had given him, even though he resorted to using the calculator on his state-of-the-art new phone. “I’m sure this is all good though, Darren. An omen yes, but a good omen. Leave it with me, and I will text you tomorrow if I come up with anything”.

When we finished the fourth pint, Mark offered me a lift home to save me walking, or jumping a cab. He ran around in an almost new Audi A5 that rarely left the driveway outside his dad’s place. It was the best one they sold, and cost a mint. I wondered why he bothered, as he only seemed to use it when he met me. He could have used a limousine service, and still saved pots of money. He also seemed oblivious to the drink-drive laws, as four pints would surely mean he would blow over the limit, and get a ban. But he had never had so much as a speeding ticket.

As I got out of the car ouside my block, he grabbed my arm. “Don’t forget to buy that lottery ticket, whatever you do”.

Inside, my mind was buzzing. The thing with my bank card was really spooky, and unlike so much of the other stuff, it wasn’t so easily explained as a coincidence. Still, tomorrow was Friday, and I would be sure to buy a ticket for Saturday’s rollover lottery draw.

The impact on my legs came before I heard the sound. Something hit my thigh, as I slept soundly. Hard enough to wake me up, and see the red numbers on the clock reading 3:17. Then I heard the sound, closer this time, actually in my bedroom. It was a ball, bouncing off the wardrobe, and then hitting my hip as I moved. Instinctively, I switched on the lamp, already suspecting I would see nothing. As I turned to look at the wardrobe again, the ball hit me in the centre of my chest.

That really made me jump, and I got out of bed and went into the living room. From there, I could hear the ball bouncing against the bedroom wall, rhythmically, as if someone was kicking it at the same spot, over and over again. I almost ran out of my flat, but had no idea where I would go if I did that. So I lay down on the sofa, waiting for the noise to stop.

That was where I woke up the next morning, feeling very chilly in my Calvin Kleins. The shower warmed me up, and I got to work just on time, as usual.

Penny was plastering on some more make-up, until her Groucho Marx eyebrows started to resemble garden slugs. Kelly was brushing her hair, and there was no sign of Junior, or John. I asked where John was, and Penny replied, still applying crap to her eyes. “John had a heart attack last night. He’s in hospital having tests. Head Office has sent over a temporary manager until we know what’s happening”.

With that, I heard the sound of a toilet flush, and the door to the staff area at the back opened.

And in walked Neil.

Neil was checking his watch, but he didn’t have the satisfaction of saying I was late. So he talked about Junior instead.

“Junior is out already, an early viewing before they catch their train to work. You would do well to follow his example, Darren. The early bird, and all that”. I wanted to have a pump action shotgun to hand, so I could blow him against the back wall, watching the blood spatter against the photos of the houses we had been trying to sell for so long, they were relegated to what we called ‘the dead zone’.

What the hell was he doing here? He must have had a ninety-minute drive from Kent, in terrible traffic. My day could not get any worse.

But it did of course, starting with having to watch Kelly and Penny flirting with him, as if he was the greatest catch in Essex. Then if that wasn’t bad enough, he wanted to go through all my unsold commercial lots, and tell me why he thought I wasn’t selling them.

Obviously the fire at Dockside View had shut down the development for now, leaving him at a loose end. He had jumped at the chance to fill in for John, which was his first offer of management. Even though it was temporary.

I was hoping he might change his mind, when he found out it took him over two hours to drive home in solid rush hour traffic.

After Neil’s pep talk, I had to spend all morning on the phone to people who didn’t want my commercial premises, and had no intention of ever buying them. Lunchtime came as a relief, and I went to Sammi’s to get that lottery ticket. I still had the napkin, and made sure to choose the numbers exactly as Mark had written them down. While I was there, I also bought a Ginster’s Steak Slice, two packets of plain crisps, and a creme egg. I stood in the alleyway and ate the lot, reluctant to go back inside and let Neil lord it over me.

The truth was, I might well have battered him senseless. Not only losing my job, but getting arrested for assault into the bargain.

That afternoon felt like a week. I still don’t know how I lept my temper. At least I didn’t have to work over the weekend, thanks to my two days at Dockside View. I had that lottery ticket safe inside my wallet, and could only hope that I got a result, and could tell Neil where to shove his job. Then maybe give him just a playful slap as I walked out.

As slaps go, I could have happily slapped both Penny and Kelly. Penny conned the Mini out of Neil, stroking his arms in the process. She disappeared without having to say where she was going. Though I suspected she was off home, for a sex session with PC Plod. Then Kelly made him three different cups of coffee, until he decided she had got it just right. That reminded me of the three bears, and Goldilocks. I could have spit, I tell you.

Finishing time couldn’t come soon enough, not helped by Junior showing up, claiming to have sold not one, but three houses.

Walking home, I was praying that John would be alright, and be back at work soon. The prospect of Neil taking over full time would have been too much to bear, and I considered quickly researching some vacancies online when I got in.

Just about to ring and order an Indian takeway, the phone rung in my hand, and I saw it was my mum calling. I usually phoned her on a Sunday, and it was unknown for her to ring me.

“Darren, it’s mum. Can you come and see me this weekend? I have something important to talk about. Why don’t you come for Sunday dinner, shall we say about two?” I told her I would be there, then rang the Indian to order my food. As I was waiting for the delivery, I couldn’t help wondering why mum wanted to see me. She almost never asked me over, except on her birthday and at Christmas.

It occured to me it might have something to do with Auntie Jean, and I felt my face flush at the memory.

My mum met my dad when he came to fix the land line phone at the big house where she lived with her mother and her older sister, Jean. She already had a good job, working at the Inland Revenue in London. He was only a phone engineer, but she had never had a boyfriend. So when he asked her out, she said yes. He was twenty, and she was eighteen. They got married the following year, then moved near Basildon and bought a house. And when she was twenty-four, she had my brother, Terry.

Not long after Terry was born, my grandmother died. Mum did a deal with her sister. Jean would keep the big family house near Danbury, and my mum would get the money. There was quite a lot of money. My grandmother had good life insurance, and still had a big stash from when her husband had died ten years earlier. Jean also kept the family car, a classic Jaguar. That made sense, as my mum had never learned to drive.

They doted on Terry, and he turned out to be a good kid, by all accounts. The years went by, and they were happy. Mum got promoted twice at work, and dad came off the vans and went to work inside, in the telephone exchange in Basildon. Then they got a shock. Mum was pregnant. Certainly not planned, as she was thirty-eight years old. According to Auntie Jean, there was some talk of an abortion. Mum didn’t want to take time out of work, and Terry was nearly fourteen. But that didn’t happen, and I was born when she was thirty-nine.

I don’t remember my dad, or my older brother. They were both killed in an accident, on the day of my first birthday.

It was some years before I even found out about them, and only then because Auntie Jean insisted on telling me some things. But not everything.

So I was brought up living with two women. Or it seemed like that anyway, as my aunt was at the house a lot of the time, or I was at her house in Danbury, being looked after. I was never sure what my aunt did. Ten years older than mum, she was very different. A heavy smoker, liked a gin and tonic, and was always dressed up and made up. She played records instead of watching telly, and never seemed to go to work. Compared to my mum, she was great company. She was fun.

The way my mum dealt with her grief was to never talk about my dad, or Terry. I wasn’t allowed to ask anything about them, and Jean never spoke about them in front of mum when I was in the room. There were no photos, and none of their stuff around the house. Mum looked after me, but I never once felt she loved me, and she found it impossible to show me any affection. There were no birthday celebrations for me either, not one.

Because my birthday was the same day she had lost her beloved husband, and her first born.

By the time I was almost ten, Jean was looking after me more and more. Although she was fifty-nine by then, she looked years younger than mum, who had already let her hair go grey, and spent her days in a joyless trance. For my tenth birthday, it was Auntie Jean who took me out. She picked me up in the lovely old Jaguar, and took me into Chelmsford, to the cinema. After the film, we went to a burger place, and I could choose what I wanted, plus ice cream after.

Then that night when I was staying over at her house, she took me into her bed, and interfered with me.

The law would call that child abuse, and would have put my aunt in prison. She told me that would happen if I ever told anyone. But she needn’t have worried. The truth was, I enjoyed it. The attention, the affection, and feeling grown up. And the presents were great too. She started to buy me really expensive gifts, not just for special occasions, but randomly. If my mum noticed, she certainly didn’t care. And Jean took me off her hands most weekends, leaving her to think about my dad, and Terry.

That lasted until I was thirteen. Weekends in bed with my aunt, and some occasional holidays too. Then mum decided I was old enough to not need looking after when she was out, and it stopped. I never mentioned it again, and neither did Jean. But now mum had asked me to go and see her, I was wondering.

Had Jean said something?

I left school before I was eighteen, with five very average O-levels, and a place at Technical College, where I wanted to study automotive engineering. I had some idea of working for Fords. They were one of the biggest employers in the county, and I was sure I could end up designing a wonderful new engine for them. For my seventeenth birthday, Auntie Jean had paid for driving lessons, and I passed my test first time. After that, all I could think about was getting a car, and the freedom that would give me.

Turned out I wasn’t really suited for automotive engineering. I didn’t get on well with the boring teachers, and there was too much writing about combustion and stuff, and not enough actually messing around with cars and engines. Before I was nineteen, I had seen an advert in the local paper for a junior car salesman at the main Ford dealership, and got the job without finishing Technical College. I had to ask mum to buy me a suit, and she didn’t seem at all impressed with my choice of career.

But she bought me the suit, some smart black shoes, five white shirts, and two striped ties.

Being around the cars was great. But I soon found out that a junior car salesman doesn’t get to close any deals, and spends a lot of time helping to prepare new cars for delivery, wearing an overall over his suit. At least I got to drive a few around; delivering them back after services, or moving them to other dealer’s premises. They kept telling me that once I was twenty-one, I would get to use a company car and start to actively sell, based on what I was learning. Except I wasn’t learning anything.

Two days before my twenty-first birthday, Auntie Jean showed up at the house and gave me two hundred quid. “Spent it on anything, Darren love. Spoil yourself”. When she had gone home, my mum switched off the telly halfway through a programme I was watching, and said she had something to say.

“Now you are twenty-one, I think it’s high time you got your own place, and moved out. I am going to be sixty soon, and I intend to retire. The pension is very good, and I still have all the money your gran left me. So this is what I’m going to do. I will buy you a flat, nothing fancy mind. And a car. Something reliable, but not brand new. You can choose both, and I will pay for them. You won’t have a mortgage or car payments, and it will give you a good start in life”.

To say I was flabbergasted was an understatement. I knew my mum was well off, but I had never expected anything like that.

The next day at work, I arranged to buy an ex-demonstrator Fiesta S. Eight months old, metallic black, low mileage. I got it for staff rates, so no profit for the company. Then I went into town on the Saturday afternoon, and had a look around the estate agents. I found a nice flat in a window of one of them. A small sixties-bult block, nothing much to look at. One bedroom, car parking space, and open to offers for a quick sale.

A a friendly bloke talked me through it. Flat number five of six, second floor, no lift. Central heating, double glazing, and cheap council tax. Service charges were negligible, and the woman selling was keen to get rid of it as she was getting married and moving to London. He offered to take me to view it then and there. She had obviously tidied up before we arrived, and as soon as I started to look around, she was trying to sell me everything in it. Seemed her move was to some posh houseboat on the Thames, and there would be no room for any of her stuff.

Back at the estate agent’s, I made an offer that included leaving everything in the flat. All she would take with her were her shoes and clothes.That would save me a fortune trying to furnish it and kit it out. Although the offer was cheeky, the prospect of a cash buyer sealed the deal straight away. The agent shook my hand, and then offered me a job.

His name was John, and the company was called Mason and Walker.

On the day I moved out, all I had to take were my clothes and some books. When I had loaded up the Fiesta, mum came out with a carrier bag containing her old clock/radio, the one with the red digital numbers that had been beside her bed to use as an alarm clock. “You might as well have this, Darren. Now I’m retiring, I won’t need an alarm clock anymore. You can come back for dinner next Sunday if you want, up to you”.

And with that she went back inside, and closed the door.

Mum hadn’t asked me anything about the flat, other than how much money she had to pay the solicitor arranging my purchase. Same with the car, just asked who to make the cheque out to. I had a vision of her enjoying being alone with her memories of her dead husband, and the other son that she had truly loved.

Now ten years later, the clock still worked, I had the same car, and lived in the same flat, using all same the stuff the young woman had sold me. The television was new, as the old one had too small a screen. And the kettle had died, so I had bought a flashy new one four years ago.

The Indian meal was surprisingly good, and I washed it down with four cans of lager. That didn’t turn out to be such a good idea, as I woke up in the middle of the night, needing to pee. I was relieved to discover the clock said 3:01, not 3:17. Perhaps that spooky spell had finally broken.

No such luck. Not long after, before I was really back off to sleep, I heard a strange whirring noise. At first it sounded like one of the neighbours was using a drill. But at past three in the morning? That was unlikely. Besides, it was coming from above me, near the ceiling, and I lived on the top floor. It stopped, started again, then stopped. The next time, it went on a bit longer, and was then followed by a clickling sound, like someone slowly winding up something that had a clockwork mechanism.

Of course, the clock was reading 3:17, just as I knew it would be.

It was almost four when it stopped, and I eventually got back to sleep. I was woken up by my mobile alert going off just after nine. I checked it, and it was a text from Mark. He wanted to come over later, and said to text him when I was up and about. That threw me. I couldn’t remember when or if Mark had ever been to my flat. We always met at the pub or some food place. I replied to his text, telling him to come over after two. Then I went back to sleep.

He was quite excited when he turned up, and after accepting my offer of a cold beer, he sat down to tell me what he had been doing. “I had no luck with those other number combinations, Darren. Believe me, I tried. I even put them into a numerology programme I downloaded, but it kept coming back to 317 all the time. There has to be something connecting that number with your life, I’m sure of it. You have to think hard, it must be in your brain somewhere”.

His beer was already drained, so I went to get him another one, assuring him that I had thought of nothing else since that first group of coincidences, but I honestly didn’t have a clue. Then I warned him that was the last beer in the house.

Reaching into his shoulder bag, he pulled out a small sleek laptop that must have cost a fortune, and asked for the wi-fi password to connect it. “I have been doing some research, and I want to show you this site. I have sent a link to your email already, but I know you almost never look at personal emails”. Tapping away while complaining about my broadband speed, he eventually got up what he wanted to show me. “Check this woman out. She has a good reputation, and yes she’s a psychic, but look. She specialises in numerology, the psychic connections involving numbers”.

I looked at the website. ‘Sylvia Townsend’. She was based in London, had numerous glowing testimonials and she did private investigations into what she called ‘Psychic events, especially those involving numbers’. Mark was finishing the second beer. “You got a shop near here where I can get more beers?” I told him where it was, and he left me looking at the laptop.

Wondering how much Sylvia charged for her services.

Mark came back holding three carrier bags containing twelve cans of lager, and four large ready to cook pepperoni pizzas. It dawned on me he was expecting to hang around for some time. He nodded at his laptop. “What do you think? You should ring her”.

After we had both eaten a pizza and he had more lager, I rang the contact number on the website and got a message telling me to leave a name and number. I put on my best serious voice, and did just that. When Mark was eating his second pizza, my mobile rang. “This is Sylvia Townsend, you left a message. Please tell me the nature of your psychic incident, but only that. Do not mention any names or places, or any dates. I would not want you to think I was using any supplied information in my conclusions”.

I gave her all the facts about the 317 connections, how many times the number had cropped up, and that I couldn’t see why it had anything to do with me. She replied confidently, sounding like a mature, well-spoken woman.

“I am sure I could help you, it seems to be very straightforward to me. I would have to be in your flat at three-seventeen in the morning. That would mean me getting there an hour before. Including my travelling time and expenses to and from London that would cost you four hundred in cash. If that is acceptable to you, I could come next Friday. I suggest you get some sleep before I arrive, as you will need to stay alert”.

Swept away by her confidence, I gave her my address, and agreed next Friday. Then she asked for a credit card number, in case I turned out to be a prankster. “I will not charge anything to the card, unless you are not at the address given, or thinking to play some kind of joke on me. I warn you now, I do not travel alone, and my husband is a very large man who can take good care of me”.

When I had given her the details and hung up, I glared at Mark. “You better hope she’s not a con-artist, or you will owe me anything she steals”. He chuckled as he went into the kitchen to heat up his third pizza.

Once he had gone home, leaving behind just two cans of beer. I decided to relax and watch the telly. I had to get the idea out of my head that I had just given my credit card details to a con-woman who was sitting in London thinking about how she was going to spend my money.

Then I remembered the lottery ticket. I had just missed the televised results, so used the Internet on my phone to get on the website and check the winning numbers against mine. I was excited, imagining moving into a luxury pad, cancelling Sylvia Townsend, and telling Neil what he could do with his job.

Not even one number.

Flicking around the channels to find something to watch to make me forget my disappointment, I noticed that the film Jaws was just starting. I had seen it before of course, but not for years. It was always worth another watch. Robert Shaw, and the big rubbery shark.

I was well into the film when it got to the bit where Quint is strapping into the chair to fish with the huge rod. Then I had to go for a pee. As I walked back into the room, I heard a sound I remembered.

But I didn’t remember it from the film. It was the sound I had heard on the ceiling of my bedroom.

Watching the screen, I saw the big fishing rod reel whirring as the line was taken up. Then it stopped, then whirred again. The exact same noise I had heard at 3:17 in the morning. Then he was was slowly winding back the slack on the line. Click, click, click. The sound that I thought was someone winding up a clockwork motor. I got a chill all over my back. That was most definitely the sound. But surely all this could have nothing to do with a film?

Despite that, I slept right through the night, with no disturbances.

That refreshing night’s sleep left me in a good mood for the visit to my mum later. I got ready early and skipped breakfast, knowing mum would provide a huge Sunday meal, and a big stodgy dessert too. On the way to the house, I stopped off and bought her a bottle of the sweet white wine she liked. She wasn’t much for drinking, but she did enjoy a glass of that sticky sweet stuff with dinner.

No traffic locally meant that I was there just before two, and she was ready for me. Roast leg of lamb with all the trimmings, home-made mint sauce, and a bread and butter pudding with custard to follow. I was hardly through the door before we were sat at the table eating.

For someone who lives on easy microwave meals, fast food stuff, and far too much pizza, the traditional Sunday lunch was something I anticipated with my mouth watering at the thought of it. I accepted her offer of three more slices of lamb, and then ate a huge portion of the pudding, completely covered in home-made custard. Still seated at the dinner table, feeling a belly full of wind brewing, mum started to tell me the real reason why I was there.

“You will be thirty-one soon, and I will be seventy. Your aunt Jean is eighty now, and she isn’t well. In fact, she has liver cancer, and probably less than a year to live”. That shook me a bit. I had last seen Jean at Christmas, and she had looked the picture of health, even though the chestnut hair dye was more obvious than ever.

“So next week, I am moving from here and going to live with her in Danbury, to help her though the last months of her life. This house is sold, and most of the things are being collected by charities, as I won’t need them. If you want anything, you can take it with you today. I have some boxes in the garage that I want you to have, but the rest is up to you. And before you ask, I used an agent in Colchester. I didn’t want your firm involved, as to be honest, I think they have treated you badly”.

Well she was right about that. After a couple of golden years at the start, the company had sold off the commercial premises side, and then stuck me with getting rid of any new commercials that came in after. I had gone from hero to zero, in the course of three years.

Mum was still talking.

“This house fetched three-eighteen, more than I expected. Jean tells me the Danbury house is worth around six hundred thousand, but it is much larger of course. She will leave that to me, plus any personal money. Then I will leave everything to you. It’s not like I have anyone else to leave it to, after all. I know you will have to wait for that, as I have no idea how long I will live. But you can count on a very substantial inheritance once I am gone”.

That was food for thought. At least nine hundred grand when my old mum passed, probably closer to a million by the time she popped off. I should have felt guilty thinking that I suppose, but I didn’t. Jean had definitely had her fun with me, and mum was still on a guilt trip for not giving a shit about me. But it was a long time to wait, nonetheless.

Before I had even surreptitiously sneaked out the wind filling me up, mum was ready for me to go.

“Come to the garage on your way out, and I will show you those boxes. You will be interested in what they contain, but please don’t ring me and ask me about what’s in them. Promise?”

I promised.

Two of the boxes were light, and one fairly heavy. They were sealed down with packing tape, and very dusty. Once I had loaded them into the Fiesta, mum reminded me. “Don’t forget your promise, I don’t want to discuss anything in those boxes. Remember that, Darren”.

On the way home, I could feel myself accelerating for no good reason.

I really couldn’t wait to open those three boxes.

Two trips were needed to get the three boxes into my flat. I took the two lighter ones together, then went back for the heavier one. Before I opened any of them, I decided to make a detailed note of the contents on the record I was keeping on my laptop. So I fired that up, and got it ready.

*Box One. The lightest.
One England Football Shirt. Size medium.
One pair of matching football shorts. Size medium.
One pair of football socks. Unwashed.
One yellow leather football. Partially deflated.
One Timex watch. Glass broken, not working.
One pair of football boots. Size eight. Muddy.

*Box Two. Next lightest.
Assorted newspapers in plastic covers. Thirty in total.
Assorted photos, three in frames. Perhaps fifty in total.
Four very large fishing reels, line still attached.
Two boxes of large fishing hooks, assorted sizes.
One pair of heavy leather gloves. Well worn. Size large.
Two Post-Mortem reports, in plastic wallets.
A report from a Private Detective, in a blue folder.

*Box Three. The heaviest.
One VHS camcorder, large shoulder-mounted variety.
Four spare batteries for the camcorder.
One dedicated charger for the batteries.
Leads and plugs to connect it to the mains, and to a TV.
Six VHS tapes. TDK 30-minute chrome type.
Four more much bigger fishing reels, line still attached.
Six spare fishing lines. New in packets.
Four football achievement medals.
Two small trophy cups for football achievement.
Two small trophy cups for fishing.

I made the presumption that the football kit was my brother Terry’s. That was confirmed by finding his name on the cups. And the fishing trophies bore the engraving ‘Brian Cook’, meaning that the fishing stuff was to do with my dad. But it was the VHS camcorder and tapes that I went to first. They had to hold a clue, or so I thought. The camera battery was flat of course, but easily remedied by just plugging the huge camcorder directly into the mains.

Before I even put in a tape, I knew the bouncing ball noise and the way it had hit me in bed was something to do with Terry, and the whirring fishing line related to the dad I had never met either. But I wasn’t remotely scared, just interested. And I already knew enough not to mention anything to Sylvia Townsend next Friday.

I didn’t have a VHS player. Nobody had one of those anymore. But that didn’t matter, as the camera had a flip-out screen, and controls built into the body. I was thinking about how much my dad must have paid for this, back in the day. A substantial investment at the time. My mouth had gone dry, so I went into the kitchen to get a Diet Coke. Then I sat on the floor, wondering which tape to insert into the machine. There was no writing on the sides of the boxes, or on the actual tapes. So I just picked the first one off the pile. slid it into the camera, and pressed ‘Play’ on the side panel.

There he was. The brother I had never met. Not so much as seen a photo of him. He was in the garden, at least that was familiar to me. Kicking a football around with obvious skill, and running down in the direction of a small goal, which had been placed against the back fence. He was wearing the same football kit that was in Box One, and he looked nothing like me at all.

My dad appeared in shot, urging Terry on. Was my mum holding the camera now? I could never ask her. I had promised. In my family, a promise was a big deal. Brian looked much more like me. Tall, thick dark brown hair, and the same slightly crooked bump on his nose. That made me feel really weird, watching the dad I had never known, and him looking like a slightly older version of me. I stopped the tape, and ejected it.

I needed a drink. A real drink.

In the absence of beer, I searched out what was left of some Jack Daniels remaining from last Christmas.

Swallowing a whole glass of the JD, I reached for another tape.

It was going to be a long night, and I already knew I would be ringing in sick tomorrow.

Working through the VHS tapes took a couple of hours. Two more just of Terry kicking footballs around, much to the delight of my dad. Then two showing fishing trips. They were on boats, off what looked like the south coast. Dad with massive rods, those huge reels in the boxes attached. Terry looking on, sometimes being shown how to work the rod once something had taken the hook. Some big fish being landed, not the sort I had ever seen on a slab in Tesco.

Father and son having fun, and sharing activities. That had never happened to me of course.

By the time I put in the last tape, there was nothing left in my flat to drink. I had even found a drizzle of Grand Marnier in a very old bottle, and tipped the bottle high until it ran down into my mouth.

That last tape was hard to watch. My mum in our garden, holding a baby. As Terry was standing next to her, I knew the baby had to be me. Strange to imagine I had ever been that small. My dad’s voice on the tape. “Give him a hold, Terry”. Mum handing me over carefully, and my brother holding me as if I was made of glass. Then mum and dad in shot, presumably filmed by Terry. Dad lifting me high and laughing, then kissing my head as I came back down.

I had to turn it off. It was all too much.

Although I had intended to work through the other boxes, I was choked up after watching the videos, and went to bed instead. When the alarm went off, I grabbed my mobile and rang Penny’s number. I knew she would be on her way in. She always arrived first. I told her I had a stomach upset, and wouldn’t be in for a few days. She was surprisingly friendly.

“Oh, Darren. John’s coming back on Wednesday. Seems it was just a mild Angina attack. They have given him some tablets, and he’s coming back. To be honest, I will be pleased to see the back of that Neil. We thought he was nice at first, but he’s a complete arsehole, if you want my opinion. Get well soon”.

Neil must have shown his true colours over the weekend, and upset Penny, probably young Kelly too. It was good news that John was coming back, but I had other things on my mind now. I had suddenly discovered my family, thirty years too late.

With the day free, I cleared a space in front of the telly, and started to lay out some of the things from the boxes. It wasn’t usual to have post-mortem reports, and I guessed that mum must have had to request copies, and pay for them. I decided not to read them just yet. I wanted the memories of dad and Terry alive on those tapes to linger a while before I read about how they had died.

The report from the Private Investigator intrigued me. That would have cost a lot, even thirty years ago, and why would mum have bothered? I made some strong coffee and sat on the floor in my underpants, gingerly opening the file, unsure of whether or not I wanted to know what was in it.

Not a lot, was the answer. A few pages of spaced reports, mostly times and locations. A photo of a policeman in uniform outside a police station, and another of the same man in normal clothes, getting into a car. Some very clear long-range photos of a suburban house, one zoomed in to show the door number. From what I could see, the detective had been hired to find a police officer, watch him, and find out where he lived and worked. Then he had followed him for what appeared to be two days, and noted down his movements.

The last page in the file was the bill he had sent to mum. One hundred and forty-eight pounds, including some itemised expenses.

Feeling hungry, I made myself a fried egg sandwich, and added all my notes to the laptop as I ate it. Then I decided to start working through the newspapers. There must have been a good reason why mum had bought them, and kept them.

On top of the pile was a copy of The Surrey Comet, dated a few days after my first birthday. Above a photo of a completly wrecked car was the headline. ‘Two killed in fatal crash. Police investigating’. I read the next line, then dropped the paper.

‘The crash happened not far from Chertsey, on the A317’.

Promises had been made to my mum, but I hadn’t promised not to ring Jean. I rang her house phone, hoping that she wasn’t so ill as to not be able to talk. She sounded really chirpy when she answered, and pleased to hear from me. I started with the usual stuff; sorry to hear her news, glad that mum was moving in to look after her, pretty much what would be expected in that situation.

Casually, I slipped into what I really wanted to talk about. The boxes, and the reason mum had kept certain things, as well as hiring a detective, and paying for post-mortem reports. Jean made me swear never to tell my mum, then spent twenty minutes filling in the details of what I wanted to know.

“Terry had a trial for the junior team of a top football club. I forget which one now, but it was a big deal. Big enough to mean that Brian was taking him there on your first birthday. It was at a training ground somewhere in Surrey, which is why they were so far from home when the accident happened. Your mum was never convinced it was an accident. For one thing, the first policeman on scene was off duty, but he still ended up investigating it. I mean, that didn’t sound right. How would that ever happen? Then there were what they called inconsistencies in the cause of death. Despite that, the coroner ruled the cause of death as accidental, and praised the policeman for trying his best to help them”.

Carefully avoiding any reference to the 317 coincidences, I asked her why mum had paid a private detective to follow the policeman. Jean said she didn’t know about that. I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe her, so went on to ask about the other things in the boxes.

“Well Terry had been wearing the football kit for his trial, but had changed for the journey home, presumably, as he wasn’t wearing it when he got killed in the car crash. The fishing reels were kept in case you ever became interested in fishing, like your dad was. As for the medals, trophies, camera and tapes, well your mum could never bring herself to look at those, so saved them for you. You were supposed to get them after she was dead, but the decision to move in with me must have changed her mind about that”.

I thanked her for telling me what she knew, and said I would go and see her soon.

Reading through the newspapers, I found they all contained slightly different reports of the accident. One mentioned a Sergeant Holloway, from Traffic Division. Another small piece said that a police sergeant had come across the accident when off duty, and had attempted to resuscitate the youngest victim, after realising the driver was beyond help. I wanted to talk to someone else about all this, and there was only Mark. I sent him a text, asking him to come round after he finished work.

Then I got busy taking notes on my laptop.

My dad and my brother had been returning to Essex from Surrey, and were on the relatively busy A317 road. There was an accident that had wrecked the car, and an off-duty policeman had stopped to help. My mum hadn’t accepted the findings of the inquest, so had employed a detective to investigate the off duty traffic sergeant. He hadn’t come up with anything, so it seemed from his report.

Thirty years later, I was experiencing spooky happenings all relating to the numbers 3,1, and 7. Plus hearing the ball, feeling it bounce on me, and then hearing the whirring fishing lines just like on the tapes. Dad and Terry were tring to communicate, I didn’t have to be a psychic to realise that. Even so, that was hard for me to believe. Not only did I not generally believe in all that stuff, but why would they have waited thirty years to try to get my attention?

Sorting through the stuff on the floor, I tried to arrange it into some kind of timeline. Then when I was happy that I could make some sense of that, I quickly got dressed to walk to the local shops. Mark was going to need a lot of beer, and more than a few pizzas.

By eight-thirty that evening, Mark had demolished three nine-inch pepperoni pizzas, and was on his sixth can of lager. He tapped a file, and gave me a serious look.

“The detective agency. That’s where you should start”.

Coastal Investigations was surprisingly located in the quiet seaside town of Frinton. That was over fifty miles away, and I wondered what had made mum choose that place. It was still operating, which was something. The basic website didn’t exactly entice customers, mentioning ‘Matrimonial’, ‘Divorce’, and ‘Fraud’ as it’s main specialites. Under the name, it had “Serving Essex for over forty years” as its tagline.

When I rang the number that morning at nine, I got a taped message. I didn’t leave my details, choosing instead to ring back once I had showered and dressed. A woman answered, her voice rather gruff, but her manner and tone respectful. I mentioned that I was following up on an old case they had handled, and had the name of their operative written down to tell her. His name on the report was Trevor Macmillan.

“That would have been my dad. I took over when he died, fiteen years ago now. If you want me to look into something that old, you had better bring the file to the office. Today at two alright for you? By the way, I charge two hundred a day, and that’s a minimum, but I will see you this afternoon for the consultation fee, seventy-five. In cash please”. Then she let out a series of hacking coughs, loud enough to make me move the phone away from my ear.

I told her I would be there at two.

Stopping at a cashpoint on the way, it took me almost ninety minutes to drive to Frinton. Their office was above a hairdresser’s shop, as the far end of the High Street. I pressed the intercom with the dymo-tape name above it, and was buzzed in with no questions asked. She was waiting for me at the top of the stairs, smoking a cigarette. I took her to be around forty, heavy build, and overdressed for a job like that. She looked more like she was on her way to a party.

“Come straight up. Mr Cook, is it?”

In the front room that served as an office, she pointed at a cheap plastic chair, indicating I should sit in front of her desk. Then she hauled her bulk in opposite me, and held out a hand. “The file, and the seventy five, please. I like to get the money out of the way”. I handed her four twenties on top of the file, and she hesitated over the change, probably hoping I was going to tell her to keep it. Eventually she dug five one-pound coins out from the bottom of her handbag, and slid them across the desk as she opened the file with her other hand.

As she read through the slim file, you would have thought she was reading War and Peace. She finished her cigarette and immediately lit another one, without offering me one. So I lit one of my own, and she moved the overstuffed ashtray into range for me. Still taking her good time over the file, I had almost finished my cigarette when she lit her third, and closed the file with a snap.

“Is this a complaint, Mr Cook? ‘Cause if it is, I should tell you now that will be down to my dad, and he’s long dead”. I assured her it wasn’t. I just wanted to know more about her dad’s investigation, and anything else she could tell me about the policeman and the accident. She gave a satisfied nod. “Okay then, let me go and look in the old files next door”. I thought the offer of a coffee might be nice, even water. But there was no mention of refreshments as she lumbered out the door, her shoes slapping against her feet as she walked, as if they were a size too big.

She came back holding a thick file that left me wondering how come her dad’s report to my mum had been so slim. Then she sat on the desk right in front of me, and seemed to be almost flirting, definitely suggestive in her body language. “I can probably help you, Darren. I still have lots of contacts in the police around here. My dad was a copper before he started this business you know. Leave it with me for now, and I will ring you tomorrow. If I take it further, then we start on the two hundred a day, okay?”

When I was sitting back in my car, I thought I hadn’t had too much for my seventy-five quid.

At home that night, I worked out my financial situation. Having had no mortgage, credit card, or car payments to worry about, I had managed to save a great deal of my income over the last ten years. Even allowing for the fact that I wasn’t in a well-paid job, and rarely qualified for any bonus payments, I was quite well off compared to some I knew. In a couple of savings accounts, and a very healthy current account I had total of a little over seventy-three thousand pounds. That equated to having saved around six hundred a month since I started at Mason and Walker.

With a present salary of twenty seven thousand before taxes and other stoppages if I got no bonuses, that meant I had a three year buffer, if I just lived on my savings. I opened the new bottle of Jack Daniels I had bought earlier, poured a large one, and rang John’s mobile.

He didn’t seem that surpised that I was resigning. Being stuck on commercial properties and hard to sell houses was no way to live. “What will you do with yourself now, Darren?” I told him I had no idea, but was in no rush. If I included my oustanding holiday time in my one month notice, there was no need for me to even go back to the office at all. John was very kind.

“I’m sorry to see you go, but I fully understand why. Please email me an official resignation, and I will sort out the paperwork with HR when I go in tomorrow. On the bright side that means Neil will have to stay on for now, to cover you. I can’t wait to stick him on your desk, trying to shift commercial units. Let me know personally if you even need a reference, Darren”.

The news that Neil would be on commercials from tomorrow was worth another drink.

Whatever I had been finding out about dad and Terry seemed to have calmed things down. I slept all through the night again, with no interruption at 3:17. Waking up the next morning, it felt strange to know that I would soon be a free man, at least for three years as a maximum. No more putting up with being an Estate Agent, I was going to think about a complete change of career. My phone ringing interrupted my thoughts. It was Selina Macmillan.

“Right, Darren. You are going to want to come and see me again this week, as I have a lot to tell you. For one thing, my dad’s file on the case is all copies, so your mum would have had one exactly the same. He did her proud, considering how little he charged her. She must have either decided to destroy the rest, or she just hasn’t given it to you yet. So come and see me tomorrow, about midday, and I will go through what I have found out. And you had better bring me two hundred in cash to cover my time. I spent hours on this, and had to promise someone a bung too”.

Before I handed over more money, I told her she would need to give me some idea that what she had was worth paying for. She didn’t seem pleased.

“Okay, I will give you this much, over the phone. I’m betting you didn’t read the post-mortem results. If you had, you will have seen that they are both on your brother. Your mum paid privately for a second opinion that concluded Terry didn’t die in the accident, but died soon after. What is written down is manual constriction of the airway. In other words, he was strangled. When your mum tried to get the case reopened on the basis of that, Sergeant Holloway came up with a plausible explanation, and they threw out her appeal”.

For quite a while, I didn’t reply. That was a lot to take in. Her gravelly voice shook me out of it.

“What do you say, Darren? Still interested?”

I told her I would be there the next day at twelve.

Selina Macmillan couldn’t have looked more different that second time. Wearing a pinstripe business suit, and her hair in a bun, she looked more like the headmistress of a swanky school, than the blowsy party animal of a few days earlier. I had a feeling that she had arrived straight from a date last time. The sort of date where you stop over, and don’t get much sleep.

The two hundred was ready in a sealed envelope, and I handed it over before she had time to ask for it. She dropped it into a desk drawer without counting the notes. I thought that was a nice touch.

“Well, Darren. I told you about the post mortem report over the phone. I have also been through the reports surrounding the police investigation into the accident, as well as the transcript of the inquest and the Coroner’s summation. All of that had to be requested by your mum, and the copies paid for. She must have been quite determined at the time, as she didn’t involve any lawyers, and did it all herself”.

There was no doubt that I was seeing a totally different side of my mother. All of this had been going on before I was even two years old. I was sure that Auntie Jean must have been heavily involved in looking after me back then. Mum would have needed a lot of time to have done all that stuff.

Selina was tapping something on her desk.

“This file from my dad is interesting. You don’t seem to have it in your papers. Sergeant Holloway was in the traffic division of Surrey Police. They investigated his conduct following the accident. Off duty, in his own car, It seems he stopped at the scene which he saw happen on the other carriageway. He claimed the driver was dead, which was confirmed by the medical reports of a broken neck that caused instant death. The passenger appeared to be dead too, but as he was so young, Holloway attempted resuscitation after extricating him from the damaged car with some difficulty, as it had rolled over during the crash. The conclusion is that he did his best, and he was actually praised for his response and professionalism”.

Stopping her before she could go on, I asked about the strangulation, and how Holloway had explained that. She opened another file, and tapped a paragraph on a typed page.

“During his evidence at the original inquest, he had spoken about having to drag your brother out of the car, and having some difficulty attempting resucitation in a confined space. When your mum tried to get it reopened with her new evidence about strangulation being the cause, Holloway made a statement that he might well have damaged Terry’s neck getting him out through the window of the car, and dragging him up the verge to make space to carry out CPR. They believed his version, and refused your mum’s appeal”.

Next I wanted her to explain how Holloway had got involved in an investigation when he was technically off duty. Selina grinned.

“You don’t know much about the way cops work, Darren. He was a trained Accident Investigation Officer. The next available one was tied up on a serious crash involving a lorry, fifteen miles away. So they took the easy way out, which was to let him investigate the accident. The control room showed him back on duty on their record, and other officers helped him start the full investigation. Technically speaking, he wasn’t involved, as he was a witness who had stepped in to help. So by default, they let him investigate an accident that he was later implicated in. So it is no surprise that any appeal was thrown out. Everyone was covering their arses”.

As I took that in, she carried on.

“Remember I mentioned my contacts? Well I dropped a few quid to one of them, and he did some digging. Holloway retired with the rank of Police Inspector. He is sixty-eight years old now, and still lives in the same house in Surrey. His wife died over ten years ago, some kind of cancer. He spends his time playing golf, according to my contact. Rarely misses a day on the golf course”.

My expression must have been blank, as she had leaned forward to get my attention.

“But there’s more, Darren. The best is yet to come”.

Before Selina could continue, I held up my hand. I told her I needed a drink. I was talking about tea or coffee, maybe water, but she nodded and produced a half bottle of Martell from a desk drawer. Unscrewing the top, she passed it to me. No glass or cup. I lit a cigarette, and took a big swig of the Cognac. She was also blowing out clouds of smoke from her fourth cigarette, making me feel like I was in one of those old film noirs, sitting in a smoky detective’s office drinking from a bottle.

I handed the bottle back, and she left it sitting there on the desk as she continued.

“When you hear this bit, you are going to be glad you had that drink, Darren”. She was pleased with herself, relishing the moment when she was going to impress me with her discovery.

“Do you follow football, Darren?” I shook my head, not bothering to mention Joel, who lived his life for football. She slid a newspapaper across the desk. It was the back page, and the paper looked recent, almost new. She tapped the head and shoulders photo below the headline that read ‘Southampton confirms their youngest manager’. “Recognise him? Silly question. You don’t follow football, so you won’t”.

Sitting back in her cheap office chair, she folded her arms under her substantial breasts, then hit me with her big news.

“Brendan Holloway. Son of our Sergeant Holloway. Former youth team player for Chelsea. Former member of the England under-21 squad, and later a full-time professional midfielder for Brighton. Following a knee injury when he was at Brighton, he went into coaching. Last month, he was the surprise pick for manager of Southampton”.

As I was still looking goggle-eyed at the smiling man in the photo, she suddenly lifted both legs and rested her feet on the corner of her desk.

“Oh, but here’s the best bit. He is forty-four, not quite forty-five. The same age as your brother would have been if he was still alive. And the Chelsea youth team was the one Terry was trying out for the day he was killed. Guess who else was trying out for that team that same day in Surrey? You don’t need to answer, it was Brendan Holloway. According to my source, Holloway was second choice, with your brother offered the place. Brendan only got the place because Terry died. Now tell me that doesn’t smell fishy. It got my nose twitching, I tell you”.

Reaching for the Martell without asking, I lit another cigarette. I was almost in danger of catching up with Selina. There was no denying she had done well. I was amazed how much she had found out in such a short time, and impressed with the quality of her contacts, considering she was in a depressing little office in a half-dead seaside town. Sliding papers into a box file, she told me what they were as she added each one.

“These are for you to take. My notes on the information from my two contacts. Holloway’s home address, and location of his golf club. The copies of the police investigation at the time, and the details of the appeal instigated by your mum. There are also some photocopied police photos of the car, but be warned. They show your dad dead in the wreckage before the bodies were moved. That’s it for me, I’m afraid. you’re on your own from now on. I don’t want to get any deeper into investigating a policeman, even a retired one. That will bring me a whole world of grief”.

Closing the file, she put her legs back down from the desk, and stubbed out her cigarette. My mind was whirring with all the information, not helped by the two big glugs of Cognac. But I seemed to be being told to leave.

So I left.

Sitting in the car for a long time in the pay-and-display car park, I had no inclination to start the engine, and drive home. Would a serving police officer really stage an accident, then kill my brother, just because of a place on a youth team?

It sounded far-fetched to me, but the combination of circumstantial evidence and inconsistencies in the cause of death certainly pointed to that. And a career in the top flight of the football league was worth big money.

A lot of money.

On the way home from Frinton, I decided to make a stop. I knew the address of where Ma Coughlan lived, as I had seen it enough times on the paperwork. It was on a Gipsy site provided by the local Council, but it wasn’t a caravan, more like a substantial static wooden lodge, painted in a trendy dove grey. Avoiding some chained-up dogs that ran at me barking noisily, I knocked on the glass door. It was answered by a girl who looked to be about ten, and she was only wearing underwear. I asked if Ma Coughlan was home, and the girl closed the door without replying.

A couple of minutes later, old Mrs Coughlan opened the door, waving her hand to gesture that I should step back, She held onto the big crucifix hanging from a chain around her neck as she spoke. “What’s your business here? I have nothing to say to you. We no longer use your company”. I told her that I had resigned, and was there on personal business. I wanted to know why she had called Gerry away from me outside the commercial premises on London Road that day. She said nothing, so I asked her what she had been pointing at.

When she didn’t slam the door, I wondered what she would do next. “I will tell you this once. Then you must never come back here, or talk to me or any of my family ever again. If you do, my Gerry will make you sorry, believe me. That day there was a boy on your right. He was dressed in football player’s clothes, and holding a ball. On your left was a man, tall, dark haired. He was holding a fishing rod. You didn’t know they were there, neither did Gerry. But I see things, whether I want to or not. Now go”.

With that she backed inside, and closed the door quietly. It would have been nice to know if she could still see them next to me, but I wasn’t about to push my luck in a site full of Pikeys.

Back in my flat that afternoon, I added what she had said to my notes. There was now a great deal of information that would tell me whether or not Sylvia Townsend was a fraud, or if she really knew her stuff. I found myself constantly looking from side to side, wondering if dad and Terry were going to appear to me. I had no idea what I would have done if they had. Probably shit myself with fright.

That evening, John phoned to tell me that they had bought me a leaving present, and asked if I could pop round on Friday sometime to get it. I told him I would, then microwaved a lasagna to accompany a very large Jack Daniels.

Friday morning found me feeling jittery. I was edgy about Sylvia coming in the early hours, and becoming more and more scared at the prospect that dad and Terry might appear in the living room. But I was sure that wasn’t her style, so I did some housework to make the place look respectable for her arrival. Then I walked down to the bank and got the cash out for later, popping into Mason and Walker on the way home.

John was there with Kelly. The others were all out on viewings or prospects. Kelly gave me a big card with ‘Sorry You’re Leaving’ on the front, and they had all signed it, even Neil. Then John handed over a nicely wrapped gift box containing a lovely Seiko chronograph wristwatch. I admit I was surprised. That must have been worth well over a hundred and fifty quid. John looked awkward. “We all chipped in, Darren. Even Neil stumped up, which considering Janice doesn’t want him back was good of him, I suppose. He’s out now, trying to shift those lock up garages in Gardiners Way. They have been on our books for over four years”.

Kelly started giggling, then John began chuckling, and soon we were all having a good laugh about Neil.

In advance of Sylvia’s visit later, I packed away all the stuff into the boxes, added my laptop, and stashed the lot in the hall cupboard. I had to take the hoover out to get them all in, but I just stood that in my bedroom. Then I had an early dinner, and sat clock watching. She had warned me to get some sleep before she turned up.

Like that was ever going to happen.

Although I hadn’t expected to, I did go to sleep. I was sitting upright on the sofa when I woke up with a start. The room was dark, and I checked my phone to discover it was past one in the morning. I hadn’t thought to start wearing the watch I got as a leaving present. It was still in its box. I put the lights on, then went into the bathroom to splash some water on my face. In the kichen, I made some strong coffee, and ate a couple of muffins so the sugar would liven me up.

