A Good Runner: The Complete Story

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

Mike and Edna.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brenda didn’t ask him.

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

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

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

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

He was relentless in his enthusiasm.

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

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

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

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

Which of course he was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diane White.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They shook on the deal.

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

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

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

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

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

It was the last time he asked her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fordham, Miss? That’s where I live”.

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

“Okay, jump in”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay, Connie it is from now on”.

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

A true gem.

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

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

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

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

But Diane didn’t grow out of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diane could not stop herself blushing.

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

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

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

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

She didn’t have to wait until September.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the car too.

Trevor Clemence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three weeks later, she was gone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he had to go home and tell his gran.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He did as she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adrian and Sally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She didn’t even know his surname.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy Eustace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah, just call me Billy”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It started first time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sounds good to me, Mitzi love”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man looked serious.

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

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

“Done”.

Tony Barrett.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott did the talking.

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

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

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

Except Annie, who was looking at the floor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The End.

The Job: The Complete Story

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

Home from Spain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A job, Alan. A really big one”.

Old Reg comes calling.

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

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

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

This was no place for her to grow old.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Bank of England”.

An Idea Forms.

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

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

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

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

Gloria would need a cup of tea after that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Alexander.

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

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

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

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

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

He wanted to be an armed robber.

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

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

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

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

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

Spain, 1982.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spain, 2007.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Meeting Is Arranged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for a large Scotch.

Planning begins in earnest.

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

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

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

Alan didn’t trust anyone. Except Gloria.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rupert would be getting a visit soon.

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

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

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

Alan makes some decisions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan talks to Gloria.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recruiting begins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He felt he still owed Teddy.

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

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

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

Teddy turns up unexpectedly.

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

It was getting colder in London.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carl becomes number two.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan and Lugs have a chat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan gets tough with Frankie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A busy day for Alan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gloria takes a trip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan gets mobile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frankie gets a payoff.

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

That made Alan smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan goes to ground.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surprisingly tired, he fell asleep almost immediately.

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

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

Keeping a low profile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 11 am.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reg was nodding, but fortunately not smiling.

Saturday, 3pm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One less thing to have to worry about.

Going over things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A road trip to Suffolk and Essex.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The second meet.

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

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

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

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

Graham was still dressed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final preparations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, early morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A busy ten minutes in Debden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lighting a cigarette. Alan let that remark go.

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

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

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

Thursday afternoon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday evening.

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

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

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

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

He was just sending out a message.

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

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

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

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

All being well, it should be a memorable Christmas.

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

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

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

Friday morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little Frankie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One last cigarette. The thought made him smile.

The End.

“Come And See”: The Complete Story

This is all 30 parts of my recent fiction serial, “Come And See”, in one complete story. It is a long read, at 22,450 words.

Things were alright until his dad left home. That was when Jimmy’s mum found God.

Well, not in the sense that she woke up one morning and suddenly felt all religious. But when someone she worked with suggested she go with them to a prayer meeting, as a way of getting over the shock of her husband walking out after nearly twenty years together. It wasn’t long before she was really into it. Jimmy was only fifteen when she brought the first Bible home. She turned off Top of The Pops, and started reading it out loud to him while he was eating the pie and chips she had carried in the same bag.

Of course, his first reaction was to laugh out loud. But when she carried on, he concluded she must have gone mad. If only his dad had told him where he had gone to, he would have walked out and caught a bus there and then. What was he to do? He didn’t know anyone else he could go and live with, and he didn’t have any money, except what she gave him to buy lunch. So he sat there drinking his can of Tizer, and let her ramble on about God creating every creature and every living thing, hoping she would soon get fed up.

But she didn’t get fed up. So Jimmy waited until she had to use the toilet, and went up to his room to have a look at the copy of Men Only that he kept hidden under the sports bag in his wardrobe.

That went on for a long time. One day when Jimmy got home from school, the telly had gone. He asked his mum what had happened, and was shocked to hear she had sold it to someone up the street. She started to trap on about how it only broadcast evil stuff, and was probably the work of Satan. He didn’t hear the rest of her ravings, as he was already heading up to his room to sulk.

For his sixteenth birthday, his mum put two wrapped presents on the table when she got in from work. The first one was a large box of toffees, and the second contained a huge embossed Bible. Inside the front cover, she had written his name, and the date. Underneath that, she had added the words ‘MAKE A DIFFERENCE’ in capital letters. Jimmy took the presents up to his room and started to munch the toffees. Then he reached under his sports bag to grab his girly magazine. But it was gone. He felt his face flush.

She must have known, all along.

So he did his homework instead. Chemistry, Maths, and Physics. Then for want of anything else to do before dinner, he flicked through the new Bible. It was a fancy edition, no doubt. Nice clear print, and some border illustrations down the side of each page. And it had the Old Testament and New Testament combined in that one volume. No wonder it was so big. He remembered Genesis from his mum’s readings, and some of Exodus too. But skimming down the pages until he didn’t recognise the words, he started to finish Exodus, trying hard not to fall asleep before his mum called him down to eat.

On his way home from school one day after staying late for cricket practice, Jimmy was mortified to see his mum standing outside the Londis shop. She was holding a big placard with the words ‘REPENT NOW AND BE SAVED’ printed on it. And she was shouting out quotations from The Bible. People were avoiding her as they went in and out of the shop, but some local teenagers on bikes were mocking her from the kerb; repeating everything she said, and laughing fit to bust.

Hoping she hadn’t spotted him, Jimmy turned around quickly, and headed for the service road behind the shops. Letting himself in the house, he was wondering if any of the boys from school had seen her. He could do without them making his life at school any more miserable than it was already.

As if not having a telly wasn’t bad enough. Now this.

By the weekend, things got a lot worse. Jimmy’s mum took the three-step kitchen stool with her, and headed to the new shopping precinct in the centre of town. She told him she was going to use the pedestrianised area there to get her message across to the Saturday shoppers. He had a vision of her standing on top of the stool with her placard, scattering her leaflets, and everyone laughing at her. All he could hope was that nobody they knew noticed her. But that seemed inevitable.

The weather was unusually cold, and by lunchtime it was raining heavily too. Jimmy had cracked on with his homework, and then stopped to make some slices of toast for lunch. Then the house phone rang, and that made him drop a slice of toast as he was buttering it. Nobody ever rang the house phone.

His mum was in hospital, and a nurse was ringing. She told him mum’s leg was in plaster after falling and breaking her ankle, and that he should come and fetch her in a taxi. She had slipped off her step-stool in the precinct, and a shopkeeper had phoned an ambulance. Jimmy had never used a taxi, and didn’t even know a number for one. But he did know that if he walked to the station, there were taxis there.

He asked the taxi driver to take him to the Royal Victoria, and told him he would need to wait while he picked is mum up, and that she would pay when they got home. The elderly man eyed him suspiciously at first, then eventually decided he was genuine. Jimmy’s mum was in a wheelchair by the entrance. They had given her crutches, and he had a difficut time getting her into the taxi. Especially as the driver just sat in his seat and made no effort to help. They had to leave the wheelchair behind, but his mum told Jimmy that he would have to go and ask Mrs Faraday for a loan of her husband’s old one. As he was dead, he wouldn’t be needing it.

She paid the taxi fare, but told the driver he was getting no tip as he hadn’t tried to help at all. Then she lectured him about the Good Samaritan, and how Jesus would be ashamed of him for not helping a woman with a broken ankle. Once she was settled in her armchair, Jimmy walked up the street to ask Mrs Faraday about the wheelchair. She told him he could borrow it, but that she wanted it back in good condition, and clean. Mum said that if she was a truly Christian woman she would have just handed it over without any conditions and been grateful to help.

Then she moaned about breaking her placard, and snapping the metal foot off the step-stool. Both had been thrown away by the shopkeeper who rang the ambulance, and he hadn’t even asked her permission to chuck them. Once she had worked out how to get herself in and out of the wheelchair, she gave Jimmy more bad news. He was going to have to wheel her to the prayer group on Sunday morning. She couldn’t possibly manage to get there by herself.

Funnily enough, she did manage to cook dinner though, standing in the kitchen supported by the crutches. She told Jimmy that she had to go back to the hospital next week for a plaster check, and would likely have the cast on for six weeks. He could only imagine what a pain it was going to be to have to cope with her for those six weeks. So he went upstairs to try to stop thinking about it, and started to read the book of Numbers. He had already skimmed through Leviticus, and hadn’t though too much of it, to be honest.

God was really harsh to those Israelites, he decided. Just for complaining about the conditions on the way to the Promised Land, he killed so many of them. Not someone to upset, that was for sure.

But he got to the crossing of the Jordan before he fell asleep.

The prayer group meeting was nothing at all like Jimmy had imagined it would be. For one thing, it wasn’t in a church, but in the hall next to the Working Men’s Social Club. He had hoped to be able to wheel his mum in and make his excuses, but after he got her inside, a scary old lady bolted the door behind him. She said to take a seat at the front, so the wheelchair could be in the aisle.

Looking around, Jimmy guessed that his mum was the youngest in the group. Everyone else looked really old, and the whole place reeked of lavender water and smelly feet. He counted just eighteen people, besides him and his mum. They were sitting on the old wooden chairs arranged in rows, but everyone was in the first two rows. There must have been fifty chairs with nobody in them. He presumed it must be a slack day that Sunday.

Above the stage was a banner with ‘MAKE A DIFFERENCE’ printed on it in huge letters, and a black cross in each corner. Just like mum had written inside his Bible. Nobody seemed to be doing anything. There was no praying, and no hymn singing. Everyone was sat there just staring into space.

Then a man walked out onto the stage. He must have been standing to the side out of sight. As he appeared, the people all raised their heads and started smiling, including his mum. He was a big man. Tall, and stout too. He looked to be about fifty, and he was dressed in a three-piece black serge suit. In his left lapel was a silver cross, shining in the overhead lights, as was the greasy stuff he had used to stick his hair down. He looked around the room, nodding.

Someone behind Jimmy called out “Praise the Lord, Reverend George!” Then the rest of the people shouted the same thing. His mum reached out and grabbed Jimmy’s hand, beaming a smile at him, and inclining her head to suggest he join in. But he didn’t. Reverend George started speaking, and his voice was so loud, Jimmy wondered if he had a microphone hidden somewhere. He welcomed everyone, and thanked them for their preaching work in the community. Then he made a short speech about mum breaking her ankle, as she was preaching in the shopping precinct. How her willingness to injure herself to spread the word of God was an example to all.

Jimmy found that rather over the top. It wasn’t as if she had intended to fall off the three-step stool.

Everyone closed their eyes while Reverend George said a prayer about preaching salvation and repentance to those who had not seen the light. Jimmy kept his eyes open a bit, watching the man on the stage. When he finished speaking, the Reverend suddenly focused on Jimmy. He spoke even louder. “Today we have to welcome a new member of the congregation, young James. He has accompanied his mother to make her journey easier, and joined us for our service. Welcome to you, James”. Everyone repeated what he said, even mum. Jimmy felt his face go hot as he blushed.

For the next thirty minutes, George blabbed on about who should be going where to spread the word. He mentioned that there were plenty of leaflets available, and everyone should take some when they left. He kept on about how important it was for everyone to keep preaching in the town, claiming that the regular churches had been consumed by vice and greed, and only his group could make a difference.

Then he bent down and picked up a wooden box with a handle. Walking down the steps from the stage, he passed along the rows as the people stuffed money into the slot on top of the box. Jimmy was amazed to see his mum put two ten-pound notes into it. She didn’t earn much more than fifty a week, so donating twenty of that was a lot. When everyone had put in, George went back onto the stage to give the final prayer and blessing. It was more of a pep talk really, promising all the oldies a place in Heaven at the right hand of God if they continued to do their good work.

Just before they stood up to go, he suddenly called out Jimmy’s name.

“James! Be aware, young man. The Lord has special work for you. You will make a difference!”

After that first experience of the prayer group, Jimmy did a deal with his mum. He would wheel her there on Sundays, but not stay for the meeting. He had to tell the scary old lady not to bolt the door, and then made his escape before Reverend George appeared. There was something about that man he really didn’t like. He would hang around for an hour, then collect her for the trip home.

At least the broken ankle stopped his mum from going to the shopping precinct, or standing outside the Londis shop.

The downside was that she was off sick from work, and around all the time. At least he had school to get a few hours away from her, but she started going on about God as soon as he got home, so he retreated to his bedroom at the earliest opportunity. More used to the the very old-fashioned style of writing by now, he had got as far as Judges, and was almost up to Ruth. The main conclusion he had reached so far was that God was a very vengeful God, and anyone who crossed him was in serious trouble.

School was going well though, as long as he could avoid the taunts of the boys who teased him about his mum. They called her ‘Bible-Basher’, or ‘God-Botherer’ and one asked Jimmy why Jesus hadn’t just reached down from Heaven and healed her ankle, to save her having it in plaster. Good news was that he won a prize in Chemistry, and when he told his mum she said she would buy him a small statue of Jesus to keep in his bedroom. Jimmy would have preferred some chocolate-covered Brazil nuts, but said nothing.

He took his exams that summer, and when the results came in, he had Grade One O-level passes in Chemistry, Biology, Maths, and Physics. The passes in English, French, and Geography were not so great, but that didn’t bother him, as he intended to be a scientist. He would be going on to the A-levels the following year, and the Chemistry teacher told him to start thinking about university. But Jimmy’s mum had already fixed him up with a job after the A-levels, at the pharmaceutical company here she worked as a typist in the office. They would take him on as long as he got A-level Chemistry, which he was certain to get. Then he would get paid, be able to learn to drive, and hopefully save up enough money to rent his own place, and get away from his mum.

During the summer holidays, with mum no longer in a leg cast and back at work, he had more free time. But with no friends to speak of, and no telly to watch, he was soon up to the book of Proverbs. One line in that caught his attention. “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom”. There it was again. Fear. You had to fear God, and if you didn’t you could be sure you were in trouble. Once Proverbs was finished, Jimmy realised he was still only halfway through. They certainly knew how to write a book in the old days.

Of course, with mum mobile again, she resumed her preaching. She didn’t bother to buy another three-step stool though. Just in case. Some days, three or four of George’s group would work together. They went knocking on doors, handing out leaflets, and generally bothering all the neighbours. It wasn’t long before almost nobody talked to Jimmy, and when they saw his mum approaching, they would cross the street to avoid her. No telly, no friends, and now nobody talking either. Jimmy was starting to feel like an outcast.

By the time he had taken his exams the following year, he felt lonelier than ever. Mum had taken to preaching after work every evening, and all over the weekend. She told him she was guaranteeing them both a place in Heaven. But he had to cook his own dinner every night, and sit in the silent house on his own.

More time for reading meant he had almost finished The Old Testament. He was nearly at the end of the Book of Daniel, and there were only the Minor Prophets to go. Keen to get onto the New Testament to see if it was more interesting, he thought he might skip those.

They were only Minor, after all.

For Jimmy, the best thing about the new year of 1970 was that he would soon be eighteen years old, leaving school, and starting work. He had got the good pass grades he expected, and should be starting at Hopgood Pharmaceuticals just after Easter. For his mum, the best thing for her was that it was no longer the ‘Swinging Sixties’. She had hated all that pop music, free love, mini-skirts, and girls being on the pill. She was hoping for a better decade, a more God-fearing time to come.

Jimmy hadn’t had any of that free love, and since mum had sold the telly and thrown away the transistor radio, he hadn’t had any pop music either.

Mum’s prayer group had expanded a little. His mum said they now had twenty-six members, and Reverend George was better than ever with his fiery rhetoric. Jimmy had never been inside after that first time, and he had eventually got used to his mum always being out. He had also read a fair bit of the New Testament, though he had found it rather disappointing.

Jesus had started out well, throwing out the money-lenders and stuff, but Jimmy had found it hard to tolerate all those miracles. They seemed too far-fetched for his liking.

With the end of his schooling coming up, and a new job to prepare for, he had closed his Bible for now, reading up on his chemistry books instead. He was determined to make a good impression, and carve out a genuine career for himself in the Testing Department at Hopgood’s. As well as testing the efficacy of any new drugs, they also had contracts for blood tests, and bacterial testing. They would get samples sent in from hospitals, local councils, and even the police.

He had read up on that forensic side; establishing blood groups, identifying possible suspects, detecting poisons in tissue samples. It was all still rather new, but he hoped to get involved in that area, as it interested him.

The first day at work was rather embarrassing. Jimmy’s mum insisted they travel in together, then she walked him up to the head of his department, and introduced him as if he were a child on his first day at school. He could see his new colleagues eyeing her, and raising their eyebrows. She was not averse to expounding her salvation theories during the lunch break, something she had already told her son. Jimmy resolved to take the latest break allowed, as his mum sitting with him would tar him with the same brush.

That first week was something of a blur. He met a couple of dozen people whose names he was sure he would never remember, and was shown around the whole complex of buildings, even parts he would never be required to work in.

Then he was assigned a mentor. Lesley was a woman in her late twenties, and she had been working at Hopgood’s since leaving university. Jimmy got the impression she was unpopular, but his experience with women was no experience, so he didn’t notice the fact that she was overweight, wore thick-lens glasses, and had greasy hair. He treated her with great respect, and was keen to learn from her.

Very soon, Lesley liked Jimmy. She liked him a lot.

Once Lesley was on his side, Jimmy got to finally do some science. She mentioned extending his mentorship past the first week, just to be certain he was comfortable. He was happy to accept that, and she was soon showing him lots of the different aspects of the job, including the forensic analysis, which was her speciality. Because of her age, Jimmy naturally assumed she was married. But during a conversation when she mentioned living alone, he found out that wasn’t the case.

On Thursday, Lesley asked him outright if he was as crazy about religion as his mum. He explained about his dad leaving, having no television, and only having The Bible to read. But he was quick to critisize the prayer group and Reverend George, telling her he thought it was just a way for George to get money. Lesley looked very pleased by his answer.

On the way home that night, Jimmy’s mum complained of a blinding headache that she couldn’t shift. Back in the house, she prayed for The Lord to take away her headache, and went to bed early, unable to eat any dinner.

The next morning, Jimmy couldn’t wake her up.

Jimmy checked that his mum was actually breathing. Then he rang 999 and asked for an ambulance, telling the dispatcher that his mum seemed to be unconscious. After that he ran along the street to Mrs Faraday, gave her his mum’s keys, and asked her to wait in his house for the ambulance. He told her he had to go to work, and couldn’t possibly be late. Giving her no time to argue, he headed off to the bus stop.

At the eleven o’clock tea-break, he mentioned to Lesley about his mum, and she was shocked to hear that he had still come into work. She went to tell the head of department, and he insisted that Jimmy leave work immediately, and go to the hospital. Jimmy was reluctant to go, telling his boss that he would call into the hospital after work, and see if she was still there. But with Lesley joining in, he had no alternative but to go and get the bus to The Royal Victoria.

Casualty reception was quiet that morning, and a kind older woman said she would get one of the nurses to come and speak to him. Ten minutes later, a crisp and efficient Nursing Sister appeared. She took Jimmy into an unoccupied cubicle and told him that his mum had suffered a serious stroke. She used the word ‘catastrophic’ in fact. Although she was still alive, and likely to stay alive, she would probably be unable to speak or move. She asked Jimmy about family who could help, and he told her he was it. Then she took him to see his mum in a side room.

Norah Walker looked like she was sleeping soundly. In fact, she was snoring. Jimmy looked at her, thinking she looked a lot older than she did yesterday. Behind him, the nurse talked about long-term care, possibly in a residential facility. She was sure Jimmy could never cope alone, and said the doctor would come to speak to him soon. She left Jimmy siting by the bedside, without a clue what to say or do.

The doctor looked tired. He said his name was Doctor Singh, and he was wearing a turban. But his accent was the same as Jimmy’s. He repeated what the nurse had said. Mum might never recover, but she could possibly live for many years yet, maybe as long as twenty years.

When he concluded by asking if Jimmy wanted him to try to get her into long-term care, Jimmy was nodding before he had finished speaking.

That night at home, Jimmy did something he had never done before. He went through all of his mum’s papers, which were stored neatly in a drawer in her bedroom. There was a life insurance policy, but as she was still alive, he ignored that. Then he found some papers from a solicitor in town. Patrick Killane Solicitors seemed to have dealt with all of his mum’s business, and he thought he had better contact them.

He phoned the number on the headed notepaper, and he was eventually put through to Patrick himself. He didn’t have the expected Irish accent, and spoke softly in a very cultured way. “Mister Walker, I think you should come in and see me. I have things to discuss now Norah is in this condition. Will tomorrow at six be suitable?” Jimmy confirmed that appointment, and hung up.

That night, he carried on reading the New Testament, and got as far as 1 Peter before falling asleep.

Lesley was all over him the next morning. She wasn’t talking about work at all, just telling him she would cook him dinner, even come to his house to do it if he wanted. She said he shouldn’t worry about work, as she had spoken to the boss. He was happy to give Jimmy as much time off as he needed. Norah was a long-term employee, and much valued. Lesley said that if he wanted, she could stay in a spare room at his house, and look after him.

Preoccupied with the meeting with Killane later, Jimmy just nodded, and gave her his door key.

Lesley was beginning to get on his nerves. As he tried to concentrate on learning the new job, all she wanted to talk about was what he liked to eat, and what his house was like. She told him not to worry if his mum never came home, as she would look after him for as long as he needed her. He had to actually ask her to talk about work instead, and he noticed that she was rather miffed at that comment.

By the time he got to Killane’s that evening, the staff had gone home, and the solicitor was waiting for him in the outer office. He treated Jimmy with respect, ignoring his age, and the fact he had no experience with legal matters. “Your mother recently changed her instructions to me. I know she is still alive of course, but given her condition, we may be looking at trying to get you a power of attorney, so you can access any finances should you need to. Are you happy for me to do this on your behalf?” Jimmy nodded, and had to sign three different pieces of paper on the line marked with an ‘X’ in pencil.

Killane was looking at him seriously. “Are you aware of your mother’s instructions in the event of her death?” Jimmy shook his head. “Well you should probably be aware that she has left everything to someone called George Greaves. She added a note that he should use the funds to continue to spread the word of God. In all honesty Mr Walker, you are in a far better situation if she remains alive, that’s the truth of it”. Jimmy didn’t find that very surprising. Though his mum had never mentioned leaving her savings to anyone else, it was just the sort of thing he would have expected.

The solicitor told him he would be in touch about the paperwork, and mentioned his own fee of course. Then he shook Jimmy’s hand and wished a speedy recovery for his mum.

It was past seven by the time Jimmy got home. Lesley opened the door for him, suggesting she had been looking out for his arrival. He would have to get mum’s key back from Mrs Faraday, he reminded himself. She had cooked a spaghetti bolognese with some garlic bread, and had a bottle of red wine open too. Jimmy had never eaten garlic bread before, nor drunk red wine, but he tried both, just to be polite. And as they ate, he noticed something different about Lesley. Her hair looked nice, she seemed to have a lot of make-up on, and her skirt was much shorter than she usually wore them at work.

He decided he should probably say something, so he thanked her for doing the cooking, and said she looked pretty. That was all he could think of.

“Well I had a wash and blow-dry on the way home from work, and bought a new outfit to wear. I’m glad you noticed, Jimmy. I can go to my flat after work tomorrow and pack a bag, presuming you would like me to stay and look after you of course”. Jimmy shrugged, and with his mouth full of pasta, settled for a nod. When they had finished eating, Lesley cleared away and went into the kitchen to do the washing up. When she went back into the living room, she was surprised to find he wasn’t there.

She found him in his bedroom, reading a huge Bible.

“That’s not very nice, leaving a girl sitting on her own downstairs. Why didn’t you tell me you were coming up to your room to read?” It hadn’t even occured to him that she had expected him to stay downstairs, so he apologised and told her he was close to the end of the New Testament, and hoping to finish it that week. “Are you Bible-crazy then, like your mum?” She seemed unhappy. Jimmy told her that he was used to being alone, and he only had The Bible to read. He wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and why his mum and her friends were so obsessed with it.

She reached over and closed the book. Slipping off her shoes, she knelt on the edge of the bed and began unbuttoning her blouse.

“Oh I think we can do better than reading that old thing, Jimmy”.

All Jimmy knew about women was what he had learned from his one copy of Men Only magazine. In other words, he knew nothing at all about women. After thirty minutes with Lesley, he decided that the real thing was far preferable to a photo in a magazine, and she had also taught him more in that time than he had ever imagined. Following a short pause to finish the bottle of wine, she grabbed his hand and led him back upstairs.

“Your mum’s room this time, for the double bed. That tiny bed of yours will give me cramp otherwise”. Jimmy was tired long before his usual bedtime, and as Lesley curled her body around him and stroked his hair, he could feel his eyes closing. “Don’t worry, Jimmy. I am on the pill, so no little Jimmys to worry about. Not that I’m easy, you should know. There was only one before you, and he was a complete bastard”.

If she said anything else he didn’t hear it, as he was already asleep.

The next day at work, he felt awkward around her. She hadn’t bothered to make herself look nice that morning, so it was unlikely anyone suspected anything. Though on the way in, she had mentioned about packing a case again, and reminded him to get the key back from the neighbour. “And you really should ring the hospital today, and ask how your mum is”. He had almost forgotten about mum, so agreed he should do just that.

Mrs Wilby in the general office let him use the phone, and when someone was finally free to talk to him, he was told there was no change. That didn’t tell him much, but at least he had made the effort. Back in the laboratory, he told Lesley what the nurse had said. She seemed happy about that. “Oh good, I can come round tonight as planned then. I might just pick up fish and chips for dinner though, is that okay?” Jimmy was studying a slide under a microscope, so simply nodded.

Because Lesley had to go to her flat and pack, then queue for the fish and chips before she got to his house, Jimmy had plenty of time for reading when he got in from work. He was on the last chapter of the whole bible, The Book Of Revelation. Once he had finished that, he would have managed something few people have ever done. Read the whole of The Bible, Old Testament and New Testament too. Less the Minor Prophets of course, but they were probably best skipped.

He found a passage that really interested him, and read it twice.

‘And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.’

Now that was his kind of God. No messing about, take out a whole quarter of the human race, because he could. That was so much more interesting than parables, miracles, and all the ‘do unto others’ stuff he had put up with for years. A different reader might have interpreted that as a warning. Be God-fearing, or the fourth seal will be opened and Death will appear on a pale horse to punish mankind. But Jimmy wasn’t that sort of reader.

For him, it was a suggestion. Perhaps even an instruction.

When Lesley got back with her case and the fish and chips her hair was greasy, and she had no make-up on. Jimmy was hungry, and ate the food straight from the paper. She was a bit flustered, and looking at him with a worried expression. “What’s up with you, Jimmy? Sorry I’m not dressed up, but I’ve been busy. You didn’t even help with my suitcase, and I paid the taxi myself too. You have to learn to be a gentleman, to be kind. I’ve been very nice to you”. She didn’t like the strange look he gave her, when he turned round and said.

“Come and See”.

Lesley wasn’t at all sure what Jimmy was on about. “Come and see. See what? What are you talking about, Jimmy?” He smiled at her, making her feel even more uneasy. Then he told her that it was just a thought he had. Something he needed to do. His mum wanted him to make a difference, and he had worked out what that meant. Lesley was relieved, presuming he was talking about charity work or something, so she went upstairs to have a bath.

Jimmy took out an old notebook, and started to jot things down.

Swords were not really an option. You didn’t exactly see many swords, and trying to buy one might be noticed. Still, big knives were like swords, and you could buy a big knife anywhere. Hunger was a possiblilty, and he would look into that. The third option was Death. That was easy enough, as it encompassed any form of death. Definitely the most flexible option. Beasts of The earth. That was a tricky one. No locusts in England to cause starvation, only one kind of poisonous snake, and no man-eating beasts outside of a zoo. But he thought of a couple of possibilities, even so.

A Fourth Of The Earth was a big ask. Even a fourth of that town was over ten thousand people. He wouldn’t have time for that, and it would sure to attract attention. He concluded that he would have to settle for what was practical. Even a few would be making a difference, and sending a warning to people to fear God into the bargain.

When Lesley came back down, she had made an effort. Hair washed, make-up on, and a nightdress that was almost transparent. She had decided that if she was to keep Jimmy’s affections, she had to make sure she looked her best. Convinced his mum was never coming out of hospital, she saw her chance to move in and be a couple. The fact he was ten years younger didn’t seem to bother him, and it certainly didn’t bother her.

He was writing in a small notebook. “What you writing about, Jimmy, is it work stuff?” She was hoping he would turn around and look at her, notice how sexy she was. But he carried on scribbling, and shook his head. He told her it was just a few ideas for a project, and if she wanted to, she could help. She was more interested in her own current project though. That of keeping Jimmy attracted to her. “Why don’t we go upstairs? We could have some fun, before an early night”.

Closing the notebook he nodded, then followed her up to his mum’s bedroom.

She was sleeping soundly when the voice woke him up, and she didn’t seem to have heard it. It was a man’s voice, in what was best described as a loud whisper. “Make A Difference”. Jimmy wasn’t remotely afraid. He knew what it was. God was finally talking to him directly, and confirming what he needed to do. He turned over and went back to sleep, a wide smile on his contented face.

There was a good library at work. Lots of books about chemicals, poisons, contaminants, and bacteria. It wasn’t permitted to take them home, but they could be read at anytime, and as a new employee, he was expected to study. Whenever he had a spare moment, he would be in the small library, making notes and flicking thorough large textbooks until he found the sort of things that interested him. The head of department even mentioned to Lesley that Jimmy was an excellent employee. Hard working, keen to learn, and no clock-watcher.

Sounding proud about that, Lesley told him what the boss had said, as they were on the bus home from work that evening.

After cooking a nice chicken dinner, Lesley cuddled close to him on the sofa. “Why don’t I bring my television from the flat? We could watch it in the evenings, maybe a film, or a nice play? I could bring it over in a taxi, it’s not very big.” Jimmy shrugged and told her she could if she wanted to, but he was going to be busy with notes on his project. Lesley pressed her advantage. “Maybe I should think about giving up my flat, and moving in here full time? It doesn’t look like your mum will be coming back to live here”. He shook his head, and told her that wasn’t going to happen.

Unless she really wanted to help him.

“You know I will help you, Jimmy. I would do anything for you, you must realise that. What help do you need? Just tell me”. Lesley sounded desperate. She had been surprised by Jimmy turning down her offer of moving in permanently, and that showed in her quivering voice. He explained that he would need someone to look after him, but to ask no questions about where he went, and what he did. And if anyone came to the house asking about his movements, she was to say they were together at the time mentioned.

That sounded easy enough to Lesley, and she nodded vigorously. “I can do that, Jimmy. I will look after you, and tell anyone anything you ask me to tell them”. To seal the bargain, Jimmy led her upstairs to mum’s bedroom, and rewarded her with what he knew she liked best.

He got the afternoon off the next day, to go and see the doctor at the hospital. Lesley said she would get more things from her flat, including the television, then bring them over by taxi that evening. It was a different doctor who Jimmy was shown in to see. A young man who had already lost most of his hair, and seemed stressed during the conversation. “Well, Mister Walker. I think you are aware that there is little more that we can do for your mother at the moment. Our plan is to move her to the Edith Cavell unit, where long-stay coma patients are cared for. I would caution you to not expect to see any improvement, even in the long term”. Jimmy took the leaflet he was offered, explaining visiting times and procedures at the unit. Then he thanked the doctor and left.

On the way home, he called into Killane’s Solicitors, taking the man by surprise. “Mister Walker, I wan’t expecting you, but it just so happens I have some papers for you to sign. By the end of the month you should be able to control your mother’s money, both her current account, and deposit account too”. Jimmy told him about his mum moving to the long-stay unit, signed two documents at the bottom of the page, and then looked Killane in the eye. He said he was trusting him with all this, and sincerely hoped that it was all above board. Something in the young man’s gaze made the solicitor decidedly uneasy. “I assure you, it is all legal and straightforward”.

Lesley was flushed and excited when she turned up in the taxi. Jimmy helped her carry the portable television in, then paid the taxi fare as she dragged another large suitcase into the house. She produced a bottle of wine from her shoulder bag, and stood a carrier bag on the table. “I got us two nice steaks for tonight, and I will make some chips to have with them. I have sent my landlord a a letter giving notice on the flat, so by the end of next month it will just be you and me, living here”.

She headed off into the kitchen to peel potatoes and start preparing the meal. Calling to him from there, she sounded happy and upbeat. “I am going to have to change my address and phone number with work of course. That might cause a stir, so I thought we should say that you are renting me a room here, you know, just as a lodger. We can explain that you need the money to pay the rent once your mum’s sick pay stops. What do you think, Jimmy?”

