SEPTEMBER 2015

The Transplant

Everybody concerned all agreed that the surgery had been a success. John’s wife Nina was pleased that her husband, already burdened with numerous problems now possessed what other people had and that daily life would be better for both of them. The counsellor was relieved that the recipient appeared to be placid and content with the outcome of the operation, happy and looking forward to the future. The surgeon, realising that he had produced a ‘first’ was proud of his patient and eager to show him off to the medical world and raise his status with his peers.

And John was overjoyed that he had two functioning hands at the ends of his arms again. So what if one wasn’t perfect, it never would be, according to the surgeon, but used with care, in spite of its obvious limitations his replacement limb would enable John to be seen as normal.

Naturally the donor couldn’t comment but his family were comforted with the knowledge that something good had resulted from the fatal accident at the saw mill on that tragic Monday.

On return home to England a month later John and Nina attended appointments with various specialists, curious medical professionals and relatives and neighbours. His own GP, on seeing the results of the surgery was astounded and called in his colleagues to look at John who was only too pleased to demonstrate how his ‘new hand’ was working. A local paper got hold of the story and the chief reporter and camera man came to interview John and take pictures for their front page. As a couple they were asked to appear on daytime TV but Nina was reluctant and turned down the offer, stating that John wasn’t a person to be prodded and looked at by millions, and besides on the date in question a day trip had been organised by Johns’ gardening club and he was determined to go. John was beginning to cope again in his limited way and had grown tired with the now unwelcome media presence in his life. Ok, so the new hand didn’t match the other one exactly but it was better than no hand at all.

First thing in the morning he would lift the hand up and stroke the warm pink skin, wiggle the fingers in delight feeling his muscles and tendons working. In the bathroom he occasionally attempted to shave, brush his teeth and use a comb but the results weren’t right somehow and he returned to using his ‘old hand’ as he called it. Dressing proved somewhat challenging, however doing up shoelaces and putting on his wristwatch although time consuming enabled John to achieve success after weeks of practise with Nina looking on benignly. What he found puzzling and couldn’t understand was the hostile reaction from their pets. On bending down to stroke the tabby it would hiss and spit and try to scratch his hand and when attaching the lead to the terriers collar the dog growled and showed his teeth. John innocently put it down to the antiseptic lotion that his new hand had to be smeared with daily and didn’t give it a second thought.

It’s at this point that I come into the story, as a medical inquiry agent it was my job to look into and investigate a suspect surgeons work and it so happened that Johns’ surgeon was one of these. However, the fact that the work had been carried out abroad posed a problem and need careful research. A Strasbourg court had found Mr Ludwig guilty in his absence of acting unethically and illegally but so far he had evaded ‘capture’ I was determined to bring him to justice and visiting John was the first step of that journey.

Having arranged a visit to their house it was Nina, his wife that opened the door and quickly took me into a living room. Fixing me with a stare she said, “Mr Dexter, before you meet John, I want to tell you that my husband is content with the result of the operation. Nobody else would be, but John is, and is grateful that he now possesses two functioning hands, where he once only had one. They may not be like yours or mine but John doesn’t see it like that.” She paused, smiled and not waiting for a reaction, said, “I’ll take you to see him now.”

We went outside into a pleasant garden where John could be seen standing near a wooden shed. Nina called out, “John dear, it’s Mr Dexter from the solicitors come to see you.” He turned and began to shuffle up the path smiling broadly at both of us holding out his arms in front of him. “Well, Mr Dexter from the solicitors, what’s your opinion of my new hand?” He asked in a playful manner as the transplanted limb hovered in front of my face. “It’s not perfect by any means but it’ll do me and compared to what I had before this is miles better.”

I looked down at the swollen fingers on the donor hand and asked to touch them. Surprisingly enough the skin was warm and the numerous creases and wrinkles gave the limb an everyday look. Bits of dirt were present under the nails showing that the donor, like John, had been a manual worker. He saw me looking and casually remarked, “It seems as if I have become a nail biter overnight, doesn’t it?”

I laughed politely, not sure of what my reaction should be and turned the hand over to look at the palm. It was healthily pink, slightly wrinkled with numerous fading scar lines and the wrist area appeared to be healing well. It was when I took both of his hands in mine and attempted to rotate them that the horror of what was in front of me dawned. John would never be able to hold both of his hands palm upwards simply because the surgeon had neglected to attach the donor limb on the correct way. John saw my discomfort and laughed, “My, you’re quick Mr Dexter, it can take some people quite a time before they realise what’s in front of them. Isn’t that right Nina?” His wife nodded her head enthusiastically, “Yes dear, but that’s his job and I expect he’ll be wanting to take some photos, won’t you Mr Dexter, and how about a cup of tea whilst you’re doing it?”

“That’s a good idea, thank you, I’ll go and get the camera from my car, won’t be long.” How I found my way to the parked vehicle I don’t know. I sat in the driver’s seat pretending to adjust the lenses waiting for my arms and legs to stop shaking, my shocked brain attempting to process the meaning of what I had just witnessed. How on earth could that have happened I asked myself, attaching a donated hand onto the receiving arm in totally the wrong position? It felt like something from a gothic novel, but this wasn’t fiction, it had happened and this evil surgeon was ‘out’ there somewhere, perhaps performing on another victim.

Making my way back to the house I looked up to see John smiling and waving his transplanted hand out of the window. “Look Mr Dexter, look at what I can do!”

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There was a 500 word limit for the following story.

THE NIGHTINGALE

“I don’t want to,” Fanny told John emphatically.

“But it’ll take much longer going by road and it’s getting dark,” he replied.

“I’m not afraid of the dark!” she retorted.

“What is it then?” John asked gently.

Fanny was silent.

“Ah, I know. It’s me isn’t it?”

Fanny studied the grass with her foot.

“Those stories,” he said, with exasperation. “Look at me, Fanny, have I ever forced my attention on, or dishonoured any girl?”

“No,” she murmured.

“Come, then. Let’s cut through Barker’s Wood. There’s still plenty of light and I promise you’ll be safe. Anyways, I’m loaded down with all these things you bought at the market.”

“Yes, and thank you. I don’t know how I’d have coped on my own. Very well, John, lead the way.”
Presently they arrived at a clearing alongside a stream.

“Let’s sit a while,” he said. “My arms ache.”

He lay down and looked up at the twilight sky.

“I love this spot,” he said.

“Why? Is this where you bring all your girls?” she said mockingly.

“No, and you’re the only person I’ve ever brought here. It’s where I come to think and write my poetry. I’ve always got paper and pencil with me,” and he patted his jacket.

Just then a nightingale burst into song.

“What a beautiful sound she makes,” whispered Fanny.

“It’s a ‘he’,” John said. “Only the cock bird sings and at night it’s singing for a mate. To me it’s melancholy, so full of loneliness and yearning.”
Suddenly John sat up and resting on one elbow looked at her.

“Fanny,” he said quietly.

She said nothing, but turned her head to him. Perhaps it was moon shadow but to him her eyes smiled.

Pushing himself onto his knees he took her hand.

“Fanny, we’ve known each other since we were children. I loved you then and still do. I’ve always been scared to tell you in case you rejected me. But now that bird has given me courage.”

He took a breath.

“Fanny, will you marry me?”

She stayed quiet for several heartbeats, then, still holding his hand, asked,

“Can I trust you John?”

Letting go her hand, he stood up looking towards the nightingale. Abruptly he knelt beside her again and took out his paper and pencil and wrote:

I, John Holbury, do love Fanny Dean and want to marry her.  

He impaled the note on a blackthorn spine. He wrote it again and launched it into the stream. Finally, he shouted the words into the dusk.

“There,” he said, laughing. “But you don’t have to answer now. Come, we must be going.”

They forded the stream and climbed out of the wood.

He stopped.

“Listen,” he said.

“I can’t hear anything,” she replied.

“Exactly,” he said. “The nightingale’s stopped singing. I wonder if he’s found his mate.”

“I do hope so,” she said, putting her arm through his.

Together they pushed through the fragrant hay meadows towards the twinkling lights of the village.

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JULY 2014

For July we picked at random a line from a book. The line contained the words “massacre in the wood”. This became the topic for the month.

1. Massacre in the Woods

An old priest walked down to the woods last century
And encountered a gruesome surprise
His terrier whined and scratched at the leaves;
Torn clothing, dried blood and the flies
There had been a massacre before his eyes

Tossed like tailors dummies with broken arms and legs
Their dismembered corpses lay half buried by a stream
Three lives had been extinguished by the slash of a butcher’s knife
But savagery is seldom silent, had nobody heard them scream?

Six vacant eyes stared up at the man
Their faces tinged with a bluish grey
Each wore a red bead necklace as the autumn heat pressed down
The bodies swollen, and in the air the foul stench of decay

He murdered in the woods that day, fuelled by drugs and vodka
Three innocent men from the village
With a sharp blade in his hand he wreaked his revenge,
These men had defiled his only daughter

The old priest wailed and clutched at his heart
As he slumped to the ground in despair
To find such horrors on an evening like this
With trembling hands and silver crucifix he offered up a prayer

And every year on a certain day
Wild poppies appear by the stream
The woods fall silent, as if to remember
The terrible act, the mindless atrocity
That had taken place in those woods in September

2. The Massacre in the Woods.

Columbine and her sister Jasmine were happy youngsters. Their life was a simple one but they felt that they had all that they needed. They lived with their parents in a small, rather tumble down cottage which had a small plot where vegetables were grown. For the rest of their provisions their father foraged for wild berries, nuts and herbs. Their mother was skilled at producing tasty and nourishing meals from what they grew and what her husband gathered in the surrounding countryside. The nearby Shoebury Wood provided a rich store of food for the table, but also offered the two sisters their own adventure playground. They spent many happy hours there and when the weather was warm they delighted in stripping off their clothes and swimming naked in the small brook that gurgled and chuckled its way through a sun dappled glade. They didn’t lack friends either for there were others who had made their homes in the wood and surrounding countryside. It was a fairly remote area with little intrusion from roads and the accompanying traffic. All in all it was a peaceful place.