By the time I heard the quiet knock on the door at exactly two in the morning, I was wide awake again.

Mister Townsend wasn’t as large as I had expected, but he looked as tough as a Commando. Hair cropped so short he seemed almost bald, and unblinking eyes that were boring into my skull. Black leather jacket and black T-shirt, with black combat trousers to complete the image. “I will come in first and check the place, okay? Sylvia will only come up when I text her it’s safe in there”. I stood aside and allowed him to walk in. Then he did a thorough search of my small flat as I followed him around, even lifting the bed and looking under it. Satisfied, he sent the text.

Sylvia looked nothing like I imagined a psychic investigator to look like. She could have been any dyed-blonde working-class housewife in one of many districts of London, though her accent marked her as someone who knew how to speak properly.

“Good evening, Darren. No, good morning. Now please don’t tell me any more than you have already, and you may want to have paper and pen handy, to take notes. I do not allow any recording devices I’m afraid”. They both declined my offer of refreshments, then Sylvia sat on the sofa as her husband left the flat and stood outside on the landing. At a nod from his wife, he closed the door.

She had no equipment. None of those flashing lights or speaker boxes I had seen ghost hunters using in the TV shows.

I had gone to get a notebook and biro from the bedroom, and she was smiling as I came back in. I realised I hadn’t handed over the money, and went to get the envelope from the kitchen drawer. Unlike Selina Macmillan, Sylvia opened the envelope and counted the notes carefully. Then she stuffed them into her shoulder bag, before turning back to me, still smiling.

“Well it would seem we do not have to wait until three-seventeen, Darren. Your dad and Terry are already here. They are standing in front of the television”.

Of course, I turned and looked at my telly, but couldn’t see them. What followed was the strangest experience of my life. Sylvia was looking at them, no doubt about that. Her eyes and head were moving, and she was nodding and smiling. And then she started to talk to them too. “I see. Yes, I will tell him. You know about the detective. Okay, that’s good. Yes, I will tell him all that you are telling me, word for word”.

The need to sit down overwhelmed me, and I flopped onto the sofa next to her.

When there was a pause, I asked her why I couldn’t hear them, and also told her to ask them why they had waited for thirty years.

“Darren, they are not talking in the way that we do. They are communicating with me in my head. I can hear their thoughts, as it were. It’s more complicated than that, but that gives you an idea. I am only replying to them for your benefit. So, to make it clear that you are not wasting your money. Your dad and Terry were driven off the road by someone who swerved in front of their car. It was a man named Holloway. They recognised him, from the car park at the trial ground. It was your first birthday, and the location was the A317 road, near Chertsey. They were returning from a football trial for Chelsea, and Terry had been selected”.

To say I was impressed was an understatement.

“Your dad was killed instantly, but Terry had only banged his head hard, and was semi-conscious. The man saw that, and dragged him from the car. Because Terry had no injuries that would end his football career, the man panicked and strangled him. Now they want you to take revenge, so that they can pass over in peace. Your dad says to look at the daily newspapers, as they will tell you what to do”.

My mouth was dry, but I remembered to ask again why they had waited all this time. She grinned.

“Terry says it’s because the Holloways now have something to lose”.

Sylvia Townsend stood up. “They have gone now, Darren. It’s up to you to work out what they meant, but I’m sure you have a good idea”. I asked her why I couldn’t see them, and if they would appear again to help me. “They wanted your attention, and they got it. You will never see or hear from them again. They trust you to do the right thing, and find them peace. Anyway, you are not a true believer, despite what has happened. So you would never be able to see them”.

With that, she walked to the door, and opened it. Her husband raised his eyebrows, and she nodded. Turning to me as she closed the door, she spoke quietly.

“Good luck”.

There was no chance I was going to get more sleep, so I went and made myself a bacon sandwich, still trying to take it all in. Sylvia had been right about all the details, and though I had found out most of them before her visit, I was pleased to have it all confirmed. And she had earned her money, as dad and Terry had undoubtedly communicated with her, and added that they wanted me to do something bad to the Holloways to give them peace.

I was outside the newspaper shop as soon as they opened the door to customers. Barging past the owner, I grabbed a copy of each one of the papers he had just finished laying out on the counter. That amounted to five popular tabloids, and three broadsheets. I also bought two packets of cigarettes and a Twix. I ate the Twix on the way home, still feeling hungry despite my pre-dawn sandwich.

Mark sent me a text as I was laying out the papers on my living room floor. He wanted to know how it had gone with Sylvia. No doubt he had been up all night fiddling with his computers. I replied that I would call him later, and pretended to still be in bed.

Each paper took a slightly different slant on the news. Being a Saturday, they also had some feature articles, and things like cookery columns and ‘where to go’ suggestions. The back pages were full of sport, as most football was played on Saturdays, as well as Rugby, and Cricket news from abroad.

But most of the stuff was, as always, about Royals and celebrities. It didn’t seem to matter if the paper was a cheap rag, or a supposedly ‘serious’ traditional one, all they seemed to do was to trap on about who was dating who, and who had been a bad boy, or a bad girl.

There were paparazzi photos of course. Slaggy-looking girls I had never heard of, showing their bits as they got out of cars. Film stars being where they were not supposed to be, and with someone who wasn’t their wife. And one very famous politician in disgrace due to a homosexual affair, with a photo of him leaving his boyfriend’s flat.

The back pages were better. I found a decent article in The Express about Southampton’s new manager, Brendan Holloway. It said he had a three-year contract that was worth over seven million pounds. It also mentioned that he had his own agent.

Football had changed a lot since I was last interested in it.

All of the papers seemed to be interested in the same main story though. A very famous British disc-jockey who had been accused of messing around with underage girls in his heyday. They had all crucified him. Photos outside his house, trying to doorstep his wife and teenage kids, and demanding a full investigation into what were basically unsubstantiated allegations.

He had been fired by the BBC without real proof, and was quoted as ‘Refuting all allegations, and standing by his family at this difficult time’.

That was about the time the penny dropped. Despite the fact it was still mid-morning, I celebrated with a large Jack Daniels.

‘No smoke without fire’ came to mind.

The other thing that came to mind was former Inspector Holloway boasting at the golf club about his wonderful son who had just been made manager of Southampton. And Brendan himself, though techincally blameless, I reckoned he must have known what happened.

Let’s see how his seven million salary looked after what I was about to unleash.

As promised, I rang Mark to let him know what had happened. Swearing him to secrecy, and not to mention anything to Joel. Because Joel thought he was the world authority on football, I felt sure he would blab to his mates about Brendan, and ruin my plans.

That Sunday, I drove to Danbury to visit Aunt Jean and my mum. I didn’t ring in advance or expect dinner, and I had no intention of trying to discuss anything that had been going on. Nobody could know anything until I had put my idea into operation. My real reason for the visit was to use Jean’s old typewriter. I didn’t have a printer at home, and no need to buy one. Besides, using my emails via laptop wasn’t an option, as that could be traced.

So a typewriter was ideal for my purpose.

Mum looked unsurprised when she answered the door. I told her I had promised to come and see Jean. “You had better let me go and spruce her up a bit. She won’t forgive me if I let you see her in the state she’s in”. The old house was looking in need of a good clean, as well as some serious redecoration. It was like going back in time walking in there. Twenty minutes later, mum came into the living room and handed me a cup of tea. “Here, take this up to her. I should tell you, her appearance might shock you”.

She was right about that. Jean’s hair was white, and her skin was yellow. She looked about a hundred years old, and the smell in the room was so sour it got me right in the throat.

“Darren love, thanks for coming to see me. How you doing? As you can see, I’m not doing so good”. I engaged in some chit-chat, mentioning that I had resigned from my job. I chose not to say anything about how long she had left to live. “I’m glad you left that place, love. You can do better for yourself than being an estate agent”. After I ran out of things to say, I casually brought up the old typewriter, hoping it was still around. “Yes, I’ve still got it. It’s in the hall cupboard. There’s paper too, and the ribbon should be alright. You can have it if you want”.

I told her to drink her tea, and I would say goodbye before I went home.

Typical of my mum, she never asked me why I was using Jean’s typewriter on the kitchen table. Though she had almost certainly guessed that would have been my main reason for showing up that day. When I had finished typing, I put the machine and paper back in the cupboard, and went up to say goodbye. But Jean was fast asleep. I kissed her on the forehead, for old time’s sake.

My mum was reading a book, sitting in the big old armchair. “It was nice of you to come and see her. I doubt she has much longer to go. Days, rather than weeks. I haven’t prepared anything for dinner, but I can make you a ham and tomato sandwich if you want one”. I declined the sandwich, telling her I had things to do. As I was leaving, I told her to keep a close eye on the TV news next week. She didn’t even ask me why.

In the car, I had the copies of the old police investigation, and the post-mortem report arranged by my mum, the second one. Adding my typed sheet, I stopped at Sammi’s shop on the way home. He had a photocopier at the back, and charged ten pence per copy. I did ten copies of everything, and bought ten large Manila envelopes as well. Back home, I made ten piles of the copies, and slid each one into an envelope. Then I wrote the names of the Sports Editors on each envelope, followed by the address of the newspaper it was going to.

The next day, I would drive into East London, and post them from one of the big Post Offices. They were so busy, nobody working there ever remembered anything, I was sure.

On my typed page, I had kept it short and sweet. But there was enough potential scandal to interest them.

No doubt about that.

I had the packets posted by just after eleven the next morning. I paid the extra for next-day delivery, and with nothing else to do I drove home and stopped at a supermarket on the way to stock up. I had a feeling I was going to be watching a lot of television from tomorrow, and didn’t want any reason to have to go out for the rest of the week.

Mark phoned that night, keen to chat about everything. I gave him the basic facts about what I was doing, and double-chekcked that he hadn’t said anything to Joel. He told me he was going to record all the news bulletins and sports reports on his bank of hard drives, so I would be able to revisit the moment when the Holloways were confronted with whatever the papers made of my anonymous allegations. Before he hung up, he gave me a warning.

“You better get your shit together, Darren. It won’t take them long to work out it must have been you trying to rake up the past. They will be at your front door, and trying to dig up any secrets from your background too”.

That was one time in my life that I was grateful for being such a dull bloke.

When you are expecting something exciting to happen, it gets hard to focus on anything else. I found myself imagining all sorts of stuff, and hoping for the best outcome, obviously. When Tuesday came, I rushed to the shop to buy all the newspapers, and had the 24-hour rolling news on the telly non-stop.


Nothing in the papers, nothing on the news. I rang Mark after drinking half a bottle of Jack Daniels that evening. I told him it had all been for nothing, and they weren’t interested. He was more positive. “It’s too early, mate. They will be checking the authenticity of the reports. They might even be approaching Southampton Football Club, requesting a reaction to a story being published tomorrow. Wait until Thursday, that’s when the shit will hit the fan. Southampton has a big game on Saturday. They are close to the relegation zone, that’s why Brendan was brought in. You know those news guys, they will love to tie in both stories at once. Saves airtime”.

One thing about the news in Britain is that the TV news picks up on anything in the papers. Then there are the local news channels, on the heels of the big boys like the BBC and ITN. Thursday morning at just after eight, I was watching the rolling news. Not much going on in Britain, but then, almost as an afterthought, they mentioned a story in The Sun. A football manager had been accused of involvement in an historic crime. The paperwork had been passed on to the police by The Sun, and they were waiting for a statement. The manager and club were not named, but twenty minutes later, the story was updated.

The female newsreader read her autocue with her voice trying to sound dramatic. ‘Brendan Holloway, the new manager of Southampton Football Club, has been named in a newspaper story concerning his father, a retired police officer. It concerns an accident thirty years ago, that the newspaper alleges was in fact a deliberate act. Because of that accident, and two subsequent deaths, Holloway went on to play for Chelsea and Brighton, as well as the England under-21 team. And he was recently appointed as Southampton manager, with a seven million pound contract’.

That was all. But it was a start.

By the time the main news came on at one, it was second after the war in Syria. The liberal Guardian newspaper was calling for an enquiry, and the case to be reopened, and there were telly crews outside the house of both Brendan and his dad. That was more like it. Brendan wasn’t home, so they badgered his young wife, before changing tack, and getting some local guy to pitch up at the Southampton training ground, where he refused to give a statement.

That made me think he knew.

They found former Sergeant Holloway at his golf club, and his face was a picture of guilt as they shouted the allegations at him in the car park while he was loading his clubs into his car. Mark rang. “Are you seeing this, Darren? They are on it large. Both of them are going to have to come up with something”.

I told him I was seeing it, and enjoying it too.

The six o’clock news was the best. Many people home from work, and more effort put into the report. Reporters had hit the headquarters of Surrey Police, and a flustered Assistant Chief Constable was making a statement on camera. He fluffed on about Holloway had been exonerated back then, and was now retired with the rank of Inspector. He denied any knowledge of a cover-up, and told them the Chief Constable at the time had died almost twenty years ago.

When pushed about the possibility of an enquiry, he stated that he would be happy to cooperate with any investigation, but that the Holloways should be given their privacy while that was decided. Not much chance of that.

Brendan finally faced the cameras outside the home ground of Southampton. He claimed to know nothing, and said he had been a boy when the incident happened, and all he knew was that his dad had helped some people after a bad car accident. The Chairman of the club was standing next to him, looking decidely uncomfortable.

There was more on the ITV News At Ten programme, with a football pundit roped in to talk about how Brendan had only got his youth team spot because Terry had been killed in the car accident. That was the sort of thing I wanted to hear. It wasn’t until after that when I got the first phone call, from The Sun newspaper. They had a reputation for tracking people down.

I was happy to give my story over the phone. Not that I let on I was involved in the revelations, just told them how I had never known my dad or brother, and had grown up missing them, with a mum who was heartbroken.

Naturally, I laid it on a bit.

My appearance in the newspaper the next day, minus a photo of course, generated calls from Leon and Mark, also John from the Estate Agency. Then a local TV crew knocked on my front door, and I let them in to do an interview as I sat on my sofa looking suitably sad. I made sure to get in the line that all I wanted was justice for my dad and brother.

Mum didn’t ring. Either she hadn’t seen anything about it, or more likely knew what I had found in the boxes.

That afternoon, Southampton played with their assistant manager in charge. They lost 3-0. Then there was some ‘Breaking News’ on the BBC just before five. Former Inspector Holloway had suffered a heart attack during a game of golf. He was in Intensive Care, and described as ‘Poorly’. I didn’t know whether or not to be happy about that. I would have liked him to suffer more.

At just after eight that night, the BBC News 24 reported that Brendan Holloway had parted company with Southampton Football Club, by mutual arrangement. Seemed like that Chairman hadn’t believed him either. By ten, the story was slipping down the schedule, and the fact that Brendan’s dad had died that evening only got a passing mention.

After all the mystery, the intrigue, psychic investigators, and private detectives, the end seemed to be something of an anti-climax. Brendan was on the football scrap heap, minus his seven million contract, and his dad was dead. Hopefully, my dad and Terry had now moved on to something or somewhere better. As for me, I had my notes. I thought I might write a book about it all.

Before that though, I was going to apply for a job. I fancied a career in London, in The Metropolitan Police.

I had a feeling I would be good at that.

The End.

My Bundle Of Joy: The Complete Story

This is all 44 parts of my recent fiction serial, in one complete story
It is a long read, at 34,043 words.

You know how you start to notice that everyone around you has a baby or a toddler, and it suddenly occurs to you that you seem to be the only one who never got pregnant?

Well, that was me.

It wasn’t that we were trying, you understand. It was rather that we took no precautions, and presumed it would happen.

And then it didn’t.

Not long after I started to notice, my mum noticed too. “You don’t want to leave it too late, Angie love. Get some joy from them while you’re still young enough to make the most of it”. Oliver hadn’t mentioned it, so I spoke to him after dinner one night. Like he was about most things in life, he was casual. “If it happens, that’s great. If not, that’s great too”. Then he carried on watching the football.

I made an appointment with my doctor. She agreed with me that almost four years with no conception was unusual, to say the least. And I had turned thirty six weeks earlier, so she agreed to send me for tests. She also said that it might be an idea for Olly to have his sperm count tested too.

I wasn’t looking forward to that conversation.

That all took a while, and I have to admit that Olly was surprisingly good about taking the test. But the specialist smiled when we went to see him. “Nothing wrong with either of you, I’m happy to say. Just one of those things. I’m sure it will happen one day, just try to relax and not worry. Stress doesn’t help”. I looked across at Olly, who was displaying the textbook definition of someone who wasn’t worrying in the least.

Handshakes and an exchange of platitudes later, we were in the car driving home.

The specialist had been right of course. Not long after my next birthday, I missed a couple of periods, then had that ‘feeling’. I bought three pregnancy test kits from my local Boots, and they all came up ‘Pregnant’. I expected to feel overjoyed, but my first reaction was fear. My next reaction was to phone my parents, and then my brother. I would tell Olly when he got home from watching the match.

I had to wait for him to finish moaning about his team losing one-nil to a disputed penalty, and I followed him out to the kitchen and watched as he got a beer from the fridge. Then I placed the positive test kits on the table, laying them on a sheet of kitchen roll. He put the beer down, and smiled. “Really?”. When I nodded, he wrapped his arms around me, and I had this strange feeling that we were finally complete.

If you have been pregnant, you will be well aware of how it takes over your life. My brother was looking forward to having a niece or nephew, and my mum and dad were ecstatic at the thought of a grandchild to spoil. Olly was already suggesting names before we ate dinner, and suddenly it was the only thing any of us talked about.

Literally the only thing. All other life had stopped, frozen in time.

My colleagues at work squealed like piglets when I told them. Those who already had children began to offer serious advice, and Jan even started to tell me about how baby should sleep on its back. Then Caroline contradicted her, arguing in favour of putting a baby down on its stomach. They had soon forgotten all about me, and the debate continued between them until lunch time.

When I got home, I was amazed to discover that Olly had been shopping. He had bought all sorts of healthy stuff we would never normally eat, as well as a recipe book for expectant mothers. He said I should stop drinking wine immediately, and he would give up his beers to support me. We hadn’t even sat down to dinner before the phone calls started. Mum checking up on me, and Olly’s sister calling from Canada, actually screaming over the phone. “Oh if only mum had been alive, she would be over the moon”. With never knowing his father, and his mum having died before I met him, I felt Olly was missing out on that. So I let his sister ramble on.

That night, I had trouble geting off to sleep. But it was nothing to do with the baby.

Just a feeling of being overwhelmed. I was no longer Angela, the busy proof reader and occasional fun runner.

I was pregnant Angela, and that would take some getting used to.

Olly was driving me mad, right from the start. A man who used to have to be bribed with the promise of sex to run the dry-mop around the laminate flooring had become a clean-freak almost overnight. He was bleaching surfaces constantly, and even cleaning the loo every time one of us used it.

When our flat started to smell something like an operating theatre at the hospital, I had to sit him down and tell him to stop.

And I couldn’t win with the phone calls. My sister in law seemed to forget the time difference, waking me up one night just after I had dropped off into a sweet sleep. I had to tell her to check the fact that Vancouver was eight hours behind us, before ringing my mobile at one in the morning. Olly said I was sharp with her. Well, maybe I was. My mum rang me at work in the mornings to make sure I was feeling okay, then she rang me as soon as I got home from work to make sure I was still okay. If I ignored her call, she rang Olly on his phone, to make sure there was nothing wrong.

Luckily, my brother didn’t ring at all. The novelty soon wore off for him.

The doctor had referred me to the local hospital, and I had to go in for blood tests. They also went through the routine that I could expect; including scans, a chat with the midwife about healthy habits, exercise, antenatal classes, infections, and vaccinations. I got a ‘Maternity Record Book’ that I was supposed to keep near me at all times, and a surprisingly elderly midwife also spoke to me about anxiety, depression, hormone changes, and what she called ‘natural worries’.

I left the appointment with enough leaflets to paper a large wall, and the feeling that I had just jumped onto a rollercoaster ride that was going to last for the rest of my life.

On the way home on the bus, I suddenly realised the enormity of what was happening.

I was having a baby, and nothing would ever be the same again.

The weekend after that, Olly didn’t go to the home match for the first time since we had lived together. He seemed very serious, and said he wanted to talk about moving, as our flat might be perfect for us, but it was totally unsuitable for raising a child in.

He did have a point. When we bought our trendy canal-side flat three years earlier, it cost a small fortune, but we just presumed it would be our dream home. Converted from old warehouses, it had a small balcony overlooking the canal, large windows that let light flood in, and it wasn’t overlooked. We had a lift, an entryphone video system, and all the things we had wanted. Wood floors, two-person shower, separate kitchen with room for a big table, and our own car park space underground for Olly’s ancient Citroen Dyane. It was easy to walk to the shops, and a selection of buses ran down the main road nearby that enabled us to get to anywhere in the city.

But the main room was open-plan. The selling agent called it ‘New York Loft-Style Living’ in the brochure. That meant we spent most of our time in one huge room with a very high ceiling, which was sectioned off according to our requirements. A sofa that was bigger than our car dominated one area, in front of the fifty-five inch telly that Olly loved to watch his football on. Then we had our so-called office space, with two desks opposite each other for our laptops, a printer, and small filing drawers. There was no bedroom as such, just a built-in division of glass bricks in an L-shape. We had our king size bed and two shabby-chic wardrobes behind that.

Olly was right. Top floor, no outside space except a potentially dangerous canal path, and no separate room for a child to have as their bedroom. It might be alright as long as baby was in its cot, but it would be best to think about selling up and moving to a proper house sooner rather than later.

I made the mistake of mentioning it to my mum that Sunday night. Her reply made me turn and look at Olly, sure that there had been some collusion between them.

“Well for what you could get for that luxury flat, Angie, you could buy a house back here, and have a much smaller mortgage. In fact there is a three-bed detached for sale at the moment, only four doors down from here”. I told her I would think about it.

Like that was ever going to happen.

What followed was what I started to think of as ‘the quiet time’. I had a scan appointment to look forward to, which immediately started the debate with Olly about whether or not we wanted to know the sex of the baby, if it was obvious to the person doing the scanning. Olly couldn’t even contemplate not having a son. Someone to take to football, and buy tiny football kits for.

He was an unusual football fan, in many respects. Something of an intellectual, he looked like a nerd, and favoured a duffle-coat for attending the matches. He was in charge of all the non-fiction output for one of the most famous publishers in the country, and when he wasn’t going on about football, he usually had his head in a book. Or many books.

But he had grown up without a father, and I always believed his obsession with ‘his’ team from a young age had given him the feeling of belonging to something. He made no friends in the crowd, and didn’t socialise with any other supporters though. His being a fan was a very personal thing.

We finally agreed not to know, at least until the second scan. But I told him I thought it was just practical to know the sex these days, as people were sure to buy gifts based on gender, whether or not we wanted them or asked for them. And we would obviously be buying things for baby’s room in the new house. I also quizzed him on whether or not he would be disappointed if it turned out to be a girl. He just smiled. “Girls play football too, you know”.

Determined to never live close enough to my mum for her to be able to walk to our house, we started looking at the suburbs to the east, the opposite side to my parental home. Five minutes with our local estate agent left us reassured that he could sell our flat for the inflated asking price in the same day it went on the market. “I have a list of people wanting flats in that building, Mister Woodman. They will snatch your hand off to buy it, and no haggling”.

That meant we could find somewhere we liked the look of, knowing there would be little delay in selling. I didn’t want to end up having to rent while we looked, moving twice in the same year, so I told Olly to decide on an area, and we would choose a house there together.

Names came up next. I didn’t even have a bump showing, and everyone wanted to know what we were going to name what I still just called ‘It’, or ‘baby’. My parents had all sorts of crazy suggestions, ranging from the names of long-dead grandparents, through to some favoured by members of the Royal Family. Olly went all literary on me, suggesting names like Emile, for Zola, and Simone, after de Beauvoir.

I told him we should wait and see what sex it was, and maybe even wait until he or she was born, then see what inspired us. His mother had told him that he had been named Olver after the Swiss actor Oliver Tobias. She said she had a one-night stand with him back in the day, and thought he might be the father.

But she had put it about a bit at the time, and couldn’t be sure.

We got a good feeling in only the fourth house we looked at. It was one of those solid nineteen thirties houses, in a side street where they all looked the same. Bay windows, small garage, and a decent-sized garden at the back. Semi-detached, but even the third bedroom was a good size, as it was built over the garage. I didn’t like the small galley kitchen, but Olly was full of ideas about opening it up into the dining room, bi-fold doors onto the garden, and ending up with a nice open plan family room.

It was cheap, and cheap for a reason. The old lady who owned it had gone into a care home, and nothing much had been changed in the house since the fifties.

Work would be needed. New central heating for sure, and probably a rewiring job too. But it had marvellous parquet flooring throughout, and a stained glass sunburst in the window above the front door. We put in a cheeky offer, and were pleasantly surprised when it was accepted immediately.

Late that afternoon, we put our flat up for sale.

The person who bought our flat didn’t even come and look at it. In fact they didn’t even live in the country, and had bought it purely as a rental investment, so the agent told us. Full asking price, no haggling, and only awaiting legal stuff and a survey. That gave us a possible moving date of six to eight weeks, and as soon as he got home from work the next evening, Olly started stacking up all the books ready for packing.

My mum was less than delighted when I told her that we would be moving almost thirty miles from her, and ended the call earlier than usual, claiming to have to get dinner ready to serve. My comment that both her and dad had cars and could easily drive over to see us hadn’t gone down well. She had snapped back with what I suppose she considered to be a warning. “Wait until you are at your wit’s end with a baby, and need some help. It’s going to take me well over an hour to drive to that part of town”.

That night in bed, we both had something serious to talk about. Olly grinned. “Ladies first”. I wanted to make sure that he was okay about knowing the sex during the second scan. It had suddenly become important to me, though I had no real explanation as to why. He gave in so easily, I wondered what it was he wanted to say. For a split second, I had a terrible feeling he was going to say he was leaving me. That must have had something to do with the hormone changes I had been warned about.

But it was nothing so dramatic, though still reasonably serious.

He wanted to talk about marriage, and surnames. We had always thought marriage was unnecesary. If you love someone, and are committed to them, why the need for some socially-acceptable formalisation? Besides, we knew enough couples who had been divorced already, and national divorce rates were approaching fifty percent. I went back over that old ground in reply, and he nodded as I reminded him of everything we had said four or more years ago. Then he wanted to know what the baby’s surname would be, when it came time to register the birth. Would it be his, Woodman? That wasn’t his father’s name of course, but his mother’s maiden name.

I could tell from his expression and tone that this was important to him. I cast my mind ahead to arriving at school with a child that had a different surname to mine. My surname was Mackie, a legacy of my paternal grandfather originally coming from Scotland. I had few memories of him past a wizened-looking, rather scary man who had a hacking cough every time I ever saw him. Olly was leaning forward like a Heron about to take a fish. He obviously wanted an answer. I settled for the best I could come up with when I was ready to get some sleep. I agreed to hyphenate it, Mackie-Woodman.

It was obvious from the way he turned over and switched off the lamp that this hadn’t been the answer he had been hoping for.

Not long before the second scan, I started to notice a few changes. Some tenderness and fullness in my boobs, though I wasn’t sure if that was psychological. And even though I had not had anything like the morning sickness everyone told me to expect, I was getting hungrier and eating a lot more. The think I disliked most was an occasional bad taste in my mouth, and what felt like velvet covering my teeth. I started to take more calcium supplements, and stopped drinking so much fruit juice.

Then my hair started to get oily and lank. I was never that vain about my looks, in all honesty, but I had always liked my hair. Now it began to look as if I had dipped my head in the deep-fat fryer before leaving for work. And I convinced myself it was getting thinner too. I would end up as a bald mum with foul breath and velvety teeth, I had no doubt.

The cheerful woman doing the ultrasound scan was from Northern Ireland, judging by her accent. She turned the screen around so we could see, and beamed a dazzling smile.

“It’s a wee gurly”.

After a lot of arguments about what to take to the new house and what to recycle to charity shops, Olly decided we would take the lot, and sort it out later. He got some estimates from removal firms, and decided to splash the cash on one that came in and packed everything carefully into boxes. To be honest, that was a relief for me, as I was now getting to the stage of feeling unreasonably tired when I had done next to nothing.

When the paperwork started to come through regarding the sale and purchase, it was something of a revelation. Moving to a cheap house in the suburbs was going to make us comparatively rich. Don’t get me wrong, we were already lucky enough to not only cope well, but live a very comfortable life. But our mortgage was going to be less than half of what we were paying then, a lot less than half, once we used some of the crazy profit from how much our flat had increased in value.

With the move imminent, I was starting to feel a tightness in my clothes, and noticing the considerable bump appearing above my knickers. As well as the natural weight increase allowed for carrying an admittedly tiny baby at the time, I was eating as if the world as going to run out of food at any moment. And with Olly resisting the urge to complain about eating crap like doughnuts and pretzels, I was stuffing myself like somoene heading for a gastric bypass.

Leggings became my friend too.

Once I realised that skinny jeans and pencil skirts were no longer going to cut it, I went down the route of ‘comfortable’ flared skirts and maternity tights. That didn’t last long, and soon I was embracing cheap leggings like a single mum of four on a council estate in Manchester. And then my only maternity craving kicked in, when I least expected it. I thought it had arived too early, but my mind and my mouth both told me it was the perfect time.

Fish and chips. Something I hadn’t eaten for years, and certainly not since meeting Olly. Not only the fish and chips, but the huge gherkins and pickled onions that went with it. Then I covered the whole lot in salt, until it looked as if I had dropped my dinner at the beach. I could scarf the lot down like I was a refugee or something, and it wasn’t unknown for me to add a battered sausage to the order. I was sure our little girl was depriving me of fat and salt, and it was very easy to ignore Olly’s head-shakes of disapproval as he slowly ate a sensible salad.

I didn’t give a shit.

Of course, names came up. My mum was delighted at the prospect of a granddaughter, and knew enough that it would not be named after her. She tried the names of so many relatives on me, I asked if she was just reading them out of her address book. To be fair to Olly, he said he would leave it to me. But only after I rejected his suggestions based on female names in The Lord of The Rings. I wanted something short, and easy to call out. I mean, who do you hear shouting “Stop that, Philomena” in a supermarket? Unless you live in Chelsea or Weybridge, I suppose.

One morning, I woke up, and had the name in my head. Leah. You couldn’t really abbreviate it, and it was easy to say. Not that it was that rare, there were quite a few small Leahs around. But it seemed to me to be perfect. Olly actually liked it, even though he thought it didn’t go with the double-barrelled surname. “Leah Mackie-Woodman, does that work, Ang?”

I replied instantly, in the affirmative. “Works for me, Olly love”.

My mum loved it, Olly’s sister loved it. And my brother couldn’t pronounce it when he saw it typed on a text message.

When the men arrived to start packing up the stuff, they said we could go and leave them to it. But there was no way someone like Olly was going to let that happen. It took hours, and when we were finally following their huge truck into the suburbs, I decided it was time to give Olly the bad news, something I knew he was dreading.

“This Citroen has to go, Olly. It’s just too unreliable”.

I had two days off to cover the house move and had the weekend in between. Olly had taken the whole week off, with good intentions to sort things out. The moving men stacked most of the boxes in the garage, except for the kitchen stuff and some bits we needed left out. The main problem was the sofa. It had come up in the large lift in the flats with no problem, but when we got to the thirties house that morning, it wouldn’t fit through the front door. They said there was no point taking the door off, as it would still be too big.

After a lot of head scratching, Olly gave them an extra ten quid each to carry it around the side into the garden, and bring it in through the old French windows. But from the dining room, it was never going to make the turn in the hallway to get into the living room.

So there it stayed, for the time being.

Olly’s main concern was getting his huge telly inside in one piece. There was going to be a delay getting the Internet and satellite service connected, but once his giant screen was in pride of place at an angle in the front bay window, he was happy.

No doubt most of you will have moved house at some time in your lives, so you don’t need me to tell you how stressful it is. Luckily, Olly is a master of the mobile phone, and was arranging for people to come in and do things next week, even before the removal lorry had left. I had managed to put my parents off coming to see the house on day one, as I could never have coped with them fussing around too. To be honest, I was worn out by it all, even though I hadn’t carried so much as a side-lamp.

Starting back at work the following Tuesday, I had my first taste of proper commuting. Almost fifteen minutes to walk to the train station, then packed in like sardines for the ten stops into the city. At least I could walk to the office once I got there, and didn’t need to take a bus. Olly would have to do that though, and he had talked about getting a folding bike. As I looked around the crowded carriage, I wasn’t happy at the thought of having to tell him he had zero chance of getting a bike in there. And I was also very aware that I would soon be heavily pregnant, with little chance of getting a seat on the way to work.

When I got home that night, Olly ordered takeaway pizzas, and told me that he had agreed for an electrician to start on Thursday, and the new central heating to be installed the week after. We were going to have to leave them a key of course, as we would be at work.

I talked to him about shopping. We had been used to a selection of shops close to the flat, including a decent-sized supermarket, and some nice delicatessens. Now we faced a four mile drive to an industrial estate, where two huge supermarkets provided the only local opportunity for groceries. Alongside a Pets At Home, Toys-R-Us, one car dealership, a tyre and exhaust centre, and two large DIY chain shops.

He agreed that we should go shopping on Saturday, but I could see from his face that he was dreading the big-shop routine already.

As far as me being pregnant was concerned, I did finally have some bloody awful morning sickness that resulted in me not going into work. But part of me had to admit that I wasn’t enjoying the trains, and also not too happy about the fact that my feet seemed to be swelling over the sides of my shoes, and even the cheap leggings were starting to feel tight. How could I have fat feet? My boobs were definitely uncomfortable, and on more than one occasion I had told Olly to forget it, when he had turned over in bed with that glint in his eye.

Then all of a sudden, I got bigger, and I started to pee. A lot. And when I needed to go, I took no prisoners. It had to be there or then, or I would definitely piss my pants. I knew I was supposed to be happy, and feeling broody and motherly.

But all I could think of was piddling, and having stupid fat feet.

If Olly hated his commute to work, he didn’t complain. The work was done quickly on the house, and despite some considerable disruption with the installation of the wiring and new heating system, the worst was soon over. He had given up on the idea of the folding doors, as that involved major reconstruction, but new double-glazed doors and windows had been ordered, and everything was slowly starting to feel like home.

The glazing company claimed that they would replace all the windows and the back door in one working day. I thought that was a boast, but when six blokes turned up at seven one morning, I was amazed to discover that they had fitted the lot before I got home from work. Olly had taken the day off to be around, and he had nothing but praise for their efficiency. Just as well, as it had cost a mint.

And as I got bigger, I felt better. I started to embrace my bump, which we both now called Leah, and to even feel sexy again. That certainly pleased Olly. Mum and dad had been over twice, and I managed not to argue with her about her unwanted suggestions regarding decoration and furniture, The early insecurities were wearing off, and I really felt like a mum-to-be.

Even though I had started to walk like a duck.

The far too big sofa went up on Gumtree, and Olly warned the prospective buyers that they would need a big van and some strong hands to get it around the side entrance. Two dropped out when they realised we were not about to deliver it, but the third couple actually turned up, and bought it for fifty quid less than the asking price. That left us sitting on big cushions until the two smaller sofas arrived four days later. With the dining room empty, my dad came over to help Olly set up the dining table, which had been dismantled for the move. Once we had that back in play, I felt we were finally in a home, and not a warehouse.

I did feel gulty when Olly finally put his Citroen up for sale. But it was over thirty years old, and it had got to the stage that if it started first time, Olly would do a fist-pump with joy. The funny thing was that it attracted a lot of attention, and became involved in something of a bidding war. Olly was very pleased to tell me that confirmed its classic status. He had owned it for almost twelve years, and it sold for twice that he had paid for it.

We got a taxi to the Ford dealership next to the supermarkets. There was a bus, but it was a long walk to the trading estate from the bus stop. I liked a Focus that was an ex-demonstrator, top of the range model. Olly had to admit that the otherwise dull-looking grey car was indeed packed with features that his Citroen could only dream of. Heated windscreen, electric mirrors, reversing beeper, and air conditioning. And that was only the start. Built-in Satnav, amazing fuel economy, and a very quiet engine. I stood back and let him haggle with the salesman, and he was happy once the deal was done.

It would be sorted out for us to collect in a couple of days. On the way home, I asked Olly to add my name to the insurance. Although I had passed my test when I was eighteen, I hadn’t owned a car, and had no desire to ever drive Olly’s Citroen. But I was quite looking forward to running Leah around in the new Ford. When I told my parents, mum insisted on ordering a swish baby car seat that lifted out to become a carry-cot. Olly laughed at the news. “Bloody Ford Focus, and a baby seat in it too. Now I know it’s all over, Ang!”

We had both kissed goodbye to the last vestiges of youth, that was certain.

The decorators that Olly found online were surprising efficient. In the first three days, they stripped off all the old wallpaper using some fierce-looking steam machines, and filled in all the holes caused by the rewiring. When they came back the following week, they started to paint the rooms using the colours we had chosen, and did the lot in ten days. Two coats.

I was even getting used to having to stand on the train journey to work. People don’t give up seats to pregnant women, even those with big bumps. They look at their phones or newspapers, and pretend they can’t see you. One night I got home with a bad backache. Olly sometimes got back later than me, so I decided to go and have a hot bath. As I got undressed, I noticed something in my knickers.

Tiny spots of blood.

Despite the discovery in my knickers, I was surprisngly calm, and decided to enjoy that hot bath anyway. But when the water turned pink, I lost my nerve. I wanted to be sensible. I already knew that such bleeding wasn’t that unusual, so I rang the NHS non-emergency helpline as I sat wrapped in a towel. The young woman went through her prompt screens in a very sympathetic tone, and I managed to answer all her questions without raising my voice. But when a peek under the towel showed fresh bright red blood, I lost it. “It’s starting again! I’m bleeding onto the towel now!”

It was decided to send an emergency ambulance, so I quickly dragged on some clothes and sent Olly a text telling him to meet me at the hospital, but not to worry. How stupid was that? Like he wouldn’t worry reading that text.

The ambulance arrived in less than twenty minutes. The man and woman crew were very nice, but insisted on going over all the questions I had answered on the phone, as well as taking my blood pressure a couple of times before they got a small wheelchair to take me to the ambulance. They had left the blue lights flashing, and I got the first sight of the immediate neighbours when I saw them standing in their open doorway watching the proceedings.

We had met Mariusz, the retired widower who lived on the unattached side, but had never even seen the neighbours in the house attached to ours. They looked to be either Indian or Pakistani. The woman had a veil covering her face, and the man was wearing one of those little white cotton hats.

Unbelievably, I waved to them as I was wheeled up the ramp into the ambulance. Why did I do that?

Before the ambulance drove off, the girl got me to lie flat on the stretcher, then inserted a needle into the side of my wrist and attached a bag of fluid to the connector. “Just normal saline, nothing to worry about”. I was clutching my Maternity Book as if it was a first edition of the Gutenberg Bible. Nothing would have prised that out of my hand. The drive was sedate, no sense of urgency. The ambulance girl wrote all my details down onto something, and chatted amicably on the way. When she asked me if I had ever been to The General before, I suddenly panicked. “No, no. We are supposed to be going to Saint Mary’s. That’s my hospital. Look, it’s on my book”.

She patiently explained that they had to take me to the nearest hospital, unless I was full term, and in labour. The County General was easier to get to than driving into the city, and closer in terms of miles too. Then I got in a flap about Olly, who I knew full well would be heading across the city, and might even be at Saint Mary’s already. I asked if I could send him a text, and she nodded.

When they got me into the Casualty Department and spoke to the nurse in charge, she decided to send me to Maternity, to see a midwife. The ambulance people put me in a wheelchair, and a chirpy porter wheeled me along a maze of corridors until we got to where I could hear women yelling and swearing from behind a row of closed doors. An enormous West Indian midwife came up to me. “Okay, lets go in here and have a look at you, my darlin’”. And she had a good look. Someone else arrived with a monitor that was attached to my belly, and we could soon hear the fast beep of Leah’s heart. The first midwife smiled, perfect white teeth glinting in the bright lights. “Ah, baby’s doing okay, honey”.

They had bleeped a doctor to come and see me, but the next time the door opened, it was Olly who walked in. He looked ashen, and was visibly trembling. “Are you alright, Ang? The baby? Have we lost her?” I managed to calm him down, and listened as he told me how he had actually run all the way to Saint Mary’s from work, before reading my text. He had then stood in front of a taxi to make it stop for him, telling the driver his partner was ‘critically ill’ in County General.

Then I started to sob uncontrollably.

A very tired-looking female doctor turned up twenty minutes later. Reading through some notes, and inspecting the two monitors, she smiled. “We are sure everything is okay, but I am going to keep you in tonight, just to make certain. You must rest, try not to worry, and trust us to look afer you. You will be allowed home tomorrow lunchtime, I expect. I am suggesting lots of rest and feet up though. No heavy lifting or exertion, and avoid driving or standing for too long”. She breezed out of the room before I could ask her any questions.

But I had forgotten what I was going to ask her anyway.

Olly stayed for about an hour, until the big midwife returned and suggested he should leave me to try to sleep. Given all the shouting and toing-and froing outside the room, I doubted I would. Olly said he would phone my boss for me, and take time off tomorrow to come and collect me. I told him to get a taxi home, and not to try to work out what buses he might need.

The same doctor came to see me not long after I had hungrily demolished a breakfast they brought me. The monitors were taken off, and I had another ‘downstairs inspection’, before I was told I could go home as soon as Olly could collect me. I wondered how long that doctor had been awake, and whether or not she had got any sleep during the night. A porter was arranged to wheel me to the main reception, but I had to get dressed in the same clothes I was wearing when I arrived the previous evening. I just wanted a proper sleep, after a much needed shower or bath.

On the drive home, Olly spoke to me seriously, after first asking me not to interrupt. He talked about the possibility of me leaving my job. With the cheaper mortgage, it wasn’t as if we needed the money to get by, and last night had given him such a bad shock, he had been awake most of the night deciding to broach the idea of me becoming a stay at home mum. At least until Leah started school. When he had finished, he looked over at me anxiously, probably expecting me to reply with a flat out no.

If so, he was wrong.

I told him that I had been thinking too. We had already both taken some unscheduled time off, and there was a long way to go until I qualified for maternity leave. I agreed to call my boss that afternoon, and ask her whether or not I could work from home using my laptop. I confessed that I hated the train journey, and being squashed in the carriage with so many people. I couldn’t imagine how horrible it would be once the weather warmed up, and I was much bigger. By coincidence, Olly’s suggestion had provided me with a way out that I hadn’t wanted to talk to him about myself.

Work was not as accommodating as I had hoped. At first, she suggested I go in part-time. Just in the afternoons, to avoid the crush on the rush-hour trains. Olly shook his head at that, so I pressed the work from home idea. She said that just wasn’t suitable, and admitted that if she let me do it, she expected a few others to ask for the same concession. After leaving the call hanging in the air for a while, she dealt her last card. “Maybe you should rethink if this job is something you really want to do, Angela? Why not take a week off, and let me know whether or not you want to come back?”

It had been on speaker, and as soon as I hung up, Olly shook his head. “No way. Just ring her back next week, and tell her you’re resigning. Once Leah goes to school in five years or so, there might be other things you want to do. We can manage perfectly well on what I earn. In fact, we are better off than we were living in the flat, even without your salary”. I nodded, and agreed to think about it.

Becoming a pregnant housewife was a big change, and not something I had ever considered.

I have to confess that ringing my boss and hearing her reaction was very gratifying. She had obviously expected me to roll over and accept her terms, but when I said I would confirm my resignation by email, she appeared to be stumped for a reply. After another pointless attempt to get me to come in from midday to five, she said she would work out any oustanding annual leave, and contact the HR department about any pay that was due, and my pension entitlements.

I would like to add that she wished me well, and asked me to reconsider. But she didn’t.

I wasn’t going to count on much of a reference from her in the future.

Olly threw himself into making sure that I didn’t do anything remotely strenuous. Without even asking me, he employed a local company to send someone in to clean the house. Four hours on Mondays, and two hours on Friday afternoons. It was good to see him being in control for once, to be frank. He had long left almost everything to me, even the bills and paperwork.

The cleaner’s name was Rosa, and she was from Poland, like Mariusz next door. There was quite a large Polish community in the area, as we had soon discovered.

When she found out that I had quit my job, my mum seemed to see that as a signal that she could come over more often. Every time she arrived, she had bagfuls of things. Clothes for Leah, groceries that I didn’t need, as well as gadgets like a baby monitor and a thing that hung over the cot side to play lullabies. I didn’t mind those visits as much as I thought I would. Being at home all day had been fine at first, but only seeing Rosa for a few hours left me devoid of company until Olly got home. I had started to watch too much daytime telly, and stuff myself with unhealthy snacks.

Although I had never kept in touch with most of my friends from my teens, even those few I saw now and again didn’t fancy the drag out to the suburbs to visit. Most of them seemed to be waiting for the birth, when they could show up wth a suitable gift, cuddle the baby for a while, then think of a reason why they had to leave. Mum wanted to arrange a baby shower, but I told her not to bother.

There was every likelihood we would be the only ones there.

By the time I got to thirty-five weeks, Olly had built the cot from a flatpack, and my baby bag was packed and ready by the door. There was a stock of newborn nappies in the second bedroom, as well as a pile of baby clothes. Olly had become an expert shopper in just a couple of months, refusing to hear about me accompanying him, even when I told him that there was only so much rest a person could have.

I was wearing bigger bras, and a size larger shoes. And I was still peeing at an Olympic Gold Medal level.