When he didn’t reply, she carried on peeling the potatoes. Jimmy was writing down names in his notebook. George Greaves was already in there, and now he added the surname Killane, with a question mark next to it.

Over dinner, Jimmy said that the idea of her being a lodger was a good one, and they should stick to that story for now. Later on, they could start to let people know they were a couple, and it would seem like a natural progression of their relationship. Lesley loved the sound of that, imagining that she might even get an engagement ring to wear. If she had to buy it herself, she didn’t mind. With dinner over, it was still a little early to suggest going upstairs, so she had another idea.

“Why don’t we set up the telly, Jimmy? See what’s on”.

Jimmy soon discovered that Lesley liked to watch a lot of television. She had many favourite programmes, which she also liked to talk about all the way through them. He didn’t mind too much, as every so often he would get a familiar message from the screen. One of the soap opera characters might be spouting the lines that Lesley expected to hear, but Jimmy would hear them saying “Make A Difference”, in that same voice he had heard in bed that night.

Reverend George wasn’t in the phone book. That meant Jimmy would have to go out on Sunday. He told Lesley he was going to visit his mum in the new unit. He would do that too, just so he was seen there by staff. Lesley was looking forward to cooking them a Sunday dinner. “I got a nice half leg of lamb, and I make my own mint sauce. Yourkshire puddings too, if you want. Try to be back by two, so I can time it all”.

Finding a place across the road from the hall where the prayer group met, he managed to wait out of sight on the corner. Knowing what time they usually finished, he only had to be there for a few minutes, so was unlikely to attract any attention. The scary old lady was out first, after unbolting the door, then a dozen or so followed her before George Greaves appeared and waved them goodbye. Then he locked the outside padlock, and took the key into the social club before walking away at a brisk pace.

Following at a reasonable distance, Jimmy had to be careful not to be spotted. The streets were quiet on that Sunday morning, and it would have been easy for Greaves to suddenly turn and spot him. Fortunately, he didn’t turn, keeping up his fast pace until he got to a row of shabby-looking shops that were all shuttered up. Between two of them, George stopped and let himself in with a key. Presumably, he lived in a flat above one of them, Jimmy concluded. Checking the time on his watch, he wondered if he should get on with things now, or come back another time.

In his head, he heard one of his mum’s favourite sayings. “No time like the present”.

There were two doorbells. One had a faded paper name-plate with ‘Strickland’ on it, so Jimmy pressed the other one. It took some time for George to answer, and he seemed very surprised, almost startled to see Jimmy. “What can I do for you, young James?” Jimmy explained about his mum being in the long-stay unit, and that he had hoped to talk to George about the special work that the Lord had for him. Checking his own watch, he stood back from the door. “Come on up, but I don’t have long I’m afraid”. He didn’t ask Jimmy how he knew where he lived.

Inside, the pokey flat looked nothing like a residence you might associate with a man of God. Piles of clothes covered most surfaces, and a glipmse into the kitchen as they walked past had showed that no washing up had been done for a very long time. George sat down on a greasy-looking armchair, and pointed at the one opposite. Jimmy didn’t sit. Instead, he asked George if he could use the toilet, and the man nodded. “Just by the front door, opposite the kitchen”.

In the small bathroom, Jimmy removed a plastic carrier bag from his coat pocket. It contained a knife he had brought from home, with a blade about eight inches long. He inverted the bag until it covered his hand and sleeve, then grabbed the knife through the plastic.

George was pouring himself a whisky when Jimmy returned, his right hand behind his back. Before he could offer a drink to the young man, Jimmy stabbed him once in the side of the neck, turning the blade flat as he withdrew it. As George dropped the bottle and glass, a mystifed look on his face, Jimmy stepped smartly to one side, carefully avoiding the jet of blood that spurted from the neck wound. George tried to stand, but fell forward onto his knees, the colour draining from his skin.

Leaving the reverend face down on the floor making a strange gurgling noise, Jimmy turned and went back into the bathroom. Running the plastic bag and knife under the tap, he waited until there was no chance of any blood drips, then turned the bag inside out, and put the knife back inside. Before leaving, he went to check that George was dead, waiting a full two minutes to be certain his chest wasn’t moving. Then using his sleeve on the catch, he opened the door and let himself out.

On the way to the hospital unit, the thought of that roast lamb was making his mouth water.

Detective Inspector Jo Drummond had worked hard to get where she was. Twelve years a copper, putting up with all the sex talk, and being told to make the tea, or look after lost kids. She had stuck with it, and even though most of the experienced men on her team obviously resented having a woman in charge, they had to admit she got the job done. That Sunday afternoon, she was on call, and not expecting anything much to happen in that sleepy town. So when the Control Room rang to tell her about a murder, she was as surprised as the victim had been.

The first two uniforms on scene had responded to a three-nines call from a local prostitute. She had been supposed to call on one of her regular clients, even had a key to his flat, it seemed. Jo had a chat with her outside. Mandy was pushing fifty, and had started to do house calls when street trade dropped off because of her age. She had been seeing the dead man, George Greaves, every Sunday afternoon for over a year. He had given her the key in case he was late back.

Once an officer had taken her statement, Jo let her go home. She was never going to be a suspect, and her fingerprints were on file anyway. Then Jo went upstairs to look at the scene. No sign of forced entry, and what seemed to be one stab wound to the neck. There was a lot of blood around, so she was careful not to step in it. Using the radio in her car, she requested the forensic team, and asked for the rest of her squad to be called in from home.

Jimmy made sure to talk to the receptionist at the Edith Cavell Unit, asking her for his mother’s room number. She seemed amused. “You mean what Ward, not what room. She is on Mollett ward, just along the corridor to your right. See the nurse on duty at the desk”. Jimmy thanked her politely, and soon saw the sign above the double doors halfway down. The nurse was checking drugs in a trolley, and smiled as Jimmy came in. “Mrs Walker? Oh yes, she is in the last bed on the left, by the window. Please go and see her”.

There were six beds on each side, and they were all screened off by curtains. He could hear the machines beeping at different rates as he walked along. Opening the last curtain on the left, he saw his mum lying there. Her eyes had tape on them to keep them closed, and she had an oxygen mask over her face. A tube ran from under the bedcovers to a big bag full of yellow fluid, and a glass bottle of clear fluid was hanging from a stand, a long plastic tube was leading down from it, attached to her arm with a taped-over needle of some sort. As he stared at her, the nurse’s voice behind him made him jump.

“You should talk to your mum you know. She can probably hear you, even though she is unable to respond”. The nurse injected something into the plastic tube, and went back to her desk.

Thinking he had better make it look good, Jimmy chatted to his mum. He told her that Lesley was looking after him now, and that he had been to see the solicitor about her money. Not really having a clue what else to say, he started to recite some of her favourite sections of The Bible, checking his watch to make sure he stayed long enough to convince the staff. Then some kind of alarm went off, and people rushed in to help the nurse. In all the commotion, he slipped out of the ward, making sure to say goodbye and thank you to the receptionist as he walked out.

It was only ten minutes after two when he got home, so he wasn’t that late for his Sunday dinner.

Lesley was dressed very nicely, and wearing a striped apron over her clothes to protect them as she dished up the meal. As well as the Yorkshire puddings and home-made mint sauce, she had done roast potatoes, carrots, and peas. As Jimmy tucked in heartily, Lesley beamed with satisfaction.

“There’s an apple and blackberry pie for afters. I made that myself”.

Patrick Killane sent Jimmy a letter about the power of attorney. He had to take it into the bank and show it to them. Lesley arranged for him to have an afternoon off, and the bank manager saw him privately, in a small office at the back of the branch. “You will be able to draw on your mother’s account should you need to, Mister Walker. Also access her deposit savings account”.

The man slid a sheet of paper across the desk. It showed that Jimmy’s mum had almost one thousand pounds in her current account, and close to eleven thousand pounds in her deposit account. Jimmy caught his breath. He could buy a small house for that much, and it intrigued him how his mum had managed to save it. He asked the bank manager if his absent father could access that money.

He smiled, and shook his head. “As I understand it, your parents are divorced. In that case, he has no claim on any money whatsoever. Please bear in mind that should your mother recover, it will be up to you and your lawyer to explain to her why you have gone ahead with the power of attorney. I trust you will not be taking out much more than you need to pay your bills and live normally?” Jimmy was rather annoyed at the man’s tone, so he thanked him for his time, and left.

After a late night and a long day, Joanne Drummond was briefing her team before they went home that evening. She had already been in to see the Chief Inspector, and he had told her to carry on with the usual routine for now.

“Okay, so we have a victim, George Greaves. His real name was George Gardiner, born in Bristol, in ninteen-nineteen. He was fity-one years old, and recently moved to the town from Birmingham, after being released from prison. He had served three years for fraud. George was well known to us, it seems. He was originally arrested as long ago as forty-two, during the war. He had been selling Army rations to black marketeers. He served time for that in military prison, before being dishonourably discharged at the end of the war”.

Jo moved away, signalling Sergeant Bernie Cohen to come up and speak. Bernie held up some papers. “Fraud, Deception, Theft, Burglary. George was a busy boy. Three more spells inside before the last one, and just occasional cash-in-hand jobs in between. According to Mandy, his regular pro, he was running a nice little scam being some sort of Evangelist. She says he used to pay her with cash from his collection box every Sunday. She also tells me he boasted about a few of the old women leaving him money or property in their wills. Derek has already looked into that, and one of the worshippers gave him a list of five women who agreed to make him a benficiary”.

Walking over to stop him continuing, Jo waved her arm. “Okay you lot, off home for now. Thanks for all your hard work so far. We will get onto that list tomorrow”.

Jimmy had something to do before Lesley got home that evening. He made a few notes in his book, then placed that in the carrier bag with the knife he had used on George. Taking the bag out to the garden shed, he lifted the grass box on the front of the lawn mower, and hid the bag underneath. No chance Lesley would find it there.

While he was waiting for her to come home and cook the dinner, Jimmy settled down with a new book he had bought in a second-hand shop. It was about the history of biological warfare, and he was fascinated to discover that the idea went back to ancient times, when rotting carcasses were used to pollute water supplies, and the tips of arrows were coated in human faeces to infect wounds. He was still reading it when she came in. “How did you get on, love? Everything okay at the bank? Dinner won’t be long, just sausages, egg, and chips tonight”.

He nodded a yes to each thing she had said, as he had got to a good bit about how Roman soldiers would place their swords into decomposed bodies, so that anyone wounded by them later would die of Tetanus.

Sergeant Bernie Cohen put his head around the door of Jo’s office. “I have been through that list with Derek. Four of the women are widows, and have no relatives. But the other one has a teenage son. Maybe he found out about her leaving everything to Georgy boy, and decided to make sure he wasn’t around to inherit. I have the address, do you want me and Derek to check it out?” Jo thought for a moment. “No, tell you what, Bernie. I will come with you”.

There was no reply, but Mrs Faraday had spotted the strangers outside Norah’s, and came along to find out what was going on. “Oh, Norah is in hospital. But her son Jim still lives here. He is at work though. There’s a woman living here too now, she moved in when Norah didn’t come out of hospital. I saw her bring suitcases, and a television too. She brought them in a taxi”. Jo thanked her and said, “We will come back this evening when her son is home”. As they got back in the car, Bernie smiled. “Thank heaven for nosey neighbours”.

Jimmy was doing so well at work that the head of department suggested they send him on Day Release to college once a week. He felt Jimmy should definitely work on his degree, as he seemed to have a natural talent for the job, and could go far with the right qualifications. Jimmy graciously accepted, though he was concerned that his work was going to get in the way of his need to make a difference. The next time God spoke to him through the television, he would be sure to say sorry for his slow start. Not out loud of course, but God would surely hear his thoughts.

As they walked from the bus to the house that evening, Lesley was holding Jimmy’s arm. She had been out at lunchtime and bought some nice fishcakes, and she was telling him about the cheese sauce she was going to make to serve with them. The man and woman got out of the car parked outside the house, and smiled as they both held up small wallets containing badges and identity cards. “James Walker? I am Detective Inspector Drummond. This is my colleague Sergeant Cohen. Can we come in and ask you some questions?” Jimmy smiled and nodded, taking his key from his jacket pocket.

Lesley offered them a cup of tea, but they declined. Jimmy waved a hand at the sofa, and they both sat down. The Sergeant took out a notebook, and clicked his pen, ready to write. Jo was formal, hoping to take the young man off guard. “Do you know a man named George Greaves? Your mother knows him. In fact she left him all of her money in the event of her death”. Jimmy was completely relaxed. He said he had met George once at the prayer group, and that his mother’s solicitor had told him that mum had left everything to George. But his mum was in a coma, so the same solicitor had arranged for him to have a power of attorney over her money. That was all he knew. Jimmy was still standing, and watched as the man wrote down everything he said. Then the woman continued.

“Could you tell me where you were last Sunday morning, James? Specifically around eleven-thirty to midday?” Jimmy answered without hesitation, telling her he was at home until at least eleven thirty, then he walked to the Cavell Unit of the hospital to see his mother. He told her there were no visitor records, but he was sure that the receptionist would remember him, as well as the nurse who spoke to him and suggested he have a conversation with his mum. Then he turned to Lesley sitting in the small armchair, and smiled. Jo took the hint, and said “Were you here at the time miss? Can you confirm what James has told me? What is your name by the way, and your relationship to James?”

“I’m Lesley Keane, and I can confirm everything Jimmy has told you. He was back from the hospital by two in the afternoon for dinner. It’s a long walk you know. And my relationship is, er, well, I’m his girlfriend and I am currently staying here while Norah is in hospital”. She looked up at Jimmy to see if it had been okay to say she was his girlfriend, but Jimmy was already telling the policewoman that she was his fiance, and he just hadn’t got around to buying a ring.

On the way back to the police station, Bernie turned to Jo. “What do you think?” She changed gears with a flourish as she replied.

“Creepy and weird. And what’s that with the older woman? I reckon it’s him, one hundred percent”.

Four weeks after the murder of George Greaves, Jo Drummond held a briefing for her team. “Okay, thanks to everyone for your hard work. We have been working on the theory that George was killed by James Walker, to stop him inheriting his mother’s money. But we have nothing on the suspect. We cannot place him at the scene, and there are no fingerprints of anyone in the flat except for George himself, and Mandy, his working girl. Young Walker has no form, and appears to be clean as a whistle. I couldn’t even get enough on him to justify a search warrant for the house. If he didn’t kill George, then we have the prospect of the famous ‘unknown stranger’, and that leaves it all wide open. The boss has told me to leave it pending for now, and for us to work on the two recent Post Office robberies. Bernie”.

Sergeant Cohen stood up. “Looks like we will have to wait until James kills someone else, and he’s sure to do that. He has a great alibi too. The receptionist and a nurse at the Edith Cavell unit both place him on Mollett ward at around the time of George’s death. Then his bird backs up him arriving home at two. But then she’s bound to do that. Anyway, on to those two robberies”.

On the day when the police had called round, Lesley had been left speechless when Jimmy had called her his fiance. He had never mentioned being in love with her, or getting engaged. She had always hoped that would come in time, and had no idea he had fallen for her so quickly. After they had left, she had been getting dinner ready, but the need to say something overwhelmed her. “Jimmy, you told that policewoman I was your fiance. Is that a proposal? Are you going to buy me a ring then?” Jimmy’s reply made her drop the cheese grater she was holding.

He said that they might as well just get married. If it was going to happen after an engagement, why not just do it now? He suggested they have a registry office wedding in about a month, to give everyone at work time to get used to the fact that they were together. After showering his face in kisses, a delighted Lesley couldn’t stop talking. “Oh they will all be convinced I am pregnant, you wait and see. Then there’s the age difference, everyone’s sure to have something to say about that”. Jimmy told her he was hungry, and she went back to finish preparing the best fish cakes with cheese sauce ever served to anyone.

Two days later, he bought her a ring in the local branch of H. Samuel. A solitaire diamond engagement ring that cost him a whopping two hundred pounds. Lesley burst into tears when the girl in the shop put one the right size on her finger. On the way home, Jimmy said he would phone the Registry Office from work tomorrow, and book the wedding. Lesley was excited, but worried. “You know I haven’t spoken to my parents for years, Jimmy. Not since that business with that horrible man I was going out with. He was my Mum’s second cousin, and he treated me like dirt. They expected me to stay with him, and we had a falling out when I said no”. Jimmy told her that he would ask Patrick Killane and his wife to be the witnesses, but there would be no party, or big cake. Then he gave her thirty pounds to buy a new dress and shoes to get married in.

Back at the house, Lesley sat admiring her ring, hardly able to believe she was about to get married. And to someone as good looking and clever as Jimmy too. He took out a very small notebook, and asked her the name of the second cousin who had been bad to her. It never occurred to her to ask why he wanted to know.

Jonathan Carrington hated being a bank manager. He hated his stupid wife too, and the greedy son who didn’t want to go to work. All he had to do was put in his time, and get the pension. Then he intended to leave the silly cow and her spoiled parasite of a son and go to live somewhere warm, like Spain. Eight more years seemed a long time. But they would soon pass.

He was thinking about drinking a beer on a beach at sunset. Or maybe some Sangria, followed by a plate of Paella. Perhaps with a dark-haired beauty by his side.

That meant he didn’t notice the young man following from a reasonable distance.

As they kept walking south, Jimmy realised that they were heading for an area known as The Limes. It was a private estate bordering the town Golf Club, perhaps less than thirty houses mostly bought by people who wanted to be near the club. Suddenly, the bank manager turned right, heading up a pathway. Jimmy hesitated, as he would be very obvious. Giving the man time to walk ahead, he eventually followed, only to find himself on the edge of one of the greens, and a sign that said ‘Members Only’. The manager was walking ahead, and Jimmy assumed he had access to his house from the grounds.

Only needing to know which house he was heading for, Jimmy carried on, keeping close to the trees. A voice from behind startled him. “Excuse me. Can I help you? This is a private club you know. Are you a member?” He turned to see a man about sixty, dressed in golfing clothes and pulling a trolley with a set of clubs in it. He had no idea that people would be playing golf at this time in the evening. Jimmy smiled and said he was sorry, but he had been looking for Lime Crescent, and must have got lost. “There is no Lime Crescent around here, young man. You must indeed be lost”. Jimmy thanked him, and went back the way he had come.

Now there would be a witness, and that ruined any plan he might have had.

It was a long way from the dream wedding that Lesley had imagined, but it was still her wedding, and she had never felt happier. That Saturday morning was even sunny, and Jimmy looked so smart in the new suit she had made him buy. Patrick Killane introduced his wife Brenda to them outside the Town Hall. He looked awkward, probably wondering why he had been asked. But his chubby wife was friendly, and she had brought a plastic horseshoe tied with white ribbon, for Lesley to hold for good luck. Jimmy had the rings in his trouser pocket, and as he slipped the gold band onto her eager finger, Lesley failed to fight back a flood of tears.

The celebration, such as it was, consisted of a meal in a nearby pub, after which a relieved-looking Killane took his leave, wishing the couple well. Back at the house, if Lesley was expecting wedded bliss, she was sorely disappointed when Jimmy sat deep in thought. He was considering that the task he had taken on might be impossible, as long as he lived in such a small town, and had come to the notice of the police. The next time God instructed him to make a difference, he was going to have to ask him to wait a few years.

Still there was one job he had to do in the meantime, but he would wait until Lesley’s excitement over the wedding calmed down.

Simon Tobin was not a nice man. He would have been happy to have admitted that too, if anyone had ever asked him. His rugged good looks had gained him many female admirers over the years, but he had little time for women, other than to use them for pleasure. Their inane chatter drove him crazy, and they took such delight in wandering around shops, even when they bought nothing. As a result, he was now in his late forties, and lived alone. His only living relative was his cousin, Valerie Keane.

Her and her husband had loaned him money in the past, trying to set him up with their goofy-looking daughter. But Lesley had refused to put up with his physical and mental abuse, eventually rejecting his offer of marriage.

Now Simon spent his days working as a tyre fitter, and most of his evenings spending his wages in the local pub. People there tended to avoid him. He had a lot to say, and generally said it loudly. Only a few of the more timid regulars tolerated him, and sometimes bought him drinks. That night he was shouting his mouth off about how useless the local football team was, with his little gang of friends nodding in agreement.

The young man who had been sipping a shandy in the corner bar left early, long before the pub closed.

But he was outside, waiting.

Lesley had told Jimmy about Simon. How he had tried to control her, had taken money from her, and been violent to her sexually. She was ashamed that she had tolerated it for so long, but the thought of becoming his wife had filled her with dread, giving her the strength to move out of her parents’ house, split with her family, and rent her own small flat.

Jimmy watched as the man left the pub just after eleven. He was unaccompanied, and stopped to light a cigarette before walking off into the darkness. Jimmy already knew which way he would go. Lesley had mentioned where he worked, and Jimmy had followed him one Saturday afternoon when they closed. He had seen him go home, then watched as he came out again to head for the pub. He knew the route Simon would take, and he was prepared. There was no need to follow him, just be in the right place when he got there.

Earlier, Jimmy had concealed a large piece of wood under the approach to the bridge over the canal. It was part of a tree branch, probably left by a dog. It was heavy, and over four feet long. Wearing gloves, he had walked back to the pub and sat alone in the small bar after ordering a shandy. The main bar was very busy with people watching the football match on a TV fixed to the wall, and the man who served him the drink hardly paid him any attention at all.

The fresh air had hit Simon by the time he got to the bridge, and he stopped for a moment, holding onto the handrail. Jimmy stepped out from his hiding place under the approach, and struck Simon’s head with the branch, using all his strength. The bigger man let out a groan, and rolled down the side of the bridge and over the paved edge of the towpath. He slipped into the deep water feet first, and disappeared under with a gurgling sound.

Looking around to make sure nobody else was nearby, Jimmy crouched down to watch in case Simon surfaced. When he was sure he had been in the water long enough to drown, he stood up and walked back along the towpath to the main road, discarding the branch into the water a long way from where Simon had gone in.

It was a long walk home, and well after midnight when he got in. Lesley knew better than to ask where he had been, and offered to make him a sandwich and a cup of tea. When she came back into the room with them, Jimmy told her that if anyone asked, he had been at home with her all evening.

On Saturday, he took a bus to the other side of the town, and walked around to the back of a small block of flats that had a communal waste bin. In the carrier bag that he dropped into it were the gloves, and the old shoes he had been wearing. He had chosen a pair with a distinctive rip on the side of one sole, so that the footprints he had left by the canal bridge would be obvious. When he got home, he suggested to Lesley that they go to the cinema that evening, and she was delighted.

People like Simon don’t get missed. But he hadn’t shown up for work for almost a week, so his boss went to the flat. Getting no reply, he rang the police to tell them of his concern. The young woman at the end of the phone took some details, and asked him to go into a police station and file a missing persons report. But he wasn’t too bothered. The man was a pain anyway, a loudmouth. So instead of going to make an official report he phoned head office to ask them to place an advertisement for a job vacancy, saying that Simon had not turned up for work, so could consider himself sacked.

Declan Leach was once a hippy, and might later be described as alternative. He lived on a canal boat, and moved it up and down the country between jobs. He looked for cash work. Fruit-picking, window-cleaning, day labouring, anything that didn’t involve tax and insurance. After escaping almost being caught for not paying mooring fees the day before, he had headed north along the canal, stopping at an unfamiliar town when he ran out of tobacco and milk. After finding a shop up on the road, he walked back to his narrow-boat and noticed something caught up at the back of it.

The briefest look told him it was the body of man.

Simon’s body had not travelled too far from where he went into the water when it became snagged against an old motorcycle. That motorcycle had been in the canal since the end of the Korean War, after some celebrating soldiers had stolen it to ride back to barracks on, then run out of petrol. Rather than leave it where it could be found, they had dumped it into the canal.

The body might have stayed trapped there for much longer, if Declan’s narrow boat had not disturbed the water just enough for it to float to the top. As some ten days had passed, it was in something of a state.

Once Declan had given his statement to the police who arrived, he started his boat and got out of there before anyone turned up to ask for mooring fees.

The pathologist examining the body came to the conclusion that the man had hit his head after falling over drunk, and rolled into the canal where he had drowned. Wood fragments found in the wound were not deemed to be suspicious, as all sorts of things were under the murky water, or floating on it. The rats had nibbled at Simon too, but the police concluded he could still be formally identified. There had been no reason to search for footprints, or any other evidence along the canal.

Using the driving licence found in his wallet, it took them just over a week to find his only living relative, Valerie Keane. After she made the identification at the mortuary, she asked the officer how she could get back the money that Simon still owed her.

When almost two weeks had gone by and no police had called asking where he was that night by the canal, Jimmy concluded that there was no investigation into Simon’s death. He also concluded that killing people using violence was not the way forward. It involved the police, and they almost certainly still had their eye on him for George’s murder.

He wasn’t to know that the killing of George Greaves had been classifed ‘unsolved’, and added to the small file marked ‘Pending’. He also wasn’t to know that Jo Drummond had passed her interview board for promotion to Chief Inspector, and was moving to a uniform job at the Police Training School.

Jimmy threw himself into his studies. The next time God spoke to him was during an episode of Opportunity Knocks, a talent show that Lesley enjoyed watching. When the compere Hughie Green told him to make a difference, he answered in his head, telling God he was just going to have to wait.

Married life suited Lesley. She loved the regular sex, and even tolerated the lack of romance and genuine affection. She was destined to be a happy housewife, keeping the place clean, and making nice meals for them every night of the week. She carried on taking the pill though. She didn’t think Jimmy was quite ready to be a father, and truth be told, she didn’t want the encumbrance of a child in their life.

Jimmy worked hard and studied hard, and she used her experience to help him. He had developed an interest in the forensic side of biological hazards, and his first paper on that subject had earned him a merit.

She was so proud of her handsome husband, and was planning something special for his twenty-first birthday. He would get his degree later that year, so it was such a special year all round. The tutors had said they had never seen anyone so talented in the field, and they were amazed how fast Jimmy had progressed.

God was less pleased. During an episode of Coronation Street, a soap opera Lesley never missed, Elsie Tanner told Jimmy that he had let her down, and was no longer making a difference. It was God speaking of course, and this time Jimmy refused to respond. God was going to have to wait. Because Jimmy had a plan.

The evening before his twenty-first, Jimmy got a phone call from the Edith Cavell unit. His mum had just died. He thanked them for the call, and smiled to himself.

That was exactly the news he had been waiting for.

Jimmy’s degree had caused something of a stir in the scientific community. It was almost unknown for someone studying part-time to finish so quickly, and to get a first class degree too. He declined to attend the graduation ceremony, instead receiving the impressive document in the post.

Lesley felt so proud she thought she would burst, but she admitted to great disappointment that there would be no photo of her young husband in the usual graduation regalia.

That was of no concern to Jimmy. He wanted the qualification, not the acclaim that might have gone with it. With a letter of recommendation from his tutor to include, he sat quietly one Sunday afternoon and wrote out a job application. When it was ready to post, he chatted to Lesley about her thoughts on moving to another part of the country. She had no hesitation when she replied. “I will go anywhere with you, Jimmy. You’re my husband, and I love you. There is nothing to keep either of us here, after all”.

With the reassurance that Lesley would make no objection, he walked up to the post box on the corner, and slipped the large envelope into the slot.

Norah Walker’s funeral had been a sad affair. One of the nurses from the hospital showed up for the fifteen minute service before the cremation, and other than her, only Jimmy and Lesley were in attendance.

The following week, Jimmy had gone to see Patrick Killane about the will. “With George Greaves dead, you are the next of kin, and the power of attorney should help probate go through quickly, James. I will be in touch, once you have been confirmed as the sole heir”. Killane felt relieved when Jimmy left his office. There was something about that intense young man that made him feel very nervous.

Since Lesley had moved in, Jimmy had taken no rent from her. Although she bought most of the food, every now and again Jimmy would give her some money, saying he was sure she must need it for groceries. As a result, she had saved a tidy sum, added to the deposit from her flat that had been returned after she gave it up. So for his twenty-first, she had bought him a gold watch, an Accurist, with an expanding bracelet. He had accepted it graciously enough, but material things didn’t really concern him that much.

As an extra present, she had bought herself some delicate lingerie, including some old-fashioned stockings and suspenders. Then she had revealed herself in the bedroom, saying she was his ‘special gift’.

One evening, Jimmy talked to her about jobs. If they moved, she might have to do something different, and he wondered how she felt about that. Lesley was very positive. “I have always really fancied being a Pharmacist. Perhaps I could train for that, and get a job in a chemist’s shop, even in a big one, like Boots?” Jimmy told her he thought that was a perfect idea, and that he would support her doing that one hundred percent.

Even though she had no idea what job Jimmy had applied for, or where they might be moving to, Lesley had never been happier.

A month went by, and the money from Norah’s estate went through to Jimmy’s account. He paid Killane’s fees, and arranged for his mum’s now empty accounts to be closed. Every bill had been paid, and there were no outstanding debts. When Norah’s ashes were returned in an urn, Jimmy spinkled them in the lake in the local park. Lesley looked on, smiling. She had no idea that Norah had never liked the local park, and had only been there once in her life. She just thought that Jimmy as doing a wonderful thing for his mum.

Two weeks later, Jimmy received a letter. He had to supply a lot of personal information, for a vetting procedure. Based on that being successful, he would be asked to attend for interview. Lesley was shown the letter, and was suitably impressed. “Oh that’s wonderful, Jimmy. I had no idea that’s what you had applied for. I hope you get it, darling”.

The heading on the letter was from Porton Down. That was what everyone called it.

But the offical name of those govenment premises was the Ministry of Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.

It took a month for the vetting and references to go through. During that time, Jimmy discovered that Lesley had a driving licence. She had passed her test aged eighteen, but never had the money to buy her own car. Jimmy suggested he buy her one, using some of the inheritance money from his mum. They went to the nearest main dealer, and he paid by cheque for the car that Lesley chose, a Mini Clubman 1275 GT. She picked a rather garish orange colour, and it had a black stripe across the bonnet. As Jimmy cared nothing about cars, he allowed her to choose all the extras, then paid the salesman without haggling.

Before she collected the car, Lesley thought she had better have a refresher lesson. She hadn’t driven since the day she passed her test, so arranged for a two-hour lesson with a local driving school. That went well, and the instructor dropped her off at the dealer to collect her new Mini. Now she had the car and had arranged the insurance, they would no longer need to get the bus. They could also drive to the new large supermarket to buy their groceries. Lesley was beside herself. Nobody had ever been so generous to her in her life.

For Jimmy, there was another agenda. If he got the job he had applied for and they moved to Wiltshire, a car would almost certainly be essential.

The interview date came through by letter. Jimmy had to take two days of his holiday entitlement, and arrange train tickets for the journey to what was almost the other side of the country. Using a copy of Dalton’s Weekly, he found a respectable bed and breakfast establishment in Salisbury, and phoned them to book an overnight stay. That was around eight miles from Porton Down, and he would book a taxi once he got there.

On the day, the taxi had to drop him at the entrance, and he showed his letter to the guards at the gate. A lady came to get him, and gave him a temporary identity card to clip to his jacket lapel. She took him to a rather unimpressive office, where two men were waiting. Unknown to Jimmy, they were excited. His interview was little more than a formality, as his qualifications and references were exceptional, and his background vetting had been one of the cleanest they had ever seen. They asked him some questions about where he might live, and what his wife would be doing. Lesley had been checked secretly by them, and she had also come up squeaky clean.

Giving no indication of his success or failure, they thanked him for coming, and he was shown back to the gatehouse, where one of the guards allowed him to ring the same taxi firm to collect him. He had been told that the decision on his application would be sent by letter. The taxi took him to Salisbury station, where he arrived almost two hours early for the train. He bought a selection of the available local newspapers, two of which had property advertisements. A quick browse while he waited showed him that property in the outlying villages was affordable, and with a good deposit from his inheritance, they would have a very small mortgage.

That evening, he spoke to Lesley about them leaving Hopgood’s. They both had to give three month’s notice, so even if he got the job, he would not be able to start that year. He had told the men interviewing him that, and they hadn’t seemed concerned. Lesley told him she was going to write to Boots, and ask about work as a trainee pharmacist. Jimmy told her there was a really big branch of Boots in Salisbury, and she seemed excited about the prospect of a move, and a new job. She said it all seemed too good to be true.

But it was true, Jimmy knew that. And he knew for sure that God was fixing it for him.