The change to the surroundings came gradually. So gradually that it took a while before anyone noticed. Mr Hoo was the first to notice something amiss. Trees were being cleared on the far side of the wood and a wire fence had made an appearance around the perimeter. He reported his findings to a worried Mr Campion, the childrens’ father.
“I don’t know what is going on,” he said, “but it’s worrying. I hope our tranquillity and way of life is not going to be spoiled.”
“Let’s not get too worried for the moment. No-one has threatened us yet. But you are right, we must keep an eye on the situation.”
Neither of them discussed the matter with their respective families. No need to cause alarm just yet.

As it happened it was Columbine and Jasmine who were the next to bring bad news to their father.
“Father, Father,” they breathlessly shouted, “the brook is drying up. There’s hardly any water in it and we couldn’t swim properly.”
Their father put down the spade that he was using to dig potatoes for dinner and said, “right we’d better go and have a look. But it’s probably just an early drought, there hasn’t been a lot of rain in the last little while.”
He wasn’t convinced by his explanation but didn’t want to cause undue alarm. The three of them set off into the wood to look at the brook. When they got there they found other inhabitants of the wood already there, all looking worried. Mr and Mrs Hoo were adamant that they had never seen it this low, and they were among the oldest inhabitants. Little Mrs Brown became quite agitated, “What shall we do? If there is no water nothing will grow properly and then we shall starve.”
Mr Campion comforted her. “I’m sure it won’t come to that, my dear. But we must all stick together. There is always strength in numbers.”
“It’s all very well for you. You are strong. I am a poor widow. What will become of me?” and she began to weep.
“We will look after you. Don’t upset yourself.” He turned to Mr Hoo. “You and I must put our heads together and discover what is happening. Perhaps we should follow the brook upstream to see if there is an obstruction.”
“Good idea, but it’s too late to do anything now. I suggest we all go home and try not to worry. You and I should meet at first light and set off. Agreed?”
“Certainly. I’ll meet you under the great oak tree at dawn.” He turned to the assembled company. “Go home now. Try not to alarm the womenfolk and the children. I’m sure there is a logical explanation.” He said this with more conviction than he felt.

The following morning, with a pack on his back containing a flask of tea and a packet of food, he left the house. His two daughters had heard him get up and begged to be taken along. Their mother had clipped them round the ear and sent them back to bed.
“Take care,” she whispered as she saw her husband walk away.

It was an anxious day as they waited for their husbands to return. In fact it was nearly dusk by the time the weary pair came up the path. Mrs Campion had suggested that Mrs Hoo spend the day with her, but she had declined as she couldn’t trust leaving her youngsters on their own. Mr Hoo said that he should get home to his family immediately but thanked Mr Campion for his company.
“We need to tell our neighbours about what we have discovered but this will have to wait until tomorrow. I will get messages circulated, my youngsters can help.”
“Well done Mr Hoo. We will meet under the great oak tree as soon as possible.”

Mrs Campion, Columbine and Jasmine could hardly wait to hear what had been discovered.
“It’s not good,” Mr Campion started. “We had to go a long way upstream. The brook is in the process of being diverted through a pipe which leads into an artificial pond. Mr Hoo can travel faster than me so continued to scout around. There is a large fence being constructed and several enclosures have been erected. We can’t figure out what exactly is going on, but it’s serious. I fear we may have to move.”

His family were horrified. Where would they go? How would they get there, wherever it was? And what would await them?

The following morning their immediate neighbour Mr Black came knocking on the door. He had bad news.
“I was up at dawn,” he reported, “and went right round the edge of the wood. There are men working all the way round, erecting this huge fence. I know what’s going on now because I spotted pheasants being unloaded into one of the enclosures. They are going to rear pheasants for the shoot.”
“Where does that leave us? the Campions asked in unison.
“Depends what they have decided. We might be able to stay but the lack of water is a problem and it looks like the brook is going to dry up in our part of the wood.”

Later that day they all gloomily assembled under the great oak tree. They listened in silence as first Mr Hoo and then Mr Campion told what they had discovered. Then Mr Black addressed the company. There were gasps and cries of despair. Eventually it was agreed that they would see if it was possible to remain. As someone pointed out pheasants were food and the vegetarians amongst them would be able to plunder the nuts and grain.

So they returned to their homes but the general mood was one of pessimism. Their fears were well founded and the disaster came quickly.

It was a sunny afternoon when the peace was shattered by an hysterical Mrs Brown rushing up to the Campions’ door. It took a while for Mr Campion to understand what she was saying. By then several of the neighbours, hearing the commotion, came to see what had happened.
“It’s terrible, you must come. They have taken some of the Black youngsters and others that I don’t know. Come quickly and see.”

The assembled company followed the distraught little Mrs Brown into the wood and they came to the glade where the brook was now only a trickle. In the middle of the clearing a grizzly sight met them. A gibbet had been erected and from it hung the lifeless bodies of three of the Black fledglings along with two young fox cubs and a selection of rats and mice.

There was a stunned silence until Hoo and Campion took charge of the situation.
“Get the children out of here,” they shouted. “There is nothing for us to do but leave. Back to the great oak tree. Now.”

As the shock wore off, anger took hold. “What have we ever done to the men, why do they have to destroy everything they touch? Why can’t they leave us in peace?” was the recurring cry.
“This is getting us nowhere,” shouted Mr. Hoo over the noise. “We need to evacuate, and the sooner the better.”
“Yes but where to?” was the question. Mr Campion stepped forward to address the crowd.
“I remember an old uncle of mine telling me of a land far away where animals and gnomes can live in peace without the interference of men. Mr Hoo, you fly far and wide. Would it be possible for you to scout it out and report back?”
The owl smiled, and said “Of course. But I hope you can give me directions.”

Several days passed before Mr Hoo returned. “It is a wonderful place. There is a big forest called Roveny Forest. I talked to some of the locals and they have a good lifestyle. And Mr Campion, you and your gnome family will get on very well with the local piskies. They can’t wait to meet you.”
“Piskies, you say. I’ve heard of them. I look forward to it. And now we must all prepare. Those of you who are weaker and older can be carried by our larger bird friends. And Mrs Brown, we shall look after you.” And he smiled at the little red squirrel.

And so it was that after a long and weary journey the inhabitants of Shoebury Wood finally reached the safety of Roveny Forest in the wonderful land of Kernow where they were greeted by the locals and made welcome.

The Hoos’ raised several young owls; the Blacks raised many young blackbirds and Mrs Brown met an elderly grey squirrel widower. As for the Campions’; well they were the last gnomes left in England but their daughters Columbine and Jasmine fell in love with handsome piskies and raised some beautiful bi-lingual youngsters, who kept alive the gnome history and blended it with piskie folklore.

Pat Stearn July 2014.

3. Massacre of The Woods.

It’s thirty years since I emigrated to North Island in New Zealand. At the time it was a very big wrench, leaving many friends behind, the place of my birth, England’s beautiful countryside, picturesque coasts and many historic buildings and towns. It was important for me to be closer to my children and grandchildren who had emigrated a few years prior to me.

Over the past years I have daydreamed about England, especially through the seasons, my thoughts being embellished with the words from the poets, “Home Thoughts From Abroad” by Robert Browning, William Wordsworth’s “The Daffodils” and “The Donkey” by C. K. Chesterton, having had to learn and recite this in church at Easter time, I must have been about eight years old at the time. This fantasising must stop, so a decision has been made to go and visit England for two months.

As the plane touched down at Manchester Airport a feeling of trepidation and excitement came over me. What will I find? Changes will have inevitable taken place. It is like stepping out of a time capsule, have I been transported back in time or has the old town been completely modernised out of recognition and brought up to date to the twenty first century, will eight weeks furlough be long enough for me to explore?

Having picked up the hire car at the airport, I drove to my home town of Birkenhead, sadly not through the villages of Wirral as planned as these have all been bypassed by the M56 and M53 motorway, quicker but not as pretty. On reaching the small hotel in
Oxton Village, a five minute walk from my old address, I was shown to a very comfortable room which overlooked the front garden. After unpacking and a nice refreshing shower there was just time for a short rest before supper. Feeling tired and jet lagged the thought of a good nights sleep was very welcoming.

After a good nights sleep and a hearty English breakfast, it was time to start exploring! What a beautiful day, sunny and warm with a slight breeze, just the weather for a country walk through fields and woods, armed with a camera sketchbook and notepad, packed lunch and waterproof in my backpack, not forgetting an up-to-date map and of course mobile phone, a sturdy pair of walking shoes on my feet I was ready for the road.

Walking through Oxton Village, I was very surprised to see that very little had changed. It is a quaint village, with one main shopping street, having typical Village shops on either side, and a very nice Village pub. Having reached the end of the shopping area, the road continued up past old houses and cottages, with their beautiful gardens in full bloom, eventually meeting up with the main road, crossing this road brought me to the entrance of the Arno.

The Arno, a disused quarry, was turned into a recreation ground, originally owned by the Earl of Shrewsbury, who in 1910 handed over the deeds to Birkenhead Corporation, on the condition that they always kept it as a recreational park for the people of the borough. As I walked past the playing field, with the rocks and
overhanging trees, memories of childhood came flooding back, remembering the times I had playing here with my brother, also when my children were tiny and I brought them here to play. Birkenhead Council have kept their promise, and kept the area in good order, the rose garden in particular, where at this point I joined some elderly local people, we sat on the park bench chatting about times gone past, drinking in the fragrance from the roses.

Time to move on, continuing through the Arno to the two large fields where events are held throughout the summer, I came to the area that was once known as the Flat Lanes, which eventually led to Arrow Park, this was a public right of way across fields and woodland with the river Fender running through, Sadly, the whole area had been flattened and two housing estates had been built, the river still meandered through with another housing estate on the others side of its bank. Green fields and woodland gone forever, a massacre of the woods and green countryside.
The poem by Rudyard Kipling immediately springs to mind.

‘The Way Through the Woods’

They shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.

It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.

Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate,
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few)
You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods….
But there is no road through the woods.

