UNFINISHED BUSINESS 

Tim Smith

 

Alex and his wife, Lynn were enjoying themselves.  Every other month they met their oldest friends, Bert and Mary for a night out, usually dinner at the local pub.  Laughter and jokes and what had happened over the last few months was the order of the day.  Occasionally thoughts and conversation wandered beyond into the past, but very rarely.

 

They had all gone to the same school, even the same class.  In their teens romance has flourished although the men, as boys, had occasionally wandered but were always back.  Marriage was good, loving and solid, respectable and even.  Nothing to upset the apple cart except the bad habits their children seemed to develop as they grew.

“Like father, like son,” Lynn had muttered at her husband once.

Alex retorted, “It won’t get that far, I’m telling you.”  The police had called and deposited their eldest son in the hall with a warning over a misdemeanour.  Alex had yelled and administered a whack, the boy had retorted with language bellowed in rage, language his mother and father had not taught him, stormed up the stairs and sulked for a day.  The misdemeanour was never repeated.  Lynn and Mary were more aware than perhaps their husbands were that pre marriage both Alex and Bert were guests of Her Majesty for a year or so, but that was 20+ years ago.  A long time and no trouble, no police enquiries, solid loving companions, nothing to fear and yet!

 

Dessert has been eaten with gusto.

“Always good their puds,” Bert said, the food still in his mouth.

Alex laughed “Shall we repeat?”

Bert nodded.

The two women raised their eyebrows at one another.  One pudding was enough it was deemed and so coffee was ordered.

“Something chocolatey with it,” Bert had suggested to the waitress, who laughed, “I’ll see what l can do.”

“Guess who l saw a couple of days back?”  Mary suddenly said.

“Santa Claus.”

“No – l saw Monica. Haven’t seen her for ages, she looked very well.  Told me Fred was out.  Good behaviour apparently although he still has to report every few days.  She said he was looking forward to seeing everybody.”

The two men were silent.  Alex was suddenly very alert; Bert has slumped a little.  Mary prattled on.

 

Coffee was served, one ‘After Eight’ had been presented with each cup.  It was soon over; the evening had cooled.

“See you soon,” Mary called as they left the pub. “I’ll give you a ring, Lynn.”

Both couples went their separate ways.

Soon afterwards as they had driven silently home and they had stepped into the hall Lynn turned to look at Alex as she went to mount the stairs.

“I’m going to bed. Promise me Alex – no Fred. Please don’t go near him.  He’s trouble. You know that, l know that. Please, for all our sakes, please don’t see him.  Promise me!”  Alex stared at her.

“Fred helped do that robbery.” She continued. “I know you know more about it, don’t ask how, just a feeling, but you know more. Please do not see him, it’ll be our ruin if you do.”  There were tears in her eyes.  She ran up the stairs.  Alex stood in the hall for a time.  How did she know, how did she bloody know, he thought?

 

A week passed, no more was said and domestic life continued.  Sometimes boring, familiar routine, occasionally minor dramas especially where the children were concerned and comfortable warm evenings watching or sleeping in front of the television.  Bert rang with the usual invitation for Alex to accompany him to snooker the next evening.

“Pick him up at 7.30,” Alex said sleepily to Lynn, who had taken the call.

 

The next evening Bert was duly picked up and as they approached their destination Bert said “Fred’s going to be there.”

“I thought he might,” Alex replied. “Do you think blabbermouth Monica will be with him?”

“Yep, she won’t let him out of her sight after all these years.  We have got to be careful.  Fred used to tell her everything.”

“Bloody hell,” Alex muttered. “The sooner this is over the better.”

“Yep,” muttered Bert.

 

It was party time in the hall.  People crowded in – to see Fred and welcome him home, have a drink, sway to the barrage of music thrown at them, have another drink and laugh and joke.  Snooker was all but forgotten.  Fred was hugged and hands were shaken, drinks pressed into Alex and Bert’s hands.

“You haven’t changed at all Fred,” Alex laughing shouted above the din. “Looks like you’ve been down the spa, not behind…”

“Fred does not want to be reminded of that,” Monica spat pulling Fred away to speak to other people.

“Gents,” mouthed Fred and pointed with his head as he was propelled across the room.

 

Alex and Bert waited by the door. People came and went with regular routine but eventually it dwindled.  Fred appeared and all three men squeezed into the far cubicle.

“This will look good if someone tries to open the door,” Bert muttered.

Alex grinned.

Fred ignored it, “You still got it?”

“Of course.”

“How soon can you get it to me?”.

“Couple of days,” Bert said.

Alex and Fred looked at him.

“What do you mean, a couple of days?”

“I’ve got to dig it up.”

“What do you mean – ‘dig it up’? Is the bloody devil sat on it then?”

“That’s what l said, a couple of days”.

“OK,” Fred said. “Monica’s out on Wednesday.  Bring it round to the garage.  9 pm don’t be late.”

“Bit dangerous, Fred.”

“No l can load it into a car and be gone.”

Alex and Bert looked at one another.

“OK, 9 pm it is, see you then.”

The three men slid out of the cubicle and separated.  Fred back to Monica, Alex and Bert home.

 

Mary was joining Monica for the evening at the local Chinese.  Lynn was invited and decided to go.

“I hope l won’t be too long, but you know what Monica’s like.  What are you going to do?”

“Watch the telly, footballs on.”

A kiss and a wave and she was gone. Alex was up, grabbed a jacket and a spade concealed by the back door and was gone.

 

Bert showed him into the garage.

“Nobody realises, this is a double garage. From the outside it looks if it’ll take one car but it’s much bigger.  Comes of being built on a corner site. Over here at the back, look”.

Alex looked down; Bert pulled back a metal floor plate to reveal an old inspection pit.

“You said it was buried.”

“I know but l wanted to look at it, see what there was.  I’ve never dared before.”

In the bottom of the pit were stacked four moderate sized boxes wrapped in polythene.

“Let’s have a look then.”

Both men climbed down.  Bags and boxes opened. Jumbled jewellery boxes containing assorted necklaces, rings, bracelets.

“The real McCoy,” muttered Alex.  Another box contained assorted documents, legal and some hand written, some photos.

“Blimey, is that who I think it is?”

“Sure is.”

“Looks different with no clothes on.”

Another box contained coins, silver, more jewels, the last one was stuffed to the rim with paper money – cold hard cash.

“There must be thousands here Alex.”

“More than that,” Alex replied.

Stuffed down the side of the fourth box was a small wrapped package. Alex opened it. A small and fully loaded gun was revealed. Alex stuffed it into the pocket of his coat.

“You never know,” he muttered.

Bert said nothing.

“Did Fred offer anything to hide this?”

“No.”

“I think we deserve something.”

Both men stuffed wads of notes into their pockets, moved the boxes up out of the pit, across the garage floor and into the boot of Alex’s car.

 

“We’ll take a long route to Fred’s.  Plenty of time.”

En route ambulances raced passed them.

“Busy night.” Bert muttered.

 

Alex parked the car in the next street.  A quiet suburban road. No problems.

“We’ll walk round, Fred can come to us. Soon transfer”.

Both men rounded the corner.

“Christ what’s going on?”

The street was lit with bright lights, ambulances stood in the middle of the road.  Paramedics were working on a prone body.  People stood around in small tight silent groups watching.

Alex and Bert moved forward unaware of the shadows behind them.

“What’s going on?” Bert repeated to himself.

“Somebody’s hurt, oh dear.”

The voice was quiet and oily.

“For your information it’s Fred. Don’t turn round, you’re covered. Poor Fred is dead – what a shame.  I said don’t turn round. Now turn to your right and down the alley. There’s a garage compound at the end. Not too fast; don’t forget you are both covered. Just a little unfinished business to attend to.”

Alex and Bert walked into the garage compound.

“Charlie Norris; I thought it was you.” Alex muttered.

“Yes, it’s me and this is my friend Ray.”

Ray stood 6’2” and almost as square.  Ray was pointing a gun at them.

“He’ll use it if you move. He can be a little trigger happy if he gets cross.

Ray grunted.

“I’ll come straight to the point. Fred took more than his fair share from the job. I want it back, all of it and thanks to the lovely Monica I know you know. You’re safe if you tell me where it is.”

“Monica?” whispered Bert.

“Pillow talk, they call it,” Charlie sneered. “Lovely girl, told me everything especially what Fred told her. I’ll give her a bit of what you’ve got. Hand it over.”

“It’s still hidden, Charlie, l’ll have to show you.”

“Just tell me where it is.  Ray’s getting itchy.”

“It’ s not that easy.”

“Tell me!” Charlie bellowed.

The ambulance sirens started as they left the scene.  The noise masked the shots from the garage compound and the restored darkness hid the two shadowy figures leaving the alleyway.

 

Lynn returned late.  Alex was asleep on the sofa.  The TV was on.

“Wake up, sleepy head, there’s been a shooting.”

“What?” Alex yawned.

Lynn turned over to the late news,

“Fred Pearce, a convicted bank robber, just released on parole, was involved in a hit and run accident early this evening.  Mr. Pearce died at the scene. Two bodies were discovered in a nearby garage compound. They had both been shot at close range. One of the dead men is believed to be Charles Norris, a criminal with extensive underground connections who may have masterminded a bank heist ten years ago. Nothing has ever been recovered from the robbery. Police indicate that this may well be a gangland killing.  An extensive search of the area is being undertaken.”

 

“Silence is golden.”

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THE BODHI TREE 

Gill Briggs

 

Raindrops pattered gently on the windows of the gloomy house, the grey skies and dismal weather reflecting Steven’s mood. This was more than a house to him, more than a second home; it had been an endless source of joy and laughter, a sanctuary in darker times and always a place of inspiration and discovery. His grandfather’s rich and flamboyant background had never failed to produce an exciting bedtime story – tales of sailing the oceans, of pirates, of storms at sea and dramatic adventures which filled Steven with awe as a child.  Although he may have begun to regard them with some scepticism as he grew older, he would never have questioned his grandfather over the level of truth involved, preferring to rejoice in their magic.

But all of that was slipping into distant memory now his grandparents were both dead. Being geographically the closest in the family he had volunteered to start the process of sorting out the house, though he was already beginning to regret it, the memories of happier times resurfacing and threatening to moisten his dry eyes.  He wandered through the rooms, lifting objects one-by-one, remembering small details about stories he associated with them.

‘Be careful with that, it’s a cannon ball – you don’t know if it exploded or not’ his grandfather would say with a twinkle. In time, he discovered it was the Thai equivalent of a rounders ball, ceremoniously handed over when his grandfather’s team beat the locals in a friendly game. Steven managed a wry smile at his youthful innocence as he replaced it on the dresser and continued to make piles of things to keep and things to throw away.

To the side of the living room was the conservatory, groaning with plants of all shapes and sizes, some already showing signs of neglect or maybe loss. They had been his grandfather’s pride and joy; a tribute to his years as a botanist and plant collector, the career which had allowed him to fulfil his ambition to travel the world.  Many were exotic semi-tropical species, producing rainbows of colour when everything else in the well-kept garden had surrendered to the winter. As a child Steven had not been allowed in there, the excuse given that some were poisonous (true) but the more likely explanation that they were irreplaceable and warranted protection from probing fingers and clumsy games. In recent years he had become more aware of their beauty and rarity and was annoyed with himself that he hadn’t thought to ask more about them; well, too late now.

In the far right-hand corner was what could only be described as a tree. It was as familiar to him as the dark-stained armchair where his grandfather had sat, seemingly forever, to drink tea and tell stories, but he realised he knew nothing about it. He had picked up some basic botanical knowledge by listening to his grandfather but this, with its heart-shaped leaves, distinctive canopy and wigwam of vines around the trunk was a mystery to him.

Phoning his mum later, Steven asked her if she knew anything about it.

‘No idea’ she said, ‘except that he was very protective of it.  He said it was very rare and you wouldn’t find it in your local garden centre.  He must have brought it back from Asia, I guess’.

Steven knew he would need to find homes for as many of the plants as possible but felt reluctant to part with something which he knew so little about, but which had clearly been very special to his grandfather. Internet searches threw up a few possibilities but nothing conclusive.