The letter arrived in less than a week. A full job offer, including details of salary, pension arrangements, and a contract to sign and return. The pay was fifty percent more than he was getting at Hopgood’s, and that was a nice surprise, as he hadn’t even asked about the salary. Lesley jumped up and down with excitement, wrapping her arms around Jimmy.

He told her that they had to give notice the next morning, as he would be starting at Porton Down the first week in February.

Their head of department was very upset to hear the news that they were both leaving. He told them he could see why though, and wished them well. Jimmy turned down the offer of a leaving party, though Lesley was very gracious when she received the leaving gift of a set of cutlery for the new home.

Jimmy had informed the council of his moving date, and arranged to sell or give away most of the contents of the house. He agreed with Lesley that they should buy new things once they had bought a house. For the time being, their plan was to stay in a nice bed and breakfast until the mortgage was approved, and the house sale had gone through. Lesley had no firm offer of a job, but she was sure something would turn up.

They had settled on the village of Boscombe, close to Porton Down, and around ten miles from Salisbury. Lesley could take Jimmy to work on the way to the city, and pick him up on the way home. After spending the weekend there, Lesley had fallen in love with a two-bedroom Victorian cottage. It was small, and only had a courtyard garden, but the house was full of character and original features. The mortgage was easly affordable, and that meant Jimmy could manage it on his salary, even if it took some time for Lesley to find work.

Lesley Walker was under no illusions about her married life. Jimmy was young and attractive; she was ten years older, and looked more like fifteen years older. But he was kind to her, even though he was often distant, and showed her scant affection. He didn’t enjoy watching television, but at least he no longer only read The Bible, and he never spoke to her about religion.

In her heart, she just knew he had killed George Greaves. She was sure the police knew that too, but they had no evidence. Lesley didn’t care. Greaves was a heartless con-man, and had deserved what had happened. Jimmy had just been putting things right.

There was so much to be grateful for. Jimmy never so much as looked at another woman. He seemed to have no idea how attractive and eligible he was. For her, life was exactly what she had hoped for, ever since freeing herself from that awful Simon, and her uncaring parents. She had married a man who asked little from her, and had started to carve out a great career for himself. He had bought her a car, and provided the deposit for the little house of her dreams. And he was paying to furnish it exactly as she wanted, with no arguments. In her mind, she was the luckiest wife in England.

And he was buying a colour television for the new house. She had so wanted to watch in colour.

Moving day didn’t happen until the furniture and everything else had been delivered. Lesley felt like a princess in the small house, but Jimmy was more interested in his first day at work, the following Monday. As Lesley still had no news about any employment offer, she would get up with him and take him the short distance in the car. He would get his official pass at the gatehouse where it will have been left for him. As his working day was from eight until five, Lesley could easily pick him up at the gate when he finished.

Jimmy was rather disappointed to be told that his first week would be one of familiarisation, safety training, and tours of the site. As there was no other new starter, he had been assigned a mentor for that week, a serious woman called Eileen. She told him she had been there since nineteen-sixty, and there was nothing she didn’t know about what went on at Porton Down. Jimmy didn’t much care for the way she spoke to him, which reminded him of an officious female Geography teacher at his school. But she was right about being well-informed, and as she divulged secret after secret, he realised why he had been compelled to sign The Official Secrets Act.

Great Britain was a signatory to the Geneva Protocol, banning the use of chemical weapons in warfare. But that had failed to deal with the storage and testing of them, and despite Britain claiming to have destroyed its stock, Jimmy quickly discovered that was far from the truth.

Eileen told him about the special rooms that held stocks of mustard gas, and various biological contaminates, including a sample of the Plague bacillus. That made Jimmy raise his eyebrows.

The Black Death. Now that had made a difference.

That night at home, Jimmy was in a bad mood. He had read up on the black death, and was upset to discover that it could easily be cured now, using modern antibiotics. He was going to have to think of something else.

Lesley was watching the news after dinner. There was a sports report about a British Tennis hopeful. They were showing his debut at Wimbledon the previous year. All she kept on about was how green the grass was, making Jimmy exasperated. He spoke quite harshly to her, suggesting she could go and look outside to see green grass. His decision to allow her the colour television was proving to be a bad one. She sat in front of it all evening, going on about how rich the colours were.

Misunderstanding his grumpiness, Lesley suggested an early night, and some of what she called ‘bedroom fun’. Jimmy reluctantly agreed. At least that might relax him.

Day three at work involved being shown the protective gear and safety equipment. In some rooms, that involved using a full suit and helmet, with a tube connected to air mounted on the wall. Eileen put on her own suit, to show Jimmy how it worked. “You will get your own suit for each relevant area. There is a double-glove rule, and it also covers your shoes. Under no circumstances should you enter these specific rooms without being fully suited-up. Then whoever is working with you will check your suit for tears or damage, and make sure your breathing apparatus is working. Nobody goes into those rooms alone. Do you understand that, James?”

Jimmy told her he understood fully, then asked her if he would be working with her. “Sometimes, yes. You are being seconded to the biological warfare section, as I understand it. I mainly work in corrosive and toxic chemicals and gases. You must have impressed someone to go straight into that division”. Jimmy smiled, and shrugged. Always humble.

When they got home, Lesley proudly showed him a chicken and mushroom pie she had cooked for dinner. As she prepared the vegetables, she asked how he liked it at Porton Down. Jimmy told her it wasn’t exactly what he had expected, but he was sure it would work out well once he was used to the strict procedures. During the BBC News after dinner, the weather man spoke to him with God’s voice, asking why he had failed to make a difference. Jimmy told him he had to be patient.

This was going to take a lot longer than he had realised.

Friday was his last day with Eileen, before starting full time in his section. She took him into the animal laboratories to show him what went on. Jimmy wasn’t keen on those experiments. Pigs, monkeys, rabbits, rats, even birds. They hadn’t done any harm to anyone, yet they were being horribly killed here. People needed to know about God, but animals were just animals.

Eileen was almost boastful as she described how pigs were horribly burned with mustard gas, and monkeys choked to death with chlorine gas. Both had been around for decades of course, but she explained that they were constantly being refined, and were a good source of income when secretly sold for use by other countries, like Iraq and Syria. She almost laughed as she added, “The funny thing is that we get to sell them abroad in secret, and then the Foreign Secretary makes a big fuss about it when the countries use it on their enemies or their own people. He gets their ambassadors in and gives them a telling off, but it’s all wink-wink, and just a game”.

The last thing on her list that day was to show him an experiment using her much-improved chlorine gas on a monkey in a cage. In a sealed room, she made sure they suited up carefully. “This is the latest version. The effects happen in seconds, and there is no cure or antidote, James. It kills very quickly”. The creature looked unconcerned, and was holding onto the bars of a cage that seemed too small. When they both had their suits on, Eileen indicated that he should plug his airline into the receiver on the wall, showing him how to do it with her own one. When she was sure he was safe, she opened the valve on the small cylinder of gas next to the monkey.

Seconds later, unaware that Jimmy had quietly unplugged her airline, Eileen was writhing around on the floor, staring up at the dead monkey in the cage.

Jimmy waited two more minutes, then pressed the big red alarm button next to the door.

It was easy enough to quickly plug Eileen’s airline back into her suit before people appeared outside of the sealed room, and gestured through the glass that Jimmy should stay where he was. Immediately, he heard the sound of a very loud extractor fan in the ceiling overhead, and another alarm sounding, different to the one that had gone off when he had pressed the red button.

Two people showed up in full protective clothing, and one held a printed card up to the window, for him to read.
DO NOT REMOVE ANY PART OF YOUR SUIT OR DISCONNECT YOUR AIRLINE
WHEN IT IS SAFE FOR US TO ENTER WE WILL DO SO.

Although it felt like a long time before the outer door opened, it was probably only a matter of minutes. Both alarms were silenced, and he could hear them talking through the helmets of their suits. “James, disconnect your airline and follow us. Do not touch anything. Do you have any difficulty breathing? Are your eyes watering? Do you have any congestion in your mouth or nose? Don’t try to speak, just nod or shake your head”.

Jimmy shook his head in reply to all the questions, and they beckoned him to follow them. As they left the area, others went in to look at Eileen’s body, and also to retrieve the cage containing the dead monkey.

Following them at some distance, he was shown along a corridor and directed into a room. It contained showers. One of the men spoke to him. “Walk into the shower and stand still, we will operate the control. He did as he was told, standing under the running water for a very long time, so it seemed.

Then the first man gave him a thumbs-up, and said “Okay, remove the suit slowly, we will help you”. Jimmy stripped off the protective clothing with their help, leaving him standing in his own shirt and trousers that he had been wearing underneath.

After that he had to follow them down another corridor, to where a doctor and nurse wearing protective clothing gave him a full examination, including taking blood for a blood test.

A full hour after leaving the room where Eileen had died, he was allowed to dress properly, and taken to see a man he had never met. The sign on his door read ‘Contamination Officer’. The man seemed remarkably relaxed. “Sit down, James. I’m happy to see you appear to be unaffected by this tragic accident. There will be a full investigation of course, there always is. But meanwhile you are of course aware that you are not to discuss this with anyone outside of your department?” Jimmy nodded, trying his best to look suitably shell-shocked by the whole experience.

Leaning forward, the man asked him, “What do you recall of what happened in there?” He had no recording device or notebook, so it seemed to him that this was all a very long way from being official. He told the man that he and Eileen had plugged in the airlines of their suits as she was going to demonstrate the new form of chlorine gas by showing him how quickly it killed a monkey. The next thing he knew, she was on the floor, and he had pressed the alarm as he had been shown to do on Tuesday.

As the man was nodding to his replies, someone else came in and handed him a file. It only contained one page of type.

“Well, James. Your blood test is fine, and you do not seem to have been affected in the least. We are working on the theory that Eileen’s suit was somehow compromised. It doesn’t take much, a weak seam, or a loose connection in her airline. And it happens quite often. Well, not that often, but it happens. It’s a tragedy of course, but we are all aware of the dangers of working in this environment. If the head of department thinks it is necessary, he may take a statement from you later, for the formal enquiry. Meanwhile, you should go and get your things, and head home. Try to put this behind you, and have a relaxing weekend. I sincerely hope this hasn’t upset you too much, or put you off working here?”

Jimmy shook his head, and told the man it had made him more determined to make a difference.

Not long after Jimmy started in the Biological Warfare section, Lesley made a decision. She would train to be a teacher, and become a Chemistry teacher at a secondary school. Her application to go on a Teacher Training Course at Salisbury Training College was accepted, and she would still be able to drop Jimmy off at work, and pick him up on her way home.

It would be a full time course for one year, and additional training part-time later. Jimmy was very encouraging, telling her that it would be a good thing for her to do, and a long-term career.

Eileen’s death had been handled by people at the top, and the conclusion was that it was accidental, following some unexplained failure of her protective suit. Jimmy was asked for a written statement, but not called to give any evidence at the internal enquiry. As far as he could tell, it had been decided that he was too inexperienced to have been in any way responsible or negligent.

But he was annoyed with himself for his impulse to kill Eileen. He knew for sure that he couldn’t do anything like that again at work for a very long time, if at all.

When Lesley was watching the TV chef Delia Smith one evening, Delia spoke to Jimmy with God’s voice, asking him why he was taking so long to make a difference. As he was about to reply, Lesley broke his concentration. “Ooh, look at that delicious pie, Jimmy. I will make you one of those. I might buy her new recipe book too”. Before the programme finished, Delia told him he had to get a move on, or accept that he had failed in his mission. He decided not to reply.

God was becoming really annoying.

All Jimmy could do was to work hard, become accepted, and study to improve himself. He was in it for the long haul, no matter how impatient the supreme being was. God was going to have to like it or lump it. Lesley settled into her course realy well, and told him about it on the way home in the car every evening. Everyone else was significantly younger than her, but she wasn’t worried about not being invitied out with them, or not going to the occasional social events. They were both lost in their books most nights. Lesley even stopped watching Coronation Street as it delayed her studying.

The big Bible had been put away in a box in the loft, along with the old notebook from under the lawn mower, and the knife he had used on George Greaves. He didn’t need to read The Bible any longer, as he had memorised the only part that had really interested him.

With the summer coming, Lesley spoke to him about a holiday. Jimmy had never been on a holiday that he remembered. His mum had told him that they had gone to a holiday camp in Skegness once, but he had been too young to remember it. Lesley had her heart set on a caravan park in Weston-Super-Mare. She had sent a deposit for a week in late July, and they sent a colour brochure by return. “Look, Jimmy. There’s a shop, a social club, a small outdoor pool, and a playground for the kids. And it’s only a short walk to the beach too. I think we will have a great time”.

Jimmy couldn’t see the point of driving all that way just to sit in a caravan that was smaller than their house. But he smiled in agreement.

Arriving at the park that summer, Lesley tried not to look too disappointed. The pool was concrete-lined, and the water looked filthy. The caravans were very close together, and she had to park the Mini across the front of the one they had been allocated. That short walk to the beach was closer to two miles, and the stuff for sale in the park shop looked like it had all been found in a bin behind a supermarket.

On top of all that, it had been raining hard as they unloaded the car, and the toilets and shower block was all the way up near the entrance.

As they spent their first night listening to the rain on the roof, Lesley downed a full bottle of white wine, wishing she had brought her old portable television.

Lesley suggested an early night, and after taking ages to get comfortable on the thin mattress, they were eventually asleep just after ten-thirty. Less than an hour later, they were awake again, disturbed by the noise of the people in the next caravan returning from the social club. There was shouting and swearing at first, followed by lots of laughter, and then some loud music being played, presumably on a radio. Lesley was in an unusually grumpy mood, and when the neighbours failed to quieten down, she turned to Jimmy.

“You have to go and say something, Jimmy. We can’t have that nuisance, it will ruin our holiday”. Jimmy got up and put on the shirt and trousers he had taken off earlier, then slipped into his unlaced shoes without bothering with socks. As he opened the door of the caravan and walked down the two steps, he could see three young men urinating against the side of their caravan, cigarettes dangling from their mouths. Not getting too close, he called out to them in a strong voice. “Can you keep the noise down please? We are trying to sleep next door!” One of them stepped back, not bothering to sort himself out and zip his fly.

“Calm down mate. Why don’t you come in for a drink? Got plenty of beers in there”. Before Jimmy could reply, a side window opened, and a rough-looking girl leered at him. “Got some nice girls in here too, darling. Come in and have some fun”. Jimmy replied politely but firmly. “No thank you. Please just keep the noise down, and turn the music down too. It’s getting late, and I really don’t want to have to go and get the site manager”. The tallest one of the men walked over, Jimmy could smell the beer on his breath. “Manager is it? We invite you in for a drink, all friendly like, and you threaten us with the manager. Why don’t you just piss off back into your caravan, unless you want real trouble”.

Jimmy smiled at him, staring straight into his eyes. The man stopped talking and turned back to his friends. “Come on, let’s go inside, this killjoy is ruining my evening”.

The noise continued for at least another hour, and Lesley nagged at Jimmy, not like her at all. “You should have got the manager. Perhaps we can ring the police and complain? This bed is bad enough to sleep in without having to put up with those hooligans”. Jimmy didn’t bother to remind her that coming to this awful place had been her idea. He waited until her ranting had calmed down before he replied that she should leave it to him, and he wasn’t going to involve the management.

At least it had stopped raining the next day. Lesley suggested they drive into town and explore the promenade and shops. “We can do the beach on a warmer day, Jimmy. I’m going to need my cardigan this morning”. Jimmy stood outside while Lesley was getting her things.

There was no noise from the troublesome neighbours, but every now and again, one of them would flick the still-lit butt of a cigarette through the open window. There was already a decent sized pile of them on the ground outside. The grubby Volkwagen van they had parked next to their caravan had a flat tyre at the front. He guessed they were intending to stick around the park, as nobody was bothering to change it for the spare.

Before Lesley appeared, Jimmy crouched low down and walked to the back of the neighbouring caravan. Working quickly and quietly, and using all of his considerable strength, he unscrewed the valves from both canisters of propane gas that were stored underneath to supply fuel for the cooker. When Lesley appeared with her car keys, handbag, and cardigan, he was standing by the passenger door of the Mini.

They found a nice fish and chip place to have a sit-down lunch. Lesley had bought some small souvenirs for the house, and she was looking at them as they waited for the food to arrive. Jimmy said that after lunch, they should walk out onto the Grand Pier, perhaps have an ice cream. Lesley was in a better mood than last night. “Sorry about this holiday, Jimmy. I thought it looked like a nice place, but I know it’s horrible. I will choose somewhere better next year, promise.

From inside the restaurant, they couldn’t see the smoke rising almost three miles to the south.

When they got back to the caravan park, the fires were out. But they were stopped by a policeman at the entrance, and told they could only drive as far as the office. “You have to go and see the manager, madam. Nobody is being allowed back into their caravans for the time being”. Lesley thanked the policeman, and drove up to the office.

Inside, the manager seemed releived to see them. “Thank God you were out for the day. Terrible, terrible. The caravan next door to yours exploded, and that set off another explosion that destroyed your caravan too. I’m afraid anything you had inside has been destroyed. The one the other side caught fire, but luckily that family had gone to the beach”.

He slid a form across the counter. “If you can write down what you lost inside, I will send it to the owner. He is going to have to claim on the insurance. Lesley shook her head. “Oh dear, what about the people next to us, the noisy people?” The man lowered his head.

“There were seven of them in a four-berth. Shocking. I only saw the four of them, the rest must have been hiding inside their shitty old Volkswagen. All dead, I’m sorry to say, even though they cheated us with their booking. The fire brigade reckon they had been fiddling with the gas canisters while smoking cigarettes. I do have to tell you that you are going to have to go home. I have no alternative accommodation, and the police say there is going to be a safety inspection. But you will get five days refunded, once the owner has had time to process your form”.

While Lesley was filling in the form, listing what items she could remember were inside, Jimmy walked out and surveyed the smouldering remains in the distance. Two fire engines were still over near the caravans, and the old VW was burnt out too. Only seven. Better than nothing, but not as many as he had hoped for.

Five days back at home suited Jimmy very nicely. The weather was actually better than it had been on the west coast, and Lesley was happy to be able to watch television again. During an episode of the game show, ‘Sale of The Century’, the presenter Nicholas Parsons spoke to Jimmy as he was showing off a speedboat. He said that God was pleased, but not happy. Seven at once was an improvement, but he needed more. A lot more. Millions more. Jimmy was so exasperated, he refused to reply, and he went into the spare bedroom to continue to study for his Masters Degree.

Years passed, and it seemed God had finally given up on Jimmy.

Lesley had got a job as a Chemistry teacher at St Edmund’s School. It was an all-girls school on the edge of the city. By the time she started, Jimmy had gained his Masters Degree in microbiology, and was promoted to head of his section in Biological Warfare. They told him that he was thirty years younger than his retiring predecessor, but they were so impressed by his dedication and drive, that they were not about to turn down the chance of using his full potential. They also recommended he start to study for a doctorate as soon as possible. They would give him extra leave for study time, as they were sure he was something of a potential genius in that field.

Home life with Lesley had settled into a routine. She still dropped him off at work and picked him up, even during the school holidays. As expected, she was also a lot older than most of her colleagues, so she was happy to spend all her free time with the husband she adored, and help him in any way she could. That included doing all the housework, and all the shopping and cooking. With two good incomes, they decided to change the car for something bigger. Lesley chose a Citroen GS Estate, with plenty of room in the back for shopping, and four doors. Jimmy told her that it had an exceptionally comfortable ride, and he was pleased with her choice.

For some reason, God had completely stopped talking to Jimmy. That was okay with him, as God always wanted more than he could deliver.

And since that time at the caravan park, Lesley had never once mentioned another holiday.

“Doctor James Walker. Oh, I love the sound of that, Jimmy. I’m married to a doctor. Maybe not a medical doctor, but a doctor all the same”. Lesley’s delight and enthusiasm was infectious, and Jimmy had to admit he was suitably proud. His thesis was not exactly the sort of work that could be publicised though, so his honour was received in private, with a low-key ceremony at Porton Down that Lesley was unable to attend.

‘The Use Of Malaria As A Biological Weapon’ was the kind of headline the tabloids would have loved to use. But that title of Jimmy’s thesis came as the result of years of specialist work based on an idea that he had taken to his immediate superior. Malaria killed around half a million people every year, mostly in Africa. If the disease could be weaponised, then that could expand British power and control of certain African countries that would be completely unaware of how it had been spread.

Although his bosses had been excited by the idea, the practicalities proved to be another matter. It needed the victim to be bitten by the female mosquito to spread the infection, and synthesising that outcome was incredibly difficult, given the technology of the day. However, Jimmy’s theories excited those in power, and more funding went to the Porton Down facility as a result. This made him something of a golden boy at work, giving him more or less carte blanche to work on anything he chose.

Jimmy’s work of choice was on fevers and diseases that were effective people-killers, and could be spread widely, due to their ease of transmission. Ebola, Viral Haemorrhagic Fever, Marburg’s Disease, and Lassa Fever. All of those had great potential, especially for use against countries that had poor medical infrastructure, and little money to combat outbreaks without international help.

His work soon got the attention of some people in government. They were not people anyone knew about of course. Best known as ‘The Dark State’, they worked tirelessly to further the interests of British companies and the British government in areas usually described as ‘The Third World’.

One day, he was called into the office known as ‘The Boardroom’ to speak to two very quiet men. They asked few questions, and listened to his answers without interrupting him. After just over an hour, the tall thin man stood up, and shook Jimmy’s hand. He only said one thing. “Thank you, Doctor Walker. The money you need is immediately available. Please go ahead with your research”.

Lesley never asked Jimmy about his work. She was just happy that he was doing so well, and had even stopped mentioning the fact that he might want to learn to drive. He had applied for a passport though, the first one he had ever owned. That had been at the suggestion of his boss, who had hinted that he might soon be travelling on behalf of the British Government. Jimmy had never been in an aircraft, but didn’t tell anyone the thought of that made him rather nervous.

His friendly boss had told him it would be in an RAF aircraft. “No formalities, James. No baggage restrictions, or Customs and Immigration checks. It will all be very hush-hush”.

Approaching his fortieth birthday, Jimmy almost forgot that Lesley would soon be fifty. The Citroen car had long gone, replaced by a sturdy Volvo Estate, and Lesley had developed an interest in gardening, albeit in pots and containers, which now filled their small courtyard area. The sex had stopped a few years back, but Lesley never complained. How many women like her could boast of such an attractive and intelligent husband? She told him she would miss him when he went abroad, but he wondered if she secretly relished more time to watch nonsense on television.

The trip to Africa was dressed up as a ‘fact-finding’ tour. They were supposedly looking at certain countries to see where disease control could be improved, and the British government could help with that. But Jimmy knew better. The whole point of the three-person tour group was to identify the possibilities of completely destroying the economy of the countries concerned by introducing diseases that affected their infrastructure by reducing their available workforce.

Most of this would involve killing the children. The next generation of workers.

The tour of Africa the following year proved interesting, though Jimmy’s two companions were not very talkative. The man looked like he might have been ex-army. He introduced himself as Standish, not adding his first name. He told Jimmy his interest was in the financial situations he could glean from the visit. The woman named Dorothy Glendenning was more concerned about the medical knowledge of the doctors they would meet. Jimmy’s brief was to test the capacity of those countries on the itinerary to deal with an outbreak of a dangerous contagious disease.

Three countries were of main interest; Zaire, Nigeria, and Sudan. It wasn’t explained to him why those particular countries, though he soon found out that they all had significant problems with infrastructure, tribal differences, or religious issues. They were warmly welcomed each time, and shown great respect bordering on embarrassing deference. The Foreign Office and the local ambassadors had done their preparation well, and the officials showing them around talked about how British aid money would improve their capacity to deal with any outbreaks of disease.

Being a traveller didn’t suit Jimmy one bit. He didn’t like the humidity, detested the local food, and found the endless table-talks boring in the extreme. But when it came time to fly back to RAF Brize Norton, he had done what he had intended to do all along.

During a visit to Kikwit in Zaire, he managed to discard a smart fountain pen that he had brought concealed in a special metal container. The pen was packed with material containing the Ebola virus. When picked up by someone, they would find it didn’t work, and no doubt unscrew it to see if it needed ink, thus exposing themselves and others in due course.

Any Ebola outbreak would be put down to the usual cause of consuming monkey flesh. The pen would have been long forgotten. It might come to nothing of course, but then it was merely a test run for Porton Down.

Lesley was delighted to see him back. The three weeks had seemed like an eternity to her. “I hope you never have to go away again, Jimmy. I felt so lonely without you around”. After dinner that night, she settled down to watch the latest TV channel, Channel 4. Jimmy went up to the spare room to make some notes ready to complete his report on the African trip.

His bosses were delighted with the feedback they had received, and interested to know if he had been successful in delivering the contaminated pen. The quiet men came to see him again, and wrote down the location he had described to them. One of them shook his head though. “We had been hoping you might have left the sample somewhere more conspicuous, and in a larger city, like Lagos. But never mind, we will see what happens, Doctor Walker”. Jimmy stayed calm, but inside he was furious. First God pestering him, and now these faceless men in suits implying he hadn’t done his job properly.

On the drive home that night he sat quietly in the car, wondering if it was time to change careers.

It took a year, but someone must have found the pen. News came of an Ebola outbreak in Zaire, causing great excitement in Biological Warfare Section. The first cases were reported in Kikwit, and had soon risen to over two hundred infections. With people going into local hospitals, and poor handling of the bodies of those who died, cases soon hit the three hundred mark, causing intervention from foreign aid medical organisations, and attracting interest from the United Nations.

By the end of August that year, two hundred and eighty people had died. But the outbreak was contained in that region, much to the disappointment of everyone involved with starting it. Jimmy had to go to London, to a special meeting. They sent a car to take him, and bring him home after the meeting. Standish was there, and Dorothy Glendenning, along with four other men who were not introduced.

They concluded that the experiment had been a success, marred only by the remoteness of the area concerned. One of the men thanked them after the short meeting, adding. “I hope we can count on you to go back some time in the future, for something bigger?”

In the car on the way home, the government driver asked permission to have the radio on. Jimmy nodded. After the first song had finished, the disc-jockey spoke to Jimmy in God’s voice.

He told him that almost three hundred in one go was good, but he had to do a lot better.

By the middle of 2012, Jimmy was approaching his sixtieth birthday, and Lesley had retired from teaching five years earlier. Since his trip to Africa, Jimmy had been ignoring God’s commands, and becoming more involved in his research at work. Lesley kept busy with her garden in good weather, and her new love of baking in the winter months.

She now had a fifty-inch LED television, and access to hundreds of channels via the Internet. Although she no longer had to go to work, she got up every day to drive Jimmy, using the Audi four-wheel drive car she had bought using her pension lump sum.

Financially, they were very comfortable. And both healthy too, though Jimmy had noticed a considerable weight gain due to Lesley’s constant delight in serving him large slabs of her latest cake. Although they had never been on holiday, Jimmy had continued to renew his passport. There was talk of a more extensive trip to Africa next year.

When he had been promoted to overall head of the biological warfare section, Jimmy had been able to interview his own replacement. He hadn’t hesitated to state his first choice, a young masters graduate named Sylvia Leung. She had been born and brought up in Berkshire, the daughter of parents who had emigrated from Hong Kong. She gained a double first in Microbiology at Oxford, and her Masters had concentrated on the Flu virus, especially the one that caused the Spanish Flu disaster in 1918.

During her interview, she spoke about how a simple virus could be clinically mutated so that conventional medicine would have no defence against it. Then subsequent mutations and strains would continue to confound the medical profession. She thought it might be a very effective weapon, if handled carefully.

That was enough for Jimmy, and he offered her the job before she left the building. Despite her lack of experience, she was just the sort of young genius his department needed. As soon as she started, he put her to work on a new strain of Ebola Virus, one that could spread more easily. In the laboratory working alongside her, he was stunned by her natural grasp of the concept and possibilities. So he sent a message to the quiet men, and they came to talk to her.

The next mission to Africa was sheduled for November the following year. This time there would be three teams operating separately, and they would be travelling to Guinea, Liberia, and Nigeria. All three countries were still keen on the chance of receiving British aid, and the groundwork had been arranged by the local diplomats. No Standish or Dorothy Glendenning this time though. Jimmy would lead the Nigerian Group, and he nominated Sylvia to travel to Guinea.

Liberia would be visited by a team from the military, pretending to be epidemiologists. Better prepared this time, they had the deadly virus concealed in boxes of medical research equipment like pippetes and flasks. They could easily be left behind, infecting laboratory and medical staff who gratefully opened the boxes when the teams had left.

They flew in three separate RAF aircraft, planning to spend only a few days in each country before returning. Lesley was pleased that Jimmy would only be away for less than a week. They had been married for well over forty years, and she still loved him as much as on that day at the Registry Office.

Jimmy didn’t mind it so much this time. A relatively smart hotel in Lagos, official cars to run them around, and no contact with the run-down slum districts that the city was notorious for. For his purpose, those same slums were ideal. No sanitation, little or no medical care, and the perfect breeding ground for easy transmission of a deadly disease.

The gifts of medical supplies were gratefully received, and each team left their respective countries before any of them would be opened. A debrief in London concluded a triple success, and Sylvia received additional praise for her professionalism and cool head.

All they had to do was wait. And they didn’t have to wait too long. Before Christmas, Guinea reported the first cases. By the time Lesley was serving up her own well-constructed three-bird roast on Christmas Day, there were news reports of cases in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mali, and Nigeria. Speculation by reporters on the ground was that the outbreak had started in Guinea, and travelled across almost the whole of central Africa at lightning speed.

Of course, Jimmy knew better. Smiling to himself as he turned down a second helping of pigs in blankets.

The Ebola outbreak lasted for years. Estimates of those who died in all the countries concerned ranged from eleven thousand, to over twenty thousand. That number included some foreign medical staff who had visited the countries and tried to help. They had no idea that this was a new, highly-contagious strain.

Lesley watched it on the TV news, oblivious to her husband’s involvement. As far as she knew, Jimmy was working very hard trying to find a cure for the Common Cold.

A visit from the quiet men confirmed their success. But like God, they wanted more. Sylvia Leung had come up with a fantastic idea, fully supported by Jimmy. She obviously had an issue with China, based on what her parents had experienced before the official handover of Hong Kong, in 1997. She still had relatives in the former colony, and she was keen to get them out, and living in Britain.

Jimmy told her that could easily be arranged. He had the contacts.

One night, Lesley was watching The Great British Bake Off, and presenter Paul Hollywood told Jimmy in God’s voice that he was very satisfied with his work in Africa. For once, Jimmy replied. He told God that his protege, Sylvia, had a plan that would bring on armageddon. God chuckled at the thought of that, and told Jimmy it was long overdue.

At the end of 2018, Jimmy was sixty-six years old. The top men at Porton Down called him in. He was a year past retirement, but they had let him carry on, as his work was so valuable. In fact, he had been recommended for an elevation to the peerage, for ‘services to science’. Lesley was so excited. Her husband was going to be a Lord. That made her a Lady by default, a very big deal in British heirachy.

As he was allowed to choose his name, Jimmy chose ‘Lord Boscombe’, in honour of the village where they lived. Lesley would become ‘Lady Boscombe’, ensuring them a table at any restaurant they cared to book. Lesley’s only regret was that she had nobody left to boast about it to. But for Jimmy, the downside was that he had to leave his prestigious position at Porton Down to accept his place in the House of Lords.

With no hesitation, he recommended Sylvia Leung to take over his role. He had never met anyone more capable, or more suited for the job. The quiet men then managed to arrange for Sylvia to join an intenational inspection team going on a tour of one of China’s biggest biological research facilities. It would probably happen sometime the following year.

Prouder than ever, Lesley finally got to see her husband honoured, with his Ceremonial Introduction at the House of Lords in the autumn of 2019. She was next to him in the official photographs later, even though when they received them she was horrified that to see that she looked more like his mother, than his wife. Even at the age of sixty-seven, there was a sparkle in his eye, and he still had a full head of grey hair.

As far as the outside world was concerned, Doctor James Walker, now Lord Boscombe, was a retired academic. In truth, he was still in daily contact with Sylvia Leung, who felt she owed him everything. And he could visit Porton Down any time he felt like it, no questions asked. Lesley was seventy-seven years old, and slowing down considerably.

Jimmy engaged the services of a local gardening company to continue her hard work with the containers, and a local taxi firm took care of any driving required. Lesley was still baking, but her cakes and pastries were mostly either undercooked, or burnt. He ate them anyway. He owed her that much for a lifetime of devotion.