Fortunately I still have my vivid memories of my childhood and courting days of the area, the wild flowers, small fishing ponds, birds singing in the tree tops and squirrels scurrying up the tree trunks in the woods. Gone but not forgotten.

Jackie Hannen July 2014.

4. A MASSACRE IN THE WOODS

It had been a very busy summer: tourists being fleeced, pockets being picked, drunken brawls, the usual thing every year. Now it was early autumn and I was relaxing with feet on desk and hat over eyes when there came a rapping on the door.
“Entrez!” I like to show off my knowledge of foreign languages.
“Come in!” I called after nobody appeared.
In hopped Sergeant Frogg (his peculiar gait being the result of a gunshot wound), saluted and took out his notebook.
“Inspector Hector, sir, some bodies have been discovered in Bigdark Wood.”
I flicked the hat out of my eyes, took my feet off the desk and let the chair fall forward so that in one fluid movement I was fully alert, elbows on the desk and looking straight into the sergeant’s bulgy eyes.
“Details sergeant.”
“There’s more than one body, sir. We’re still digging and not sure if we’ve found them all but it looks certain they are all from the dwarf community, sir.”
“Dwarfs, eh? Thank you sergeant.”
Dwarfs. A very clannish and close-knit community. They have their own language, customs and laws. They work hard, play hard and sing a lot and are despised by many but I have nothing against them. As long as they keep to themselves and stay out of trouble, that’s all I ask.

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Constable Plod was overseeing the crime scene when I arrived.
“We’ve dug up seven bodies, sir,” he said nodding towards a row of small humps covered with handkerchiefs (dwarfs are pretty small, if you don‘t know). “We’re sure there aren’t any more.”
I walked over to one and lifted the cloth. The dwarf still wore the traditional red hat and his face was half covered by a shaggy grey beard. His eyes were closed and he looked peacefully asleep.
“No signs of violence, constable?”
“No, sir. Looks like they were already dead when they were put in this grave.”
I heard a cough and looked up to see a familiar face. It was Andy Axman and at his side was his dog, Lagotto.
“He found the bodies, sir,” said Plod.
“So what were you doing out here, Andy?” I said, strolling over to the man and patting his dog.
“Just exercising my dog, inspector. He was digging around, like he does, and he uncovered this lot. Well, not all of them, if you know what I mean.”
“Hmmm. Can you prove this? Was anyone with you?”
Axman was well known to us; petty stuff. He wasn’t a killer but I liked to wind him up.
By this time more of the force had turned up and I said to Axman,
“OK, go with the officers and make a statement.”
He turned to go.
“Oh, just one more thing,” I said. “Come here and empty your pockets.”
“Why?” he whined, “I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“Empty them!” I barked.
Shamefaced he produced half a dozen large black truffles.
“Tut, tut. Who’s been a naughty boy, then?”
If you don’t know, round here truffles, like sturgeon and swans, belong to the monarch and you need a royal permit to deal in them. I knew he didn’t have one.
“Hand them over,” I ordered.
I put them in my pocket, thinking that they’d make a tasty lunch. That bit’s off the record, do you hear? Capice?
“Constable!” I called and Plod stomped over to me. “Do you know anything about the victims?”
Plod had lived here all his life and knew nearly everything about everybody.
“Not a lot, sir. You know what dwarfs are like.”
I nodded and said,
“Tell me what you know.”
“Well, sir, they are brothers and own a gold mine in the Goddarn Hills.”
One of the forensic lads came up then.
“We’ve finished here, sir. Can we take the bodies away?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “Have you any idea how long they’ve been there and any cause of death?”
“They’ve not been here long; maybe not much earlier than midnight and there are no marks on the bodies. Could be natural causes or poisoning. We’ll know more after the post mortem and toxicology reports.”
“Thanks. Keep me informed, will you?”
I started walking to my car when constable Plod spoke up.
“Sir. There’s more.”
“Yes?” I said.
“They have a very unusual living arrangement. They share their home with a human. A young woman called White.”
“Do you know where they live?”
“Yes sir. A fair ways into the wood and we’ll have to walk, I’m afraid. There are no roads in these woods.”
“OK. Lead on McDuff.” I like to show off my knowledge of literature.
“It’s Plod, sir. Not McDuff. He’s in………”
“Alright, Plod, it was just my little joke.”
“Of course, sir.”
On the way Plod filled me in with what he knew. The deceased all had silly adjectival names, except for one who was probably the oldest. Just what White’s role in the household was was open to conjecture. Some said she was their housekeeper, others said sex was involved some way or another while others say she was the human face of their business. I must admit a bit of totty gives a far better PR image than a bunch of ugly hairy dwarfs.

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It was a dinky little house in the woods. Neat little front garden with a freshly painted picket fence, cheerful gingham curtains in the windows and just visible round the back, a washing line of little breeches and tiny underwear. All was very simple, pleasant and domestic. This Snow White (Plod had given me her full name) was obviously devoted to the dwarfs and for once I looked forward with great trepidation to breaking the bad news to her.
I was right. She sobbed, howled and wailed for ages until I began to think it was all a bit OTT. When the floods abated I questioned her gently.
“When did you last see them?”
“Last night, when they left for work.”
“They work nights, then?”
“Yes, all dwarfs prefer the darkness. They spend all their working hours in the dark mines and prefer travelling at night.”
“Did they have any enemies?”
“None that I know of. I’m just their housekeeper, they don’t discuss their business with me.” I looked around the room but could see nothing suspicious.
She continued, “Any letters or correspondence they get is sent to the mine and I suppose they keep their money there as I never see any here.”
“Don’t they pay you?”
“Not in money they don’t. They took me in when I was homeless and in return for housekeeping they let me stay. We’re completely self sufficient for food and fuel so money, or the lack of it, is no problem.”
“You said you were homeless. Where were you living before you came here?”
“I’m not entirely sure where I originally come from. For as long as I can remember I lived with the woodcutter’s family.”
“Andy Axman, by any chance?”
“Yes. Do you know him?”
“Oh yes, we know him well. It was he who found the bodies this morning.”
The mention of bodies produced another torrential fall of tears and I had to wait several minutes before she resumed her story. Constable Plod made us a cup of tea. Kind of him, but I’d have preferred something with a bit of a kick to it.
Snow White, sniffing now and then, continued.
“I stayed with Mr. Axman and his wife till around three years ago when I was about 14. It was then that he started interfering with me. I told his wife but she threw me out saying I was the one who’d been making advances. I wasn’t. Honestly.”
“So that’s when the dwarfs took you in?”
As soon as I said that I knew I’d made a mistake. The mention of the dwarfs set off the sprinklers again. I carried on when she was ready.
“You know nothing at all about your life before the Axmans?”
“No, not really. He used to say I was a princess and that I had a wicked step-mother who didn’t want me around. She told him to take me into the woods and kill me. He took pity on me instead and they raised me as their daughter.”
I pondered for a while on her story. It wasn’t particularly unusual. In these parts wicked step-parents are two a penny. I wondered.
“Have you ever received any death threats?”
She thought a bit and said,
“Not that I’m aware of.”
That’s a strange thing to say, I thought to myself. Surely if someone had made a death threat you’d certainly be aware of it. Anyway, it set off a little niggle in my brain. Maybe she wasn’t such the innocent that she made out to be.
“But there was one strange incident,” her voice interrupted my reverie. “Last year I bumped into a little old lady in the wood and she gave me half an apple. I don’t remember anything after that until I woke up in bed. The boys said they found me lying on the ground and carried me home. They reckoned I’d been poisoned and would have died if they hadn’t found me. It made me think about what Mr. Axman said about my step-mother. Would she still be after me? If it wasn’t for my dear little friends I’d be dead now.”
I gave her my handkerchief this time. She was in danger of de-hydrating with all this lachrymosity. It was also beginning to grate on me and I decided enough was enough.
I got up and gave her my card and said,
“Thank you Ms. White and I’m sorry for your losses.”
Then I hustled Plod out of the door before another tsunami of tears could engulf us.
“Phew, I’m glad to get out of there. And I don’t just mean all that wailing. Did you notice that smell, Plod? Like something’s dead in a cesspit of rotten cabbage.”
“That, sir, is the smell of dwarf tobacco and I suggest you take your suit to the dry cleaners this afternoon.”

xxxxxxxxxx

It was past lunchtime by now and the thought of the truffles made my mouth water. A quick call to the station confirmed that Axman was still there. I told them to hold him till I got back. There were questions I wanted to ask him.
“Tell me about Snow White?” was my first question to the woodcutter.
“What’cha want to know? I’ve not seen her for years, thank God.“
“I’m not interested in what you did or didn’t do to her. I want to know about her background. Where did she come from before you took her in?”
“She’s really the daughter of the king of Poundland and his first queen; the one that died young. He then married this harridan, beautiful, I grant you, but so greedy, vain and evil. So much so that she wanted to get rid of her step-daughter who was, even then as a baby, more beautiful than her. Well the bitch told me to go out and kill the babe. I couldn’t. I took her home and my wife and I raised her. Until, that is, when she came onto me one evening. When I wouldn’t play she went and told my wife that I’d touched her up. My wife, to her credit, would have none of it and we threw the ungrateful brat out.”
“A bit harsh on a fourteen year old?”
“Yeah, fourteen going on twenty four. I reckon she thought she’d died and gone to heaven when she landed up with those dwarfs,” and he added with a smirk, “You know what they say about dwarfs.”
I chose to ignore that unsavoury comment this time and said,
“So she’s a real princess?”
“Oh yes, definitely.”
“How about the step-mother?”
“I do know that the king divorced her some years some years back and banished her. I’ve no idea where she is and don’t want to know. I just hope I never run into her again. I may well have because she’s reckoned to be a shape-shifter.”
“Thank you Mr. Axman, that’s all for now. Brilliant truffles by the way.”

xxxxxxxxxx

The case was getting a trifle messy. My niggles about Snow White were heightened by Axman’s comments. She’s probably not as pure as she would like everyone to believe. Drifted, perhaps, and I chuckled to myself at my clever joke.