Over the next few days he continued to browse through and sort out his grandfather’s possessions. As with the plants, there were a huge number of books, mostly botanical, for which he would want to find good homes. As he ran his fingers across the dusty spines one in particular caught his eye; an atlas of South East Asia with many coloured tags poking out. He pulled it free and flicked through. The pages relating to Vietnam were heavily tagged and annotated and contained a detailed map showing a numbered route which meandered across the country starting low in the Mekong delta and finishing in the north near Hanoi. Some towns and villages had ticks, others crosses; some were circled, some highlighted or underlined.  The village of Ban Bai, however, not far from the border of North and South Vietnam and seemingly nestled in a heavily forested area, was singled out with a large red star beside it. Steven flicked through the pages but found nothing to explain the symbol.  Reluctantly he replaced the volume and attempted to return to his sorting processes, but before long he found himself sitting back at the table with the atlas once more open in front of him.  Staring at the red star he felt overcome with a compulsion to discover its meaning.  He had no control over the emotion and immediately knew he would have to follow up on his findings.  He would travel to Vietnam, visit Ban Bai and hope to uncover the story behind the star.

***************************

After landing at DaNang airport, Steven took a bus through the Central Highlands to Ban Bai. En route he was struck by the amount of new forestation, giving the land a luscious green hue despite the baking sun. Some prior research had informed him that there was a centre for biodiversity located near to the village, and Steven was hopeful not only that this had some significance as to why his grandfather had found the area important, but also that there might be some English spoken there. He had emailed in advance and the director had agreed to meet him, so after getting directions with some difficulty, he made his way there.

‘Welcome!’  The Director shook his hand warmly.   ‘So you are the great botanist’s grandson?  You must be very proud.’

‘To tell you the truth, I never really took on board how important his work was’, said Steven. ‘As a young boy I was always more wrapped up in the stories of his journeys, the people he met and the scrapes he got into.  It all sounded so exciting, which as a kid, plants weren’t.’

‘So, what brings you here now?’ asked the director.

‘I’m not exactly sure’, Steven replied, and began to explain about the maps and the red-starred village and his curiosity about its significance. ‘I just feel there must be something about this place which meant something special to my grandfather and that I would find out what it was if I came. Do you have any idea of what it might have been?’

‘As you know, the centre here wasn’t built until long after your grandfather’s visit, so it wouldn’t be related to this.  Most of our work is based around the reforestation programme which is taking place,’ explained the Director.

‘I noticed all the new planting – it’s very impressive. What’s the background?’ asked Steven.

‘During the war U.S forces sprayed 5 million gallons of defoliants, including Agent Orange, onto our forests in an attempt to eliminate cover which provided hiding places for Viet Cong troops. In total they destroyed more than 7,700 square miles.  After the war, in an attempt to rebuild the economy, even more was given over to logging and agriculture.  At one point it was estimated that the country had lost nearly 90% of its forests.  Fortunately, thanks to collaboration with international projects, we have been able to restore these to almost pre-war levels.  The challenge now is to introduce a wider variety of species to improve the biodiversity – that’s what we are trying to establish here at the centre.’

‘That’s fantastic’, said Steven, with genuine enthusiasm.  ‘But you’re right, I don’t think that relates to what my grandfather was doing here.’

‘There could be a link with Loc Thien, the monastery just outside the village,’ suggested the Director. ‘It has a beautiful garden which is tended by the monks. They are always happy to show people around.’

After thanking him profusely Steven returned to his hotel where he spent a restless evening processing the information he had gathered during the day. He was already eagerly anticipating a visit to the monastery the following day.

The approach to Loc Thien was lined with beds boasting a myriad of brightly coloured flowers, many of which were unfamiliar to Steven. He recognised some magnificent looking orchids and chrysanthemums, and the taxi driver told him others were peach flowers and dalat roses. Once inside the monastery walls, he marvelled at the peaceful courtyard complete with a lake covered with lotus flowers and waterlilies. He was greeted by the Abbot, who listened with interest while Steven explained the reason for his visit.

‘I believe I may be able to help’, the Abbot told Steven.  ‘I did not personally meet your grandfather but there are many photos here of a gentleman who helped us create this beautiful garden and I suspect this was him.  I can also introduce you to one of our longest residents who I believe was good friends with this man.  He will be at prayers at the moment, so please take a moment to explore the garden; even if you do not find what you are looking for here I can assure you it will bring you peace, tranquillity and a sense of well-being.’

Steven thanked the Abbot and made his way into the monastery gardens.  They were indeed outstanding in their beauty and he recognised some plants which he had seen in his grandfather’s garden or conservatory.  After a short while, an elderly monk slowly made his way across the garden to greet him.

‘Good morning.  My name is Toc Dhu Tan.  I am delighted and honoured to meet the grandson of a great man.’

‘I am also delighted to meet you too,’ replied Steven.  ‘I’m hoping you may be able to help solve a mystery for me.’

‘Let us walk around the garden while we talk,’ said Tan. ‘Maybe you will learn something here’.

As they wandered slowly along the paths, Tan revealed that Steven’s grandfather had spent several months at the monastery recovering from malaria which he had contracted probably in China.  The monks had nursed him back to health and in return he had helped to improve and enhance the garden while also training the monks in basic horticultural techniques. He pointed out various plants to Steven and related how his grandfather had been excited to discover the more unusual species and had requested cuttings or seeds from many to take home.  The beds contained exquisite combinations of frangipani, hibiscus, bougainvillea and yellow mimosa, filling the air with heady fragrance in the sunshine.  Along each path was a new discovery – a statue, a water feature, a pagoda or a stone bench artfully placed to create an oasis of calm.  Around the edges were huge sheaves of bamboo, gently waving in the breeze in front of a wall of trees which Steven struggled to recognise.

‘There are coconut palms to help create shade, and golden cypress to reflect the sun and provide colour,’ said Tan, pointing to one corner.  ‘The trees on the left have specific spiritual connections for us.  The Kapok tree, the giant at the back, is said to be where ghosts live, and should not be disturbed, while the Banyan tree next to it is the home of spirits.’

‘The Banyan tree – is that the one with all the vines growing round it?’ asked Steven. ‘I’ve seen one similar to that in my grandfather’s house, but I don’t think it was the same.’

‘Yes, indeed that is the Banyan, but I believe you are talking about the Bodhi tree, which is very rare and especially sacred to us.  It is believed to be the tree under which Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and became Buddha.  The vines on the Banyan are parasitic and use the tree as its host, while those on the Bodhi tree are formed by the tree itself.’

‘Can you show me the Bodhi tree?’ asked Steven. ‘I’d like to see if it is the same as my grandfather’s.’

‘Sadly, no.’ replied Tan. ‘If you look to your right you will see a bare area where the Bodhi tree grew for many hundreds of years.  Unfortunately it died along with so many other trees as a result of the chemical warfare in our country.  Our religion demands that once a Bodhi tree has died, it may only be replaced with one grown from its own seed, in order to maintain the direct relationship with the Buddha. Your grandfather took many seeds away from here, and he wrote to us when he had returned home to tell us he had managed to get one to germinate. After the war we contacted him to ask if he was able to provide us with any seeds so we could plant a new one, and he promised he would try.’

‘I don’t remember ever seeing it flower,’ said Steven, ‘and even if it had, my grandfather suffered from dementia for a number of years before he died so it’s unlikely he would have remembered his promise.  But I’m sure he intended to try to fulfil it – he was very protective of the tree and knew this place was very special.’

‘I’m glad he managed to grow one, and I’m sure it would have brought him great pleasure.  Perhaps you might continue to look after it and one day we might get some seeds?’

’I think I can do better than that’ said Steven, a plan already taking shape in his head.  ‘Let me see what I can do.’

Leaving the monastery later that day, Steven made his way back to the Biodiversity Centre and asked to see the Director again.  Having learned as much as he could about transporting large living organisms, he returned home several days later feeling a glow of warmth which had been missing since his grandfather’s death.  Within the space of a few weeks the Bodhi tree had been packaged, put on a plane to Vietnam, and replanted in the monastery garden, complete with a small plaque in remembrance of his grandfather.

UNFINISHED BUSINESS 

Judith Jones

 

‘Mary Margaret Katherine O’Brien, what in the Lord’s name have you been doing this time?’

I could tell from my mother’s tone of voice that I’d over stepped the boundaries again. Exasperation leaked out of her like perspiration. Her accent got a whole lot stronger when she was upset and today she sounded like she’d never left Dublin. She had long before I was born.

‘Child, you are a trial and a tribulation to me day and night,’ she grabbed hold of me, none to gently, and yanked me through the kitchen door to stand in front of the long hall mirror.

My tennis shoes left rather damp and slightly muddy prints on the old lino. I hoped she’d not notice since she was far more interested in showing me how serious my black eye was.

I knew it was bad. I could barely see out of it and the shiny metal on the sweet stand, outside the corner shop, had given me a pretty good view of it.

‘How on earth did this happen? Were you fighting again? Maggie you will be the death of me truly, as God is my witness. What did I do to deserve such a child?’

These were all questions I’d heard before and probably would again, Mam didn’t require answers just the opportunity to vent them. She also liked to remind me that good Catholic girls didn’t go round hitting people. She was less clear about what good Catholic boys should be doing.

‘He had it coming, it was unfinished business Mam,’ I squinted at my reflection quite impressed by the purple bruise blooming over my eye socket and towards my cheek. It’d be black by tomorrow and with any luck I’d have to miss a day of school.

‘Who?’ snapped my mother pushing me back down the hallway and in to the kitchen, ‘here sit still whilst I get a cold flannel to take that swelling down.

I listened to her shoes squeak across the lino and closed my eyes. It hurt like Billy Stink and I could almost hear the Sisters from the order of Santa Julia tut tutting when they next saw me at school. I was just as much a challenge to them, some days, as my mother.

Placing the cold, damp cloth across my eye, Mam sat down beside me and leaned her elbows on the Formica topped table. There was a long scratch across one corner where I’d dropped my shinty stick on it last year. I always felt bad about that.

‘Now tell me exactly what is going on young lady,’ she paused and half smiled, ‘if I call you a young lady enough perhaps it’ll rub off on you. You’re twelve, Maggie, far too old to be knocking the bejeuses out of every lad that annoys you.’

‘He had it coming Mam, he was going for our Tommy again and I wasn’t having it,’ I leant against her breathing in the smell of coal tar from her soap. She used Pears as a treat on a Sunday but never during the week, ‘he was calling him names, saying he was a little Nancy with all his dancing. He’s older than me and shouldn’t be picking on little ones like Tommy.’

I folded my arms and looked mutinous, I knew she’d say Tommy should be fighting his own battles, he was nearly ten. Tommy was gentle and lived for the hours he could tap across the kitchen floor, kilt on for the Irish dancing. He’d won more competitions than we had shelf space to display the cups and medals on.

Mam had made me go to lessons for a year, made me wear the stiff petticoats under the embroidered velvet dresses, and then given up. I went left instead of right and couldn’t remember the steps ever. I was far better at chasing a ball with a stick and scoring goals.

‘So, which one was it this time?’ Mam lifted the flannel and looked at my face. ‘Same as last time, Patrick O’Connor?’

I nodded and she sighed and I realised I’d quite spoilt her Sunday afternoon. It was the only quiet time she got in the week, what with her job and looking after all of us.  Now she’d have mad Mr O’Connor hammering on the door complaining I’d ripped Patrick’s best shirt and I’d better be buying a new one pronto. I had two pounds saved towards hockey boots which might be enough to replace the shirt with the big pointed collar.

It was O’Connor’s pride and joy, he’d worn it every day last week and now it was minus its buttons and half a sleeve. Plus it was covered in blood where I’d split his lip and made his nose bleed. His black eye would probably be worse than mine by now.

‘If his father comes round I’ll pay for the shirt,’ I said, ‘I’ve got the money for my boots.’

‘You will not. If anyone comes round complaining I’ll point out a few home truths and be demanding compensation. His boys were responsible for throwing eggs at our windows and next time I’ll catch them. Total hooligans the whole lot of them. I’ll be having a word with your father when he’s back from the match.’  She checked the kitchen clock, ‘Let’s have a brew and then you’d better tell me all about it. I suppose Tommy’s hiding under his bed, go call him and I’ll butter us all a slice of barmbrack.’

The wonderful thing about my mother is now matter how awful I am she still loves me and would fight off lions for me. Well old man O’Connor at least.