Just after Christmas of 2019, the TV news was obsessed with an outbreak of a deadly flu virus in Wuhan, China. Lesley was upset, wondering if it would reach Britain. Jimmy consoled her that it would only be in China, because they ate bats, and other strange food. That evening as she watched television, he went into the bedroom, to talk to God.

God told him that Sylvia Leung was now doing his work. Jimmy had tried hard, but had not fulfilled his promise. God was happy though.

Sylvia would make a difference.

The End.

3:17 The Complete Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When I had to ask Neil if he had a charger, he had a strange look of victory on his face. His perfecly trimmed and oiled hair repulsed me, and I wanted to mess it up, with a rough hand.

“I do have a charger, Darren. But you might want to think about bringing your own one in, or at the very least charging your phone while you are sleeping. Here. Take it into the storeroom, you can plug it in there”.

I thought that if I started hitting him now, the police would have to drag me off of him before I killed him.

While my phone charged, I had fifteen minutes to kill. I decided to throw caution to the winds, and go around the back of the building and enjoy a cigarette. If Janice could smell it on me, I would blame it on the crowded train carriage and hope for the best.

How was I to know that the Russians would turn up early?

When I went back inside, sucking two mints, Neil was euphoric. “Oh dear. Your Russian couple turned up, and you weren’t here. Janice has taken them up to view the apartment. I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes when she comes back down”. If I had been carrying a knife, I am sure I would have stabbed him, there and then.

Not once. Probably more than fifty times. Until I was sure he would never utter another word.

But I ignored his jibe, and checked on my ten o’clock clients. They had sent a text to tell me they were cancelling. I wondered if the day could get any worse.

Then it did.

Behind what would become the Concierge Station, red lights were flashing, and a high-pitched beeping sound was going off. Neil was finally in a flap, and on the phone to the Fire Brigade to confirm the alarm had gone through to them, as it should have done. He turned to me. “They are on the way! We have to follow the full fire evacuation procedure! Assemble fifty yards away, in the car park outside!”

There was only me and Neil, so we went outside as directed, and stood in the almost empty car park. I took the chance to light a cigarette, and smiled as I asked him. “What about the two Russians, and Janice?” He grabbed his phone, and dialled Janice, turning to me looking pale. “The lifts won’t work during a fire alarm. They will have to walk down. I’m sure they will be alright, if they take their time”. He shook his head at the phone. “She’s not answering”.

As he said that, there was a hollow boom from high above us, and we looked up to see a flash of yellow flame, followed by a plume of smoke reaching up to the top of the building. I took a drag on my cigarette, secretly hoping that the next thing I saw would be Janice deciding to jump, rather than burn.

The fire engines turned up before Janice appeared. It was a long walk down, and her smart suit was smoke-stained. The two Russians looked very exhausted, and walked to their limousine with white faces, ignoring the shouts of the firemen that they should be seen by the paramedics, who had just arrived.

I made a mental note that I had probably lost that sale.

Janice was remarkably calm, to give her her due. She was still on the ball too. “Darren, Neil. Get onto your next appointments. Cancel them, and try to rearrange. Whatever you do, don’t mention anything about fire and explosions”. Neil was straight on it, but I didn’t bother to tell Janice that my phone was still on charge in the store room, and the firemen were not about to let me in to get it.

When we saw the firemen had tackled the worst of the smoke and flames, I turned to Janice. ” I forget now, what apartment were they viewing, Jan?”

She didn’t even turn to look at me as she answered.

“Number three, on the seventeenth floor. 317”.

At first, what Janice had said didn’t sink in. We hung around for a while, and then the fireman in charge said we could go and retrieve our personal possessions. They suspected a gas leak in the apartment, and an electrical fault, but that had to be investigated by the Gas Company, and the Fire Investigation Branch. Police officers had sealed off the approaches to Dockside View with their striped tape, and we were not going to be allowed back to carry on working, obviously.

It was when I had got my phone and given Neil back his charger that the number clicked inside my brain.

Seventeenth floor, flat three. 3 and 17, just like the time on my bedside clock when I had woken up that morning. Janice was gabbling into her phone, arranging for head office to send security guards down to watch the development over the full twenty-four hour period. With the investigators coming and going, we were not just going to be able to lock up the sales floor as usual. And once the news got out, it was unlikely we would have any potential customers to worry about anyway.

When her call was over, Janice turned to us. “There’s not going to be anything happening work-wise here today. Darren, you might as well go back to where you usually work and report in there. Neil, you can stay here with me, help fend off any enquiries about flats, and make sure all the viewings know they are cancelled. Can you go and find me a coffee and a sandwich, honey? Large Americano, and maybe a chicken and pesto panini? There’s a love”.

I grinned at Neil’s chances of finding anything like that around there. The nearest decent coffee places were inside or near the station. He had a long walk. As I had already been dismissed, I set off for the station. The last thing I wanted was to have to do that walk with Neil crowing about staying behind to help Janice.

Diverting into a couple of shops on the way, I picked up two special offer DVD films for two ninety-nine each, then a microwave Chinese and a six-pack of Stella for later. No way was I intending to go back to where I usually worked. They wouldn’t be expecting me in, and I was sure Janice would be too busy to ring my manager to tell him. Once the news got out, he would probably know anyway, but I would just say that by the time I got back, it was close to finishing time. John was okay, he wouldn’t care.

By the time I got to the station, it was mid-afternoon, well before the rush hour. The place was almost deserted. Along the concourse a guy wearing the hi-vis coat of the train company was fixing a large paper sign into a display case. I walked up to him, and waited until he had finished, and had closed the case. Then I asked him when the next Southend train was due to depart. I was only going to Basildon, but needed that line.

He checked a huge Casio digital watch that looked like a museum piece, then turned and pointed. “You can check on the indicator board you know. But seeing as you asked so nicely, it leaves at fifteen-seventeen. That’s three-seventeen to you mate”. I thanked him and walked away, then realised I hadn’t asked which platform. Heading for the indicator board to check, I suddenly stopped dead. 3:17? Not again.

On the train, the uneasy feeling I had during the night came back. But this time with knobs on.

I had woken up thinking someone was in my bedroom at 3:17 AM. Then the flat that had caught fire and exploded was number three, on the seventeeth floor, 317. I wasn’t supposed to be getting a train home this early, and my arrival at the station had been completely random, delayed by the short shopping trip. Only to find that the next train home was at 3:17. That was a lot of coincidence to swallow, even for someone as sceptical as me.

Now I was beginning to wonder if I should have actually got on this train.

When I got home and sat down, I could feel my eyes were heavy. But I wouldn’t let myself sleep that early, or I would regret that later. I opened my laptop. Not my work one, the older one I rarely used now. Then I started a word document and began to make notes about all the 3:17 coincidences. I had a feeling there were going to be more, but I had no idea what any of it meant.

That done, I blitzed the Chinese, and necked it while watching the first of the two films I had bought, washed down with a couple of the cans of lager. It was one of the Fast and Furious films. I loved films about cars, especially films you could watch without having to think too much about what was happening on screen.

My mate Joel rang my mobile when I was on my third can, wanting to know if I fancied meeting him down the pub. I fobbed him off, telling him quickly about the fire at Dockside View, and lied about having a busy day because of that. He was impressed, as he had seen it on the news. “Wow, you were in that? Tell me more”. I said I would tell him next time we met up, and got back to the film, opening a fourth can.

Lack of sleep, and the lager, meant that I didn’t see the end of the film.

I must have just curled up on the sofa and conked out, until the noise woke me up. The telly was a blue screen, and the lamp was still on beside me. The sound was coming from outside the door, on the stairwell leading up to my flat. It was immediately apparent what it was. A ball bouncing down the stairs.

I didn’t even need to check the time on my phone to guess it would say 3:17. But I did anyway.

And it was.

Surprised that none of my neighbours were up complaining about someone bouncing a ball down two flights of concrete stairs, I went to my front door and opened it. The motion-sensor light lit up the landing, and there was nobody to be seen. The door of the flat opposite was closed, but Philippa was a stewardess, so might well have been off flying somewhere. Or sleeping soundly and not heard the ball. Not wanting to call out, I walked down the first flight to the centre landing. There was nobody to be seen.

Then the light went out.

As I turned to walk back up to my flat, the noise of the ball bouncing down the stairs in my direction was so close to me, I swerved to the side, expecting the heavy-sounding ball to hit me. But there was no ball, just the sound. I went back in my flat and locked the door behind me with the deadbolt. I had no idea why I was so scared, but I was, and feeling cold too.

After getting undressed and brushing my teeth, I went to bed. I set my phone alarm to wake me in time to get ready for work, but when I lay down in the dark, I no longer felt sleepy. For the next hour or more, I went over everything in my life that might relate to the number 317. I even broke it down to the 3, the 1, and the 7. No birthday matched. No address I could think of matched, and nothing that I knew about had ever happened at that exact time.

Just when I was drifting off to sleep again, I suddenly added the numbers together in my head, and got 11. So I went through it all again, but could come up with nothing where a number 11 was significant.

When the alarm went off, I had probably only been asleep for an hour.

It was nice to have a lie-in and then casually wander up to the corner where I worked. Mason and Walker sounded like a good name for an estate agent, though of course there was no real Mason, or Walker. Just another gimmick of the huge property company we worked for, along with the stylish dove grey paint work, set off by the pale yellow pinstriping. Although I was on time, I was the last one in that morning.

It was often mentioned that I lived the nearest, but was the always the last member of staff to appear.

John the manager was at his larger desk at the back, and grinned as I walked in. “What did you do to upset Her Highness, The Lady Janice? She rang first thing to tell me she doesn’t want you back at Dockside View once sales start again”. I shrugged and told John that she probably fancied me, and wanted to resist the temptation. Junior was already on the phone hustling. Standing up as normal, which he claimed energised him. His pink shirt and lime-green tie combination looked like a kid’s sweet.

I doubt the bosses would have been so keen on his new braided hair look, if he hadn’t been the top salesman at Basildon branch.

Kelly asked if I wanted coffee, and I nodded. Then I forced myself not to look up her skirt as she leaned over to get the mugs out of the cupboard. She was only eighteen, and I was far too old for her. So I had to keep telling myself. Behind me at the window desk, Penny was jingling the keys to the company Mini. “John, okay if I take the car? I have an early valuation in Wickford”. John nodded, adding “Come straight back though. Darren will need the car for a job later”.

I didn’t much care for driving around in that grey and yellow mini, with the company name and number plastered all over it. But it was a better option than using my own car and having to pay extra for business insurance. At least it was only six months old, and had a great satnav in it too. I liked to get out in the country lanes and give it some stick around the bends. When Kelly brought my coffee over, I thanked her and fixed my gaze on her face. Anything rather than be distracted by how low-cut the front of her top was.

When she got out of the admin side and into sales, she was going to sell a lot of property, no doubt.

John dropped a folder on my desk. I could tell by the buff colour it was another commercial. I only got the crap jobs. “Mr Coughlan, midday. The address is in there, a vacant lot with no residential planning. He reckons it might be ideal for used cars. He wants it priced for rental, or selling complete. As usual, he will do a good deal for cash”. I flicked through the folder, and pulled a face at the photo of the lot. On the corner of a busy main road, what looked like a half-sized field of mud surrounded by a mostly collapsed wire-mesh fence.

Coughlan was a nasty bit of work, who used our company all the time. He was a so-called Traveller. Or in my words a Pikey, an Irish tinker. He did all sorts of wheeling and dealing, just barely the right side of the law, and the wrong side too. I had no time for Pikeys. They didn’t pay tax, cheated old people with dodgy roofing jobs or tarmac drives that never got finished, and many of them were notorious fly-tippers, shitting up the few nice areas of countryside we had left. That was his main business, disguised as waste removal contracting. But as far as the company was concerned, he was a good customer.

When I checked the address where I had to meet him, I spat a mouthful of coffee all over the paperwork.

317, London Road.

Until Penny got back with the car, I went through the motions of ringing a few prospects, and chasing up the outstanding offers on some terraced houses in Pitsea. With the market doing well, sellers were geting edgy about accepting low offers, and playing the dicey game of holding out for the full asking price. There was no point talking to anyone at work about the weird 317 business. They might think I was losing it.

In between calls, I jotted down almost every combination of the numbers, realising I had forgotten to reverse them. So I ended up trying to think if 713 had any relevance, then I tried 731. But for the life of me, my mind was blank on all of it.

Penny dropped the keys on my desk. “The tank’s half full, so you should be okay”. She never had a lot to say to me, and made it very clear she didn’t think much of me. When I started there, she had only been there a few weeks herself, but that didn’t stop her acting like she was somehow in charge of me. Her husband was a copper in London, a detective of some kind. She liked to boast about all the serious cases he was involved with. She was his second time round, so considerably younger.

Coughlan wasn’t there when I parked the Mini outside the dismal-looking lot. I got out of the car and made my site appraisal in ten seconds flat. It would need a lot of work on the ground before anyone would use it, and once you allowed space for a portakabin or office shed of some kind, you would be lucky to squeeze ten cars onto the front. Then there was water, sewage, and power. It would cost a fair bit to have all those reconnected.

The big four by four arrived, and he put two wheels up on the kerb as he parked it. I looked at the shiny car, less than six months old, by the registration number. Not much change out of sixty grand for that top of the range model, and I doubt he even had insurance. How come nobody ever asked where some Pikey got all the money to pay for that?

His face was red as usual, high blood pressure probably. The beer-belly strained his shirt buttons, and hung down over his belt almost covering the fly on his trousers. As he walked forward with his hand extended, someone got out of the passenger side of his car. A woman. He had seen me a few times previously, but never asked my name. After the briefest of handshakes, he got straight to business. “Well, what do you reckon? How much are we looking at? Straight sale, or better a monthly rental”.

Before I could answer, the woman walked forward from the car. She was wearing a black coat over a black dress that reached down to her ankles. Her long hair was also jet black, and certainly dyed. She seemed to be about a hundred years old, but when she spoke, her voice boomed. “GERRY! STOP! COME BACK!” Coughlan jumped at the sound, and turned quickly, walking back to the woman. He bent down to listen as she whispered in his ear. Raising an arm, she pointed a bony finger in my direction, then moved it slowly to my left, then my right. He bent down again to hear her next whisper, then nodded his head.

Without walking back, he called to me from the side of his car. “Don’t bother. The deal’s off, we will use someone else”. With that they both got back in the car, and he drove off at speed, as if being chased by the police. Part of me was glad to see the back of him, but I knew John would be pissed off that I hadn’t secured the sale.

Back behind the agency, I parked the car, and walked down the alley. Then I popped into Sammi’s and bought a packet of cigarettes, a diet coke, and a Twix. That would be my lunch. I handed over two notes, a tenner and a fiver. As was his habit, Sammi counted the change into my hand, as I watched his turban bob around.

“Two pounds, one pound, Ten, fifteen, seventeen”. I looked at the coins in my hand. A two-pound coin, a one pound coin, ten pence piece, five pence piece and a brown two pence.

£3.17.

John waved me over when I walked in. He took me into the corner and spoke very quietly. “I have just had Mary Coughlan on the phone. They are taking all their business away from us. That’s rental management of twenty-six properties, plus anything they buy or sell. She says she is transferring it all to Drake and Molloy, and wants me to send the files over in a taxi. I asked her what the problem was, and she said to ask you. So I’m asking, and I want the truth”.

My story was true, and I told John that, and exactly what happened. Before I could talk to Gerry Coughlan about anything, the old lady called him back. She whispered something to him, pointed at me, and he said the deal was off. That was all I knew, and I swore to John I hadn’t done a thing wrong. John sighed. “Old lady Coughlan might be in her eighties, but she’s as sharp as a tack. Her son Gerry never goes against her over anything. She pretty much rules the roost. I didn’t bother to tell her that Drake and Molloy is part of the same company as us, but that’s not the point. We will lose branch revenue, and that won’t look good”.

As I didn’t know what else to say, I shrugged and went back to my desk. Better make it look as if I was trying to sell something. As luck would have it, the next phone call was from the prospective buyer of a smart two-bed semi with a conservatory, a short walk from the station. It was a corner plot, so was unusual in that it had a double garage to the side. He had viewed it twice, and wanted me to make an offer to the seller. One of the best properties on my own list, it was for sale at three hundred and twenty thousand. The buyer wanted to offer ten grand less, so I told him I would put that to the owner and get back to him.

It took me three calls to track down the guy, who was driving on the M25 and speaking from his car. “Three-ten you say? No, that’s not enough. We have had seven viewings, and the interest is still high. Ring him back and tell him three-seventeen, and it’s off the market. Let me know what he says”. I looked down at the pad on my desk, and the numbers I had written down during both conversations. 320, 310, and the last one, 317. Even before I rang the buyer back, I knew he was going to say no.

And of course he did.

Many people might have been shaken up by all this 317 stuff, but I was beginning to find it just plain annoying. That many number coincidences were just impossible, but they were all there, and could mostly be explained. As for Ma Coughlan, I had no idea what had rattled her chain. Maybe she hadn’t liked my crumpled grey suit and striped tie.

Time to talk to someone about it, and I knew the only people who would take me seriously were Joel and Mark. On the way home from work, I rang both their mobiles, suggesting we meet at the KFC for some grub, then head into the White Horse for a few beers. Unlike any of the chain pubs in town, The White Horse was old school, and we could still find a quiet corner to sit in. They both jumped at it, as I suspected they might.

My only two friends from school, Joel and Mark had been around since we were all eleven years old. We stuck together to avoid the bullies, none of us were any good at sport, and we didn’t attract any of the cool guys, or the better-looking girls. Joel had left without taking any exams, and gone into his dad’s business as a kitchen fitter. After having a trial for Colchester in his teens, and not being picked for the squad, he nonetheless became a self-proclaimed football expert. An avid fan of Southend United, he went to every home game, and most of the away matches too.

Mark never went anywhere. He worked from home in a converted garage, as a software support person for a tech company. To be fair, he earned well, much more than me, and he could do the job in his underwear if he wanted to.

Outside the KFC, I saw them coming toward me, both grinning.

We ate the KFC out of the box as we walked to the pub. Joel and Mark were both happy to be out, and were acting like going for chicken and a few pints was a big deal. Neither of them had a girlfriend of course, and none of us had any real mates except each other. Mark had never been out with a girl. He just couldn’t handle the chat, and froze up completely around women. Joel had a girlfriend once, but she got fed up with football being more important, and dumped him after six months.

Compared to those two, I was mister lover man. Two girls when I was still in my teens, though neither lasted long. Then I met Danielle. She was out on a hen night for one of her friends, and they had surrounded me and Joel, insisting we kiss the bride to be. After that, Danielle hung around chatting, and eventually asked me to be her date at the wedding the following Saturday. She was one of six bridesmaids, not an unusual number at weddings around Basildon.

I was flattered by her asking me, so made a good job of being her date. After that, we became a couple. Though we seemed to spend most of our weekends at her friend’s weddings, as almost everyone she knew got married in those first two years we were together. By year three, we had started getting serious, and her dad gave me a talking to about never upsetting his lovely daughter, and needing somewhere better for us to live than my one-bed flat.

Then she went to a hen weekend in Ibiza and met Gregory, a fitness instructor from Stanford-Le-Hope. She broke up with me over the phone soon after she landed back at Stanstead, and I always had a sneaky feeling he was standing next to her when she did that. Since Danielle, I had more or less stopped bothering with women. But that didn’t stop me wishing that Kelly at work was older than eighteen.

In The White Horse, I got straight to the matter over our first pint. I didn’t want to wait until those two were sozzled, and talking nonsense. I told them all about the 317 stuff, from the first dream-like experience, down to the change from Sammi in the shop, and the seller saying he would take three one seven for his house. Mark was wide-eyed. He spent a lot of time reading crap online, and was well known to believe anything. At one time, he had seriously tried to convince us the world was flat. Joel was shaking his head. “It’s bollocks, Dazz. Just coincidence, that sorta fing”. He gestured to our glasses. “Same again, boys?”

Joel didn’t have much education, and even less class. He adopted the harsh manner of talking that he got from his dad, who was originally from East Ham. Mark was deep in thought. When Joel got back with three more pints, Mark slipped a pen out of his coat pocket, and walked over to grab a paper napkin from the bar. Joel was grinning like a loon. “That bouncy ball fing, Dazz. Don’t reckon it’s anyfing to do wiv me, and my footy career, do ya?” I ignored that rubbish, and looked over at Mark. He was busy scribbling down some numbers. He had done a lot of computer courses for his job, and was great at things like Code, and other stuff I didn’t understand.

When he had finished, he slid the napkin over to me, and tapped it with his pen. “Lottery numbers mate. You should get a ticket for Saturday. There’s a rollover jackpot this week”. I looked at the paper. You had to choose six numbers for entering the lottery, and he had made them up from 317.

1, 3, 4, 7, 11, 31. Keen to explain, he talked me through it. “The one, three and seven are self explanatory, mate. Then add the one and three to get the four, add them all together to make eleven, and use the thirty-one as your biggest number. Joel’s eyes were wide at that point. “Bugger me, Dazz, I reckon fat boy’s cracked it”. Mark winced at the nickname. But he only had himself to blame for stuffing his face for the last twenty years, and never going out except to drink or eat.

But the lottery though. Why the hell not?

Joel was obviously getting bored. He said he had to leave, as he was up early for a big kitchen job in a barn conversion out near Battlesbridge. Once he had left, Mark got two more pints in, and came back with a pile of napkins. He wanted to know lots of dates and numbers. My birthday, my mum’s birthday, the address of my parents’ house and their landline phone number, and any number I could recall that might ever have pertained to me that I could remember without going home to look it up.

I rattled them off, his head nodding as he jotted each one down, shuffled the numbers around on the paper, and then asked another question. Then he suddenly stopped and looked up. “Show me your bank card, I’ve just had a thought”. I reached into my inside pocket for my wallet and got my bank card out. Mark grabbed it and gave it a quick scan. Then he punched the air, and shouted “YES!” so loudly, the barmaid looked over to see what the fuss was about.

“Look at the expiry date, Darren. 03/17. March next year. But it’s 317! And the three-digit security number on the back? Go on, look”. I looked, it was 713. That gave me a chill, I must admit. I hadn’t thought of checking my bank card, and could never remember the expiry date or security number anyway.

But try as he might, he couldn’t make anything from all the other numbers I had given him, even though he resorted to using the calculator on his state-of-the-art new phone. “I’m sure this is all good though, Darren. An omen yes, but a good omen. Leave it with me, and I will text you tomorrow if I come up with anything”.

When we finished the fourth pint, Mark offered me a lift home to save me walking, or jumping a cab. He ran around in an almost new Audi A5 that rarely left the driveway outside his dad’s place. It was the best one they sold, and cost a mint. I wondered why he bothered, as he only seemed to use it when he met me. He could have used a limousine service, and still saved pots of money. He also seemed oblivious to the drink-drive laws, as four pints would surely mean he would blow over the limit, and get a ban. But he had never had so much as a speeding ticket.

As I got out of the car ouside my block, he grabbed my arm. “Don’t forget to buy that lottery ticket, whatever you do”.

Inside, my mind was buzzing. The thing with my bank card was really spooky, and unlike so much of the other stuff, it wasn’t so easily explained as a coincidence. Still, tomorrow was Friday, and I would be sure to buy a ticket for Saturday’s rollover lottery draw.

The impact on my legs came before I heard the sound. Something hit my thigh, as I slept soundly. Hard enough to wake me up, and see the red numbers on the clock reading 3:17. Then I heard the sound, closer this time, actually in my bedroom. It was a ball, bouncing off the wardrobe, and then hitting my hip as I moved. Instinctively, I switched on the lamp, already suspecting I would see nothing. As I turned to look at the wardrobe again, the ball hit me in the centre of my chest.

That really made me jump, and I got out of bed and went into the living room. From there, I could hear the ball bouncing against the bedroom wall, rhythmically, as if someone was kicking it at the same spot, over and over again. I almost ran out of my flat, but had no idea where I would go if I did that. So I lay down on the sofa, waiting for the noise to stop.

That was where I woke up the next morning, feeling very chilly in my Calvin Kleins. The shower warmed me up, and I got to work just on time, as usual.

Penny was plastering on some more make-up, until her Groucho Marx eyebrows started to resemble garden slugs. Kelly was brushing her hair, and there was no sign of Junior, or John. I asked where John was, and Penny replied, still applying crap to her eyes. “John had a heart attack last night. He’s in hospital having tests. Head Office has sent over a temporary manager until we know what’s happening”.

With that, I heard the sound of a toilet flush, and the door to the staff area at the back opened.

And in walked Neil.

Neil was checking his watch, but he didn’t have the satisfaction of saying I was late. So he talked about Junior instead.

“Junior is out already, an early viewing before they catch their train to work. You would do well to follow his example, Darren. The early bird, and all that”. I wanted to have a pump action shotgun to hand, so I could blow him against the back wall, watching the blood spatter against the photos of the houses we had been trying to sell for so long, they were relegated to what we called ‘the dead zone’.

What the hell was he doing here? He must have had a ninety-minute drive from Kent, in terrible traffic. My day could not get any worse.

But it did of course, starting with having to watch Kelly and Penny flirting with him, as if he was the greatest catch in Essex. Then if that wasn’t bad enough, he wanted to go through all my unsold commercial lots, and tell me why he thought I wasn’t selling them.

Obviously the fire at Dockside View had shut down the development for now, leaving him at a loose end. He had jumped at the chance to fill in for John, which was his first offer of management. Even though it was temporary.

I was hoping he might change his mind, when he found out it took him over two hours to drive home in solid rush hour traffic.

After Neil’s pep talk, I had to spend all morning on the phone to people who didn’t want my commercial premises, and had no intention of ever buying them. Lunchtime came as a relief, and I went to Sammi’s to get that lottery ticket. I still had the napkin, and made sure to choose the numbers exactly as Mark had written them down. While I was there, I also bought a Ginster’s Steak Slice, two packets of plain crisps, and a creme egg. I stood in the alleyway and ate the lot, reluctant to go back inside and let Neil lord it over me.

The truth was, I might well have battered him senseless. Not only losing my job, but getting arrested for assault into the bargain.

That afternoon felt like a week. I still don’t know how I lept my temper. At least I didn’t have to work over the weekend, thanks to my two days at Dockside View. I had that lottery ticket safe inside my wallet, and could only hope that I got a result, and could tell Neil where to shove his job. Then maybe give him just a playful slap as I walked out.

As slaps go, I could have happily slapped both Penny and Kelly. Penny conned the Mini out of Neil, stroking his arms in the process. She disappeared without having to say where she was going. Though I suspected she was off home, for a sex session with PC Plod. Then Kelly made him three different cups of coffee, until he decided she had got it just right. That reminded me of the three bears, and Goldilocks. I could have spit, I tell you.

Finishing time couldn’t come soon enough, not helped by Junior showing up, claiming to have sold not one, but three houses.

Walking home, I was praying that John would be alright, and be back at work soon. The prospect of Neil taking over full time would have been too much to bear, and I considered quickly researching some vacancies online when I got in.

Just about to ring and order an Indian takeway, the phone rung in my hand, and I saw it was my mum calling. I usually phoned her on a Sunday, and it was unknown for her to ring me.

“Darren, it’s mum. Can you come and see me this weekend? I have something important to talk about. Why don’t you come for Sunday dinner, shall we say about two?” I told her I would be there, then rang the Indian to order my food. As I was waiting for the delivery, I couldn’t help wondering why mum wanted to see me. She almost never asked me over, except on her birthday and at Christmas.

It occured to me it might have something to do with Auntie Jean, and I felt my face flush at the memory.

My mum met my dad when he came to fix the land line phone at the big house where she lived with her mother and her older sister, Jean. She already had a good job, working at the Inland Revenue in London. He was only a phone engineer, but she had never had a boyfriend. So when he asked her out, she said yes. He was twenty, and she was eighteen. They got married the following year, then moved near Basildon and bought a house. And when she was twenty-four, she had my brother, Terry.

Not long after Terry was born, my grandmother died. Mum did a deal with her sister. Jean would keep the big family house near Danbury, and my mum would get the money. There was quite a lot of money. My grandmother had good life insurance, and still had a big stash from when her husband had died ten years earlier. Jean also kept the family car, a classic Jaguar. That made sense, as my mum had never learned to drive.

They doted on Terry, and he turned out to be a good kid, by all accounts. The years went by, and they were happy. Mum got promoted twice at work, and dad came off the vans and went to work inside, in the telephone exchange in Basildon. Then they got a shock. Mum was pregnant. Certainly not planned, as she was thirty-eight years old. According to Auntie Jean, there was some talk of an abortion. Mum didn’t want to take time out of work, and Terry was nearly fourteen. But that didn’t happen, and I was born when she was thirty-nine.

I don’t remember my dad, or my older brother. They were both killed in an accident, on the day of my first birthday.

It was some years before I even found out about them, and only then because Auntie Jean insisted on telling me some things. But not everything.

So I was brought up living with two women. Or it seemed like that anyway, as my aunt was at the house a lot of the time, or I was at her house in Danbury, being looked after. I was never sure what my aunt did. Ten years older than mum, she was very different. A heavy smoker, liked a gin and tonic, and was always dressed up and made up. She played records instead of watching telly, and never seemed to go to work. Compared to my mum, she was great company. She was fun.

The way my mum dealt with her grief was to never talk about my dad, or Terry. I wasn’t allowed to ask anything about them, and Jean never spoke about them in front of mum when I was in the room. There were no photos, and none of their stuff around the house. Mum looked after me, but I never once felt she loved me, and she found it impossible to show me any affection. There were no birthday celebrations for me either, not one.

Because my birthday was the same day she had lost her beloved husband, and her first born.

By the time I was almost ten, Jean was looking after me more and more. Although she was fifty-nine by then, she looked years younger than mum, who had already let her hair go grey, and spent her days in a joyless trance. For my tenth birthday, it was Auntie Jean who took me out. She picked me up in the lovely old Jaguar, and took me into Chelmsford, to the cinema. After the film, we went to a burger place, and I could choose what I wanted, plus ice cream after.

Then that night when I was staying over at her house, she took me into her bed, and interfered with me.

The law would call that child abuse, and would have put my aunt in prison. She told me that would happen if I ever told anyone. But she needn’t have worried. The truth was, I enjoyed it. The attention, the affection, and feeling grown up. And the presents were great too. She started to buy me really expensive gifts, not just for special occasions, but randomly. If my mum noticed, she certainly didn’t care. And Jean took me off her hands most weekends, leaving her to think about my dad, and Terry.

That lasted until I was thirteen. Weekends in bed with my aunt, and some occasional holidays too. Then mum decided I was old enough to not need looking after when she was out, and it stopped. I never mentioned it again, and neither did Jean. But now mum had asked me to go and see her, I was wondering.

Had Jean said something?

I left school before I was eighteen, with five very average O-levels, and a place at Technical College, where I wanted to study automotive engineering. I had some idea of working for Fords. They were one of the biggest employers in the county, and I was sure I could end up designing a wonderful new engine for them. For my seventeenth birthday, Auntie Jean had paid for driving lessons, and I passed my test first time. After that, all I could think about was getting a car, and the freedom that would give me.

Turned out I wasn’t really suited for automotive engineering. I didn’t get on well with the boring teachers, and there was too much writing about combustion and stuff, and not enough actually messing around with cars and engines. Before I was nineteen, I had seen an advert in the local paper for a junior car salesman at the main Ford dealership, and got the job without finishing Technical College. I had to ask mum to buy me a suit, and she didn’t seem at all impressed with my choice of career.

But she bought me the suit, some smart black shoes, five white shirts, and two striped ties.

Being around the cars was great. But I soon found out that a junior car salesman doesn’t get to close any deals, and spends a lot of time helping to prepare new cars for delivery, wearing an overall over his suit. At least I got to drive a few around; delivering them back after services, or moving them to other dealer’s premises. They kept telling me that once I was twenty-one, I would get to use a company car and start to actively sell, based on what I was learning. Except I wasn’t learning anything.

Two days before my twenty-first birthday, Auntie Jean showed up at the house and gave me two hundred quid. “Spent it on anything, Darren love. Spoil yourself”. When she had gone home, my mum switched off the telly halfway through a programme I was watching, and said she had something to say.

“Now you are twenty-one, I think it’s high time you got your own place, and moved out. I am going to be sixty soon, and I intend to retire. The pension is very good, and I still have all the money your gran left me. So this is what I’m going to do. I will buy you a flat, nothing fancy mind. And a car. Something reliable, but not brand new. You can choose both, and I will pay for them. You won’t have a mortgage or car payments, and it will give you a good start in life”.