Now there was the WSM (wicked step-mother). Was she involved? Did she intend to kill Snow White and got the dwarfs instead? My musing was disturbed by the arrival of the post mortem results. All seven dwarfs had been poisoned, though the actual poison hadn’t yet been identified. A poisoner, eh? I needed to talk to the WSM. She was beginning to become a major suspect.

A call to my counterpart in Poundland informed me that she had indeed been divorced and banished and believed to be right here on my patch.
I got my officers to circulate the underworld, tapping their grasses and snouts for any information about her whereabouts.
It didn’t take long to strike lucky. The WSM was working as a beautician under the name of Coleen Collagen.

I must admit I was taken aback when she was hauled in. I imagined a WSM as some wizened old crone, but here was this gorgeous looking thirty something – and she knew it. Arrogant and full of herself but she was no slut. When she crossed her legs she made sure I could see she was wearing knickers.
She was unashamedly blatant about hating dwarfs; “horrible little things” she described them as, “all dirty broken nails, greasy skin and reeking of that tobacco”, said in such a way that even I shuddered at the thought.
She didn’t even deny trying to kill Snow White. Being an ex-queen and so arrogant with it must have made her feel above the law. So it came as rather a shock, I think, when I arrested her on suspicion of murdering the dwarfs and attempted murder of Snow White.
She shrilly protested her innocence as she was being taken down to the cells but I was told later that she made even more of a fuss about being separated from her make-up bag.
I knew my case against her wasn’t strong. I needed more evidence and decided I had to look into the dwarfs’ background to see if she had a motive for killing them or if it was Snow White who was her intended victim.

xxxxxxxxxx

It’s notoriously difficult to penetrate and get anything out of the dwarf community such is their sense of solidarity to each other. However, I sent one of my sergeants, we call him Lofty on account of his being part dwarf, to investigate.
When he returned he came straight to my office.
“I found out some very interesting stuff, sir.”
“Go on,” I said.
“Well, sir, do you know about dwarfs’ inheritance laws?”
I shook my head.
“In dwarf law, property is passed from brother to brother and the last one alive gets the lot and he can decide what happens when he dies.”
“Peculiar,” I commented.
“Yes, and it makes fratricide a common occurrence; so much so that dwarfs don’t bat an eyelid.”
“Peculiar and peculiar,” I muttered, alluding, inaccurately I know, to another literary reference. “So what happens in this case when all the brothers die at the same time?”
“This is where it gets very interesting, sir. It turns out that there’s an eighth brother called Stumpy. He’s the youngest and, though most likely to inherit, he’s the most vulnerable to fratricide. Some years ago the others conspired to do away with him but he got wind of the plot and scarpered.”
“So this Stumpy is going to cop the whole shebang. Gold mine and all.”
“Not necessarily, sir. You see the others made an oath severing all fraternal links with Stumpy. You can do that in dwarf law. So legally he’s no longer a brother.”
“I see. So who gets it all?”
“This is where it gets really interesting, sir.” I think Lofty was relishing his part in the tale and was milking it for all it was worth. “The dwarfs made another oath (dwarfs are very oathful people, you know) stating that should Snow White survive them all then she inherits.”
“Wow, lucky girl.”
“Yes, assuming she lives that long. Don’t forget the average life span of a dwarf is over a hundred years – that’s if he avoids being bumped off by his brothers, of course.”
“But a pretty good motive for hastening their demise,” I said, then added, “Do we know where Stumpy is now?”
“No, sir, but I’ve left feelers out and hope to get some feedback soon.”
“Thank you sergeant. Good work.”
“Thank you, sir.” He saluted and turned towards the door. But I called him back.
“It seems a very male oriented society, what role do female dwarfs take? Just as a matter of interest.”
Sergeant Lofty hesitated for a moment, then,
“That’s a very tricky question, sir. Dwarfs aren’t male or female, they’re hermaphrodites. That’s why they all tend to look the same. They can be either sex; swapping from one to the other whenever it takes their fancy.”
“Oh,” and I must have been staring at the sergeant in an odd way because he said, laughingly,
“Don’t worry, sir, I’m only part dwarf.”
With that he saluted again and left.

xxxxxxxxxx

“I think Snow White needs another visit,” I said to myself after my office door closed.
I took Sergeant Lofty with me, partly as a reward for his sterling work and partly because his knowledge of dwarfs would be a match for Snow White’s.
I’d not been there for a day or two and she looked a bit surprised to see us.
“Do you know about the eighth brother?” I asked.
“What eighth brother?” she replied.
“Stumpy, your dwarfs’ youngest brother.”
“I told you before that they didn’t discuss their business with me.”
I was pleased to notice that her eyes remained dry. She’d obviously got over the demise of her pals.
“So you won’t know that you stand to inherit their estate. They made an oath to that effect.”
She looked shocked.
“No I didn’t know,” she stuttered.
“Their death makes you a very wealthy woman, doesn’t it?” I made this comment sound as accusatory as possible.
“Are you insinuating that I had something to do with their murder?” Our meek and tearful little Snow White was suddenly angry. “That’s a terrible thing to say. It’s time you went, inspector.” And she opened the door.
“OK,” I said, leaving, “but I’ll probably be back and I hope by then you’ll have got rid of that foul dwarf tobacco smell.”
The door slammed shut.
“Phew, that pong,” I said to Sergeant Lofty as we walked down the path.
“You get used to it after a few years,” he said. “But I’ll tell you one thing, sir, that’s not stale smoke. It smells fresh to me.”
“Really?” I said. “Well, either she’s taken up smoking, which I doubt, or there’s a dwarf in there with her. I think we should go back and have a little look around, don’t you, sergeant?”
“Yes, sir.”

We knocked, but didn’t wait and walked in. She was standing by the sofa looking startled and a little flushed to tell the truth.
“I thought I told you to leave,” She was really cross, I could tell.
“Yes you did, ma’am, but my sergeant here said something about the tobacco smell. You don’t smoke dwarf tobacco, do you?”
“No, of course not. No human could.”
“Well, it’s just that my sergeant says it’s fresh smoke.”
“ He must be wrong or lying, “ she spat back at me. “Now get out of my house or I’ll sue you for harassment.”
I ignored her.
“Well, if you don’t smoke, then there’s someone here who does. Do you mind if we have a look around?”
As I was saying this I motioned Sergeant Lofty to go up the stairs.
She moved to block his path. Her mistake. As she moved there came a muffled squeal and a small hand appeared from under her skirt. A red pointy hat, then a face partly covered by a grey beard emerged from underneath her.
“You idiot!” shouted the dwarf, for it was obviously one of them. “You trod on my foot. I think you broke my toes!”
“Ah, Mr. Stumpy, I believe,” I said, “and in what a compromising position, too.”
“Ow, my toes,” groaned Stumpy.
“What do we have here?” I asked rhetorically. “A rich young woman and a disinherited dwarf up her skirt. No wonder you look a little flushed, my dear.”
She started to say something but stopped when I cautioned her that what she said could be used in evidence against her.

xxxxxxxxxx

Stumpy, cad that he was, said it was all Snow White’s doing. It was her idea to kill the dwarfs and inherit the gold mine. He had no grudge against his brothers for trying to kill him. He’d have done the same thing in their place. He had no reason or motive to murder them. He wouldn’t inherit anyway because of their oath. He only went along with Snow White’s plan because he was so much in love with her.
To give her her due, Snow White stood by Stumpy and stuck to her story that he had nothing to do with the plot. She’d poisoned the dwarfs’ breakfasts knowing that the substance she used would take half an hour to take effect, by which time they’d be well on their way to work. She intended to sell the mine and live happily ever after on the proceeds with Stumpy.
It was only at the trial that she finally broke down when faced with the evidence that only a dwarf would have access to that particular poison and dwarfish fingerprints matching Stumpy’s had been found on a spade in her shed. She then said, sobbing genuinely this time I think, that Stumpy had coerced her into a joint ownership of the mine, controlling and manipulating her because of her infatuation with him.
I was inclined to believe her and so was the judge. Although both were found guilty of murder, she was handed a lighter sentence.

That only left one loose end. Coleen Collagen. She was released without charge but given a sharp warning about her future behaviour. She retorted that she had no reason to get rid of Snow White now, because prison life would ruin her good looks and then she would be undisputed “fairest of them all.”

Is there a moral here somewhere? I don’t know. Maybe it’s that we shouldn’t overlook the little things in life; they can spell trouble later.

Ronnie Puttock
23 July 2014

JUNE 2014

For June’s story the subject was “The Grandchild” because two of our members had become new grandparents. Here is one variation on the theme conceived as a “sort of” fairy tale.

AMBRUS AND THE WOMAN

Once upon a time there lived in a shack near the sea, a fisherman and his wife. They were poor, but happy and were, over the years, blessed with two fine sons and a beautiful daughter.
But their happiness was transitory. One day a storm arose and the fisherman and his sons were lost to the ocean, like so many of their ilk before them and since.