I headed upstairs, to the room I shared with my older sister Niamh, to have another look at my eye. It was certainly going to be a shiner. It was worth it though, Patrick O’Connor would think twice before trying to pick on anyone again. He thought his blond curls and passing resemblance to Roger Daltrey, from The Who, allowed him to do what he liked. Well he’d know now that girls in 1978 weren’t impressed by his bullying ways.

I grinned at my reflection then winced, next time I’d remember to duck if someone took a swing at me. It would happen again, I knew that. Injustice of any sort riled me to the point of madness. Mam said my temper was nearly as fiery as my hair and that was on the orange side of red. Something inside me wanted to right wrongs and look after those who needed it. A blessing and a curse but it was who I was.

I heard the kettle whistle and went to find Tommy.

 

The intercom buzzed and Aileen’s voice announced my next appointment. The door opened and she ushered in a tall man with short blond hair that was turning silver at the temples. He looked to be around my age, mid-fifties and vaguely familiar.

I glanced down at my notes for his name. A builder with an immigration problem for one of his                       staff,

‘Mr Connor, how may I help you?’ and held out my hand.

Smartly dressed in a dark grey suit he shook my hand firmly.

‘Ah, Ms O’Brien it’s good to meet you. You come highly recommended. I read about your work for some of the Windrush people, quite amazing to take on the government and win.’

I smiled,

‘Not finished yet and I was merely a small cog in that particular wheel. Please sit down and tell me about your problem.’

Working on the Windrush case for two people wrongly threatened with deportation had catapulted my small company in to the headlines. I’d specialised in human rights issues for twenty years, slowly building a quiet reputation for taking on goliaths with little more than a pebble to throw.

He sat down and leaned his elbows on his knees, linking his hands between them and began to explain. I listened with half an ear, a fairly straightforward case that I often came across. The usual result caused by an over-officious, bureaucratic Home Office decision.

The other part of my brain was trawling back through my memory to fit the voice and face to a recognisable name. I failed which was unusual, generally I rarely forget a face or name.

‘I don’t think this will be a problem, we’ve dealt with similar ones,’ I said after asking him a series of questions. ‘It won’t be a quick process unfortunately, not enough civil servants in the Home Office now and half of them tied up stopping the next scandal emerging.’

He laughed,

‘Sounds like government in general.’

There was a small pale scar across his upper lip and suddenly I knew exactly who he was. I’d put the scar there many years ago.

Never one to avoid the situation I looked at him again closely. Perhaps this was a genuine case or maybe he’d realised who I was and come back to beat me to a pulp, unfinished business forty years on.

I sat up straighter, my early fighting days were over but I’d been involved in self-defence for years. My first job, as a young lawyer, had been working for a firm supporting women in refuge. Being able to fight back had been essential at times for many of our clients.

Choosing my words carefully I looked him in the eye, ‘May I ask you a question?’

He nodded, looking slightly wary I thought. Dismissing the idea I smiled brightly.

‘How did you come to choose this company? Was it after the publicity from last year?’

He nodded again then looked at his hands for a moment,

‘Also, I recognised you from many years back.’

‘Patrick O’Connor?’

We stared at each other and for a moment I could see the blood dripping off his chin when I’d landed a punch on his nose.

‘I often wondered what you’d become,’ he said. ‘Then last year you were being interviewed by the BBC and I thought I know her. Took me a bit to work it out and then I looked you up. You’ve done well and still fighting for causes.’

‘Is this a genuine case?’ I indicated my notes, ‘or have you come back to black the other eye?’

‘Good lord, no not at all,’ he looked mortified. ‘I wanted to apologise really. I was an awful boy in those days and you did me a massive favour.’

‘I did?’ I couldn’t keep the surprise out of my voice. ‘Destroying your best shirt, busting your face up is a favour?’

‘Well maybe a wakeup call is a better term,’ he leaned back in his chair. ‘I wouldn’t be wearing a bespoke suit and running my own company if I’d stayed in our neighbourhood.’

‘Where did you go? I mean you just disappeared out of the town,’ I said interrupting him, ‘I was waiting for your dad to come demanding a new shirt.’

‘Ah well,’ he paused and shook his head as if at the memories then carried on, ‘when I got home all hell had broken out, my older brothers Jim and Paul had been arrested. Caught burgling a jewellers in a nearby town at one in the morning, hit a policeman trying to escape when the alarms went off. Got done for GBH and banged up for a few years. My news was the final straw. My mum packed my younger brother and I off to County Cork with relatives on the next boat train from Holyhead. Think my dad was expecting you to press charges and having a son that had been beaten up by a girl was beyond his comprehension.’

Words failed me, for once, though a good few questions were fighting to get out of my brain yet I couldn’t quite say them. Instead I sat and gawped at him. The hot-shot lawyer silenced. A few of my adversaries would be applauding this state.

‘And the suit?’ I pointed at the expensive tailoring eventually.

‘Ah, therein lies a tale. Being banished to County Cork wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d expected. My uncle had a small building company. I thought I’d be humping bricks or mixing concrete for years. He had other plans, sent me to the local school, told me to get a grip and learn something or I’d be stuck in the back end of nowhere for the rest of my life. Fists were only of use for a while and not the answer. After school was college and every HND he could enrol me on. By day I was a builder and by night I was at the local tech college getting all the building qualifications I could find. I was so exhausted I hadn’t any energy to pick fights or be the prize shit I was working up to at fourteen. Seeing my brothers locked up was very frightening, sort of made me see I had a choice.’

My intercom buzzed, Aileen politely reminding me my 5pm client was waiting. An hour had flown by and I couldn’t quite take it all in.

‘Look,’ he began then stopped.

‘Shall we meet for a drink at six, there’s a pub on the river with a garden. I’ve still a hundred questions to ask you,’ I finished for him. Tact and patience have never been my strong points.

‘And I you,’ he grinned and again I saw the fourteen year old behind the face life had dealt him. ‘See you at six.’

 

‘Really, Patrick O’Connor, you went for a drink with him?’ Tommy sounded like he was laughing when I rang him later. ‘What on earth did he want?’

‘To say sorry, most of all, for hitting me and teasing you, even dropped the O’Connor initially, he was worried I wouldn’t take the case.’ I wound my hair up in to a pile and secured it with a pencil, ‘I told him all about your career with the dancing. He called you the second Michael Flatley and was very impressed when I said you were in Riverdance for years.’

Tommy has his own dance company; a small affair in comparison to Flatley’s but it pays the mortgage and all five of Tommy’s brood dance in it. He’s in great demand for Irish weddings and wakes.

‘So, is he a changed man?’ my brother asks.

‘I’d say so,’ and explained all about being exiled to County Cork. ‘He inherited his uncle’s business and has expanded it massively, builds houses across all Ireland. The property boom of the 90s helped, part of the Celtic Tiger in Ireland.’

‘Definitely sounds like a reformed character,’ Tommy says then adds slyly, ‘married and children? Did you tell him about you?’

‘Yes, to both but he divorced years back like me. Both his daughters run the company with him though he’s looking to step back a bit, be less hands on.

‘You found out an awful lot in one drink after work Maggie.’

‘Mm, well it became dinner and coffee at mine.’

‘And when exactly was this?’ my little brother is very good at sniffing things out, ‘would there be something you’ve not quite shared yet?’

‘Possibly,’ I pause and pull the pencil out letting the wild redness of my hair loose. It hasn’t gone grey yet despite my age and I’m very fond of it, so is Patrick, ‘but its early days, we’ve a lot of unfinished business to catch up on.’

JULY 2019

POSTMARKED BRISTOL

Ann Henderson

 

“You’re too young.”

If there was one sentence in the entire language Tilly would ban, it would be that one.  She reminded herself just in time that mature adults do not shout and stamp their feet.

“I’m seventeen,” she said with admirable calm.  “I could be married by now.”

“You were seventeen two days ago,” responded her mother, exercising similar control for much the same reason.  “In the days when it was the norm for girls to marry at sixteen, it was also usual for their life partner to be chosen for them by parents and friends who knew them well and had their long-term happiness and security in mind.”

“I don’t want to get married,” said Tilly, speaking very slowly and deliberately because any minute now she really was going to explode. How long could you be expected to stay calm in the face of such total lack of reasonableness and understanding? “All I want is to go away with Tim for a weekend before he goes off to university. We won’t see one another again for ages.”

“Ten weeks,” said her mother, sounding as matter-of fact as she could, while remembering perfectly well how long that could seem when you were young. “If you are really committed to one another, that won’t matter. And if it turns out to be a short-term ‘thing’ between you, then it matters even less. And it might be that, you know. You’re about to start sixth-form college, where you’ll meet a lot of new people. And Tim will be away from home, with all sorts of new experiences to deal with. Both of you will change. And that’s not a terrible thing,” she added hastily, seeing the expression on Tilly’s face. “People do change and develop; that’s what education is partly about.

“When I look at photographs of the clothes I chose when I was sixteen,” she added, trying frantically to lighten the discussion, “I’m deeply grateful I didn’t get stuck with any of the boys I fancied at the time!”

The contempt on her daughter’s face suggested that that probably hadn’t worked.

“I don’t see what you’ve got against Tim,” Tilly muttered, shifting ground.

“I’ve got nothing at all against him,” replied her mother with perfect truth. In fact, the thing she mostly felt for Tim was a mild, nostalgic envy. To be young, bright, not at all bad-looking and just setting off to study a fascinating subject in a lovely place a long way from home … what was not to like? Oceanography – she’d often wished she’d gone for that rather than Geography. It just hadn’t occurred to her at the time. There seemed to be more choices now – or perhaps people were more aware of them. All the more reason for Tim and Tilly not to be making such a big step forward in a relatively new relationship just at this point in their lives.

She wondered briefly whether to raise the prospect of unwanted pregnancy but decided it would sound too crass. She had good reason to know, however, how easy it was to get it wrong, and how devastating the consequences could be.

“I just wish he didn’t have to go,” muttered Tilly.

This put her mother on safer ground. “If you really care for him,” she said more firmly, “you should be glad for him. Tim’s clever, he works hard and he deserves this chance. In a few years’ time, I hope you’ll have the same chance. And your dad and I will miss you very much – but we’ll still want you to go.”

Feeling she couldn’t hammer the point any further, she went for distraction. “Did you see this competition in the paper?” she asked, fishing it out from the usual pile of books and papers cluttering up the end of the coffee table. It’s a tourist organization and they want an account of personal involvement in local ecological projects. It’s open to anyone under eighteen and the prize is …” she scanned down to the end of the feature, “ … a luxurious weekend away in one of Britain’s beautiful cathedral cities, including a river trip through the city and tickets for the well-known local repertory theatre. I was thinking about that project you worked so hard on when the Council needed help restoring our local water meadows. You must have some of the material still and you always write well. If you won it, that would definitely impress Tim.”

Tilly took the paper. Glancing down the notice, she felt her pulse speed up. It didn’t say which cathedral city was on offer – perhaps there was more than one prize – but there must surely be a good chance they meant York, where Tim was going. If she won, she might be able to do a lot more than just impress him….

“I might have a go,” she said, as casually as she could manage. “I’ve still got some of the photos I took.”

She couldn’t resist, later that day, looking out some of the water meadows project material – still at the bottom of her wardrobe as she’d suspected – and glancing through it for ideas on how she might approach the competition.  She was quite impressed by some of the stuff she’d done. The files and photographs had been returned to her at the start of the summer holidays last year and, having other things to think about, she’d not looked at them since.

It could be quite interesting, she thought, and she felt the stirrings of a new kind of pleasure over the course of that day, as she mentally revised and rearranged materials. Perhaps before the autumn term started she could go back there and take some more recent pictures as a follow-up. If her mum couldn’t give her a lift, she could probably get there on her bike.

These thoughts didn’t prevent her from being vituperative about her family’s unsympathetic ‘rigid thinking’ when she reported to Tim that evening on the upshot of the confrontation with her mother. “And there’s no point going to Dad,” she added bitterly. “They always, but always, back one another up. I think they must have read one of those books on how to bring up children and believed all the advice about not letting the evil little creatures play off both ends against the middle.”

Tim, weary from eight hours in a local warehouse, where he was working through the summer to try to save up for next term, heard her out in silence. Then he grinned. “Perhaps we should write an alternative book,” he suggested. “How about Radical Child-rearing Practice for the Enlightened?”