To say I was flabbergasted was an understatement. I knew my mum was well off, but I had never expected anything like that.

The next day at work, I arranged to buy an ex-demonstrator Fiesta S. Eight months old, metallic black, low mileage. I got it for staff rates, so no profit for the company. Then I went into town on the Saturday afternoon, and had a look around the estate agents. I found a nice flat in a window of one of them. A small sixties-bult block, nothing much to look at. One bedroom, car parking space, and open to offers for a quick sale.

A a friendly bloke talked me through it. Flat number five of six, second floor, no lift. Central heating, double glazing, and cheap council tax. Service charges were negligible, and the woman selling was keen to get rid of it as she was getting married and moving to London. He offered to take me to view it then and there. She had obviously tidied up before we arrived, and as soon as I started to look around, she was trying to sell me everything in it. Seemed her move was to some posh houseboat on the Thames, and there would be no room for any of her stuff.

Back at the estate agent’s, I made an offer that included leaving everything in the flat. All she would take with her were her shoes and clothes.That would save me a fortune trying to furnish it and kit it out. Although the offer was cheeky, the prospect of a cash buyer sealed the deal straight away. The agent shook my hand, and then offered me a job.

His name was John, and the company was called Mason and Walker.

On the day I moved out, all I had to take were my clothes and some books. When I had loaded up the Fiesta, mum came out with a carrier bag containing her old clock/radio, the one with the red digital numbers that had been beside her bed to use as an alarm clock. “You might as well have this, Darren. Now I’m retiring, I won’t need an alarm clock anymore. You can come back for dinner next Sunday if you want, up to you”.

And with that she went back inside, and closed the door.

Mum hadn’t asked me anything about the flat, other than how much money she had to pay the solicitor arranging my purchase. Same with the car, just asked who to make the cheque out to. I had a vision of her enjoying being alone with her memories of her dead husband, and the other son that she had truly loved.

Now ten years later, the clock still worked, I had the same car, and lived in the same flat, using all same the stuff the young woman had sold me. The television was new, as the old one had too small a screen. And the kettle had died, so I had bought a flashy new one four years ago.

The Indian meal was surprisingly good, and I washed it down with four cans of lager. That didn’t turn out to be such a good idea, as I woke up in the middle of the night, needing to pee. I was relieved to discover the clock said 3:01, not 3:17. Perhaps that spooky spell had finally broken.

No such luck. Not long after, before I was really back off to sleep, I heard a strange whirring noise. At first it sounded like one of the neighbours was using a drill. But at past three in the morning? That was unlikely. Besides, it was coming from above me, near the ceiling, and I lived on the top floor. It stopped, started again, then stopped. The next time, it went on a bit longer, and was then followed by a clickling sound, like someone slowly winding up something that had a clockwork mechanism.

Of course, the clock was reading 3:17, just as I knew it would be.

It was almost four when it stopped, and I eventually got back to sleep. I was woken up by my mobile alert going off just after nine. I checked it, and it was a text from Mark. He wanted to come over later, and said to text him when I was up and about. That threw me. I couldn’t remember when or if Mark had ever been to my flat. We always met at the pub or some food place. I replied to his text, telling him to come over after two. Then I went back to sleep.

He was quite excited when he turned up, and after accepting my offer of a cold beer, he sat down to tell me what he had been doing. “I had no luck with those other number combinations, Darren. Believe me, I tried. I even put them into a numerology programme I downloaded, but it kept coming back to 317 all the time. There has to be something connecting that number with your life, I’m sure of it. You have to think hard, it must be in your brain somewhere”.

His beer was already drained, so I went to get him another one, assuring him that I had thought of nothing else since that first group of coincidences, but I honestly didn’t have a clue. Then I warned him that was the last beer in the house.

Reaching into his shoulder bag, he pulled out a small sleek laptop that must have cost a fortune, and asked for the wi-fi password to connect it. “I have been doing some research, and I want to show you this site. I have sent a link to your email already, but I know you almost never look at personal emails”. Tapping away while complaining about my broadband speed, he eventually got up what he wanted to show me. “Check this woman out. She has a good reputation, and yes she’s a psychic, but look. She specialises in numerology, the psychic connections involving numbers”.

I looked at the website. ‘Sylvia Townsend’. She was based in London, had numerous glowing testimonials and she did private investigations into what she called ‘Psychic events, especially those involving numbers’. Mark was finishing the second beer. “You got a shop near here where I can get more beers?” I told him where it was, and he left me looking at the laptop.

Wondering how much Sylvia charged for her services.

Mark came back holding three carrier bags containing twelve cans of lager, and four large ready to cook pepperoni pizzas. It dawned on me he was expecting to hang around for some time. He nodded at his laptop. “What do you think? You should ring her”.

After we had both eaten a pizza and he had more lager, I rang the contact number on the website and got a message telling me to leave a name and number. I put on my best serious voice, and did just that. When Mark was eating his second pizza, my mobile rang. “This is Sylvia Townsend, you left a message. Please tell me the nature of your psychic incident, but only that. Do not mention any names or places, or any dates. I would not want you to think I was using any supplied information in my conclusions”.

I gave her all the facts about the 317 connections, how many times the number had cropped up, and that I couldn’t see why it had anything to do with me. She replied confidently, sounding like a mature, well-spoken woman.

“I am sure I could help you, it seems to be very straightforward to me. I would have to be in your flat at three-seventeen in the morning. That would mean me getting there an hour before. Including my travelling time and expenses to and from London that would cost you four hundred in cash. If that is acceptable to you, I could come next Friday. I suggest you get some sleep before I arrive, as you will need to stay alert”.

Swept away by her confidence, I gave her my address, and agreed next Friday. Then she asked for a credit card number, in case I turned out to be a prankster. “I will not charge anything to the card, unless you are not at the address given, or thinking to play some kind of joke on me. I warn you now, I do not travel alone, and my husband is a very large man who can take good care of me”.

When I had given her the details and hung up, I glared at Mark. “You better hope she’s not a con-artist, or you will owe me anything she steals”. He chuckled as he went into the kitchen to heat up his third pizza.

Once he had gone home, leaving behind just two cans of beer. I decided to relax and watch the telly. I had to get the idea out of my head that I had just given my credit card details to a con-woman who was sitting in London thinking about how she was going to spend my money.

Then I remembered the lottery ticket. I had just missed the televised results, so used the Internet on my phone to get on the website and check the winning numbers against mine. I was excited, imagining moving into a luxury pad, cancelling Sylvia Townsend, and telling Neil what he could do with his job.

Not even one number.

Flicking around the channels to find something to watch to make me forget my disappointment, I noticed that the film Jaws was just starting. I had seen it before of course, but not for years. It was always worth another watch. Robert Shaw, and the big rubbery shark.

I was well into the film when it got to the bit where Quint is strapping into the chair to fish with the huge rod. Then I had to go for a pee. As I walked back into the room, I heard a sound I remembered.

But I didn’t remember it from the film. It was the sound I had heard on the ceiling of my bedroom.

Watching the screen, I saw the big fishing rod reel whirring as the line was taken up. Then it stopped, then whirred again. The exact same noise I had heard at 3:17 in the morning. Then he was was slowly winding back the slack on the line. Click, click, click. The sound that I thought was someone winding up a clockwork motor. I got a chill all over my back. That was most definitely the sound. But surely all this could have nothing to do with a film?

Despite that, I slept right through the night, with no disturbances.

That refreshing night’s sleep left me in a good mood for the visit to my mum later. I got ready early and skipped breakfast, knowing mum would provide a huge Sunday meal, and a big stodgy dessert too. On the way to the house, I stopped off and bought her a bottle of the sweet white wine she liked. She wasn’t much for drinking, but she did enjoy a glass of that sticky sweet stuff with dinner.

No traffic locally meant that I was there just before two, and she was ready for me. Roast leg of lamb with all the trimmings, home-made mint sauce, and a bread and butter pudding with custard to follow. I was hardly through the door before we were sat at the table eating.

For someone who lives on easy microwave meals, fast food stuff, and far too much pizza, the traditional Sunday lunch was something I anticipated with my mouth watering at the thought of it. I accepted her offer of three more slices of lamb, and then ate a huge portion of the pudding, completely covered in home-made custard. Still seated at the dinner table, feeling a belly full of wind brewing, mum started to tell me the real reason why I was there.

“You will be thirty-one soon, and I will be seventy. Your aunt Jean is eighty now, and she isn’t well. In fact, she has liver cancer, and probably less than a year to live”. That shook me a bit. I had last seen Jean at Christmas, and she had looked the picture of health, even though the chestnut hair dye was more obvious than ever.

“So next week, I am moving from here and going to live with her in Danbury, to help her though the last months of her life. This house is sold, and most of the things are being collected by charities, as I won’t need them. If you want anything, you can take it with you today. I have some boxes in the garage that I want you to have, but the rest is up to you. And before you ask, I used an agent in Colchester. I didn’t want your firm involved, as to be honest, I think they have treated you badly”.

Well she was right about that. After a couple of golden years at the start, the company had sold off the commercial premises side, and then stuck me with getting rid of any new commercials that came in after. I had gone from hero to zero, in the course of three years.

Mum was still talking.

“This house fetched three-eighteen, more than I expected. Jean tells me the Danbury house is worth around six hundred thousand, but it is much larger of course. She will leave that to me, plus any personal money. Then I will leave everything to you. It’s not like I have anyone else to leave it to, after all. I know you will have to wait for that, as I have no idea how long I will live. But you can count on a very substantial inheritance once I am gone”.

That was food for thought. At least nine hundred grand when my old mum passed, probably closer to a million by the time she popped off. I should have felt guilty thinking that I suppose, but I didn’t. Jean had definitely had her fun with me, and mum was still on a guilt trip for not giving a shit about me. But it was a long time to wait, nonetheless.

Before I had even surreptitiously sneaked out the wind filling me up, mum was ready for me to go.

“Come to the garage on your way out, and I will show you those boxes. You will be interested in what they contain, but please don’t ring me and ask me about what’s in them. Promise?”

I promised.

Two of the boxes were light, and one fairly heavy. They were sealed down with packing tape, and very dusty. Once I had loaded them into the Fiesta, mum reminded me. “Don’t forget your promise, I don’t want to discuss anything in those boxes. Remember that, Darren”.

On the way home, I could feel myself accelerating for no good reason.

I really couldn’t wait to open those three boxes.

Two trips were needed to get the three boxes into my flat. I took the two lighter ones together, then went back for the heavier one. Before I opened any of them, I decided to make a detailed note of the contents on the record I was keeping on my laptop. So I fired that up, and got it ready.

*Box One. The lightest.
Contents;
One England Football Shirt. Size medium.
One pair of matching football shorts. Size medium.
One pair of football socks. Unwashed.
One yellow leather football. Partially deflated.
One Timex watch. Glass broken, not working.
One pair of football boots. Size eight. Muddy.

*Box Two. Next lightest.
Contents;
Assorted newspapers in plastic covers. Thirty in total.
Assorted photos, three in frames. Perhaps fifty in total.
Four very large fishing reels, line still attached.
Two boxes of large fishing hooks, assorted sizes.
One pair of heavy leather gloves. Well worn. Size large.
Two Post-Mortem reports, in plastic wallets.
A report from a Private Detective, in a blue folder.

*Box Three. The heaviest.
One VHS camcorder, large shoulder-mounted variety.
Four spare batteries for the camcorder.
One dedicated charger for the batteries.
Leads and plugs to connect it to the mains, and to a TV.
Six VHS tapes. TDK 30-minute chrome type.
Four more much bigger fishing reels, line still attached.
Six spare fishing lines. New in packets.
Four football achievement medals.
Two small trophy cups for football achievement.
Two small trophy cups for fishing.

I made the presumption that the football kit was my brother Terry’s. That was confirmed by finding his name on the cups. And the fishing trophies bore the engraving ‘Brian Cook’, meaning that the fishing stuff was to do with my dad. But it was the VHS camcorder and tapes that I went to first. They had to hold a clue, or so I thought. The camera battery was flat of course, but easily remedied by just plugging the huge camcorder directly into the mains.

Before I even put in a tape, I knew the bouncing ball noise and the way it had hit me in bed was something to do with Terry, and the whirring fishing line related to the dad I had never met either. But I wasn’t remotely scared, just interested. And I already knew enough not to mention anything to Sylvia Townsend next Friday.

I didn’t have a VHS player. Nobody had one of those anymore. But that didn’t matter, as the camera had a flip-out screen, and controls built into the body. I was thinking about how much my dad must have paid for this, back in the day. A substantial investment at the time. My mouth had gone dry, so I went into the kitchen to get a Diet Coke. Then I sat on the floor, wondering which tape to insert into the machine. There was no writing on the sides of the boxes, or on the actual tapes. So I just picked the first one off the pile. slid it into the camera, and pressed ‘Play’ on the side panel.

There he was. The brother I had never met. Not so much as seen a photo of him. He was in the garden, at least that was familiar to me. Kicking a football around with obvious skill, and running down in the direction of a small goal, which had been placed against the back fence. He was wearing the same football kit that was in Box One, and he looked nothing like me at all.

My dad appeared in shot, urging Terry on. Was my mum holding the camera now? I could never ask her. I had promised. In my family, a promise was a big deal. Brian looked much more like me. Tall, thick dark brown hair, and the same slightly crooked bump on his nose. That made me feel really weird, watching the dad I had never known, and him looking like a slightly older version of me. I stopped the tape, and ejected it.

I needed a drink. A real drink.

In the absence of beer, I searched out what was left of some Jack Daniels remaining from last Christmas.

Swallowing a whole glass of the JD, I reached for another tape.

It was going to be a long night, and I already knew I would be ringing in sick tomorrow.

Working through the VHS tapes took a couple of hours. Two more just of Terry kicking footballs around, much to the delight of my dad. Then two showing fishing trips. They were on boats, off what looked like the south coast. Dad with massive rods, those huge reels in the boxes attached. Terry looking on, sometimes being shown how to work the rod once something had taken the hook. Some big fish being landed, not the sort I had ever seen on a slab in Tesco.

Father and son having fun, and sharing activities. That had never happened to me of course.

By the time I put in the last tape, there was nothing left in my flat to drink. I had even found a drizzle of Grand Marnier in a very old bottle, and tipped the bottle high until it ran down into my mouth.

That last tape was hard to watch. My mum in our garden, holding a baby. As Terry was standing next to her, I knew the baby had to be me. Strange to imagine I had ever been that small. My dad’s voice on the tape. “Give him a hold, Terry”. Mum handing me over carefully, and my brother holding me as if I was made of glass. Then mum and dad in shot, presumably filmed by Terry. Dad lifting me high and laughing, then kissing my head as I came back down.

I had to turn it off. It was all too much.

Although I had intended to work through the other boxes, I was choked up after watching the videos, and went to bed instead. When the alarm went off, I grabbed my mobile and rang Penny’s number. I knew she would be on her way in. She always arrived first. I told her I had a stomach upset, and wouldn’t be in for a few days. She was surprisingly friendly.

“Oh, Darren. John’s coming back on Wednesday. Seems it was just a mild Angina attack. They have given him some tablets, and he’s coming back. To be honest, I will be pleased to see the back of that Neil. We thought he was nice at first, but he’s a complete arsehole, if you want my opinion. Get well soon”.

Neil must have shown his true colours over the weekend, and upset Penny, probably young Kelly too. It was good news that John was coming back, but I had other things on my mind now. I had suddenly discovered my family, thirty years too late.

With the day free, I cleared a space in front of the telly, and started to lay out some of the things from the boxes. It wasn’t usual to have post-mortem reports, and I guessed that mum must have had to request copies, and pay for them. I decided not to read them just yet. I wanted the memories of dad and Terry alive on those tapes to linger a while before I read about how they had died.

The report from the Private Investigator intrigued me. That would have cost a lot, even thirty years ago, and why would mum have bothered? I made some strong coffee and sat on the floor in my underpants, gingerly opening the file, unsure of whether or not I wanted to know what was in it.

Not a lot, was the answer. A few pages of spaced reports, mostly times and locations. A photo of a policeman in uniform outside a police station, and another of the same man in normal clothes, getting into a car. Some very clear long-range photos of a suburban house, one zoomed in to show the door number. From what I could see, the detective had been hired to find a police officer, watch him, and find out where he lived and worked. Then he had followed him for what appeared to be two days, and noted down his movements.

The last page in the file was the bill he had sent to mum. One hundred and forty-eight pounds, including some itemised expenses.

Feeling hungry, I made myself a fried egg sandwich, and added all my notes to the laptop as I ate it. Then I decided to start working through the newspapers. There must have been a good reason why mum had bought them, and kept them.

On top of the pile was a copy of The Surrey Comet, dated a few days after my first birthday. Above a photo of a completly wrecked car was the headline. ‘Two killed in fatal crash. Police investigating’. I read the next line, then dropped the paper.

‘The crash happened not far from Chertsey, on the A317’.

Promises had been made to my mum, but I hadn’t promised not to ring Jean. I rang her house phone, hoping that she wasn’t so ill as to not be able to talk. She sounded really chirpy when she answered, and pleased to hear from me. I started with the usual stuff; sorry to hear her news, glad that mum was moving in to look after her, pretty much what would be expected in that situation.

Casually, I slipped into what I really wanted to talk about. The boxes, and the reason mum had kept certain things, as well as hiring a detective, and paying for post-mortem reports. Jean made me swear never to tell my mum, then spent twenty minutes filling in the details of what I wanted to know.

“Terry had a trial for the junior team of a top football club. I forget which one now, but it was a big deal. Big enough to mean that Brian was taking him there on your first birthday. It was at a training ground somewhere in Surrey, which is why they were so far from home when the accident happened. Your mum was never convinced it was an accident. For one thing, the first policeman on scene was off duty, but he still ended up investigating it. I mean, that didn’t sound right. How would that ever happen? Then there were what they called inconsistencies in the cause of death. Despite that, the coroner ruled the cause of death as accidental, and praised the policeman for trying his best to help them”.

Carefully avoiding any reference to the 317 coincidences, I asked her why mum had paid a private detective to follow the policeman. Jean said she didn’t know about that. I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe her, so went on to ask about the other things in the boxes.

“Well Terry had been wearing the football kit for his trial, but had changed for the journey home, presumably, as he wasn’t wearing it when he got killed in the car crash. The fishing reels were kept in case you ever became interested in fishing, like your dad was. As for the medals, trophies, camera and tapes, well your mum could never bring herself to look at those, so saved them for you. You were supposed to get them after she was dead, but the decision to move in with me must have changed her mind about that”.

I thanked her for telling me what she knew, and said I would go and see her soon.

Reading through the newspapers, I found they all contained slightly different reports of the accident. One mentioned a Sergeant Holloway, from Traffic Division. Another small piece said that a police sergeant had come across the accident when off duty, and had attempted to resuscitate the youngest victim, after realising the driver was beyond help. I wanted to talk to someone else about all this, and there was only Mark. I sent him a text, asking him to come round after he finished work.

Then I got busy taking notes on my laptop.

My dad and my brother had been returning to Essex from Surrey, and were on the relatively busy A317 road. There was an accident that had wrecked the car, and an off-duty policeman had stopped to help. My mum hadn’t accepted the findings of the inquest, so had employed a detective to investigate the off duty traffic sergeant. He hadn’t come up with anything, so it seemed from his report.

Thirty years later, I was experiencing spooky happenings all relating to the numbers 3,1, and 7. Plus hearing the ball, feeling it bounce on me, and then hearing the whirring fishing lines just like on the tapes. Dad and Terry were tring to communicate, I didn’t have to be a psychic to realise that. Even so, that was hard for me to believe. Not only did I not generally believe in all that stuff, but why would they have waited thirty years to try to get my attention?

Sorting through the stuff on the floor, I tried to arrange it into some kind of timeline. Then when I was happy that I could make some sense of that, I quickly got dressed to walk to the local shops. Mark was going to need a lot of beer, and more than a few pizzas.

By eight-thirty that evening, Mark had demolished three nine-inch pepperoni pizzas, and was on his sixth can of lager. He tapped a file, and gave me a serious look.

“The detective agency. That’s where you should start”.

Coastal Investigations was surprisingly located in the quiet seaside town of Frinton. That was over fifty miles away, and I wondered what had made mum choose that place. It was still operating, which was something. The basic website didn’t exactly entice customers, mentioning ‘Matrimonial’, ‘Divorce’, and ‘Fraud’ as it’s main specialites. Under the name, it had “Serving Essex for over forty years” as its tagline.

When I rang the number that morning at nine, I got a taped message. I didn’t leave my details, choosing instead to ring back once I had showered and dressed. A woman answered, her voice rather gruff, but her manner and tone respectful. I mentioned that I was following up on an old case they had handled, and had the name of their operative written down to tell her. His name on the report was Trevor Macmillan.

“That would have been my dad. I took over when he died, fiteen years ago now. If you want me to look into something that old, you had better bring the file to the office. Today at two alright for you? By the way, I charge two hundred a day, and that’s a minimum, but I will see you this afternoon for the consultation fee, seventy-five. In cash please”. Then she let out a series of hacking coughs, loud enough to make me move the phone away from my ear.

I told her I would be there at two.

Stopping at a cashpoint on the way, it took me almost ninety minutes to drive to Frinton. Their office was above a hairdresser’s shop, as the far end of the High Street. I pressed the intercom with the dymo-tape name above it, and was buzzed in with no questions asked. She was waiting for me at the top of the stairs, smoking a cigarette. I took her to be around forty, heavy build, and overdressed for a job like that. She looked more like she was on her way to a party.

“Come straight up. Mr Cook, is it?”

In the front room that served as an office, she pointed at a cheap plastic chair, indicating I should sit in front of her desk. Then she hauled her bulk in opposite me, and held out a hand. “The file, and the seventy five, please. I like to get the money out of the way”. I handed her four twenties on top of the file, and she hesitated over the change, probably hoping I was going to tell her to keep it. Eventually she dug five one-pound coins out from the bottom of her handbag, and slid them across the desk as she opened the file with her other hand.

As she read through the slim file, you would have thought she was reading War and Peace. She finished her cigarette and immediately lit another one, without offering me one. So I lit one of my own, and she moved the overstuffed ashtray into range for me. Still taking her good time over the file, I had almost finished my cigarette when she lit her third, and closed the file with a snap.

“Is this a complaint, Mr Cook? ‘Cause if it is, I should tell you now that will be down to my dad, and he’s long dead”. I assured her it wasn’t. I just wanted to know more about her dad’s investigation, and anything else she could tell me about the policeman and the accident. She gave a satisfied nod. “Okay then, let me go and look in the old files next door”. I thought the offer of a coffee might be nice, even water. But there was no mention of refreshments as she lumbered out the door, her shoes slapping against her feet as she walked, as if they were a size too big.

She came back holding a thick file that left me wondering how come her dad’s report to my mum had been so slim. Then she sat on the desk right in front of me, and seemed to be almost flirting, definitely suggestive in her body language. “I can probably help you, Darren. I still have lots of contacts in the police around here. My dad was a copper before he started this business you know. Leave it with me for now, and I will ring you tomorrow. If I take it further, then we start on the two hundred a day, okay?”

When I was sitting back in my car, I thought I hadn’t had too much for my seventy-five quid.

At home that night, I worked out my financial situation. Having had no mortgage, credit card, or car payments to worry about, I had managed to save a great deal of my income over the last ten years. Even allowing for the fact that I wasn’t in a well-paid job, and rarely qualified for any bonus payments, I was quite well off compared to some I knew. In a couple of savings accounts, and a very healthy current account I had total of a little over seventy-three thousand pounds. That equated to having saved around six hundred a month since I started at Mason and Walker.

With a present salary of twenty seven thousand before taxes and other stoppages if I got no bonuses, that meant I had a three year buffer, if I just lived on my savings. I opened the new bottle of Jack Daniels I had bought earlier, poured a large one, and rang John’s mobile.

He didn’t seem that surpised that I was resigning. Being stuck on commercial properties and hard to sell houses was no way to live. “What will you do with yourself now, Darren?” I told him I had no idea, but was in no rush. If I included my oustanding holiday time in my one month notice, there was no need for me to even go back to the office at all. John was very kind.

“I’m sorry to see you go, but I fully understand why. Please email me an official resignation, and I will sort out the paperwork with HR when I go in tomorrow. On the bright side that means Neil will have to stay on for now, to cover you. I can’t wait to stick him on your desk, trying to shift commercial units. Let me know personally if you even need a reference, Darren”.

The news that Neil would be on commercials from tomorrow was worth another drink.

Whatever I had been finding out about dad and Terry seemed to have calmed things down. I slept all through the night again, with no interruption at 3:17. Waking up the next morning, it felt strange to know that I would soon be a free man, at least for three years as a maximum. No more putting up with being an Estate Agent, I was going to think about a complete change of career. My phone ringing interrupted my thoughts. It was Selina Macmillan.

“Right, Darren. You are going to want to come and see me again this week, as I have a lot to tell you. For one thing, my dad’s file on the case is all copies, so your mum would have had one exactly the same. He did her proud, considering how little he charged her. She must have either decided to destroy the rest, or she just hasn’t given it to you yet. So come and see me tomorrow, about midday, and I will go through what I have found out. And you had better bring me two hundred in cash to cover my time. I spent hours on this, and had to promise someone a bung too”.

Before I handed over more money, I told her she would need to give me some idea that what she had was worth paying for. She didn’t seem pleased.

“Okay, I will give you this much, over the phone. I’m betting you didn’t read the post-mortem results. If you had, you will have seen that they are both on your brother. Your mum paid privately for a second opinion that concluded Terry didn’t die in the accident, but died soon after. What is written down is manual constriction of the airway. In other words, he was strangled. When your mum tried to get the case reopened on the basis of that, Sergeant Holloway came up with a plausible explanation, and they threw out her appeal”.

For quite a while, I didn’t reply. That was a lot to take in. Her gravelly voice shook me out of it.

“What do you say, Darren? Still interested?”

I told her I would be there the next day at twelve.

Selina Macmillan couldn’t have looked more different that second time. Wearing a pinstripe business suit, and her hair in a bun, she looked more like the headmistress of a swanky school, than the blowsy party animal of a few days earlier. I had a feeling that she had arrived straight from a date last time. The sort of date where you stop over, and don’t get much sleep.

The two hundred was ready in a sealed envelope, and I handed it over before she had time to ask for it. She dropped it into a desk drawer without counting the notes. I thought that was a nice touch.

“Well, Darren. I told you about the post mortem report over the phone. I have also been through the reports surrounding the police investigation into the accident, as well as the transcript of the inquest and the Coroner’s summation. All of that had to be requested by your mum, and the copies paid for. She must have been quite determined at the time, as she didn’t involve any lawyers, and did it all herself”.

There was no doubt that I was seeing a totally different side of my mother. All of this had been going on before I was even two years old. I was sure that Auntie Jean must have been heavily involved in looking after me back then. Mum would have needed a lot of time to have done all that stuff.

Selina was tapping something on her desk.

“This file from my dad is interesting. You don’t seem to have it in your papers. Sergeant Holloway was in the traffic division of Surrey Police. They investigated his conduct following the accident. Off duty, in his own car, It seems he stopped at the scene which he saw happen on the other carriageway. He claimed the driver was dead, which was confirmed by the medical reports of a broken neck that caused instant death. The passenger appeared to be dead too, but as he was so young, Holloway attempted resuscitation after extricating him from the damaged car with some difficulty, as it had rolled over during the crash. The conclusion is that he did his best, and he was actually praised for his response and professionalism”.

Stopping her before she could go on, I asked about the strangulation, and how Holloway had explained that. She opened another file, and tapped a paragraph on a typed page.

“During his evidence at the original inquest, he had spoken about having to drag your brother out of the car, and having some difficulty attempting resucitation in a confined space. When your mum tried to get it reopened with her new evidence about strangulation being the cause, Holloway made a statement that he might well have damaged Terry’s neck getting him out through the window of the car, and dragging him up the verge to make space to carry out CPR. They believed his version, and refused your mum’s appeal”.

Next I wanted her to explain how Holloway had got involved in an investigation when he was technically off duty. Selina grinned.

“You don’t know much about the way cops work, Darren. He was a trained Accident Investigation Officer. The next available one was tied up on a serious crash involving a lorry, fifteen miles away. So they took the easy way out, which was to let him investigate the accident. The control room showed him back on duty on their record, and other officers helped him start the full investigation. Technically speaking, he wasn’t involved, as he was a witness who had stepped in to help. So by default, they let him investigate an accident that he was later implicated in. So it is no surprise that any appeal was thrown out. Everyone was covering their arses”.

As I took that in, she carried on.

“Remember I mentioned my contacts? Well I dropped a few quid to one of them, and he did some digging. Holloway retired with the rank of Police Inspector. He is sixty-eight years old now, and still lives in the same house in Surrey. His wife died over ten years ago, some kind of cancer. He spends his time playing golf, according to my contact. Rarely misses a day on the golf course”.

My expression must have been blank, as she had leaned forward to get my attention.

“But there’s more, Darren. The best is yet to come”.

Before Selina could continue, I held up my hand. I told her I needed a drink. I was talking about tea or coffee, maybe water, but she nodded and produced a half bottle of Martell from a desk drawer. Unscrewing the top, she passed it to me. No glass or cup. I lit a cigarette, and took a big swig of the Cognac. She was also blowing out clouds of smoke from her fourth cigarette, making me feel like I was in one of those old film noirs, sitting in a smoky detective’s office drinking from a bottle.

I handed the bottle back, and she left it sitting there on the desk as she continued.

“When you hear this bit, you are going to be glad you had that drink, Darren”. She was pleased with herself, relishing the moment when she was going to impress me with her discovery.

“Do you follow football, Darren?” I shook my head, not bothering to mention Joel, who lived his life for football. She slid a newspapaper across the desk. It was the back page, and the paper looked recent, almost new. She tapped the head and shoulders photo below the headline that read ‘Southampton confirms their youngest manager’. “Recognise him? Silly question. You don’t follow football, so you won’t”.

Sitting back in her cheap office chair, she folded her arms under her substantial breasts, then hit me with her big news.

“Brendan Holloway. Son of our Sergeant Holloway. Former youth team player for Chelsea. Former member of the England under-21 squad, and later a full-time professional midfielder for Brighton. Following a knee injury when he was at Brighton, he went into coaching. Last month, he was the surprise pick for manager of Southampton”.

As I was still looking goggle-eyed at the smiling man in the photo, she suddenly lifted both legs and rested her feet on the corner of her desk.

“Oh, but here’s the best bit. He is forty-four, not quite forty-five. The same age as your brother would have been if he was still alive. And the Chelsea youth team was the one Terry was trying out for the day he was killed. Guess who else was trying out for that team that same day in Surrey? You don’t need to answer, it was Brendan Holloway. According to my source, Holloway was second choice, with your brother offered the place. Brendan only got the place because Terry died. Now tell me that doesn’t smell fishy. It got my nose twitching, I tell you”.

Reaching for the Martell without asking, I lit another cigarette. I was almost in danger of catching up with Selina. There was no denying she had done well. I was amazed how much she had found out in such a short time, and impressed with the quality of her contacts, considering she was in a depressing little office in a half-dead seaside town. Sliding papers into a box file, she told me what they were as she added each one.

“These are for you to take. My notes on the information from my two contacts. Holloway’s home address, and location of his golf club. The copies of the police investigation at the time, and the details of the appeal instigated by your mum. There are also some photocopied police photos of the car, but be warned. They show your dad dead in the wreckage before the bodies were moved. That’s it for me, I’m afraid. you’re on your own from now on. I don’t want to get any deeper into investigating a policeman, even a retired one. That will bring me a whole world of grief”.

Closing the file, she put her legs back down from the desk, and stubbed out her cigarette. My mind was whirring with all the information, not helped by the two big glugs of Cognac. But I seemed to be being told to leave.

So I left.

Sitting in the car for a long time in the pay-and-display car park, I had no inclination to start the engine, and drive home. Would a serving police officer really stage an accident, then kill my brother, just because of a place on a youth team?

It sounded far-fetched to me, but the combination of circumstantial evidence and inconsistencies in the cause of death certainly pointed to that. And a career in the top flight of the football league was worth big money.

A lot of money.

On the way home from Frinton, I decided to make a stop. I knew the address of where Ma Coughlan lived, as I had seen it enough times on the paperwork. It was on a Gipsy site provided by the local Council, but it wasn’t a caravan, more like a substantial static wooden lodge, painted in a trendy dove grey. Avoiding some chained-up dogs that ran at me barking noisily, I knocked on the glass door. It was answered by a girl who looked to be about ten, and she was only wearing underwear. I asked if Ma Coughlan was home, and the girl closed the door without replying.