Now, the land in which this tragic family dwelled was ruled by a young king named Edric. Like his father before him he was a tyrant and many thought but dared not say that Edric killed his father to gain the throne.
Be that as it may, all that matters here is that Edric treated his subjects harshly. He would not think twice about banishing or arranging the death (he wouldn’t deign to get his hands bloody) of those who, to his mind, crossed him.
To those who would not or could not pay their dues and taxes he was merciless. He would confiscate land, if they had any, and make whole families homeless. For those who had nothing but their own labour he would, if he could find a use for them, take them into servitude where they’d work for nothing and scavenge for what food they could. Not many lasted half a year.
So it was that the widowed fisherman’s wife, with no men to support her, very quickly became destitute and Edric soon got to know about her defaulting on her rent. He personally went to her to see what he could extract from her. Unfortunately she had no land and he had no use for fisherman’s wife. But the widow had something that Edric saw, valued and wanted – her daughter, Saffrina. At that time Saffrina was twelve years old but it was obvious to all that met her, and to Edric, of course, that she would soon bloom into a beautiful woman. Her hair was as russet as autumn; green eyes as green as fresh young lime tree leaves; a complexion like a white rose blushed pink with the sunrise and a demeanour as lively and jolly as daffodils in spring. Edric was smitten and told the widow,
“I will expunge your debts to me on condition that you give me your fair daughter. In a year or two she will make me a beautiful bride.”
The widow was horrified.
“Anything but that, your highness,” she cried. “She’s all I have and all I love since my husband and sons died.”
“That’s no concern of mine,” sneered Edric. “I want her and I’ll take her.”
And that was what he did. The screaming, terrified, tear drenched child was wrenched from her heartbroken mother’s arms. They never saw each other again.

x x x x x x x

Three years passed and Saffrina gave Edric a son and heir, Ambrus. Like his mother he had the autumnal hair and lime tree eyes. But there the comparisons ended. He learned his father’s and grandfather’s ways. He learned how to be cruel, selfish and take whatever he wanted. If Saffrina could imbue any caring humanness into Ambrus, she was given little chance. She had no say in his nurturing, except with her breast. All else in Ambrus’ upbringing was Edric’s domain. When her son was but ten years old, Saffrina fell out of Edric’s favour and went, or was sent, to a nunnery, where, it is said – and it’s probably true – she died soon after. Her already broken heart caused by the forced severance from her mother was compounded and proved too much by the separation from her son.
Edric took on lovers and fathered more children, including sons. He and Saffrina only had one son, the rest of their children were either daughters or died in their early years. Although the rightful heir to his father’s throne, Ambrus saw his step-brothers as threats and, sometimes with and sometimes without his father’s connivance, he despatched those potential rivals .

x x x x x x x

At twenty five Ambrus was the undisputed heir and chief henchman for his father and traversed the kingdom wreaking his father’s – and his own – will.
One day, in early spring, he and his companions were on some wicked errand of Edric’s when Ambrus’ horse was startled by a snake and bolted. The terrified beast took off into the dense woods by the side of the track they were on and, excellent horseman that he was, Ambrus could not calm or control the animal. For ten, fifteen or maybe more minutes Ambrus hung on, battered, buffeted and torn by twigs, branches and young green shoots. Until, that is, a low-hanging oak bough cracked against his head and he was sent crashing to the ground. He lay unconscious for hours, bleeding heavily from numerous cuts, lacerations and gashes. When he finally awoke it was late afternoon and there was a chill in the air because winter was reluctant to give way to spring that year. He had no idea where he was or what direction to take. He knew he had to find some kind of shelter for the night – if not some ruined hut, then a cave or even a hollow tree. He chose the direction that had the least undergrowth which he reckoned would be the easiest to tackle in his damaged state.
He smelled wood smoke just as it was getting too dark in that forest to see where he was going. By guessing the wind direction he hoped that by going that way he would find the refuge he so badly needed and wanted.

x x x x x x x

There was a light and Ambrus stumbled and thrashed his way towards it. The light came from a small wooden hovel and its door opened before he could even reach it. In the doorway stood a woman; to Ambrus’ eyes she was grey haired, shapeless and old, but none the less a most welcome sight.
“Oh, it’s you,” said the woman, whose voice was soft and comforting, “I heard you minutes ago. I wondered what kind of beast was out there, but you made so much noise you had to be a man. Come in. You’re welcome here.”
She went up to Ambrus and took his arm and led him into her home and sat him by the fire.
“Let me get you some soup,” she said and before he could answer she’d gone into the kitchen, returning with a beakerful of hot liquid.
“Not much, I’m afraid,” she said, “but it’s full of nourishment from the forest.”
Ambrus grimaced as he drank it down. However even he knew he had to have some food no matter how foul it tasted. When he’d finished he said, haughtily, to the woman’
“Do you know who I am? I’m Ambrus, the son of King Edric.”
“It matters not to me who you are. A man in need is the same whether high or low.”
“I have to get back to the palace and you must help me or else my father will take vengeance on you.”
“That may be so and I’m sure it is,” the woman said gently, “but you’re not going anywhere right now. It’s night time and I don’t go out when it’s dark unless it’s really necessary and, anyway, look at the state of you. Your arm is definitely broken and your head is split open and it and all your cuts could well be infected by now. Tonight you will stay here.”
Ambrus was not used to being told what to do, especially by a woman, but he recognised what she said made sense. But there was something making him nervous.
“You’re not a witch are you?” he asked a touch tremulously.
She laughed and immediately he felt easy. A witch wouldn’t be able to laugh in such a natural, reassuring and calming way and briefly he was reminded of his mother.
“No, I’m not,” she replied, the laughter still in her voice, “but I know enough healing to tend to your injuries if you’ll let me. In fact I insist that you let me.”
She laughed again and Ambrus contentedly submitted himself to her care. She carefully and without causing any pain set his arm and put it into a sling. Then she bathed and bound his bloody wounds, made up a bed for him by the fire, made sure he was warm enough and gave him a drink of her own making which she assured him would help him sleep.
Her warning that his cuts could be infected became true overnight. For three days and nights he was wracked with a fever and she stayed with him, by his bed, until it went and he remembered where he was.
Ambrus wanted to leave at once, but the woman told him he must stay longer because he wasn’t strong enough to travel yet. A journey to the palace would take several days. He protested so much that she told him that if he felt that way she wouldn’t stand in his way and held the door open for him. After no more that half a dozen steps he felt faint and weak and his legs gave way under him. She simply looked at him tenderly and steadied him back to his bed.
So he stayed. She fed him, nursed him and mended his tattered clothes. By the end of a week he felt, to his surprise, at home with this woman whose kindness, care and forbearance were like a mother’s.

x x x x x x x

He was now ready to leave and she was packing a basket of food for them as it would take the best part of a day for them to reach the nearest town. Part of him felt reluctant to leave and he asked, but light-heartedly,
“Are you sure you’re not a witch. You remind me so much of my mother.”
The woman put the basket down,
“Tell me about your mother,” she said, giving him all her attention.
“It’s been a long time since I saw her,” Ambrus said, “and I don’t think she’s still alive. When I was ten my father grew tired of her, those were his words, and sent her to a convent.”
The woman turned away looking downcast and her eyes full of tears, which he noticed and his heart stirred. He had seen many, many tearful women, men and children, but not once did he feel anything but contempt. But a single tear wept by this woman inexplicitly moved him.
“I know,” he started haltingly. “I loved her so much but my father forbade me to visit her or even talk about her. In fact,” his mouth drying and his voice breaking with emotion, “it’s only been these days here with you that have brought back the memories and feelings I must have buried all these years.”
“What did she look like?” asked the woman. “Was she beautiful?”
“Oh yes, she was,“ said Ambrus, with a faraway look in his eyes. “I remember her hair was like the colour of autumn leaves and her eyes, well, her eyes were this amazing green colour, like new leaves in spring; just like the ones outside your door.”
“Did she have a small heart-shaped birth mark on her neck?”
Ambrus stopped what he was doing and stared at the woman.
“How on earth did you know that? Did you know my mother?”
The woman smiled, reached out to Ambrus and held his head to her breast.
“I know her well. She’s my daughter. You’re my grandson and I knew it the moment I saw you outside my house.”
He broke away from her embrace.
“No, it can’t be. Prove it?”
She walked over to a wooden chest and took out a picture.
“This is Saffrina, your mother, about a year or two before she went away.”
He looked at the picture for a long time, until he had to wipe away a tear.
“Yes, that’s her,” he whispered, stroking the picture. “What do you mean by saying she went away?”
“You need to ask your father about that,” she replied.
“You must come back with me and away from this fearful poverty,” he said enthusiastically.
“No, thank you. I’m happy here and would hate to live in your world.”
“But I must do something to repay you for your kindness to me.”
“I ask nothing for myself. You must look into yourself and think what’s the best reward for your grandmother; your mother’s mother. Come, it’s getting late, we have to go.”
“Wait, grandmother, we can’t go yet.”
“Why?”
“People in the town will recognise me, I’m sure. They will probably be angry with me for what I and my father have done. And I’m unarmed. I need a disguise. Please help me.”
She looked at him closely.
“Well, I think some of my sons’ clothes may fit you; if you don’t mind being a poor fisherman,” and she smiled warmly at him. “After all, your grandfather and your cousins were fishermen.”
“And my mother a daughter of a fisherman,” and Ambrus laughed
When they reached the town they parted.
“Take this with you,” she said and put the picture in his hand.
“No, no, please you keep it. I’m not worthy of it. I’ve done nothing for you or her, my dear mother. I feel I have to earn it.”
“Thank you,” she said quietly.
“No, thank you,” said Ambrus.
“And your mother, as well, don’t forget,” said his grandmother. “Now go. And follow your conscience along the path you choose.”
“I will, grandmother,” Ambrus said, “I will.”
They hugged and kissed each other goodbye.

x x x x x x x

It wasn’t very long after that King Edric died suddenly. Many people thought, but daren’t say out loud, that Ambrus did it to seize the throne. Who knows for sure? But it wasn’t very long before people were thinking and actually saying out loud that Edric’s death was the best thing to happen to the kingdom. His son, Ambrus, was the kindest, most generous, most fair and just and compassionate king there had ever been.
Although his grandmother continued to live in her beloved forest, Ambrus visited her as often as he could and made sure she was comfortable and was never in need.
Many years later she died, a greatly loved grandmother and great-grandmother and a contented woman.
Her last wish was that a certain picture be given to King Ambrus.

Ronnie Puttock

STAN

One way of setting a writing topic is to be given a picture and then compose a story around it. It could be the same picture for everyone each has or chooses a different one. Those of us who’ve been in the group since it was formed in February 2012 will remember one member of the group composing a dialogue between a vase on a table and a chandelier above it. The dialogue was in verse, too!
The following piece was formed round a simple picture of a middle aged man.

STAN

“‘Stan the Man’ they call me. Why do they always say that? I hate it. Stanley’s such an old fashioned name, isn’t it? But then my parents were old when they had me. My mother was nearly 40. My brothers were in their teens. I hardly remember them.”

I was talking to Stan one warm April evening. We sat in the front garden of a non-descript pub fronting onto the street where the rush hour traffic was dying down.