He was in two minds about the parental veto on their weekend away. In one way he was as disappointed and frustrated as Tilly. She had lit up his life from their first meeting. He could not imagine himself loving anyone else and he fancied her more, and more acutely, than any girl he had ever met. At the same time, as his departure for university approached, and his thoughts inevitably veered towards his new life and the challenges of the new learning in store, he was increasingly aware that the three-year age difference between them – which would be trivial when they were older – mattered a lot at the moment.

She was a schoolgirl, just about to start her A-level studies, whereas he was on the point of leaving his parents’ home and embarking on a very different period of his life. He didn’t want to see himself as someone who would take advantage of a young girl, and he was mildly distressed at the thought that Tilly’s parents might perhaps see him that way.

So, without downplaying their shared disappointment, he carefully avoided letting her wind herself up too much about it, focusing instead on the ingredients for the beach barbecue they were helping with that weekend, commitments for the remaining weeks of the summer and even looking ahead to Christmas.

Over the next weeks, while Tim was at work, Tilly found herself more and more absorbed by the competition. Having sorted through the material she already had, she cycled back to the water meadows and was surprised and pleased to see how their hard work had paid off. As she was taking photographs of the newly established planting and the increased range and number of water birds, she was surprised to be approached by a man who was also taking photographs.

He turned out to be a reporter for the local paper. When he discovered why Tilly was there, he decided that this personal input was the missing ingredient he had been seeking for his own article on the restoration of the popular local amenity. In the course of the interview, Tilly managed to pick his brains also about the impact of the restoration work on the local community. She had already decided that this aspect of the work was to form the conclusion of her competition entry.

As a result, Tilly found herself featuring in the paper twice in one week: once as a local volunteer with things to say about the way the work had been accomplished; and once regarding the publication of the GCSE results.

She had thought that there would be no sleep for her in the run-up to results day, but by then she had been so busy with the competition entry that she hadn’t had time to worry too much. Tim’s three A grades had come through the week before, his university place safely confirmed. Her own results, which were much better than she had hoped, meant she could now confidently begin to think about university applications for herself.

She sent off her competition entry well before the closing date and by then it was time to start organising herself for the start of the next school year and her first term in the sixth form college.

She was still reeling from the start of term – new premises, new travel arrangements, new staff, new subjects, the beginning of new friendships – when it was also time to say goodbye to Tim, and that was hard, but already she, like him, had new things to think about. She had not told him about the possible competition prize, though he knew she was doing it and had been impressed by the quality of the entry when she finally let him read it.

The result of the competition was notified, as promised, by telephone, but everybody was out and Tilly didn’t pick up the message till the end of the day. It offered congratulations and said that confirmation of her prize was on its way in the post to her. Sure enough, a fat packet arrived by post two days later.  It was post-marked ‘Bristol’ and the contents confirmed that Tilly’s weekend away was definitely to be in Bristol.

It made sense, she supposed: a cathedral city, on a river, with the famous Bristol Old Vic theatre. A couple of months earlier, she would have been too disappointed to be interested. Now, though the disappointment remained, she began to wonder what it would be like. Her parents were delighted – and even more so when the reporter got in touch again, having received notification of the prize from the organisers, inviting her to write about it when she came back.

Tim, likewise, was impressed and delighted, even teasing her that by the time the term ended, someone with so exciting a life and such distinguished contacts would be too grand to want to see him.

Not a chance; she was counting the days. Nevertheless, she was vaguely aware – and her mother was very definitely aware – that the young lady who would be greeting him on his return was someone who would bring her own experiences, interests and talents to the relationship – and one, moreover, who was looking forward to a trip to Bristol after Christmas.

 

******

 

IT WAS POSTMARKED BRISTOL

Judith Jones

‘So?’ Mum put a cup of tea down on the table for me. ‘Good holiday?’

‘Yup totally brilliant, plenty of sun, sea and,’ I smiled, there are a few things it’s best not to share with your parent. ‘The villa was great, and we did almost nothing for two weeks except wander to the tavernas and market to watch the world go by.’

‘And?’ she looked at me over the top of her cup then at my ring finger.

I shook my head and shrugged.

Reaching across the table she took my hand and squeezed but said no more.

‘I bought you some local honey, it’s delicious and good for you,’ I rooted about in my bag for the jar to change the subject. ‘Ollie sends his love, left him ironing and he says you’ll love his tan, it’s an all- over one.’

 

The following day Mum rang, ‘Hello darling, a parcel has arrived for you.’

‘At your house? How weird,’ I put my phone on speaker and Ollie came to lean against me to listen, ‘I haven’t lived with you for years. Who’s it from?’

‘No idea, it’s postmarked from Bristol. Rather a big box but not heavy. Shall I bring it over?’

‘No, we’ll come across,’ Ollie said and looked at me, I nodded. ‘Got any of that apple cake Rhona?’

‘Freshly made and needs eating,’ I could hear Mum laughing at Ollie, we joined in.

 

We arrived ten minutes later to find her sitting in the garden with the box on the grass at her feet. It was knee height and square, wrapped in thick brown paper and tied up with string.

Dragging a couple of old deck chairs across to join her, we all sat staring at it. There was nothing to suggest a sender and Mum was correct, it was postmarked Bristol.

‘Do you know anyone from there?’ Mum handed me a pair of kitchen scissors, ‘Exciting isn’t it?’

Ollie and I shook our heads, truthfully we knew no one in Bristol.

My mother loves presents, especially surprise ones, even if they’re not for her. She even likes giving surprise pressies more than receiving them.

‘Well, here goes,’ I said, snipping the string and pulling it off. The paper peeled back to reveal a plain cardboard box filled with scrunched up paper. Lifting the top layer off we all peered in to see an ornate hat box with a navy ribbon on the top.

Ollie helped me lift it out and took the lid off.

‘Oh my goodness isn’t that the most beautiful hat, how lovely,’ Mum reached into the box. ‘Oh, look at the colour, it’s like the sea on a misty morning. How come someone’s sent you a hat darling? How very odd!’

Ollie and I looked mystified and I said, ‘Try it on, see what it looks like.’

We sat back as she fitted the wide brim, shallow crowned extravaganza of stiffened net on to her greying curls, she looked beautiful.

‘Go and see in the mirror Rhona, you look amazing,’ Ollie helped her off the bench and we watched her disappear indoors, ‘Has she guessed?’

‘No, not yet, the shoes will give it away,’ I took his hand and linked our fingers. ‘If not, the next bit will. Pity Dad’s not here with us.’

Ollie hugged me, he knew how I felt. Two years ago a massive stroke, out of the blue, had killed a supposedly healthy sixty year old. There one moment and gone the next. We still missed him.

‘Hush she’s coming back. Oh good she’s got the cake,’ Ollie grinned and rubbed his hands together. He loves a good bit of cake, well any sort really even rubbishy shop made ones.

 

‘That hat is perfect,’ Mum laid the cake on a small table and left the hat on. ‘Anything else in there? Is there a clue about who might have sent it?’

‘Nope, waiting for you,’ I took another layer of scrunched paper off. ‘Well there’s a shoe box down there,’ I passed it to my mother to open.

Lifting the lid, she stared at a pair of elegant silk, kitten heeled sling backs, ‘They match the hat,’ was all she managed eventually. She looked at each of us and we kept our expressions blank.

‘I’ll see if there’s owt else,’ Ollie said in his best Alan Bennet voice and pulled out a large envelope. ‘It’s addressed to you Rhona,’ he passed it across whilst I exchanged her scruffy old slippers for the sling backs.

We sat back and waited; waited for the penny to drop; for my Mum to realise that I had told her the very smallest of white lies the previous day.

Her face was a picture of concentration, bottom lip nipped between her teeth, brow drawn to a frown as she read the embossed letters on the thick white card.

 

‘You’re getting married? Oh my beautiful boys you’re getting married,’ she threw her arms around us knocking her hat askew, ‘and there I was thinking nothing was planned. Next month at the pub on the green, you cheeky monkeys! Fancy not telling me. I’m so pleased I could cry.’

I rescued the hat, laying it in its box. It had all gone perfectly to plan, worth every mile of the drive to Bristol.

 

******

 

LOVE, INTERRUPTED

Gill Briggs

 

Once in a while, something happens during my shift at the sorting office which breaks the relentless monotony of pulling trays of letters from the conveyer belt and distributing them into pigeon holes ready to be collected by the delivery teams.  They, of course, are cheery, larger-than-life, mostly shorts-wearing chaps and lasses; we in the office are sour sorts mostly keeping ourselves to ourselves and relishing in keeping customers waiting when they come to pick up their undelivered parcels.

Despite what the public believes, Royal Mail is an incredibly efficient well-oiled machine, delivering over 80 million letters a day with only a tiny minority not reaching their destination within the allotted timescale.  That tiny minority is however what everyone talks about – the postcard from Greece which turns up three months after you got back from your holiday or the Christmas card for your Gran which arrived 2 weeks after she died. I take pride in trying to ensure that everything I handle ends up in the right place at the right time, but I can’t promise that for my successors and there’s always something which falls through the net.

 

It was Thursday and I was due to finish my shift at 6am, having started at 10pm the previous evening. I could feel tiredness creeping in, but pushed myself to get the last few trays sorted for collection. More haste, less speed – as luck would have it I dropped one of my letters just as someone behind me opened the door, so the wind caught it and blew it right to the back under the sorting counter. I knelt down and scrabbled around to pick it up and noticed the corner of something jammed between my counter and the back of the one opposite.  I pulled it gently.  I didn’t tear it; it was already torn, and at first it was hard to tell for sure if it was actually a letter of just a piece of scrap paper.  On proper inspection I could see that it was a letter, still in its envelope, but it had clearly been there for a long time and most of the address was indecipherable.  I could make out the name Anne, a surname probably beginning with F and the town as Nailsea, but not much else.  It was postmarked Bristol.

Our rules and regulations clearly state that we may not tamper with the Queen’s mail, but it seemed this item had already been tampered with, albeit perhaps accidentally, so I thought it would be worth a look to see if there was a return address. There wasn’t.  I probably shouldn’t have started reading the letter, but having gone this far I had started to feel somehow committed to this Anne and wanted to see if I could reunite her with her undelivered mail.  It only took a few lines for me to be hooked.

 

April 15th, 1963

My darling Anne,

I know you will have waited for me.  After everything we have been through my trust in you could only be matched by yours in me.  It breaks my heart to leave, knowing that you would have been sitting in our favourite spot expecting me to arrive and talk about our future.

I still believe in the cause I have been fighting for and I am confident that the rest of the group will continue the campaign to have the ban on ‘coloureds’ (you know how much I hate that word) lifted so that we are able to work on the buses and not just in the workshops.  I am grateful for all the support I have had not only from my fellow West Indians but also from many white people and especially, of course, from you.

Unfortunately, however, not everyone believes in this cause and many of those who don’t are aggressive to the point of violence when expressing their views.  As you know some of these people work for the Omnibus Company and have made it clear to me that if I continue to campaign and encourage others to protest, there will be a high price to pay. While I would be happy to pay that price myself, I will not put those I love in danger and for this reason I have made the decision to return to the West Indies.  When you read this, I will be on board a vessel leaving Bristol Docks on my way back to Kingston to be reunited with the rest of my family.  I know if I try to explain this to you in person you will persuade me to stay, but I also know that as a result you would not be safe.

I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me – please know that I do this out of my love for you and my wish to be your protector.  If God is just we will meet again in better circumstances and I pin my hopes on that day.

Your ever loving Julius

 

I’m not a soft man, but even I felt a lump in my throat when I realised how important this letter would have been to Anne. I studied the envelope again but I could still only make out the name of the town – there were no postcodes in those days of course. For a moment I thought about just throwing it out as a lost cause, but something prevented me, possibly my recognition of Julius’ commitment to his campaign and his determination to protect Anne, who presumably still believed she had been abandoned.

The sorting office was on the outskirts of Bristol and I had lived there for many years.  I knew a little about the Bristol Bus Boycott but I’m ashamed to say I’d never paid much attention to history at school so the detail had passed me by.  It’s strange how in later life you realise what the teachers were trying to teach you was actually quite interesting and you wonder why you hadn’t seen that at the time – still, it’s never too late and I resolved to see what else I could find out.