A couple of minutes later, old Mrs Coughlan opened the door, waving her hand to gesture that I should step back, She held onto the big crucifix hanging from a chain around her neck as she spoke. “What’s your business here? I have nothing to say to you. We no longer use your company”. I told her that I had resigned, and was there on personal business. I wanted to know why she had called Gerry away from me outside the commercial premises on London Road that day. She said nothing, so I asked her what she had been pointing at.

When she didn’t slam the door, I wondered what she would do next. “I will tell you this once. Then you must never come back here, or talk to me or any of my family ever again. If you do, my Gerry will make you sorry, believe me. That day there was a boy on your right. He was dressed in football player’s clothes, and holding a ball. On your left was a man, tall, dark haired. He was holding a fishing rod. You didn’t know they were there, neither did Gerry. But I see things, whether I want to or not. Now go”.

With that she backed inside, and closed the door quietly. It would have been nice to know if she could still see them next to me, but I wasn’t about to push my luck in a site full of Pikeys.

Back in my flat that afternoon, I added what she had said to my notes. There was now a great deal of information that would tell me whether or not Sylvia Townsend was a fraud, or if she really knew her stuff. I found myself constantly looking from side to side, wondering if dad and Terry were going to appear to me. I had no idea what I would have done if they had. Probably shit myself with fright.

That evening, John phoned to tell me that they had bought me a leaving present, and asked if I could pop round on Friday sometime to get it. I told him I would, then microwaved a lasagna to accompany a very large Jack Daniels.

Friday morning found me feeling jittery. I was edgy about Sylvia coming in the early hours, and becoming more and more scared at the prospect that dad and Terry might appear in the living room. But I was sure that wasn’t her style, so I did some housework to make the place look respectable for her arrival. Then I walked down to the bank and got the cash out for later, popping into Mason and Walker on the way home.

John was there with Kelly. The others were all out on viewings or prospects. Kelly gave me a big card with ‘Sorry You’re Leaving’ on the front, and they had all signed it, even Neil. Then John handed over a nicely wrapped gift box containing a lovely Seiko chronograph wristwatch. I admit I was surprised. That must have been worth well over a hundred and fifty quid. John looked awkward. “We all chipped in, Darren. Even Neil stumped up, which considering Janice doesn’t want him back was good of him, I suppose. He’s out now, trying to shift those lock up garages in Gardiners Way. They have been on our books for over four years”.

Kelly started giggling, then John began chuckling, and soon we were all having a good laugh about Neil.

In advance of Sylvia’s visit later, I packed away all the stuff into the boxes, added my laptop, and stashed the lot in the hall cupboard. I had to take the hoover out to get them all in, but I just stood that in my bedroom. Then I had an early dinner, and sat clock watching. She had warned me to get some sleep before she turned up.

Like that was ever going to happen.

Although I hadn’t expected to, I did go to sleep. I was sitting upright on the sofa when I woke up with a start. The room was dark, and I checked my phone to discover it was past one in the morning. I hadn’t thought to start wearing the watch I got as a leaving present. It was still in its box. I put the lights on, then went into the bathroom to splash some water on my face. In the kichen, I made some strong coffee, and ate a couple of muffins so the sugar would liven me up.

By the time I heard the quiet knock on the door at exactly two in the morning, I was wide awake again.

Mister Townsend wasn’t as large as I had expected, but he looked as tough as a Commando. Hair cropped so short he seemed almost bald, and unblinking eyes that were boring into my skull. Black leather jacket and black T-shirt, with black combat trousers to complete the image. “I will come in first and check the place, okay? Sylvia will only come up when I text her it’s safe in there”. I stood aside and allowed him to walk in. Then he did a thorough search of my small flat as I followed him around, even lifting the bed and looking under it. Satisfied, he sent the text.

Sylvia looked nothing like I imagined a psychic investigator to look like. She could have been any dyed-blonde working-class housewife in one of many districts of London, though her accent marked her as someone who knew how to speak properly.

“Good evening, Darren. No, good morning. Now please don’t tell me any more than you have already, and you may want to have paper and pen handy, to take notes. I do not allow any recording devices I’m afraid”. They both declined my offer of refreshments, then Sylvia sat on the sofa as her husband left the flat and stood outside on the landing. At a nod from his wife, he closed the door.

She had no equipment. None of those flashing lights or speaker boxes I had seen ghost hunters using in the TV shows.

I had gone to get a notebook and biro from the bedroom, and she was smiling as I came back in. I realised I hadn’t handed over the money, and went to get the envelope from the kitchen drawer. Unlike Selina Macmillan, Sylvia opened the envelope and counted the notes carefully. Then she stuffed them into her shoulder bag, before turning back to me, still smiling.

“Well it would seem we do not have to wait until three-seventeen, Darren. Your dad and Terry are already here. They are standing in front of the television”.

Of course, I turned and looked at my telly, but couldn’t see them. What followed was the strangest experience of my life. Sylvia was looking at them, no doubt about that. Her eyes and head were moving, and she was nodding and smiling. And then she started to talk to them too. “I see. Yes, I will tell him. You know about the detective. Okay, that’s good. Yes, I will tell him all that you are telling me, word for word”.

The need to sit down overwhelmed me, and I flopped onto the sofa next to her.

When there was a pause, I asked her why I couldn’t hear them, and also told her to ask them why they had waited for thirty years.

“Darren, they are not talking in the way that we do. They are communicating with me in my head. I can hear their thoughts, as it were. It’s more complicated than that, but that gives you an idea. I am only replying to them for your benefit. So, to make it clear that you are not wasting your money. Your dad and Terry were driven off the road by someone who swerved in front of their car. It was a man named Holloway. They recognised him, from the car park at the trial ground. It was your first birthday, and the location was the A317 road, near Chertsey. They were returning from a football trial for Chelsea, and Terry had been selected”.

To say I was impressed was an understatement.

“Your dad was killed instantly, but Terry had only banged his head hard, and was semi-conscious. The man saw that, and dragged him from the car. Because Terry had no injuries that would end his football career, the man panicked and strangled him. Now they want you to take revenge, so that they can pass over in peace. Your dad says to look at the daily newspapers, as they will tell you what to do”.

My mouth was dry, but I remembered to ask again why they had waited all this time. She grinned.

“Terry says it’s because the Holloways now have something to lose”.

Sylvia Townsend stood up. “They have gone now, Darren. It’s up to you to work out what they meant, but I’m sure you have a good idea”. I asked her why I couldn’t see them, and if they would appear again to help me. “They wanted your attention, and they got it. You will never see or hear from them again. They trust you to do the right thing, and find them peace. Anyway, you are not a true believer, despite what has happened. So you would never be able to see them”.

With that, she walked to the door, and opened it. Her husband raised his eyebrows, and she nodded. Turning to me as she closed the door, she spoke quietly.

“Good luck”.

There was no chance I was going to get more sleep, so I went and made myself a bacon sandwich, still trying to take it all in. Sylvia had been right about all the details, and though I had found out most of them before her visit, I was pleased to have it all confirmed. And she had earned her money, as dad and Terry had undoubtedly communicated with her, and added that they wanted me to do something bad to the Holloways to give them peace.

I was outside the newspaper shop as soon as they opened the door to customers. Barging past the owner, I grabbed a copy of each one of the papers he had just finished laying out on the counter. That amounted to five popular tabloids, and three broadsheets. I also bought two packets of cigarettes and a Twix. I ate the Twix on the way home, still feeling hungry despite my pre-dawn sandwich.

Mark sent me a text as I was laying out the papers on my living room floor. He wanted to know how it had gone with Sylvia. No doubt he had been up all night fiddling with his computers. I replied that I would call him later, and pretended to still be in bed.

Each paper took a slightly different slant on the news. Being a Saturday, they also had some feature articles, and things like cookery columns and ‘where to go’ suggestions. The back pages were full of sport, as most football was played on Saturdays, as well as Rugby, and Cricket news from abroad.

But most of the stuff was, as always, about Royals and celebrities. It didn’t seem to matter if the paper was a cheap rag, or a supposedly ‘serious’ traditional one, all they seemed to do was to trap on about who was dating who, and who had been a bad boy, or a bad girl.

There were paparazzi photos of course. Slaggy-looking girls I had never heard of, showing their bits as they got out of cars. Film stars being where they were not supposed to be, and with someone who wasn’t their wife. And one very famous politician in disgrace due to a homosexual affair, with a photo of him leaving his boyfriend’s flat.

The back pages were better. I found a decent article in The Express about Southampton’s new manager, Brendan Holloway. It said he had a three-year contract that was worth over seven million pounds. It also mentioned that he had his own agent.

Football had changed a lot since I was last interested in it.

All of the papers seemed to be interested in the same main story though. A very famous British disc-jockey who had been accused of messing around with underage girls in his heyday. They had all crucified him. Photos outside his house, trying to doorstep his wife and teenage kids, and demanding a full investigation into what were basically unsubstantiated allegations.

He had been fired by the BBC without real proof, and was quoted as ‘Refuting all allegations, and standing by his family at this difficult time’.

That was about the time the penny dropped. Despite the fact it was still mid-morning, I celebrated with a large Jack Daniels.

‘No smoke without fire’ came to mind.

The other thing that came to mind was former Inspector Holloway boasting at the golf club about his wonderful son who had just been made manager of Southampton. And Brendan himself, though techincally blameless, I reckoned he must have known what happened.

Let’s see how his seven million salary looked after what I was about to unleash.

As promised, I rang Mark to let him know what had happened. Swearing him to secrecy, and not to mention anything to Joel. Because Joel thought he was the world authority on football, I felt sure he would blab to his mates about Brendan, and ruin my plans.

That Sunday, I drove to Danbury to visit Aunt Jean and my mum. I didn’t ring in advance or expect dinner, and I had no intention of trying to discuss anything that had been going on. Nobody could know anything until I had put my idea into operation. My real reason for the visit was to use Jean’s old typewriter. I didn’t have a printer at home, and no need to buy one. Besides, using my emails via laptop wasn’t an option, as that could be traced.

So a typewriter was ideal for my purpose.

Mum looked unsurprised when she answered the door. I told her I had promised to come and see Jean. “You had better let me go and spruce her up a bit. She won’t forgive me if I let you see her in the state she’s in”. The old house was looking in need of a good clean, as well as some serious redecoration. It was like going back in time walking in there. Twenty minutes later, mum came into the living room and handed me a cup of tea. “Here, take this up to her. I should tell you, her appearance might shock you”.

She was right about that. Jean’s hair was white, and her skin was yellow. She looked about a hundred years old, and the smell in the room was so sour it got me right in the throat.

“Darren love, thanks for coming to see me. How you doing? As you can see, I’m not doing so good”. I engaged in some chit-chat, mentioning that I had resigned from my job. I chose not to say anything about how long she had left to live. “I’m glad you left that place, love. You can do better for yourself than being an estate agent”. After I ran out of things to say, I casually brought up the old typewriter, hoping it was still around. “Yes, I’ve still got it. It’s in the hall cupboard. There’s paper too, and the ribbon should be alright. You can have it if you want”.

I told her to drink her tea, and I would say goodbye before I went home.

Typical of my mum, she never asked me why I was using Jean’s typewriter on the kitchen table. Though she had almost certainly guessed that would have been my main reason for showing up that day. When I had finished typing, I put the machine and paper back in the cupboard, and went up to say goodbye. But Jean was fast asleep. I kissed her on the forehead, for old time’s sake.

My mum was reading a book, sitting in the big old armchair. “It was nice of you to come and see her. I doubt she has much longer to go. Days, rather than weeks. I haven’t prepared anything for dinner, but I can make you a ham and tomato sandwich if you want one”. I declined the sandwich, telling her I had things to do. As I was leaving, I told her to keep a close eye on the TV news next week. She didn’t even ask me why.

In the car, I had the copies of the old police investigation, and the post-mortem report arranged by my mum, the second one. Adding my typed sheet, I stopped at Sammi’s shop on the way home. He had a photocopier at the back, and charged ten pence per copy. I did ten copies of everything, and bought ten large Manila envelopes as well. Back home, I made ten piles of the copies, and slid each one into an envelope. Then I wrote the names of the Sports Editors on each envelope, followed by the address of the newspaper it was going to.

The next day, I would drive into East London, and post them from one of the big Post Offices. They were so busy, nobody working there ever remembered anything, I was sure.

On my typed page, I had kept it short and sweet. But there was enough potential scandal to interest them.

No doubt about that.

I had the packets posted by just after eleven the next morning. I paid the extra for next-day delivery, and with nothing else to do I drove home and stopped at a supermarket on the way to stock up. I had a feeling I was going to be watching a lot of television from tomorrow, and didn’t want any reason to have to go out for the rest of the week.

Mark phoned that night, keen to chat about everything. I gave him the basic facts about what I was doing, and double-chekcked that he hadn’t said anything to Joel. He told me he was going to record all the news bulletins and sports reports on his bank of hard drives, so I would be able to revisit the moment when the Holloways were confronted with whatever the papers made of my anonymous allegations. Before he hung up, he gave me a warning.

“You better get your shit together, Darren. It won’t take them long to work out it must have been you trying to rake up the past. They will be at your front door, and trying to dig up any secrets from your background too”.

That was one time in my life that I was grateful for being such a dull bloke.

When you are expecting something exciting to happen, it gets hard to focus on anything else. I found myself imagining all sorts of stuff, and hoping for the best outcome, obviously. When Tuesday came, I rushed to the shop to buy all the newspapers, and had the 24-hour rolling news on the telly non-stop.

Nothing.

Nothing in the papers, nothing on the news. I rang Mark after drinking half a bottle of Jack Daniels that evening. I told him it had all been for nothing, and they weren’t interested. He was more positive. “It’s too early, mate. They will be checking the authenticity of the reports. They might even be approaching Southampton Football Club, requesting a reaction to a story being published tomorrow. Wait until Thursday, that’s when the shit will hit the fan. Southampton has a big game on Saturday. They are close to the relegation zone, that’s why Brendan was brought in. You know those news guys, they will love to tie in both stories at once. Saves airtime”.

One thing about the news in Britain is that the TV news picks up on anything in the papers. Then there are the local news channels, on the heels of the big boys like the BBC and ITN. Thursday morning at just after eight, I was watching the rolling news. Not much going on in Britain, but then, almost as an afterthought, they mentioned a story in The Sun. A football manager had been accused of involvement in an historic crime. The paperwork had been passed on to the police by The Sun, and they were waiting for a statement. The manager and club were not named, but twenty minutes later, the story was updated.

The female newsreader read her autocue with her voice trying to sound dramatic. ‘Brendan Holloway, the new manager of Southampton Football Club, has been named in a newspaper story concerning his father, a retired police officer. It concerns an accident thirty years ago, that the newspaper alleges was in fact a deliberate act. Because of that accident, and two subsequent deaths, Holloway went on to play for Chelsea and Brighton, as well as the England under-21 team. And he was recently appointed as Southampton manager, with a seven million pound contract’.

That was all. But it was a start.

By the time the main news came on at one, it was second after the war in Syria. The liberal Guardian newspaper was calling for an enquiry, and the case to be reopened, and there were telly crews outside the house of both Brendan and his dad. That was more like it. Brendan wasn’t home, so they badgered his young wife, before changing tack, and getting some local guy to pitch up at the Southampton training ground, where he refused to give a statement.

That made me think he knew.

They found former Sergeant Holloway at his golf club, and his face was a picture of guilt as they shouted the allegations at him in the car park while he was loading his clubs into his car. Mark rang. “Are you seeing this, Darren? They are on it large. Both of them are going to have to come up with something”.

I told him I was seeing it, and enjoying it too.

The six o’clock news was the best. Many people home from work, and more effort put into the report. Reporters had hit the headquarters of Surrey Police, and a flustered Assistant Chief Constable was making a statement on camera. He fluffed on about Holloway had been exonerated back then, and was now retired with the rank of Inspector. He denied any knowledge of a cover-up, and told them the Chief Constable at the time had died almost twenty years ago.

When pushed about the possibility of an enquiry, he stated that he would be happy to cooperate with any investigation, but that the Holloways should be given their privacy while that was decided. Not much chance of that.

Brendan finally faced the cameras outside the home ground of Southampton. He claimed to know nothing, and said he had been a boy when the incident happened, and all he knew was that his dad had helped some people after a bad car accident. The Chairman of the club was standing next to him, looking decidely uncomfortable.

There was more on the ITV News At Ten programme, with a football pundit roped in to talk about how Brendan had only got his youth team spot because Terry had been killed in the car accident. That was the sort of thing I wanted to hear. It wasn’t until after that when I got the first phone call, from The Sun newspaper. They had a reputation for tracking people down.

I was happy to give my story over the phone. Not that I let on I was involved in the revelations, just told them how I had never known my dad or brother, and had grown up missing them, with a mum who was heartbroken.

Naturally, I laid it on a bit.

My appearance in the newspaper the next day, minus a photo of course, generated calls from Leon and Mark, also John from the Estate Agency. Then a local TV crew knocked on my front door, and I let them in to do an interview as I sat on my sofa looking suitably sad. I made sure to get in the line that all I wanted was justice for my dad and brother.

Mum didn’t ring. Either she hadn’t seen anything about it, or more likely knew what I had found in the boxes.

That afternoon, Southampton played with their assistant manager in charge. They lost 3-0. Then there was some ‘Breaking News’ on the BBC just before five. Former Inspector Holloway had suffered a heart attack during a game of golf. He was in Intensive Care, and described as ‘Poorly’. I didn’t know whether or not to be happy about that. I would have liked him to suffer more.

At just after eight that night, the BBC News 24 reported that Brendan Holloway had parted company with Southampton Football Club, by mutual arrangement. Seemed like that Chairman hadn’t believed him either. By ten, the story was slipping down the schedule, and the fact that Brendan’s dad had died that evening only got a passing mention.

After all the mystery, the intrigue, psychic investigators, and private detectives, the end seemed to be something of an anti-climax. Brendan was on the football scrap heap, minus his seven million contract, and his dad was dead. Hopefully, my dad and Terry had now moved on to something or somewhere better. As for me, I had my notes. I thought I might write a book about it all.

Before that though, I was going to apply for a job. I fancied a career in London, in The Metropolitan Police.

I had a feeling I would be good at that.

The End.

My Bundle Of Joy: The Complete Story

This is all 44 parts of my recent fiction serial, in one complete story
It is a long read, at 34,043 words.

You know how you start to notice that everyone around you has a baby or a toddler, and it suddenly occurs to you that you seem to be the only one who never got pregnant?

Well, that was me.

It wasn’t that we were trying, you understand. It was rather that we took no precautions, and presumed it would happen.

And then it didn’t.

Not long after I started to notice, my mum noticed too. “You don’t want to leave it too late, Angie love. Get some joy from them while you’re still young enough to make the most of it”. Oliver hadn’t mentioned it, so I spoke to him after dinner one night. Like he was about most things in life, he was casual. “If it happens, that’s great. If not, that’s great too”. Then he carried on watching the football.

I made an appointment with my doctor. She agreed with me that almost four years with no conception was unusual, to say the least. And I had turned thirty six weeks earlier, so she agreed to send me for tests. She also said that it might be an idea for Olly to have his sperm count tested too.

I wasn’t looking forward to that conversation.

That all took a while, and I have to admit that Olly was surprisingly good about taking the test. But the specialist smiled when we went to see him. “Nothing wrong with either of you, I’m happy to say. Just one of those things. I’m sure it will happen one day, just try to relax and not worry. Stress doesn’t help”. I looked across at Olly, who was displaying the textbook definition of someone who wasn’t worrying in the least.

Handshakes and an exchange of platitudes later, we were in the car driving home.

The specialist had been right of course. Not long after my next birthday, I missed a couple of periods, then had that ‘feeling’. I bought three pregnancy test kits from my local Boots, and they all came up ‘Pregnant’. I expected to feel overjoyed, but my first reaction was fear. My next reaction was to phone my parents, and then my brother. I would tell Olly when he got home from watching the match.

I had to wait for him to finish moaning about his team losing one-nil to a disputed penalty, and I followed him out to the kitchen and watched as he got a beer from the fridge. Then I placed the positive test kits on the table, laying them on a sheet of kitchen roll. He put the beer down, and smiled. “Really?”. When I nodded, he wrapped his arms around me, and I had this strange feeling that we were finally complete.

If you have been pregnant, you will be well aware of how it takes over your life. My brother was looking forward to having a niece or nephew, and my mum and dad were ecstatic at the thought of a grandchild to spoil. Olly was already suggesting names before we ate dinner, and suddenly it was the only thing any of us talked about.

Literally the only thing. All other life had stopped, frozen in time.

My colleagues at work squealed like piglets when I told them. Those who already had children began to offer serious advice, and Jan even started to tell me about how baby should sleep on its back. Then Caroline contradicted her, arguing in favour of putting a baby down on its stomach. They had soon forgotten all about me, and the debate continued between them until lunch time.

When I got home, I was amazed to discover that Olly had been shopping. He had bought all sorts of healthy stuff we would never normally eat, as well as a recipe book for expectant mothers. He said I should stop drinking wine immediately, and he would give up his beers to support me. We hadn’t even sat down to dinner before the phone calls started. Mum checking up on me, and Olly’s sister calling from Canada, actually screaming over the phone. “Oh if only mum had been alive, she would be over the moon”. With never knowing his father, and his mum having died before I met him, I felt Olly was missing out on that. So I let his sister ramble on.

That night, I had trouble geting off to sleep. But it was nothing to do with the baby.

Just a feeling of being overwhelmed. I was no longer Angela, the busy proof reader and occasional fun runner.

I was pregnant Angela, and that would take some getting used to.

Olly was driving me mad, right from the start. A man who used to have to be bribed with the promise of sex to run the dry-mop around the laminate flooring had become a clean-freak almost overnight. He was bleaching surfaces constantly, and even cleaning the loo every time one of us used it.

When our flat started to smell something like an operating theatre at the hospital, I had to sit him down and tell him to stop.

And I couldn’t win with the phone calls. My sister in law seemed to forget the time difference, waking me up one night just after I had dropped off into a sweet sleep. I had to tell her to check the fact that Vancouver was eight hours behind us, before ringing my mobile at one in the morning. Olly said I was sharp with her. Well, maybe I was. My mum rang me at work in the mornings to make sure I was feeling okay, then she rang me as soon as I got home from work to make sure I was still okay. If I ignored her call, she rang Olly on his phone, to make sure there was nothing wrong.

Luckily, my brother didn’t ring at all. The novelty soon wore off for him.

The doctor had referred me to the local hospital, and I had to go in for blood tests. They also went through the routine that I could expect; including scans, a chat with the midwife about healthy habits, exercise, antenatal classes, infections, and vaccinations. I got a ‘Maternity Record Book’ that I was supposed to keep near me at all times, and a surprisingly elderly midwife also spoke to me about anxiety, depression, hormone changes, and what she called ‘natural worries’.

I left the appointment with enough leaflets to paper a large wall, and the feeling that I had just jumped onto a rollercoaster ride that was going to last for the rest of my life.

On the way home on the bus, I suddenly realised the enormity of what was happening.

I was having a baby, and nothing would ever be the same again.

The weekend after that, Olly didn’t go to the home match for the first time since we had lived together. He seemed very serious, and said he wanted to talk about moving, as our flat might be perfect for us, but it was totally unsuitable for raising a child in.

He did have a point. When we bought our trendy canal-side flat three years earlier, it cost a small fortune, but we just presumed it would be our dream home. Converted from old warehouses, it had a small balcony overlooking the canal, large windows that let light flood in, and it wasn’t overlooked. We had a lift, an entryphone video system, and all the things we had wanted. Wood floors, two-person shower, separate kitchen with room for a big table, and our own car park space underground for Olly’s ancient Citroen Dyane. It was easy to walk to the shops, and a selection of buses ran down the main road nearby that enabled us to get to anywhere in the city.

But the main room was open-plan. The selling agent called it ‘New York Loft-Style Living’ in the brochure. That meant we spent most of our time in one huge room with a very high ceiling, which was sectioned off according to our requirements. A sofa that was bigger than our car dominated one area, in front of the fifty-five inch telly that Olly loved to watch his football on. Then we had our so-called office space, with two desks opposite each other for our laptops, a printer, and small filing drawers. There was no bedroom as such, just a built-in division of glass bricks in an L-shape. We had our king size bed and two shabby-chic wardrobes behind that.

Olly was right. Top floor, no outside space except a potentially dangerous canal path, and no separate room for a child to have as their bedroom. It might be alright as long as baby was in its cot, but it would be best to think about selling up and moving to a proper house sooner rather than later.

I made the mistake of mentioning it to my mum that Sunday night. Her reply made me turn and look at Olly, sure that there had been some collusion between them.

“Well for what you could get for that luxury flat, Angie, you could buy a house back here, and have a much smaller mortgage. In fact there is a three-bed detached for sale at the moment, only four doors down from here”. I told her I would think about it.

Like that was ever going to happen.

What followed was what I started to think of as ‘the quiet time’. I had a scan appointment to look forward to, which immediately started the debate with Olly about whether or not we wanted to know the sex of the baby, if it was obvious to the person doing the scanning. Olly couldn’t even contemplate not having a son. Someone to take to football, and buy tiny football kits for.

He was an unusual football fan, in many respects. Something of an intellectual, he looked like a nerd, and favoured a duffle-coat for attending the matches. He was in charge of all the non-fiction output for one of the most famous publishers in the country, and when he wasn’t going on about football, he usually had his head in a book. Or many books.

But he had grown up without a father, and I always believed his obsession with ‘his’ team from a young age had given him the feeling of belonging to something. He made no friends in the crowd, and didn’t socialise with any other supporters though. His being a fan was a very personal thing.

We finally agreed not to know, at least until the second scan. But I told him I thought it was just practical to know the sex these days, as people were sure to buy gifts based on gender, whether or not we wanted them or asked for them. And we would obviously be buying things for baby’s room in the new house. I also quizzed him on whether or not he would be disappointed if it turned out to be a girl. He just smiled. “Girls play football too, you know”.

Determined to never live close enough to my mum for her to be able to walk to our house, we started looking at the suburbs to the east, the opposite side to my parental home. Five minutes with our local estate agent left us reassured that he could sell our flat for the inflated asking price in the same day it went on the market. “I have a list of people wanting flats in that building, Mister Woodman. They will snatch your hand off to buy it, and no haggling”.

That meant we could find somewhere we liked the look of, knowing there would be little delay in selling. I didn’t want to end up having to rent while we looked, moving twice in the same year, so I told Olly to decide on an area, and we would choose a house there together.

Names came up next. I didn’t even have a bump showing, and everyone wanted to know what we were going to name what I still just called ‘It’, or ‘baby’. My parents had all sorts of crazy suggestions, ranging from the names of long-dead grandparents, through to some favoured by members of the Royal Family. Olly went all literary on me, suggesting names like Emile, for Zola, and Simone, after de Beauvoir.

I told him we should wait and see what sex it was, and maybe even wait until he or she was born, then see what inspired us. His mother had told him that he had been named Olver after the Swiss actor Oliver Tobias. She said she had a one-night stand with him back in the day, and thought he might be the father.

But she had put it about a bit at the time, and couldn’t be sure.

We got a good feeling in only the fourth house we looked at. It was one of those solid nineteen thirties houses, in a side street where they all looked the same. Bay windows, small garage, and a decent-sized garden at the back. Semi-detached, but even the third bedroom was a good size, as it was built over the garage. I didn’t like the small galley kitchen, but Olly was full of ideas about opening it up into the dining room, bi-fold doors onto the garden, and ending up with a nice open plan family room.

It was cheap, and cheap for a reason. The old lady who owned it had gone into a care home, and nothing much had been changed in the house since the fifties.

Work would be needed. New central heating for sure, and probably a rewiring job too. But it had marvellous parquet flooring throughout, and a stained glass sunburst in the window above the front door. We put in a cheeky offer, and were pleasantly surprised when it was accepted immediately.

Late that afternoon, we put our flat up for sale.

The person who bought our flat didn’t even come and look at it. In fact they didn’t even live in the country, and had bought it purely as a rental investment, so the agent told us. Full asking price, no haggling, and only awaiting legal stuff and a survey. That gave us a possible moving date of six to eight weeks, and as soon as he got home from work the next evening, Olly started stacking up all the books ready for packing.

My mum was less than delighted when I told her that we would be moving almost thirty miles from her, and ended the call earlier than usual, claiming to have to get dinner ready to serve. My comment that both her and dad had cars and could easily drive over to see us hadn’t gone down well. She had snapped back with what I suppose she considered to be a warning. “Wait until you are at your wit’s end with a baby, and need some help. It’s going to take me well over an hour to drive to that part of town”.

That night in bed, we both had something serious to talk about. Olly grinned. “Ladies first”. I wanted to make sure that he was okay about knowing the sex during the second scan. It had suddenly become important to me, though I had no real explanation as to why. He gave in so easily, I wondered what it was he wanted to say. For a split second, I had a terrible feeling he was going to say he was leaving me. That must have had something to do with the hormone changes I had been warned about.

But it was nothing so dramatic, though still reasonably serious.

He wanted to talk about marriage, and surnames. We had always thought marriage was unnecesary. If you love someone, and are committed to them, why the need for some socially-acceptable formalisation? Besides, we knew enough couples who had been divorced already, and national divorce rates were approaching fifty percent. I went back over that old ground in reply, and he nodded as I reminded him of everything we had said four or more years ago. Then he wanted to know what the baby’s surname would be, when it came time to register the birth. Would it be his, Woodman? That wasn’t his father’s name of course, but his mother’s maiden name.

I could tell from his expression and tone that this was important to him. I cast my mind ahead to arriving at school with a child that had a different surname to mine. My surname was Mackie, a legacy of my paternal grandfather originally coming from Scotland. I had few memories of him past a wizened-looking, rather scary man who had a hacking cough every time I ever saw him. Olly was leaning forward like a Heron about to take a fish. He obviously wanted an answer. I settled for the best I could come up with when I was ready to get some sleep. I agreed to hyphenate it, Mackie-Woodman.

It was obvious from the way he turned over and switched off the lamp that this hadn’t been the answer he had been hoping for.

Not long before the second scan, I started to notice a few changes. Some tenderness and fullness in my boobs, though I wasn’t sure if that was psychological. And even though I had not had anything like the morning sickness everyone told me to expect, I was getting hungrier and eating a lot more. The think I disliked most was an occasional bad taste in my mouth, and what felt like velvet covering my teeth. I started to take more calcium supplements, and stopped drinking so much fruit juice.

Then my hair started to get oily and lank. I was never that vain about my looks, in all honesty, but I had always liked my hair. Now it began to look as if I had dipped my head in the deep-fat fryer before leaving for work. And I convinced myself it was getting thinner too. I would end up as a bald mum with foul breath and velvety teeth, I had no doubt.

The cheerful woman doing the ultrasound scan was from Northern Ireland, judging by her accent. She turned the screen around so we could see, and beamed a dazzling smile.

“It’s a wee gurly”.

After a lot of arguments about what to take to the new house and what to recycle to charity shops, Olly decided we would take the lot, and sort it out later. He got some estimates from removal firms, and decided to splash the cash on one that came in and packed everything carefully into boxes. To be honest, that was a relief for me, as I was now getting to the stage of feeling unreasonably tired when I had done next to nothing.

When the paperwork started to come through regarding the sale and purchase, it was something of a revelation. Moving to a cheap house in the suburbs was going to make us comparatively rich. Don’t get me wrong, we were already lucky enough to not only cope well, but live a very comfortable life. But our mortgage was going to be less than half of what we were paying then, a lot less than half, once we used some of the crazy profit from how much our flat had increased in value.

With the move imminent, I was starting to feel a tightness in my clothes, and noticing the considerable bump appearing above my knickers. As well as the natural weight increase allowed for carrying an admittedly tiny baby at the time, I was eating as if the world as going to run out of food at any moment. And with Olly resisting the urge to complain about eating crap like doughnuts and pretzels, I was stuffing myself like somoene heading for a gastric bypass.

Leggings became my friend too.

Once I realised that skinny jeans and pencil skirts were no longer going to cut it, I went down the route of ‘comfortable’ flared skirts and maternity tights. That didn’t last long, and soon I was embracing cheap leggings like a single mum of four on a council estate in Manchester. And then my only maternity craving kicked in, when I least expected it. I thought it had arived too early, but my mind and my mouth both told me it was the perfect time.