“I’m from London originally. Came here because my wife, ex-wife that is, wanted to be nearer her father who was very ill. I was glad to get away too. She and the children left me many years ago. I saw the children on and off in their early teens, but not seen them for many years now. No idea where they are.”

Although nearing 50, Stan looks a lot younger. He delivers office supplies.
“I like the solitude of being in my van. I’ve got the radio, music or just my own thoughts for company. There’s no interruptions, no need to make idle office chit-chat, nobody on your back. I like it.”

He laughed. It was more like a sniff.

I work for the local newspaper. Earlier this year the editor told me to go out on the streets and interview anyone I liked. He wanted the stories of ordinary townsfolk. What surprises me is how willing people are to talk and they can be pretty revealing.

Next to him, on the table, Stan had put down the book he’d been reading when I’d first approached him. I pointed to it now; a well used ‘Canterbury Tales’
“Ah, Chaucer! Love him. Love reading. Did him for ‘A’ level at school. Fell in love with the language. Don’t know why, just did.”

He paused and drank some of his beer.

“I could have gone to university. I wanted to read English. Never got to take my exams, did I?”

He looked down into his glass and swilled its contents around a bit.

“I was at a good school and doing well, but some of us were found smoking dope. We were expelled. My parents threw me out. I’d brought shame on them, they said. I ended up living in a squat. I was never addicted, though, and never took hard drugs. Then I joined the Army. Don’t know why. Maybe I thought it might bring some stability to my life. Well, it got me away from the drugs but landed me in the Falklands. 19 I was. Two weeks before it was all over, me and 3 others were in our dug-out when a shell exploded. God knows how, but I survived and, more importantly, all in one piece. More than I can say for my mates, poor bastards.”

His voice had tailed off and I could hardly hear those last words. Then he suddenly turned to me. There was anger in his expression and in his voice.

“And do you know, while that victory march went on in London and everybody cheered, we, the wounded, the cripples, the blind were told to stay away. No way were we going to shit on Thatcher’s glory. ‘You’re not wanted. Here’s a few quid, now piss off’, that’s what it was for us who were no use to the Army anymore.”

He stopped talking and looked towards where the sun was lowering itself behind a church tower. The anger passed.

“I got some therapy, later. Didn’t do anything for me, though. Perhaps I was looking for instant results. Had lots of different jobs. I even started to learn the London ‘Knowledge’. Gave that up. It would have taken so long to learn. Instant results again, I suppose. Maybe that’s why I never considered doing my ‘A’ levels and trying for university. Would take too long, and anyway I had a family by then.”

He went silent again. We drained our glasses. I asked him what he was thinking about. He turned and looked at me, smiled slightly and gave that sniffing laugh.

“I was thinking about my ex and how she wanted to look after her sick Dad. I’d love to see my children again and perhaps be a Dad for them again, if they’d have me. Being old and alone can’t be nice. I know it may sound funny, but my one big regret is that I wish I could have made it up with my Mum and Dad before they died.”

Ronnie Puttock

THE FOWEY FLYER – April 2012

One of the things that I enjoy doing while thinking about and writing a story, is doing some background research. This one came about after I read about an actual plane crash in 1938. And there really was (briefly) an airfield in St. Austell around this time.
The topic was “Flying”.

THE FOWEY FLYER

Bill Warren taxied his Tiger Moth out of the hangar and onto the sunlit grassy field that was St. Merryn Aerodrome. It was a sparklingly clear April morning, the skylarks already burbling invisibly high above. There was a steady breeze from the north west but nothing to bother the sure-footed Moth. Bill, or as he was universally known by his wartime nickname, Bunny (Warren = rabbits = Bunny!), didn’t need a weather forecast to tell him that it would be a typical showery April day, but he’d be back well before the showers developed any intensity. What he had planned was a short flight of a couple of hours to test the plane after it’s routine grounding for repairs and maintenance. He liked to go easy on a plane just after it’s service, so he’d cruise at a relatively slow 50 m.p.h. She could get up to a 100 if pushed, but that wasn’t recommended in anything but short bursts. A quick glance at the fuel gauge: three quarters full. “That’s plenty,” he thought to himself. Then signalling to the ground staff to stand clear he accelerated, bumping along the airstrip, easing back on the stick and, with that familiar pleasant feeling as if his stomach had been left on the ground, became airborne. “Yes, this is going to be a very pleasant stroll,” Bunny told the plane, “a quick spin and then back to the club for a couple of pints and a pasty for lunch. Maybe get some gardening done this afternoon if it doesn’t rain too much.”

Bunny had been a pilot for over twenty years. He’d joined the RFC as soon as he could and was doing tours over Flanders by 1917. Flying became ingrained in his blood. He did some commercial flying after the war, but this kept him away too much from his wife and family. So it was a dream come true when he was appointed the senior instructor at the new aerodrome only two or three miles from his home in Padstow.
His logged route took him downwind at first over the clay hills of St. Austell. The pools were jewels of sapphire, turquoise and emerald set amongst the blindingly white pyramids.
It was so smooth up there. The engine droned at a perfectly even, rhythmic pitch. The wind whistled and sang through the wing struts and cables. Despite the sun it was freezing in the open cockpit, but Bunny’s old wartime leathers still kept the cold out.

Below him, now, the White River discharged its sediment into the sea. A vast white fan spread from its mouth at Pentewan showing just why this once busy port had all but died. Banking gently to the east, there was the other reason for Pentewan’s demise; Par Docks and its apron of milk-like water. Polkerris over there in its rock cleft and then round the Gribben and its barbers’ pole landmark. The sea, now clear of the china clay waste was as blue as only a Cornish sea can be, liberally flecked with white where the wind flicked the tops off the waves.

Fowey harbour was busy. The large china clay carriers were there but also many private yachts taking advantage of the morning’s glorious sailing weather.
He was now approaching his favourite bit: following the River Fowey. The woods on his right from Polruan up as far as St. Winnow were already showing tinges of green. He always thought of St. Winnow as one of the most beautiful places in the world and whenever he was there, no matter what time of year it was a place of peace. A timeless, magical peace. But even now he couldn’t think of peace without remembering the war. Those terrible, terrible months he spent at the front. The sights, the sounds and the smells still so vivid he could almost taste them. And he was a lucky one. He could fly away from it.

Dipping his wings to salute that special place and his dead compatriots, he continued upstream. He liked to fly as low as possible up the estuary and get the sense of the steep banks on either side gradually closing in on him. And then rounding that last bend in the river, there, appearing all at once and nestling beneath the hills in all its glory was the spire of St. Bartholomew’s and its little town of Lostwithiel gathered at its feet. Gaining height quickly so as not to annoy the populace, he soared over the old bridge. It was a motorist’s nightmare. But not for much longer because over to his right Bunny could clearly see the new road taking shape.
Past Restormel, Lanhydrock and then a lazy arc round to the right to head into the Glyn Valley. “I’ll have some fun here and see how you can go, old girl.” he said, patting the side of the plane like she was a horse. Much to the annoyance and vociferous protestations of the nesting rooks, Bunny opened the throttle. The engine notched up and octave or two. His speed climbed up into the 90s and with full confidence in the plane’s sturdiness he pulled back on the control stick and somewhere near Golitha Falls the Moth shot upwards out of the valley like a snipe breaking cover.

“Blast it!” Bunny hissed through his teeth, “they’re early!” As he reached the apex of his climb, there, to his left and barring his homeward route was a wall of cumulo-nimbus. Their feathered tops a dazzling white reflecting the sun while their bases were a livid purple-black. Robust as the Tiger Moths were, Bunny knew his plane wouldn’t stand a chance in the churning violence of those clouds. “OK. I’ll have to skirt round them and go back the way I came,” and with the graceful sweeping flight of a buzzard, Bunny banked and turned.
Straightening up and heading south west, Bunny’s eye was caught by a sudden flash of light down to his left. The sun glinting from the gleaming green express engine as it pounded towards Liskeard. White smoke streaming over its carriages. He watched until it went out of view, thinking how beautifully such a man-made object can fit into the landscape.
The billowing smoke rising and spreading like clouds shook him back to reality. Those storm clouds were definitely nearer and he could see that Bodmin was already in their shade. If they kept to their present course and didn’t start to spread out Bunny calculated that he could get round them over Lostwithiel.

Bunny glanced down at the fuel gauge. It showed there was three quarters of a tank of fuel left. “Eh? That’s what I had when I left.” He tapped the glass. No change.
A stab of fear sliced through his stomach. How much fuel did he have? He had absolutely no idea.
“Right, Bunny, think clearly. The terrain’s too hilly and steep to try to land here unless I really, really have to. I don’t know if the strip at St. Austell is still operational. Even if it is could I get that far? There’s only one option open and that’s to carry on the way I’m going. If I can get to Lostwithiel there are some flatter fields or even the marshy bits by the river where I can ditch. The main thing is to conserve fuel but if I take it slowly and get a good height if the worst comes to the worst I can glide for a while.”

He climbed steadily: six hundred feet; eight hundred feet; nine hundred, at nearly a thousand feet the plane was hit by a violent gust and tipped over onto its side, only then to fall abruptly into an air pocket. The engine screamed furiously in the dead air. Arms and legs working madly, Bunny fought to get the machine back in control but bottoming out at three hundred feet there would be no room to manoeuvre so he’d have to risk going higher again. There’ll be more turbulence up there and it would use still more precious fuel, but he needed the safety net that height could give him. Up to a thousand feet again, buffeted from side to side, dropping like a dead weight then bouncing up again as the engine found the air to breathe and support the wings.
Passing St. Nectan’s chapel, the worst. The engine spluttered, made a few feeble attempts to stay alive, but expired. Bunny swore. He knew, though, that if he maintained this height and direction he should make it but with no power he wouldn’t be able to regain any lost height. The river was clearly visible now, no more than a couple of miles away, bathed in a curiously ethereal golden glow as the sun and the storm battled for its possession.