 

The local library had changed considerably since I’d last visited as a boy. Rows of computers alongside the bookshelves; classes going on in one corner; children’s storytime in another and a general sense of positive energy throughout. The lady behind the counter welcomed me brightly as I approached and I noted her flowing hair, lack of glasses and her ‘I hate cats’ badge with some relief, while chiding myself for stereotyping.

‘Can I help?’ she almost shouted at me.

‘I wanted to read up on the history of the Bristol Bus Boycott’, I responded comparatively quietly. ‘Do you have anything?  I’m particularly interested in finding out the names of some of the people who were involved in the protests.’

‘Oh yes, we’ve got loads of archive material on it,’ she replied. ‘We created a large exhibition here for Black History month and had some local historians come in to talk about the boycott and its relevance to the passing of the Race Relations Act.  But if you are looking for specific names the newspaper database archive is probably your best bet.’

I followed her to the bank of computers where she performed some magic and accessed a database of newspapers where she searched for information on the boycott. In a few moments I was presented with detailed reports of the protests and those involved on both sides of the arguments. I spent the afternoon reading through a wide range of articles trying to get as full a picture as possible of what had happened and by the time I left, thanking the librarian profusely for her help, I felt as if I had almost been there myself.  This is what I had learned.

 

In the early 1960s a group of young West Indians, some of the 3000 resident in Bristol, formed the West Indian Association to represent some of the grievances regarding widespread racial discrimination. This included their objection to the colour bar operated by the Bristol Omnibus Company, a nationalised company, who refused to allow Black or Asian employees to work as crew on the buses despite a labour shortage.  The Association organised a campaign which involved a boycott of the buses as well as numerous protest marches and for four months the company’s buses were shunned by large numbers of Bristolians, mostly but by no means exclusively from the black community.  The TGWU stood up in favour of the ban, suggesting that removing it would cause havoc to the labour market and to wages, and the Bishop of Bristol also vocalised his support for it.  It was finally overturned at the end of August that year and by mid-September the first non-white conductor, Rahgbir Singh, was in place.  There is strong evidence to suggest that the impact of the boycott was directly linked to the establishment of the Race Relations Acts on 1965 and 1968.

The articles I read named several of the campaign leaders, including a Julius Walcott.  There was no other Julius mentioned so I felt safe in assuming this was the author of my letter.  I also noted some references to gangs of Teddy Boys who had targeted the campaigners causing angry and violent scenes at the protest marches.

 

The following morning, feeling chirpy after a good night’s sleep and armed with all my new information, I made my way to the Bus Station in Marlborough Street, hoping to find some sort of administrative centre as well as just the buses and coaches.  I was in luck.  Knocking on a door marked ‘Manager’ on the second floor, it occurred to me I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to say to the person behind it.

‘Hello there, sorry to disturb you’, I offered apologetically,  ‘I’ve been researching the Bristol Bus Boycott and was hoping you might be able to add a bit of historical detail for me.’ I expanded a little, feeling as if I was presenting myself as some sort of proactive news journalist rather than a local postie, but I stood my ground and waited hopefully.

‘It’s amazing that you should take the time to follow this up’, she replied. ‘I might just be able to help you.  My father worked for the company around that time and has often talked about the boycott. He might remember some of the people. He’s getting on a bit, but he still enjoys a pint in the local in the evening – why don’t I take you along to meet him after I finish tonight?’

 

It felt somehow as if fate was on my side.  The closer I got to an answer, the closer I also felt to Julius and Anne, particularly since learning about his troubled past.  I felt apprehensive as I approached the Royal Oak with Barbara the station manager, but acknowledged a flicker of hope that her father might provide a link to Julius which could lead me to Anne.

Paul, her father, listened with interest to her explanation of why I was there.

‘Well, you’re asking me to think back over 50 years’, he said. ‘Fortunately for you, I’m an old man and remembering what happened that long ago is a great deal easier than remembering what I had for breakfast this morning!  Julius – yes, that name rings some bells.  Good looking young West Indian who was passionate about the rights of his fellow countrymen and any other underdogs, if I recollect.

‘Do you remember if he had a girlfriend?  Someone called Anne maybe?’  Surely I couldn’t be this lucky.

Paul studied his pint thoughtfully. ‘Not that I recall specifically – but I do remember we used to tease him mercilessly about how long he used to spend in the canteen at lunchtimes.  I always suspected there might be a lady involved.  I also remember a chap called Arthur who gave him a lot of grief.  Unpleasant sort, not to be trusted.  A Teddy Boy I think. There was a lot of underlying tension and some unpleasant exchanges.  Then one day Julius just disappeared.  We often wondered what had happened to him.’

I bought Paul a pint and thanked him for his help.  I’d been stupid to hope for a simple answer, but once again Barbara stepped in.

‘We have a cupboard full of records of old employees from the catering department.  We really shouldn’t have, in these days of personal data protection, but no-one has got round to destroying them.  I don’t think it would hurt to have a look through, if you have the time.’

I didn’t really; I’d already used up a couple of days of my annual leave on this and to take more would mean cutting short my Easter break, but this search had consumed me and I wasn’t prepared to give up now.

 

The next morning, I returned to the bus station and started to comb systematically through the records, looking for Anne F.  By lunchtime I had filtered the files down to those from 1963 and before long I was staring at the record for Anne Fellowes, 21 Church Road, Nailsea.

It’s not often working for Royal Mail gives you any useful benefits apart from some free stamps at Christmas, but just this once I felt a little buzz of excitement realising I could easily get someone to check if she was still living there, or if mail had been forwarded to a different address. Within a couple of hours I’d learned that A. Fellowes was still in residence in Church Road.  Suddenly it all seemed a bit problematic – what if she didn’t want to be reminded of the past?  Or what if she already knew?  I would look a bit of an idiot for having put so much energy into this.  But I couldn’t give up now.

I knocked on the door with some trepidation.  I was expecting an elderly lady to answer, but when the door opened, I saw a woman most likely in her early 60’s and evidently mixed race.

‘I…I’m sorry – I was looking for Anne Fellowes? I was under the impression she lived here?’  The words tumbled out as I tried to make sense of something which should have been immediately obvious.

My name is Angela Fellowes. Anne was my mother.  She died a few years ago.  Why are you looking for her?’

‘It’s not easy to explain, but I can assure you I mean no harm. I’m a Postman in Bristol and I have a letter for her which should have been delivered over 50 years ago.  I was hoping to reunite her with it -maybe I could come in and tell you a bit more about why I have it?

She looked a little dubious but ushered me into the living room and gave me the opportunity to spin out my tale.  I handed her the letter, and as she read it, I could see her eyes start to water.

‘What a difference this would have made to her’, she said, struggling to keep her emotions in check. ‘She would never talk about Julius, except to say he hadn’t turned out to be the man she had believed him to be.  She thought he had discovered she was pregnant and abandoned her. Reading this, I’m pretty sure he didn’t know.  Feeling let down by him, she married another man from the bus company, Arthur Stevenson. He was a bully and made our lives a misery until he ran off with a conductress. He could never accept that I wasn’t white and insisted I kept my mother’s surname.  Thank goodness I did.’

 

After several cups of tea, I said goodbye to Angela and made my way slowly back home.  As I shut my door and settled down in front of the TV, I felt something I could only describe as a glow of pride, followed by a huge sense of relief.  Tomorrow I could put my inner gumshoe on the shelf and return to being a boring Postie again.

JUNE 2019

 

THE GARDEN ORNAMENT

 

‘It’s a disaster’.

Special Agent Collins stood back and surveyed the statue with dismay.

‘Whatever possessed him?  It’s such an insult.  Do you think it’s deliberate or just pure ignorance?’

His colleague, Agent Barnes, looked on dubiously.  ‘Hard to tell, you just never know with the guy. Giving him the benefit of the doubt and believing it’s deliberate doesn’t improve things though’.

The two secret service agents had been looking forward to joining the US President’s protection team for his forthcoming visit to the United Kingdom.  State dinners, parades, visits to Downing Street…. their imaginations had been running wild with the potential excitement.  It had come as something of a shock to discover that they had been tasked primarily with providing protection for the President’s gift to the Queen.  In itself, not such a bad assignment, except for the fact that the Queen was likely to be horrified by the gift.  The statue of Zeus, symbol of male power, was not only wildly inappropriate but in this case also spectacularly crude. There was little doubt that Her Majesty would decipher the message behind the sentiment, but of course she would be too diplomatic to say anything.

As they contemplated the statue their boss, agent Hoskins, arrived.  ‘So you’ve seen it then?’ he asked with more than a slight note of dejection. ‘Sure have’ replied Collins, it’s not what you would call understated’.  ‘So you’ll have guessed your mission, in that case?’  Barnes turned to Hoskins with a hint of indignation.  ‘Just because we’re not safeguarding the President himself it doesn’t mean we won’t do our jobs properly’ he retorted, standing to attention and laying a protective hand on the statue while trying to avoid its ample male appendage.

‘I don’t think you’ve completely understood’ said Hoskins.  ‘This mustn’t reach the Queen – we’d be a laughing stock.  Your job is to make sure it disappears and something more acceptable arrives in its place. You won’t have much of a window – the President will want to check it’s safely loaded onto AirForce 1 but after that he won’t know anything about it until the Queen thanks him for his gift.  The thank you letters follow a standard format in order not to show any biases, so he won’t know it has been replaced, and fortunately he’s only at the Palace briefly so he won’t expect to see it.’

Barnes and Collins looked back at him, astonished. ‘So what are we supposed to do with it?  And what do we replace it with? What happens if the President finds out? ‘

‘I don’t know and I don’t care.  This conversation never happened.  See you at the Palace.’

And with that, Hoskins was gone, leaving his stunned employees open-mouthed and speechless.

The flight was due to leave at 6pm that evening and arrive in the UK in the early hours of the following morning. It was already midday. The two agents were waiting for the President to arrive and board around 3pm; he would hold a meeting with his advisors, guests and travelling press before take-off and would then have dinner and a sleep until touchdown. Barnes and Collins had been looking forward to the trip and the luxuries of the well-equipped 747 but now their thoughts were focussed elsewhere with an edge of desperation.

Collins, the older and more experienced of the two agents by a small margin, felt the need to take some sort of control. ‘We need a plan’, he said, without any idea of what he was going to say next. ‘You don’t say’ responded Barnes sarcastically. ‘Any ideas, or shall we just offer our resignations now?’

Collins tried to get his thought processes working. ‘Let’s look at the travel plans again. Maybe there’s somewhere we can ‘leave it’ on the way from the airport’.

‘But we’ll need to swap it for something along the way – there has to be a gift for the Queen and it has to be wrapped up to look like the statue in case the President sees it being transported. ‘

‘That’s too difficult to arrange and too risky.  We need to get a substitute now and get it wrapped up and loaded with Zeusy here, and then we can dump him when we get a chance.’

‘Ok, good point.  We’d better get moving then. Not sure if there’s a local branch of ‘Statues-R-us but maybe I could try Amazon…’

‘Very funny’.  Collins wasn’t laughing. ‘You don’t seem to be taking this seriously.  Our jobs are on the line here and personally I don’t fancy choosing between the wrath of the President and that of Hoskins.  Let’s get on with it’.

The owner of the Yellow Barn Gallery on McArthur Boulevard immediately detected that the two dark suited visitors were not connoisseurs.  They were clearly in a hurry and their conversations were littered with phrases such as ‘too small’, ‘too heavy’ or ‘she’d probably hate it more than Zeus’. He wandered over with an offer of assistance.  Collins flashed his badge discreetly and pointed to a large stone cherub eating a bunch of grapes.

‘So we need a statue about this size, but ideally in a lighter material’.

‘This isn’t a supermarket, you know’, the owner answered. ‘Our exhibits are works of art to be appreciated for their uniqueness; you don’t pick something for its size. Can I ask what exactly brings you here?’

‘Need to know basis only, and you don’t need to’ said Collins with an inward smile – he’d always wanted to say that.  ‘Don’t worry, we’ll pay the going rate’.

Unwilling to argue with the agents, the gallery owner agreed a price on an elegant statue depicting an angel of patience which was not only roughly the right size but would also deliver a more acceptable message to Her Majesty, according to Collins. ‘I’m not sure it’s a message the President would be familiar with’ muttered Barnes, as he picked up one end.