Some occasional sharp pains had scared me enough to contact the midwife at Saint Mary’s. She rang me back and reassured me that everything was normal, and told me I would know the difference when I was in labour. I told her I couldn’t feel Leah moving around that much, and she glossed over that too. It seemed that whenever I had any doubts or fears, I ended up feeling like a panicky time-waster.

I avoided asking my mum anything, as she would launch into a monologue about how she had me and my brother as easy as shelling peas. I doubted that of course, and knew that she thought she was sparing me the worst in case it upset me.

Olly and I had a talk about not calling an ambulance when I thought I was in labour. I was scared they might take me to County General again, and though everyone had been lovely there, I wanted to stick with my first choice. He said I should ring him first, then ring a taxi. No point him commuting home to take me in the car, unless it happened while he was at home of course.

But when it happened, he wasn’t at home.

My thirty-ninth week got off to an unremarkable start. I had noticed a lot more movement, and a change in position of the bump. It wasn’t anything too drastic, but enough to make me notice the difference. Indigestion had got me up during the night, as well as two separate trips to the toilet needing to pee. Another lazy day followed, spent chatting to Rosa as she did my housework, me flopped on the sofa in front of the telly.

It was remarkable how quickly I had lost any feelings of guilt about another woman being paid to clean for me.

I must have dropped off watching some nonsense afternoon film, when I woke up feeling very thirsty. As I reached into a kitchen cupboard for a drinking glass, my waters broke with a gushing sound. It made me jump, and I dropped the glass onto the worktop. With my leggings and socks saturated, I felt like that time I had been paddling in the sea, and an unexpected wave had soaked me from the waist down. Pushing the pieces of glass away from the edge so they didn’t fall under my feet, I started to peel off my clothes right there, not wanting to drip everywhere on the way upstairs.

The main sensation was one of complete calm. It was happening, and I was ready for it.

After dumping the wet clothing on the floor, I walked slowly upstairs to have a wash, and put on a change of clothes. Still thirsty, I forgot about that for the time being, and rang the hospital. As always, they were completely unimpressed, telling me it could be a very long time yet. But as my waters had gone, they suggested I should come in and be checked.

The guy in the taxi firm was very efficient. “Ten minutes, love. He will sound his horn”. I scrolled down to dial Olly, and got a massive cramping pain across my lower abdomen that made me gasp. They had been right when they said I would know the difference. All the instructions came to mind, and I knew I had to time it. I checked the time on my phone, and started to walk to the door. In my head, I was doing my checks. Hospital bag. Yes. Maternity Book inside bag. Yes. Keys to lock the door. Yes. I hadn’t bothered to turn off the telly, that was the least of my worries.

I was standing behind the front door like someone waiting for a train on a platform, just in case I missed the taxi driver’s sounding of his horn. Then it came again, hard enough to make me bend double, and have to rest against the door to stop sinking all the way to the mat. A voice in my head yelled to me. ‘Too soon!’ Luckily, the taxi turned up just as I had recovered sufficiently to stand up. Blowing the air out of my cheeks, I went out and locked the door behind me.

As I walked to the car, the driver jumped out and ran over to grab my bag. “You okay, lady? Is the baby coming?” He spoke English with an accent that I took to be from the Middle East, judging by his physical appearance. I managed a weak smile, and told him he could relax. It was my first. I didn’t so much as sit in the back, as fall into it. I felt more like an Elephant Seal than a human, as I struggled to right myself. Unlike most cabbies of my experience, he didn’t tell me his life story, or say much at all. But he did say the same thing at least three times, perhaps four. “You go to Saint Mary’s, yes? In the city, yes?

After he had asked me the third time, I got a searing pain in my crotch, and shouted out loud. It made him jump, and he almost didn’t stop at a red light. I could see his eyes in the rear-view mirror, checking me out. He looked worried. Then I made the connection of a worried man, and me having a baby.

I had forgotten to ring Olly.

Pulling my phone from the handbag, I dialled his number. But it was answered by one of the juniors, who told me he was in the afternoon meeting. I asked them to go and interrupt it, and tell them Olly was about to be a father, if they tried to stop him.

When the taxi pulled into an ambulance space outside the hospital, I paid the driver and told him to keep the change. He handed me my bag after I struggled out, then wished me good luck.

It was a toss-up as to who was most relieved. Me for arriving at the hospital, or him for getting me out of his cab.

As I went up in the lift to the Maternity Department, I smiled to myself. The next time I was in this lift, I would have Leah with me, and be starting a whole new life.

The midwife who took me into a room had a strong Irish accent, bright red hair, and those red cheeks you see on people who work outside, or live on farms. Her accent was very strong, but I could understand her well enough. But like most of her colleagues, she was unimpressed, and showed zero sense of urgency. I presumed student midwives must have had a training module called ‘Never act impressed’.

I hadn’t had any pains since that one in the taxi, and I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved, or worried. I was soon undressed and in a gown, and following a brief ‘look’, she ran through a few questions before confirming my preference for a natural birth.

Then she disappeared.

The next pain came five minutes later, and caused me to shout out a swear-word that I don’t think I had ever used before. Then I was grabbing the call-button, and pressing it like mad. Red cheeks came in with a colleague who was wheeling a tall cylinder on a trolley. They showed me how to suck in the gas and air through a black rubber mask, and before too long I felt as if I had drunk a few gin and tonics. As they put a needle into my wrist, I had to suppress a giggle that came from nowhere. Then red cheeks told me her name was Moira, and talked about first babies, long labour, and how I might yet be sent home.

It hadn’t occured to me I might be sent home, and I thought I should make Olly aware of that. But as I was thinking that, he came into the room. They had made him put a plastic apron on over his work suit, and given him a blue hat to wear over his floppy hair. I couldn’t help myself, and started to laugh at him. Moira grinned, and winked at Olly. “Too much gas and air, daddy”. I wondered why she had called him daddy, but was soon to discover that she called me mummy, and would refer to us both like that throughout. I suppose it saved her having to remember a lot of names in the course of her shift.

Olly told me had had sent a text to my parents, and to my brother. He had also told them not to come to the hospital, as he wasn’t sure they would be allowed in anyway. Besides, there was nowhere to park anywhere in the area, as it was in the centre of the city. Then he held my hand, leaned over the bed, and kissed me. Moira spoke to him, explaining most of what she had told me, including the fact that I might be too early to deliver that afternoon.

Then she disappeared again.

When the next pain came, I grabbed the mask and sucked on it like an astronaut running out of air in a space film. I took in so much of the gas Olly thought I was unconscious, and pressed the button. A slim black nurse arrived, her hair braided and pulled back so tight, it made her face look surprised. She told Olly it was normal, and pointed to the fact that I had come round before she had got to the room. Once again, I was left feeling as if I was wasting everybody’s time.

Time seems to stand still in situations like that. I lay there waiting for the next cramping pain, and it felt like two hours before it happened, even though it was only twelve minutes. Moira came back in and had a good feel of my baby bump, pushing and squeezing like she was trying to burst an enormous spot. A quick inspection between my legs preceded another pain strong enough to make me grab the gas mask. Moira grinned. “I don’t think you’ll be going home, mummy. Baby’s in the right position. She’s ready to see the world tonight”.

A monitor was attached to my belly, and it started to bleep reassuringly. I was told to keep calm between the contractions, and use the gas as much as I wanted. Olly’s phone kept going off, and he dismissed two calls from my mum, and one from his sister in Canada.

Then he grabbed my hand and gave me his best serious look.

“It’s happening, Ang”.

People often use the expression ‘That was the longest day of my life’. I used to smile at that, and say that every day only has twenty-four hours in it. But by seven-thirty that evening, I knew what they meant.

Almost five hours had felt more like thirty-five. And the midwives were quick to let me know I could be in labour for another five hours, if not more. The pains came and went, and the gas stopped helping it. Olly looked as if he was going to fall asleep, jolted out of his dozing by the occasional scream from me. I told him to go out and get something to eat, walk around in the fresh air. But he was determined to stay.

And I had to get used to some new faces, once the night duty staff arrived. No longer red-cheeked Moira, or the girl with the surpised look on her face. It was now Tanya, a stunningly attractive young woman who looked more like she should be on the cover of a fashion magazine. The most unlikely midwife I had ever seen.

Tanya had a businesslike manner, and wasn’t about to take any nonsense from me. She was local too, and listening to her accent was like hearing myself talk. When she didn’t come to check on me, Elizabetta did. Short, dumpy, and Filipino, with a big smile and caring nature.

She told me she had three children. I told her I just wanted to have this one.

By eleven that night, I was starting to panic. How long could this take? Surely Leah should be out by now? The pains got so bad, I felt like I had a bowling ball stuck between my legs. I tried getting on all fours, and even got Olly to help me walk around and kneel by the side of the bed. Nothing seemed to help. Leah was happy where she was.

The noise of the screaming and grunting was getting on my nerves too. I was quite shocked when I realised it was me making it.

Olly was getting distressed to see me in such a state, and pressed the buzzer. Tanya listened to him rambling on about my intense pain, and then left the room. She came back with an Indian doctor who was wearing surgical scrubs, and she asked me if I wanted stronger pain relief introduced through an epidural needle in my back. I had been determined not to have that, but felt so exhausted, I just nodded.

When that was done, I couldn’t feel anything below my waist, and became worried I might not know when Leah finally came out. Then I actually went to sleep.

I had no idea how long I had been sleeping, when a strange noise woke me up. It was coming from one of the two monitors attached to me, and I didn’t like the sound of it. As if to confirm my suspicions, Tanya suddenly appeared, looking serious, but her make-up still perfect.

She ignored my panicky questions about what was wrong, then pressed the nurse call button. Olly still looked drowsy, but the urgency around me had made him recover his wits quickly. Elizabetta appeared, and exchanged a nod from the doorway with Tanya. Moments later, the Indian doctor came into the room, and had that same look on her face. I know I was asking all sorts of questions, but if anyone actually answered me, I don’t remember what they said.

The three of them began to rummage around between my legs like a team of mechanics trying to fix a car that wouldn’t start. I only heard bits of hushed conversations.
“Emergency section?”
“Not sure there’s a theatre free”.
“We could do it here”.
“Get the cord off her neck”.
“I’m going to try vacuum”.

With each snippet I heard, I fired a question back. But it was as if I wasn’t in the room.

Only the back of the doctor was visible as I saw her standing in the doorway talking to someone. Then a male doctor appeared, fully gowned up, and holding something that resembled a plumber’s plunger attached to a grease gun. He looked more like he had been disturbed whilst unblocking a toilet, than someone who should be in a Maternity Department delivery room. They all hunkered down between my legs again, and I heard a pumping sound of air, like when you pump up your tyres on a bike.

Moments later, Tanya stood up straight, holding a baby that was covered in gunk, and its skin a funny grey colour. Olly started crying, so I did too.

There she was, my little girl.

Some of the reading I had done told me what was going to happen next. Leah would be handed to me, put to my breast to suckle, and that would help expel the placenta naturally. Through watery eyes, I felt myself smiling, and opened my arms, reaching out to receive her, just as I had imagined I would.

But that didn’t happen.

What did happen was that a worried-looking Tanya walked away into the corner of the room, followed by both doctors. They placed Leah inside a plastic box that was on a trolley, and then turned their backs to me as they started to do stuff. Elizabetta came and held my hand. “Just checking the little one, dear. You will hold her soon”. Despite her reassuring smile, I sensed she wasn’t telling me everything.

Whe Tanya came over to connect a drip to the needle in my arm, she managed a grin that was completely unconvincing. I could hear the sound of air rushing fast, and knew they were giving Leah oxygen. Then Tanya stuck a needle in my thigh, and said, “Just something to help you expel the placenta, Angela”. I asked her what was going on with Leah, and she glossed over that. “The doctors are just checking her over. Won’t be long. I am going to give you a few stitches down below before the anaesthetic wears off, okay?”

It seemed to take forever until they had stopped fiddling around in the corner, though it might have only been ten minutes, for all I knew. Olly started to feel dizzy, and said he had to go outside for a while. The poor man hadn’t had anything to eat since yesterday’s lunch, and only one bottle of water to drink since he had arrived. He checked his phone. “It’s almost three forty-five, I won’t text your parents or my sister just yet, far too early in the morning”.

When Elizabetta brought Leah to me, cleaned up a little, and wrapped in something soft, she looked relieved. “Here she is, your bundle of joy. Be happy, mama”.

That was the moment that everyone talked about. That strange rush of emotion when I suddenly felt undying love for that funny-looking baby in my arms. I ignored the strange shape of her head, which looked like the hats worn by garden gnomes. I ignored her screwed up face, sparse hair, and the mucky white stuff still stuck around her tiny neck. I loved her more than I ever thought it possible to love anything. I would have willingly jumped to my death from the roof of that hospital if it meant she would be alright.

Tanya came over with a small hat that she placed on Leah’s head. “Dont worry about the shape of her head, Angela. That was caused by the vacuum device, and it will go back to normal soon. Get her on your skin, and let her feel your heartbeat”. I pulled up the gown and pressed her to my breast, but she didn’t seem to want to suckle. She was just lying there, tiny green eyes not focusing on anything. In case Tanya decided to disappear, I asked her my questions while I could still think of them. What had they been doing in the corner? Why wasn’t Leah crying? Could someone go and find Olly so he can see his daughter?

“The umbilical cord was tight around her neck, Angela. Don’t worry, that’s not at all unusual. But we gave her some oxygen to help with her breathing, and as you can see, her colour is getting better already. As for crying, some babies just don’t cry. I should know, shouldn’t I?” I didn’t believe her about the crying, but wasn’t in the mood to argue. I couldn’t stop looking at Leah, and finding it hard to believe she had just come out from inside of me.

Olly came back, still crying. Lack of sleep and food had made him more emotional than ever, and when I told him to hold his daughter, he cried even more. Not bad, for a man who had never said he wanted children. They fussed around me some more, and Elizabetta took away a bowl containing the placenta. Then they cleared up all the swabs and dressings, before leaving us alone with Leah.

I stared lovingly at my baby, watching every twitch, and the slight movement of her head.

But I so wanted her to cry.

A different midwife came to see me after the morning shift came on duty. She talked to me about breastfeeding, which I wanted to do, and how a health visitor would come and make regular checks on Leah for a few days. She said I could go home that afternoon, and then asked me if I had any questions.

I couldn’t think of anything, it was as if my mind had gone blank.

Olly looked awful, so I told him to go home by taxi and get some sleep. I would ring him when he could come and collect us in the car.

Us. It felt funny to say that. Before Leah, ‘Us’ had only meant me and Olly.

Before the midwife left me to it, I finally managed to get Leah to feed. The feeling was both weird, and fantastic at the same time. She was hungry too. Although she still hadn’t made any noise remotely resembling crying, she did make some gurgling sounds that reassured me that at least her vocal chords were working. I had told Olly to ring everyone and ask them not to visit the house until the next day, at the earliest.

There had never been a time in my life when I had felt so tired.

Being alone with my little girl mainly made me anxious. What should I be doing? I spoke to her, kissed her and cuddled her, and didn’t let on to her that my belly and my lady bits were still hurting quite a bit. Once the anaesthetic had worn off totally, everything below my hips felt as if I had skidded down a tarmac road naked. Not quite enough for agony, but far more than sore. I hadn’t asked for anymore painkilers, as I didn’t want to ingest any more medicine than absolutely necessary while I was breastfeeding.

By the time I was allowed home and Olly was there with the carry-cot, I had started to feel like a mum. Millions of women did this every day, I kept telling myself. I had to stop over-thinking everything, and making such a big deal of it. We waited in the main reception while Olly went to get the car from where he had parked on a meter.

The cot fitted onto the car seat base in one slick movement, and he looked at me with such a look of pride on his face, you would think he had just constructed the Forth Bridge. I had been walking like John Wayne after a long ride on his cowboy horse, and it was a relief to flop into the seat.

As the car headed off into the early rush-hour traffic, I had a wobble. This was it. We were going home with a tiny baby, and it was all up to us now.

For the rest of our lives.

To give him full credit, Olly had done wonders while he had been at home. I doubted he had slept at all, as he had tidied up, prepared a basic meal for later, sorted out everything in Leah’s room, and had the nappies and wipes all ready downstairs. The machine for expressing my milk was there too, along with the bottles all sterilised, in case I wanted to use them. I thanked, him and told him I was going to try to stick with breast feeding. Then as if to prove a point, I gave Leah a feed while he watched. At least one of us would get some sleep later that night.

With Leah asleep next to us in her carry-cot, we sat and ate together. Olly said he had sorted out the baby alarm, and also the vibrating alarm that would wake me when I needed to feed her. He said he would watch her after dinner while I had a bath. But there was no way I was going to try to sit in a bath, and just stood there with one hand against the wall using the shower attachment. When I came down, Olly was trying to amuse Leah with a stuffed toy that had bells attached. But she wasn’t taking any notice. I suggested he wait until she was just a little bit older, and he laughed, saying he felt silly.

That was such a happy night, that first night at home.

For most of the night, I had stayed awake. Every time I felt my eyes closing, I jumped, trying to wake myself up. The baby monitor was making no noise, and there had been no crying. Olly was dead to the world, but I didn’t need the vibrating pad under my pillow to wake me up.

I went into Leah’s room more times than I can remember now. If she was awake, I sat in the nursing chair and fed her. If she was asleep, I sat staring at her, wondering if she was alright.

When Olly got up to get ready for work, I had just gone to sleep. But I dragged myself up and went to check on Leah. Olly could have probably got away with taking the day off, but they had been very understanding, and he didn’t want to take advantage. He made me a coffee and brought it up to me, tactfully not asking me if I was going to be alright on my own that day.

Not that I had much chance to be alone. Mum and dad turned up just after nine, with my brother in tow. They had made him take the day off to see his niece, and he grinned as I opened the door. “Where is she then?” Mum was carrying two huge balloons, one with ‘Baby Leah’ printed on it, and the other in the shape of a pink unicorn. Dad handed me a bouquet of pink roses, and they both brushed past me in their eagerness to see their granddaughter.

My brother looked over their shoulders, and one glance was enough. He sat on the sofa and said “Tea and toast would be nice, sis”. I told him he knew where the kitchen was.

Mum was already fixating on the shape of Leah’s head, and she was multi-tasking as she told dad to find a vase for the flowers in the same breath. I kept my temper as I watched mum examining my baby as if she was a pedigree piglet she was thinking of buying.

“Green eyes. That must come from Olly’s family. Nobody on our side ever had green eyes.
Does that mean she will have ginger hair? I hope not.
Mind you, she hasn’t got much hair to speak of at the moment anyway.
Does she feed alright?
Did she keep you awake all night? You look terrible.
Why don’t you get some sleep while we are here? I will look after her.
How long before her head looks normal?”.

Her words were tumbling out like the sound of a machine gun, leaving no pause for me to answer. I just sat on the sofa and let her get on with it. Then the smoke alarm went off, because Ronnie had burned the toast. Dad put his arm around me as Ronnie flapped a tea-towel at the ceiling.

At least my dad understood.

It got to almost one in the afternoon, and they showed no sign of leaving. I decided to take executive action, and told them I was tired, so could they go and let me rest. Mum looked very miffed, and pushed her lips together in an expression I knew all too well. But Ronnie was pleased, and took my words to mean he could leave immediately. He was on his feet in seconds, reaching for the car keys.

They managed to drag out the departure for another twenty minutes, Ronnie standing by the front door jiggling the keys as mum made her last checks and asked her last questions. I took Leah up to her room and fed her, stretching out in the new nursing chair, cuddling her close. I hated appearing to be unkind to my family, but if I didn’t get some rest, I would be good for nothing.

I should have known I would go to sleep, and of course I did. It must have been some kind of instinct that stopped me dropping Leah, because when I heard Olly close the front door I was still holding her tight. He had got off early, but I had still been asleep for almost three hours. I thought I should feed Leah again, and Olly sat on the floor of the room watching me, listening to my story of the family visit. He asked if it was alright to call his sister now, and she would be busting to hear the news. I had forgotten about her, and felt guilty that it was all about me, and my family.

I could her her screams of pleasure as Olly told her the news.

The next morning, Rosa arrived at the same time as the health visitor. She got on with tidying and cleaning after a brief look at Leah. “I hold her later, yes?”

Doreen was a smart looking nurse who told me she was originally from Antigua. She gave Leah a detailed once-over, and asked me quite a few questions about how I was feeling, whether I was tired, and how my moods were. She was pleased to hear that Leah was feeding okay from the breast, but suggested that I express some milk later, so that Olly could do some night feeding and I got some sleep. When she measured Leah’s head, I asked her how long it might retain the obvious cone shape.

“Should only be a few days, darlin’. Though some stay like that for a few weeks. This don’t look so bad”. While I had her attention, I asked her why Leah hadn’t cried to be fed. That seemed to interest her. “No crying at all? Not for soiled nappies, or feeding? Not even to be picked up?” I shook my head, and asked her if I should be concerned. She gave me a reassuring smile, and held my hand briefly. “That crying should come soon. Might just be the fact that she had a hard time coming into this world. I will be around to check on you for the next few days, and you can let me know when she has cried”.

When she left, Rosa appeared, excited to hold the baby. She didn’t have any children, but was hoping to once she went back to Poland to get married. She spoke to Leah in Polish, and sang her a little song. Then she handed her back, asking “Why her head like that?” I told her about the vacuum delivery, and she went over to her bag in the hallway, returning with a small box. “This is for her. Good protection”. Inside was a tiny silver cross, on a chain. Olly and I were not religious, but I was touched by this kind gift from someone who was just paid to do my housework.

Mum phoned twice that afternoon. Once to ask about the shape of Leah’s head, and the second time to tell me her friend Barbara knew a woman whose baby had been born with the same shaped head, and was fine after less than a week. I imagined her and Barbara having a good gossip about Leah’s head, but I didn’t let it get to me. She was only trying to do her best to make me feel alright about it. One thing I soon found out was that everyone knows someone who had either a worse time than you, or had some advice about things you hadn’t even asked them about.

After Olly got in that evening, he said he would go back out in the car and get a Chinese takeaway. I had completely forgotten about preparing any dinner, probably because I had stuffed myself with biscuits and cake all afternoon. Or I was already suffering from what my mum called ‘baby brain’. Over dinner, I asked him how it had gone at work. I was very aware that Leah had fast become the only topic of conversation, and I didn’t want that to change our previous relationship. Olly thought that doing the bottle feed at night was a good thing, and said he would go to bed early to make sure he was up and about in time for it. But when the vibrating alarm went off, I stayed awake anyway. Might just as well have let him sleep, and fed her myself.

Doreen’s visit the next day was brief. She was pleased to hear that Olly had done a feed, and wanted to know if we had heard her crying yet. I shook my head, and told her that she made small gurgling noises, but still had not cried. Then Doreen took Leah and checked her hearing. She turned in response to noises made either side of her head, and Doreen wrote something down on the record sheet. Then she checked her eye movement, and wrote something else down. I asked her if it was all normal, and she smiled and nodded. For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to believe her.

She had only been gone for thirty seconds, when I felt an overwhelming need to start crying.

When the screaming came over the baby intercom, it took me a moment to come round, and realise it was Leah. I was out of bed in a flash, overwhelmed by a feeling of joy that my baby was finally crying. She shouldn’t have needed a feed yet, so I checked her nappy, which was dry. Holding her close, the noise was incredible. Her face was red, and her back arched in a shape like a banana. I moved her round into the feeding position, but she would not take my nipple, no matter how many times I tried.

And no amount of cuddling or rocking would console her, as the screams continued to increase in intensity.

Eventually, Olly could stand it no longer, and walked into the room, bleary eyed. He was smiling though, as just like me, he was overjoyed that she was crying. He reached out to take her, holding her high up against his shoulder, and patting her back gently as he walked in small circles. He asked the obvious. Was her nappy wet? Did she need a feed? I could hardly hear him above the noise. It didn’t seem possible that such a tiny baby could generate that volume. After a while, Olly furrowed his brow, and gave me a serious look.

“Should she be stiff like this? She is rigid.”

I was so tired, I couldn’t think straight. And I still had a lot of pain down below, as well as occasional cramps as my insides were shrinking. I wanted to go back to bed and sleep. It didn’t hurt once I was asleep. And as much as I loved to hear her cry, it had gone on too long, and was uncontollable. Then Olly made a decision.

“Get dressed, Ang. I think we should take her in”.

Alhough I had visions of being thought of as a panicky time-waster again, I knew Olly had made up his mind. We both threw on some casual clothes, wrapped up the still-screaming Leah, and headed out into the quiet night, probably waking up half the street as we struggled to get her into the car seat. No time to brush my hair, or my teeth. I felt dirty and horrible as we headed for the hospital.

The Casualty Department staff took it all very seriously, no doubt prompted in part by the ear-splitting noise of my baby’s screaming. We were taken through to a children’s area, and told a paediatric doctor had been called down as a matter of urgency. A tiny young woman appeared, dressed in green scrubs that looked too big. She must have been well under five feet tall, and had the body size of a child. But she seemed to know her stuff, and there were soon some nurses around Leah, later joined by another doctor who looked as if he had just been woken up. We sat on the hard plastic chairs in the corner and watched as they did tests, and attached monitors.

One of the nurses appeared to be in charge, and every now and then would turn to me with a question. Has Leah had a rash? Has she been taking milk? How long as she been crying? How long as she been arching her back? I gave her my best estimates, and then sat worrying about whether or not we should have brought her in sooner.

The crying suddenly stopped.

The tiny female doctor turned and smiled. “We have given her some rectal medication to calm her down. She will relax now”. They carried on working on whatever they were doing for another few minutes, and then they all left, except the tired-looking male doctor. He came over and stood in front of us.

“We want to keep an eye on Leah for a couple of hours. No need to admit her to a ward, but I want to see her reaction when the sedation wears off. This may have something to do with the difficult birth. I am not considering meningitis, or anything sinister”. I should have been relieved, but my first thought was to kick myself for not thinking anything like he had mentioned. Olly thanked him, and walked over to look at Leah.

I was feeling achey and sore, so stayed sitting. Yearning for sleep.

While Leah was calm, I managed to feed her. The doctor came back when it was already light outside. “You can take her home now. It might have been that she was too hot, as we can’t see anything that concerns us right now. She has taken a feed you say? Good. Keep an eye on her, and get some rest. If you are still worried later on, perhaps take her to see your family doctor”.

There was no chance Olly was going to go into work that day. As soon as it was a reasonable time to ring anyone, he phoned his boss to tell her about what had happened, and agreed to take the day as holiday. Leah had gone to sleep in the car on the way back, and I decided to break my own rules by taking her into bed with us that morning.

After that scare, things calmed down, and I got into a routine as soon as I was no longer feeling the pain. I had told Doreen about the hospital trip, and she tried to reassure me not to worry too much. Then she was more or less finished with her checks, but gave me a number to call if I thought I needed a visit. Remembering what the doctor had said about seeing a GP, I decided to change doctors. Up to that point I had stayed with the one in the city, but that was no longer going to be practical, having to take Leah with me everywhere.

I found one about fifteen minutes walk from us, and they said they would register us if I went in. The place was packed out with people waiting to see doctors when I arrived, but an elderly receptionist was happy enough to get us registered. Olly was going to stay with his old one, as he was in the city most days anyway. I made an appointment for having myself checked over, and they offered me one seven days later.

Trying to get some order into my day was very difficult at first. Leah had no more screaming fits, but she had stopped crying at all, and that preyed on my mind. At least she was feeding, and sleeping. That allowed me some rest between feeds, and I stopped Olly getting up to bottle feed, so he could go to work feeling fresh. My Mum had been miffed at my asking her to leave, so to build bridges there, we suggested that we visit them every Sunday. At least that way we could decide what time to leave, and not have any showdowns.

The first Sunday visit went well. Mum had prepared a lovely roast lamb dinner, and it was nice to be able to sit and stuff myself without worrying about who was cooking, or having to wash up afterwards. I had to laugh at my dad and brother. When it came time to feed Leah, as soon as I reached under my top for my boob, they both made themselves scarce. Ronnie remembered he had a borrowed DVD to watch in his room, and dad had something he needed to attend to in his garden shed. Leah’s head had changed shape too, even though her forehead looked unusually large, the cone shape above had almost disappeared. That stopped my mum trapping on about her head at least.

Going anywhere with a baby was such a mission. There was the baby bag containing anything I thought I might need, as well as many things I would probably never need. Then the folding wheels for the portable cot, in case I had to wheel Leah around. The carry cot/car seat itself, which looked tiny, but was surprisingly heavy. All that without my own huge shoulder bag, which I still hadn’t got around to sorting through, and emptying out.

On the way home that Sunday, it seemed like Olly was reading my mind. “This car isn’t going to work, Ang. I reckon we need something much bigger, preferably with a sliding door. I will investigate what’s available, and sort it out”.

Late the following Saturday afternoon, he returned home driving a bright red Japanese people carrier that looked more like a minibus than an actual car. It had sliding doors at the back, and a huge hatch that opened up to reveal a space that I could easily lie down in. It had a high roof too, so no bending and stretching. The gears were funny, fully automatic, with a lever on the dashboard next to the steering wheel. In front, the driver’s seat looked like an armchair, and the seat next to it was a double one. After showing me around it, Olly asked, “What do you think then, Ang?”

I told him it was never going to fit in the garage.

By the time Leah was three months old, I felt better physically, although I continued to experience mood swings that often involved crying when I was alone. Sitting on the bed while Leah was asleep, or relaxing in the bath when Olly was watching her in the evening. The tears would come for no apparent reason, leaving my face red and blotchy enough to usually have to explain to Olly that I didn’t know why I was crying.

As for Leah, she stayed much the same. I instinctively knew that wasn’t a good thing, and I had my mum to remind me too.
“She doesn’t pay much attention to anything, does she?”
“Shouldn’t she be holding her head up on her own by now?”
“I know she doesn’t cry much, but have you heard her laugh yet?”

There was nothing mum said that hadn’t already crossed my mind. Not least the fact that my baby didn’t seem to ever look at me, unless I physically turned her face in my direction. She had almost no interest in toys, silly noises I made, stupid faces I pulled, or songs I sang to her. If I playfully pushed a fluffy toy against her face, she made no attempt to push it away. I didn’t like the feeling I had, and told Olly I was going back to see the GP.

The doctor I saw that time was an elderly lady. Like many of my neighbours, she was originally from Poland. She listened sypathetically, gave Leah a good examination, then told me she would write to the County Children’s Hospital, and ask them to arrange an appointment for me. As I was leaving, I must have looked as worried as I felt. She put her hand on my shoulder and smiled. “Early days yet, my dear. She will probably be fine”.

Olly had a lot on at work, with the imminent publication of the supposedly eagerly-anticipated autobigraphy of a famous actress. He had looked at me wide-eyed when I confessed I had never heard of her. I didn’t want to add to his concerns by saying too much about the visit to the GP, so I just told him she had referred us to the hospital for checks. Whether he didn’t want to think too much about it, or he was just overwhelmed with work, he didn’t ask me anything else.

That Sunday morning, something else happened. Olly cuddled up to me, and I realised he was expecting sex. In all fairness, he had been incredibly patient, and did as much as he could to help me when he wasn’t at work. I shocked myself by suddenly being aware that I hadn’t even missed sex, let alone thought about it. I had to stop him though. I reminded him that I had never been on the pill, and that if he wanted to continue, he would need to buy some condoms. There was no way in the world I was going to risk getting pregnant again so soon, even though it was a longshot.

The thought of driving to find a shop open that sold condoms then coming back to take up where he left off proved to be a passion-killer that morning. He said he would get some in the city next week.

Leah was four months old when the appointment letter arrived. She still didn’t hold her head up, or giggle and laugh, or move herself around when I put her down on the play-mat. I was due to see some kind of specialist, in eight days time. I spoke to Olly about it, and his reaction upset me, to be honest. “Will you be alright to drive there, Ang? I can’t keep asking for time off with all that’s going on at work just now”. I wanted to ask why he didn’t care enough about his daughter’s development to come to the appointment. I wanted to get damn angry, and have it out with him.

But I didn’t.

One thing I had to admit, the new jumbo-sized car made life easier. The comfortable seat, high driving position, and not having to change gear made it a breeze to drive. I did the fifteen mile drive to the Children’s Hospital in just twenty minutes. It was so much easier driving in the direction away from the city, than into it.

The doctor was a woman with a strong South African accent that made me have to concentrate on what she was saying. As well as a full examination of Leah, she also watched her on the floor, and her interaction with toys, as well as with me. But there were no obvious medical tests. No blood test, no monitors, no scans or x-rays. After what felt like a long time in the big room, she pressed her hands together and started to tell me her conclusions.

Despite being embarrassed at having to ask her to repeat some words because of her accent, I got the gist of what she was telling me, and when she got to the end of her little speech, I certainly understood what she said then. Accent or not.

“Of course, Angela, we kinnot rool ett Brine Dimige”.

When the doctor asked me if I had any questions, I was still in a daze. I had a hundred questions of course, maybe more. But I just shook my head. She said that I would get another appointment when Leah was six months old, as she would be able to tell more by then.

Sitting in the car in the car park, I couldn’t bring myself to turn the key to start it. I didn’t cry, I just felt numb.

On the way home, I started to think about having to tell Olly what she had said. Then there were my parents and brother, the few friends and former colleagues that bothered to stay in touch, and Olly’s sister in Canada. I decided we should not say anything to anyone until after the next appointment, and that was what I would discuss with Olly when he got home.

He was so casual about it, I wanted to hit him. “Well she said she couldn’t rule out brain damage. She didn’t say Leah has it. Maybe she’s just a late developer? I think we should give it more time, and I definitely agree we shouldn’t say anything to anyone else about this for now”. With that, he turned on the television to watch the evening news, and it was all I could do to stop myself screaming hysterically at him.

I went upstairs with Leah, and sat in her room for two hours, staring at her.

There were two ways I could deal with this in my own head. I could adopt a ‘why me’ attitude, cry about it, feel hard done by, and probably end up resenting my child at some stage. Or I could stay strong, and deal with it. Whatever else happened, I couldn’t love her any the less. And none of it was her fault. I decided I would cope. I would not allow the negative thoughts to intrude on my mind, and would be Leah’s mum, through thick and thin.

The second letter from the hospital arrived sooner than I had expected, and gave me an appointment for exactly three months after the first one. At least they were efficient, and I wasn’t going to have to resort to phoning up to check. I started to do some research too. Meanwhile, I took her in for her booster jabs, and grabbed a few leaflets while I was at the doctor’s.

Two days before the hospital appointment, I had a checklist written down. All the things Leah should be able to do by now.

Roll from her back to her tummy
Sit up with support
Be able to get into a crawling position
Grasp a toy using both hands at once
Reach a small object using her finger and pick it up using her thumb and all fingers
Pick up a small toy with one hand and pass it to the other
Play with her feet when laying on her back
Hold her hands up to be lifted
Make sounds like ‘Da’, ‘ga’, ‘ka’
Squeal and laugh
Like to look at herself in a mirror

Eleven things. Simple enough things that any baby should be doing at six months old. Checking them off against my close observation of Leah made for depressing reading. I could only confirm ‘Making sounds’. Leah said “Gah”. It was all she ever said, and it just came out at random, never in response to anything I was doing with her or saying to her. She said the same thing to Olly when he was holding her, and he had joked about changing her name to ‘Gah’.

I didn’t think that was remotely funny.

Arriving at the hospital for the six-month check, I was forewarned, and forearmed. I had toughened myself up over the last ten weeks, and had a new focus. As expected, the South African doctor went through the motions of assessing those eleven checks, though she did them without telling me what she was doing. Then someone else came into the room, and introduced herself as Polly. She went through much the same routine with Leah after the doctor had left the room, though she spoke to me all the time, explaining what she was doing, and why.

When she seemed to have finished her examination, I came right out and asked. her. Is it brain damage? Was it caused by oxygen deprivation at birth? Can anything be done? Polly looked very sympathetic as she listened to me. Then she told me what she thought.

“It is still too early to tell, Angela. But I think you have to prepare yourself for some severe developmental issues”.

After what Polly had said about Leah, I was stil strong, and determined to not only make Olly face facts, but also to tell the family what to expect. The last thing I was going to need was my mum saying things like “She should be doing that by now”. To be honest, I was rather relieved. Now I could stop worrying about what might have been wrong with my baby, and deal with what was going to be wrong with her as she got older.

Driving home, I pondered the reality of ‘severe developmental issues’. Walking might come late. Speech and communication could be limited. Vision and hearing might be impaired; either, or both. Feeding, safety around the home, all the expected problems were going to be twice as hard to deal with. Maybe ten times as hard. And what about schooling?

I stopped there. I was getting ahead of myself.

Another check-up in three more months, more depressing lists of things that she might not be able to do by then. Strange how I took some comfort from that dire diagnosis. The fact that Leah didn’t laugh, didn’t attempt to communicate, didn’t focus on me, or enjoy play. I had thought that was all about me, that I was doing something wrong. Now I had some kind of diagnosis that exonerated me from blame, I actually felt more positive.

It was all presented to Olly after dinner. I let him enjoy his food first, raging inside that he had forgoten to ask how the check-up had gone. I knew he was feeling that ‘breadwinner’ responsibility, and at a particularly busy time for him at work. But if he thought he was just going to leave everything else for me to deal with, he was very much mistaken.

His first reaction was to well up, and I thought he might cry. But he swallowed hard, and set his jaw. “Right then, Ang. We will deal with that, we can do it. I’m going to ring my sister now, and tell her. But I will leave your parents to you if that’s okay”. I was greatly relieved. I don’t know what I had been expecting, but it hadn’t been him finding his strength again.

Olly’s sister had worked as a trained physiotherapist in hospitals. Now she was semi-retired, she worked privately from home doing sports injuries and back pains, that kind of thing. She was immediately one hundred percent positive, and moments after finishing the call with Olly, she was firing off emails to me, with links to all kinds of organisations, therapists in Britain, self-help ideas, and groups that got together to help each other. It was early days of course, but it felt good to have things to latch onto.

While I was feeding Leah, Olly was online ordering an expensive home CCTV system that he could set up in her room. We could watch it live on a laptop, and record it to watch later too. He thought that being able to see her when we were not in the room might give us some tips on what she did in there when she was awake. He told me to get an email address from Polly too, in case she wanted him to email some footage once it was up and running.

By the time we went to bed that night, I felt better than I had on any single day since Leah was born.

Instead of phoning my parents, I decided to drive over with Leah and tell them the next morning. Ronnie would be at work, so they could fill him in later. But I wanted to do it face to face, as I had to ask my mum something. I was going to ask for her help. For the first time since I had left school.

Her first reaction was denial. “Far too early to say, Angela. Why have they worried you with that, when she is still so young? How can they possibly tell so much from what they have seen? Surely they won’t be able to tell much until she is at least one?” I raised my hand to stop her. Dad put his head in his hands, so I knew he got it. I told mum that she had to listen instead of talking. Her only grandchild was going to have issues. Even at the mildest end of the scale, she had to face facts that Leah was not going to be a normal baby. And in the worst-case scenario, I was going to be needing a lot of support.

My dad walked over and put his arm around me.

Although Olly started to help out more, he also retreated into technology in what seemed to me to be a form of escape. The smaller third bedroom was kitted out like an office already, but he seemed intent on making it into a kind of module like something from a futuristic film. Spending money because he had it to spend, a new Apple computer arrived, with a combined printer/scanner/copier that was placed next to it on the new metal desk he bought from IKEA. The camera that watched Leah in bed was soon replaced by one that had an infra-red capability, so we didn’t need to leave a light on in her room.

As the nine-month appointment approached, I was keeping a diary of what I had noticed Leah could, and could not, do.

Saying actual words.
That was still a definite ‘No’. She only ever said “Gah”.
No. But at least this meant she wasn’t investigating cupboards or switches.
Eating proper food in addition to milk.
That was a ‘Yes’. She ate or drank anything I put in her mouth. But she didn’t hold it if I placed it in her hand.
Pincer-grip with fingers.
She was getting her first teeth, but never seemed to be in pain. She certainly wasn’t crying.
Communication by gesture. Clapping, waving, and so on.
Clinging on to soft toys or blankets for comfort.
No. She dropped anything I gave her.

I gave up after that, as I wanted to stay positive. Her weight was good, she looked healthy, and she slept well. She took her feeds, and rarely cried.
All of those were taken as good signs, and I acted as much like a normal mum as possible. I played with her, spoke to her, sang her songs, and interacted with her whenever she was awake. Even though she never responded in the way other babies might have done, I made the best of my time with my little girl. And when Olly got in from work, he did the same.
At least for a while.

The next appointment was with Polly. I showed her my diary, and we discussed the fact that Leah should be crawling at the very least, and making more sounds than an occasional “Gah”. The general health check went well, so we concentrated on the development issues. Polly tried to stay upbeat, suggesting things might change once Leah passed her first birthday. But she had to agree when I said that would always leave her behind other kids of the same age, whatever happened later on. She didn’t seem very interested in Olly’s idea of sending her CCTV footage of Leah at night. I supposed she had enough to do, without scrolling through hours of that. But she gave me the email address anyway.

That night, Olly had to work late, so I ate alone. When he got home with a pizza, he remembered to ask how it had gone, and showed great interest in Polly being so positive. Nodding enthusiastically as he wolfed down the lukewarm meal.

But I couldn’t shake the idea that he was just pretending to care.

Two weeks later on the Sunday, we made the trip to my parents’ house for dinner. Ronnie was out, and dad winked as he told me, “He stopped over. Got a new girlfriend”. Mum was quick to jump in “Yes, and she’s thirty-four, and divorced”. Her expression and tone let us all know she didn’t approve. Ronnie was twenty-seven, and should probably have left home years earlier. But life was easy, with mum doing the cooking, and his washing and ironing too. He was not a man of ambition. He had left school at seventeen with two ‘O’ levels, and got a job with a big DIY shop chain. But he worked in the head office, in the ordering department, and his main aim in life was to own a souped-up GT car.

Now he had met Lauren, the sister of one of his work colleagues. And he was head over heels in lust. And as for dad saying he had a ‘new’ girlfriend, well other than two weeks with a girl up the street called Emma Thoroughgood when he was thirteen, I think we could rightly say that Lauren was his only girlfriend. I went through the motions of telling my parents some more about Leah’s clinic visit, concentrating on the positives. Mum latched onto that too. “I told you it was too soon to say. You wait and see. Give her time”

In bed that night, I turned over to find an empty space next to me. Wondering where Olly was, I got up and walked out onto the landing. He was standing in the open doorway of Leah’s room, holding a small video camera that I didn’t even know he had bought. When he saw me, he turned and grinned. I walked across to him, and saw what he was filming.

Leah was standing up in her cot, holding the sides for support.

As I watched, tears welling up in my eyes, Leah dropped back onto the mattress. Olly stopped filming, and I ran into the room, scooping her up into my arms. Olly was grinning, his hair sticking up like some mad professor. “I heard her doing some loud ‘Gahs’ over the monitor, and came in to check on her. When I saw her standing, I went to get the camera from the study”. Calling the fitted-out boxroom a study was a stretch, but I let that go, saying she must have been hungry. I sat down in the chair and started to feed her. As I did that, Olly sent his sister a text message telling her.

I couldn’t stop crying. But at least they were happy tears.

At a reasonable hour the next morning, I rang Polly to tell her the news. But I had to leave a message, as she wasn’t in yet. When she rang back an hour later, she let me blab on excitedly, waiting until I finished speaking. “Angela, you mustn’t read too much into that at the moment, don’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen again today”. Talk about a downer, she crashed my mood with one sentence. But I took her warning seriously enough not to bother to ring my parents and tell them.

The temptation to hold her up in the cot and see if she did it again was overwhelming. But Olly was at work, and I had grocery shopping to do. I got ready, and then loaded Leah into the car seat before throwing her baby bag into the back. I never went anywhere without that bag. Using the parent and child spaces in the supermarket car park was a boon. They tended to be closer to the shop, and the extra width of them made life easier. I had become something of a busybody, very protective of those spaces. If I saw someone trying to park in one when they obviously had no baby or child with them, I would walk over and stare them out.

With the removable baby seat wedged into the trolley, I wandered around the aisles flinging stuff in. I had never been an organised shopper, someone with a list, and meal plans. I just got whatever I liked the look of, and thought about actual dinners later. That meant I normally bought too much stuff, but what the hell.

Fully-laden, and looking for a free checkout, I stood behind an elderly woman who only had a few items on the conveyor belt. She turned to look at Leah, and smiled. “How old is she, about nine months?” I told her she was almost spot on. Then she nodded like some wise sage. “Shame about her, though I’m sure you are coping well”. I would like to have replied with an aggrieved ‘What are you talking about?’ or something similar. But the look on her face told me that she could see there was something wrong with my baby.

I said nothing, and stood with my face flushed until she paid and left.

For some reason, I didn’t want to go home. I took my shopping bags out to the car, grabbed the baby bag, then carried Leah in her seat to the coffee place in the row of smaller shops opposite. I went into the baby changing room in there and changed and fed her. Then I bought myself a cappuccino, and a huge chocolate muffin. I felt a desperate need for some woman to come up to us and compliment me on my lovely daughter. But nobody did, so I stared out of the window until my coffee got cold.

When I had put the shopping away, leaving out the stuff I was using for the meal later, I could resist the temptaion no longer. I picked Leah up off the playmat where she was lying staring at the ceiling, and carried her up to her cot. I stood her up inside, and placed her tiny hands around the wooden railing. She fell onto her back with a “Gah”. I did it again, talking to her encouragingly. She fell again. I thought the third time might be lucky.

But it wasn’t.

Olly got in at a reasonable time, and as he walked through the door, he was beaming. “How did it go today? Was she crawling or standing?”

I told him I was cooking his favourite for dinner, Pesto Chicken.