The storm had gleefully seen the river valley as an opportunity to stretch out. There was no way round it now. It was now a race against time. As if to hammer home that point a vicious updraft threw him several hundred feet higher before it vanished and dropped him like a belly flopping diver. Momentarily Bunny panicked. Then all his experience and skill switched on. Only one thought was in his head. Get it under control. Oblivious to everything around him, Bunny melded with the machine. He felt its movements, coaxing it, caressing it, brutally wrenching it until he was once more in charge, but his situation was rapidly deteriorating. He was now facing away from the river and diving steeply earthwards. He had to get the plane’s nose up and bank as sharp as he could to the left otherwise he’d crash straight into Downend Garage or, God forbid, across the road into St. Winnow School. “Oh God! No!” he screamed for the children were there in the playground on their morning break and he was headed straight at them. If only they were inside they’d stand a chance. The school walls were probably far stronger than his wooden bodied plane.
He pulled the control stick as far back as he could and at the same time stamped both feet on the rudder pedal. He held that position with all his strength but to no avail. It seemed as though the storm was sucking him into its jaws. The forces of Nature were far too strong for him.
Then all went loose. The pedals flapped around at his feet. The control stick waggled at him aimlessly. The cables had snapped. They couldn’t take any more punishment. He couldn’t do any more. He and the children were going to die.

But Nature hadn’t finished yet. Amidst all this power and wrath she let show her compassionate side. At least as far as the children were concerned. The storm finally broke in a fusillade of stinging hail driving the children to the shelter of the classroom and with it came another almighty squall. Was this another gesture of compassion? It certainly did what Bunny had been straining to do. The plane’s nose lifted and turned to be facing the river again and was by some miracle at a perfect landing approach. He was dropping towards some flattish fields that had a ridge behind them which loomed like a cliff face, but on a slant to the ridge so he wouldn’t hit it head on which would be fatal. All he needed was to stay like this for a few more seconds. The fields looked terribly small and he was bound to crash through a hedge or two, but as long as there were no trees and they weren’t Cornish hedges he’d be alright. He’d done it several times during the war, making emergency landings on makeshift airstrips or in damaged planes. The worst he’d got were cuts, scratches and bruises.

“Please, please just hold it like this,“ Bunny prayed and braced himself for the impact. It was not to be. Nature’s compassion for him was a lie. She was a cat and he was her mouse. She’d let him escape for a moment but now she pounced and had her claws into him again. The plane was grabbed forcefully from behind and hurled forward like a paper dart and like a poorly made dart it went straight up until for a split second it stood vertically in mid air as if wondering which way to go next. Bunny hung helplessly to the sides of the cockpit. If the plane flipped backwards, that would be it, all over; and if it went forwards….? The Tiger Moth elected to topple forward but it wouldn’t change the outcome, though. The plane was plunging to the ground at a lethal angle. For what it was worth the only slight difference was that he’d been tossed over the ridge like a piece of waste paper thrown over a wall. He could now see the river again, but knew he’d never reach it now.
Acting with pure instinct, Bunny yanked the useless control stick backwards and frantically started bouncing up and down in his seat. It was all he could think of to put some extra weight onto the rear of the plane and hope the nose would lift.
He was now over a field plummeting towards a dense snowdrift of blackthorn. It was yards, a matter of moments away. He was now close enough to see his plane was aiming towards part of the blackthorn hedge which was lower than the rest. Small comfort, he’d still hit it, but at least not go through it.
He closed his eyes. He felt the jolt and heard the crashing and splintering of wood as the undercarriage tore at the bushes. Then he was jerked forward hitting his head hard on the cockpit’s edge and then instantaneously thrust backwards. For a moment, for one marvellous moment, the rear of the plane had got entangled in the bushes. Perhaps it was that silly little tail wheel these planes have. Whatever it was it had reduced his speed, but far more importantly the snagging had caused the front end to rise enough so that it would be the wheels that hit the ground first, not the nose. The undercarriage struck the ground with bone crushing force. Then the plane bounced several feet into the air. The field sloped downwards so that when the plane touched down again it didn’t somersault. By then it had reached the end of the field and ploughed into its boundary hedge. This was a Cornish hedge, but fortunately for Bunny the wall was only about three feet high on his side. It was at least ten feet on the other where it dropped down to the Lerryn Road. The wall ripped off the wheels, the hawthorn and hazel bushes collected most of the wings allowing the fuselage with Bunny in his cockpit to scramble through. With it’s momentum now all but lost what was left of the plane slumped exhaustedly over the wall leaving its nose on the road and its tail resting on top of the hedge.

Dazed, shocked and totally spent, both physically and emotionally, Bunny came to rest draped over the side of the cockpit, mirroring the plane‘s attitude. A profound silence pressed heavily on his ears. Gradually, individual sounds began to emerge: his heart pounding, echoing in his head; the clatter of hailstones on the plane’s shattered body and the sighing and soughing of the wind rushing through the branches around him.
Very carefully he moved his arms and then his feet. Finally, slowly, cautiously he raised his head and gently eased himself back as far as the tilting fuselage would allow. He could taste blood in his mouth but feel no serious injury. He was alive.

He made no attempt to climb down. The ground was too solid, too real. He would stay where he was. Someone would find him eventually.

Ronnie Puttock
April 2012

THE SHEEPSHANK REDEMPTION

This quirky little piece was written by one of our members long before the group was set up.

THE SHEEPSHANK REDEMPTION

I was enjoying a walk in the country. Revelling in the sunshine and rejoicing that the foot and mouth epidemic seemed to be virtually over I was celebrating the reopening of one of my favourite footpaths. I stopped to drink in the beauty of the morning and the magnificent view. A large sheep looked up at me and ambled over to the gate I was leaning on.
“Good morning, lovely day” it said in cultured tones.
“Yes, wonderful isn’t it” I replied, “and how are you?”
“I’m very well. Thank you for asking. But do you really care? I mean really, really care. People like you just take us sheep for granted.”
I was taken aback by its aggressive tone of voice and stuttered a trite reply. “But of course I care. I mean you’re vital to the countryside.”
“Oh yes? In what way exactly?”
I was stuck for an answer. I had said what I thought was correct, but the sheep was having none of it.
“Come on. How am I vital to the countryside? It’s no good you mouthing platitudes. I’m sick to death of hearing all this namby-pamby psuedo liberalism. Why can’t you really tell me the truth? Just once, just for once, say what you really think.”
“Well” I said, thinking hard, playing for time “all this grass needs to be eaten, and…”
“Feeble” the sheep interrupted. “You’ve never had a proper conversation with a sheep before have you? How many sheep have you got as friends, that you’d invite to your house, share a meal with? None! You haven’t the first idea. It makes me really angry.”
“Now look here” I retorted “there’s no need to be rude. I’m just here minding my own business. I don’t want to get into an argument. I’m not anti-sheep, I like sheep, I really do. After all where would we be without sheep?”
“Another platitude” it snapped. “ I’ll tell you where you’d be without sheep. You’d be smug, self-satisfied. If we’re not here, no problem. You lot think you’re better than us, superior. It’s blatant sheepism. Have you ever thought what it’s like to be a sheep? I mean really thought. I tell you this, put one of your lot out in this field for a week and you’d never survive. Why shouldn’t we enjoy what you’ve got? Why should we be denied a nicely furnished house, central heating, good job prospects, all the good things in life you take for granted?” It’s tirade slowed as it ran out of breath and for a moment it stood there, glaring at me, it’s chest heaving slightly.
“Perhaps I need educating a bit,” I said in a conciliatory tone of voice. “The way you put it just now makes me realize that perhaps I’m not as knowledgeable as I thought. But I’m willing to learn.” I hoped this would placate the belligerent sheep and that I would soon be able to make my escape.

It looked slightly mollified. “Perhaps I was a bit harsh,” it said. “It’s just that years of exploitation gets you down in the end. Sometimes I feel I’m going mad. Lots of us feel like that you know.” It looked down at the ground gloomily.
“I always think of sheep as such easy going, placid creatures,” I said. “I’ve never met one quite like you.”
“That’s what I mean, another stereotypical attitude. Happy, woolly, placid creatures. I despair, I really do. And what’s that jacket you’re wearing?”
“Do you like it? I got it for Christmas. It’s very warm and cosy, pure new wool.” As I said it I realized I had made another error. I waited for the inevitable outburst. It came like a slap across the face.
“Exploitation” the sheep screamed, and to my horror it began to cry. Huge tears rolled down its face and caught in its wool, making a tangled, soggy mess.
“Please don’t upset yourself.” I felt ill at ease, embarrassed, not knowing how to cope with the situation. “Would it help to change the conversation? Or would you like me to go away?”
“No, no” it gulped, “don’t go. I was enjoying our chat.”

I tried a new tack. “If you feel so strongly about things, why don’t you run for council or something? There’s an election coming up soon.”
“Believe me, I’ve thought about it. We do have a small party you know. The Free Sheep Movement. Would you care to sign my nomination papers? Could I count on your vote?”
“Well I’m not sure about that. I’m a Lib Dem you see.”
“As I thought,” said the sheep. “Not really prepared to get your hands dirty to change the system. Let’s change the subject. Do you like gardening?”
“Well yes” I said.
“What do you grow?”
“Vegetables, flowers, fruit. We have a very fine kitchen garden.”
“What do you grow in that?”
“Oh, all sorts. Marjoram, parsley, basil, chives, rosemary, mint.”
“Mint? Mint? What do you use mint for?”
“Well it’s lovely on our new potatoes and peas.”
“Is that all?”
“No. I make mint sauce.” The words were out before I could stop them. There was a horrible silence.
“What,” said the sheep tremulously, “do you use mint sauce for?”
Before I could answer it gave a strangled gasp and fell on its side.

I left, rapidly. Farmers are allowed to shoot sheep worriers.

Pat Stearn.