An hour later they were back at the airport with the angel packaged and loaded in the hold close to Zeus. Disguising the wings had proved more than a little tricky but it was unlikely the President would notice the difference unless he got very close. As he boarded the plane he checked with his agents to make sure that the gift had been loaded and Collins was able to confirm truthfully that he had personally supervised it.

As expected, the President settled down after his meeting with a Big Mac and some magazines, before retiring and quickly falling asleep.  Collins made his way to the cockpit for a quick word with the pilot.  Explaining his dilemma, he gave the pilot a beseeching look.  ‘So what are the chances, do you reckon?  Could we just open some hatches and jettison this thing? There’s plenty of water between us and the coast of Ireland.’  The pilot laughed out loud. ‘It’s not like emptying the toilet, you know! Something that size would show up on the radar and the next thing we’d have RAF bombers trailing us.  If you want to be responsible for starting World War III I’m happy to join in the fun.’

‘Ok, ok, I get you’, said Collins, backing out of the cockpit and returning to his seat by Barnes. ‘Looks like it’s Plan B then’ he told him.  ‘What’s Plan B?’ asked Barnes, brightening up for a minute.  ‘No idea.  But we’ve got 3000 miles to figure it out’.

When the plane touched down in the UK, the President freshened up his comb over and prepared himself to leave.  The two agents were already aware that they were expected to travel in a hired van along with the gift and ensure it was safely handed over to Palace officials, who would pass it on to the Curator of the Royal Collection.  He or she would report back to the Queen’s staff about the receipt of the gift and ensure an appropriate message of thanks was sent to the President.  Barnes and Collins carefully ensured that Zeus was removed from the plane and loaded onto the van in full view of the President, but asked to driver to wait until the Presidential cavalcade had set off before quickly packing the angel in next to it.

The van driver proved more amenable to hatching a plan with the agents than the plane’s pilot.  Having been let into the secret mission, he chuckled, and threw out a ray of hope.  ‘I’ve got a mate who runs a garden centre on the Old Kent Road’, he said.  ‘There’s a load of old junk out the front, mostly gnomes and stuff, but we could dump your lump of concrete there if you want, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind’.  ‘It’s not perfect, but it’s going to have to do.  Thanks.’ said Barnes, cheering up a fraction.  True to his word, the driver pulled up outside what looked like a graveyard for old statues and carefully unloaded their new addition and placed him in amongst the water features.  ‘Some of the passers-by are going to get a bit of a shock at the size of that sticking out and waving at them! Do them good though, all been a bit too gentrified round here’, mused the driver, clearly having more fun than he had in a while.

Meanwhile, at the Palace, the President had enjoyed a drinks reception and was carefully being monitored by his aides who had the harder job of trying to keep him under control and make sure he didn’t break protocol.  When a tour of the garden was proposed, the aides ushered him outside thinking he would be less of a risk in the more informal environment.  Strolling across the beautifully laid lawns, there was an awkward moment when the President pointed to a spot on a corner which he pronounced would be ‘perfect’ for his gift, but fortunately refused to say any more as he didn’t want to ‘spoil the surprise’.  Almost at the same time, Barnes and Collins were carefully unloading Patience from the van and passing her into the hands of the waiting Palace staff.

The remainder of the President’s time at the Palace passed without incident, much to the relief of all the aides on both sides, and before long he was whisked away for his next engagement. Later in the day, the Queen is informed of the gift and asks for a photo in case some reference is made to it later on.  ‘Another statue’ she commented with a sigh. ‘It’s quite attractive, though, this one – I wouldn’t have credited him with such good taste.  Let’s try to find a good home for it with one of the charities.  And send out the usual polite thank you’.

After a whirlwind of meetings and visits, the President boarded back onto the plane later in the day for a flight to Ireland.  The two agents, feeling rather pleased with themselves at having pulled off what seemed like something of a miracle, settled down a few seats away and watched as he took out his phone and relaxed back into his comfy chair.

At the Royal Breakfast table the next morning, the Queen’s husband lingers over his breakfast, reading the papers and checking to see what has been said about him this time on social media. Suddenly, he looks up with surprise, as he notices a picture of Zeus on the President’s Twitter account, with the caption ‘I believe my gift to the Royal Couple was much appreciated and look forward to seeing it on my next visit’.

Looking over his shoulder, the Queen smiles.  ‘Well, if we ever needed proof that he doesn’t write his own Twitter feed, we certainly have it now!’

Gill Briggs

 

 

 

GNOME AFFAIRS

 

Brian Hubbard had a problem. How was he going to stop Sheila finding out? His life wouldn’t be worth living if she discovered what he’d done. She would find out sooner or later, he knew that, but he hoped that through some clandestine surreptitiousness he could mitigate the seriousness of his misbehaviour. Last time, he’d told Sheila that he wouldn’t do it again, and he truly meant it at the time, but today he was tempted and couldn’t stop himself. He had to have it. The “it” was swathed in bubble wrap nestling in the carrier bag in his hand. Cunningly, he had turned the bag inside out so that the words “Charlie’s Garden Emporium” emblazoned on it were hidden from view; especially Sheila’s.

The problem had dogged him all the way home on the train and on the ten-minute walk from the station. No solution had presented itself and his steps slowed to a dawdle as he turned off Sycamore Drive into Laburnum Avenue. Number 47 was almost in view when the answer hit him. He’d noticed that some of his neighbours had already trundled their wheelie bins to their front gates.

“Aha! That’s what I’ll do,” Brian thought. “I’ll hide David [he’d already decided on a name] behind the bins and when I’ve taken them out tonight [it was always his job] I’ll sneak out the back door from the garage and put him in the shed.”

And that’s exactly what he did, at least as far as hiding it and putting out the bins but he didn’t get as far as the shed.

“Brian!” Sheila called from the back door. “Brian, where are you going?”

“Oh God,” thought Brian. “Quick, think of something!” while desperately trying to hide the package. He’d deliberately picked this particular time because Sheila was always glued to the TV when the repeats of “Don’t Wait Up” was on.

But, too late.

“What’s that you’ve got behind your back, Brian?”

“Er, nothing dear.” Then, realising how foolish that sounded, considering he was carrying a large “something”. “Oh, it’s just some bulbs Bob, at the office, has given me. I’m just taking them up to the shed.”

“Why didn’t you do that when you got home from work, instead of skulking around in the dark?”

“Er, well, er, I just thought I’d leave it till later. There was no rush.”

Sheila stepped towards her husband,

“Show me!” she demanded and snatched the bag from Brian’s grasp.

“No, don’t open it!” Brian cried, grabbing back the package.

“Brian Hubbard, you’re hiding something from me!” Sheila shrilled. “Give it to me, now!”

The unfortunate object was yanked back into her hands.

Brian stood by helplessly. He knew his secret was going to be discovered and he knew he could do nothing about it. He couldn’t think of anything to say that would make the situation any easier for him and he knew, from experience, that if he did say something it would probably make things worse. He simply waited for the inevitable.

The carrier bag was discarded; the bubble wrap was unrolled, like removing the bandages from a mummy and then there was David fully exposed. On his head sat a red pointy hat and he wore trousers to match; his blue jacket was strained and stretched over his vast corporation and held in place by a bright gold button. Most of his white shirt was hidden by a long grey beard; his pudgy little hands were clasped across the expanse of his stomach and his head was thrown back with mouth wide open in a fixed silent guffaw.

“He’s a laughing gnome,” Brian muttered. “I call him David. You know, after that David Bowie song “The Laughing Gnome”.

“Arrgh!” screamed Sheila, thrusting the hapless gnome back into Brian’s hands. “Get rid of it! Just get rid of the hideous thing! You promised you wouldn’t buy any more of these things!” She turned on her heels, “And you’ve made me miss my programme. I’ll deal with you later, Brian!”

The door slammed behind her.

“I’m very sorry, dear, but I just couldn’t resist him,” Brian whined into the night.

He sighed.

“Oh well, David, I’ll take you to meet Cedric. Maybe she’ll calm down in a day or two and let you stay, especially if I can hide you in the irises where you can’t be seen from the house.”

Brian walked up the path to the pond. It was dark, so he placed David as best he could so that he wouldn’t be visible.

“Hello Cedric,” said Brian. “I’ve brought you a friend to keep you company. His name’s David.”

Cedric carried on looking down into the water, his face a picture of concentration. His little Wellington boots dangled just above the water line, in his hands was a fishing rod from which a piece of wire hung down into the pond. He wore similar attire to David, except that his jacket was green and he was several sizes slimmer. He’d been sitting on the same flat rock for two years now and had never caught anything. To tell the truth, he was never going to as there were no fish in the pond. A few insecty things floated or scooted around on the water’s surface and in the Spring, there were tadpoles. Every year Brian wondered where the frog spawn came from. Of course, he knew where it came from, but he’d never seen any frogs in his garden. He’d always ponder on this: hundreds of tadpoles but no frogs. He knew tadpoles can be carnivorous, but surely not to that extent. Maybe it was rats or the urban foxes that snapped up the frogs as soon as they made land. It was such a pity, he thought, that there weren’t more frogs, or hedgehogs for that matter, that could gobble up all the slugs and snails that devastated his flowers and vegetables every year.

Brian sighed a deep sigh. He couldn’t stay there all night. He had to face Sheila. If he was lucky, she would just freeze him out for a day or two. He said “Goodnight”, to Cedric and David and trudged back to the house.

The next morning was very quiet. Brian and Sheila busied themselves getting their own breakfast, the only human sounds were the voices talking quietly from the radio. It was Saturday and, although Brian couldn’t escape by going to work, he was thankful to hide behind the newspaper and eat his breakfast. When finished, he was only too pleased to fold the paper, put his things on the draining board, go to the utility room, put on his gardening shoes and head out into the blessed relief of the garden’s fresh and calming air.

Sheila barely raised an eyebrow when she heard Brian shouting outside. She continued to read the paper, which she’d picked up after Brian left, when her husband crashed open the door and yelled,

“You murderer! You’ve killed David! He’s had his head knocked completely off!”

Sheila calmly folded the paper and set it aside. In a calm voice she said,

“What are you blethering about, Brian? Are you trying to tell me that that ghastly gnome thing has been damaged?”

“You know damn well it has, because you’re the one who did it. Nobody else could have!”

“Oh, so now you’re accusing me of gnomicide. Well, Brian, I must admit I am pleased to hear about its demise, but I assure you I wouldn’t stoop so low as to do that out of spite. You should know me better than that. You know that when I seek revenge it’s always served cold,” Sheila replied, adding a hint of a smile.

She picked up the paper again, her eye being caught by an article exposing further sordid details about that awful David Mellor.

“It had to be you!” Brian blurted out. “There’s no one else!”

Without looking up from the paper, Sheila responded quietly and evenly,

“Brian, if you’re so bothered about finding a culprit, why don’t you call the police?”

“I’ll do just that, my dear. Maybe you’ll confess to them.”

 

And that’s what he did. And this is where I came into the story.

Those of you who have read my anecdotes before will know me as Inspector, or even Chief Inspector, Hector. However, Brian and Sheila Hubbard’s case goes back to when I was still a wet-behind-the-ears constable and it was one of my first.

We, that is myself and P.C. Jock Spon, had been called to a property in Laburnum Avenue to follow up a report of vandalism. Jock was an experienced police officer and had been assigned to be my mentor. As we knocked on the front door of number 47, he said,

“Now, laddie, you take the lead on this. I’ll not say a word unless I see you getting into difficulty, but my nose tells me this is going to be one of those cases where we say we’ll do our best, but…”

A man opened the door.

“Are you Mr. Brian Hubbard?” I asked.

“Yes, I am,” the man replied. “Please come in.”

We entered and followed Mr. Hubbard into the living room.

“I am Constable Hector and this is my colleague, Constable Spon,” I began. “We understand that you reported an act of vandalism on these premises. Is that correct, sir?”

“Yes, that’s right and if you come into the garden, I can show you exactly what happened.”

“That would be very useful, sir,” I said.

As Mr. Hubbard led us through to the garden, Jock gave me an encouraging nod. In the kitchen a woman sat at the table.

“This is my wife, Sheila,” Mr. Hubbard said.

“Good morning, ma’am,” I said.

She merely nodded at us.