Olly saw through my bluff of course. Ignoring his question, busy cooking his favourite meal, and a glass of Valpolicella already poured for him. “So what’s happened, Ang?” I told him what Polly had said, and about trying to stand Leah up. About the old woman in the shop who instinctively knew something was wrong with her, and the fact that nobody ever came up to me to say something nice about her when I was out.

People always did that with babies. At least they always did until I had one. I didn’t cry. I was fed up with crying.

“So we get on with things as they are, and stop expecting good stuff. Then we won’t be disappointed. My sister replied by text saying much the same thing as Polly. It might have been a one-off, something instinctive because she was needing a feed. If we have to cope with the fact that life with Leah is going to be different to our expectations, then we will cope”.

Okay for him to say that, he was out at work all day. I didn’t say that, just thought it.

I had to have a conversation with Rosa too. She knew enough about babies to realise that Leah should have been scooting around the floor and getting into mischief by now. But to her credit, she never mentioned anything. I told her the provisional diagnosis, and she crossed herself, mumbling a little prayer thing in Polish. In English she said, “God will have wanted her to be like this. God will look after her”. I knew she meant well, but I almost told her to cut the crap.

A phone call from Ronnie surprised me. He wanted to come over that night, and bring his new girlfriend to meet us. “And I have something I want to talk to you about, Ang. Well, ask your advice on really”. Ronnie had never asked me about anything before, so I guessed it must be something serious. I told him to come after eight, so we could have dinner first. I wasn’t up to preparing a nice meal for four people just yet.

When Olly got in, I fed him something quickly, apologising that Ronnie and Lauren were expected within the hour. He rarely had much to say to my brother. Their interests were very different, and Ronnie didn’t even follow football, so they couldn’t talk about that.

On the dot, the doorbell rang. Leah was awake, and lying on her play mat. Olly answered, and they came in carrying two bottles of wine, and a huge bunch of flowers. That must have been Lauren’s doing, as Ronnie would never have thought to bring anything. I was impressed. Lauren was very attractive. Smartly dressed too, with a wonderful short bob haircut. I could have laughed out loud when I saw Olly trying not to look at the shapely legs protruding from a seriously short skirt.

My first thought was to wonder what the hell she was doing with my hopeless brother. But then siblings rarely see any physical attraction in each other. Too many years of being assailed by the smell of his socks, or arguing about who used the bathroom first.

But really, why did she like him? She was such a knockout, even I fancied her.

They went through the motions of taking about Leah, as Olly got some drinks and put the flowers into a vase. Lauren made the right noises about liking our house, and lamenting the fact that her and her ex hadn’t had any children. She sat next to Ronnie on the sofa, acting as relaxed as if they had been a couple for ten years. Then Ronnie got to the real reason for the visit.

“Lauren and me are talking about me moving in, Ang. Actually, more than that. We are thinking of getting married”. With Lauren sitting there sipping her wine, I had to choose my words carefully. I mentioned that they hadn’t been together long, decided to ignore the age difference, then suggested that maybe living together for a while might be a better idea than rushing into planning a wedding. I reminded him that me and Olly had been together a long time and had a baby, but we saw no reason to have to get married.

Moving her hand on top of Ronnie’s, Lauren looked right into my eyes.

“That’s fine for you two, Angela. But I want some commitment in a relationship”.

I suddenly knew why my mum didn’t like her.

Ignoring Lauren’s comment, I waited for Ronnie to speak up. But surprisingly, it was Olly who spoke next. “Nothing against either of you, but I think even living together is a bad idea. In all honesty, Ronnie, you have got so used to living at home, the transition to being half of a couple is going to be a massive wake-up call. My suggestion would be that you rent your own place at first. You can still see Lauren, but it wil teach you all you need to know about running a home, fending for yourself for once, and little things like cooking a meal and ironing a shirt. If you just move in with Lauren, there’s a real danger you will just expect her to do everything for you, and that won’t work out, believe me”.

I looked over at Olly, wishing I had said what he had just said.

Lauren was nodding too. Maybe she hadn’t yet realised just how hopeless Ronnie was. I pictured him sitting playing a video game in his underpants, or watching one of his body-horror DVD films, all the while paying zero attention to Lauren, until he thought it was time for sex. Lauren caught my eye, and looked at her shoes. I think she had experienced the same thought, at the same time. It seemed as if Olly had saved the day.

Attempting to outline the positives, Olly carried on, appealing to Ronnie’s love of his substantial savings in the bank. “Look at it this way. A wedding will cost you a small fortune, maybe twenty grand. Then if that marriage doesn’t work out, that’s dead money. That’s a decent car, or a lot of Playstations. More to the point, without being flippant, it’s not fair on Lauren. She’s already had one marriage go tits-up, and I am sure she will agree she doesn’t need another like that. Remember the old fable. Slow and steady wins the race”.

Alhough Ronnie was nodding, I knew full well he had never heard of Aesop.

That seemed to be a suitable moment to send them packing, so I invented the need to go and feed Leah. But Lauren didn’t get the hint, and asked for another glass of wine. I mean, who asks for another glass of wine, even if they brought it themselves? Rude. I had to follow through with taking Leah up, so fed her anyway. All the while listening to Olly in his pontificating mode, continuing to explain to my brother why co-habitation was a bad idea.

Ronnie was out of his depth, and outclassed. By the time I had put Leah into her cot and came back down carrying the baby monitor, Olly was explaining to Lauren how my mum smothered my younger brother, and how my dad was so hen-pecked, he let her get away with anything. I had always known Olly didn’t like my mum. I never blamed him for that, as I didn’t like her that much either. But slagging my family off to a stranger was not on, as far as I was concerned.

By the time they left, Ronnie looked downcast, and Olly was smugly pleased with himself. I was pissed off at the way the tone of the conversation had changed, and stayed downstairs fuming quietly after Olly had gone up to bed. I couldn’t face an argument that late at night, especially after Olly had been drinking.

The phone ringing the next morning made me jump. I had fed Leah, then dropped off in the chair in her room. It was my mum, sounding chirpy. She wanted to congratulate me on changing Ronnie’s mind. “I don’t know what was said, Angela, he wouldn’t tell me. But he came home late, in a foul mood. I was sitting up watching a film, and he launched into me about how I had primed you to make him spilt up with Lauren. He made so much noise your dad came down to see what was going on. Now he says he will move out anyway, Lauren or no Lauren. I doubt that will happen, he will probably calm down after a morning at work and realise where he is well off”.

I reminded her that he was twenty-seven, and probably should be living on his own. I didn’t tell her that Olly had been the one to talk them both round, I had no inclination to be drawn into a blow by blow account of last night’s conversation.

It was ten minutes after I had hung up that I remembered she hadn’t asked about Leah.

Rosa came and did the housework the next day, leaving me feeling increasingly guilty about watching someone do that when I was fit and well. I had been going to mention to Olly that it might be time to tell her we didn’t need her, but to be honest I enjoyed having her around. And I also knew she needed the money.

The next few weeks seemed to fly by, making me realise that I now had a routine in place, and that Leah not being active made my life a lot easier than it was for most young mums. Her one year appointment was looming, as well as her first birthday before that. I phoned mum and suggested a small party might be in order. She told me that dad hadn’t been feeling well, and he should probably rest and not get excited. That was the first I had heard of it.

It was settled that I would buy her a birthday cake and mum would give me the money, as well as a shop voucher for anything I wanted to buy her granddaughter. Ronnie had moved out as he had threatened to do, and was sharing a house with two strangers after answering a newspaper advert. He still wasn’t speaking to me, and rarely to mum either. She blamed me of course, saying we had pushed it too far.

On the day, poor Leah only got three cards in the post, and one of those was from Polly at the hospital. The other two were from my mum and dad, and Olly’s sister in Canada. Olly and I hadn’t even bought her many presents, as there seemed to be no point buying toys for a child who didn’t play with them or even interact with us if we tried to play. I had bought her a supermarket cake, and was waiting until Olly got home to light the single candle. Then he rang to say he had to work late. Publishing deadlines, and blah blah blah. I had already tuned out, and just hung up without saying goodbye.

Leaving Leah on her play mat, I nipped into the kitchen to get the cake and light the candle. When I came back into the room singing ‘Happy Birthday to you’, she wasn’t there.

I almost dropped the cake in shock, just managing to get it onto the coffee table before it slid off the plate. That same moment I got a clue, hearing a “Gah” from behind one of the sofas. I looked over the back of it, and was amazed to see her crawling. A crawl of sorts, anyway. Supported more on her elbows than her hands, she was making her way towards the window like a soldier crawling to avoid detection from the enemy. I watched her a little longer, entralled by the activity. She was dragging her legs behind her, and making slow progress. But she was definitely moving.

Deciding not to get too excited, I picked her up and faced her the other way. Off she went again, heading back to the play mat. I broke off a piece of cake, not even bothering to cut it, and blew out the candle as I turned to offer it to her. I was willing her to reach out and take it. Whether she actually noticed it was food, or was attracted by the smell of it, she stopped crawling. I put a tiny piece into her mouth, and she ate it immediately, saying another “Gah”. But when I moved the rest of it in the direction of her hand, she made no attempt to hold it.

So I sat on the floor and fed it to her. No need to be disappointed. She had made huge progress. I wanted to tell the world. But Polly was on ‘leave a message’, and my mum sounded completely uninterested. The best she could manage was a negative. “Well if she’s crawling around now, you are going to have to fit those stair gates and get one across the kitchen door too”. So even though it was still early for her over there, I rang Olly’s sister in Canada. At least she squealed with delight, so I had someone to squeal with.

I always thought that squealing alone was rather too strange a thing to do.

By ten that night, Olly still wasn’t home. I left his dinner stone cold on a plate on the dining table and went to bed.

There was too much else to worry about for me to bother over Olly working late. After all, there was only his salary coming in now, so it was more important than ever for him to keep his job, and do well. We still had a substantial savings buffer with the profit from the flat sale, but that wouldn’t last long if we were both not working.

Polly was there at the next appointment, and did a few of the usual tests. She didn’t seem to be excited as I had wanted her to be about Leah crawling, and of course when we put her down that morning, she didn’t crawl an inch. I was left wondering whether or not anyone believed me. Nobody else had seen her crawl, and I hadn’t had the presence of mind to use Olly’s video camera to record the moment. When I had finished babbling on about standing and crawling, she told me what to expect next.

“Not walking isn’t an issue, Angela. many babies don’t do that for a while after they turn one. But Leah should be standing all the time now. Holding onto things for support, and at least trying to walk. She should also be able to grip small objects, and throw them or drop them deliberately. There should be at least three recognisable words by now, hopefully more. I know you are talking to her and involving her, but her only reaction to anything is that Gah sound she makes. Leah’s height and weight are both good, in fact she is a little heavy, but we won’t wory about that. I think we should see her again at eighteen months. Meanwhile, you should schedule her vaccinations”.

That was it? No brain scan? No specialist treatment or intervention? Had they already given up on my little girl?

All questions I should have been asking Polly. For some reason, all I did was nod.

In the car outside, I was furious with myself for not asking her fifty things. Why did I just tolerate this? Why didn’t I stand up to them? I seemed able to ask myself so many questions about what might be my own failures as a mother, then allow myself to be intimidated by the hospital environment, and the qualifications of someone I hardly knew. So I rang Polly on my mobile, without starting the car. I asked her the three big questions I had thought of, and she gave me a completely pat answer. “All in good time. We will get to that, I promise you”. I said thank you, and hung up.

Then as I was driving home, I slammed my fists against the steering wheel, angry at myself. I actually said thank you. How pathetic was that?

At just after five, Olly rang to say he was meeting an author later, and I shouldn’t cook anything for him. Just as well I hadn’t started dinner, though I couldn’t be bothered to argue. It was at least twice a week that he came home very late now, and he always had excuses about publishing deadlines, meetings with book printers, or agents. I guessed it must be hectic, because he had even stopped watching his beloved football, and didn’t even bother to record the matches so he could watch them later when I had gone to bed.

When he didn’t ask how it had gone at the hospital, I tore him off a strip for not remembering, or remembering but not caring. He stayed quiet as I ranted for a few minutes, then quietly said. “Ang, you are on speaker”. Then he hung up. I felt like shit for doing that. Blaming myself again, and not him.

Microwaving a lasagna was an easy option for dinner. And after trying to get Leah interested in a picture book story for ten minutes, I gave up and took her for her bath. I had not long settled her, when the doorbell rang just before nine. I should have been more wary of late callers, but I had so few visitors, I opened the door without hesitation. It was my brother, Ronnie.

He hadn’t spoken to me since that night we had drinks, and that had been a few weeks now. I had been leaving it, expecting him to come around eventually, and also not being that bothered whether he did or not. Since having Leah, she had come first in everything, and that included my brother.

He walked past me, and sat down. Though he was shabbily dressed, and looked like he could do with a bath and a shave, his eyes were bright and alert, and his face had a strange look on it. My brain searched for the word to descibe it, and came up with ‘Triumph’. Pointing at the sofa, he gestured that I should sit down, then confirmed that verbally.

“You should have a seat, Angie, I have something to show you”.

Ronnie had a new phone, one of those bigger ones people had started to get. I still had a tiny phone, from the days when the whole idea of having a mobile phone was to have the smallest one possible. Then it didn’t get in the way, and you could carry it around on you in any pocket, or in a compartment in your bag. He was grinning like a weirdo, and nodding as if he was agreeing with a conversation in his head.

“Olly working late more often recently? Coming home long after you’re in bed, not home for dinner, that kind of thing?” My relationship had nothing to do with my younger brother, and I wasn’t prepared to get into a debate about Olly. I told him to keep his voice down, because of Leah. He sat down, his left knee jerking up and down like a rock drummer playing at a concert. I hadn’t offered him anything, and I had no intention of doing so.

Holding the phone, he pressed some buttons, and handed it over to me. “Just press the right-hand arrow button for the next picture”. So it had a camera on it, I had heard about those. The screen was small, but the image very clear. It was a house on a new estate somewhere. Not at night, but probably early evening, as some of the houses nearby had outside lights on already. The photo was obviously taken through the windscreen of a car. I shrugged, and Ronnie leaned forward, his voice lowered as I had asked.

“See the next one”. It was a taxi, stopped outside the house. Ronnie hurried me up.
“And the next”. A man standing next to the taxi window, handing over money for the fare. Well not ‘a man’. Olly.
“Keep going, it gets better”. He was almost laughing now.
A woman on the path, smiling. The door left open behind her. Not just ‘a woman’, Lauren.
I carried on with no further prompting.
A kiss on the path.
His arm around her as they walked in.
The door closing.
All the while, Ronnie supplied a commentary. “He got there before six, so much for working late, I reckon he left early. He stayed there until after half-ten, when another taxi turned up outside and he came out and got in it. I haven’t got photos of that, it was too dark. But I know you will realise I’m telling the truth, because I can see it in your face”.

I hadn’t said anything. I just felt numb. Ronnie was clearly disappointed that I hadn’t collapsed in floods of tears, or jumped up and started screaming with rage. He no longer looked triumphant. If anything, he seemed deflated.

“She must have contacted him through his company. She asked where he worked when you were upstairs with the baby. After him slagging me off to her, she must have thought he was a better prospect. Maybe she rang him to ask more advice, anything to get an opening to suggest a meet. This wasn’t the first time either. I know, I’ve been watching her. He’s there now, if you must know. I even use a hire car so she doesn’t recognise my one”.

Looking across at my brother, I could see that the split with lauren had changed him. He looked older, unkempt, and like a different person. I had a mental picture of him spending some of his savings on rental cars so he could mount some kind of surveillance operation on Lauren’s house until he discovered what she was up to. Then I could imagine his sheer delight to discover that it was Olly she was seeing. How he would relish his revenge, rehearse this visit to me once his suspicions were confirmed.

Would he be thinking of violence perhaps? Beating Olly up as he exited Lauren’s small house? That seemed unlikely. He was completely thrown by my lack of reaction. “Did you already know, or are you just not bothered? You’re left here trying to cope with Leah, and he’s pretending to work late and having it off with my girlfriend”. I was pleased he had called her Leah for once, and not ‘the baby’. But I felt the need to mention that Lauren was no longer his girlfriend, and hadn’t been since the night they left here after drinks.

Shaking his head in frustration, he got up. “Well now you know at least. He can’t fool you any longer”. Then he left.

I went up and opened the wardrobe, wondering which of Olly’s clothes I should pack first.

When one suitcase was full, I ran out of steam, and just stuffed a load of underwear and socks into a holdall. Lugging them downstairs, I placed them strategically in the hallway, and left the inside light on. Then I wrote a note on some printer paper and sellotaped it to the front of the case.
‘Ronnie told me about you and Lauren. You had better go. I’m too tired now, but we can sort things out tomorrow’.

Back upstairs I was feeling drained, but unsure if I would sleep. Too many things to consider after the shock had worn off. Mainly the financial side, like how much Olly would have to pay for keeping us both, and whether he could afford that as well as contributing to living with Lauren, or renting another place to stay. Then telling my parents, if Ronnie hadn’t already done that. Then I also had to think about the truth that I wasn’t even that upset. And I sat in bed wondering if I had ever even loved Olly.

The sound of the key in the door tensed me up. I really didn’t want a huge argument that late, and when I was feeling very fragile. The door closed, and I heard Olly’s voice on his phone, speaking softly. Ten minutes later, the sound of a diesel engine stopping outside, presumably a taxi. Then the door closed again.

Leah might sleep for a good few hours without needing a feed. I decided to get some rest myself, and drifted off surpisingly easily.

There was no early phone call from Olly the next morning. I was feeling surprisingly fresh and positive, considering that the man I thought would be my life-partner had betrayed me. I resolved to do some things, and wrote them down in the back of an old diary.

1) Olly would pay through the nose, whatever it took.
2) Unless Leah improved, I would not be able to go back to work. I had to investgate what I could live on.
3) I was going to have to manage without Rosa, unless Olly carried on paying her.
4) I needed some support to deal with the mental impact of Leah’s development issues.
5) I would have to locate and join some kind of group that offered that help.
6) I would get my hair done and a few beauty treatments, while I still had access to the money to pay for them.
7) Olly wasn’t going to get the car. I needed that.
8) I would not blame Ronnie for telling me, and would try to make up with him.
9) I would not expect any help from my mum, whatever happened.
10) I would ask my dad to come over with his tools to fit the stair gates and door guards.

I started with number ten, ringing my dad. He seemed friendly, and appeared not to be aware of anything. My guess was that Ronnie hadn’t blabbed. I decided I would tell dad when he came over later that afternoon to do those jobs for me. Then I sorted Leah out, put her in a play pen, and had a shower. Before dad arrived, I got Leah ready and went to the supermarket to stock up on all sorts of stuff. Then I drew out two hundred from the cashpoint in case there was any stop on the account. That was probably an unfounded fear, but you never know. With that in mind, I also filled the car to the brim with petrol.

My dad arrived on time, and tried to play with Leah as I made him a cup of tea. When he was sat quietly with the tea in his hand, I told him what had happened. He was very calm about it, sitting shaking his head. “Lauren? He’s gone off with her? I never thought she would do something like that. You know, break up a family. Mind you, your mum never liked her, not one bit. To tell the truth, she never cared much for Olly either, love.”

It was clear to me that mum didn’t really like anyone that much, even her own husband and children. I said that to dad, and he nodded and laughed. Then he got up and started to fix the gates across the stairs, top and bottom, then fixed another one across the kitchen door from the hallway. He had been and bought that one on the way, knowing I only had the ones for the stairs. As I watched him working, he looked up and winked at me.

“You’ll be alright, love. I will make sure of that”.

To give Olly credit, when he turned up after work that evening, he rang the doorbell. Leah was sleeping upstairs in her cot, and I asked him to speak quietly. He didn’t try to offer me any lame excuses, or contrived reasons for his infidelity. And he didn’t blame me for any of it, or Leah. He took the responsibility, and stood up like a man. Shame he hadn’t done that about the problems with Leah, but it made life easier that evening.

Allowing him to speak without interruption, I let him outline what he had been thinking about since finding that note stuck to a suitcase.

“Apologies are not enough, I know. I won’t go into detail, but this thing between me and Lauren is more than just an opportunistic affair. We both felt a connection that night when she came round with Ronnie, and when she acted on that, I went along willingly. Naturally, I will continue to pay for everything, and there will always be money in the account for anything you need. As for me seeing Leah, that’s up to you, but I will help anytime you need me. You have the car, and I will also keep paying Rosa so you don’t have to worry about housework when you are dealing with Leah. Long term, things will have to change, I know you realise that, but for now, I don’t want you to worry about anything”.

For some reason, I had small things on my mind. Like who mows the lawn when the grass grows. But I put them aside and instead talked about lawyers. That stunned him, but not being married carried some complications. Both our names were on the house, and the small mortgage, though the car was registered in his name, something easily solved. After the betrayal, I had lost all trust in him, so I wanted something formalised, an amount he had to pay every month for Leah. He was on the birth certificate as her father, so could not escape that responsibility. And what if anything happened to me? How could I trust him to care for her properly?

He thought it over, and his reply made me think twice about what I had said.

“We can do that if you want, Ang. But as I understand it, you would be a lot worse off. They would only make me pay each month for Leah, and that wouldn’t include you at all. You would be left to claim some kind of carer’s allowance, or consider going back to work and paying a child-minder. Getting one of those who can cope with Leah’s issues might not even be possible. With my suggestion, your life can carry on more or less as normal. The house doesn’t have to be sold at this stage, and there will be money for you for clothes and things for yourself, as well as for Leah. But if you go down the legal route, you will open up a can of worms, believe me. I am certain to get the next promotion at work, so finances are not going to be an issue for the foreseeable future”.

Olly had done his research, in a remarkably short time. Typical of him.

It made sense to accept his arrangement for now. I certainly couldn’t consider going back to work, and I needed to find out a lot more about allowances and legal issues before jumping the gun. So I mellowed, and offered him the TV, as I now hardly ever watched it. I also said he should take the Apple computer, as I was happy with the Dell laptop. Then there was the matter of the rest of his clothes and shoes. Not to mention the huge number of books he had around the house, and his football memorabilia stored in the loft. He had thought about that too.

“I have rented a storage unit in that new place near the supermarket, Big Yellow Storage. When it suits you, I will hire a van and come and collect everything. I thought it might be nice if you were out, maybe visiting your parents. So any weekend soon would suit me, if that works for you. I will lock up and put my keys through the lettebox when I have finished. I don’t think it’s fair for me to keep them”.

Neither of us were upset, and that seemed strange. I said I would go and see my mum and dad on Saturday, and he could get in after nine, and do what he needed. That seemed to be the end of the conversation, and he stood up ready to leave, making no attempt to hug or kiss me, which was a relief.

With no sound of a taxi, I suspected that Lauren had brought him by car, and parked out of sight.

Then at least an hour went by until I realised he hadn’t asked to see Leah.

My mum was surprisingly sympathetic, though she didn’t try to hide her pleasure at being right about Olly. “I always knew he would turn out like this. One of those too good to be true types”. She even held Leah on her lap for a while, as dad outlined a plan that they had been discussing before I got there.

“The thing is, love. Let me put it like this. Olly might be saying all that now about paying for everything, and letting you stay on in the house. But what about later on? Who’s to say he won’t change his mind, or that Lauren won’t interfere? So, we had a thought. Your mortgage is small, so you said. I have good savings, and we have never touched your mum’s redundancy money. Why not buy Olly out? Offer him the amount left on the mortgage to give up his share. That will save him money every month, and make him more likely to pay for Leah. If you sold the house, you would have to rent, as you’re not working. And he could only morally claim one-third, as the rest should go to you and Leah”.

To be honest, I was staggered. Not by my dad, as I knew he was generous. But by the fact that my mum was going along with it, and nodding enthusiastically. Dad continued.

“Get the house in your sole name, and then Leah will eventually inherit it. Of course you will get something when we are both dead and this place is sold, but that could be in thirty years or so, and if we have to go into a home there would be nothing left. Either way, you would have to split it with Ronnie. I can get a pal of mine from The Round Table to do the legal paperwork. All Olly would have to do is sign it, then we’ll get the deeds and title amended. What do you think, love?”

There was nothing in my head to say in reply, so I stood up and cuddled and kissed my dad, then walked over and did the same with mum. I didn’t even say ‘Thank You’, just nodded and let the tears of relief roll down my face.

Mum was trying to interest Leah in some face-pulling and silly noises she was making. I never remembered her ever doing that with me, or with Ronnie. I wanted to allow myself the luxury of believing that she had finally come round to accepting her granddaughter, but I couldn’t let my guard down completely. Not yet. Then she turned around and spoke directly to me. “Angela, just because I don’t say it all the time, or make a silly fuss of you, it doesn’t mean that I don’t love you and Leah with all my heart”.

That was it. The dam broke, and I sobbed uncontrollably. My dad was holding me awkwardly, probably wondering if I was going to have a breakdown.

Dad told me not to say anything to Olly. “Let him get the legal papers first. He’s bound to contact you, then you can tell him you think it’s the right thing to do. If he says no, we can tie him up in all kinds of legal shit that will haunt him forever. Believe me love, I am not about to let him get away with so much as a penny, if I have to make it my life’s work. Well, the rest of my life’s work, to be accurate”.

That afternoon, I learned a lot about what it means to be a parent. And I never forgot it.

Back at the house after dark, it felt strange to see Olly’s keys on the doormat, and to know that he wouldn’t be coming home later. Or ever again. The big TV was gone, and though I presumed Lauren had a telly, and he probably didn’t need it, I couldn’t have cared less. The third bedroom looked strangely empty. The desk, computer, and printer had all gone, and the two bookcases were almost empty. Save for the few books I owned that he had left behind. I started to think about using it as a dressing room. Get some hanging rails in there, free up space in the bedroom.

That felt good inside. I was moving on, and quicker than I had thought possible.

Although Leah still never acknowledged me other than for feeding, and she still couldn’t seem to grip a toy, or something edible, she did do something quite amazing a couple of weeks after the visit to my parents.

She stood up, and took a few steps before falling over.

Despite the split with Olly, I was excited enough to text him, and he was polite enough to reply that he was very pleased to hear that news. Later that afternoon, I rang his sister in Canada. I wanted to tell her about Leah’s steps, and also thought it was time we had a conversation about what had happened.

As I expected, she was very fair. She hated what Olly had done, was delighted about Leah, but at the end of it all, he was her kid brother, and she would always support him.

Leaving it that she wanted to be updated on Leah’s progress, and mentioning nothing about Lauren, we hung up as good friends. But in my heart, I had already written her off. She would become the auntie in Canada that Leah would probably never meet. That was the truth of it, and I was okay with that.

It was time for a serious reevaluation of my life. I had a daughter who was unlikely to flourish in the accepted sense, and I might well end up looking after her until I died. I was on my own, though mum and dad were now supporting me more than I could have hoped for. I had to investigate what help was available in my situation, and swallow a lot of pride I didn’t even know I had before all this happened.

Meanwhile, I had to think about Olly’s counter-offer to the buy out deal. He was sort-of alright with it, but he wanted some kind of codicil that gave him a share of the profits in the future, if I ever sold the house. I couldn’t imagine him working that out, and suspected Lauren’s involvement. After a chat with my dad, and a phone call to his legal pal, we decided to accept his changes, as long as Leah wasn’t affected down the line.

I looked around the house after that, realising I would probably have to live here until I died. That was okay with me.

The paperwork went through, with Olly signing away the house, but not any future profits. He also agreed to support Leah until the time she left full-time education. I laughed at the idea of her going to university, and completing any education by the age of twenty-one. If she even got to go to a regular school, I would probably throw a party to celebrate. The stuff about giving me any money was vague. It contained the line, ‘Necessary personal expenses’, which I guessed was something I would have to prove.

After we had both signed, I started to keep receipts for everything.

On the plus side, I now owned a house with no mortgage. Not that this meant no bills of course, but Olly had agreed to cover those, at least on paper. And I owed my parents, big time. I had to sign more papers agreeing that when they were dead, any split of money between me and Ronnie would already include what they had paid to settle Olly, so I would get less than my brother. I signed of course. To not have done so would have seemed like a slap in the face to my dad.

So far, Olly was true to his word. There was money in the bank just like before, and although I didn’t buy luxuries or waste it, I took what we both needed. It didn’t make me feel good, but I could hardly go to work, so it was what it was.

Now Leah was on the move, the gates my dad had fitted proved their worth. I soon worked out that her walking was related to food, and the kitchen was her usual target destination. Just as well she couldn’t get to what she was after, or she would have been seriously overweight. Part of me was so happy to see her moving, I didn’t really care. I actually got a lot of joy from watching her trying to get more to eat.

When everything had been signed and sealed, Olly sent me a text, and asked to come and ‘have a chat’. I had a sneaky feeling he might be trying to water down some of the financials, and that was on my mind when he decided to try to play with Leah, and gave her a lot of uncharacteristic attention. But it wasn’t that at all, as I found out as he was leaving.

“Ang, before you find out from anyone else, you should know that Lauren is pregnant. And it is mine, not Ronnie’s”.

No doubt Olly thought the news of Lauren being pregnant would shock me, but I felt strangely calm. If he expected rage or argument, he didn’t get any. And if he expected congratulations of some sort, he didn’t get those either. It wasn’t until I was closing the door that he turned and hit me with some news that did shock me, though I was proud of myself for not showing it.

“And we are going to get married. Nothing fancy, just the local Registry Office with a couple of witnesses. I wanted to let you know that this won’t affect any of the financial agreements I have signed”.

I just nodded, and closed the door as he walked away. The man who saw no point in marrying me was now happy to get married to someone he hardly knew. What did that say about me? He hadn’t even thought it worth us getting married when I was pregnant, though the minute Lauren missed a period and tested positive for a baby, he was marrying her. I wasn’t upset or tearful, just bloody furious.

Different ways of dealing with the situation crossed my mind, and I settled on choosing to ignore it, and to live life for myself and Leah. Olly could just piss off and make his mistakes, as far as I was concerned.

A phone call to my dad was first. Asking him to source some cupboard door locks, and something for the oven door, washing machine, and fridge. Leah’s mobility was going to be an issue soon, and I didn’t want her to be able to get into anything that might cause her harm. He liked having a project, and said he would be round the next day to fix them on. He also suggested socket covers in case she poked a finger in one, and mentioned a gadget that would stop her lifting the toilet seat.

He had been doing his granddad homework, apparently.

The next morning before he arrived, I used the laptop to check out some of the groups that were available for parents of children with learning difficulties, or severe lifetime disabilities. The nearest one was over twenty miles north, but I liked their web page so rang and made an appointment to go to the next meeting. When dad showed up loaded with stuff, I told him about Olly and Lauren as I made him a cup of tea. He blew on his tea, then looked up at me over the steaming cup.

“Sod him. And her. Let him keep paying, and forget he ever existed. I bet he didn’t even ask for any arranged access to Leah, did he?” I had to admit he hadn’t done that, and I was rather surprised that my dad had already worked that out. Declining a chocolate biscuit I was offering, he gave me a huge smile. “If he doesn’t care about Leah, so what? We do, love”.

The self-help group was called ‘Unicorns’. A bit of a so-so name, but it looked good on the colourful sign above the premises they were using. The car park looked busy, and there were some women chatting outside when I got Leah out the car and into her buggy. The lady who ran the group was called Zoe. A big, plus-size lady with a mane of frizzy grey hair, wearing a dress like a tent, and a pair of thick cable-knit tights on her legs. She welcomed me in, and asked if I wanted to pay. Payment was voluntary, and only ten pounds if you could afford it. It was to pay for renting the large room, and using the other facilities in the building.

After handing over my ten pounds quite happily, I followed Zoe into the bright room full of soft seating, toys, and pictures on the wall. It was very noisy in there, and my first thought was that all the other kids were so much older. Some looked to be in their late teens. In the absence of a formal structure, the idea was to mingle, and chat to other parents. Though there was only one man there, and everyone else seemed to be a mum with her child. Exchanging experiences, offering advice, and telling you how to claim the necessary benefits, or who to contact for essential changes to the house or bathroom.

The two hours of the session seemed to fly by. Leah spent most of it on a play mat in front of my chair, and didn’t interact with any of the others, though many came up to investigate her, and some tried to play too. As I was leaving, I thanked Zoe, and told her I was sure to come back in two weeks for the next meeting.

Driving home, I felt elated. It wasn’t just me any longer.

As time went on, I had less and less contact with Olly. He didn’t seem too interested in either me or Leah, and I had no interest in his new wife, or the baby she had presumably had by then. The money kept appearing in the bank every month, so I could pay all my bills and get any shopping I needed. Dad was a huge help, and came around to do anything I needed doing, and even some things I didn’t. Even mum started to ring me on a regular basis, and never forgot to ask how Leah was.

Rosa acted as if nothing unusual had happened, which was a relief for me not to have to discuss it with her. I asked her once about her pay, to make sure Olly was still paying by standing order, and she assured me he was.

The most recent hospital visit had seen me introduced to a new specialist, an older woman named Maria. She had a vague European accent, but I really liked her direct manner. She had run through the usual tests on Leah, and when it came to summarising what to expect from my daughter, she laid it out without any sugar coating.

Leah would walk, but did not appear to have developed a grip strong enough to keep hold of anything. She was unlikely to recognise me as her mother, to say any proper words, or to respond to hugs and affection. Physically, she would develop, but inside her brain she was unlikley to progress much further than she was now. Toilet training was going to be impossible, and she would be unable to ever wash or dress herself. Although her vision and hearing appeared to be unaffected, she did not focus on objects, colours, or textures, and her main instinct, in fact her only instinct, was to eat and drink.

According to Maria, the truth was that I had a future of caring for a child who would become a teenager and then an adult woman who would need nappies for life, would never recognise a friend or relative, never learn to read, play with a toy, or want to watch a cartoon or TV programme. She could never be trusted to be left alone, and would need close constant care for as long as she lived.

Part of me wished she hadn’t survived at birth.

But I forgot that, and resolved to get on with it. At Zoe’s Unicorns group, there were plenty of women much older than me still coping, and I would use the inspiration of knowing them to get me through.

When I rang my parents to tell them Maria’s gloomy prognosis, mum wanted to talk about Ronnie. She had expected him to go back to living with them, but he hadn’t. Instead, he had a new girlfriend he had met at tenpin bowling. She was only nineteen, but they were already organising a flat to rent, so he could move out of the shared house and live with her. I tried to sound positive about that, based on the fact that she was younger, and had made Ronnie forget about Lauren.

Mum only wanted to talk about how much she was disappointed in my brother.

Sitting at home one night watching Leah sat on her play mat staring into space, I reflected on the fact that I had no real friends. After leaving school to go to university, I had lost a couple of close schoolfriends who started to move in very different social circles to me. And although I made two very dear friends at university, the problem was that people came from all over to go there. Pauline Lam was from Hong Kong, and we were very close. But when she graduated, she got a job in California, and went off to live in America. Janet Deakin was my other close friend, but she returned to the north of Scotland, and I never saw her again.

There were work colleagues I thought of as friends, but they weren’t really. We went out for a pizza or a Mexican meal on their birthdays, and everyone dressed up and got drunk at the Christmas party. But they all had family and friends outside of work, and busy social lives that were never going to include me. That’s probably why I latched on to Olly so fast. He was all I had, at least I thought he was. I thought he was steady, loving, and reliable too.

Well I got that wrong.

Anyway, Richard. I should really move my story on. I can’t expect you to sit through endless hours covering each year, all sounding much the same.

Some things got better, others worse. I got help from my parents to go out occasionally, even if it was only to a couple of socials with the women from Unicorns. I stopped going to them after that, as the only thing anyone ever talked about was their kids, and the varying levels of disability. But mum and dad came over to look after Leah while I went out, and they didn’t complain about having to watch her like a hawk now she was moving around.

The older, fully mobile Leah reminded me of robots in old films. She moved wih determination, at a slow pace, and if turned around, she carried on moving in the other direction. Luckily, she didn’t develop the deductive powers to manage to step over any of the gates barring her way, and when her legs encountered them, she just stopped where she was. I had to reduce her food intake too. She wasn’t running around and playing like other kids of her age, so started to get decidedly chubby.

As soon as she was old enough, I enquired about one of the local Council daycare centres. Someone came to assess her, and he told me she was going to be listed as ‘None to low ability’ and would need one of the centres where constant attention was possible. That meant a waiting list, and I went on it. Or to be accurate, Leah went on it. One thing in my favour was that I could take her, and didn’t need what he called ‘special transport’. And she didn’t need a wheelchair, so that apparently helped speed things up.

Although I couldn’t contemplate going back to work full-time, I started to imagine a part-time job I could do while Leah was at a day centre. I realised I didn’t care what it was, I would happily stack shelves in a supermarket, if it got me out of the house, and talking to other adults. When the letter came from the Council, I had to sit down. It was going to be at least a year before a place became available. That took the wind right out of my sails.

Zoe came to the rescue to some degree, by organising day trips for us to go on with our kids. That could be anything from a visit to a child-friendly farm, to a trip to the local swimming pool, with a reserved time slot. They had to be paid for, to cover the costs of the minibus and driver, but I signed up for every one of them, anything to get out of the house, and to be somewhere different. Leah took no notice of the farm animals, or the rabbits and guinea pigs provided for the kids to stroke. She stood in the shallow end of the swimming pool refusing to move, and on a day trip to the coast, she kept walking into the sea. I couldn’t relax for a second.

But I did it all. I took photos. I made memories.

My next purchase was a set of child reins, specially made for her size. Zoe got me the name of the company, advising me that I would need bigger and stronger versions as Leah grew. But I had to have them, or else be constantly standing in front of her and turning her around. I spoke to Olly about getting the bathroom converted to a wet room. He didn’t mention his child with Lauren, and neither did I. But he agreed to organise things, and sent a company in to do the work by the end of the following month. At least I no longer had to try and get her in and out of a bath.

Then I got approval for the day centre. One morning a week, from nine until one-thirty in the afternoon as a ‘trial’. I told them not to bother, though I later regretted that. Four and a half hours on my own would have been better than nothing.

One good thing about her having to wear nappies still was that when her periods started, I didn’t have to worry about those. I cried that night though, thinking she should have been in her second year of secondary school by now. Admiring pop stars, looking at boys, listening to music, and talking to other girls about periods, and embarrassing parents.

Instead she was munching Jaffa Cakes like an automaton as I fed them to her. Her only interaction with me was to let out a “Gah” because she wanted more.

And when I looked in the mirror, I saw an old woman looking back.

For Leah’s fourteenth birthday, I held a little party at the house. Dad was looking old, and my mum had lost a lot of weight in a very short time. Enough to make me concerned about her.

Mariusz next door had gone back to Poland the year before, and the house was now rented by three Chinese students. But I invited the neighbours the other side. In all that time, I had never really spoken more than a few words to them. They were obviously wary of Leah, but I did the decent thing. The man answered the door, and shook his head at the invitation. “No, no party”. Then closed the door.

Ronnie and his girlfriend were not going to come either. Mum told me he spent all his time with her family and friends now, to the extent that they only saw him at Christmas. They had been together a long time, but were still renting a place and showed no signs of getting married, or having children. Rosa came, and so did Zoe.

Zoe was walking with a crutch now, waiting for a hip replacement. I was very touched that she bothered to get a taxi to the house. None of the other Unicorns mums I invited came with their kids, all declining due to ‘previous commitments’ I knew full well they didn’t have.

I sent Olly a text inviting him. He replied that he would be away for the weekend. He had a courier drop off a card with a printed-off voucher inside.
It was for Top Shop. Like leah was ever going to go shopping for teenage fashions. I clothed her in smock dresses to make life easier.

It was jolly enough, and there was a lot of food left over, which pleased Leah. She had no idea why everyone was there of course, and just sat in her new upright armchair waiting to be fed.

As Rosa was leaving, she gave me some bad news. She had met someone, an English man. He had proposed to her, and she was getting married to him and moving to Southampton. I asked her how she had met him, and she laughed. “Online dating. Everyone is doing it now. You should try, Angela”.

She recommended a friend of hers to take over the cleaning job, Valeria. She was from Spain, and could start next month when Rosa had gone.

When I got Leah to sleep that night, I allowed myself a large glass of Pinot Grigio, and explored that online dating stuff on my half-dead laptop. As it clunked and whirred, I made a mental note to ask Olly to pay for a new one. He had done one decent thing during all this. He had kept his promise to pay out for everything, and no questions asked. I still kept every receipt though, and they now filled three box files.

That online dating thing was a revelation. So many sites, catering for almost any age group, and lots of choices and categories called filters that supposedly directed you to people who would like you, and enjoy the same things. But there were no filters for worn out single mum, or old before her time carer. And definitely none for having a teenage girl who had to wear nappies, didn’t speak, and needed round the clock attention.

I closed the lid of the laptop, and thought about what had been said when Leah was finally handed to me. “Here she is, your bundle of joy”.

Then I decided a second glass of wine was acceptable.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to ask Olly. I mentioned the online dating to my dad, more as a joke about how I had no chance. The next day he showed up with a new Apple laptop, set it up for me, and showed me the differences between that, and my old Dell. I felt guilty, as I had mentioned the performance issues, and it might have sounded like I was asking him to get me a new one. They had been so good to me over buying off the mortgage, I hated them spending anything else on me.

Dad shook off my thanks. “What else are we going to spend it on, love? Besides, you and Ronnie will get it all when we’re dead, so it might as well be of some use to you now”. Then he went up to check on Leah in her room while I explored the dating sites with my new state of the art high speed laptop.

Despite what he said, I still felt guilty. I had never given my dad the credit he deserved.

Before I signed up to a dating website, I went and had my hair done. Leah would sit quietly in a chair at the back as they did my hair, and despite the strange looks she got from other customers, the hairdresser was happy for her to be there. I also got her to give Leah’s hair a trim, as I never did a very good job of it myself. Back at home, I did my make up, put on a nice dress, and took a photo on the webcam to upload to my profile.

What to write about myself? That took some thinking about. I wasn’t about to exclude Leah, so I used the words ‘mother to a disabled teenage daughter’. I listed my occupation as ‘full-time carer’ and told the truth about my age. Then I ticked a few boxes about non-smoking, liking to eat out, and country walks, all the usual stuff that seemed to be on other profiles. Last but not least, I paid my fee for six months in advance, the only option, and clicked ‘Add profile’.

After that I felt strangely excited. Like when I had gone on my first real date at fourteen, which was to meet a boy in the local park and sit there feeling embarrassed for almost two hours, hoping I would know how to kiss him properly. He solved that problem by not trying to kiss me.

The options for my supposedly ideal partner were many and varied. I had kept it simple. A thirty mile radius of my house, age between forty and fifty, children yes or no. Then I sat back and waited for the messages that would have links to the matches they found for me. I could either contact them, or not. No repercussions if I didn’t, according to the dating company.

A phone call from Zoe distracted me from the screen. She had a date for her hip operation, so Unicorns was closing down until she had recovered. She had tried to get a friend to take it over while she was out of action, but couldn’t rely on her. I told her about going on the dating website, and was surprised by her reply.

“You have to be extra careful, Angela. There are some strange men on those sites. Many are attracted to women with vulnerable children you know. That sort of thing happens all the time. And Leah is terribly vulnerable, plus she could never tell you if anything horrible happened”. I thanked her for the warning, and wished her good luck with the operation.

Talk about bursting your balloon. It had never occured to me that any man might be interested in me in the hope of being able to abuse my daughter. This stuff was a bloody minefield. Then again, I had never intended to leave Leah alone with someone I met on a dating site. I would get mum and dad to watch her so I could go out. That was the whole point.

By the time I had fed and showered Leah, got her into bed, and fixed the rails on the sides, I felt worn out. Sitting on the sofa with no TV in the room was really relaxing. When Olly had been around, there was always something on. Mostly sport, but also rolling news, maybe a superhero film, then Newsnight on BBC2 before bed. He liked to watch stuff, said it helped him relax after reading all day at work.

Dinner for me that night was not really dinner. I had a toasted cheese sandwich, followed by half a box of Lindor chocolate balls. I was good though, limiting myself to just one glass of Chardonnay, and not finishing the whole box of Lindor.

When the phone rang, it was past ten, and I wondered who would be ringing so late. I was surprised to hear my mum’s voice.

“Angela, I have something to tell you, and I want you to listen, and not interrupt me. It’s not good news, but you do need to know. I have already spoken to Ronnie. I had some tests recently, and my doctor sent me to the hospital. Because there was going to be some delay for any scans and suchlike, your dad used his health insurance to get me into a clinic this morning. It’s cancer, I’m afraid, and in more than one place. Three places in fact. They have offered me various options, including surgery followed by other therapies. I am thinking those options over, but I have to tell you that either way, the specialist has said I may have less than a year. If I have nothing done, maybe three months. So now you know, okay?”

I sat wondering what to say to her, then realised she had already hung up.

Mum decided to have no treatment. She was more scared of the surgery, chemo, or radiotherapy than of dying, so dad said. And the doctor got the prognosis wrong too. She lasted weeks, not months. By week five she was in a hospice, and dead four days after that. I took Leah to see her, and we had a rather emotional farewell, with her telling me to look after dad, and make up with Ronnie.

The funeral was a dismal affair. Ronnie and his exceptionally skinny girlfriend did little more than nod at me, and I got the impression that she was hiding behind Ronnie because she was scared of Leah. Two women who used to work with mum showed up, and a couple of men from the Round Table came to show support for dad. Thirty minutes in a busy crematorium with a bland eulogy from a female vicar who had never even met my mum. The friends apologised for not coming back to the house, and then Ronnie announced he and miss skinny were not coming back either.

So it was me, dad, and Leah. At least she enjoyed the sausage rolls and sandwiches dad had bought from M&S. He had the luxury of enjoying a few glasses of Scotch now mum wasn’t around to tell him off. When I was leaving, and getting Leah into the car, he came up and kissed me on the cheek. I asked him if he was going to be alright. I would like to have stayed over, but that wouldn’t work with Leah. He smiled as I got into the driving seat. “Of course I’ll be alright, love. I have you, Leah, and Ronnie. I’ll manage fine”.