Fish and chips. Something I hadn’t eaten for years, and certainly not since meeting Olly. Not only the fish and chips, but the huge gherkins and pickled onions that went with it. Then I covered the whole lot in salt, until it looked as if I had dropped my dinner at the beach. I could scarf the lot down like I was a refugee or something, and it wasn’t unknown for me to add a battered sausage to the order. I was sure our little girl was depriving me of fat and salt, and it was very easy to ignore Olly’s head-shakes of disapproval as he slowly ate a sensible salad.

I didn’t give a shit.

Of course, names came up. My mum was delighted at the prospect of a granddaughter, and knew enough that it would not be named after her. She tried the names of so many relatives on me, I asked if she was just reading them out of her address book. To be fair to Olly, he said he would leave it to me. But only after I rejected his suggestions based on female names in The Lord of The Rings. I wanted something short, and easy to call out. I mean, who do you hear shouting “Stop that, Philomena” in a supermarket? Unless you live in Chelsea or Weybridge, I suppose.

One morning, I woke up, and had the name in my head. Leah. You couldn’t really abbreviate it, and it was easy to say. Not that it was that rare, there were quite a few small Leahs around. But it seemed to me to be perfect. Olly actually liked it, even though he thought it didn’t go with the double-barrelled surname. “Leah Mackie-Woodman, does that work, Ang?”

I replied instantly, in the affirmative. “Works for me, Olly love”.

My mum loved it, Olly’s sister loved it. And my brother couldn’t pronounce it when he saw it typed on a text message.

When the men arrived to start packing up the stuff, they said we could go and leave them to it. But there was no way someone like Olly was going to let that happen. It took hours, and when we were finally following their huge truck into the suburbs, I decided it was time to give Olly the bad news, something I knew he was dreading.

“This Citroen has to go, Olly. It’s just too unreliable”.

I had two days off to cover the house move and had the weekend in between. Olly had taken the whole week off, with good intentions to sort things out. The moving men stacked most of the boxes in the garage, except for the kitchen stuff and some bits we needed left out. The main problem was the sofa. It had come up in the large lift in the flats with no problem, but when we got to the thirties house that morning, it wouldn’t fit through the front door. They said there was no point taking the door off, as it would still be too big.

After a lot of head scratching, Olly gave them an extra ten quid each to carry it around the side into the garden, and bring it in through the old French windows. But from the dining room, it was never going to make the turn in the hallway to get into the living room.

So there it stayed, for the time being.

Olly’s main concern was getting his huge telly inside in one piece. There was going to be a delay getting the Internet and satellite service connected, but once his giant screen was in pride of place at an angle in the front bay window, he was happy.

No doubt most of you will have moved house at some time in your lives, so you don’t need me to tell you how stressful it is. Luckily, Olly is a master of the mobile phone, and was arranging for people to come in and do things next week, even before the removal lorry had left. I had managed to put my parents off coming to see the house on day one, as I could never have coped with them fussing around too. To be honest, I was worn out by it all, even though I hadn’t carried so much as a side-lamp.

Starting back at work the following Tuesday, I had my first taste of proper commuting. Almost fifteen minutes to walk to the train station, then packed in like sardines for the ten stops into the city. At least I could walk to the office once I got there, and didn’t need to take a bus. Olly would have to do that though, and he had talked about getting a folding bike. As I looked around the crowded carriage, I wasn’t happy at the thought of having to tell him he had zero chance of getting a bike in there. And I was also very aware that I would soon be heavily pregnant, with little chance of getting a seat on the way to work.

When I got home that night, Olly ordered takeaway pizzas, and told me that he had agreed for an electrician to start on Thursday, and the new central heating to be installed the week after. We were going to have to leave them a key of course, as we would be at work.

I talked to him about shopping. We had been used to a selection of shops close to the flat, including a decent-sized supermarket, and some nice delicatessens. Now we faced a four mile drive to an industrial estate, where two huge supermarkets provided the only local opportunity for groceries. Alongside a Pets At Home, Toys-R-Us, one car dealership, a tyre and exhaust centre, and two large DIY chain shops.

He agreed that we should go shopping on Saturday, but I could see from his face that he was dreading the big-shop routine already.

As far as me being pregnant was concerned, I did finally have some bloody awful morning sickness that resulted in me not going into work. But part of me had to admit that I wasn’t enjoying the trains, and also not too happy about the fact that my feet seemed to be swelling over the sides of my shoes, and even the cheap leggings were starting to feel tight. How could I have fat feet? My boobs were definitely uncomfortable, and on more than one occasion I had told Olly to forget it, when he had turned over in bed with that glint in his eye.

Then all of a sudden, I got bigger, and I started to pee. A lot. And when I needed to go, I took no prisoners. It had to be there or then, or I would definitely piss my pants. I knew I was supposed to be happy, and feeling broody and motherly.

But all I could think of was piddling, and having stupid fat feet.

If Olly hated his commute to work, he didn’t complain. The work was done quickly on the house, and despite some considerable disruption with the installation of the wiring and new heating system, the worst was soon over. He had given up on the idea of the folding doors, as that involved major reconstruction, but new double-glazed doors and windows had been ordered, and everything was slowly starting to feel like home.

The glazing company claimed that they would replace all the windows and the back door in one working day. I thought that was a boast, but when six blokes turned up at seven one morning, I was amazed to discover that they had fitted the lot before I got home from work. Olly had taken the day off to be around, and he had nothing but praise for their efficiency. Just as well, as it had cost a mint.

And as I got bigger, I felt better. I started to embrace my bump, which we both now called Leah, and to even feel sexy again. That certainly pleased Olly. Mum and dad had been over twice, and I managed not to argue with her about her unwanted suggestions regarding decoration and furniture, The early insecurities were wearing off, and I really felt like a mum-to-be.

Even though I had started to walk like a duck.

The far too big sofa went up on Gumtree, and Olly warned the prospective buyers that they would need a big van and some strong hands to get it around the side entrance. Two dropped out when they realised we were not about to deliver it, but the third couple actually turned up, and bought it for fifty quid less than the asking price. That left us sitting on big cushions until the two smaller sofas arrived four days later. With the dining room empty, my dad came over to help Olly set up the dining table, which had been dismantled for the move. Once we had that back in play, I felt we were finally in a home, and not a warehouse.

I did feel gulty when Olly finally put his Citroen up for sale. But it was over thirty years old, and it had got to the stage that if it started first time, Olly would do a fist-pump with joy. The funny thing was that it attracted a lot of attention, and became involved in something of a bidding war. Olly was very pleased to tell me that confirmed its classic status. He had owned it for almost twelve years, and it sold for twice that he had paid for it.

We got a taxi to the Ford dealership next to the supermarkets. There was a bus, but it was a long walk to the trading estate from the bus stop. I liked a Focus that was an ex-demonstrator, top of the range model. Olly had to admit that the otherwise dull-looking grey car was indeed packed with features that his Citroen could only dream of. Heated windscreen, electric mirrors, reversing beeper, and air conditioning. And that was only the start. Built-in Satnav, amazing fuel economy, and a very quiet engine. I stood back and let him haggle with the salesman, and he was happy once the deal was done.

It would be sorted out for us to collect in a couple of days. On the way home, I asked Olly to add my name to the insurance. Although I had passed my test when I was eighteen, I hadn’t owned a car, and had no desire to ever drive Olly’s Citroen. But I was quite looking forward to running Leah around in the new Ford. When I told my parents, mum insisted on ordering a swish baby car seat that lifted out to become a carry-cot. Olly laughed at the news. “Bloody Ford Focus, and a baby seat in it too. Now I know it’s all over, Ang!”

We had both kissed goodbye to the last vestiges of youth, that was certain.

The decorators that Olly found online were surprising efficient. In the first three days, they stripped off all the old wallpaper using some fierce-looking steam machines, and filled in all the holes caused by the rewiring. When they came back the following week, they started to paint the rooms using the colours we had chosen, and did the lot in ten days. Two coats.

I was even getting used to having to stand on the train journey to work. People don’t give up seats to pregnant women, even those with big bumps. They look at their phones or newspapers, and pretend they can’t see you. One night I got home with a bad backache. Olly sometimes got back later than me, so I decided to go and have a hot bath. As I got undressed, I noticed something in my knickers.

Tiny spots of blood.

Despite the discovery in my knickers, I was surprisngly calm, and decided to enjoy that hot bath anyway. But when the water turned pink, I lost my nerve. I wanted to be sensible. I already knew that such bleeding wasn’t that unusual, so I rang the NHS non-emergency helpline as I sat wrapped in a towel. The young woman went through her prompt screens in a very sympathetic tone, and I managed to answer all her questions without raising my voice. But when a peek under the towel showed fresh bright red blood, I lost it. “It’s starting again! I’m bleeding onto the towel now!”

It was decided to send an emergency ambulance, so I quickly dragged on some clothes and sent Olly a text telling him to meet me at the hospital, but not to worry. How stupid was that? Like he wouldn’t worry reading that text.

The ambulance arrived in less than twenty minutes. The man and woman crew were very nice, but insisted on going over all the questions I had answered on the phone, as well as taking my blood pressure a couple of times before they got a small wheelchair to take me to the ambulance. They had left the blue lights flashing, and I got the first sight of the immediate neighbours when I saw them standing in their open doorway watching the proceedings.

We had met Mariusz, the retired widower who lived on the unattached side, but had never even seen the neighbours in the house attached to ours. They looked to be either Indian or Pakistani. The woman had a veil covering her face, and the man was wearing one of those little white cotton hats.

Unbelievably, I waved to them as I was wheeled up the ramp into the ambulance. Why did I do that?

Before the ambulance drove off, the girl got me to lie flat on the stretcher, then inserted a needle into the side of my wrist and attached a bag of fluid to the connector. “Just normal saline, nothing to worry about”. I was clutching my Maternity Book as if it was a first edition of the Gutenberg Bible. Nothing would have prised that out of my hand. The drive was sedate, no sense of urgency. The ambulance girl wrote all my details down onto something, and chatted amicably on the way. When she asked me if I had ever been to The General before, I suddenly panicked. “No, no. We are supposed to be going to Saint Mary’s. That’s my hospital. Look, it’s on my book”.

She patiently explained that they had to take me to the nearest hospital, unless I was full term, and in labour. The County General was easier to get to than driving into the city, and closer in terms of miles too. Then I got in a flap about Olly, who I knew full well would be heading across the city, and might even be at Saint Mary’s already. I asked if I could send him a text, and she nodded.

When they got me into the Casualty Department and spoke to the nurse in charge, she decided to send me to Maternity, to see a midwife. The ambulance people put me in a wheelchair, and a chirpy porter wheeled me along a maze of corridors until we got to where I could hear women yelling and swearing from behind a row of closed doors. An enormous West Indian midwife came up to me. “Okay, lets go in here and have a look at you, my darlin’”. And she had a good look. Someone else arrived with a monitor that was attached to my belly, and we could soon hear the fast beep of Leah’s heart. The first midwife smiled, perfect white teeth glinting in the bright lights. “Ah, baby’s doing okay, honey”.

They had bleeped a doctor to come and see me, but the next time the door opened, it was Olly who walked in. He looked ashen, and was visibly trembling. “Are you alright, Ang? The baby? Have we lost her?” I managed to calm him down, and listened as he told me how he had actually run all the way to Saint Mary’s from work, before reading my text. He had then stood in front of a taxi to make it stop for him, telling the driver his partner was ‘critically ill’ in County General.

Then I started to sob uncontrollably.

A very tired-looking female doctor turned up twenty minutes later. Reading through some notes, and inspecting the two monitors, she smiled. “We are sure everything is okay, but I am going to keep you in tonight, just to make certain. You must rest, try not to worry, and trust us to look afer you. You will be allowed home tomorrow lunchtime, I expect. I am suggesting lots of rest and feet up though. No heavy lifting or exertion, and avoid driving or standing for too long”. She breezed out of the room before I could ask her any questions.

But I had forgotten what I was going to ask her anyway.

Olly stayed for about an hour, until the big midwife returned and suggested he should leave me to try to sleep. Given all the shouting and toing-and froing outside the room, I doubted I would. Olly said he would phone my boss for me, and take time off tomorrow to come and collect me. I told him to get a taxi home, and not to try to work out what buses he might need.

The same doctor came to see me not long after I had hungrily demolished a breakfast they brought me. The monitors were taken off, and I had another ‘downstairs inspection’, before I was told I could go home as soon as Olly could collect me. I wondered how long that doctor had been awake, and whether or not she had got any sleep during the night. A porter was arranged to wheel me to the main reception, but I had to get dressed in the same clothes I was wearing when I arrived the previous evening. I just wanted a proper sleep, after a much needed shower or bath.

On the drive home, Olly spoke to me seriously, after first asking me not to interrupt. He talked about the possibility of me leaving my job. With the cheaper mortgage, it wasn’t as if we needed the money to get by, and last night had given him such a bad shock, he had been awake most of the night deciding to broach the idea of me becoming a stay at home mum. At least until Leah started school. When he had finished, he looked over at me anxiously, probably expecting me to reply with a flat out no.

If so, he was wrong.

I told him that I had been thinking too. We had already both taken some unscheduled time off, and there was a long way to go until I qualified for maternity leave. I agreed to call my boss that afternoon, and ask her whether or not I could work from home using my laptop. I confessed that I hated the train journey, and being squashed in the carriage with so many people. I couldn’t imagine how horrible it would be once the weather warmed up, and I was much bigger. By coincidence, Olly’s suggestion had provided me with a way out that I hadn’t wanted to talk to him about myself.

Work was not as accommodating as I had hoped. At first, she suggested I go in part-time. Just in the afternoons, to avoid the crush on the rush-hour trains. Olly shook his head at that, so I pressed the work from home idea. She said that just wasn’t suitable, and admitted that if she let me do it, she expected a few others to ask for the same concession. After leaving the call hanging in the air for a while, she dealt her last card. “Maybe you should rethink if this job is something you really want to do, Angela? Why not take a week off, and let me know whether or not you want to come back?”

It had been on speaker, and as soon as I hung up, Olly shook his head. “No way. Just ring her back next week, and tell her you’re resigning. Once Leah goes to school in five years or so, there might be other things you want to do. We can manage perfectly well on what I earn. In fact, we are better off than we were living in the flat, even without your salary”. I nodded, and agreed to think about it.

Becoming a pregnant housewife was a big change, and not something I had ever considered.

I have to confess that ringing my boss and hearing her reaction was very gratifying. She had obviously expected me to roll over and accept her terms, but when I said I would confirm my resignation by email, she appeared to be stumped for a reply. After another pointless attempt to get me to come in from midday to five, she said she would work out any oustanding annual leave, and contact the HR department about any pay that was due, and my pension entitlements.

I would like to add that she wished me well, and asked me to reconsider. But she didn’t.

I wasn’t going to count on much of a reference from her in the future.

Olly threw himself into making sure that I didn’t do anything remotely strenuous. Without even asking me, he employed a local company to send someone in to clean the house. Four hours on Mondays, and two hours on Friday afternoons. It was good to see him being in control for once, to be frank. He had long left almost everything to me, even the bills and paperwork.

The cleaner’s name was Rosa, and she was from Poland, like Mariusz next door. There was quite a large Polish community in the area, as we had soon discovered.

When she found out that I had quit my job, my mum seemed to see that as a signal that she could come over more often. Every time she arrived, she had bagfuls of things. Clothes for Leah, groceries that I didn’t need, as well as gadgets like a baby monitor and a thing that hung over the cot side to play lullabies. I didn’t mind those visits as much as I thought I would. Being at home all day had been fine at first, but only seeing Rosa for a few hours left me devoid of company until Olly got home. I had started to watch too much daytime telly, and stuff myself with unhealthy snacks.

Although I had never kept in touch with most of my friends from my teens, even those few I saw now and again didn’t fancy the drag out to the suburbs to visit. Most of them seemed to be waiting for the birth, when they could show up wth a suitable gift, cuddle the baby for a while, then think of a reason why they had to leave. Mum wanted to arrange a baby shower, but I told her not to bother.

There was every likelihood we would be the only ones there.

By the time I got to thirty-five weeks, Olly had built the cot from a flatpack, and my baby bag was packed and ready by the door. There was a stock of newborn nappies in the second bedroom, as well as a pile of baby clothes. Olly had become an expert shopper in just a couple of months, refusing to hear about me accompanying him, even when I told him that there was only so much rest a person could have.

I was wearing bigger bras, and a size larger shoes. And I was still peeing at an Olympic Gold Medal level.

Some occasional sharp pains had scared me enough to contact the midwife at Saint Mary’s. She rang me back and reassured me that everything was normal, and told me I would know the difference when I was in labour. I told her I couldn’t feel Leah moving around that much, and she glossed over that too. It seemed that whenever I had any doubts or fears, I ended up feeling like a panicky time-waster.

I avoided asking my mum anything, as she would launch into a monologue about how she had me and my brother as easy as shelling peas. I doubted that of course, and knew that she thought she was sparing me the worst in case it upset me.

Olly and I had a talk about not calling an ambulance when I thought I was in labour. I was scared they might take me to County General again, and though everyone had been lovely there, I wanted to stick with my first choice. He said I should ring him first, then ring a taxi. No point him commuting home to take me in the car, unless it happened while he was at home of course.

But when it happened, he wasn’t at home.

My thirty-ninth week got off to an unremarkable start. I had noticed a lot more movement, and a change in position of the bump. It wasn’t anything too drastic, but enough to make me notice the difference. Indigestion had got me up during the night, as well as two separate trips to the toilet needing to pee. Another lazy day followed, spent chatting to Rosa as she did my housework, me flopped on the sofa in front of the telly.

It was remarkable how quickly I had lost any feelings of guilt about another woman being paid to clean for me.

I must have dropped off watching some nonsense afternoon film, when I woke up feeling very thirsty. As I reached into a kitchen cupboard for a drinking glass, my waters broke with a gushing sound. It made me jump, and I dropped the glass onto the worktop. With my leggings and socks saturated, I felt like that time I had been paddling in the sea, and an unexpected wave had soaked me from the waist down. Pushing the pieces of glass away from the edge so they didn’t fall under my feet, I started to peel off my clothes right there, not wanting to drip everywhere on the way upstairs.

The main sensation was one of complete calm. It was happening, and I was ready for it.

After dumping the wet clothing on the floor, I walked slowly upstairs to have a wash, and put on a change of clothes. Still thirsty, I forgot about that for the time being, and rang the hospital. As always, they were completely unimpressed, telling me it could be a very long time yet. But as my waters had gone, they suggested I should come in and be checked.

The guy in the taxi firm was very efficient. “Ten minutes, love. He will sound his horn”. I scrolled down to dial Olly, and got a massive cramping pain across my lower abdomen that made me gasp. They had been right when they said I would know the difference. All the instructions came to mind, and I knew I had to time it. I checked the time on my phone, and started to walk to the door. In my head, I was doing my checks. Hospital bag. Yes. Maternity Book inside bag. Yes. Keys to lock the door. Yes. I hadn’t bothered to turn off the telly, that was the least of my worries.

I was standing behind the front door like someone waiting for a train on a platform, just in case I missed the taxi driver’s sounding of his horn. Then it came again, hard enough to make me bend double, and have to rest against the door to stop sinking all the way to the mat. A voice in my head yelled to me. ‘Too soon!’ Luckily, the taxi turned up just as I had recovered sufficiently to stand up. Blowing the air out of my cheeks, I went out and locked the door behind me.

As I walked to the car, the driver jumped out and ran over to grab my bag. “You okay, lady? Is the baby coming?” He spoke English with an accent that I took to be from the Middle East, judging by his physical appearance. I managed a weak smile, and told him he could relax. It was my first. I didn’t so much as sit in the back, as fall into it. I felt more like an Elephant Seal than a human, as I struggled to right myself. Unlike most cabbies of my experience, he didn’t tell me his life story, or say much at all. But he did say the same thing at least three times, perhaps four. “You go to Saint Mary’s, yes? In the city, yes?

After he had asked me the third time, I got a searing pain in my crotch, and shouted out loud. It made him jump, and he almost didn’t stop at a red light. I could see his eyes in the rear-view mirror, checking me out. He looked worried. Then I made the connection of a worried man, and me having a baby.

I had forgotten to ring Olly.

Pulling my phone from the handbag, I dialled his number. But it was answered by one of the juniors, who told me he was in the afternoon meeting. I asked them to go and interrupt it, and tell them Olly was about to be a father, if they tried to stop him.

When the taxi pulled into an ambulance space outside the hospital, I paid the driver and told him to keep the change. He handed me my bag after I struggled out, then wished me good luck.

It was a toss-up as to who was most relieved. Me for arriving at the hospital, or him for getting me out of his cab.

As I went up in the lift to the Maternity Department, I smiled to myself. The next time I was in this lift, I would have Leah with me, and be starting a whole new life.

The midwife who took me into a room had a strong Irish accent, bright red hair, and those red cheeks you see on people who work outside, or live on farms. Her accent was very strong, but I could understand her well enough. But like most of her colleagues, she was unimpressed, and showed zero sense of urgency. I presumed student midwives must have had a training module called ‘Never act impressed’.

I hadn’t had any pains since that one in the taxi, and I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved, or worried. I was soon undressed and in a gown, and following a brief ‘look’, she ran through a few questions before confirming my preference for a natural birth.

Then she disappeared.

The next pain came five minutes later, and caused me to shout out a swear-word that I don’t think I had ever used before. Then I was grabbing the call-button, and pressing it like mad. Red cheeks came in with a colleague who was wheeling a tall cylinder on a trolley. They showed me how to suck in the gas and air through a black rubber mask, and before too long I felt as if I had drunk a few gin and tonics. As they put a needle into my wrist, I had to suppress a giggle that came from nowhere. Then red cheeks told me her name was Moira, and talked about first babies, long labour, and how I might yet be sent home.

It hadn’t occured to me I might be sent home, and I thought I should make Olly aware of that. But as I was thinking that, he came into the room. They had made him put a plastic apron on over his work suit, and given him a blue hat to wear over his floppy hair. I couldn’t help myself, and started to laugh at him. Moira grinned, and winked at Olly. “Too much gas and air, daddy”. I wondered why she had called him daddy, but was soon to discover that she called me mummy, and would refer to us both like that throughout. I suppose it saved her having to remember a lot of names in the course of her shift.

Olly told me had had sent a text to my parents, and to my brother. He had also told them not to come to the hospital, as he wasn’t sure they would be allowed in anyway. Besides, there was nowhere to park anywhere in the area, as it was in the centre of the city. Then he held my hand, leaned over the bed, and kissed me. Moira spoke to him, explaining most of what she had told me, including the fact that I might be too early to deliver that afternoon.

Then she disappeared again.

When the next pain came, I grabbed the mask and sucked on it like an astronaut running out of air in a space film. I took in so much of the gas Olly thought I was unconscious, and pressed the button. A slim black nurse arrived, her hair braided and pulled back so tight, it made her face look surprised. She told Olly it was normal, and pointed to the fact that I had come round before she had got to the room. Once again, I was left feeling as if I was wasting everybody’s time.

Time seems to stand still in situations like that. I lay there waiting for the next cramping pain, and it felt like two hours before it happened, even though it was only twelve minutes. Moira came back in and had a good feel of my baby bump, pushing and squeezing like she was trying to burst an enormous spot. A quick inspection between my legs preceded another pain strong enough to make me grab the gas mask. Moira grinned. “I don’t think you’ll be going home, mummy. Baby’s in the right position. She’s ready to see the world tonight”.

A monitor was attached to my belly, and it started to bleep reassuringly. I was told to keep calm between the contractions, and use the gas as much as I wanted. Olly’s phone kept going off, and he dismissed two calls from my mum, and one from his sister in Canada.

Then he grabbed my hand and gave me his best serious look.

“It’s happening, Ang”.

People often use the expression ‘That was the longest day of my life’. I used to smile at that, and say that every day only has twenty-four hours in it. But by seven-thirty that evening, I knew what they meant.

Almost five hours had felt more like thirty-five. And the midwives were quick to let me know I could be in labour for another five hours, if not more. The pains came and went, and the gas stopped helping it. Olly looked as if he was going to fall asleep, jolted out of his dozing by the occasional scream from me. I told him to go out and get something to eat, walk around in the fresh air. But he was determined to stay.

And I had to get used to some new faces, once the night duty staff arrived. No longer red-cheeked Moira, or the girl with the surpised look on her face. It was now Tanya, a stunningly attractive young woman who looked more like she should be on the cover of a fashion magazine. The most unlikely midwife I had ever seen.

Tanya had a businesslike manner, and wasn’t about to take any nonsense from me. She was local too, and listening to her accent was like hearing myself talk. When she didn’t come to check on me, Elizabetta did. Short, dumpy, and Filipino, with a big smile and caring nature.

She told me she had three children. I told her I just wanted to have this one.

By eleven that night, I was starting to panic. How long could this take? Surely Leah should be out by now? The pains got so bad, I felt like I had a bowling ball stuck between my legs. I tried getting on all fours, and even got Olly to help me walk around and kneel by the side of the bed. Nothing seemed to help. Leah was happy where she was.

The noise of the screaming and grunting was getting on my nerves too. I was quite shocked when I realised it was me making it.

Olly was getting distressed to see me in such a state, and pressed the buzzer. Tanya listened to him rambling on about my intense pain, and then left the room. She came back with an Indian doctor who was wearing surgical scrubs, and she asked me if I wanted stronger pain relief introduced through an epidural needle in my back. I had been determined not to have that, but felt so exhausted, I just nodded.

When that was done, I couldn’t feel anything below my waist, and became worried I might not know when Leah finally came out. Then I actually went to sleep.

I had no idea how long I had been sleeping, when a strange noise woke me up. It was coming from one of the two monitors attached to me, and I didn’t like the sound of it. As if to confirm my suspicions, Tanya suddenly appeared, looking serious, but her make-up still perfect.

She ignored my panicky questions about what was wrong, then pressed the nurse call button. Olly still looked drowsy, but the urgency around me had made him recover his wits quickly. Elizabetta appeared, and exchanged a nod from the doorway with Tanya. Moments later, the Indian doctor came into the room, and had that same look on her face. I know I was asking all sorts of questions, but if anyone actually answered me, I don’t remember what they said.

The three of them began to rummage around between my legs like a team of mechanics trying to fix a car that wouldn’t start. I only heard bits of hushed conversations.
“Emergency section?”
“Not sure there’s a theatre free”.
“We could do it here”.
“Get the cord off her neck”.
“I’m going to try vacuum”.

With each snippet I heard, I fired a question back. But it was as if I wasn’t in the room.

Only the back of the doctor was visible as I saw her standing in the doorway talking to someone. Then a male doctor appeared, fully gowned up, and holding something that resembled a plumber’s plunger attached to a grease gun. He looked more like he had been disturbed whilst unblocking a toilet, than someone who should be in a Maternity Department delivery room. They all hunkered down between my legs again, and I heard a pumping sound of air, like when you pump up your tyres on a bike.

Moments later, Tanya stood up straight, holding a baby that was covered in gunk, and its skin a funny grey colour. Olly started crying, so I did too.

There she was, my little girl.

Some of the reading I had done told me what was going to happen next. Leah would be handed to me, put to my breast to suckle, and that would help expel the placenta naturally. Through watery eyes, I felt myself smiling, and opened my arms, reaching out to receive her, just as I had imagined I would.

But that didn’t happen.

What did happen was that a worried-looking Tanya walked away into the corner of the room, followed by both doctors. They placed Leah inside a plastic box that was on a trolley, and then turned their backs to me as they started to do stuff. Elizabetta came and held my hand. “Just checking the little one, dear. You will hold her soon”. Despite her reassuring smile, I sensed she wasn’t telling me everything.

Whe Tanya came over to connect a drip to the needle in my arm, she managed a grin that was completely unconvincing. I could hear the sound of air rushing fast, and knew they were giving Leah oxygen. Then Tanya stuck a needle in my thigh, and said, “Just something to help you expel the placenta, Angela”. I asked her what was going on with Leah, and she glossed over that. “The doctors are just checking her over. Won’t be long. I am going to give you a few stitches down below before the anaesthetic wears off, okay?”

It seemed to take forever until they had stopped fiddling around in the corner, though it might have only been ten minutes, for all I knew. Olly started to feel dizzy, and said he had to go outside for a while. The poor man hadn’t had anything to eat since yesterday’s lunch, and only one bottle of water to drink since he had arrived. He checked his phone. “It’s almost three forty-five, I won’t text your parents or my sister just yet, far too early in the morning”.

When Elizabetta brought Leah to me, cleaned up a little, and wrapped in something soft, she looked relieved. “Here she is, your bundle of joy. Be happy, mama”.

That was the moment that everyone talked about. That strange rush of emotion when I suddenly felt undying love for that funny-looking baby in my arms. I ignored the strange shape of her head, which looked like the hats worn by garden gnomes. I ignored her screwed up face, sparse hair, and the mucky white stuff still stuck around her tiny neck. I loved her more than I ever thought it possible to love anything. I would have willingly jumped to my death from the roof of that hospital if it meant she would be alright.

Tanya came over with a small hat that she placed on Leah’s head. “Dont worry about the shape of her head, Angela. That was caused by the vacuum device, and it will go back to normal soon. Get her on your skin, and let her feel your heartbeat”. I pulled up the gown and pressed her to my breast, but she didn’t seem to want to suckle. She was just lying there, tiny green eyes not focusing on anything. In case Tanya decided to disappear, I asked her my questions while I could still think of them. What had they been doing in the corner? Why wasn’t Leah crying? Could someone go and find Olly so he can see his daughter?

“The umbilical cord was tight around her neck, Angela. Don’t worry, that’s not at all unusual. But we gave her some oxygen to help with her breathing, and as you can see, her colour is getting better already. As for crying, some babies just don’t cry. I should know, shouldn’t I?” I didn’t believe her about the crying, but wasn’t in the mood to argue. I couldn’t stop looking at Leah, and finding it hard to believe she had just come out from inside of me.

Olly came back, still crying. Lack of sleep and food had made him more emotional than ever, and when I told him to hold his daughter, he cried even more. Not bad, for a man who had never said he wanted children. They fussed around me some more, and Elizabetta took away a bowl containing the placenta. Then they cleared up all the swabs and dressings, before leaving us alone with Leah.

I stared lovingly at my baby, watching every twitch, and the slight movement of her head.

But I so wanted her to cry.

A different midwife came to see me after the morning shift came on duty. She talked to me about breastfeeding, which I wanted to do, and how a health visitor would come and make regular checks on Leah for a few days. She said I could go home that afternoon, and then asked me if I had any questions.

I couldn’t think of anything, it was as if my mind had gone blank.

Olly looked awful, so I told him to go home by taxi and get some sleep. I would ring him when he could come and collect us in the car.

Us. It felt funny to say that. Before Leah, ‘Us’ had only meant me and Olly.

Before the midwife left me to it, I finally managed to get Leah to feed. The feeling was both weird, and fantastic at the same time. She was hungry too. Although she still hadn’t made any noise remotely resembling crying, she did make some gurgling sounds that reassured me that at least her vocal chords were working. I had told Olly to ring everyone and ask them not to visit the house until the next day, at the earliest.

There had never been a time in my life when I had felt so tired.

Being alone with my little girl mainly made me anxious. What should I be doing? I spoke to her, kissed her and cuddled her, and didn’t let on to her that my belly and my lady bits were still hurting quite a bit. Once the anaesthetic had worn off totally, everything below my hips felt as if I had skidded down a tarmac road naked. Not quite enough for agony, but far more than sore. I hadn’t asked for anymore painkilers, as I didn’t want to ingest any more medicine than absolutely necessary while I was breastfeeding.

By the time I was allowed home and Olly was there with the carry-cot, I had started to feel like a mum. Millions of women did this every day, I kept telling myself. I had to stop over-thinking everything, and making such a big deal of it. We waited in the main reception while Olly went to get the car from where he had parked on a meter.

The cot fitted onto the car seat base in one slick movement, and he looked at me with such a look of pride on his face, you would think he had just constructed the Forth Bridge. I had been walking like John Wayne after a long ride on his cowboy horse, and it was a relief to flop into the seat.

As the car headed off into the early rush-hour traffic, I had a wobble. This was it. We were going home with a tiny baby, and it was all up to us now.

For the rest of our lives.

To give him full credit, Olly had done wonders while he had been at home. I doubted he had slept at all, as he had tidied up, prepared a basic meal for later, sorted out everything in Leah’s room, and had the nappies and wipes all ready downstairs. The machine for expressing my milk was there too, along with the bottles all sterilised, in case I wanted to use them. I thanked, him and told him I was going to try to stick with breast feeding. Then as if to prove a point, I gave Leah a feed while he watched. At least one of us would get some sleep later that night.