Mr. Hubbard led us to the end of the garden and picked up an object which he held out to us in both hands. It was, I assumed, a garden ornament of the gnome kind. It was about eighteen inches tall but it had no head. It had been decapitated. From the jaggedness of the break I deduced that it had been beheaded using some force. It hadn’t been cut or sawn off cleanly and calmly. Obviously, it was an act of violence, probably impulsive, and not one that was cold-bloodedly premeditated. My assumptions and deductions were confirmed when Mr. Hubbard stated,

“Someone’s knocked David’s head off. Deliberately and violently.”

“David?” I queried.

“Oh, sorry,” Mr. Hubbard said. “I called the gnome, David, because of the David Bowie song, “The Laughing Gnome”. If you could see his head, you’d know he was laughing.”

I caught Jock’s eye. He’d pursed his lips desperately stifling a smile.

“And do you have the head, sir?” I asked.

“No,” Mr. Hubbard replied. “That’s the odd thing; I can’t find it. Maybe it fell in the pond.”

“Perhaps so, sir,” I replied, “but it’s not particularly important, we have the rest of the object as evidence.”

Now that I knew the background to the case, I could start asking pertinent questions.

“Did you hear anything out of the ordinary last night, sir?”

“No. Nothing that I can recall,” was the reply.

“Are there any means of access to the garden, other than through the house?”

“Er, no, unless someone climbs over a neighbour’s fence. Well, I suppose someone could get in by forcing open the garage door.”

“I see. And was the garage door closed last night?”

“Yes. I closed and locked it after I put the bins out.”

Jock interjected at this point.

“It’s Saturday today, sir. Are you saying that your bins are emptied on a Saturday?”

“They’re normally collected on a Friday,” said Mr. Hubbard. “But the binmen were on strike earlier this week and they were making up for the missed collections.”

“That’s right,” I said. “My bins were collected a day late this week as well.”

Jock gave me a fleeting scowl. I don’t think I should have said that.

“Can you show us your garage, sir?” I asked.

We went into the garage and the door was locked and there was no obvious sign of tampering.

“Well, sir,” I said, “It doesn’t look as though someone broke into your garden. Perhaps we should have a word with Mrs. Hubbard? Maybe she heard something.”

“By all means,” said Mr. Hubbard and he led us back into the kitchen.

“Sheila,” he said, “these officers want to know if you can help them with their enquiries into the vandalism.”
“Fire away,” Mrs. Hubbard said.

“Ma’am, did you hear anything out of the ordinary last night?”

“Nothing at all, officer.”

“But you did get out of bed for a while,” interrupted Mr. Hubbard.

“Yes, I did, but only to go to the bathroom. You know that, Brian.”

She sounded rather condescending and I made a mental note that perhaps not all was happy in the Hubbard house, particularly as Mr. Hubbard added,

“You can say that, but can you prove that’s all you did?”

Mrs. Hubbard snapped back,

“Brian, please be quiet!” Then she addressed us, saying, “My husband thinks I broke his beloved gnome…”

“She hates them!” Mr. Hubbard broke in, vehemently.

“I think hate is too mild a word,” Mrs. Hubbard continued. “I detest them, abhor them. But I wouldn’t be so childish as to smash them.”

If I say so myself, my next line of questioning would have impressed Sherlock Holmes.

“Mrs. Hubbard,” I said, “if you were to go into the garden what would you wear on your feet?”

“That’s an odd question, constable, but if you want to know, I’d put on my old shoes.”

“Can you show them to me, please, ma’am?”

“I can’t see the relevance of this, but they’re in the utility room.”

We all trooped into the utility room and Mrs. Hubbard showed me the shoes in question. I studied them closely.

“It rained last night,” I said, “and if you’d gone out then it’s likely they’d still be wet and muddy. The soles of these shoes are completely dry and there’s no trace of mud.”

I handed the shoes to Mr. Hubbard and added, “In all probability, sir, your wife didn’t go into the garden last night and couldn’t have vandalised your gnome.”

“Wow, you are a smart one,” smiled Mrs. Hubbard.

Mr. Hubbard’s gaze swivelled from me, to his wife and then back to me. Guilt and embarrassment were written all over his face.

“Mmm, yes, a good point constable,” he stuttered. “But how do you explain the damage?”

“Your guess is as good as mine, sir. It could have fallen over, I suppose, or be knocked over by a fox or a cat. Those are the most likely explanations. We’ve had no other reports of vandalism in this area, so we can almost certainly rule that out as such behaviour tends to come in clusters. But we will take this seriously, sir. It will be logged and recorded and if there is an outbreak of vandalism in the area in the near future, we may well link your case to it.”

And that was the end of that as far as we were concerned, though I can’t say if it was for Mr. and Mrs. Hubbard. We thanked them for their time and went on our way.

Jock Spon was very complimentary about how I conducted the interviews and said he was impressed about the shoes and suggested I apply to join the CID in due course.

 

When the police officers and Mr. Hubbard had left the garden to go back to the house and if anyone had been around, they would have sworn that Cedric’s expression softened into a smirk.  Could it be that he was pleased that David, with his incessant and irritating cackle had had his block knocked off?

 

Ronnie Puttock

APRIL 2019

GONE FISHING

Pat Stearn

 “Humphrey, Humphrey; you must talk some sense into her.”

Petunia stood in the doorway of her husband’s study, shaking with rage.

“What is it now, Petunia my dear?” Sir Humphrey reluctantly put down his copy of The Times and looked at his distraught wife.

“Daphne is refusing to go to the Hunt Ball with Charles Worthington. She says he’s boring.”

“Well, my dear I tend to agree with her.” Sir Humphrey returned to his newspaper and the report on the previous day’s Test March at Lord’s.

“Oh, do put that newspaper down. This is serious. Charles’s mother told me that he intends to propose to Daphne at the Ball. He has such good prospects and will inherit the estate when his father dies. And Daphne is 23, it’s high time she was married.”

“Daphne is a spirited girl and I’m sure she can make up her own mind about marriage,” Sir Humphrey replied wearily. “Why are you so keen to see her married off?”

“Why are you being so obtuse Humphrey! If she doesn’t get married soon, she’ll be a spinster and then we will never have grandchildren.” Petunia gave a delicate little sniff into a lacy handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. “Surely you want grandchildren?”

“Noisy little blighters,” Sir Humphrey muttered into his newspaper. But he smiled sweetly at his wife and said, “Of course my dear. I’ll have a word with Daphne. Now please let me finish reading my newspaper in peace. This article is most important,” hoping she hadn’t noticed that it was the sports page he was reading.

“Oh, do have a word with her. You seem to have more influence on her than I do. I really can’t think why,” and she bustled off to see Cook about dinner.

 

Later that evening Sir Humphrey invited his daughter to join him in a brandy in his study. Lady Petunia had retired early pleading a headache. Caused, she said, by her daughter’s obstinacy.

Father and daughter seated themselves comfortably in front of the fire and savoured their brandy in silence. After a few minutes Daphne put down her glass and said, “I suppose Mother has asked you to ‘have a few words’ with me? Why is she so intent on marrying me off to a succession of boring young men?

Her father sighed, “She only wants the best for you, my dear. What do you want out of life? Do you want to get married, or have you something else in mind?”

“Oh Papa, I don’t really know what I want. But I know what I don’t want, and that’s to be like Mother. Her life revolves around flower arranging, organising bazaars to raise money for the church and entertaining a set of boring people who have no idea what goes on in the wider world.”

“And how do you know what goes on in the wider world?” he queried.

“Oh Papa, surely you realise that I sneak a look at your copy of The Times. I do wait until you’ve finished with it. You don’t mind, do you?”

“Nothing wrong with being educated, my dear. Although clever women have to be careful what they say. You don’t want to upset a potential suitor by appearing cleverer than him, do you?”

Daphne snorted, “But all my potential suitors are so shallow it isn’t difficult to be cleverer than they are. I wouldn’t put it past Reuben the gardener to know more about the ways of the world than Charles Worthington. Reuben certainly knows all about India because his brother is in the army out there.”

Sir Humphrey looked hard at his daughter. “Do you have chats with Reuben about India?”

“Oh, yes. It sounds very interesting, but he says that more should be done to allow the British and the Indians to mix socially,” she stopped. “Oh, Papa, I fear I have shocked you. Please don’t be cross with me, and please don’t be angry with Reuben.”

“No, no, my dear. I’m just surprised you take such an interest. Would you like to visit India? I still have contacts in the Colonial Office, even though I’m retired. And I have always kept in touch with fellow officers who served with me in the Punjab. Wish I’d stayed on sometimes. This could be the perfect solution to your problems with your mother. She is bound to know of someone returning to India from leave. They could act as chaperone and then there is your aunt Emilia. She and her husband live in Calcutta. They would be delighted to put you up.”

“Oh, Papa, you are such a darling. I would love to do that; it sounds so exciting.”

 

After several months of planning Daphne finally found herself surrounded by trunks awaiting embarkation on the ship that was to take her on the long voyage to Calcutta. She had been introduced to the Etherington-Smiths at a dinner party given by her mother. The couple were in their 30’s and the husband was carving out a career in the Diplomatic Service. Daphne immediately warmed to the couple, especially the wife, who, although older than her had a ready wit and a slightly radical outlook on life. Daphne thought that the voyage would be fun and she was excited about the prospect of her future. She was sad to be saying farewell to her father but less so about leaving her mother. She hoped that Aunt Emilia would not be like her mother, but as she was her father’s sister, she expected her to be a touch more easy going.

 

On arrival in Calcutta she was met by her aunt and whisked away to a pleasant house outside the centre of the noisy city. Set in pleasant gardens the bungalow style house was comfortable and she given a large bedroom overlooking flower beds of unknown and exotic plants. The only problem that she had experienced was the heat. Her aunt, who was proving to be as charming and understanding as Sir Humphrey, explained that Daphne’s English clothes were totally unsuitable to the Indian climate. She swiftly organised a trip to the dressmaker and shortly after Daphne was clothed in cool Indian cotton. Later that afternoon, when the heat had gone from the day, Aunt Emilia arrived in Daphne’s bedroom bearing a large length of brightly coloured cotton.

“This is what you need, my dear. Now take off that dress and let’s get down to your undies.”

An astonished Daphne did as she was told and Aunt Emilia proceeded to show her how to wear a sari.

“Practical, cool, and very becoming,” she said, surveying her niece. “How does it feel? Look at yourself in the mirror and give me a twirl.”

“It’s wonderful, I love it. But surely you don’t go out wearing a sari?”

“You surprise me Daphne. Humphrey said you were a bit of a radical and here you are being very British Raj!”

“Oh, I didn’t mean it like that. But wouldn’t it offend the Indians?”

“Not the Indians that we mix with. The British might not approve. And you can wear it next week when we have been invited to dine with Dalip Singh and his wife. You’ll like them, very charming. They always have an interesting mix of guests and also some army and civil administrators.”

“I hope you are not trying to marry me off, Auntie.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it, my dear. Your father says you are quite capable of making up your own mind!”

 

The following week Daphne, her aunt and uncle made their way to Dalip Singh’s palace. Dalip was a minor maharaja and lived in some opulence. He had allied himself closely to the British establishment and enjoyed what could be considered the best of both worlds. He had also, cannily, kept in touch with his school friends from Harrow, many of whom had joined the Indian army.

Daphne was enchanted by the evening and felt relaxed in the company of both Indians and British. Maybe that was because the assembled company were realistic in their view that India was heading for independence.

Returning to her aunt and uncle’s bungalow she reflected on the evening and her future. She was sure that life in this strange but vibrant country was going to suit her.  However, she felt that she must use her time usefully. She was not one to sit around doing nothing. The following morning she sought out her aunt and put the problem to her. Her aunt smiled, “well it didn’t take you long to come to the conclusion that you should occupy your time. But I don’t think you would be interested in the usual good works that the British memsahib does!”

“If you mean flower arranging and running bazaars for the church, certainly not. I left England to escape from that sort of life.”

“Exactly. Come with me tomorrow when I go to the refuge and school for children who have been abandoned or orphaned. Some are disabled but I think you are tough enough to cope with that.”

“That sounds more like it, Auntie. Thank you so much for all that you are doing for me. I feel that my future is here.”