There had been no point keeping up with the dating website up to then. I could hardly have asked dad to babysit, leaving mum alone when she was so ill. But I had been surprised to get over forty apparent matches. Eleven of those had messaged me, and I had replied that due to family problems I wasn’t dating at the moment. The next time I logged on, some of those had dropped out, which was understandable, but I had five new ones to think about. I wanted to give dad some time before I asked him to watch Leah though.

Although he hadn’t been invited to the funeral, I had sent Olly a text to let him know. He had said he would email me after the funeral. In that email, he began with the normal commiserations, then sneaked in the fact that he wanted me to enquire about being paid Carer’s Allowance. Although he would still pay as agreed, he could deduct that amount from what he paid in to the bank.

Then he had the audacity to tell me he had been promoted to full partner in the publishing house. He must have realised I would know how much of a pay increase came with that, and yet he was trying to reduce what he gave me and Leah.

Still, it made me think. I would try the day centre route once again, see if I could get her into a place so I could go back to work. If I could get a job, I would let Olly know he could pay me that amount less each month, whatever I earned. Sooner that, than apply for an allowance to stay at home day and night with Leah, and never go out.

Things had improved a lot. Two young women came to assess Leah, and didn’t take long to tell me that she more than qualified to attend a day centre. She would start at a child’s centre, and move on to an adult placement when she was eighteen.

I was pleasantly surprised when they told me they could take her in just two week’s time, and that a minibus would pick her up around eight, and drop her off before five. I would still be the only option at weekends of course, but I didn’t want to apply for full residential care just yet. Besides, I knew dad would help if I asked him.

My new cleaner, Valeria, was working out well. Older than Rosa, and living in the country for a lot longer, she took things in her stride. She mentioned that she had a friend who was looking for someone to work in her florist’s shop. I told Valeria I knew nothing about flowers, and she shook her head. “No, she wants someone to deliver the flowers locally, and you have a big car, Angela. I took the phone number, and rang the shop. With Valeria vouching for me, the lady said I could start the same day Leah went to day centre.

I had a job to go to. Things were finally looking up.

When they came for Leah that morning, they asked me to take off the reins. A masculine-looking woman wearing a fleece with a Council logo sewn on it shook her head. “We don’t use nothing like that, lady. No restraints. Don’t worry, we know what we’re doing. She’ll be back about ten to five, so please make sure you’re in, as we have others to drop off after her, okay?”

I found her a bit scary, but I was too excited about the new job to care about her attitude that morning.

Although I had been to the florist’s shop to meet Barbara the previous week, I still felt nervous about my first day. I had my satnav, so should find the addresses alright, but I wanted to create a good impression, even though it paid minimum wage. When I told my dad, he had said I had to upgrade the car insurance for business use. That meant I had to phone Olly, as he did all that stuff. He seemed pleased that I had a job, but less excited when I told him how much it paid.

There was an extra payment for using my car, so much a mile. I had to keep a record of that, and claim it back in cash at the end of the week, so Barbara had told me. She hadn’t mentioned the insurance though.

One good thing was that there was a dedicated parking space behind the shop, so I didn’t have to worry about parking tickets. When I got there at eight-fifteen that morning, Barbara already had the deliveries for the morning sorted out. She gave me the slips with the addresses on them, and each bouquet or box of flowers had the corresponding number on a slip stuck to it.

“Try to work out a basic route, Angela. It’s usually best to do the furthest drop first, then work your way back to the shop. If you don’t get any answer at an address, fill in one of these cards, and put it in the letterbox. Don’t hand them to anyone who just happens to approach you outside the house. That’s a scam we’ve been caught out on before”.

With that, she left me to it, and went to answer the constantly-ringing phone. Her assistant Emily was busy arranging bunches in buckets to stand outside the shop, and she just grinned at me. She only looked about seventeen.

I had put the back seat flat, and the resulting space in my car looked huge. Once it was all loaded up with the flowers, Barbara gave me a big laminated card with ‘Babs The Florist’ and the shop phone number printed on it in pale blue. “Stick this on the dashboard, then you shouldn’t get any parking hassles”.

Pulling out onto the rear service road, I felt stupidly important, as if I had something special to do, and a sign inside the car to prove it. Working from eight-fifteen until four-fifteen five days a week, I could expect to earn just under three hundred and thirty a week. That was before tax and other stoppages of course. I might get the extra mileage pay for using the car, but I would need that for petrol and tyres or whatever.

I was going to have to take this job more seriously too, becuase Olly was already planning to deduct a thousand a month from what he paid, starting on the first of next month.

The morning went okay, but not great. I was lulled into a false sense of thinking it was easy, when the first three drops went smoothly. One man even gave me a two-pound tip. Every delivery had to be paid in advance, either over the phone, or by calling into Barbra’s shop. That meant I didn’t have to take any payments, and that was a relief.

But then someone wasn’t home, so I left a card. Then on the next job a lady said I was too late with the wreath, and the funeral party had already left the house. I rang the shop, but Barbara told me not to worry, and to bring the wreath back. Then I got a bit lost on the dual carriageway, and ended up running across four lanes in a panic to drop off some birthday roses at a house on the other side.

Who knew that delivering bloody flowers could be so stressful?

After two weeks, I had the job sorted, and the routine with Leah was working well. When I had no deliveries left, I used to help out by sweeping up, and taking stuff to the bins. Barbara seemed pleased with me, and Emily appreciated the fact that I got stuck in to non-driving stuff.

The day centre people sent a letter home with Leah’s driver one afternoon, suggesting I either gave her more exercise, or reduced her food intake. She was heavy for her age and build, and needed to lose weight. I knew that would be a struggle, as when she wanted something to eat, she just repeated “Gah” until her mouth went too dry to say it. But the thought of doing circuits around the park with a teenager on a set of reins made me inclined to try the diet.

I also went back to the dating site, and got chatting online to the three men I liked the best. I chose them for their interests, background and location. None of them looked that fantastic, but then neither did I. I finally fixed a date with one of them, after dad agreed to sit with Leah.

His name was Alan, and he was forty-nine, and divorced. I arranged to meet him in a chain pizza place that I could walk to from home. Nothing fancy, and not expensive. I memorised his photo and when I got there, he was already at a table for two not far from the window. He stood and waved when he saw me looking in, and I felt like turning around and going home when I saw him. He did vaguely resemble the photo facially, but that was all. It must have been taken ten years earlier.

But I was there, so went in, determined to be up front about my disappointment. I told him I only just recognised him, and he mumbled something about putting on a little weight since the photo was taken. That left him very much on the back foot for the rest of the time I was there. He talked a lot about his kids, nothing about his job, and didn’t mention the fact that I had a daughter with learning difficulties. But he did manage to steer the conversation around to sex, telling me that he as always very careful, and used ‘protection’.

All those years without meeting anyone had left me out of the loop, that was certain. When was it acceptable to talk about safe sex in the first ninety minutes of a date? I ate my pizza, declined more wine, and told Alan I didn’t think we were suited. I insisted he take twenty pounds for my half of the bill, and left for home leaving him sitting there.

My dad laughed when I told him, and I had to chuckle too.

Two weeks later, I had another try, on a Friday night. Dad did the babysitting duties, and I met Tony in a local wine bar. He was very different to Alan. relaxed, confident, and exactly like his photo. He was fifty-three, and I got the impression he had been doing this a long time. We chatted easily, and he thought my job delivering flowers sounded ideal for my situation. I really liked him, and went to use the toilet, deciding if he asked me out again, I would say yes.

But when I got back, he was already paying the bill. He kissed me on the cheek, thanked me for the date, and then told me I wasn’t really his type.

That shook my confidence a bit, but not enough to make me cry, or be upset. When I told dad what he had said, he grinned. “That man has no taste, love”.

At work on Monday morning, I was driving to a very posh house with a huge bouquet, and suddenly decided online dating wasn’t for me after all. I hated having to rely on my dad. After all, he wasn’t getting any younger, and now he was on his own he had a chance to do things for himself at long last. I had managed on my own for so long, I had got used to it. And as for sex, I wasn’t really that worried about it anymore.

Unless I met the right man.

News came from Olly, in a phone call. They were moving house. And not just around the corner, almost a hundred miles away, to the coast. He was going to rent a bedsit near his office, and travel home at weekends. I wondered why he had even bothered to let me know, but supposed it was to make it clear he wouldn’t be seeing Leah much. If at all.

The real reason came in a long email, two days later. The extra expense, Leah getting older, blah blah. The bottom line was that he wanted me to try to get her into some kind of permanent care facility once she was eighteen. Then he would reduce his payments to the bare essentials she needed, and I could sell the house and hand over his share of the profits.

Lauren must have really been working hard on him.

Part of me wanted to refuse to consider it, just to spite him. Though I really thought it would not only be better for Leah, but for me too. I replied saying I would think about it, and make some enquiries. That kept him off my back for a while.

That Christmas, dad stopped over for a couple of nights. We made the best of it, and Leah enjoyed her turkey and mince pies at least. Ronnie was spending the holiday with miss skinny’s family, and had dropped off dad’s present of a bottle of single malt four days earlier.

Once Leah was settled for the night, I sat chatting to dad as he enjoyed his whisky. He was telling me about the news. Not having a television meant I didn’t really keep up. I heard some gossip around Barbara’s flower shop, but her and Emily mainly talked about soap operas and reality shows. I knew nothing about any of those, and they thought it was really weird that I didn’t own a television. I doubted that either of them had read a book since they had to at school.

Dad was telling me about some new virus that was killing people in China, and turning up in Europe too. He seemed really gloomy about it, so I turned on my laptop and we read the latest updates on some news websites. Dad was nodding, pointing at the screen. “Look love, if we don’t stop people flying in from all around the world, it will be here soon too. There’s no cure for it you know”.

He was a worrier by nature, so I let him ramble on. But It didn’t really concern me too much was was happening in other countries. I had enough to worry about struggling to cope with my daughter.

Then not long into the new year, it was here, and everyone was scared shitless.

After that, I began to check the laptop more often, and everything started to speed up. Barbara told me she might have to close down the shop until it was over. There was some talk about the government paying the wages of people like me who got laid off if that happened. The supermarket was sold out of toilet rolls, most pasta, and for some strange reason, tomato puree. Dad stepped in with a bundle of toilet rolls from the huge stock he always kept in his shed.

But then he told me he had better not come round anymore for a while. If he caught it, it might well kill him, and he didn’t want to take the chance of ending up in hospital even if it didn’t.

The next bad news came from the day centre a week or so later. Because of the dangers to staff and clients, they were going to have to close the facility soon. They called people like Leah ‘clients’. That meant that even if the shop didn’t close, I would have to tell Barbara I couldn’t do the deliveries, as I would now be back to caring for Leah all the time.

I tried to get my head around it all, but the amount of information was both contradictory, and confusing. Washing hands, but no need for a mask. Work from home if you could, and only go out for essential stuff like groceries. But then if you had a job in a supermarket, or you were a nurse, you had to carry on as normal.

Washing Leah’s hands seemed pointless. She hardly used them, after all. But I was soon doing it all the time.

Just in case.

Things didn’t all turn out bad of course. Barbara managed to get my name down for the furlough scheme, even though I had already stopped working there for a few days. She said they would be none the wiser, and that they would pay eighty percent of my wages until it was all over. So I didn’t have to go cap in hand to Olly for more money.

And his move fell through. Someone along the chain of buyers and sellers pulled out, so they got stuck in Lauren’s house for the duration. That meant he had no reason to try to cut my money, or force me to sell the house now that Leah wasn’t attending the day centre. I thought it was a nice twist of fate that this pandemic was changing my luck.

As for Leah, she didn’t seem to be aware of any changes. Sitting in a chair at home was probably no different to being in a chair at the day centre, even if I was washing her hands ten times a day. And she got to go out sometimes, as I had to take her when I went shopping for groceries. I didn’t even attempt to make her wear a mask, and when the staff running the queue outside the doors took one look at me leading her on a set of reins, they just waved me through.

I had tried to get the food delivered by ordering online. But because I wasn’t an existing customer, the delivery dates were weeks ahead. Dad said I should tell them about Leah, so they would make an exception, but in all honesty it was nice to get out, if only to wander round in a supermarket or two.

Dad phoned every day, and said he didn’t mind being at home at all. He only ever came to see me, or went to a few Round Table meetings a year anyway, so he kept himself busy in his shed, with all sort of projects that he didn’t go into detail about. Ronnie had jumped at the excuse not to visit him, saying he was in his bubble with miss skinny and her parents, so couldn’t visit others. Because he worked for a DIY company, he still went into work, but apparently his girlfriend was furloughed like me.

Most early evenings, I would look at the news reports on my laptop, trying to make some sense of the changes, and the way that the medical people seemed to keep altering their advice. Things were getting bad, and a lot of people were dying. But as me and Leah rarely saw anyone else except in a supermarket, and we stuck to the rules, I was convinced we would be alright.

Still, after being out and about delivering flowers and helping out at the shop, I did start to feel more like a prisoner in my own home than ever before. I had hoped that Barbara would keep the deliveries going, but she said most of her business was actually people walking into the shop, and it wasn’t worth her paying the bills to keep it open just for the deliveries. And there was some government deal on deferring her rent and business rates, so she saw it as a long holiday.

Leah had a lockdown birthday, for her eighteenth. Ronnie forgot it, as usual. Dad sent a lovely card, and even Olly made the effort, having a big box of cookies and assorted cakes delivered with a card. Not that Leah needed any more to eat. I had resorted to walking her around circuits of the garden to give her some exercise, but it was only a small garden. I bought her a card of course, but couldn’t see the point of a real present that she would be unaware of. So I ordered a pair of helium balloons from Amazon, numbers one and eight, and stood them in front of her chair, hoping the sight of them might at least give her something different to look at.

Sitting watching her ignore the waving balloons, it felt very strange to know that I had an eighteen year old daughter who didn’t even know who I was. But I didn’t allow myself to cry.

In case I never stopped.

They kept stopping the lockdowns, if only briefly. But that made little difference to me, as my dad was still wary of coming over, and Barbara didn’t bother to open the shop, only to close it again the next time. And the day centre decided to stay closed until such time as there was a vaccine, and everyone was safe.

I sometimes wondered about those essential workers who had children who went there. Other schools stayed open to provide education for the kids of those essential workers, but what about so-called special schools, and places like Leah’s?

There was no point me bothering to find out, as I had no job that was remotely essential, and I was fit and well enough to look after my own daughter. But I did have to deal with the fact that Leah was definitely too fat. Walking around the garden or up and down the street outside wasn’t going to cut it, so I started to drive a few miles to the Country Park, where I made Leah walk with me around the easy circuit that was only three miles in a circle back to the car.

Other walkers gave me a wide berth when they saw me leading Leah on her reins, so unwanted contact was not an issue. On days when the weather was decent, I would take our lunch, and then do the easy circuit again after we had eaten. The exercise was good for me too, even though I hadn’t put on an ounce. But even that soon became boring, so I decided to look for somewhere different.

We were not supposed to be going anywhere more than five miles from home, according to the new rules, but I had always reckoned my chance of getting stopped was slim, and I would try to use Leah as an excuse if it ever happened. So I found a place online, twenty miles east. It was a nice spot, with a picnic area next to a lake, and a woodland walk with a good path. My satnav had stopped working, and I had no idea why. But I wasn’t about to fork out for a new one, not as long as I didn’t need it for work.

I checked the route on my laptop, and it seemed straightforward enough. And it was. I found it easily, and had a nice few hours wandering around the lake including a picnic lunch on one of the tables provided. Nobody checked on me, or asked me why I was there. But on the way home, I had to go around a one-way system that I was sure wasn’t there earlier. I got hopelessly lost, and without realsing it, ended up driving the wrong way along a one-way street.

But then you already know that, Richard. Because that’s how we met.

When I saw the flashing blue lights in front of me, it took me a moment to realise it was a police motorcycle. Luckily, I managed to brake without crashing into you. Then you got off and walked over to my window, telling me what I had done. I just let it all out. Sobbing like some grieving widow, convinced I was going to lose my licence and never be able to drive again.

You were so kind. Calming me down until I was able to drive, and letting me off with a warning after taking down all my details. You didn’t even give me a fine for being so far away from home, and however much I thanked you, it wasn’t enough. You even let me follow you onto the right road, your lights flashing to warn other motorists. But the icing on the cake was when you rang me at home the next day, to make sure Leah and me were okay.

Giving you my email address and asking you to keep in touch seemed very forward. But what the hell, we were looking at a second year of lockdowns, and I was past caring. Then you sent me an email, so I had yours to reply to. I promised to tell you my story, and what had led me to that afternoon driving up a one way street the wrong way.

And that’s what I have been doing, all this time. Laying it all out, truthfully and sincerely, in the hope that we can finally meet when this is all over.

Still, it would be nice if you replied occasionally. I know you are busy of course. After all, you are one of those essential employees. I love being able to write to you and tell you stuff, and I have saved every email. It’s become a journal of my life, I suppose. I just hope you are reading them all.

You are reading them aren’t you, Richard?

The End.

The Homestead: The Complete Story

This is all 48 parts of my recent fiction serial, prompted by the photo shown on Maggie’s blog.
It is a long read, at 40,116 words.


I turned eleven in the fall of sixty-four, and the winter that followed was a hard one. The ground froze fast, and the snow came early. I was sitting by the fire one morning when momma rushed past, pulling her heavy shawl around her shoulders. She let some snow in as she opened the door on her way across to the outhouse.

She was there an awful long time, and I started to get worried. Eventually, I pulled on my worn-out boots and daddy’s old storm cape, and walked out back. I called through the door a few times, but there was no reply. There was nothing for it but to get close and look through the circle cut in the wood. Momma was sprawled on the plank across the box, and had blood all over her legs, which was pooling on the floor. She was whiter than the snow on the roof.

I ran all the way into town for Doctor Roy. By the time I got there, the sweat was freezing on me, and my breath felt like my lungs were full of ice splinters. He drove me back in his buggy, and stopped right outside the outhouse. After he looked at momma inside, I knew from his face she was gone.

He took me to the Bloy place, the next farm up to the north. May Bloy was my momma’s cousin, and her and her husband didn’t have no children. Ned Bloy and the doctor went back to sort out things at home, and they took George the hired man along too. George was getting old, but could still pull his weight with farm work and chores. They came back after dark, bringing daddy’s tools, the good plow, and the ox. George stayed on to tend to some jobs needing doing, and came back just before momma’s funeral that Friday. They buried her in the town graveyard. I reckoned it must have been some job to dig deep into that frozen ground.

Mrs Bloy cared for me until the next spring. The war ended, and my daddy came home from the army. They told him in town where I was, and I was on the Bloy’s porch when I saw him walking up the long path from the turnpike. His gray uniform was gone, and he was wearing brown homespun, no better than a tater sack. He shook Mr Bloy’s hand, and thanked him for all he had done, then kissed May on the cheek. She started crying, but he wiped away her tears. “Don’t fuss now, May.” I thought he looked more like my grandpa than my daddy. Not that I had ever seen Billy Fuller. May insisted he stay and eat, and he was asleep in the chair soon after.

The next morning, Ned bloy took us home in his flat wagon, the tools and plow in the back, the ox tied on behind. He had given daddy two horse-steaks and a bottle of whiskey, and told him to let him know if he ever needed help. We got the fire going, and daddy cooked the steaks. Then he sat drinking the whiskey, and smoking his pipe. He didn’t ask me anything about momma, and I thought it best to say nothing.

In the fall of sixty-one, my older brother Calvin was old enough to join up. Daddy thought he had better go with him, to watch out for him. The boy was impulsive, and had never been further from home than the town. Like most farmers in the county, we never had no slaves or bond-servants. They lived and worked on the big plantations around Richmond, mostly. Daddy talked to momma, reckoned she could cope as he wouldn’t be gone too long. I was very young, but remember momma crying when they left.

They ended up in the same company, part of A.P. Hill’s division. Calvin never came home. He was killed in Fredericksburg, on the first day. That was only some sixty miles from home. Daddy wrote and told us a Yankee sharpshooter did for him, and it was quick. They always said that though, when one of the boys got killed. Daddy only came home the once, after Gettysburg, in sixty-three. He brought me a big knife, and told me it was a Yankee bayonet. Then he showed us the scar in his side where he had been stuck with that very bayonet.

“He was a red faced boy, kinda plump. Reckon no more than eighteen, and ready to do for me. I bashed his head in with the butt of my rifle, and didn’t notice that there bayonet sticking in me until after. The doctor poured alcohol right in there, and an orderly sewed me up. Hurt like hades, I tell you”. He fashioned a belt for me from a leather strap, and said I should wear the bayonet in it at all times.

“You protect your momma now, Phin. Case them Yankees get down here causing mischief”.

Momma had kept the tobacco going while daddy was away. That still sold for cash, or could be traded for what we needed. The money was not much use, not Confederate bills, anyway. She would say, “Might just as well hang these on the nail in the outhouse, put ’em to some good use’. We never did get troubled by the Yankees that daddy warned me about. Though the fighting got close enough that we could hear the guns at times.

Then one day, we were hanging washing out front, when there was the sound of horses, a lot of horses. Cavalry came riding slowly up the turnpike, from the north. They had blue uniforms on, and I feared they would raid the farm, maybe hurt momma. But one of them just raised his cap and called out, ‘Good day to you, dear lady”. He had a funny voice, and I asked momma why he was talking so strange. She shook her head. “He’s Irish, Phin. Lots of them Irish fellas up north, I hear. They come all the way across the ocean to fight for the Federals. No wonder we’re losing this war”.

Three weeks after he got home, daddy walked into town one afternoon to see if he could sell the dry tobacco we had stored in the barn. He came back late, and woke me up to talk to me. “I spoke to Mr Shultz, the land agent. He says that some men from up north are in town, buying up land. They are paying with Yankee dollars, in gold. I told him to tell them to come see me, boy. So I thought you should know I am planning to move us on. Nothing left for us here now, with your momma and Calvin gone. The Bloys are getting old, and we don’t have any kin left alive. I reckon we ought to head west, look for a better life”.

I didn’t know much about the west, though I had heard tell of the gold rush, and injuns of course. I had never been outside the county all my life so far, so I didn’t know that much about anything. “We going to mine for gold, daddy?” He smiled at me. “No, that’s played out, boy. I reckon we will get ourselves a nice piece of land, build a homestead, maybe raise cattle or horses. What do you say to that?” I immediately pictured myself as a cowboy, yee-hawing, and rounding up the stock. It seemed like more fun than growing tobacco. “Sounds good to me, daddy’.

The two men were serious, sweating in the May heat in their thick wool suits as they walked around with daddy as he showed them our place. I wasn’t part of any negotiating of course, but I listened from the bedroom as they argued. Daddy had a price in mind, and they had a lower one in theirs. There was lots of talk about the yield of the tobacco crop before the war, and I knew for sure that daddy exaggerated how much we could grow. After a lot of talking into the afternoon, they left in their buggy. When I came out, daddy was smiling. “Those boys thought to cheat me, Phin, but I held out for the price I always wanted. We had better go say goodbye to the Bloys on Sunday, ’cause we will be leaving soon as I sign the papers”.

Over the next few days, we packed up the tools, and our few clothes and posessions. Once daddy got the money from Mr Shultz, he bought us some work clothes, boots, and warm coats. He told me most of the money was going on buying a travelling wagon, with a canvas top. We would be living in that with all our stuff, until we got wherever it was we were going. We needed a pair of calm mares to pull the thing too, but there would be enough left to get by on, and to buy the land when we arrived. One day, he took me out back and showed me the Henry Rifle he had brought home from the war. “Took this off a dead Yankee, Phin. He was lying right on top it”. He also had his pistol, a Navy Colt that he had taken to the war. He showed me how to load and fire both of them, setting up some stones as targets.

“You will have to know how to use these where we’re going, Phin”. He had bought me a hunting knife at the store in town. “That old bayonet ain’t much use as a knife. Only good for sticking in someone. But you hang on to it”. I watched him cleaning the rifle and pistol later, as I played around with my new knife.

I was growing up fast, and could feel the excitement in me.

Daddy got back with the wagon and horses a few days later. He had stocked up with all we would need while he was in town, and we started to pack our things into the back. I had imagined a much bigger wagon, like the ones used by the old pioneers that I had seen in picture books. I worried that our wagon wouldn’t have enough room for us two, once everything was inside. But daddy told me we would sleep on the ground most of the time, under the wagon. When the weather was bad, we could put the quilts on top of all the stuff, and make the best of it.

Being good with tools, he easily took the plow apart, so it didn’t take up so much space. There was our food, and fodder for the horses and the ox too. It was soon filling up, and he decided to take the two good chairs along. “We can sit on them ’round our camp fire, Phin, then use them when we build our house”. He hid the money and valuables in a leather bag inside a bag of corn, and showed me where, putting it to one side so as not to mix it up. By the time everything was packed away, I started to hope it wouldn’t rain, as I still couldn’t imagine where we would find space inside.

Mister Schultz rode out, to officially take posession of our farm for the Yankee buyers. He shook daddy’s hand, and wished us both luck. Then he handed over a good new map he had got from somewhere. It was a real map, drawn proper, with hills and rivers marked, stretching all the way west, including San Francisco. It had to be folded six times, it was so big. Much better than the hand-drawn one daddy had brought back from the war. And it was on funny paper, waxy-like stuff. The agent smiled. “You won’t have to worry about getting this one wet, Jessie, but keep it safe”.

As we turned the wagon west and drove away from the farm, daddy told me not to look back. “Keep looking forward, boy. We ain’t looking back no more”. The wagon was bumpy, and very noisy. Daddy had tied so many pots and pans and things to the sides, even a spare wagon-wheel, they made a fearful racket. And we could only go as fast as the ox could walk, as it was roped on behind. Daddy named the horses Ethel and Mary, but the ox never had no name. It was always just ‘the ox’. I figured it was going to be a long trip, and reckoned we would be lucky to be out of the state by the end of the week.

Before it got too dark, daddy showed me how to handle the horses. I would have to spell him from time to time, but we were not going to travel after dark, for fear of breaking a wheel, or driving into a ditch. Ethel and Mary didn’t need too much handling at that pace, and they seemed content enough to plod along with no coaxing. I just had to steer them around some bends, and away from the biggest holes on the track. It felt strange to be leaving our county, and heading for the Kentucky border. Daddy had marked a place to stop that night, close to a small river. It didn’t have a name, but he said he would know it when we got there.

It was almost dark when we stopped, and sure enough there was a small river, and a stand of trees where we could tie up the horses and the ox. Too late to go searching for firewood, we used some that he had brought in the wagon, and soon had a fire going. I had never been on a trip for fun, but it sarted to feel like one as he heated up some stew over the fire, and the flames made my face hot. With no outhouse, we did the necessary behind the trees, and I had the job of feeding the animals before we settled them. Daddy put some oilskins under the wagon, and placed the quilts on them. With a rough blanket over each of us, and using our folded arms for pillows, we soaked up the heat from the fire that he had just put more wood on.

He lay quiet, smoking his old pipe, and watching the flames. I wanted to ask him about the war, and what had really happened to Cal. But he didn’t appear to be in the mood for talking. Before we settled down, he checked the Colt pistol, and placed it just inside his blanket.

“Just in case”, he said with a smile.

Daddy got us up and moving just after first light. We made good going that day in improving weather, and he pushed on until it was almost too dark to see to get the fire going. So he lit the oil lamp as he got the food ready to cook. There were not so many people on the trail, though we had passed some men in uniform, looking footsore and shabby. They were walking east, and daddy reckoned they were heading home to other places in Virginia. “Some of those boys have had to walk a mighty long way, Phin, and they still have a ways to go yet”.

The next morning, some riders passed us. They looked fit and healthy, and were well-mounted. They didn’t say anything to us, or acknowledge us, but daddy got real uneasy like. He stopped early, just outside of a small town we could see up ahead. “Don’t reckon we need to go into that town, boy. The trail starts to get steep after that, and I’m fixing to follow a different way”. I was sure he was worried about those riders, and thought they would be in that town. “I reckon we stay close to the Powell River for a ways, that should take us between the hills”.

We may have avoided trouble in the town, but sticking close to the river was hard going. A couple of times we had to backtrack to get around some woodland areas too tight for the wagon to get through, and after two days of that, daddy was starting to think we might need to get some more supplies in the next place we came across. Finding an established trail with some obvious wheel-ruts, he kept going until we spotted a house close by. “You stay in the wagon, Phin, and keep the rifle close. I’m gonna see if anyone lives there”. He walked up the dusty path, and stepped over a fallen rail in the fence. Just then, the door opened, and a woman appeared, carrying an old shotgun. “Just stay right there, mister, and state your business”.

She looked younger than my momma, and was wearing a thick apron over a blue dress. Her hair was piled up high, but bits were straggling loose across both sides of her face. She had some shabby pull-up boots on her feet, and they looked to be too big. Daddy raised his hands. “Don’t mean you no harm ma’am. Just me and my boy here. See, he’s in the wagon there. I just wanted to ask where this place is, and if there’s a town or store nearby”. She didn’t lower the shotgun, and kept her eyes on daddy. “You’re in Hancock County Kentucky, mister. Sneedville is up the trail a bit. You will be there long before dark”. Daddy backed up. “Thank you kindly, ma’am. Good day to you”. She stood at the door watching us until I could no longer see the house.

On the way into town, daddy told me that there had been a lot of trouble in Kentucky. The state had come out for the Union, but a lot of the fellas who lived there decided to fight for the rebels instead. “Spilt up families, Phin. Lots of bushwacking and mischief went on. I reckon that lady is on her own with a child, no man around. With so many men on the trails both ways, she must be scared to death”. I wasn’t used to people not being hospitable and friendly, but listening to daddy, I could understand why she might have been afeared.

Sneedville wasn’t much of a place. Just one main street with the usual stores, a doctor’s office, and a livery stable. Most of the men hanging around and sitting on porches were still wearing bits of blue uniform. Some had legs or arms missing, and all eyed us with great suspicion as daddy stopped the wagon outside the general store. “If anyone gives you trouble, just fire the rifle, Phin. Don’t shoot anyone, you hear. Just fire it in the air”. I felt a little worried. I wasn’t used to my daddy being so nervous. He was in there for a long time, but nobody came up to the wagon. I had a hand behind me gripping the rifle though.

A skinny boy followed daddy out. They were carrying sacks of stuff that got dumped in the back of the wagon, and daddy gave the boy some change for helping. As we drove out of town, daddy shook his head, and spit. “The prices were all wrong, Phin. Store-keeper says it’s supply and demand, war shortages and such. But he charged me double ’cause I’m a stranger, that’s what I reckon”. He flapped the reins to make the horses walk faster, and the poor ox had to break into a trot behind.

When I could no longer see the town behind me, I felt relieved. My first experience of Kentucky had left me worried.

We soon found out that the woman had been lying to us. We hadn’t been in Kentucky at all, and were actually just south of there, in Tennessee. That meant turning north again, wasting a lot of time. I asked daddy why she would have lied. “I have no idea, son. Maybe she’s just ornery, or was hoping to send us wrong. Could be she even thinks she lives in Kentucky, as it’s so close to the border. Some folks are none too sure what state they live in. Either way, we have to get back on the right trail”.

So my thoughts about Kentucky had been based on being in the wrong state. But it still made me wonder about those unfriendly men in faded blue uniforms. What were they doing in a rebel state? I asked daddy, but he just shrugged. “Can’t say for sure. Men fought on both sides for their own reasons, ‘specially close to borders”.

Avoiding most towns of any size, and having to retrace our steps at times when the trail was impassable because of a weak bridge, it took us more than three weeks to get close to the Missouri border. And that was with daddy pushing the horses to the limit each day. I was tired from sitting on the wagon seat, and my rear end was hurting too. Sometimes I walked alongside, as I could keep up the same pace as our old ox. Daddy did well with the cooking, and making the best of our supplies, though the food was becoming monotonous, as it was mostly beans, taters, and old greens. He said he learned how to make do in the army, as there was always a shortage of good eating. The weather was hotting up, and we had to make sure to have enough water for the animals, as well as us.

Daddy wasn’t too happy about having to cross Missouri. Like some other states, there had been bad blood there at the start of the war, and raiders had made a lot of mischief. He figured they might still be up to their old tricks. He would look at his map, and talk to me about it around the campfire. “Reckon we will stay to the south of the state, do our best to hit the Kansas border by the end of next month. I have a mind to settle us in the Colorado Territory. Heard tell there’s good land there, and a whole lot of opportunity”. I hadn’t heard much about either Kansas or Colorado, so I just nodded, and carried on watching the flames.

Daddy could read some, but he didn’t write none too good. He could print his name though, and understand signs. Not that we saw many of those back then. I had learned to read and write at the church school in town, though that wasn’t regular once the war got bad. May Bloy would make me practice whenever we visited, as momma couldn’t read that well either. So I could do as well as most of the children in town, and knew my numbers too.

I tried to imagine life in Colorado, but it was impossible, as I had no idea what to expect. Daddy said it had mountains much bigger than the Blue Ridge, and it snowed hard in winter. He reckoned that the injuns still lived there in some numbers, but I had only seen them wild injuns in picture books, with their feathers and bows and arrows. The only ones I ever saw back home were old, and wearing normal clothes. They were the Rappahannocks, and peaceful like. But I put those thoughts behind me, as we had a long way to go yet, and two more big states to cross.

As we got the food cooking that evening, the horses got jumpy, and daddy looked back in the direction of the trail. A woman was walking in our direction. She was carrying a big bundle, looked like all her stuff wrapped in an old blanket. Most of the time it dragged on the ground, and she would heft it up for a few steps before it dropped again. From a way off, she called out. “Hey mister, can I share your fire, maybe some food?” Daddy frowned, and looked all around to see if there was anyone with her. “You alone, miss?” She nodded. “Sure am, just me”. Daddy didn’t say no more, so she just walked right in and sat down by the fire with a big sigh. Her button boots were ripped on the left foot, and her dress and coat were both filthy. I reckoned she wasn’t young, probably over forty.

Reaching across, daddy handed her a plate of taters and greens, and she started to scoop them off with her hands without even waiting for the spoon. She was licking the plate clean before I had even started eating. “Where you boys headed? I could sure use a ride with you. I could help out on the trail, even take care of both of you”. She grinned, showing missing teeth on top. “If you get my meaning”. Daddy shook his head. “Ain’t no room in our wagon, and we don’t need no taking care of. You can have some more food, and then you best be on your way at first light”. As he reached for her plate to ladle more food onto it, she pulled a pistol out of the pocket of her coat, and pulled back the hammer.

“Well that ain’t very neighbourly, mister. So I reckon I’ll just take it all”.

Daddy moved quicker than a snake, whipping that heavy old ladle across the fire, and smacking it into the woman’s hand. As the pistol flew from her grasp, it fired with a loud crack, and a big flash in the dark. Bringing his arm back across, daddy struck that ladle hard against the side of her head before she could dodge it, and she fell over to her left side, groaning. Then he turned and yelled at me. “Phin, get the small rope bundle from the wagon, quick now!” As I pulled the rope out from its spot, I could see that the old ox was on its knees, and making a funny sound in its throat. I ran back with the rope. “Daddy, it’s the ox, I think it’s hurt bad”.

He ignored me, and started to tie the woman’s legs together with the rope, threading it up along her back to fasten her hands too. “Pick up that pistol, boy. She ain’t getting it back”. When she was unable to move her feet or hands, daddy hauled her over close to the wagon, and tied her sitting up against the back wheel. She was still groaning some, but her eyes were open. I stretched out my hand to pass the pistol to him, and he shook his head. “You keep that. It’s yours now. Let’s go look at the ox”.

He lit the oil lamp so we could see behind the wagon. The ox was bleeding from a hole in the side of its neck, and didn’t seem able to stand. Daddy was furious. “Goddam our luck, boy, that stray shot’s gone and done for him. Get me the rifle, and I’ll put him out of his misery”. I scampered up to the wagon seat, and reached under where we kept the valuable rifle. Daddy put it close to the ox’s head, right between its eyes, and fired. Then daddy turned to me again. “Climb up in back and get my skinning knives, and fetch some of those muslin squares. You know where they are?” I nodded.

For the next hour or so, he butchered the best parts of the ox, handing the bloody chunks of meat to me to wrap in the muslin. Then he decided there was no point taking more, as it would turn in the warm weather anyway. He cut the rope that had secured the animal to the back of the wagon, and threw it inside. “We can leave the rest for the critters and birds”. We washed our hands with water from the small creek nearby, and daddy said we should get some sleep. I nodded at the wide-eyed woman. “What about her?” He walked over and ripped a strip of cloth from the bottom of her dress, wrapping it tight around her mouth. “She can set there, and think herself lucky she ain’t dead”.

When we got settled under the wagon, I looked at the pistol. Daddy pulled the pipe from his mouth, and nodded at the gun in my hand. “That’s a good Colt fourty-four, a nice four-inch barrel too. Easy to fit in a coat pocket, as we found out. Reckon she must have stole that from some poor fool, maybe even shot him with it. You be careful with that now, Phin, don’t play around with it”.

At first light, daddy took off her gag, and gave her some water. Her dress was wet, where she had been unable to hold herself. She was bold, that was for sure. “Mister, why don’t you take me along? I can cook real good, and make you warm and happy at night. You can keep my pistol, and if you share with me, I promise I won’t do you down no more”. Daddy told me to fetch some of the hard biscuit, and a lidded can full of water. Then he walked it a hundred feet or so away from the wagon. “Phin, you come and untie her, while I cover her with the rifle”. As I pulled the ropes free, he spoke sternly to her. “Now lady, you can get up and start walking. There’s biscuit and water you can take if you want it, and you can keep your bundle too. I want to see you turn east on the trail, and if I see you again in my direction this morning, it ain’t gonna turn out good for you, y’hear?”

She rubbed her legs and hands where the ropes had been tight, and got herself up slowly. “Just doing what I needed, you must know that, mister”. Daddy ignored her, and flicked the barrel of the rifle toward the trail. “You get now, and like I said, don’t let me see you again”. Grabbing the bundle, she walked off, stopping to pick up the biscuit and water. Daddy followed her most of the way to the trail and stood watching for a while until she had turned the bend.

Losing the ox was a blow, but it meant we could push the horses faster. Even so, we had to be careful, as the trail had seen some action during the war, and some of the bridges across dry gullies and streams were still down. Daddy decided to avoid Springfield, and stayed south of that city on the plateau, still heading west for the Kansas Border. The journey had taken its toll on the wagon though. We had need of some new iron rims for the wheels, and daddy was almost out of grease for them too. Ethel was limping on and off, and there was nothing to be done but to find a blacksmith and get the horses shoed.

After long days of pushing across country, I was geting bored as hell too. We didn’t see many other people by staying off the main trail as much as we did, and daddy wasn’t much for idle chatter. On the map was a town called Carthage, and daddy was making for that place. He felt sure there would be a blacksmith there, and the chance to stock up on goods too. But we were still some ways off Carthage when we happened across what seemed to be a stockade up ahead. As we got closer, daddy said it looked like an old trading post. The sound of banging metal caught his attention, and he pulled off the trail and went through the the gap where big gates had probably once blocked the way.

Inside, there was a big general store, and a blacksmith working his forge under a wide canvas awning. Next to the store was a whiskey saloon, little more than a big wooden box of a building, with an old man sitting in a rocking chair out front. Daddy drove over to the burly blacksmith and asked if he could do what was needed with the horses and wheels. He nodded. “Get to you in a bit, mister. But I’ll need some help with the lever to get the wheels off the ground”. While we waited, we looked around the store. Daddy bought some of the food stuff we needed, as well as two bottles of good whiskey. And he bought me a straw hat too. The wool cap that momma had made me was getting too hot in the summer weather.

People were coming and going on horses and in carts too, but nobody paid us much mind. It took the rest of the day to get the work done on the wheels and horses, and the blacksmith started to get real chatty. “So you were headed for Carthage? That’s no good, mister. That town got tore up by the rebs during the war, almost nothing left of it. They started building again in places, but I reckon it’s gonna take years. Besides, ain’t no place near there to cross the Missouri. You gotta go north, for the steamboat. Forty miles, maybe more”. Daddy showed him the map, and he pointed at a spot well north of Carthage. “About there should do.” After daddy paid the man, we drove out, and camped further up the trail. Daddy said he didn’t want our goods to be a temptation to anyone spending the night in that other place.

It was further than the man had said, and took the rest of the week to get to the ferry crossing. Daddy had to ask a bunch of people along the way, but when we started to get stalled on the trail behind bigger wagons and groups of people on foot, it was obvious that we were heading the right way. The steamboat was big, with paddle wheels at the sides. But it wasn’t as big as the one we had used to cross the Mississippi. Daddy left me with the wagon, and walked past the line waiting to get on. He came back with a ticket, and told me it would be at least three or four hours before our turn. I watched the steamboat go back and forth that morning, and it seemed to not be troubled in the least by that fast river. We took the chance to feed and water the horses while we waited, and ignored the women walking up and down the line trying to sell us things. Including their own favours.

When we got almost to the front, one of the ferrymen said we should fold the canvas top down, and make sure to chock the wheels once we got up the ramp. He said we should stay with the wagon too, so the horses didn’t get spooked. Daddy had to urge the mares some to get them to pull us up the wide wooden ramp. But we ended up next to an open wagon full of lumber, right at the back of the boat. The trip across felt really fast, even quicker than when I had watched from the riverbank. Getting our wagon off wasn’t as easy as getting on. The horses started to back up, but didn’t like the weight of the wagon pulling them down the sloping ramp. It took some coaxing and calming before we got onto the muddy bank. I turned to daddy. “Are we in Kansas now?

He grinned, and shook his head. “We sure are”.

My first real sight of Kansas was the bustling town of Leavenworth. There were lots of bluebelly cavalry around, and I had never seen so many negroes lounging around doing nothing. It was a noisy place, and fierce hot too. Seemed like a Kansas summer was hotter than back home, real close and humid. Pretty soon, we had both sweated through our shirts, and daddy aimed to get out of there as soon as we could get around the crowded streets. We pushed on until the town was barely visible behind us, pleased to find a cooler spot to camp under some trees next to the river.

Before dark, a rider approached, and he held up both hands to show he meant no harm. He had a carbine in a saddle-holster, but no pistol we could see. His hat was real fancy, turned up on one side, with a bushy feather in the gap. And it was a gray hat. “Hoping to share some food, sir. I have good whisky in my pack. He nodded at the large leather bag tied on to his saddle. He swung off the horse like a man used to riding, and walked over to daddy with his hand extended. “Eugene Delacroix, at your service. Formerly an officer with General Forrest’s cavalry”. He spoke real nice, and his accent was southern, not local.

Daddy relaxed some at the man’s genial manner, and indicated for him to sit on the ground next to the makings of our fire. “Jessie Fuller, and this here’s my son, Phineas”. It was strange to hear my full name spoken. I couldn’t recall the last time I had heard that from anyone. Delacroix thought before he spoke. “I’m guessing you are a southern man, Mister Fuller. Did you see service in the war perhaps? I seem to have travelled across half this country, since leaving Louisiana”. Daddy nodded. “Army of Northern Virginia. Lost my oldest boy at Fredericksburg”. The man shook his head. “My condolences, sir. It’s been a bad time for so many, no doubt. Are you headed west? I thought I might take my chances in California”. Daddy had lit the fire, and I went to get the pot with the food.

“I was thinking about the Colorado Territory. Hear tell there’s good land there”. Delacroix pursed his lips. “Well, it hasn’t been opened up much, and of course you have to think about the savages. All sorts of injuns out there. You might be better to try your luck in this state. Kansas is growing fast, and it would save you a mighty lot of travelling”. He stood up when he finished speaking, and walked over to his pack, which was lying on the ground next to his grazing horse. He came back holding the bottle of whiskey, and I saw daddy relax when that was all he had in his hands. As I stirred the pot, the men drank the whiskey from tin cups, and talked stuff about the war.

After dinner, we settled the horses, and Delacroix smoked a thin cigar while daddy puffed on his pipe. Like he had just thought of something, he suddenly spoke real loud. “Why not Lawrence? That’s a well established town, and it suffered something awful when Quantrill’s men raided. I reckon they will need folks to help get it back to how it was before that dark day in sixty-three. You may just find your niche there, Jessie”. That man talked so sweet, and used words I had never heard. But he seemed to be convincing daddy, judging by the amount of nodding going on. I went to get ready to sleep under the wagon, and left them to it. But when I settled down, I made sure to have the short-barrelled forty-four close to hand. Lawrence or Colorado, it made no never mind to me, either way.

When I woke up the next morning, Delacroix was gone. Daddy said he heard him ride out at first light. “Reckon he talked some sense though, Phin. We could just keep going, or maybe take his advice and go see this town Lawrence he spoke of. Might be nice to settle for a piece, even if we don’t stay there”. I had no vote on that, daddy was just thinking aloud. But I had a feeling he had already made up his mind. He spread out the map, and traced his finger along it. “Reckon we have to head south-west, Phin. Let’s get the horses harnessed”. As we got busy, I asked him, “Is it far, daddy?” He shook his head.

“Reckon not. Maybe two days, three at most”.

By late afternoon, daddy was talking about finding a good place to camp for the night, when we came across a one-horse flatback buggy stuck on the trail. The man standing next to it waved as we approached, and walked toward us. He was dressed in a long black buttoned-up coat, despite the heat, and his hat looked like the hats I had seen the Quakers wearing back home. It was clear to see what had happened. from the way the buggy was lying to the left, resting almost on the wheel hub.