With Leah asleep next to us in her carry-cot, we sat and ate together. Olly said he had sorted out the baby alarm, and also the vibrating alarm that would wake me when I needed to feed her. He said he would watch her after dinner while I had a bath. But there was no way I was going to try to sit in a bath, and just stood there with one hand against the wall using the shower attachment. When I came down, Olly was trying to amuse Leah with a stuffed toy that had bells attached. But she wasn’t taking any notice. I suggested he wait until she was just a little bit older, and he laughed, saying he felt silly.

That was such a happy night, that first night at home.

For most of the night, I had stayed awake. Every time I felt my eyes closing, I jumped, trying to wake myself up. The baby monitor was making no noise, and there had been no crying. Olly was dead to the world, but I didn’t need the vibrating pad under my pillow to wake me up.

I went into Leah’s room more times than I can remember now. If she was awake, I sat in the nursing chair and fed her. If she was asleep, I sat staring at her, wondering if she was alright.

When Olly got up to get ready for work, I had just gone to sleep. But I dragged myself up and went to check on Leah. Olly could have probably got away with taking the day off, but they had been very understanding, and he didn’t want to take advantage. He made me a coffee and brought it up to me, tactfully not asking me if I was going to be alright on my own that day.

Not that I had much chance to be alone. Mum and dad turned up just after nine, with my brother in tow. They had made him take the day off to see his niece, and he grinned as I opened the door. “Where is she then?” Mum was carrying two huge balloons, one with ‘Baby Leah’ printed on it, and the other in the shape of a pink unicorn. Dad handed me a bouquet of pink roses, and they both brushed past me in their eagerness to see their granddaughter.

My brother looked over their shoulders, and one glance was enough. He sat on the sofa and said “Tea and toast would be nice, sis”. I told him he knew where the kitchen was.

Mum was already fixating on the shape of Leah’s head, and she was multi-tasking as she told dad to find a vase for the flowers in the same breath. I kept my temper as I watched mum examining my baby as if she was a pedigree piglet she was thinking of buying.

“Green eyes. That must come from Olly’s family. Nobody on our side ever had green eyes.
Does that mean she will have ginger hair? I hope not.
Mind you, she hasn’t got much hair to speak of at the moment anyway.
Does she feed alright?
Did she keep you awake all night? You look terrible.
Why don’t you get some sleep while we are here? I will look after her.
How long before her head looks normal?”.

Her words were tumbling out like the sound of a machine gun, leaving no pause for me to answer. I just sat on the sofa and let her get on with it. Then the smoke alarm went off, because Ronnie had burned the toast. Dad put his arm around me as Ronnie flapped a tea-towel at the ceiling.

At least my dad understood.

It got to almost one in the afternoon, and they showed no sign of leaving. I decided to take executive action, and told them I was tired, so could they go and let me rest. Mum looked very miffed, and pushed her lips together in an expression I knew all too well. But Ronnie was pleased, and took my words to mean he could leave immediately. He was on his feet in seconds, reaching for the car keys.

They managed to drag out the departure for another twenty minutes, Ronnie standing by the front door jiggling the keys as mum made her last checks and asked her last questions. I took Leah up to her room and fed her, stretching out in the new nursing chair, cuddling her close. I hated appearing to be unkind to my family, but if I didn’t get some rest, I would be good for nothing.

I should have known I would go to sleep, and of course I did. It must have been some kind of instinct that stopped me dropping Leah, because when I heard Olly close the front door I was still holding her tight. He had got off early, but I had still been asleep for almost three hours. I thought I should feed Leah again, and Olly sat on the floor of the room watching me, listening to my story of the family visit. He asked if it was alright to call his sister now, and she would be busting to hear the news. I had forgotten about her, and felt guilty that it was all about me, and my family.

I could her her screams of pleasure as Olly told her the news.

The next morning, Rosa arrived at the same time as the health visitor. She got on with tidying and cleaning after a brief look at Leah. “I hold her later, yes?”

Doreen was a smart looking nurse who told me she was originally from Antigua. She gave Leah a detailed once-over, and asked me quite a few questions about how I was feeling, whether I was tired, and how my moods were. She was pleased to hear that Leah was feeding okay from the breast, but suggested that I express some milk later, so that Olly could do some night feeding and I got some sleep. When she measured Leah’s head, I asked her how long it might retain the obvious cone shape.

“Should only be a few days, darlin’. Though some stay like that for a few weeks. This don’t look so bad”. While I had her attention, I asked her why Leah hadn’t cried to be fed. That seemed to interest her. “No crying at all? Not for soiled nappies, or feeding? Not even to be picked up?” I shook my head, and asked her if I should be concerned. She gave me a reassuring smile, and held my hand briefly. “That crying should come soon. Might just be the fact that she had a hard time coming into this world. I will be around to check on you for the next few days, and you can let me know when she has cried”.

When she left, Rosa appeared, excited to hold the baby. She didn’t have any children, but was hoping to once she went back to Poland to get married. She spoke to Leah in Polish, and sang her a little song. Then she handed her back, asking “Why her head like that?” I told her about the vacuum delivery, and she went over to her bag in the hallway, returning with a small box. “This is for her. Good protection”. Inside was a tiny silver cross, on a chain. Olly and I were not religious, but I was touched by this kind gift from someone who was just paid to do my housework.

Mum phoned twice that afternoon. Once to ask about the shape of Leah’s head, and the second time to tell me her friend Barbara knew a woman whose baby had been born with the same shaped head, and was fine after less than a week. I imagined her and Barbara having a good gossip about Leah’s head, but I didn’t let it get to me. She was only trying to do her best to make me feel alright about it. One thing I soon found out was that everyone knows someone who had either a worse time than you, or had some advice about things you hadn’t even asked them about.

After Olly got in that evening, he said he would go back out in the car and get a Chinese takeaway. I had completely forgotten about preparing any dinner, probably because I had stuffed myself with biscuits and cake all afternoon. Or I was already suffering from what my mum called ‘baby brain’. Over dinner, I asked him how it had gone at work. I was very aware that Leah had fast become the only topic of conversation, and I didn’t want that to change our previous relationship. Olly thought that doing the bottle feed at night was a good thing, and said he would go to bed early to make sure he was up and about in time for it. But when the vibrating alarm went off, I stayed awake anyway. Might just as well have let him sleep, and fed her myself.

Doreen’s visit the next day was brief. She was pleased to hear that Olly had done a feed, and wanted to know if we had heard her crying yet. I shook my head, and told her that she made small gurgling noises, but still had not cried. Then Doreen took Leah and checked her hearing. She turned in response to noises made either side of her head, and Doreen wrote something down on the record sheet. Then she checked her eye movement, and wrote something else down. I asked her if it was all normal, and she smiled and nodded. For some reason, I couldn’t bring myself to believe her.

She had only been gone for thirty seconds, when I felt an overwhelming need to start crying.

When the screaming came over the baby intercom, it took me a moment to come round, and realise it was Leah. I was out of bed in a flash, overwhelmed by a feeling of joy that my baby was finally crying. She shouldn’t have needed a feed yet, so I checked her nappy, which was dry. Holding her close, the noise was incredible. Her face was red, and her back arched in a shape like a banana. I moved her round into the feeding position, but she would not take my nipple, no matter how many times I tried.

And no amount of cuddling or rocking would console her, as the screams continued to increase in intensity.

Eventually, Olly could stand it no longer, and walked into the room, bleary eyed. He was smiling though, as just like me, he was overjoyed that she was crying. He reached out to take her, holding her high up against his shoulder, and patting her back gently as he walked in small circles. He asked the obvious. Was her nappy wet? Did she need a feed? I could hardly hear him above the noise. It didn’t seem possible that such a tiny baby could generate that volume. After a while, Olly furrowed his brow, and gave me a serious look.

“Should she be stiff like this? She is rigid.”

I was so tired, I couldn’t think straight. And I still had a lot of pain down below, as well as occasional cramps as my insides were shrinking. I wanted to go back to bed and sleep. It didn’t hurt once I was asleep. And as much as I loved to hear her cry, it had gone on too long, and was uncontollable. Then Olly made a decision.

“Get dressed, Ang. I think we should take her in”.

Alhough I had visions of being thought of as a panicky time-waster again, I knew Olly had made up his mind. We both threw on some casual clothes, wrapped up the still-screaming Leah, and headed out into the quiet night, probably waking up half the street as we struggled to get her into the car seat. No time to brush my hair, or my teeth. I felt dirty and horrible as we headed for the hospital.

The Casualty Department staff took it all very seriously, no doubt prompted in part by the ear-splitting noise of my baby’s screaming. We were taken through to a children’s area, and told a paediatric doctor had been called down as a matter of urgency. A tiny young woman appeared, dressed in green scrubs that looked too big. She must have been well under five feet tall, and had the body size of a child. But she seemed to know her stuff, and there were soon some nurses around Leah, later joined by another doctor who looked as if he had just been woken up. We sat on the hard plastic chairs in the corner and watched as they did tests, and attached monitors.

One of the nurses appeared to be in charge, and every now and then would turn to me with a question. Has Leah had a rash? Has she been taking milk? How long as she been crying? How long as she been arching her back? I gave her my best estimates, and then sat worrying about whether or not we should have brought her in sooner.

The crying suddenly stopped.

The tiny female doctor turned and smiled. “We have given her some rectal medication to calm her down. She will relax now”. They carried on working on whatever they were doing for another few minutes, and then they all left, except the tired-looking male doctor. He came over and stood in front of us.

“We want to keep an eye on Leah for a couple of hours. No need to admit her to a ward, but I want to see her reaction when the sedation wears off. This may have something to do with the difficult birth. I am not considering meningitis, or anything sinister”. I should have been relieved, but my first thought was to kick myself for not thinking anything like he had mentioned. Olly thanked him, and walked over to look at Leah.

I was feeling achey and sore, so stayed sitting. Yearning for sleep.

While Leah was calm, I managed to feed her. The doctor came back when it was already light outside. “You can take her home now. It might have been that she was too hot, as we can’t see anything that concerns us right now. She has taken a feed you say? Good. Keep an eye on her, and get some rest. If you are still worried later on, perhaps take her to see your family doctor”.

There was no chance Olly was going to go into work that day. As soon as it was a reasonable time to ring anyone, he phoned his boss to tell her about what had happened, and agreed to take the day as holiday. Leah had gone to sleep in the car on the way back, and I decided to break my own rules by taking her into bed with us that morning.

After that scare, things calmed down, and I got into a routine as soon as I was no longer feeling the pain. I had told Doreen about the hospital trip, and she tried to reassure me not to worry too much. Then she was more or less finished with her checks, but gave me a number to call if I thought I needed a visit. Remembering what the doctor had said about seeing a GP, I decided to change doctors. Up to that point I had stayed with the one in the city, but that was no longer going to be practical, having to take Leah with me everywhere.

I found one about fifteen minutes walk from us, and they said they would register us if I went in. The place was packed out with people waiting to see doctors when I arrived, but an elderly receptionist was happy enough to get us registered. Olly was going to stay with his old one, as he was in the city most days anyway. I made an appointment for having myself checked over, and they offered me one seven days later.

Trying to get some order into my day was very difficult at first. Leah had no more screaming fits, but she had stopped crying at all, and that preyed on my mind. At least she was feeding, and sleeping. That allowed me some rest between feeds, and I stopped Olly getting up to bottle feed, so he could go to work feeling fresh. My Mum had been miffed at my asking her to leave, so to build bridges there, we suggested that we visit them every Sunday. At least that way we could decide what time to leave, and not have any showdowns.

The first Sunday visit went well. Mum had prepared a lovely roast lamb dinner, and it was nice to be able to sit and stuff myself without worrying about who was cooking, or having to wash up afterwards. I had to laugh at my dad and brother. When it came time to feed Leah, as soon as I reached under my top for my boob, they both made themselves scarce. Ronnie remembered he had a borrowed DVD to watch in his room, and dad had something he needed to attend to in his garden shed. Leah’s head had changed shape too, even though her forehead looked unusually large, the cone shape above had almost disappeared. That stopped my mum trapping on about her head at least.

Going anywhere with a baby was such a mission. There was the baby bag containing anything I thought I might need, as well as many things I would probably never need. Then the folding wheels for the portable cot, in case I had to wheel Leah around. The carry cot/car seat itself, which looked tiny, but was surprisingly heavy. All that without my own huge shoulder bag, which I still hadn’t got around to sorting through, and emptying out.

On the way home that Sunday, it seemed like Olly was reading my mind. “This car isn’t going to work, Ang. I reckon we need something much bigger, preferably with a sliding door. I will investigate what’s available, and sort it out”.

Late the following Saturday afternoon, he returned home driving a bright red Japanese people carrier that looked more like a minibus than an actual car. It had sliding doors at the back, and a huge hatch that opened up to reveal a space that I could easily lie down in. It had a high roof too, so no bending and stretching. The gears were funny, fully automatic, with a lever on the dashboard next to the steering wheel. In front, the driver’s seat looked like an armchair, and the seat next to it was a double one. After showing me around it, Olly asked, “What do you think then, Ang?”

I told him it was never going to fit in the garage.

By the time Leah was three months old, I felt better physically, although I continued to experience mood swings that often involved crying when I was alone. Sitting on the bed while Leah was asleep, or relaxing in the bath when Olly was watching her in the evening. The tears would come for no apparent reason, leaving my face red and blotchy enough to usually have to explain to Olly that I didn’t know why I was crying.

As for Leah, she stayed much the same. I instinctively knew that wasn’t a good thing, and I had my mum to remind me too.
“She doesn’t pay much attention to anything, does she?”
“Shouldn’t she be holding her head up on her own by now?”
“I know she doesn’t cry much, but have you heard her laugh yet?”

There was nothing mum said that hadn’t already crossed my mind. Not least the fact that my baby didn’t seem to ever look at me, unless I physically turned her face in my direction. She had almost no interest in toys, silly noises I made, stupid faces I pulled, or songs I sang to her. If I playfully pushed a fluffy toy against her face, she made no attempt to push it away. I didn’t like the feeling I had, and told Olly I was going back to see the GP.

The doctor I saw that time was an elderly lady. Like many of my neighbours, she was originally from Poland. She listened sypathetically, gave Leah a good examination, then told me she would write to the County Children’s Hospital, and ask them to arrange an appointment for me. As I was leaving, I must have looked as worried as I felt. She put her hand on my shoulder and smiled. “Early days yet, my dear. She will probably be fine”.

Olly had a lot on at work, with the imminent publication of the supposedly eagerly-anticipated autobigraphy of a famous actress. He had looked at me wide-eyed when I confessed I had never heard of her. I didn’t want to add to his concerns by saying too much about the visit to the GP, so I just told him she had referred us to the hospital for checks. Whether he didn’t want to think too much about it, or he was just overwhelmed with work, he didn’t ask me anything else.

That Sunday morning, something else happened. Olly cuddled up to me, and I realised he was expecting sex. In all fairness, he had been incredibly patient, and did as much as he could to help me when he wasn’t at work. I shocked myself by suddenly being aware that I hadn’t even missed sex, let alone thought about it. I had to stop him though. I reminded him that I had never been on the pill, and that if he wanted to continue, he would need to buy some condoms. There was no way in the world I was going to risk getting pregnant again so soon, even though it was a longshot.

The thought of driving to find a shop open that sold condoms then coming back to take up where he left off proved to be a passion-killer that morning. He said he would get some in the city next week.

Leah was four months old when the appointment letter arrived. She still didn’t hold her head up, or giggle and laugh, or move herself around when I put her down on the play-mat. I was due to see some kind of specialist, in eight days time. I spoke to Olly about it, and his reaction upset me, to be honest. “Will you be alright to drive there, Ang? I can’t keep asking for time off with all that’s going on at work just now”. I wanted to ask why he didn’t care enough about his daughter’s development to come to the appointment. I wanted to get damn angry, and have it out with him.

But I didn’t.

One thing I had to admit, the new jumbo-sized car made life easier. The comfortable seat, high driving position, and not having to change gear made it a breeze to drive. I did the fifteen mile drive to the Children’s Hospital in just twenty minutes. It was so much easier driving in the direction away from the city, than into it.

The doctor was a woman with a strong South African accent that made me have to concentrate on what she was saying. As well as a full examination of Leah, she also watched her on the floor, and her interaction with toys, as well as with me. But there were no obvious medical tests. No blood test, no monitors, no scans or x-rays. After what felt like a long time in the big room, she pressed her hands together and started to tell me her conclusions.

Despite being embarrassed at having to ask her to repeat some words because of her accent, I got the gist of what she was telling me, and when she got to the end of her little speech, I certainly understood what she said then. Accent or not.

“Of course, Angela, we kinnot rool ett Brine Dimige”.

When the doctor asked me if I had any questions, I was still in a daze. I had a hundred questions of course, maybe more. But I just shook my head. She said that I would get another appointment when Leah was six months old, as she would be able to tell more by then.

Sitting in the car in the car park, I couldn’t bring myself to turn the key to start it. I didn’t cry, I just felt numb.

On the way home, I started to think about having to tell Olly what she had said. Then there were my parents and brother, the few friends and former colleagues that bothered to stay in touch, and Olly’s sister in Canada. I decided we should not say anything to anyone until after the next appointment, and that was what I would discuss with Olly when he got home.

He was so casual about it, I wanted to hit him. “Well she said she couldn’t rule out brain damage. She didn’t say Leah has it. Maybe she’s just a late developer? I think we should give it more time, and I definitely agree we shouldn’t say anything to anyone else about this for now”. With that, he turned on the television to watch the evening news, and it was all I could do to stop myself screaming hysterically at him.

I went upstairs with Leah, and sat in her room for two hours, staring at her.

There were two ways I could deal with this in my own head. I could adopt a ‘why me’ attitude, cry about it, feel hard done by, and probably end up resenting my child at some stage. Or I could stay strong, and deal with it. Whatever else happened, I couldn’t love her any the less. And none of it was her fault. I decided I would cope. I would not allow the negative thoughts to intrude on my mind, and would be Leah’s mum, through thick and thin.

The second letter from the hospital arrived sooner than I had expected, and gave me an appointment for exactly three months after the first one. At least they were efficient, and I wasn’t going to have to resort to phoning up to check. I started to do some research too. Meanwhile, I took her in for her booster jabs, and grabbed a few leaflets while I was at the doctor’s.

Two days before the hospital appointment, I had a checklist written down. All the things Leah should be able to do by now.

Roll from her back to her tummy
Sit up with support
Be able to get into a crawling position
Grasp a toy using both hands at once
Reach a small object using her finger and pick it up using her thumb and all fingers
Pick up a small toy with one hand and pass it to the other
Play with her feet when laying on her back
Hold her hands up to be lifted
Make sounds like ‘Da’, ‘ga’, ‘ka’
Squeal and laugh
Like to look at herself in a mirror

Eleven things. Simple enough things that any baby should be doing at six months old. Checking them off against my close observation of Leah made for depressing reading. I could only confirm ‘Making sounds’. Leah said “Gah”. It was all she ever said, and it just came out at random, never in response to anything I was doing with her or saying to her. She said the same thing to Olly when he was holding her, and he had joked about changing her name to ‘Gah’.

I didn’t think that was remotely funny.

Arriving at the hospital for the six-month check, I was forewarned, and forearmed. I had toughened myself up over the last ten weeks, and had a new focus. As expected, the South African doctor went through the motions of assessing those eleven checks, though she did them without telling me what she was doing. Then someone else came into the room, and introduced herself as Polly. She went through much the same routine with Leah after the doctor had left the room, though she spoke to me all the time, explaining what she was doing, and why.

When she seemed to have finished her examination, I came right out and asked. her. Is it brain damage? Was it caused by oxygen deprivation at birth? Can anything be done? Polly looked very sympathetic as she listened to me. Then she told me what she thought.

“It is still too early to tell, Angela. But I think you have to prepare yourself for some severe developmental issues”.

After what Polly had said about Leah, I was stil strong, and determined to not only make Olly face facts, but also to tell the family what to expect. The last thing I was going to need was my mum saying things like “She should be doing that by now”. To be honest, I was rather relieved. Now I could stop worrying about what might have been wrong with my baby, and deal with what was going to be wrong with her as she got older.

Driving home, I pondered the reality of ‘severe developmental issues’. Walking might come late. Speech and communication could be limited. Vision and hearing might be impaired; either, or both. Feeding, safety around the home, all the expected problems were going to be twice as hard to deal with. Maybe ten times as hard. And what about schooling?

I stopped there. I was getting ahead of myself.

Another check-up in three more months, more depressing lists of things that she might not be able to do by then. Strange how I took some comfort from that dire diagnosis. The fact that Leah didn’t laugh, didn’t attempt to communicate, didn’t focus on me, or enjoy play. I had thought that was all about me, that I was doing something wrong. Now I had some kind of diagnosis that exonerated me from blame, I actually felt more positive.

It was all presented to Olly after dinner. I let him enjoy his food first, raging inside that he had forgoten to ask how the check-up had gone. I knew he was feeling that ‘breadwinner’ responsibility, and at a particularly busy time for him at work. But if he thought he was just going to leave everything else for me to deal with, he was very much mistaken.

His first reaction was to well up, and I thought he might cry. But he swallowed hard, and set his jaw. “Right then, Ang. We will deal with that, we can do it. I’m going to ring my sister now, and tell her. But I will leave your parents to you if that’s okay”. I was greatly relieved. I don’t know what I had been expecting, but it hadn’t been him finding his strength again.

Olly’s sister had worked as a trained physiotherapist in hospitals. Now she was semi-retired, she worked privately from home doing sports injuries and back pains, that kind of thing. She was immediately one hundred percent positive, and moments after finishing the call with Olly, she was firing off emails to me, with links to all kinds of organisations, therapists in Britain, self-help ideas, and groups that got together to help each other. It was early days of course, but it felt good to have things to latch onto.

While I was feeding Leah, Olly was online ordering an expensive home CCTV system that he could set up in her room. We could watch it live on a laptop, and record it to watch later too. He thought that being able to see her when we were not in the room might give us some tips on what she did in there when she was awake. He told me to get an email address from Polly too, in case she wanted him to email some footage once it was up and running.

By the time we went to bed that night, I felt better than I had on any single day since Leah was born.

Instead of phoning my parents, I decided to drive over with Leah and tell them the next morning. Ronnie would be at work, so they could fill him in later. But I wanted to do it face to face, as I had to ask my mum something. I was going to ask for her help. For the first time since I had left school.

Her first reaction was denial. “Far too early to say, Angela. Why have they worried you with that, when she is still so young? How can they possibly tell so much from what they have seen? Surely they won’t be able to tell much until she is at least one?” I raised my hand to stop her. Dad put his head in his hands, so I knew he got it. I told mum that she had to listen instead of talking. Her only grandchild was going to have issues. Even at the mildest end of the scale, she had to face facts that Leah was not going to be a normal baby. And in the worst-case scenario, I was going to be needing a lot of support.

My dad walked over and put his arm around me.

Although Olly started to help out more, he also retreated into technology in what seemed to me to be a form of escape. The smaller third bedroom was kitted out like an office already, but he seemed intent on making it into a kind of module like something from a futuristic film. Spending money because he had it to spend, a new Apple computer arrived, with a combined printer/scanner/copier that was placed next to it on the new metal desk he bought from IKEA. The camera that watched Leah in bed was soon replaced by one that had an infra-red capability, so we didn’t need to leave a light on in her room.

As the nine-month appointment approached, I was keeping a diary of what I had noticed Leah could, and could not, do.

Saying actual words.
That was still a definite ‘No’. She only ever said “Gah”.
Crawling.
No. But at least this meant she wasn’t investigating cupboards or switches.
Eating proper food in addition to milk.
That was a ‘Yes’. She ate or drank anything I put in her mouth. But she didn’t hold it if I placed it in her hand.
Pincer-grip with fingers.
No.
Teething.
She was getting her first teeth, but never seemed to be in pain. She certainly wasn’t crying.
Communication by gesture. Clapping, waving, and so on.
No.
Clinging on to soft toys or blankets for comfort.
No. She dropped anything I gave her.

I gave up after that, as I wanted to stay positive. Her weight was good, she looked healthy, and she slept well. She took her feeds, and rarely cried.
All of those were taken as good signs, and I acted as much like a normal mum as possible. I played with her, spoke to her, sang her songs, and interacted with her whenever she was awake. Even though she never responded in the way other babies might have done, I made the best of my time with my little girl. And when Olly got in from work, he did the same.
At least for a while.

The next appointment was with Polly. I showed her my diary, and we discussed the fact that Leah should be crawling at the very least, and making more sounds than an occasional “Gah”. The general health check went well, so we concentrated on the development issues. Polly tried to stay upbeat, suggesting things might change once Leah passed her first birthday. But she had to agree when I said that would always leave her behind other kids of the same age, whatever happened later on. She didn’t seem very interested in Olly’s idea of sending her CCTV footage of Leah at night. I supposed she had enough to do, without scrolling through hours of that. But she gave me the email address anyway.

That night, Olly had to work late, so I ate alone. When he got home with a pizza, he remembered to ask how it had gone, and showed great interest in Polly being so positive. Nodding enthusiastically as he wolfed down the lukewarm meal.

But I couldn’t shake the idea that he was just pretending to care.

Two weeks later on the Sunday, we made the trip to my parents’ house for dinner. Ronnie was out, and dad winked as he told me, “He stopped over. Got a new girlfriend”. Mum was quick to jump in “Yes, and she’s thirty-four, and divorced”. Her expression and tone let us all know she didn’t approve. Ronnie was twenty-seven, and should probably have left home years earlier. But life was easy, with mum doing the cooking, and his washing and ironing too. He was not a man of ambition. He had left school at seventeen with two ‘O’ levels, and got a job with a big DIY shop chain. But he worked in the head office, in the ordering department, and his main aim in life was to own a souped-up GT car.

Now he had met Lauren, the sister of one of his work colleagues. And he was head over heels in lust. And as for dad saying he had a ‘new’ girlfriend, well other than two weeks with a girl up the street called Emma Thoroughgood when he was thirteen, I think we could rightly say that Lauren was his only girlfriend. I went through the motions of telling my parents some more about Leah’s clinic visit, concentrating on the positives. Mum latched onto that too. “I told you it was too soon to say. You wait and see. Give her time”

In bed that night, I turned over to find an empty space next to me. Wondering where Olly was, I got up and walked out onto the landing. He was standing in the open doorway of Leah’s room, holding a small video camera that I didn’t even know he had bought. When he saw me, he turned and grinned. I walked across to him, and saw what he was filming.

Leah was standing up in her cot, holding the sides for support.

As I watched, tears welling up in my eyes, Leah dropped back onto the mattress. Olly stopped filming, and I ran into the room, scooping her up into my arms. Olly was grinning, his hair sticking up like some mad professor. “I heard her doing some loud ‘Gahs’ over the monitor, and came in to check on her. When I saw her standing, I went to get the camera from the study”. Calling the fitted-out boxroom a study was a stretch, but I let that go, saying she must have been hungry. I sat down in the chair and started to feed her. As I did that, Olly sent his sister a text message telling her.

I couldn’t stop crying. But at least they were happy tears.

At a reasonable hour the next morning, I rang Polly to tell her the news. But I had to leave a message, as she wasn’t in yet. When she rang back an hour later, she let me blab on excitedly, waiting until I finished speaking. “Angela, you mustn’t read too much into that at the moment, don’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen again today”. Talk about a downer, she crashed my mood with one sentence. But I took her warning seriously enough not to bother to ring my parents and tell them.

The temptation to hold her up in the cot and see if she did it again was overwhelming. But Olly was at work, and I had grocery shopping to do. I got ready, and then loaded Leah into the car seat before throwing her baby bag into the back. I never went anywhere without that bag. Using the parent and child spaces in the supermarket car park was a boon. They tended to be closer to the shop, and the extra width of them made life easier. I had become something of a busybody, very protective of those spaces. If I saw someone trying to park in one when they obviously had no baby or child with them, I would walk over and stare them out.

With the removable baby seat wedged into the trolley, I wandered around the aisles flinging stuff in. I had never been an organised shopper, someone with a list, and meal plans. I just got whatever I liked the look of, and thought about actual dinners later. That meant I normally bought too much stuff, but what the hell.

Fully-laden, and looking for a free checkout, I stood behind an elderly woman who only had a few items on the conveyor belt. She turned to look at Leah, and smiled. “How old is she, about nine months?” I told her she was almost spot on. Then she nodded like some wise sage. “Shame about her, though I’m sure you are coping well”. I would like to have replied with an aggrieved ‘What are you talking about?’ or something similar. But the look on her face told me that she could see there was something wrong with my baby.

I said nothing, and stood with my face flushed until she paid and left.

For some reason, I didn’t want to go home. I took my shopping bags out to the car, grabbed the baby bag, then carried Leah in her seat to the coffee place in the row of smaller shops opposite. I went into the baby changing room in there and changed and fed her. Then I bought myself a cappuccino, and a huge chocolate muffin. I felt a desperate need for some woman to come up to us and compliment me on my lovely daughter. But nobody did, so I stared out of the window until my coffee got cold.

When I had put the shopping away, leaving out the stuff I was using for the meal later, I could resist the temptaion no longer. I picked Leah up off the playmat where she was lying staring at the ceiling, and carried her up to her cot. I stood her up inside, and placed her tiny hands around the wooden railing. She fell onto her back with a “Gah”. I did it again, talking to her encouragingly. She fell again. I thought the third time might be lucky.

But it wasn’t.

Olly got in at a reasonable time, and as he walked through the door, he was beaming. “How did it go today? Was she crawling or standing?”

I told him I was cooking his favourite for dinner, Pesto Chicken.

Olly saw through my bluff of course. Ignoring his question, busy cooking his favourite meal, and a glass of Valpolicella already poured for him. “So what’s happened, Ang?” I told him what Polly had said, and about trying to stand Leah up. About the old woman in the shop who instinctively knew something was wrong with her, and the fact that nobody ever came up to me to say something nice about her when I was out.

People always did that with babies. At least they always did until I had one. I didn’t cry. I was fed up with crying.

“So we get on with things as they are, and stop expecting good stuff. Then we won’t be disappointed. My sister replied by text saying much the same thing as Polly. It might have been a one-off, something instinctive because she was needing a feed. If we have to cope with the fact that life with Leah is going to be different to our expectations, then we will cope”.

Okay for him to say that, he was out at work all day. I didn’t say that, just thought it.

I had to have a conversation with Rosa too. She knew enough about babies to realise that Leah should have been scooting around the floor and getting into mischief by now. But to her credit, she never mentioned anything. I told her the provisional diagnosis, and she crossed herself, mumbling a little prayer thing in Polish. In English she said, “God will have wanted her to be like this. God will look after her”. I knew she meant well, but I almost told her to cut the crap.

A phone call from Ronnie surprised me. He wanted to come over that night, and bring his new girlfriend to meet us. “And I have something I want to talk to you about, Ang. Well, ask your advice on really”. Ronnie had never asked me about anything before, so I guessed it must be something serious. I told him to come after eight, so we could have dinner first. I wasn’t up to preparing a nice meal for four people just yet.

When Olly got in, I fed him something quickly, apologising that Ronnie and Lauren were expected within the hour. He rarely had much to say to my brother. Their interests were very different, and Ronnie didn’t even follow football, so they couldn’t talk about that.

On the dot, the doorbell rang. Leah was awake, and lying on her play mat. Olly answered, and they came in carrying two bottles of wine, and a huge bunch of flowers. That must have been Lauren’s doing, as Ronnie would never have thought to bring anything. I was impressed. Lauren was very attractive. Smartly dressed too, with a wonderful short bob haircut. I could have laughed out loud when I saw Olly trying not to look at the shapely legs protruding from a seriously short skirt.

My first thought was to wonder what the hell she was doing with my hopeless brother. But then siblings rarely see any physical attraction in each other. Too many years of being assailed by the smell of his socks, or arguing about who used the bathroom first.

But really, why did she like him? She was such a knockout, even I fancied her.

They went through the motions of taking about Leah, as Olly got some drinks and put the flowers into a vase. Lauren made the right noises about liking our house, and lamenting the fact that her and her ex hadn’t had any children. She sat next to Ronnie on the sofa, acting as relaxed as if they had been a 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.
https://fromcavewalls.wordpress.com/about-this-blog/
It is a long read, at 40,116 words.

Phineas.

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”.

PART TWO

Julian.

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