MARCH 2014

MARCH 2014 – The topic was “BIRTHDAY”

 

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THE BIRTHDAY PARTY

DARLENE ALFORD
Tanya had been on at me for weeks about wanting a joint sixteenth party with her best friend Alicia.
“Please Mum”, she would say, “it’ll be OK. I’ve asked Si and he says he and his mates Nash and Mickey will stay and keep an eye on things”.
“So you’ve asked your big brother and OK’d it with him before you got the OK from your mother?” I said.
I wasn’t against her having the party, you know, I was just worried in case of trouble. But if Simon was going to be there and Nash and Mickey, too, they’d be able to deal with trouble. They are older and are good lads but able to look after themselves and the youngsters.
I felt re-assured about it and said “Yes”.
I left to stay with my sister Joan in Peckham. I told Tanya that I’d be home around lunch time the next day and I expected the place to be spick and span. Actually, I didn’t expect it to be, but you know what I mean. I…..dear God…..I didn’t expect this.

MELVIN ALFORD
It was a great party. Great music, food, drink. Yeah, I know we were under age, but….. Yeah, it was a good time. Tanya said I could invite my school mates…..They were all…..can’t go on…..

LEROY WATKINS
I’m a mate of Nash’s. He asked me to come along, said it was alright with Si. It wasn’t really my scene. They were all young kids really. Well, OK, my girlfriend is sixteen and a friend of Alicia’s, but she’s more grown up than them, right? But the kids were behaving themselves. A bit of drink, maybe. There was some ganga, but nothing worse than that, you know.

MELVIN ALFORD
Well, about one o’clock I happened to be in the hall when there was this loud banging on the front door. Nash was there and opened it and it was Mr. Smith from next door. He was shouting about the noise and threatening us with the police if we didn’t turn it down. I didn’t hear what Nash said, he didn’t raise his voice like Mr. Smith, but he closed the door on him. Si came along then and Nash told him what happened and Si said,
“Ignore him. He’s a racist bastard. Always complaining”.

Mr. SMITH
Let me say right from the start that I’m not a racist. I work with black people and get on with them alright. Mrs. Alford and myself don’t have any bother. We keep ourselves to ourselves. The children can be very noisy, though. It usually happens when she’s not at home. I’ve spoken to her on occasions about the noise and she says she’ll talk to them about it. The big one, Simon, he’s trouble though. He’s got a big mouth on him. I didn’t think he was there that night, I think he stays with his girlfriend most of the time, but I saw him coming out of the kitchen. I wasn’t going to argue with him and I wasn’t going to complain again on my own. That’s why I called the police later when the noise still hadn‘t gone down.

Det. SUPERINTENDENT WHITE
We received a call from a neighbour of the premises where the incident occurred. Normally we are reluctant to get involved in these kind of neighbour disputes, but the complainant was particularly irate and using such threatening and aggressive language, that we sent a patrol there in case of a breach of the peace.
The officers asked to speak to the householder but were informed that she was away. They did speak to the householder’s son who said he was supervising the party and they advised him that there had been a complaint and suggested that as the time was now past two o’clock in the morning the music should be turned down to a reasonable level. The music was subsequently turned down and the officers were satisfied and left the scene. No, they didn’t talk to the complainant as they didn’t want to draw attention as to the identity of the complainant.

LEROY WATKINS
I didn’t know anything about the neighbour or the police as I had left by then.
There had been some shouting and scuffling, I wouldn’t say fighting, and I’m sorry to say I was involved. I was probably the cause of it, but I didn’t start anything.
Me and my girl, Louise, were having a dance, a rather smoochy one if you want to know, when this kid grabs my arm and tries to pull me away from her. I reckon he had too much drink in him. He was calling me all sorts of names and generally bad mouthing me and Louise. He was telling me to get away from her because she was his girl. Then she stepped in and told him was all over between them and that he should go home and grow up. He pushed her away, shouting at her to keep out of it. I was about to punch him in the head but she stopped me. The noise brought Si and Mickey into the room and they dragged him to the front door and pushed him out. I heard Mickey telling him,
“Go home, man, and cool down. Just accept she doesn’t want you anymore. That shit happens. You’ll get over it”.
But all he did was carry on yelling he’d effing well kill me and effing well kill Louise too. I wasn’t bothered but I could tell Louise was a bit upset. Then a few minutes later a stone, I couldn’t say it was anything like a rock or brick, came through the window. We rushed to the front door, but there was nobody in sight. It was then that I decided I should take Louise home. God knows…..I dread to think what would have happened if we stayed.

MELVIN ALFORD
….I can’t say any more, I’m sorry…..I…..I…..

DARLENE ALFORD
…..look, don’t bother him anymore. Can’t you see how upset he is? He’s lost his brother and sister and his friends. I just can’t imagine what he went through and is still going through. He has all these nightmares every night. He has to have the light on and door open at night. I can hear him crying and screaming in his sleep. He has to take tablets for his nerves. And look at his face and hands. Where he got burned the skin’s all pink. It’s never going to get back to its normal colour. He’s going to be physically and mentally scarred for the rest of his life. I’ve got to hold myself together for Melvin’s sake. I’m all he’s got now. His father left us years ago and now this.
I can’t allow myself to break down in front of him, though I feel like it all the time. I cry at night. I don’t know what’s worse, the grief or the anger or where one stops and the other begins.
I hope to God they find who did this and they rot in hell.

BLYDE POWELL
I guess you could say I was one of the lucky ones. I got out. But to tell the truth I still feel an enormous guilt. I survived and should I have tried to go back and save the others? People say I couldn’t have done anything and I’ve nothing to blame myself for. When I look back I tell myself they are right, but it doesn’t help.
I was in the back room, pretty much out of it by then. It was around three o’clock and the party was still going though lots of people had either gone home or had crashed out. Some were in the chairs others on the floor and some had gone up to the bedrooms. Anyway, I heard this explosion. Not a bang, more like a “whoomp” sound.

Mr. SMITH
The noise did go down for a while but soon went up again, no doubt as soon as the police had gone. I was going to phone them again when there was this explosion which rattled my windows and doors. I went downstairs and looked out the front door and, well, I was shocked by what I saw. There was smoke and flames billowing out the windows, all the way up to the top floor. Some of the kids had managed to get out. I saw one girl jump from an upstairs window. It was awful; like a nightmare. The screaming, the shattering of glass, things exploding and crashing inside, the crackling and heat of the flames and all that in a matter of seconds. Nobody in there stood a chance.
I went back and called the fire brigade, there was nothing else I could do.

BLYDE POWELL
The flames came pouring out of the front room and into the hall. I don’t know how long I sat there looking at it. It simply didn’t register in my head that it was real, you know. I suppose it was only a second or two and then there was this smoke. Thick and black it was. It was so thick you could touch it; it felt oily. And in places it glowed red and orange. I remember it started to fill my eyes and throat. I couldn’t see or breathe. I knew there were French doors behind me. They were locked. I couldn’t see by then because the smoke was so thick. I could hardly breathe, either. I remember panicking and pushing and pushing on the handle. Then my hand felt the key still in the lock and then I was throwing myself onto the ground and gasping for air. Again, I don’t know how long I was lying there and I wasn’t aware of anything except my wheezing breath and w cold the air felt.
When I felt able to, I turned to look at the house. That room was now solid black smoke. I couldn’t even see any flames. They say it’s the smoke rather than the flames that kill. I wouldn’t have lasted a second in that room had I gone back in.
But, even so, I’ll always hear those screams and shouts for help while I lay safely on the grass. For as long as I live I’ll never forget that.

MELVIN ALFORD
I was in my bedroom on the top floor at the back of the house. I was a bit tired and had decided to lie down for a while. I’m not sure if I’d gone to sleep but I heard this loud thump noise and what I remember most about it is that the floor and my bed jumped into the air. It seemed for a split second that everything went quiet. Then came a roaring which must have been the flames coming up the stairs. And the screaming and breaking glass and…..and….. then

DARLENE ALFORD
I’ll finish his story for him. He told me that he went to his bedroom door and when he opened it the flames and smoke burst in throwing him backwards onto his bed. He then remembers Simon running in. He thinks he may have been on fire. Simon smashed open the window with a chair, grabbed Melvin, pulled him to the window and told him to jump. He can’t remember much else, only looking out at the ground below. He doesn’t know if he jumped or if Simon pushed him. The next he knew he was in hospital. He had those terrible burns and a broken leg and lots of cuts and bruises. My hedge had broken his fall. I know some of the others who jumped weren’t so lucky. If you can say Melvin was lucky.

Mr. SMITH
The fire brigade got there very quickly. The station isn’t that far away. My wife was going to make some tea for the kids outside, but by the time the kettle had boiled the ambulances and police had arrived.

STATION COMMANDER CUMMINGS
Let me say at first that on behalf of all the men at the station we send our heartfelt condolences to all who lost members of their family in this tragic fire. In my twenty four years in the fire service I’ve never witnessed anything as horrifying as this.
Our investigations as to the cause of the fire are still ongoing. We do know that the fire started in the downstairs front room. We have found an overturned paraffin heater and two cans of lighter fuel, but we can’t say at the moment if they are significant.

Det. SUPERINTENDENT WHITE
At this moment in time we cannot say what caused the fire. All we can say is that eleven young people, aged fifteen to twenty, tragically died in this terrible incident. A further sixteen are in hospital, some with serious injuries. Four more have already been discharged. We extend our sincere condolences to the families of those who have died.
As I said, we have no idea at present as to the cause of the fire, we are awaiting the fire brigade’s report.
There have been rumours that this was a fire bomb attack but there is no proof of that at the present time and the fire brigade are saying that it is unlikely that this was the cause.
We are aware that racial tensions have been high in this area at times and we appeal to all sections of the community to remain calm and patient while we and the fire brigade carry out our investigations.

DARLENE ALFORD
Dear God I don’t know what’s going to become of me. I’ve lost my home, two children and I’m greatly afraid for Melvin. Since it’s happened he’s been so withdrawn and talks about killing himself and I can see he means it.
“What have I to look forward to?” he says all the time.
I say the same to myself.
I don’t believe the fire was an accident. It couldn’t have spread so quickly unless petrol was thrown through the window. But I don’t think the police will find the culprit. They will cover up for their racist friends, like they always do.

THE CORONER
There is no conclusive evidence to tell us what caused this tragic fire, however, arson can definitely be ruled out. The only conclusion that can be safely come to is an open verdict.

Ronnie Puttock
23 March 2014