“Could you help me sir? The side spring has come off the mounting, and I have no tools. Otherwise I will have to unshackle my horse, and try to ride with no saddle into Leavenworth”. Daddy jumped down and examined the damage. “Reckon I can fix that enough for you to get there, mister. But you had better get a new spring when you can, this one’s kinda bent now”. The man beamed a big smile, finally removing his hat to mop the sweat from his head with a large white handkerchief. ” I am greatly obliged to you sir, I am the reverend Thomas Mostyn, at your service”. Daddy was already pulling one of his toolboxes from the wagon. “Fuller, and this here’s my son”.

As daddy worked on the buggy, the reverend got to talking. “You are on the road to Lawrence, sir. Are you intending to pass through, or do you have a notion to settle there?” Daddy stopped, and looked up. “Fella told me they need good workers in that town, to help rebuild it. I’m handy with tools, so figured we might stay there awhile, before moving on to the Colorado Territory after the winter. Mostyn chewed his lip. “I detect a southern accent, sir. May I ask, were you a Confederate during the recent troubles?” I thought it was a strange thing to call the long war something as mild as ‘recent troubles’.

“Yes I was, Army of Northen Virgina. But that’s all done with now” Daddy leaned back under the buggy, hitting something with a hammer. Mostyn got down on his haunches to peer under the cart. “Sir, you have been kind enough to do me a service, so allow me to return the favour. Lawrence is the last place you should be thinking of going to. I would not advise even passing through. Rebel raiders did an awful thing there, and even though it was years ago, and the war is over, there is bad feeling against southerners there. They are all confirmed Jayhawkers, sir, and many served with the Redlegs too. I would consider the safety of yourself and your son, and keep going west”.

When the repair was good enough, and the buggy was no longer leaning askew, daddy wiped his hands on his shirt, and went to fetch the map from the wagon. He spread it out on the back of the buggy, and turned to the reverend. “This here’s a good map. If you know this country, I’d be grateful if you could point us to somewhere where the war don’t matter none”. After examining the map, the reverend shook his head. “Sad to say this map is not accurate, sir. The border with Tennessee is all wrong for one thing, and some of the distances are greater or lesser than they are in truth. I would caution you against relying on it too heavily”. Then he took a deep breath. “However, I have heard that Wichita is a place of opportunity, though I have never been there”. He poked a finger at the map, and daddy leaned over to look.

“You can travel north of Lawrence, and cross the Kansas river by steamboat ferry at Topeka. The trail is well established since the early settlers headed west. But I would advise avoiding mentioning anything about your service in the war, until you are well south of that town. From there, you should find a new settlement on the banks of the Arkansas River. But watch out for the natives. Most of them returned to that region following the war, and not all are friendly”. Daddy shook the man’s hand. “Looks like Wichita it is. I thank you for your counsel, reverend”. Mostyn waved a friendly goodbye as he set off in the other direction, and daddy folded the map carefully.

“Let’s keep going a ways until we find a spot for tonight, Phin. Then in the morning we can start heading for Wichita”.

I climbed up onto the seat, wondering how many times we might be changing direction because of what someone said.

Outside Topeka, we passed by the railroad camp. It was alive with activity, wagons coming and going, and many tents set out in rows. Along the lines, we saw armed men on horses, holding their rifles ready to use. I was about to ask daddy why they had so many guards, when the reason dropped into my brain. Injuns. They didn’t like the railroad. Not only was it running across territory they considered to be theirs, the need to feed all the men working on it meant that the buffalo herds were being hunted real heavy like.

We carried on in a westerly direction for a day or two, then headed south until we found the bank of the Arkansas River. On the third day, we thought we might see some kind of town ahead, but there was nothing. As we settled down to camp in the late afternoon, a group of men on horseback appeared on the rise to our left. Daddy raised a hand, squinting, but my young eyes could see better. They were injuns, sure enough, and I counted seven. One was wearing a Yankee uniform jacket and cap, but the third one in the line was carrying some kind of lance. I spoke real quiet. “Them’s injuns, daddy”. He stayed still. “Don’t do nothing, Phin. If they ride on down, just stay calm”.

Well, they sat like that for what seemed like an awful long time. Then they just turned their horses, and were gone. I was nervy. “Do you think we should press on, daddy?” He shook his head. “Reckon if they want us, they would find us”. I couldn’t settle well that night, feeling jumpy at every sound, and sure those injuns would come and cut our throats in the night, and steal Ethel and Mary. Daddy had to shake me at first light. “Up you get boy, let’s get going before it gets too hot”.

Just after midday, we saw signs of life up ahead; hugging the bank of the river, and extending a ways inland across the trail too. Big tents, smoke from fires, and small boats on the river. As we got closer, some wooden buildings could be seen, mostly ramshackle affairs. Daddy turned to me. “This must be what the reverend spoke of. Let’s go on in and see what it’s like”.

The main building was a large trading post. It had a loading bay, and livery stables, as well as a busy blacksmith working outside. There were lots of tame-looking injuns around, as well as a few negroes who seemed to be working hard. The tents seem to mostly house settler families, and there was some sign of them growing stuff around too. But the biggest two tents were being used as a whiskey saloon, and a gambling house.

People paid no mind to us as we drove in. As an affable-looking man in a plaid shirt walked past the wagon, daddy called out to him. “Say mister, who do we see about buying land here?” The man smiled and shook his head. “Buying land? Just keep heading south, past anything roped off or fenced. Ten, maybe twelve miles, then you can pick anywhere you like”.

Daddy seemed perplexed. “What about the injuns though? They trouble?” He shook his head in reply. “Not since Chisholm built this here trading post. Now they get anything they need by trading with him. You will see their mud and grass huts outside town. Don’t reckon they will bother you none, mister”. Daddy touched his hat to thank him, and we carried on driving.

As dusk approached, daddy followed a small creek off to the left, and discovered a good clearing surrounded by trees. “This looks as good a place as any, Phin. Let’s get settled for the night, and tomorrow I’m gonna rope off some land”.

It all seemed too easy, to my young mind. Didn’t seem to me to be any reason why someone couldn’t just come along, cut down our ropes, and drive us off. But I knew better than to be contrary, and did as he bidded.

When I woke up the next morning, daddy was already unloading tools from the wagon.

Looked like I was living in Kansas now, some ten miles south of a place called Wichita.

My daddy was as good as his word. While the horses grazed in the clearing, he started to pace out a good distance, and strung rope between some small wooden marker posts. They extended along the creek, and well into the wooded areas too. He had told me to search around for firewood while he was busy, and after scouting round the land past the clearing, I had to admit he had picked a right nice place. That night around the fire, he smoked his pipe and told me his plans.

“First off, we need to make us a smokestack, a chimney of some kind. No point building a homestead first, then trying to add that later. We can make some mud bricks, and set them out to dry before Fall. You can start to cut down some of the small trees and strip the branches. I will show you how to pick ones that ain’t too heavy to move after. Meantime, I reckon we ought to go back into the settlement, and try to buy us one of them old army tents. Can’t be living under the wagon all the time it takes to build our new home”.

Despite the time of year, the season hadn’t changed much at all, and it was sure a lot warmer than it would have been back home. I was wondering if the Kansas winter to come might be as hard as some in Virginia. I didn’t like the idea of sleeping in a tent in the snow, and hoped it wouldn’t take my daddy too long to get building our cabin. Before we left for the settlement, we had to pack everything back into the wagon. Daddy wouldn’t chance losing anything he left just lying around.

It was pretty quiet there that morning. Just as we arrived, a cavalry patrol was leaving, and I could see their pennant bobbing around up ahead, obscured by the dust kicked up by their mounts. Daddy went into the trading post to ask about the tent, so I had to stay with the wagon. I was daydreaming, when a familiar voice made me jump and turn around. “Young Fuller? It’s you, I’m sure”. I saw the gray hat with the big feather, but I already knew it was Delacroix. His voice was as gentle and friendly as before. “So you found your way to Wichita? Are you pressing on, or settling here?” I looked around, but there was no sign of daddy. Delacroix got down off his horse, and tied it to the wagon.

“Reckon we are settling here, sir. Daddy roped off some land some ten miles south, and aims to build a homestead there”. He nodded, and flashed a big smile. I don’t know why I said it, but I suddenly felt the need to ask someone. “How come we can do that, Mister Delacroix? What’s to stop us getting run off, or someone else saying we are on their land?” I hadn’t wanted to ask daddy, but had a notion this fella would know. All I understood about land was that we had owned the small farm in Virginia, and had papers saying so. The handsome man chuckled. “Why the Homestead Act, young man. Your daddy must know about that”. I had never heard that mentioned by my daddy, so decided to speak up. “Could you tell my daddy about that, sir? I don’t reckon he knows”.

Not long after, daddy appeared from the side of the trading post, followed by two men carrying a big heavy canvas tent, folded in a roll. He was holding a wooden box full of pegs and ties. He nodded at Delacroix, probably still vexed that the man had told us to head to Lawrence. “Mister Delacroix, we meet again sir”. After the men loaded the tent in the back, and daddy put the box in with it, Delacroix walked over and nodded at the whiskey saloon tent. “What say you and I go and have a drink, Jessie? Your boy tells me you need to hear about the Homestead Act”. I chipped in, enthusiastically. “You go, daddy, I am fine here with our wagon”. I wanted to know.

They were in there for a good while, and daddy came out alone, smelling of whiskey, and smiling. On the way back, he told me what Delacroix had said. “Seems like Abe Lincoln made a new law, back in sixty-two. Any settler can claim one hundred and sixty acres, free and clear. You have to live on the land, and make it good for farming, or other uses. Once you have been there for five years or before if you want, you have to register the land, and you get a deed. Anyone over twenty-one can do it, even women and negroes who were slaves There’s a big catch though. It don’t apply to anyone who fought for the Confederates. So if anyone asks, I never joined up, never left the farm. Y’hear?” I nodded.

Seemed like the man in the plaid shirt had been right all along.

Once daddy got started, he worked really fast. The chimney and fireplace was up first, and we slept in the tent meanwhile. It was a very big tent, and the thick material kept the wind out nicely. But some nights the noise of the wind buffeting the canvas would wake me up. As it got colder, I appreciated the work keeping me warm. Daddy got me some work gloves to keep down the blisters, as my main job was starting to dig out the hole for the outhouse. We couldn’t keep using the trees, daddy said, or we would end up fouling the place where we intended to live. When that hole got as deep as my head, it had to be shored up with planks, to stop it collapsing on me.

He started on the frame for the cabin, and it looked mighty big to me. Once the outhouse hole was done and covered, we went deep into the woods to find the right kind of trees to cut down. Daddy said they had to be long enough to fit between the pins he had laid, but not so heavy that we couldn’t haul them back. Using the two-handed saw was real hard going for me, and most nights I was falling asleep trying to eat my dinner. But it was making me strong and tough, no doubt about that.

When he went on the necessary trips into town, I had to stay behnd to watch the stuff. He left the rifle with me, and told me to grab it if anyone showed up, but not to shoot it unless I was in real danger. I did feel a mite scared to be honest, but the rifle gave me confidence, and I kept it close when I was alone. Daddy had shot a wild hog with it a few days earlier, and when we discovered it had baby hogs hiding in a bush behind it, I felt real sorry for them when they run off squealing.

Turned out Delacroix was still in the settlement. He had taken to playing cards day and night, getting himself a reputation as a gambler. Then one day, daddy came back with a man on the seat next to him. He was called Henry, and had been employed to help out. He sure was a big fella, but seemed kinda slow like, when he talked. He had been promised three squares a day, and whatever clothes he needed. Daddy gave him some tobacco for his corncob pipe, and said he would pay him in Yankee dollars once we were up and running. He didn’t say much, but he smiled a lot. I reckoned he was younger than daddy, maybe thirty years old or so.

I liked Henry well enough, but with him sleeping in the tent, I soon found out that he snored real loud, and didn’t smell so good either. Next day when he had sent hm out to get firewood, daddy sat me down and talked about Henry. “Seems like he turned up here with his pappy, and then the old man died. He’s been sleeping in the woods, and getting work when he could. There’s something not right in his head, but he’s not mean. Still, don’t forget not to mention anything about me being in the army, Phin. You never know what he might say to strangers. I’m gonna get him some new clothes, and make him wash regular. He won’t smell so bad soon, but I can’t do nothing about that snoring”.

Wth the extra help, the cabin was soon taking shape. As Henry trimmed off the corners of the logs, daddy cut out some small window squares, and worked on shutters to cover them inside and out. I was given the back-breaking job of flattening the dirt floor, using a contraption he built. It was a box with two handles, and the inside was full of stones. I had to lift it up and slam it down again, over and over. He would come and check, pointing out places that needed more pounding. I sure hated that contraption, but it did the job, and it wasn’t long before daddy could start to lay the planks that made the floor dry.

After making two ladders, daddy and Henry started on the roof. I was set to cutting out thick grassy turf from the edges of the clearing. Once the roof planks were on, the turf would be laid on top to protect the wood from the weather. When fall was well and truly over, and the bare trees and chill mornings heralded winter, daddy lit the first fire inside, and brought the two good chairs from the wagon. Him and Henry sat in front of the big fire, smoking their pipes, and watching the cooking pot bubbling.

I sat on the box that had been full of stones, happy to know I wouldn’t be using it no more.

That winter wasn’t so bad. Nothing like as bad as some where we had come from. Daddy and Henry worked on improving the inside of the house, and it wasn’t long before we had two rooms sectioned off behind the main room around the fireplace. Henry had his own small room to sleep in, and thought it was grand, and daddy and me had the larger one, using two slat beds he had made from scrap wood. I watched daddy working with the wood, and he used the dark nights to show me how to use his tools by the light of the oil lamp and the fire. I followed his guidance, and he decided that I should make my own chair to sit in. I made it bigger than I needed, so I could grow into it, but they laughed when I sat in it and looked small.

My daddy made a good table too, using two big planks to fashion benches either side. He would sit there and show Henry his map, trying to teach the man where he was living. One evening, Henry traced his finger across to the west coast, up to Oregon, and then further up to Canada. He shook his head in wonder. “Mighty big, Mister Jessie”. I asked him where he came from. I had asked him before, and he always shook his head. “Can’t recall, Master Phin”. That night he thought about it some, and suddenly seemed to remember. “Rochter. No work. Pa says we best go west”. Daddy spent a long time looking at the eastern half of the map. “You mean Rochester, Henry? Look see, near this big lake?” The map didn’t mean much to the big man, but at mention of the lake, he smiled and nodded vigorously. “Big lake! Yessir, Mister Jessie”.

Daddy showed me the map. It was Lake Ontario, and Canada was on the other side of it. Henry and his pa had come a long way.

With no crops growing that we could eat, everything we couldn’t shoot had to be bought or traded in the settlement. Daddy didn’t trust Henry’s sense to leave him alone at home, so I spent a lot of time around the homestead while they were away. I walked around the property, getting to know every inch of it; from the edge of the creek, right through to the back of the woods. Daddy showed me how to make a small box-cart, for bringing back the firewood I chopped. It had waxed runners on the bottom edges, and I dragged it with a rope harness wrapped around my shoulders.

As the weather warmed up with the change of season, I decided that I was happy in Kansas.

One afternoon, daddy came back with some news. Chisholm had talked to him about him being good with tools, and suggested he could get regular work as a carpenter, helping to build the settlement up into a town. Many of the tent-dwellers had decided to stay on, and there was even sign of another expansion across the river. There was something in it for Chisholm of course, as he would supply the materials; like good seasoned lumber, nails, and other necessaries. He offered my daddy a month’s credit on his first needs, and said he would pass on all requests for a man who could build a house, or fix things in wood.

I was surprised to hear that daddy wanted me to work with him and Henry.
“It will mean leaving the place untended, but we will have all the tools and valuables with us in the wagon. I can teach you stuff, and you can carry on when I’m gone”. It also meant that we wouldn’t be farming, so other than hunting for meat, we would be reliant on buying from the trading post. I concluded that Mr Chisholm was a right good man for business.

The first offer of work was from Reverend Parker. He wanted to build a proper church, and stop preaching from his old tent. He had collected subscriptions from his congregation, and and had a mind to build a good-sized church with a tower to house a bell that he would order later from back east. Daddy had to haggle some, but he had an idea that the preacher had more money than he had told his flock he would have to pay, and was of a mind to pocket the rest. They came to an agreement over a bottle of whiskey, and daddy set a date for commencing the work once the lumber was all in place.

But on the way back, there was some consternation at the gambling tent, and we heard shooting. Delacroix staggered out clutching his side, and bleeding like a stuck pig. Seeing us in the wagon, he raised his arm, and called out.

“Mister Fuller, sir. I am in need of your assistance!”.

Considering all the blood, Mister Delacroix seemed happy enough. I helped him up into the back of the wagon, and he fished around in his coat to find a cigar to smoke. Winking at me, he smiled. “How ya doing, young Fuller? Enjoying life in Kansas?” I nodded, still sore at him for his idea that we should have gone to that nest of Redlegs, Lawrence.

Back home, he told the story as daddy washed his wound with water mixed with whiskey. Seemed someone had accused him of cheating at cards, and pulled a knife. Delacroix had whipped out a pistol and shot the man close to his face, taking off most of his ear. When the man’s friends had come close, he had fired twice more to discourage them, before realising that he had been cut bad. There was no lawman in Wichita settlement, so he thought he best get gone until it all calmed down. “Sir, I was plumb happy to see you, I declare”. As daddy sewed up the wound with a darning needle and some tent cord, I had to admire how he didn’t even flinch.

Henry seemed very taken with Eugene, and offered his bed for him to rest in. He slept on the floor in front of the fire for the next three days, as we all nervously waited to see if men would come from town looking for him. Then he asked daddy to drive him to the edge of town, so he could recover his horse from the livery stable without anyone getting the notion that we had helped him. “I have a mind to carry on to Texas, Mister Fuller. I hear tell there are lots of cowboys working steers down there. Seems to me they might have money to gamble with. I thank you for your help and hospitality”.

He was always so polite and well-mannered. One reason I never trusted him.

Two days later, we started work on the church. I was set to nailing frames together, long pieces of wood arranged on the ground by my daddy. Him and Henry started levelling the ground and digging out the big holes where the support posts would sit. The weather was fair that Saturday, and people came to watch us work, including Reverend Parker. It wasn’t long before others started to ask daddy to work for them once we had finished. Reverend Parker intervened, reminding us that we had agreed to make the benches for the congregation to sit on, and the rostrum for him to preach at. To my surprise, daddy rubbed his beard, and nodded at me. “My boy will be making those, Reverend. He’s good with wood, just like me”.

Using some paper that had been wrapped around long nails, and our stubby marking pencil, I made a list of the names of the people who wanted work done, and a rough idea of what would be needed. Daddy would visit them to give them a price once the church was almost done, and he called to them as they walked away. “First come first served now. Just as the names are on this here list”. When we were alone again, he smiled and shook his head. “Well, I reckon we got enough work to last until winter at least, maybe more. I might have to think about taking on more help”. Then he told Henry to start making some longer ladders while he worked on the window frames and shutters.

When the church frames were finished, we got some local men from the Trading Post to help us haul them up on ropes, as daddy checked that the support posts were dropping in right. He gave them some money for whiskey and tobacco, and said we had done enough for the day. It had been a long day, but I had enjoyed working at the settlement, and meeting lots of new folks. We wouldn’t be working the next day, as it was a Sunday, but on the way home, daddy told us that we would be laying fence rails around our property instead. I would have liked to have a day doing nothing, but that wasn’t to be.

At midday, we were all hot and thirsty after the morning fixing rails. A buggy drove up to the house from the creek path, and we walked over to see who it was. The man driving got down, and offered his hand to daddy. “Shawn Ryan, late of the city of New York. Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir. We are to be neighbours, I understand. I have claimed the land on the other side of the creek”. I looked over at the buggy. The older woman I took to be his wife was stout, and smiling. In the back sat two girls, one with bright red hair. She looked away when I caught her eye. The other one was older, and favoured her mother in looks and size.

Daddy made the introductions of our names, but didn’t mention where we hailed from.

Daddy did the mannered thing, and invited the Ryans inside. Fortunately, they also had manners and declined, seeing as we were working. Mr Ryan walked around a bit with daddy, making polite noises about how well built our homestead was. When they had driven off, daddy told us what Ryan had said. “He’s living in town, renting rooms from Chisholm. Reckons he has no intention of living on the land here, but going to raise hogs he has bought from back east. Said he’s a book-keeper, at least was in New York. Hoping to get work at that once the settlement expands. Asked me to come build him a house when that happens. When the hogs get here, he has arranged for two negroes to manage them. S’pose they’ll have a shack or such.”

I had hoped we might get a break if they came inside to visit, and was also disappointed not to see more of the redhead. But it was back to the fence rails before we finished off the shelter for the horses by making the roof better.

We didn’t see the hogs get delivered, but we sure heard them. The squealing was coming from across the creek as they were unloaded. Within two days, we could smell them too. I went through the trees to look across the creek, but could only see the top of a tent in the distance. I guessed the negroes were going to have to wait for their shack.

Once the church was finished, Reverend Parker invited us to be guests of homour at the inaugural service. Daddy said we couldn’t rightly say no, so we wore our cleanest clothes and combed our hair. I wore my straw hat too, and Henry cleaned his boots with handfuls of grass. They had finally fixed the bell into its small tower just a few days before, but the reverend wouldn’t let them test it. He wanted to save that bell for Sunday. Daddy said I had done a good job with the benches They all looked the same length and width, and he had tried sitting on some, declaring them sturdy.

After the service, there was a party of sorts on the land behind the church. There was punch and beer to drink, and some cakes and pies to eat. Even though the the Irishman Shawn Ryan was almost certainly a Catholic, him and his family had been in church, and stayed on so he could mix with the men in the crowd, presumably trying to sell his services. I tried to catch the eye of his redhead daughter, but she stuck close to her ma. However, her big sister came over holding two pieces of pie, and offered me one. I gulped it down, as it was sure tasty. She nibbled at hers, sort of ladylike. When I nodded my thanks and walked away, she followed, catching up to stand by my side.

In that short walk, she talked like there was a prize for talking. Mr Ryan was her daddy, but Mrs Ryan was his second wife. The redhead girl’s name was Elizabeth, and she was her half-sister. She said her name was Maggie, Margaret in full, and she remembered my name was Phineas. I thought it was mighty strange that Maggie looked so much like a woman who wasn’t her ma, but said nothing. I put it down to the fact that they were both big-built. Every time I turned to listen to her, she gave me what daddy called ‘the big eyes’. Young as I was, there was no mistaking that.

When I asked about Elizabeth, she seemed vexed. “Don’t concern yourself with her. Pa is sending her to school back east in September. My Pa’s old aunt is paying for it, and she’s gonna live with her. She’s gonna be gone for years. But I ain’t going nowhere”. The implication of those last words wasn’t lost on me.

I could see a crowd gathered around my daddy and Henry. So I excused myself. As I started to walk away, she said something that stopped me. “I really love your accent, Phineas. Where are you from?” I swallowed hard, trying to think of somewhere that didn’t join the Confederacy where they might have something like my accent. “Maryland”. That seemed to satisfy her, and I walked off.

The men talking to daddy were all praising the work on the building of the church, and asking when he would be free to do jobs for them. He was shaking his head, telling them he was busy with promised work, and they started to offer more money if he moved them up the queue. Seemed like good house-builders were scarce down there. He had started to raise his hands to silence them, when there was a commotion out front of the church. People were standing in a line, and others heading there to see what it was.

It was a whole company of Union cavalry, fully-equipped, and with a supply wagon behind too. A man called out to the officer riding up front, and he stopped, raising his arm to slow the column. “It’s the injuns. Trouble up north, Sibley County. We have been sent to help the militia”.

When everyone started mumbling and murmuring, daddy took the opportunity for us to head home.

That injun trouble up north didn’t amount to anything in Wichita. Folks said it was because Mr Chisholm was half-injun, so got on well with those living nearby. He also traded cattle with them, so they had no need to go off hunting buffalo.

The next job we did in town was to build a proper premises for the blacksmith. Daddy negiotiated a price that would include any ironwork we needed at home, as well as horseshoes, and rims for the wagon wheels. While we worked there, a man came and spoke to daddy. Said he heard we had a good plow we weren’t using, and asked about using it. He couldn’t afford to buy it, but offered to pay a portion of his crop come harvest time. Said he had come to the same arrangement with some German Dunkers, to use their ox. Daddy shook on the deal, and got me to write the man’s name down on my paper.

Wichita was definitely growing every month, and spreading inland from the church. Across the river, the so-so settlement there was bustling, and now had a name, Delano. Weren’t nothing much over there except drinking dens and good-time girls, but the small rowboat ferries did a brisk trade taking people back and forth. Daddy said we wouldn’t ever be going to Delano. “Nothing but loose women, gamblers, and drunks there, Phin. That mixture always spells trouble”. Henry made us laugh when he asked, “Mister Jessie, what’s a loose woman?”

The biggest job for us that year was building the hotel. It wasn’t much of a hotel, just a bigger whiskey saloon with some small rooms out back. But the owner had grand ideas, and had someone paint a sign reading ‘Wichita City Hotel’. That job kept us occupied for some time, and daddy employed a Portugee man who used to be a sailor in Maine. He spoke fair English, but I had a lot of trouble understanding his accent. And his skin was so dark and his hair so black, some folks mistook him for an injun. His name was Benedito, but we just called him Ben. He did the heavy hauling, as he had no trade except being a fisherman on the ocean. Daddy paid him off every day, and he used to drink most of his dollars away over in Delano. But he always showed up for work that summer.

Others were claiming land close to our homestead, and folks in town started to call where we lived Derby. Nobody could tell us why, but someone had decided to call the town expansion that, and it started to stick. When a man spoke to daddy about work on a barn one day, he said, “It’s close to your place, Mr Fuller, out Derby way”. I was getting used to working with the wood now, and it wasn’t unusual for daddy to leave me alone on some small jobs. At the end of the summer, he took me to the livery stable and showed me a big old horse that was saddled. “That’s your horse, Phin. Call her what you like. I reckon its time you had your own transport, and you can use it to carry your box to work.”

The box he referred to was a tool box he had me make. He got me a leather strap to fix to it, so I could carry it with no hands, and then he surprised me by buying me some of my own tools. I felt real grown up then. I called the horse Lizzie, as the chestnut colour of her reminded me of a certain girl’s hair.

After Elizabeth went off to school back east, we started to get visits from the Ryan family again. Mr Ryan had the town butcher slaughter some hogs to salt for winter, and he brought us half a hog wrapped in muslin as a gift. I guessed he was hoping to get his house-building moved up the list. There was a new trader in town, by the name of James Mead. He had bought up a lot of land north of the city, mostly places already owned or claimed, and given up. He usually got it cheap, and it hadn’t been long before he set up his own business, trading buffalo skins mostly but anything else folks would buy. Mr Ryan had wangled himself a job with Mead as a clerk, and was keen to move out of the rented rooms into a house on some land near Mead’s place.

After rubbing at his beard for a long time, daddy agreed to start on Ryan’s house next year, saying he would send me off to do the smaller jobs, like building outhouses, and patching fences. Ryan walked over to me with a big smile on his face. “You are growing up, young Fuller. Reckon you should know my Maggie talks about you all the time. Seems she has a notion to be your sweetheart”. I didn’t know what to say in reply, so he tapped the side of his nose, and winked.

“You could do a lot worse, my boy”.

As Wichita continued to grow, it wasn’t long before other men arrived who offered to build shops and houses. We now had competition, but daddy weren’t bothered. He had good connections right from the time we had arrived, and the list of jobs outstanding was always more than we could manage. It felt strange to ride into town now, and see a main street had taken shape. The barber, another saloon, and even a ladies’ dress shop. Nobody was yet trying to sell the same goods as Chisholm and Mead, but there was a barrel maker and a second livery stable.

By the end of sixty-seven I was fifteen years old, tall and strong. I rode around on Lizzie doing jobs, and people knew me by name.

The Ryan house was finished early the next year, though not as grand as Mr Ryan’s early plans. Seemed most of his hogs had got sick, and he didn’t have as much money as he had expected. It had a parlour, and a kitchen of sorts at the back. Three other rooms served as bedrooms, and he had daddy make a covered porch out front. Mrs Ryan and Maggie made a kitchen garden for vegetables, which they tended when he was at work doing his clerking.

When I was up that way, Maggie would wave to me as I rode by. But I didn’t stop.

The main thing making the town so prosperous was that the cattlemen used it as a stopover on the drives. The stock would be fed and watered in big pens at the edge of town, and those men would come into the main street looking for fun, whiskey, and women. That meant most of them headed over to Delano, but not all of them. There started to be a fair amount of trouble in town, with the cowboys roistering and cavorting. It got so everyone knew to avoid the place after dark when the drives arrived. The cattle also attracted rustlers, and we heard tell of gunfights around the herds.

Mr Mead was now the big man in town, and I found out that Chisholm had been working for him all along. In fact, he had sent Chisholm off to start up new trading posts with the injuns further west along the old pioneer trail. But we carried on as normal, making a good living, and friendly with most. If anyone asked, daddy carried on with the story that we were from Maryland, and he hadn’t joined up on either side. But he was edgy with all the new arrivals in town, checking the faces of any men to see who might recognise him. There was still a lot of bad feeling after the war, so he came up with a plan. It was right clever, and I have to say it surprised me.

One night, he sat me down and told me, after Henry had gone to sleep.

He had a notion to drive up to Topeka with Henry, and register our claim in his name. Then he would get a lawyer up there to write that Henry owned the property, but I would be his next of kin. That way, when Henry died, it would transfer to me, and still be in our family. He was sure that Henry would agree, as he wouldn’t understand it anyway, and would do anything daddy said. Although he was slow in the head, Henry could make his mark, and daddy said I should teach him how to write his name as best as he could.

So I set to that task in the evenings, and also got Henry to tell me as much about his life as he could recall. By the end of the month, daddy had prepared him for the trip to Topeka, making him repeat everything they were going to do there. I was to stay behind and look after things until they got back.

They had only been gone two days, when two riders came to the house at first light. I put the forty-four in the pocket of my coat, and walked out to see what they wanted. They said that Ben the Portugee was hurt bad, and he was down by the riverbank, close to where the rowboats crossed over to Delano. He had told them to ask daddy for help, and money to pay a doctor. I didn’t tell the men that daddy wasn’t home, just said I would sort things. After they left, I saddled up Lizzie, and got some money from the metal container daddy hid under the seat box in the outhouse.

With the pistol still in my coat pocket, I set off for town.

It was still early when I rode into town, and there were not that many people around. Down by the boat ramp where the ferrymen operated, there was no sign of the Portugee. I saw one man rowing back from Delano, and as he tied his boat up I asked if he had seen anything of Ben. “The Portugee? Not this morning. It’s still early for that fella. He’ll be sleeping off a skinful, or in bed being warmed up by one of them gals”.

I had a look around some of the alleyways nearby, but saw no sign of Ben. I wondered where someone so badly hurt could have got to, so led Lizzie down to the doctor’s office. It took some knocking, but he eventually came out to the door, wearing a nightshirt. He wasn’t best pleased at my questions, and told me he hadn’t treated any injured man that morning. Then as I turned to leave, he called after me. “Say young Fuller, you sure those two riders weren’t figuring to rob your place after you left?”

I felt a cold sickness in the pit of my stomach, and jumped straight onto Lizzie. It hadn’t even occurred to me that it might have been a ruse, and as I pushed Lizzie fast for home, I was thinking of what they could have taken. The Henry Rifle was valuable, but my daddy had that with him, and his tools were in the wagon too. They might be looking for the cash box though. Folks knew we were doing well, and there was no bank in Wichita at the time. I felt stupid to have fallen for it, but also scared that they might be hiding somewhere, waiting to bushwack me. But the money I had taken for the doctor wasn’t enough to rob a man for. Or was it?

As I got in sight of the homestead, I could see that the two horses were tied to a rail of the fence near the house. I slowed Lizzie down, and considered my options. I hadn’t seen any guns on those fellas, but they were likely to be packing. If I just blundered in, they might just shoot me down on sight. I left Lizzie grazing, and went along the edge of the creek on foot, still with no sure plan what to do. Once I was in sight of the front of the house, I could hear noises inside. Then the younger one came out with my tool box, and upended it onto the ground. He turned and yelled “Ain’t nothing in here ceptin’ tools”. Then one of our best chairs flew out the door, followed by the older man. “Has to be here somewhere, keep looking”.

The young man shook his head, and in his frustation he stamped on the chair, snapping the legs. Then he kicked my tool box so hard, one side broke off. I saw red and stood up, holding the pistol in my right hand and pulling back the hammer too. I walked fast, but it was a while before they noticed me. “You fellas get now, ain’t nothing here”. I was pulled up to my full height, pointing the pistol. I suddenly didn’t feel scared no more.

The younger one raised his hands, but the older one sneered. “Just tell us where you keep the cash, boy, and we’ll leave you in peace. You ain’t gonna fire that pistol, so put it down before something happens”. I shook my head. “If you fellas got pistols, you had better take them out slow and drop them on the ground. Ain’t no money here, my daddy took it all with him”. I was actually relieved that they hadn’t thought to look in the outhouse, and managed to keep my head still and not look across at it. Neither man showed any pistols, but the older man pulled a big hunting knife and started toward me. “Why you pup, I’ll make you tell us”.

I still don’t know how I came to pull the trigger, but there was a mighty loud bang, and the older man fell to the ground. The young one called out “Luke, Luke!”, and knelt down next to him. I pulled back on the hammer of the single-action pistol agan, and he screamed, “Enough mister, don’t shoot me! No need! Luke’s hurt bad.” I was sure breathing hard, but I kept the pistol on him as he pulled at his friend on the ground. The older man had a fair hole at the side of his neck where the bullet had caught him, and was bleeding bad. He made a few sounds that meant nothing, and the young one turned to me again.

“Just let us go. He’s sure bad, and I won’t give you no trouble” I waved my pistol in the direction of their horses, and said, “On your way, and don’t let me see you around here again”. It sounded strange to hear myself say that, almost too growed-up. It took a while for him to get Luke onto his horse, and he slumped forward as he got in the saddle. I kept them covered as the younger one mounted up, and followed them all the way to the trail. When I was sure they had gone, I went back to find Lizzie.

But before I could reach for her reins, I fell to my knees and sicked up everything in my stomach.

I unsaddled Lizzie and settled her in the shelter with her feed. Inside the house, the men had been busy. Everything was either thrown around or just broke. Only the table and benches were as they had been. They had tried lifting some floorboards on one side, probably using the big knife. But there was no space under there to hide anything, as they soon found out. They had rooted around up in the chimney too, so there was soot everywhere. I waited a good time to make sure they hadn’t sneaked back, and went to check in the outhouse. The seat box was intact, and the cash box still in its spot inside.

That afternoon, I spent the time cleaning up, and repairing what I could. The smashed chair was past mending, though I was able to fix the beds, put back the floorboards, and make my toolbox good too. Once it got dark, I had some cold meat to eat, and sat in the dark with no fire. If them fellas were coming back, I wanted to be ready for them. I fell asleep in my own chair, still holding the forty-four.

Come sunup, I wasn’t about to leave, convinced they would come back to get me. I kept busy making a new chair from the good wood daddy kept in the bedroom. It took all day, and wasn’t as good as the one they had broken, but passable enough for Henry to sit on. I stayed around the house for five more days, with my nerves never settling. Then on the sixth day, I relaxed a little and started work on extending the horse-shelter into a stable of sorts. Later on, not long after dark, I heard the wagon drive up outside, and my daddy’s voice talking to the horses. I ran out straight away, babbling on about what happened, and how stupid I was to believe the story they told me. Daddy calmed me down, and took me inside to talk to me while Henry unhitched the mares.

Smoking his pipe and sipping whisky, daddy listened patiently, moving his hand up and down to slow me up when I talked too fast. When Henry came in, he related the story to him, in an easy way that Henry could understand. Then he turned to me, and I swallowed hard, wondering what he would say.

“Phin, you did well son. You were right to shoot that Luke when he came at you with a knife. If he died because of it, he only has himself to blame. Though if he recovered, reckon we will see those two again. I’m gonna get us a couple of scatterguns to keep handy, just in case. And you have to tell us both what they looked like, as much as you can recall. I need to know if they are hanging around in town. But all we lost was that old chair, and you are safe, which is the main thing”. I was mighty relieved, and went to get the fire going under the dinner pot.

After we had eaten, daddy rubbed his beard for a while. “I’m gonna have to go and see if I can find Ben. Seems to me he might have steered those two in our direction. No hurry though, that Portugee will show up soon enough. Doubt he’ll be able to keep away from whisky and women for long”. Then he showed me the papers that proved Henry owned the claim, and I was the only beneficiary. It hadn’t occurred to daddy that if anything happened to me, he would have no rights to the homestead.

A week went by, and life returned to normal. I rode around doing the small jobs, and daddy and Henry found Ben as he waited for a rowboat to Delano one evening. Daddy told me he looked sheepish and shifty, and when it was suggested he leave town and head west, he just looked at his shoes and nodded. The next morning as I rode near the Ryan house, Maggie appeared. She was running down to the fence, waving at me. It would have been too rude not to stop.

“Phin, you’ll never guess. Elizabeth is home with our aunt. Why don’t you come in and say hello?” I didn’t get into the house, as Elizabeth was stood at the open door. I took my hat off and smoothed my hair, standing on the porch feeling like a little boy. She was sure pretty; all gussied-up, with her hair piled high, and an expensive looking-necklace around her chalky-white throat. “Why Phineas Fuller, my how you have grown”. She was talking real fancy, almost like some foreigner. Smirking at me a little when she noticed the attention I was paying her, she lowered her voice.

“Take a good look, country boy. I will be leaving for Europe with my aunt soon. She is going to show me the world”.

I was polite as I could be to Elizabeth Ryan, and wished her a good trip to Europe. She folded her arms, still smirking. “I doubt you will see me again, Phin Fuller. My life is in New York City now”. I nodded to her and her sister. “I’d best get on now. Good to see you both”. As I rode away from the house, I considered that after all was said and done, I had just had a lucky escape. But there was no denying that red hair looked so damn pretty.

Between daddy’s work and that of the other carpenters, the town was taking shape along the riverbank, with houses now appearing even past the old cemetery that had been there since the start of the settlement. Men were working over in Delano, and it was easy to see the tent encampments slowly giving way to wooden structures over there. With Ben long gone, I worked with Henry and daddy, now, leaving the small jobs until the winter.

When I turned seventeen, it was the fall of eighteen-seventy, and five years since we had left Virginia. There was a petition raised in Wichita to have it declared a city. Most men signed it, including daddy and Henry. Someone made the trip to Topeka to submit the request to the Federal authorities there.

After leaving me fixing rails while they went in for supplies one Saturday, daddy got back early. As he passed by, I could see he had people in the back of the wagon. A big negro jumped down, then turned and helped two women onto the ground. Daddy waved to me from the house, as Henry drove off to settle the horses. I wiped my hands on a rag, and walked over.

“Phin, this here’s Walter. He’s gonna come work for us, grow some stuff on the land and watch over the homestead. That’s his woman Mary, and her daughter. Walter extended a hand, and I shook it. It was the first time I had ever touched a negro. The woman was a squaw, plain to see. She was wearing a dress, and her hair was all long and twisted, but there was no mistaking an injun. The younger one looked at her shoes, then up at me. I could tell she was a half-breed, but not Walter’s. I nodded to Mary, and politely said “Ma’am”. The girl smiled. Reckon nobody had ever been so respectful to her ma.

“Let’s get the tent from the store, and get them set up, Phin. Next week, we can start on building them a house before the weather sets in”.

I followed daddy to get the tent, and Walter helped us put it up within sight of the house. Mary and her daughter were in the house fixing dinner for later, and Henry went over to finish the last few rails on the fence. We left Walter unloading their few things from the wagon, and as we walked to the house, daddy told me their story.

“Walter was a slave down in Georgia. He was born here, and soon showed he could raise things real natural like. They put him to work in the market garden, and he stayed working with the vegetables and such. When he heard that Abe Lincoln had freed the slaves, he took off. He tried heading west, where he was fixing to get to the Kansas abolitionist towns. But he had a hard time keeping away from people who would have tried to take him back, and eventually joined the Union Army by hooking up with some of Sherman’s men. After the peace, he took off west again, working where he could and walking most of the way. Then he met Mary and her daughter and decided to protect them. Mary’s an Osage. Ain’t her real name of course, but it’s what she goes by. Her daughter is from a white man who took advantage of her in Missouri fifteen years ago. She’s called Susan”.

We ate a fine dinner that night. Mary and Susan did a great job with making our regular victuals taste great, and they even cleaned up the house while dinner was cooking. They both spoke good English too, and Walter could read and write a little bit, so he was teaching them from an old bible he carried. Daddy offered my help, in between puffs on his pipe. “Phin reads real good. Maybe he could teach the girl”. Susan looked up at me and blushed when he said that.

The next morning when we left for work in Wichita, daddy handed Walter a scattergun and a handful of cartridges. “You been in the army, so I reckon you know how to handle this. Anyone comes on this property giving you trouble, don’t be afeared to use it”.

As we drove out along the creek, Henry shook his head. “Mister Jessie, don’t reckon you should be giving no gun to a negro”.

The new arrivals soon proved their worth. Daddy had not only promised them a free house to live in, but also a fair share of any crops, and cash payment to Walter for any work he took on. And they had some good ideas too. Goats for milk and meat, and a few pigs to fatten up for eating. Mary and Susan were good with a needle and thread, and could make waistcoats from skins to keep us warm, as well as mittens and bedcovers too. They worked hard, and it seemed to me and Henry that daddy had made a right good choice in Walter.

I was given the job of working with Walter to build their cabin. It weren’t to be nothing fancy, just one big room with a curtain across the back to separate the sleeping area. Walter fetched the mud from the creek to make the chimney bricks, and the women helped fashion them as I concentrated on the wood working. Daddy brought planks from town for the floor, and Walter chopped trees for the log walls. Mary was in a fine mood, so happy to be settling down. Susan didn’t say much, but she smiled whenever I showed up to help.

Walter worked like nobody I had ever seen before. Out at first light digging the clearing to make ready for planting next year, and shifting the hard earth like it was flour. Daddy made good shelters for the pigs and goats, and went into town to arrange the purchase of them. He came back with news.

Shawn Ryan had sold his place next to ours, as his pig farm had never took off. Ryan’s negroes were in town looking for work, and one had offered to work for us raising the pigs. But daddy told him we didn’t need him, as we were only getting a few. Rumour was it had been bought up by a cattleman for keeping steers, and that same man was buying any adjacent land he could find. The railroad was heading south from Topeka, and once that arrived, the town was sure to grow real big.

Once their cabin was finished, and the tent put away, Walter and the women settled in well. They still cooked and cleaned for us, as well as washing our clothes. Nobody had ever told them to do that, and they seemed happy to help. Most evenings, we all ate together in our house, and they went to their cabin after dinner. Mary was real nice to Henry too. Seemed she thought a lot of people who were slow in the head, something to do with her background, daddy said. In a strange way, it started to feel like family, although we couldn’t have been more different.

Our homestead was feeling smaller by the time winter came around. With the plots prepared for crops, Walter’s house, and the new pens for goats and pigs, the only spare land was the woodland to the north. That was going to keep us in firewood though, so we had no intention of clearing it. With less work in town now, daddy set to building a barn next to our cabin. It took me and Henry to help of course, and even Walter was needed once the roof went on. We were going to need it to store next year’s crops, and it would come in right handy for storage too.

Daddy sat me down one night and talked about the future. He was real grey now, even his beard, and the sides of his hair were turning silver. “This town’s gonna grow much bigger, Phin. There are a lot more men working now, so we are not gonna get so much work. We have to think more about what we grow, and the animals we keep for food. I reckon there’s still plenty of game further south, so we should think about a hunting trip this winter too. You’re coming up eighteen next year, and I want to be sure you’re happy to stick with your old daddy. If you want to strike out on your own, you know that’s fine with me”.

I told him I was just fine there, and had no notions to move on anywhere.

That winter weren’t too bad at all, though we lost some of the barn roof in the strong winds that came from time to time. Mary asked daddy to get some buffalo hides in town, and she made us all fine heavy coats to wear in the cold. They didn’t smell so good, but boy, were they warm. Susan made me a hat that came down over my ears, and she lined it with some old cotton too. When I walked around trying it on, everyone laughed.

One chilly afternoon, two men rode in. They were smartly dressed, and quite old. One had a big moustache, hanging right off his jaw.

They said they had come to see Henry.

Daddy invited the men into the house, and told me to fetch Henry from the barn. As they tied their horses to a rail, the one with the long moustache nodded in the direction of Walter, who had come to see who was visiting. “Thet neegra of yours is carrying a shotgun, mister. T’aint a good idea for folks to see him with that”.

His accent was unusual, almost like a whine, and not familiar to my ears at all. Daddy held his hand up to stop Walter coming any closer. “Walter ain’t mine. He works here. He’s his own man, lives in his own house too”. The other man looked older, and was fat. He didn’t say anything, but shook his head.

I came back with Henry, telling him to be careful about what he said to the men, and not to say nothing if he wasn’t sure. Daddy had poured some whiskey, and they were sat around the table. Henry sat down and took out his pipe. Moustache man reached into his inside pocket and removed some folded papers.

“Says here you’re Henry Dench, and you have staked claim to this land. Is that a fact, Mr Dench? Henry glanced at daddy, then nodded. “Well then it’s your lucky day, Henry. If I may call you Henry? ‘Cause I’m about to make you a fine offer for this place. Enough for you to start over anywhere’s that takes yer fancy. See, I bought the Ryan place next to this one, and two more to the east behind you. I’m aiming to build cattle pens for when the railroad starts to attract the big drives to Wichita”.

Henry listened politely, lighting his pipe and filling the room with sweet smoke.

“Ain’t for sale, sir. We are happy here, and want to stay on the homestead. Getting crops ready for next harvest, and got a good business going with building too. No need for us to start again. But I say thank you for your offer, all the same”. The man hadn’t mentioned a price, but I got the feeling Henry wouldn’t sell for a king’s ransom. The older man started talking. He had an accent I did recognise. Dutch, or German.

“Mister Dench, you are too hasty. Listen to our offer, and think about the future. Very soon your homestead will be surrounded by cattle on three sides. There will be a lot of noise, a great deal of dust, and in hot weather, those beasts will drink the creek dry. Why not move on, find somewhere more pleasant? There will be room for your workers to stay on with you, and you can start again someplace else. Once the railroad comes, Wichita will change completely. You won’t recognse it, I promise you”. He slid some papers across the table. You will see our offer is well above market value, and all you have to do is sign. We will arrange to pay you in cash or gold, and you will have six weeks to pack up”.

Blowing out a cloud of smoke that covered both the men, Henry shook his head. He didn’t even bother to inspect the documents, not that they would have meant a great deal to him anyway. “My mind is made up, mister. I ain’t selling, and don’t care about how many cows are living around us. But I say thanks to you again for your consideration, and there’s more whiskey if you care for some”. The men looked at each other, and both downed what was left in their glasses. Then they stood up, and moustache man folded the papers before returning them to his pocket.

As they walked to their horses, the fat man turned back to Henry. “The offer’s good for a month. We are in the hotel if you change you mind”. Once in the saddle, moustache man looked over at daddy. “Take that shotgun off your neegra, mister. That’s free advice”. When they were gone, Walter walked over. “What them fellas want, Boss Jessie?” Daddy had told him not to call him boss, but he couldn’t stop himself. Daddy spit on the ground, and looked over at the dust where they they had reached the trail.

“Trouble, Walter. They want trouble. And don’t call me boss, y’hear?”

It wasn’t long before daddy found out who the men were. The moustache man was Bill Mathewson. He had made his money from buffalo hunting and skins, and was buying up land along with the German, who was called Grieffenstein. That German was a successful merchant and trader who soon had a hand in most things bought and sold in Wichita. But with no railroad yet, all they could do was to keep accumulating property, hoping to cash in later.They left us alone for a while, but pretty soon the building jobs got less, as they made sure never to use us for any construction or repairs. Reckon they also told their friends not to employ us too.

Daddy said he weren’t that bothered. We had a good amount of money behind us, and the steady stream of new settlers meant that there were still jobs to pick up from time to time. One good thing was that Shawn Ryan went to work for the German, and after that he never called on us no more. And when I rode past their place, Maggie didn’t come out waving no more neither.

The next spring, railroad men started to lay the rails heading north to Newton. That would connect with the railroad that had already reached there, so it seemed it wouldn’t be long before trains from up north would soon be arriving in town. But on the homestead, life was still good. The planting got done, and with less work for us in Wichita, we set to improving our own buildings, and doing repairs. Daddy and Henry got some work over in Delano, building a new saloon near the riverbank. We had always avoided that place, but Henry said ‘Work is work, Mister Jessie”. That left me working around the homestead with Walter.

Susan used to bring us something to eat and drink mid-morning. As we stopped work to eat, she would show me her practice at writing in an old notebook daddy had given her. She was doing good, and keen to learn more. Reading the old Bible was hard though, ’cause of all the funny names and old words. I thought to get her a better book, next time I was in town. One day, as she cleared away the plates and cups to take back to the house, she gave me a smile. It was a certain sort of smile, and it made me notice her in a way I hadn’t thought of before.

She was sure pretty, I had to admit.

When I got to the new General Store in Wichita, the man told me there was no call for books, but he could order some for me from Topeka if I knew which ones I wanted, and paid up front. Then he suggested I go see Mrs Parker, the reverend’s wife. She was running a school for little kids from her house behind the church. She was a nice lady, and happy to make some suggestions. I wrote down what she recommended, and went back to the store and paid for them. I ordered a copy of Moby Dick, also Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Mrs Parker said that was about slaves before the war, and Walter might like to hear it read. The books were mighty expensive, and the man in the store said they would take three weeks to arrive.

Daddy picked them up for me on his way home one evening, and that night after dinner, I read some chapters from Moby Dick as everyone sat around the fire. The characters were so well-described, it was like we could see them in our heads, and hearing about fishing for the big whales was something new to us all. As they were leaving, I handed Susan the copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, wrapped in some white cotton, and told her it was for her. I don’t reckon anyone had ever given her anything before, as her hands were trembling, and I could see tears in her eyes as she took it. Turning in the doorway, she said, “Will you help me with the words I don’t know?” I smiled and nodded.

All through that summer, we carried on working around the house, with daddy and Henry away most days finishing the saloon. They also got more work at the hotel, adding more rooms at the back. The hotel owner said he paid no mind to what the rich cattlemen said, and he was happy because daddy did good work at a fair price. The corn, potatoes, and greens were growing well, and Walter did indeed show his skill at producing a fine crop. Which we later harvested and stored.

Around the time I was coming up eighteen that fall, Susan gave me a package wrapped in some soft hide. Inside were a pair of moccasins she had made me, all sewed real fancy, with small beads and injun designs. She said I could wear them around the house when I took my boots off, to save tearing holes in my socks.

I put them on and walked around some, declaring they were the most comfortable shoes I had ever owned.

Before the next winter set in, daddy talked about the hunting trip again. He reckoned a few days away would provide us with some deer and wild hogs, not to mention plenty of game birds. As well as the Henry rifle, daddy had bought an old fifty-calibre Hawken from a man in town to take along. It was slow to use, but daddy said that it could knock down the biggest buck from a ways off. We both tried it out in the woods, and it sure had some kick to it.

Henry was going to use my horse and tool box while we were away. He could do a few small jobs locally, and Walter would be busy sorting and storing the crops. Mary had woven some baskets, and she said they were fish traps. Her and Susan were going to take them up to the deepest part of the creek and set them. Mary said salted fish would make a change from meat come winter. I wasn’t much for eating fish, but I had to admit that Mary could make anything taste good. Even beans.

Daddy told me to leave my forty-four with Henry, and he made sure they both had the shotguns handy, just in case of trouble. Susan made me a dandy case for my hunting knife, and her and Mary packed us up enough food for a month. Heading south not far from the banks of the Arkansas River, we could see how so much more land was being settled, or fenced off. Derby was growing, no doubt about that.

After travelling all that day and the next, we turned inland and daddy started to get the feel of where we might see some game. The pastures at the edge of the woodland looked good, so we got the wind against us, and set up a hide of sorts, leaving the wagon in a dip where it would not be spotted. After a dull morning with nothing happening, a herd of deer appeared walking out of the trees to our left. Daddy readied the Hawken to take the leading buck, and told me to aim for the biggest doe, which was at the back of the herd. He counted us down from three, and we both fired.

When the smoke cleared, the herd had scattered. The big buck was stone dead on its side, daddy had got it right through the neck. But my shot had hit the doe in the top of her leg, breaking the bone. She was dragging the leg as she tried to run. Daddy spoke quietly to me. “Hit her again, Phin. Don’t make her suffer now”. My second shot was still too rushed, but brought her down. As we walked over to finish her off, I apologised for being clumsy. Daddy smiled. “You’ll learn Phin. Can’t be helped. Why don’t you go back and get the wagon, bring it over to them?”

By the time I got back, he had gutted the animals, and tied their legs so we could lift them up, and fix them to the sides of the wagon. It was too cold for us to sleep outside if we didn’t have to, and we didn’t like the idea of sleeping next to the dead animals inside.

The next morning, we drove for a couple of hours before seeing some woods up ahead. Daddy thought they might be a good place to find hogs, so drove off the trail and hid the wagon at the edge of the woodland. We blocked the wheels and put the brake on, leaving the mares some feed as we walked inside. It was dark and damp in there, with lots of ground cover hiding many of the roots. We had to walk real careful, and stay quiet. Daddy couldn’t smoke his pipe neither, as the hogs would smell it. We were both wearing coils of rope around us, to use to drag out any we managed to kill.

But after creeping around for a good while, we heard no sound that might be hogs. Daddy whispered that we should turn back, and try for some more deer somewheres else. I could just see the light at the edge of the trees, when there was a crunching sound, like someone running through a big pile of leaves. As I turned to look at daddy, he raised the Hawken, with his back to me. But he had no time to fire before a huge hog crashed out of the undergrowth into him, knocking him down, and causing him to drop the rifle.

I raised the Henry and looked along the barrel, but I was afeared to shoot in case I hit my daddy. Then there were two shots, and the hog fell over on its side. To my left, I heard some grunting and squealing as the rest of them ran off from where they had been hiding, and I walked over to help daddy up. But he couldn’t stand. He had shot the hog with his old service pistol, through the pocket of his long coat where he kept it. But it had bit him bad, the long sharp teeth tearing his thigh. It was nothing like the pigs we kept back home. Covered in dark hair, with a huge head, it looked fierce even though it was dead.

Daddy’s shout snapped me out of it. “Phin, take your belt off son, you need to strap it around my leg. Real quick now!”

I fixed my belt around daddy’s leg, and he pulled it real tight. I was staring at the wound, and could see the muscle of his leg through the blood. He gritted his teeth, and spoke quietly. “Phin, get the Hawken for me, then go get the wagon and the long rope. I ain’t leaving this hog behind”. I did as he said, running until I thought my lungs would burst. When I got back to him with the rope, he had dragged himself up against a tree, and there was a twig twisted inside the belt around his leg. “Tie the hog’s legs, then fix the rope to the wagon axle. Drive it forward until the hog’s dragged out, then come back for me”. I nodded.

He didn’t look none too good, but I wasn’t about to go against anything daddy told me to do.

Using the long-barrelled Hawken like a crutch, and holding on to me, daddy managed to hop out of the woods, though he fell forward two or three times. I got on the back of the wagon and managed to haul him up onto the boards. He was as white as a clean sheet, and sweating real bad. “Now wrap that rope on the hog around the footboard, and bring the end back here”. With both of us pulling on the rope, we got the hog up level with the wagon. Then I tied off the slack, and jumped out to swing the animal into the back of the wagon next to daddy. He wanted water, then he wanted whiskey. He drunk some, then poured more over his leg, shaking his head and screwing up his eyes at the pain.

“Get us home, Phin. Push the horses”.

The poor mares must have wondered what was going on, as they had never been pushed so hard. I kept going until it was too dark to see the trail, and daddy yelled from the back. “Stop now son, afore we break a wheel or the horses’ legs”. I got a fire going, tended to the hot horses, and then tried to make daddy more comfortable. From the light shining out the oil lamp, I could see the leg was still bleeding, though not as much. I tried to get him to eat something, but he shook his head. Pulling the stick out of the loop, he slackened the belt, and sighed. “More whiskey, son. You eat”.

At first light, daddy woke me from a heavy sleep by calling loudly. “Rouse yourself, Phin, we need to get going. Now!” I got the horses ready, then set off. Daddy called again. “Better not push them all day, boy. Start off slow, then quicken them up after full sunup”. That was one hell of a day. I kept hoping we would see some other people, and I could ask for help. I didn’t stop but once, to help daddy tighten the belt again, and grab a bite for myself sitting next to a stream where I watered the horses without unharnessing them. Without the need to stop and look for game, I kept the wagon going until the horses started to slow up, and the sun was setting.

Daddy called from the back. “That’s enough now. Get a fire started, we’ll be home tomorrow”. I managed to get him to eat some of Mary’s bean and potato soup once it was warm from the fire. He had wrapped a thick cloth around his thigh, then put my belt tight around it. The whiskey was all gone, but he drank down two cans of water like a man with a mighty thirst. That night I lay down between him and the dead hog, and there was no warmth from neither of them.

He was still sleeping when I woke up, and when I shook him, he didn’t come round. I put my cheek against his mouth and could only just feel his breath. Before the sun was breaking through the misty morning, I started to recognise the surroundings, and knew we would soon be near Derby. I pushed those poor mares real hard, and it wasn’t long before I was turning off the trail with our homestead in sight.

With me yelling fit to bust as I approached, Walter came running, followed by Susan and Mary. Walter lifted daddy as if he was a baby, and carried him inside. Mary rushed in to clear the big table, and Susan put her hand on my chest to stop me following. “See to the horses, Phin. Ma knows what to do. Henry’s already left for work, but Walter will be out directly”.

Walter came out later, to help with the deer and the hog. His face was serious. “How’s my daddy, Walter?” I wanted to go in and see him, but the big man shook his head. “Best leave him to Mary, boss. He don’t look too good”. He reached over and touched my shoulder.

“Not good at all”.

Susan came out of the house and ran past me, carrying a basket. She headed for the tree line in the distance, and disappeared into the woods. Walter fetched two pails of fresh water from the creek, saying he was going to set them to boil. I couldn’t hear anything from inside. If daddy was in pain, he was braving it well. I was dog-tired after the trip home, but couldn’t relax until I had some idea what was going to happen.

When Susan got back, her basket was filled with tree moss and bark, and mushrooms of some kind. She hesitated before going inside, and turned to me. “Stay strong, Phin. My ma will do her very best”. I was still sitting outside when Henry got back from town on Lizzie. I had to tell him the story of the hog, and how bad daddy was. He was sure that Mary would work miracles, and he went off to help Walter deal with the meat we had brought back.

Mary finally came out and waved me to come inside when the sun had almost set. Susan had food on the go, and the fire was roaring hot to keep daddy warm, Mary said. He was still on the table, his leg wrapped in a big bundle of clean cloths with Mary’s concoction against the wound. She had washed him as best she could, but he smelled bad still. Susan went to get Walter to carry daddy to his bed, and when he was laid in there under some warm skins and blankets, they scrubbed the table clean. Mary finally told me what she thought. “I have done my best with my sort of medicine, Phin. I got his fever down, and I reckon I might get him to take some soup tonight. But that wound is sure deep, right past the muscle, and a hog’s mouth is a dirty thing. He might need a doctor from town if he ain’t no better this time tomorrow”.

I took some hot water outside, and washed in private. Susan brought me clean clothes to change into before I went back in to eat. After dinner, Walter told me that Mary was going to sleep in my bed, to tend to daddy during the night, and I should make a bed on the floor in front of the fire. I was so bone-tired, I went to sleep before Susan and Walter left for their cabin.

Daddy was awake the next morning, but not making any sense when he was talking. Mary told me not to worry. “It’s the mushrooms, Phin. Make him forget the pain”. She had fixed a length of wood to the outside of his leg, to stop him trying to bend his knee. I had to hold a hand over my nose and mouth because of the smell in our bedroom. I don’t know how Mary stood it all night. Outside the bedroom, Mary put her arm around me. “Best send Henry into town. Tell him to get a good doctor, the young one I heard mention of”. Henry took my horse and set off. The mood around the homestead was bad, and only Walter was doing any work that day.

Henry came back with someone following him in a one-horse buggy. It was Doctor Frazer. He had a funny accent, because he was from Scotland. He didn’t like to be called British either. Told me he had made his way to Wichita from New York the previous summer, hearing that we needed more doctors once the town became a city. I had seen him once for a bad tooth, and he had pulled it for me real quick. One look at daddy’s conditon, and he shook his head. “This leg has to come off, or your father will surely die tonight. Ask your man to get my other bag from the buggy”. I told him I would get it, and I was trembling as I brought it back.

Henry and Walter came in to help, and Mary told Susan to take me outside until it was over. The doctor made daddy drink something from a glass bottle, and it sent him senseless. As I walked outside with Susan, I heard him telling Walter to get daddy out of bed, and back onto the table in the next room.

It wasn’t long at all before Walter came out, carrying something wrapped in a bloody cloth. I knew it was daddy’s leg, didn’t have to ask. He walked off somewheres, intending to bury it, I guessed. Mary came out, making an effort to smile. “That doctor’s good, Phin. He was real fast, and now he’s tidying things”. I felt cold inside, and couldn’t imagine how fixing the stump on daddy’s thigh could be called ‘tidying things’.

I knew the stuff from the bottle had worn off when I heard daddy yelling my name.

Daddy was lying on his bed. They had dressed him in a nightshirt that was one of Walter’s so it was way too big. He looked a lot better, and though he was still talking too fast, he was at least making sense. “You saved my life boy, have no doubt about that. He had to take my leg, or I would have died for sure. So don’t you go worrying none. You did the right thing, I promise you. Now you pay the doctor before he leaves, I don’t want us to be owing no money”. He pointed at his coat, which was on the floor. “There’s money in there, Yankee dollars”.

I took the money and went back to where the doctor had finished washing his hands in a bowl. I held all the money out to him and he took three bills. “That’s enough, Phin. I will come back tomorrow and check on your father. Make sure he gets plenty to eat, and stays warm. I reckon he can have some of this for the pain, but make sure he doesn’t drink it all”. He handed me the small glass bottle, smiling as he said that. With that, he put his coat on and walked out to his buggy carrying his bags in each hand. I heard daddy call me again, and went back in. “Tell Mary she done real good, and Walter too. And Phin, you oughta think serious about their Susan. That girl is a jewel Phin, she really is”.

Leaving him to rest, I nodded and walked outside. I was already thinking very seriously about Susan.

Over the next few days, I took over daddy’s jobs, and me and Henry left every morning for work. With the railroad arriving the following spring, lots of new businesses and storage areas needed building, and there was suddenly more work than we could handle. I was accepted as a man now by most everyone, and many people would come up to ask how daddy was doing. News travelled fast around Wichita.

After a couple more visits from the doctor, and the careful care and attention from Mary, daddy was looking more or less recovered, and eating well too. I was sure the wound must be terrible painful, but if it was, he didn’t let on none. I made him some crutches, so he could get into the main room without being carried. Susan took them off me and sewed some soft leather cushions for them, stuffed with rabbit fur. I fixed them to the crutches with some small tacks, and daddy got up real easy using his good left leg.

I told him that when he was ready to tolerate it, I would make him a dandy false leg, one that he could put a shoe on. He stopped drinking his coffee, and smiled. “Ain’t no good, Phin. Doctor had to take my leg off real high, so there’s hardly anything to fit into a wooden leg. I’m gonna have to learn to get around as best I can on these here crutches. You did a great job on them, by the way. And tell Susan the cushions are real comfy”. It hadn’t occured to me that daddy couldn’t have a false leg, and I started to think about all the things he wouldn’t be able to do any longer.

Longer winter nights were good for courting. I would sit quiet with Susan once Walter and Mary left and daddy and Henry had gone into their rooms. As far as things went, I was supposed to be improving her reading, which had come on real fast. She had read Moby Dick twice now, and though some words and names gave her trouble, she could make sense of it. She was going to read the other book to Walter and Mary first, keeping note of any words she didn’t comprehend.

I would walk her back to their cabin carrying a lamp, and one night I stopped short. “Tell me, Susan. Do you ever give any thought to getting wed?” In the lamplight, I could see she was blushing, and she shrugged rather than reply. I carried on. “Only I don’t reckon I could ever find a better young woman than you to marry, but before I ask your ma, I should make sure you think the same as me”. She allowed herself a wide grin. “You should ask them both, Walter too. He may not be my natural pa, but he’s as good as any I ever wanted”. Taking that as a yes, I leaned over and kissed her awkwardly on the cheek, and she ran off giggling.

After dinner the next night, I waited until Walter and Mary were back in the cabin with Susan, and I walked over and knocked politely on the door. I stood with my hat in my hand, real respectful like. Walter was grinning as he opened up, and I knew right off he was wise to why I was there. Susan was out of sight behind the curtain as I stumbled over my prepared words. When I had said my piece, Mary walked forward and kissed me, then Walter grabbed my hand and shook it so hard I thought it would fall off.

When Susan ran around the curtain and threw her arms around my neck, I had never felt happier.

Daddy was sure pleased when I told him the news, and Henry gave me a big bear-hug too. After I told him, daddy sat thinking for a while. Then he lit his pipe and said he wanted to suggest some things.

“Phin, before any wedding, I think we should build a house for you and Susan. Maybe behind Walter’s cabin, closer to the woods. You two will need your privacy, and you will still be close by. Henry tells me there are men in town offering to set up water pumps. They can dig down on the property, find water, and set up hand pumps. That has to be better than walking back and forth to the creek, and we have the money for it. When you’re in Wichita, ask around about them. Fella told Henry they’re Italians or some such. And you had better speak to Reverend Parker too, arrange a date for the end of Spring”.

Everyone on the homestead pitched in. I wanted a nice plank house for me and Susan, not one made from logs. Walter dug out deep foundations, leaving room for a raised porch at the front. It would only be two rooms, but daddy said I could order real bricks from Topeka for the chimney. Susan and Mary set to making quilts, rugs, and bedding, and Henry built daddy a bench in the barn where he could work sitting down to fashion window frames and shutters. I watched him working, and he seemed happy. “How about real windows, Phin? We can get some glass from town, and still have shutters on the outside”.

Reverend Parker smiled when I told him, but then he put his hand on my shoulder. “Sad to say some folks might not take to you getting wed to a half-breed, Phin. But I could come out to your place and marry you right there. How does that sound?” Part of me was angry that he felt like that, but we didn’t go to church that often, and Walter and Mary hadn’t seemed too bothered about a ceremony of any kind. Walter had laughed when he told me, “You two could just jump the broomstick, that’s fine with us”. When I told them what the Reverend had said, they all seemed relieved. Daddy told me, “He’s right, Phin. You don’t want no trouble with those church people”.

The house was almost finished by the time the weather improved. Mary and Susan started to whitewash the wood, and Walter lit a big fire to prove the chimney. Me and Henry were still working on jobs around Wichita and Delano, then coming home to carry on until dark on my house. Once there was no frost, the Italians came out to fix the pumps. They were from New York City, but from an immmigrant family that had settled there. The older one reckoned he would find the water real easy, as we were so close to the creek. They dug down with a big boring screw, trying various sites until they hit good water. Then they laid some pipes between the cabins and the house, before burying them back out of sight. Pretty soon, each place had a pump just outside, and they were working well.

I guessed it must have all cost a lot of money, but daddy had a meeting with the men inside the cabin to arrange a price, and he paid them himself when the job was finished. After seeing them off the property, he turned to me. “This means we won’t be dependent on the creek so much, Phin. If those cattlemen do as they said, it won’t bother us none”.

When the house was fit to live in, I made two good chairs for the porch. Susan put all her stuff inside, and even made curtains to hang in the windows. Daddy bought us new cooking pots and such, said it was his gift to us. Henry made a heavy table from some old wood, and polished it real nice. Then on the Sunday, daddy smiled when he said, “Best you ride in to see Reverend Parker today, son”.

The wedding day was cloudy, but at least it didn’t rain. Mary had made Susan a beautiful dress that she could wear at other times, and dressed her hair with some flowers, injun-style. I had a new long black jacket and black hat bought in Wichita, and while I was there I had a haircut and shave too. The Reverend came in a buggy with Mrs Parker. He brought the big Bible, and the Church Register too. Mary cried when he said we were man and wife, and then he wrote our names down official like, in the Register. Susan had used Walter’s name, Washington, as she wanted nothing to do with the man who had taken advantage of her ma.

There was good eating and some whisky after, and when Mr and Mrs Parker went home, Walter winked at me. “Time to carry Mrs Susan Fuller over your threshold, I reckon”. He stopped calling me ‘boss’ that same day.

Wichita soon became the favourite destination for the big cattle drives coming north from Texas. With the railroad able to take live steers up to Topeka, then on to the big city stockyards and markets like the one in Chicago, the town was soon booming.

With the cattle came more people. Not just the cowboys involved with driving the huge herds, but anyone looking to make money on the back of the industry. It wasn’t long before people started to call Wichita ‘Cow Town’, and that name sure stuck.

More people and all that money meant more saloons, more whorehouses, and a whole heap of trouble. As well as the fights, there were shootings, and places getting smashed up. It weren’t much better across in Delano either, as that place was a magnet for drunks, gamblers, and troublemakers. At least most of the ructions happened at night, and we made sure to always be home before it got dark.

One good thing about it was the extra work. With so much expansion, there was more work than we could handle, including lots of new stores, saloons, and a bigger and better hotel. We got some full-builds, and some part-jobs, but we were always working. Daddy stayed home most of the time, but continued to make what he could using his new bench.

The town offcials, who liked to call Wichita a city, had got together to raise the money to form some sort of law enforcement. They gave it the fancy name of The Wichita Police Department. Despite the appearance of lawmen on the streets, it seemed to me that people could pretty much still do whatever they wanted. And when the big cattle drives arrived, some of the places even shuttered up once those crazy cowboys hit town.

Married life was good. We stayed in our house for dinner now, though Walter and Mary kept up the habit of eating with daddy and Henry. Susan seemed to take to her wifely role like a duck to water, and I never saw her not smiling, not once. On a very hot day in late summer, she came to talk to me as I was washing in the cold water from the pump. “Phin, you’re gonna be a daddy. What do you think of that?” I suppose I should have jumped up and down, picked her up and swung her around, something like that. But it didn’t seem real. Despite my age and my size, I still thought of myself as a boy. Maybe because I still lived so close with daddy, and looked to him to make so many decisions.

I didn’t do no jumping nor swinging, I cried instead. They were happy tears, and Susan knew they were.

Daddy and Henry shook my hand when they got the news. Mary and Walter already knew before me, as Susan had asked her ma lots of questions to confirm what she thought. After pouring me a glass of whiskey, daddy rubbed his beard. “Reckon you should have your own money now, son. Instead of just buying what you need from what we all share, seems like time to make proper arrangements”. Daddy was a fair man. Me, him, and Henry would get equal shares, and we would each pay a part from our shares to Walter and Mary, so they had their own income.

There was a bank in town now, in a sturdy building on north main street. It was called The Wichita Bank, and run by a man named Fraker. Naturally Mr Mead got involved too, as the richest man around. Daddy said we should open up business with them, as we couldn’t keep using the old cash box and hiding our money in the outhouse. We all got accounts with that bank, ‘cepting Walter. He wanted to take his share in ready cash, and that was fair enough.

That fall of seventy-two, I turned nineteen. I was going to be a daddy come February, and realised I had to step up and stop relying so much on daddy. Henry didn’t mind none that I was in charge. Although he had picked up some skill with wood by then, he still mainly did the heavy work, as well as some sawing and hammering. With advice from daddy, I started to price up new jobs, and haggle some with merchants and suppliers too. By the time some light snow told us winter was on us, I could build almost anything I was asked to, and had my own reputation as a businessman.

The baby came early. Susan woke me one night and told me to go fetch her ma. It was cold, and snow on the ground. I had built the fire up before we went to bed, and threw more wood on it as I got dressed. Mary wasn’t concerned. She said Susan might have counted her days wrong. “She’s young and strong, Phin. Don’t you worry, she’ll be fine”. I suggested going into town for a doctor, but Mary shook her head. “Leave her to me, but best you go and sleep in your daddy’s cabin”. I doubted I would get any sleep, but went and sat in the old cabin with the glowing embers of the fire to warm me. Daddy and Henry were both snoring, and I didn’t wake them.

Next morning, Henry had gone off on his own to do some jobs, and daddy was in the barn fixing something. I told them I had to stay home for once. It was early afternoon when Mary came to get me. She was looking tired, but beaming a big smile. “You have a daughter, Phin. She’s sure a beauty”.

We named her Sophia, after granny Fuller. And Mary, for Susan’s ma.

Not long after Sophia’s second birthday, we had new lawmen in town who were finally getting on top of the trouble. James Earp had been joined by his younger brother, Wyatt. Both were working for Marshal Meagher, and dealt out punishments there and then, usually with the butt of a pistol. Some complained that they were too harsh, but those cowboys soon learned to fear them, especially the hot-headed Wyatt.

On the homestead, life was still good. We had more pigs by then, and Walter seemed to have a way with them, as well as the crops. Little Sophia stuck by her mama most of the time, and loved to be around the animals, or out in the field. Mary had got us some chickens for fresh eggs, and my little girl liked to feed them too.

There had been no more babies. Susan told me she was sorry about that, but I told her not to mind. I was a happy man just how things were.

It was a Sunday when the men rode in. Susan was in the house making dinner, and daddy and Henry were sitting outside their cabin enjoying the warm light evening. We saw the dust approaching from the trail, and I got a bad feeling. I looked across at daddy, and he nodded. So I went inside and got the Henry rifle, as well as daddy’s pistol.

I counted six of them, dusty-looking cowboys on sweaty horses. Some had red sashes around their waists, something I had seen before in Wichita. The leading rider got off his horse, and walked up to me, smiling. “You Phineas Fuller, Jessie’s boy?” I nodded and pointed at daddy in his chair. “And that’s my daddy”. Henry stood up and went inside, then Walter walked around front carrying an empty pail that had contained the pig food.

“Alright if we water the horses, Phineas? I nodded and pointed at the pump. “Maybe your negra could fill that pail for me?” Walter dropped the pail in front of the man, and I said “Reckon you can manage that yourself mister”. The others were getting off their horses and looking around, but only that first man did any talking, as he worked the handle to fill the bucket. “Got yourself set up real nice here, Fuller. Real nice. But I got you a good offer from my boss. He wants to buy the place for grazing, told me to fix a price”.

Before I could say anything, Henry came back outside carrying a shotgun. “It’s my place, mister. And it ain’t for sale. Tell Mr Mathewson that”. The man dropped the half-filled pail and turned to Henry. He had stopped smiling. “I never said it was Mathewson, mister. But I got a price in mind that’s real good. Maybe you wanna put that scattergun down and talk nice?” Two of the other men walked forward, and daddy raised his arm to show the pistol. I stood my ground. “You heard Henry, mister. Ain’t for sale. You’re welcome to water, but then you had better go I reckon”.

The man raised his hands and started smiling again. “You got a cripple, a half-wit, and a negra. Don’t reckon we’re scared none, Fuller. But we ain’t here for no trouble, just to do business”. His accent was jarring me. Probably west Texas, certainly not from around these parts. This time I smiled, and lowered the rifle. “No business to be done, mister. If you don’t want water, then you had all best be on your way”. He turned to the others and jerked his head. They slowly got back on their horses, and started to ride off. But he was the last to mount up, turning to Henry with a wide grin.

“You’ll see us again, I promise you that”.

When I was sure they had gone, I walked over to daddy. “Should I ride into town, daddy? Maybe tell the Marshal?” Daddy shook his head. “Meagher only cares about what happens in Wichita, Phin. Likely they could pay him off anyways. We are gonna have to be more watchful from now on though”.

By the time the weather had got real hot, they hadn’t returned. But I was uneasy all the time back then, and trying hard not to show it in front of Susan and little Sophia. For a couple of months, daddy and Henry had been taking turns staying up nights, and sleeping during the day. But after the harvesting of the crops, we all finally relaxed. It was so hot that late summer, and I had trouble sleeping. Susan was restless too, and thought she might be expecting again.

I finally got to sleep one night after sitting out front to escape the heat inside. I just stayed in the chair, and didn’t remember nodding off.

The screaming woke me up. I knew right away it was Mary.

I rushed across to Walter’s cabin, still half-asleep, and stumbling in the dark. Mary was on the ground outside, pointing in the direction of the trees on the bank of the creek. “Walter, they took him. Help him, Phin”. I ran off where she was pointing, not even thinking that I had no weapons, not even my knife. Yelling as I ran, hoping to rouse Henry and daddy. I couldn’t see a thing, but could hear horses in the distance. By the time I got there, I just made out the rider at the back. He was wearing a big white hood, and urging his horse on.

Then they were gone.

When I got back to Mary, Susan was there with her, and Henry was saddling up Lizzie. In the light of an oil lamp, I could see Mary had a bad injury on her face. It looked like her cheek was broke, and she was talking funny, in between spitting out blood. “I was asleep, something hit me hard on the face, almost sent me senseless. Men with hoods, they hit Walter with something, then two of them carried him out. I crawled to the door, but they were already gone. That’s when I screamed for help”. Susan was crying as she tried to do something about her ma’s face, but Mary just pushed her hand away. “Go and find him. You’re wasting time”.

Daddy came over on his crutches, holding a lamp in two fingers of his right hand. “Hold on now. Henry, unsaddle that horse. Nobody ain’t gonna find nothing when it’s this dark. Besides, those men could be waiting for you, and you wouldn’t have a chance”. He turned to my wife. “Susan, take your ma inside her cabin and clean her up. We will set out at first light and do our best to find Walter”. Mary started screaming again, and Susan held her close to comfort her sobbing ma.

Henry drove the wagon, with daddy sitting in the back, leg stretched out. I rode Lizzie up ahead. We headed south, in the direction of the biggest cattle spreads, but truth be told we had no plan, and no real idea where to look. Daddy had the Hawken and his pistol, and I had the Henry rifle as well as my forty-four, Under the wagon seat, Henry had two shotguns, both loaded and ready to use. If we found those fellas, there was sure going to be a reckoning.

Mid-morning, we saw two riders herding steers along a fence line close to the trail. I rode up close to the fence and waited for them to get close. “You fellas seen anything of some riders with white hoods on? They would have a tall negro with them”. The older man spit some tobacco in my direction, and a younger one with a fancy black hat spoke up. “White hoods? You dreaming boy? You had yourself a nightmare? Where y’all from anyway? You sound like a Johnny Reb”. The older man laughed out loud, showing brown teeth and the big plug of tobacco rolling around in his mouth. Black hat pointed in the direction we had come from. “Best you turn around and go home. You farmers ain’t welcome here”.

They rode off after the steers, and it had already dawned on me that they knew full well who we were.

Late afternoon, we stopped to rest and water the horses. Henry pointed at some trees, east of the trail. “Look there, Phin”. Henry must have had real good eyes. It took me a while to see what he was talking about. A thin wisp of smoke rising, like you might see from a campfire. Henry took up one of the shotguns, and turned the wagon left off the trail. I went to the side, grabbing the forty-four into my right hand. In the back, daddy sat up straight, and rested the Hawken on the edge of the wagon board.

Just inside the first few trees, we stopped. Henry jumped down from the wagon, and I heard my daddy groan real loud. “Oh no, not that. Oh dear God no”. The next moment, Henry fell to his knees, dropping the shotgun in front of him. I turned Lizzie around a big tree, and what I saw made my eyes open so wide, I felt they might never close again.

Walter was hanging upside down, from the lowest branch of a tree. His feet and hands were tied with rope, and that was tied off across on another tree branch. What was left of a small fire was still glowing and smoking under his head. It had burned his face off, but there was no mistaking it was Walter. I felt like I might pass out, and leaned against the tree, the bile rising in my throat but refusing to come up. Henry started crying, big tears rolling down his cheeks and falling onto the ground. Daddy snapped us both out of it.

“You’ve seen enough, I reckon. Now cut him down and get him in the wagon”.

When we got home, it was almost dark. Susan sobbed and cried, but Mary was strangely quiet. She said she already knew Walter was dead, just felt it inside. “He died bad. I don’t want to see, but I know he died bad”. She brought an embroidered blanket and some kind of necklace from her cabin. “Wrap him in this, put the necklace inside. I will use it to recognise him when we meet again”. Using some oil lamps for light, me and Henry dug a grave behind their cabin, close to the edge of the woods. Henry rolled Walter’s body up in the blanket, and put the necklace inside before the last fold. By the time we had filled in the dirt, it was late.

But none of us could eat any dinner.

The next day at sunrise, I was woken up by Mary singing some strange song. I went to the window, and watched her. She was wearing a long dress made from buckskin, and moccasins on her feet. Kneeling down beside the grave, holding her hands up to the sky, and singing that same song over and over. Susan came to the window beside me. “My ma is singing Walter’s spirit to the hunting grounds, Phin. She might be there all day”.

I asked daddy if I should go and report what had happened to the Marshal. He shurgged. “What are you gonna say, Phin? Some riders who you don’t know took Walter in the night. The next day we found him killed hanging from a tree. Who is the Marshal gonna arrest for that? One less negro in the world aint gonna bother him none”. I knew he was right of course, but it didn’t make me any less angry.

After that day, Mary stopped cooking and washing for daddy and Henry. She was civil enough, but wouldn’t go inside their cabin again. Susan was happy to take over, but she was worried about her ma. “I don’t think she will ever forgive your daddy, Phin. She’s sure that you and Walter could have caught up with the men and stopped what happened. Don’t reckon I will ever shake her on it”. Little Sophia was too young to understand, but when she went looking for Walter, it made Susan cry. I painted some stones white, and arranged them around the grave. Daddy sat at his bench and carved a wooden marker with Walter’s name on it, and I fixed it into the ground. But Mary never looked at any of it.

Three days later, Mary came to the house to talk to me. “Phin, you married my girl, so you’re like a son to me. I want you do you me a favour. I need a horse, and things for travelling. I will be leaving here to find my people. I want to go back to the Osage. You folks have been real kind to me, but there’s no life for me in this white man’s world. I will walk if I have to, but I reckon you owe me something for my time here, and leaving my girl behind as your wife”. I assured her that she could have anything she wanted. I didn’t try to talk her out of leaving. She was her own woman, and I knew better than to talk down to her. I went into town, leaving her with Susan and Sophia, as I knew that would be a long farewell.

I got her a gentle bay mare, a saddle, and one of the new Winchester repeating rifles. She would need something to protect her on the trail. Then there was a cooking pot, water bottle, and tinder box, as well as a rain-slick for travelling in bad weather. Plus new saddlebags to keep it all in. Then I gave her some money, to add to what she and Walter had saved from their share. She left the same afternoon, barely nodding goodbye to my daddy and Henry, who were watching from out front of the cabin. Susan cried all that night, and then she never cried about it again.

Life had to get back to something like normal. Henry and me started back at work, and Susan managed the crops and animals as best as she could. Daddy did what he was able, in between working on the small projects at his bench. But the rage inside about what had happened to Walter never went away.

On the first day the leaves were falling, two riders appeared just before we were due to eat dinner. I walked out to see who they were, carrying my pistol. It was the smiling cowboy from before, and the second one was the man with the fancy black hat that I had spoken to during the search for Walter. They got off their horses and walked in my direction, the smiling man holding up his hands. He looked around, then placed a quizzical look on his face, still smiling. “You seem to be short one big buck, Fuller. Did he up and run off? They are likely to do that, y’know”.

The fifty caliber bullet hit him on the side of his neck, and went straight through. He dropped to his knees, his mouth opening and closing like a stranded fish. Black hat started to reach for a forty-five in his belt, thought better of it, and turned to run. But Henry was already there, and fired both barrels of the shotgun straight into his gut, flinging him back a full six feet. Daddy had shot the smiling man with the Hawken, the long barrel resting on the edge of the window. Henry had run around behind them at the same time, to be ready.

I looked down at the smiling cowboy. The big bullet had almost taken his head clean off.

Daddy came over on his crutches. “Phin, take up their pistols. I want you to fire both of them a couple of times, then put them into their hands like they were holding them when they got killed”. I did as he asked, firing Black Hat’s into the log walls of the cabin, and Smiling Man’s across at the crop fields behind me. “Now saddle up and ride into town for the Marshal. Tell him there’s been a shooting here, and two cowboys are dead. He should want to get out here before dark”.

Henry shook his head. “Why don’t I just dig a hole and bury ’em? Let the horses go, and they’ll find their way home”. Daddy had a hard expression on his face. “No, not that way, Henry. I want them to know what happened to their men. That way they will know what will happen to any others who come riding in here looking for trouble”. He turned to me again. “Phin, you be sure to tell the Marshal that these fellas came riding in here, and started shooting as soon as they saw you. Me and Henry dealt with them before they could drop you”. I nodded, still hardly believing what had just happened.

Marshal Meagher didn’t look none too pleased when I told him my story. Wyatt Earp was in the office. He smiled and shook his head. “I reckon those two had it coming, and didn’t expect no farmers to put up a fight, Marshal”. Meagher left him in charge, and rode back with me to the homestead, after arranging for the nearby undertaker to follow on with his buckboard, and two plain coffins.

I suppose I had expected the lawman to write stuff down. Maybe tell us we had to go to court, even lock us up for a spell until we did. But there was none of that. He listened to the story again, told by Daddy and Henry. They didn’t mention the suspicions about Walter, as there was hardly any point with no proof. After looking at the bodies and shaking his head a few times, Meagher waited until the undertaker arrived, then walked over to his horse. “Fuller, you may have started something here today. I hope you’re prepared to finish it. Don’t expect any help from me and my men now, you’re too far out of Wichita for that to happen”. Daddy just nodded.

The strange thing is, we never did have any more trouble. Even when I was in town, those cowboys never spoke to me. And none of them ever came to the house again.

I had to admit that daddy had done the right thing. Life went back to normal once again, and Susan told me she was sure she was expecting. She seemed very happy about that. But all through the winter, she never seemed to get much bigger. When she was carrying Sophia she had swollen up, but this time she looked much the same as when she wasn’t expecting. Then one stormy night I had to go out and help Henry secure one of the barn doors, which was almost blown off its hinges by the wind. When I got back in the house, Susan was sitting on the floor in front of the fire. “Phin, you gotta go fetch Doctor Frazer. Tell him it’s real bad”.

In the light from the fire, I could see she was sitting in a pool of her own blood.

Poor Lizzie was pushed to her limit that night. As soon as I roused the doctor, I turned straight round and galloped her back home. I had got Henry to sit with Susan while I was gone, and daddy had come over too, covering her with blankets as she was shivering so. The doctor told us to go out while he examined her, and he was in there a good while. “I’ve got her back to bed, Phin. She’s lost the baby, I’m afraid. I don’t think it ever grew, to be honest. But when it came away, it made her bleed bad, and she is going to need plenty to eat and drink, and lots of rest. I can ask a woman from town to come in tomorrow to nurse her if you want”. I was just glad she was alive, and agreed with anything he said. Then as he was walking to his horse, he spoke quietly to me.

“I doubt she can ever carry any more children though. Another baby might kill her”.

When she was six, Sophia started at the new school. The old church school run by the Reverend’s wife wasn’t big enough to cope, so the city built a new one, and we signed little Sophia up for it. There were two teachers; a lady from Wisconsin, and a man from Rochester, New York. His name was Joseph White, and he had come west to start a new life with his family. I got Susan a small buggy and a nice trotting horse, so she could do the trip in and out to the school each day. Sophia called the horse Victor, and she really loved that animal.

Work was doing good. I employed two brothers who were excellent wood-workers. They were called the Karimov twins, and had come all the way from Russia to find work. They stayed at the homestead, taking over Walter’s old cabin, and I paid them a fair wage. They looked after themselves pretty much; cooked their own food, and kept to themselves. They spoke in their own language most of the time too, but understood enough to know what to do at work.

Life with Susan was different then. We had to be careful that she didn’t have no babies, so things changed a lot between us. Not that we didn’t still love each other of course, but it couldn’t be like before. To help with the animals and the crops, we took in a stray woman. Her name was Angela, and she was originally from Ireland. She had been a bond servant at one time, and when her boss had died, she had been put out to fend for herself. Susan found her hanging around near the school, looking for work or charity. I made her a bed in the main room, and we used to stand it against the wall during the day. Angela was a hard worker, and so grateful for our help that we could trust her with anything.

The summer of eighteen-eighty, daddy said it was time to think about making my house bigger. He drew up some ideas on scrap paper, and reckoned we should build another floor on top. With the twins there to help, it seemed like a good idea, and we started the work before the weather turned. That year the city also took over Delano, and Derby was almost on the edge of town now. People said that there were twenty thousand living in the area, and it sure felt busy every time we went into the centre.

Though Daddy was slowing up some, Henry was as strong as ever, and still worked as hard as he ever had. I turned twenty-seven that fall, and seemed to have the respect of a lot of prominent men in town. Recommendations were still coming in, and once again I was turning down work. Daddy suggested I open a yard in Wichita, maybe take on some more men. But I liked being around the homestead still, and travelling around on the jobs. I didn’t just want to be some boss worrying about workmen and premises.

The upper floor was on the house by the time it turned cold. It had been a lot of disruption, and some considerable expense in wood and materials, but it sure looked impressive. Angela got her own room too, and cried like a baby when she saw it was just for her. Susan started a garden, just for the pleasure of looking at the flowers and plants. She ran the planting down along the approach to our house, and I told her it looked mighty grand.

Daddy got real sick that winter. He wasn’t breathing too good, and could no longer tolerate smoking his pipe. Doctor Frazer rode out to see him, and did what he could. Old Henry nursed my daddy real good, waiting on him whenever Susan was too busy with the chores or fields. When she got home from school, Sophia would sit next to daddy’s bed, and show him how her reading was coming on. He sure loved my little girl, said she reminded him of my ma.

Three days after Sophia’s eighth birthday, Henry found daddy dead in bed. He came up to the house to tell me, and we sent the twins out to work in the wagon, telling them we were staying home. The ground was real hard in the cold weather, but we set to with picks and shovels, and dug daddy a nice grave right next to Walter’s. Susan gave me an embroidered cloth to wrap him in, and I made a simple coffin from some wood in the barn. Me and Henry put daddy in the ground, and Susan read something from Walter’s Bible as we filled in the grave.

I said I would paint the stones and make the marker once better weather came in the spring.

Sophia did alright at school. Nothing exceptional, but she was good at reading and writing, and liked to hear about history too. But as she got older, her main interest started to be about Teacher White’s son, John. He was called Jack by everyone, and was almost four years older than Sophia. By the time she was almost fifteen, Jack had already gone away to study at college. He hadn’t made no promises, but everyone knew they were sweet on each other. He wrote her letters, telling her how he wanted to be a newspaperman like his grandfather back in Rochester, and she sat and read them after dinner, over and over. She quit school not long after her birthday, and stayed home to help Susan, and to learn the kind of things women do.

After he got back, he helped his pa around the school, but he was restless to return to Rochester. Then one night, Sophia told her ma that he had kissed her and asked her to marry him. It had been on the fourth of July celebration organised that year of ninety, when Sophia was seventeen. Susan told her to tell Jack to come talk to me, and ask permission just like I had done with Walter. He came out on the next Sunday, with his pa. He asked me to let him have my girl for his wife, and told me he was fixing to go back to Rochester, and work on his grandpa’s newspaper. I asked him to wait until Sophia was eighteen, but Teacher White told me the old man was ill, and wanted to train Jack on what to do before he died. I said I would think about it.

When I spoke to Susan that night Sophia was already up in her room crying, sure that Jack would leave without her. Angela had taken her up some food and sat with her, but told us she wouldn’t stop sobbing. Susan said there was nothing for it but to let her go, and we should arrange the wedding real soon. “He’s a good man, Phin. Not just tall and handsome, but real clever too. And he will have his own newspaper”. She had no idea just how far away Rochester was, even though she knew Henry had come all that way with his pa, years earlier. She had even asked Henry if he knew of the White family, but of course he remembered very little about his past.

Reverend Parker was too old and senseless to do any preaching and marrying by then, so the new preacher married my Sophia and Jack. There wasn’t even time for much of a celebration, just a family meal in one of the good hotels. Joe White was going to take them the short journey to the train at Newton, as the local railroad only took stock and goods, not people. As they drove off in Joe’s buggy, Sophia didn’t even turn and wave. I reckoned I would never see her again.

And I never did.

In the fall of ninety-one, the twins came to tell me they were quitting, and setting up on their own over in Delano. I paid them off and shook their hands, then got Henry to give them a ride into town in the wagon. When he got back, Henry asked me if I was going to take on some more men. I shook my head. “Don’t reckon so, Henry. We have been working hard for a long time now. I need to take some time off, finish off the house properly, and maybe do some easy small jobs for regular customers. We have a lot put by, and it will be nice not to to be under all that pressure now”. Henry smiled.”I could take down Walter’s old cabin. Nobody’s using it now, and it would make more space”. I shook my head again. “Reckon not, Henry. Don’t seem right, with the memory of Mary and Walter and all. We can use it for storage for now”.

The next year when the snow had gone, we were working on the roof of the house when the big ladder slipped away and Henry fell with it. He said he was alright, dusted himself off and smiled. But he wasn’t standing straight, so Susan made me take him in the buggy to see the doctor. Frazer had a partner now, a young man from Chicago who had bought into the firm, and he examined Henry. Doctor O’Connor was up with all the latest medical advances, and soon came to a conclusion. “You have broken your back, I’m afraid, one of the bones high up, near your neck. That’s why your shoulder hurts so much, and why you can’t stand straight”. Henry looked at me, and I asked O’Connor. “Can you fix him, Doc? I can pay if he needs surgery”.

The serious man rubbed his chin. “Well, they might operate on him, but he would have to go back east, to one of the best hospitals. Even so, an operation there might just leave him paralyzed. I wouldn’t recommend it”. He turned to Henry. “Best thing you can do at your age is to rest. No more heavy work, and definitely no ladders or carrying”. When he had gone, Henry spoke to me seriously.

“Before we go home, we need to find us a good lawyer”.



As I got older, I didn’t remember that much about my mother. She died not long after my tenth birthday, and I struggled to recall her features. I could look at photos of course, but that was never quite the same. I did remember some of her stories. She told me her grandmother was an Indian Squaw, and her grandfather was a Civil War hero with one leg. But she wasn’t too sure what side he had fought on. As for her parents, all she said was that they were farmers in Kansas, and her daddy built houses too.

Once she was gone, my father would sometimes drink too much whiskey, and talk about how he had met her down in Kansas, bringing her back home after the wedding. “We tried for so long to have a baby, and Sophia would cry herself to sleep saying it was never going to happen. When it finally did, she said she was too old for children, but she had to go ahead and have you of course”.

Even as a youngster, hearing that didn’t make me feel exactly wanted or loved. My mother was thirty-five when she had me, in the spring of nineteen-o-eight. She took to her bed most of the time after that, and Mrs Macaulay came in to run the house and tend to me.

On the heels of the end of the war came the Spanish Flu. Mother was one of the first to go. Father got sick with it too, but he recovered. In an effort to cheer me up after her death, he bought me a camera. It was expensive to get the film plates developed, so I was restricted to a few shots now and then. It was big and unwieldy, and heavy to carry on the tripod, but I dearly loved it. The photos would come back from the newspaper where he had them developed, and I would look at them in my room.

By the time I left for college, I had a smaller one I could easily carry, and had even got some of my photos published in the newspaper. Father wanted me to take over as the managing editor after my studies. That had always seemed the natural thing to me. After all, he had done the same before with my grandfather, and we still lived in the old family home; too big for just the two of us of course.

I was very happy when I started working there. It was only a local paper, though some articles were syndicated all over the state, and even got picked up for publication in New York City. I still took some of the photos too. Election speeches, new bridges or municipal buildings, and any parades that went past. As a graduation present, I had been givent a new Packard, and loved to drive that around. I met Velma because of that car. She was working as a waitress in a roadside diner, raising money to pay for her training as a nurse. That summer was one of the best I can remember.

Soon after, the Great Depression hit hard, and things got tight. Luckily for us, people bought newspapers just as much as before, if not more. We didn’t have to lay anyone off, and though some of the regular advertisers went bust, we kept the paper going all the way through. When Velma got her registration, she went to work in New York City, at the big hospital in The Bronx. She was happy to get the job, but it meant I didn’t see her so much. When she came back to stay with her folks, she looked tired, and had stopped talking about us getting married. She was keen to become a supervisor, and when I mentioned an engagement, she smiled and said, “No rush, we’re still young”.

My father was only sixty-one when he got sick. It just slowed him down at first. The doctor said it was too much stress, too many cigarettes, and maybe too much whiskey too. Within two years, he couldn’t walk that far, and he told me I had to take over at the paper. I was only twenty-five, but I felt ready.

And it was an exciting time. We had a new president, Franklin D Roosevelt. There was trouble brewing in Europe, and FDR announced his New Deal to end the Depression. Then he allowed the sale of beer, beginning the end of Prohibition.

There was a lot going on to write about in the paper, and I forgot all about Kansas.

I fooled myself that something would come of it with Velma. We still dated when she came home to Rochester, but I doubt she ever loved me in the same way that I thought about her. For me, she was everything, all I wanted. For her, I was just a habit, someone safe to rely upon.

Although we were mainly interested in local news, ther was a lot going on outside of America to write about. In thirty-five, Italy invaded Abyssinia. I had to use a map to explain to the readers where that was, and some of the staff writers wondered why I would even bother to tell the readers about it. I had to remind them that we had a lot of people in America with Italian relatives, and they would surely be interested.

The following year, the King of England died, and there was the Olympic Games in Germany. Jesse Owens won four gold medals, which showed those Nazis something. At the same time, there was a civil war going on in Spain, so I made sure to cover that too. George Tillman was my deputy, and he was sure all my foreign news was going to kill the paper stone dead. He sat in my office chewing an unlit cigar, holding his head. “Julian, you gotta realise our readers don’t want to read this stuff. They like to read about what’s going on in New York State. Most don’t even care what happens in Chicago, for Christ’s sake!”

But I stuck to my guns, and kept the world news on the front page.

Something else happened at the end of thirty-six. My father died. He was in hospital for tests, and got worse. I got the call at home, and drove in to see him just before the end. All he did was nod and smile. But he held my hand, something he had never done before. I was twenty-eight, and pretty much alone in the world.

The house was too big for me, but I couldn’t bear to part with it. I advertised for a new housekeeper to live in, and took on the second one I interviewed. Mrs Margaret Johannson was a widow in her late forties, and had good references from a lady in Syracuse. Her previous employer had recently died, and she had been living in a cheap hotel for a few weeks after losing her room as well as her job. I arranged for her things to be sent up from Syracuse, and she started the following week. Velma acted surprised when I told her over the phone, and for a brief moment, I wondered if my part-time girlfriend might be a teeny bit jealous.

But there was no need. Margaret treated me like the son she had never had, and employing her was one of the better decisions I made in my life.

It appeared to me that the world outside America was going crazy. The fascists were winning in Spain, and Japan had invaded China. They even attacked one of our gunboats on the Yangtse River, causing a lot of bad feeling against Japanese-Americans. And my determination to keep world news at the forefront was proving to be a good plan. George had to reluctantly admit that sales and subscriptions were at an all-time high. Seemed like the good people of Rochester were interested in the outside world after all.

After Austria was taken over by Germany, Jewish refugees stared to arrive in east coast ports in large numbers. Not long after I wrote an editorial about that, FDR issued an order that we could take no more, and Britain did the same thing. Then Hitler invaded part of Czechoslovakia, and I started to get a real bad feeling about Germany’s ambitions. One of our biggest advertisers was a company with a German name, even though the owner was as American as me. I spoke to him over the phone and sugested he might think about changing that, but he just laughed.

Then came thirty-nine, and we all know what happened that year. Franco won the civil war in Spain, adding another dictatorship to Europe. Germany made a move on Poland, over the city of Danzig, and things got real serious in Europe. Then in September, Germany invaded Poland, and Britain and France declared war on Germany.

That was one of the biggest headlines of my career.

But there were bigger ones to come.

Once the Japs bombed Pearl Harbour, I thought I should do something positive. I was thirty-three years old, single, and healthy. Or so I thought. But the medical officer at the recruiting office decided otherwise. “Heart murmur” he said. That was news to me, as I felt fit as a fiddle. But it got me rejected, so I threw myself into my work at the paper, covering as much of our involvement in the war as I could find out about. Then there were the casualties of course, local men lost or maimed.

Velma also volunteered, and she was accepted. She went as a nurse of course, and came back to say her farewells to me and her family when she received orders for the Pacific. I looked in her eyes on that last date, and knew immediately we would never marry. But I still gave her a locket with a photo of me inside, if only for old time’s sake.

With so many men off to the war, everyone left behind had to pull their weight at the paper. I went back out as a photographer as well as my other jobs, and George worked round the clock to make sure we always got published on time. They were tiring times, but we knew we were lucky compared to the men fighting and dying in the Pacific, and later in North Africa and Europe.

Then there was sad news from Velma’s family. She had died of fever on some island in the Pacific that nobody had ever heard of. So as well as everything else, that war cost me the life of the only woman I ever loved.

After the A-bombs, and the final peace, we had the Nuremburg trials to cover. Then the start of The Cold War, not forgetting Korea of course. When that ended in fifty-three, I felt exhausted, even though I was only forty-five. I had to consider the fact that maybe that medical officer had been right about my heart all along. George wanted to retire, and I couldn’t very well object after he had worked so hard. But I had lost the fire inside necessary for a good newspaperman, and seriously considered an offer from one of the big groups to buy out my by now very successful local paper.

My lawyer Al Greely was dealing with the contracts surrounding the sale when he called me one day, and asked me to come and see him about something else. In his office, he held up a letter, and gave me the gist of what it said.

“This is from a respected law firm in Wichita, Kansas, Julian. They have asked me to approach you about an inheritance. I presume they didn’t have an address for you, as they sent it to me through the newspaper, as your company lawyer. They are acting on behalf of a man named Phineas Fuller, who claims to be your grandfather. He is ninety-nine years old, and has asked you to visit him in Wichita as he has property and funds to leave to you in his will. He will be one hundred in the Fall, and wants to see you before he dies”.

I have to tell you I was pretty surprised. I had always presumed my grandparents had died a long time ago, as my own father never spoke about them at all. I remembered the stories about the one-legged civil war veteran and the Indian squaw, but they were my mother’s grandparents. She never said much about her own parents, and I never knew why that was.

I took the letter from the lawyer and read through it. Phineas Fuller of Derby, Wichita. The grandfather I had never known. That sent a chill up my back. I looked over at Al. “Write back and tell them I will come. Meanwhile, see the sale through for me, Al. I know you can get a good deal. If I have to sign anything, you can mail it to me down in Kansas”. I asked for the address of Phineas and the Kansas lawyer to be written down, then handed the letter back. “I will be leaving soon, Al. That might be just the vacation I need”.

I decided to take the train as it was less stressful for me. Truth be told I had never flown in a plane, and had little inclination to do so. And driving alone for almost twenty-four hours had no appeal whatsoever.

Outside the train station, I asked the cab driver if he knew the address in Derby. “The Fuller place? Sure, I know that”.

The door was opened by a pleasant, elderly lady. “You must be Julian. I am Mrs Mallory, the housekeeper. They are waiting for you inside, please leave your bag in the hallway and go straight through”. I entered the open double door she indicated with her arm, and was met by a very fat man who looked to be about my age. He extended a hand. “Brad James, the lawyer who wrote to you. Pleased to meet you”.

Just behind James was a man sitting in a large wooden chair. It had to be my grandfather, but he didn’t look old enough. I had been told he was ninety-nine years old, but I wouldn’t have put him a day over eighty. He smiled, revealing very white teeth that I guessed were expensive, and false. “Excuse me for not standing, Julian. I tend to have to pee when I stand up, and wouldn’t like to have to walk straight past you to use the lavatory. Besides, I don’t move so fast these days”.

James stayed back near the door, and I walked over to the chair, extending a hand to the grandfather I had never met nor spoken to. His handshake was firm, though the skin on his hands betrayed his age more than the rest of him. “Delighted to finally meet you, grandfather”. He waved that away. “No need for that now you’re a grown man. Just call me Phin. Sit down, son. Would you care for something to eat or drink?” I shook my head, trying to take it all in. The house hadn’t seemed to have changed since at least the twenties. It was more like a museum than a home.

His voice was warm when he spoke again. “Can’t say whether or not you look like me. Don’t see so good these days, y’know. Not the details, anyways”. I hope you can stay for a while? I have a great deal to tell you”. I told him I could stay as long as he liked, and he insisted that I stay at the house. “Plenty of room here, and family is especially welcome”.

Brad James excused himself, saying he would return the following day with papers for me to sign. Phin grinned. “It’s all yours, Julian. You’re all I got left now”. Mrs Mallory prepared a meal anyway, and she helped Phin through into the dining room, via a stop at a lavatory in the hall. He was right when he said he didn’t move that fast, I had to hold back to save walking into him.

The housekeeper spoke in a whisper to me. “He is so excited about your visit, but you must promise not to let him stay up too late. I like him to eat early, then he takes his medicine and goes to bed by nine”. I assured her that I had no intention of disrupting their established routine.

Over dinner, I let him talk, and was fascinated by the story he started to tell. When he went to bed, I had coffee in the living room and made some notes about what he had said. It dawned on me that his life story would make a great book. From the Civil War to the end of the Korean War, and everything in between. The start of the migration west in a big way, and the frontier towns full of cowboys, gamblers, and gunfighters. He had seen it all.

The next morning at breakast, I asked if he would mind me telling his story in a book, and he grinned. “Moby Dick, now that’s a good book. You ever read that one, Julian? Do you think you can be as good as Mr Melville?” I told him I had read it, and would try my best to do his story justice.

Mrs Mallory intervened, as she had overheard the conversation from the kitchen. “Not for too long each day now. He has to rest in the afternoons, or he can’t eat dinner. And don’t you go getting him too excited neither”. Phin turned his head in my direction, and gave me a big wink.

Brad James arrived with the paperwork, and gave me some things to sign. Phin had already signed his parts. He also handed me a fat folder full of papers. “You can look these over at your leisure, or pass them on to your lawyer if you wish. They are shares, stocks, and the like. Also the deeds to the land, and various monetary amounts due to you upon the death of Mister Fuller”.

When James turned to leave, I asked him if I could ride with him back into Wichita. I had some things I needed to buy.

It was true that I might have lost the spark needed to carry on as a newspaper man, but I had found something inside to replace that. I wanted to tell Phin’s story, and in doing so tell the story of my own family too. I asked Brad James to let my lawyer’s office know that they should just go through with the sale, and they could contact me at Phin’s house if need be. Then I got some more clothes, a portable typewriter and lots of paper, and finished up by buying a tape recorder and plenty of tapes.

I wanted to live that story through Phin’s own voice and expressions.

Mrs Mallory had laid it out for me. After breakfast, we could sit on the porch in good weather, but Phin should have his blanket anyway. Then no more than three hours before he had a rest before lunch, followed by his afternoon nap. Then one more hour before dinner, before he got too tired after eating.

I had to marvel at his memory. His great age hadn’t diminished that in any way at all, even his recall of all the names, and small details like what he called the horses, or whether a woman he encountered had missing teeth. For the next month, I ran the tape machine, and just let him talk. When he was resting, I wrote the notes up in my room upstairs, making sure to have the door closed, so the noise from the tapes and typing didn’t carry down to where he slept.

It was enjoyable living there too. Mrs Mallory was an excellent cook, and I was putting on weight rapidly. Phin acted like he had always known me, and I was a grandson visiting like it was nothing unusual. Walking around the property was eye-opening too. I tried to picture it as he described it when they first built the homestead. And the row of graves, still carefully tended, brought home the loss that still left him misty-eyed, even now. Though on the other side of the creek, rows of identical smart houses had replaced the grazing land that had caused so much dispute in his younger days.

Using my newspaper connections, I gained an introduction to the editor of the main newspaper in Wichita. He was happy to let me spend time browsing in his archives for research, though I admit I found some of the newspapers of Phin’s time to be rather scant on fact, and high on sensationalism. But I did find references to Wyatt Earp, who lost his job after a little more than a year, because of his ‘Tendency to bash people’. He was also involved in a scandal over the election of a new marshal, and decided to look for a new job in Dodge City.

Jessie Fuller, Phin, Henry, and all the others never once made the paper back then. Just as well, as most of the features were about gunfights, and gamblers killed in shootouts.

Over the course of those thirty-one days, Phin told me about how Jessie had fought in the war to protect his older son, but he had been killed anyway. Then his mother’s tragic death in the outhouse, and Jessie’s return from the war in sixty-five. How they intended to make a new life in Colorado, but only got as far as Kansas before his daddy decided to end his journey there. I wanted to know why he had never heard news of me, and something of the family rift that had meant so many decades of separation.

Finally, I just came out and asked him.

He rubbed his chin, much like his father might have rubbed his beard. “Weren’t no rift, Julian. Nothing like that. Sophia got married to your daddy, and went north to New York State. That was her choice, and her life to live. When she died, your daddy sent me a letter telling me the news. My one regret was that I couldn’t bury her on the homestead, with the others. But he sent me a small photo of you, and the address of the newspaper he was running. I had to hope that you had taken it over, just as he had. But I didn’t get in touch then. You had your life to live, just as your mama had done”.

We continued the story right up until Henry fell from a ladder and was diagnosed with a broken neck. I pushed the time allowed a little, asking, “What happened then?”

But Mrs Mallory stopped me at that moment. “That’s enough for today, Julian”.

Phin made up for his poor eyesight by using a powerful hand-held magnifying glass, When he looked at things through it, his eye appeared enormous. I had brought a few photos to show him. My mother holding me as a child, my father standing next to a new car, and one of the house we had lived in that had belonged to my grandfather. There were also some of my favourite press photos that had appeared in the newspaper.

He studied them in detail, taking his time. When he looked at the one of my mother holding me, I watched one single tear roll down his face and drop onto the photo with a splash. Leaning forward, he handed them back with a nod. “You have talent with a camera, Julian”.

To compensate for his hearing loss, I had to speak very loudly. At times that raised to a shout, and he would lift a hand. “No need to shout, Julian. I’m not deaf you know!”

The very best thing was just to run the tape, and listen to him. I didn’t ask a lot of questions, not wanting to interrupt the flow of his recollections. I tended to start with a prompt, and then just watch and listen as he spoke without pause. “So what happened after Henry went to see the doctor, Phin?”

“He wanted to go see a good lawyer, so I took him to one. He had the man write up papers transferring the deeds of ownership for the land to me, cancelling the old bequest that would have only happened if he had died. Lawyer McDowell had to come out to the homestead the next day after working up the papers, and he took the original deeds away to have everything notorised and made right by the City Councilmen. Henry turned to me and said, It’s all yours now, no telling how long I will last after that fall. But he did last, and I made sure he was looked after. Angela moved into the cabin, and cared for him at times he found it hard to cope. She still did her field work with Susan, but used to help Henry as soon as she was done”.

He seemed to be dwelling on that for a while, and had been distracted from the conversation, thinking about Henry. So I asked a question, to bring him back to what we were doing. “How did you cope without Henry, Phin? Did you take on any extra help?” Phin shook his head for a long time, as if he was judging how to answer that.

“We had already scaled back the building jobs. Once the twins left, I had said we should do small jobs. There was plenty of money, and still some of daddy’s gold in the bank. That was increasing in value all the time, and years before he had told me to only use it as a last resort. So I did the maintenance and small jobs for a couple more years, Susan and Angela tended the animals and grew the crops. It was enough for all of us to live comfortable. Henry died a few years after that fall, just didn’t wake up one morning. Susan and Angela helped me dig the hole out back to bury him next to the others. Seemed only right they should all be together.

Not long after, Angela took up with a man. He worked in the hardware store, and seems he had taken a shine to her. He wanted to try his luck further west, and Angela came and asked if it was okay with us if she married him and left the homestead. Of course we said it was perfectly fine. She didn’t have to feel obliged to stay with us. I gave her some extra money after the wedding, and wished her well. There was talk of California, but I never did hear how she fared after. Life was pretty quiet after that, got to be said”.

He stared past me, and I guessed he was going off on one of his daydreams about the past again. Placing his hands over his thighs, he suddenly slapped them down, and looked up at me with a grin, as if he had suddenly remembered something.

“Then the men came with an offer. Different men, not cattlemen”. I was keen to know about that offer. “What offer was that, Phin?”

I had to wait to find out though. Mrs Mallory appeared and said he had to have his nap.

I waited until after dinner to remind Phin. Mrs Mallory had allowed him a small whiskey, heavily diluted with water, and as he sipped it, I turned on the tape recorder.

“Did I tell you about my forty-four, Julian? That was a good pistol. Short barrel, easy to hide. I still have that, my daddy’s old bayonet, and the Henry Rifle. Well, they’re yours now. Never found out what happened to daddy’s Hawken though. Might turn up one of these days”. He was going over old ground, so I tried to bring him back to the conversation from earlier that day. “What about the offer you mentioned? Who were those men?”

“There was a war in Europe then, just started that summer. We got into it you know, much later though”. I stopped him recalling world war one, trying to get him back on track. “I remember that war, Phin. I was ten years old when it ended. What about the men? What did they want?” He looked over his shoulder, in case Mrs Mallory was around. Then he extended the arm holding the glass and nodded at the whiskey bottle on the table next to me. I splashed a little more into his glass, and he carried on talking.

“Oil, Julian. There were a lot of automobiles around by then. No interest to me at all. I never did bother with one. But all those vehicles needed oil, and those men guessed the war would come to us, and we would need more oil. They wanted to drill on my property. Test-boring, they called it. It would mean losing a couple of the crop fields, and cutting down some of the trees on the northern boundary. But they offered me a lot of money, just to dig some holes. Susan was dead against it, but I had a feeling about it, a good feeling”. He swallowed some more whiskey and nodded to himself, as if recalling that day like it was yesterday.

“Something my daddy said once came to mind. Cash is all very well, but you have to think about the future. Cash tends to pass through your hands, and before you know it, it’s gone. So I tried a deal with those fellas. Some money up front to cover the disruption of all that hole-boring, but I also wanted some shares in that company. I had the idea that they were right. The world needed oil, and lots of it. They needed it in Europe to fight the war, and America needed it for al those automobiles. But those men said no, and went away”.

Raising the glass halfway to his mouth again, he stopped and started to chuckle, his bony shoulders moving up and down. “But they came back, Julian. You bet they came back. The next summer, before I turned sixty-two, they came and offered me a better deal, and included the shares. We had some papers drawn up, all legal like, and then they came with a contraption for drilling their bore holes. The money they gave me up front was enough to make up for the loss of a couple of fields, the trees that got felled, and a whole lot more besides. I had a notion that they must have raised a lot of money to get that venture going, but I didn’t have to do no wood working after that year, no sir”.

Sensing it was getting close to his usual bedtime, I hurrried him along. “There’s no trace of oil exploration here now though, Phin. The property looks good. You have all that nice planting still, and it is very pleasant to stroll around the edge of the woodland, and down by the creek”. Phin started to laugh, and the shaking that accompanied it made me reach over and take his drink away, in case he spilled it.

“They didn’t find nothing, Julian. No oil, not even gas. Hole after hole they tried, but there was nothing. They even sent soil samples away to Kansas City, but there was no oil on this property, not even a trace. One of them came to tell me, even said he was sorry. But I didn’t mind none. All I had to do was fill in the holes, and the place would be back to normal again. ‘Cept I now had shares in that company. I was sure they would find oil somewheres, and they did”.

He started laughing again, but this time it became a long wheeze, and that turned into a cough. Mrs Mallory heard that, and came bustling in from whatever she had been doing. She looked at me like a teacher looks at a naughty boy in class.

“Come now, Julian. You should know better than to get him excited like this”.

Phin’s doctor arrived the next morning, called by Mrs Mallory following the wheezing fit the night before. I agreed to give him some time off from telling his story, and started to go through some of the papers given to me by Brad James. The share certificates made me whistle as I flipped through them. Boeing, Cessna, Stearman, and Beechcraft. They were all successful aircraft manufacturing companies based in and around Wichita, and Phin had some shares dating back to the early days of their founding. One sheaf of paper made my eyebrows raise. He had a big holding in White Castle, the burger chain. I never realised they started out in Wichita.

But the only reference to any oil company holdings was a sales invoice, for the sale of shares in Derby Oil. As we were in Derby, I guessed Phin had got in from the start with that company too, and later cashed out to invest in something else. I made some notes about that, so I would remember to ask him the next time he was well enough to continue. Bank statements and property deeds indicated holdings of something close to one million dollars, an amount I had never imagined, considering Phin’s rather frugal lifestyle. With the money from the sale of my newspaper due in a few weeks, I was never going to have to work again.

With my head buzzing after going through the documents, I went for a walk around the homestead. The line of well-kept graves kept drawing me back to them. Walter Washington, Jessie Fuller, Henry with no surname on his marker, and Susan Fuller. It didn’t escape my notice that there was enough space next to Susan’s grave to allow for Phin. I had to ask him some more about my grandmother, that was for sure.

Mrs Mallory made me wait a whole day, tending to Phin in his bedroom, and gently scolding me again for getting him over-excited. The rest had done him good though, as the next time I turned on the tape recorder, his eyes were bright, and his recall as sharp as ever. I started by asking him about the shares and investments.

“Well I tell you, Julian. Those oil shares made me a small fortune, and I wasn’t about to just rest on that. Once the war was over, people started to arrive in Wichita, and they needed houses. So I bought some land, and I hired the Russian twins to build houses on it. They had a much bigger company by then, and they brought more Russians from back east to work for them. But I kept the deeds to the houses, and rented them out. With the money from that, I invested in Mr Cessna. He was building small airplanes that ordinary people could buy, and I reckoned he had a good idea. Then it seemed only natural to invest in the competition too, when Lloyd Stearman and Walter Beech came along.

There was a depression too, you will know about that of course, as you were a grown man. So I cut my losses in the oil company, and used the money from that sale to buy into Boeing, which took over Stearman’s works in Wichita. Quite some time before that, a man named Walt Anderson came to see me. He had some crazy idea that he was going to sell burgers for just five cents, and open a string of restaurants all over Kansas. He needed just three hundred and fifty dollars to get started, so he could match his partner’s investment. I gave him two hundred for a small share in the company. You will have heard of it by now, White Castle. One of my better decisions, I reckon. Anyhow, it’s all yours now. The investments, the land and house, the rents, and all the money in the bank. Get yourself a good tax lawyer, or those Federals will snatch it back off you”.

Other than talk of his daddy’s bayonet, that was the first time Phin had mentioned anything relating to the civil war, by calling the government ‘Those Federals’. I made a note to ask him a lot more about that. Meanwhile, I wanted to know more about Susan Fuller. There was a sense of regret in his voice as he spoke, and he rubbed his face before answering.

“She was my only love, Julian. Your grandma was such a strong woman, and she went through so much. Walter was as good as a daddy to her, and he was murdered by the damn cowboys. They tried to make it look like the Klan had done it, but we all knew better. Then her ma went back to the tribe, and we never heard what happened to her. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she couldn’t have no more kids, and her beloved Sophia upped and left for Rochester with your daddy. To her dying day, Susan never heard from her, and never knew why. I told her that some folks are just selfish, but she wouldn’t hear a word against our girl.

Truth be told, we ended up living here like strangers. She took no interest in my investments or financial dealings, and she used to say life was better when we worked for a living, raised the animals and grew crops, and lived in cabins. Her life became her garden and planting. I let her buy anything she wanted, and even got her help for the weeding and hole digging and such. She still did my washing and cooked my food, but by twenty-eight we hardly spoke a word to each other.

The next spring, she went out to tend to some of her favourite flowers, and she didn’t come back. I found her face down in the dirt. I knew she would want to be buried with Walter and the others, so that’s where she is”.

Talking to Phin and getting to see more of Wichita led me to make a decision. I had nothing to keep me in Rochester now, so I broached the subject one morning over breakfast. “Phin, how would you feel if I came to live here permanently? I have already sold the newspaper, and Brad James could contact someone to arrange to sell the old house and everything in it. To be honest, there is very little there of any sentimental value to me, and I can buy new clothes here in Wichita. It would have to be okay with Mrs Mallory too of course”.

He hesitated, and cleared his throat before answering. For a moment I thought I had exceeded his hospitality and been too presumptive. But there were tears in his eyes when he spoke.

“Julian, nothing would make me happier. And as for Mrs Mallory, she thinks you’re the bees knees, whatever she says to your face. Get it done, and clear up your affairs. You’ll be a Wichita man now, and a famous writer one day too, I’ll be bound. Maybe get near as good as Mister Herman Melville”.

Excited by his reply, I phoned to arrange a taxi to take me into the city. I had things to do that day, so there was no tape recorder session.

Brad James was pleased to have all my business, and treated me like royalty. He introduced me to his friend who managed one of the banks, and between them they set everything in motion for my residence in Kansas. That afternoon, I wrote letters to six big publishing houses, outlining my idea of a book, and giving them a taster of what it would contain. At dinner that evening, Mrs Mallory came in from the kitchen and gave me an impromptu hug. “You are very welcome here, Julian. You have brightened up the place, and taken years off of Mister Fuller, believe me”.

The next afternoon when Phin was having his nap, Ann Mallory and I engaged in a little conspiracy surrounding his forthcoming one hundredth birthday. She was adamant that he would be upset if there was too much fuss, but I wasn’t about to let such an important date slide. I resolved to contact the local newspapers, radio stations, and even the new television company. She wanted to invite people to the house for food and drinks, allowing for the fact that it would be too cold to be outside in the Fall. She gave me a list of those she thought should receive invitations, and I promised to get them sent out. When we had made our notes, and decided on decorations and food, she furrowed her brow.

“Julian, we will have to let him know. He can have a fierce temper when he’s riled, and might well take to his room and refuse to come out”. I assured her that I would tackle Phin, and while I was at it, I asked if she would stay on with me after he had gone. She choked up a little, and reached for an embroidered handkerchief in her apron pocket. “Why Julian, that would mean the world to me. I don’t know what else I would do once Mister Fuller leaves us. Your offer is accepted with my gratitude”.

As promised, I did tackle him. And as she predicted, he was none too pleased.

“You know what will happen, Julian? Well, you don’t know, but they will dig into my past, and someone will find out that my daddy was a Confederate from Virginia, and had no real claim to this land. I tell you, Julian, let it go. Nothing good will come of it, once those Redlegs and Yankees get their teeth into the story”.

I asked him for more details, and got it all down on tape. “But Phin, Henry had the title to the land, and left it to you. That means there is no problem about your daddy being a rebel. By the way, why has Henry got no last name on his grave marker?”

Phin smiled. “‘Fore he died, Henry told me that the Fullers were his real family. He didn’t reckon that he could be called Henry Fuller on his marker, so just asked for ‘Henry’. He said his own family didn’t treat him good, because of his problem with learning. But me and my daddy didn’t care, and neither did Walter, Mary, or Susan. He cried when he told me to just put ‘Henry’ on his marker. He said he can’t claim to be a Fuller, but being buried with the rest was the next best thing”.

After almost wearing him out with argument that afternoon, he stuck to his guns. No television, and only the newspaper if I wrote the piece.

And definitely no photographs.

For the next few weeks, I made the most of my time with Phin and the tape recorder. I had received five outright rejections from publishers, but one expressed moderate interest and asked me to send a completed manuscript in due course. As that company was reasonably well known, and in New york City, I allowed myself a moderate sense of expectation. I also bought myself a new car, a Chrysler Town and Country station wagon. That seemed like the right kind of automobile for a man of my age who lived in a suburb of Wichita.

Ann Mallory was excited to see the car when it was delivered, and wondered if it would be possible to take her into Wichita to browse the stores. Up to then, she had everything delivered, and the chance to actually look around the stores was something she had almost given up on.

I also ordered myself a new camera, the small Leica IIIf. But I had to wait a while for that to arrive from Europe.

Phin kept going at the same rate, and I got the history down right back to the day he found his mother dead in the outhouse of the farm in Virginia. When he continued the story by telling me about living with the neighbours until Jessie returned from the war, I stopped him. “What about before that, Phin? What was life like for you all before the war came along in sixty-one?” He sucked his bottom lip into his mouth, and looked past my shoulder before replying.

“Nothing much, Julian. Just small farming, family, making do. I suppose you might call it a hard life, but it didn’t seem so to me when I was a boy”.

As the weather got colder that October, I started to write my article for the newspaper, determined to celebrate Phin’s remarkable one hundred years of life. How he had come from a subsistence farm in Viginia, and ended up as a wealthy businessman in Wichita. He didn’t want to read it, said he trusted me to get it right. With that responsibility, it became one of the hardest things I had ever written, and I tore up draft after draft before I was happy with it.

When I took it to the editor of the newspaper one week before Phin’s birthday in November, he skimmed it, and smiled. “It’s long, Julian. Very long.” I appreciated that, as a former newspaperman myself, but tried to make a case for including all of it.

“Yes, it is long, but look at the life he has led. How many men have lived to be one hundred in Wichita? How many came from the poorest background, little education, and made such a fortune from nothing? Phineas Fuller should be celebrated. He has lived through some of the toughest times in this country, and come out on top. That’s a real American success story, right there”.

He published the whole thing, though he was upset that Phin refused to allow a photograph to accompany it.

On the day, Phin didn’t bother to read the article. He said it was too much trouble, having to use his magnifying glass. But Mrs Mallory insisted on reading it all out to him, along with the dozens of cards and telegrams he received later. She got emotional that day, and cooked a special dinner. Brad James called in to offer his best wishes, and so did the bank manager. But ther had been no invitations sent out, under strict instructions from Phin to have no party or official celebration. There seemed to be no point in buying him any gifts either. All in all it was something of an anti-climax.

But I had a special surpise for him after his nap.

Looking around in the attic to see if I could find any solid mementoes of his past, I had come across a buckskin case, hand-sewn with fringes, and embroidered nicely on one side. It contained the Hawken Rifle, along with percussion caps, and ammunition. There was also the cleaning kit and ramrod, all good as new. I knew little about guns, so had taken it into Wichita to be looked at by a gunsmith. He cleaned, polished, and oiled it for me, telling me how he hadn’t seen one since he was a boy, and had never seen one in such good condition. When I went to collect it later, he showed me how to load and fire it, without actually letting it off.

When I walked in with it, Phin shook his head and grinned. “You found daddy’s old Hawken? I knew it was around somewheres. Let’s go outside, and I will show you how it works”. I helped him out onto the porch, and let him show me how to load it. “Do you want to shoot it, Phin? For old time’s sake?” He laughed. “That thing’s got a kick like a mule, I reckon you better do it. Just point it at the sky though, it’s got one hell of a range”. I lifted the heavy rifle to my shoulder and gently pulled the trigger. The noise of the shot was much louder than I had expected, and Phin slapped his thighs with delight.

“That there rifle saved my life, Julian”.

Although that winter wasn’t as severe as what I had been used to in New York State, the cold weather definitely slowed Phin down. He also became unusually cantankerous at times, and I had to be very careful what I asked him. Trying to push him on why my mother never wrote to her parents, and why they never tried to contact her resulted in an unexpected fit of temper that took me by surprise.

“Ain’t no use asking me about that, Julian. None at all. I have no idea what caused the problems between Sophia and her ma, but whatever it was included me too, even though I wasn’t aware of it. First I knew was when they drove away from the hotel in the buggy, and she never so much as glanced back at us. I tried asking Susan, but every time I did, she either started crying, or shut herself away in a room. Whatever it was, I reckon it died with my wife, and your ma. Some things just never get told. You’re old enough to realise that, I’m certain”.

After that, he claimed to be feeling too tired for a few days, and refused any sessions with the tape recorder. Ann Mallory told me to pay him no mind. “He will come round, Julian, don’t you fret”.

I used the time to start on the manuscript proper. I was unable to decide at first whether to start with the letter received by my lawyer, or go back to the winter in the civil war when Phin found his mother dead. After trying both, I settled on starting the book with Phin finding his mother, and work it up to the time I found out about the grandfather I had known nothing about for all my life. It was coming along nicely by the time Phin had calmed down sufficiently to resume our sessions.

Acting as if his outburst had never happened, he smiled as I switched on the machine. “Now then, where were we, Julian?”

“You found Susan dead in the gardens, I think you said it was nineteen twenty-nine. What did you do after that, Phin? You would have been sixty-six years old at the time”.

He reached for his whiskey. Mrs Mallory had finally agreed that there was little point making him add water to it. The man was one hundred years old. What was the worst that could happen? I suspected that she was also emboldened by my offer to keep her on. It no longer seemed so essential to keep old Phin alive, I suppose. Besides, it made life so much easier for her, not having to keep arguing about whether or not he drank too much coffee, or had a whiskey at night. After a good slug of the booze, he shrugged.

“Truth be told, I did nothing much at all, Julian. Didn’t have to. I had more money than I could spend, and I took on a housekeeper, a black lady named Ella Mae. She couldn’t live in though. Back then was the same as now. White folks didn’t have no live in black women servants, ‘specially if they were a white man and widowed. But Ella Mae was worth her pay, and more. How that woman could cook. I never ate better than when she was around, I tell you. And that woman had a lot of gumption. She used to walk here from her place, six miles each way, every day, in all weathers. I offered to get her a cab each way, and she just laughed. ‘I can’t go in no white man’s cab, Mr Fuller. And there ain’t no black men driving cabs that I’ve seen’. I knew what she was talking about, after what happened to Walter, and folks looking sideways at my Susan ’cause her ma was an injun”.

When he got near the end of the whiskey in his glass, he seemed to drift off into a reverie. But he had more to tell.

“Ella Mae stayed here until forty-two. But then the airplane factories started to take on people because of the war, and they were paying real good. She left me to work in one. Not building planes, you understand, she worked in the kitchens of the big canteen. I offered to match her pay so she would stay, but she wanted to get what she called a proper job. So I advertised for a live in housekeeper, and along came Mrs Mallory. Widowed by the war, and needing money and a place to live. She’s more like a friend to me, Julian. I never actually think that she works for me. But don’t you tell her that now.”

He winked at me as he said that.

“I reckon I should go and get some sleep now, son. But we will do more tomorrow”.

The start to Phin’s one hundred and first year had been rainy and cold. I continued to try to get something down about what had happened to him in the lead up to his deciding to contact me, but his replies were accompanied by a series of shrugs and head shaking.

“That won’t be much of a chapter, Julian. The war came, and I made even more money from the companies I had invested in. They were all doing well, manufacturing stuff for use in the war. More people came to work and live in and around Wichita, and I sat here thinking about the old days, while paying people to do everything I used to be able to do for myself. Hell son, I was ninety in forty-three, with the war still having some ways to go. What did you expect me to be up to?”

He was right of course. Writing about some lonely old man sitting contemplating his life for twenty years between the ages of seventy and ninety wasn’t going to make much of a chapter. The bulk of my book was going to have to be the events before Henry fell from the ladder. I tried again about his connection to my parents.

“So you got sent a photo of me as a baby. You knew my father had gone to Rochester to take over the newspaper, that gave you a point of reference. But why did you leave it so long to make contact? Why wait until my parents were both dead to finally contact me? Was it just so you could leave everything to someone?”

He was eating a slice of cake that Mrs Mallory had given him with a glass of milk. I had to wait until he finished it.

“I know it’s hard to understand, Julian. But Sophia made her choice, and it wasn’t for me to go against it. Once I knew about you, I had always decided to leave you everything. Ask Brad James, it was all down in my old will and testament. But I had a hankering to see you. You are the only family I have left, and all that remains of my Sophia. But I will tell you something I hadn’t mentioned. Brad’s daddy used to run that law firm before he got sick and Brad took over. I had him contact a private detective in New York State. He found a reliable man in Buffalo, and I retained him to keep a check on you, and how you were getting on”.

That was a revelation that took me by surprise. “How long had you been doing that, Phin?”

He thought for a moment. “Well his first report mentioned your daddy being in hospital, and you taking over the running of the paper. It must have been about twenty or more years ago. When Brad’s daddy passed, I got Brad to keep it up, using the same company in Buffalo. So I knew you were okay, and how to get in touch if need be”.

Mrs Mallory came in then. “Nap time now, that’s enough until after dinner”.

By the time the weather was brightening up, I had just about done with the tape recorder sessions. I had concluded that Phin wasn’t about to tell me any family secret about Sophia never getting in touch, and I was genuinely beginning to wonder if he even knew why that had happened. If he did, he appeared determined to take it to his grave.

I spent more time at the desk in my room, getting the draft tidied up into a manuscript I could send to the publisher in New York. My talks with Phin then tended to happen after dinner, and I noticed him going back over old ground more, his mind seeming to wander on occasion. Talking about his daddy or Susan made him more emotional than it had last year, and sometimes he would wave his hands at me and just stop talking. He didn’t seem to know that I had finished my research, and kept telling me stuff I already knew.

One morning, Mrs Mallory came and knocked on the door of my room. “He’s crying, Julian. No idea why, but he’s sure broken up”. I went back down with her to see him, and wa shocked at how distressed he was. But he wouldn’t answer any of my questions, and just kept shaking his head. When he calmed down, he started to say random things that had nothing to do with what I was asking him.

“That Delacroix, you know, Eugene? He got himself shot dead, for cheating at cards. Place called Abilene, we were told. That woman with the teeth missing. She tried to hold us up once. Daddy said he saw her in Delano. Selling herself she was. Oh my Lord I cannot imagine who might want to buy her! Walter Washington was a strong man, one of the strongest. My how that man could work”. Ann touched my shoulder, and shook her head.

“He’s not right. I’m calling the doctor”.

By the time the doctor arrived, Phin had stopped rambling and we had managed to get him onto his bed. After a brief examination, the doctor walked out with us, speaking quietly.

“Given his age, there is not a great deal to be done. I suspect a stroke, or larger bleed on the brain. No telling how long he might last. It could be one day, or a year, depending. I can arrange for him to be moved into a care facility, a good clinic I know”. I shook my head. “I don’t think so. He will stay here with us, and die here when his time comes. Perhaps you could arrange for some home nurses to come in and help? We will need them on a permanent basis, night and day”.

Assuring us that he would get that sorted out by nightfall, the doctor shook our hands and left. I helped Mrs Mallory get Phin out of his clothes and into bed, and could see how upset she was, though she held it in.

The nurses were reliable and kind. Older women used to caring for people like Phin, they would chat to him in a conversational tone as they tended to him, even though he never replied, and rarely even opened his eyes. They were compassionate, and made him comfortable.

After six weeks of that, with the weather improving day by day, I took Ann Mallory into Wichita to give her a break by looking around the shops. I had to arrange a literary agent anyway, and I went to see Brad James after sending my telegrams to New York. He apologised for not coming out to see Phin, but I told him there was no point. I also checked with him about local funeral homes to supply a good coffin eventually, and asked him to recommend a company to dig the grave in the space next to Susan. He said he would also check with the authorities that Phin could actually be buried on the homestead. But I told him to forget that, as it was going to happen whatever anyone said.

Ann looked refreshed when I met her outside the department store. She had bought some new summer clothes, as well as stockings and new shoes. She had also made an appointment with a good hairdresser for the following week. We drove home in bright sunshine, with her telling me what she planned to cook for us that evening.

The nurse called Nancy was waiting outside when we got back, smoking a cigarette in front of the porch. As soon as I saw her face, I knew. So did Ann Mallory, who gasped “Oh, my” and began to cry.

He had slipped away quietly not long after we left for town. Nancy had telephoned the doctor, and he was going to come out after his visits to do the formal necessities.

I felt strangely calm, and not at all upset. Phin had led an amazing life, lived to a considerable age, and ended up rich and comfortable. Whether or not he had been happy in later life was debatable, but he had certainly made the best of his situation. And close to the end, he had reconnected with the only family he had left.

He was buried next to his beloved Susan, close to his good friends, and the daddy he admired so much. I painted some stones white to outline the grave, just like the rest. Then I had a carpenter in Wichita make a wooden marker with his name and dates on it. As they set it in place, I thought that it would be nice for me to be buried alongside them. But who would be around to do that? And who would I leave everything to?

Not for the first time in my life, I wished I had married and had children.

The book became my child. Here it is, if you are reading it. Not only the story of the Fullers, but my story too, right up to date.

I was surprised how long it took to arrange. Phin died in fifty-four, and now it is the late summer of fifty-seven, and the publisher has just announced a release date. They asked me what sort of cover I wanted, so I used the Leica to take some photos of the house, and sent them the one I liked best. It will be called The Homestead, as you know if you have bought it. My agent threw me, when he asked what pen name I wanted. I hadn’t thought to use one, but an idea came to me immediately, using my father’s first name, and Phin’s last.

That combination seemed very appropriate.

“Jack Fuller”.

The End.

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.

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.


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.


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.


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,