 

The following day was a revelation to Daphne. She had never stopped to consider the dark under belly of Indian life where children were left on the street to die if they were crippled, where the feeble minded were left to wander alone and survive as best they could. This refuge took in those people and fed them and kept them safe. Daphne was left to play with the children and found that it was a pleasurable and rewarding pastime.  At the end of a busy and tiring morning she and her aunt returned home. Her aunt asked her how she felt. Daphne was enthusiastic.

“I’d like to go back tomorrow. The children are enchanting, but they need to be taught to read and write. Maybe I could do something like that.”

“Well, you’ll have to learn Hindi but I expect the children can teach you a few words and we have a friend who can give you lessons. Would you like me to arrange it?”

Daphne was quick to nod her head, “That would be splendid.”

After that conversation things moved swiftly. Daphne had lessons most afternoons with a wizened little man who had been tutor to Dalip Singh’s son. Her mornings were spent at the refuge. She was supremely happy and for the first time in her life felt useful.

Late one afternoon after her Hindi lesson her teacher produced an envelope from his pocket. “I have been asked to give you this. It seems you have an admirer.”

Daphne was intrigued but waited until she was alone before opening the missive. It was an invitation to take tea the following week.

 

Letters home to England took a long time to reach the recipient so it was several weeks before Daphne’s letter arrived at her parents’ house. Her mother was the first to see the letter and open it. She sat in her favourite chair overlooking the garden and savoured slowly opening the letter from her daughter. She hoped Daphne had met some lovely suitable young men; perhaps a rising star in the Diplomatic Service or a dashing army officer. She smoothed the folded pages and began to read. But what was this; teaching Indian children to read and write? Her hand flew to her mouth in horror. But then she began to smile as she read about the young man that Daphne had been seeing. Dancing, tea, dinner. It all sounded perfect. Then she stopped reading and shrieked.

“Humphrey, Humphrey, come quickly!” But she didn’t wait and ran down the hall towards her husband’s study. “Humphrey!” she burst in upon him, “Humphrey, Daphne’s got married.”

“Well that’s good, just what you wanted. Are you pleased?”

“But Humphrey, she’s married some native! Maharaja Dalip’s son, whoever he may be. Don’t just sit there, do something!”

Oh, Dalip. He’s a good sort, knew him in the Punjab. He’s the Maharaja of Baratpur and his son will have that title when Dalip dies. Pretty wealthy too. Clever little Daphne.”

“But Humphrey, he’s a native. What if they have children?”

“Thought you wanted grandchildren.”

“Yes, but not half caste. How will I ever be able to face the Rector and the Ladies Guild?”

Humphrey started to laugh, a deep rumbling that became a bellow. Tears ran down his face.

“What is there to laugh at? It’s a disaster, shaming.”

“Well my dear, if you ever meet Daphne again, unlikely, I admit, you will have to curtsey and address her as Your Highness.

***

Footnote. In the 1920’s many young unmarried women went to India in the hope of marrying. Many of them did, but had unhappy marriages. The ships they travelled on to India were known as “The Fishing Fleet.”

 

 

 

GONE FISHING

Judith Jones

‘She’d have appreciated this,’ the young woman squatted down in front of the slate bench and traced the letters inscribed upon it. ‘Did she come here every day?’

‘Pretty much. Your gran reckoned the peace and the quiet of it all kept her sane.’

‘I’d say she was right mum,’ the young woman straightened up and re-read the words picked out in gold.

Jemima Baxter (nee Stuart)

Born 14th March 1932 Died 27th March 2019

‘I’ve just gone fishing’

‘Funny how she didn’t want to be buried in grandad’s family plot, I wonder why?’ she glanced up at her mother.

Her mother shrugged, ‘No idea Janey, but it’s what she wanted and the lake owners were very happy about it. I think she must have already approached them; they didn’t seem surprised.’

Janey nodded and looked out across the water of the Hammer Pond; a faint mist seemed to be rising where the early morning sunshine broke through the trees, shrouding the lake edge in a thick mantle of green. A jay squawked, flashing across the water and was gone.  Barely a ripple creased the mirror-like surface and for a moment Janey felt she could have walked right across to the far side, it looked so real.

‘I’m glad we’re going to scatter her ashes here, the place where she died, sitting with her rod and keep-net,’ Janey felt her voice wobble and took a deep breath. Jemima had fallen asleep in the late afternoon sunshine watching a heron on the far bank; her heart had simply stopped, so the coroner told them.

Sitting herself down on the bench she took a deep breath, glad it had been peaceful for her grandmother but sad she was gone from their lives. Her mother dropped down beside her and put an arm around her.

‘She used to say, ‘’Penny, don’t mourn when I’m gone. I’m a good old age and been happy. I’ll only really have gone fishing,’’ and she’s right we mustn’t be sad.’

‘I’m not really, I just miss her, she always knew the right things to say. I think this was her most favourite place in the world, sitting here. I don’t remember grandad fishing. Did he ever?’

Penny shook her head, ‘No it was something gran did for herself. Said he was too loud and restless; he’d frighten the fish away.’

Janey smiled, it sounded like her grandfather, a tall, brusque man with a voice to silence a parade ground.  A tiny bird fluttered down from a low, spreading bough on to the wooden jetty at their feet. It bobbed and preened its feathers, before flitting on a little further.

Janey watched its progress surprised how unbothered it was by humans.

‘Goodness mum, look. Someone’s left flowers, see over there where that little bird was, a posy of pink and white campion,’ she crossed over to it and lifting it up saw a small card, propped up in amongst the flowers. Easing it out gently, she saw the neat script slanting across the card and read it to her mother, ‘To my darling puddle-duck from your very own Jeremy Fisher. Wait for me by the pond; I’ll be with you soon,’ she stared at the words and said, ‘Who’s Jeremy Fisher?’

 

Penny thought a good deal about the card and its message over the next few days. No one in the angling club was called Jeremy and there was no one in her mother’s address book by that name either. It was a mystery and she felt slightly odd about it.

Janey had suggested it was a joke, a play on Jemima’s name by someone they didn’t know, ‘We could ask Bill Stone, you know the old gentleman who found gran. Perhaps he’d know. They always fished together.’

Penny had nodded, it was a sensible idea. He’d been part of the angling club for decades, a friend of her mother’s for donkey’s years. A lovely old chap with a pipe and fox head buttons on his waist coat. Once the scattering of the ashes was sorted, she’d go round and see him.

 

‘Are you going to open it?’ Janey looked pointedly at the long manila envelope sitting on the top of the old writing bureau in Jemima’s study. They’d been working their way slowly through the house for days, sorting through Jemima’s life, deciding what to do with a lifetime’s worth of possessions.

Bags and boxes lined the hallway, clearly labelled for the antiques centre, charity shop or dump.

Penny remembered a similar process when her father had died ten years earlier. It wasn’t any easier this time than at the first. Her mother had done a lot of it, saying she wanted to sort things out and remember the good times.

Now they’d reached the more personal part of her mother’s life. The bureau contained a life time of correspondence; she’d been a lover of writing letters when she wasn’t fishing. Penny remembered her mother sitting at the bureau in every house they’d lived in and there’d been quite a few. Life, as the wife of an army colonel, had meant being stationed all over the world until his retirement in the late Eighties to settle in Sussex. He’d taken up golf and running the Parish Council whilst she’d taken up fishing.

The manila envelope had been labelled clearly with Penny’s name and laid in the writing section, in front of the neat little drawers and pigeon holes, below the writing desk there were three drawers inlaid with rosewood.  Jemima had always kept it locked; the key hung on a narrow ribbon worn around her neck. Many a time Penny had wondered why the bureau was locked but hadn’t liked to ask. Now she had the key and perhaps the question might be answered.

‘I will in a second, I thought I’d check the drawers first, I doubt there’s much in them, the financial stuff’s all in the filing cabinet. I expect they’re full of fishing flies or old reels,’ she inserted the key in to the top drawer and eased it out.

‘Could be maggots, remember when I found them in a plastic box in the fridge, that was gross,’ Janey put the manila envelope back on the bureau and looked over her mother’s shoulder, ‘Letters? Hundreds of them, wow I wasn’t expecting that.’

Penny stared at the letters neatly packed in to the drawer, most in small bundles, tied with blue ribbon, a few loose. She pulled one out at random and opened it up. Neat script slanted across a sheet of good quality paper.

‘Who’s it from?’ Janey tried to read it but her mother folded it back up sharply.

‘Jeremy Fisher,’ was all Penny would say.

Each of the three drawers were full of letters, all were addressed in the same neat script, all from Jeremy Fisher. Penny and Janey sat in silence, not reading any of them after the first; it had been far too personal. They appeared to span the last forty odd years.

‘Perhaps that letter addressed to you will explain,’ Janey put a cup of tea beside her mother and picked the manila envelope. ‘It’s weird, like we didn’t know her at all.

‘Seems like it was she wanted us to find this lot,’ Penny waved her hand at the drawers, ‘or they’d be gone.’

She really didn’t know what to feel or think. Maybe Janey was right and the envelope would explain.

Taking a deep breath, she opened it carefully and drew out a letter of many pages.

Dearest, dearest Penny,

If you are reading this then I am gone and you are sorting out all the stuff I’ve collected over the years.

I’m writing this because I want you to know that my life wasn’t ever quite how it seemed. I suppose I want you to know the real me and whilst I should have told you long ago, I wasn’t really brave enough. We all have secrets; some people take them to the grave only for them to eventually get found out. I don’t want that to happen. I want you to have the facts.

This all sounds very dramatic, it isn’t really, it’s quite sad and the story of a young woman who made choices she probably wouldn’t have if she’d been older and wiser.

I’ve written this letter three times now and each time it doesn’t come out quite the way I want. Well perhaps this time I’ll say what I mean.

I hope you won’t judge me too harshly and in a different day and age my life would have been very different. My grandmother told me I’d made my bed and must lie on it. Make the best of it my mother said and truly I did try.

Perhaps I’d better start at the beginning. I met your father in the summer of 1952, he was a dashing army Captain and I was a star-struck twenty year old, who thought she’d found her Clark Gable. Rationing was almost over and after all the long war years I was fed up making skirts out of old curtains and painting my tennis shoes white.  I was rather silly and vain, a total pushover for a man in uniform. I’m afraid I married your father for all the wrong reasons. I thought a life of glamour was on offer, endless parties in the officer’s mess, gin cocktails on the veranda in exotic locations. Unfortunately, the exotic locations came with nasty biting insects, periods of great loneliness and a husband who wanted a pretty young thing on his arm to look the part as his career took off. I grew up very rapidly and discovered that married life was more about doing what I was told rather than being doted on. Your father was not a bad man and, in his way, he loved me. I tried very hard to be the two-dimensional person he needed to adore him but I could never quite pull it off. The only good thing I did was have you.

I suppose I’m telling you all this to make myself look better when you read the next part. I’m not trying to excuse myself or my actions.

When we finally returned to Britain in the late 1970s, I made it clear I was staying put and not traipsing half way around the world again. Lionel didn’t like it but he was offered a command in Aldershot and we went to Sussex to live. It was there that I re-discovered fishing. I’d often fished with my brothers and my dad when I was younger.

Our house, this house, backed on the Hammer Ponds, on the edge of Mannings Heath. Your father took up golf at weekends and I took up fishing again. That’s when I met the love of my life. He was, well is, the antithesis of your father and at first we were only friends. I was heading for fifty, your father for sixty and we rubbed along by ignoring each other most of the time. I doubt you ever noticed it; maybe you did and were too polite to say.

Over time I realised that the quiet, gentle man I often shared my sandwiches with was becoming more than just a friend to me. We both knew what was happening and both refused to take it further because he, like me, was married and had two children. I met his wife a few times, she was perfectly nice but they’d grown apart and I suppose they rubbed along a bit like your father and I.

Destroying someone’s marriage along with your own is, well, the wrong thing to do or at least it was for us. Divorce seems to be an easier option in this day and age. For us, the upset would have been too great and I don’t think we were brave enough back then.

We contented ourselves with fishing together, days out and the odd holiday away with the club. Remember I went to all sorts of places with the Hammer Ponds club? We fished in the lochs in Scotland, the fjords in Norway and marlin fishing in the Caribbean. Your father came once, declared it to be the most tedious week of his life and left me to it. I loved those stolen times, they kept us going through many a long winter.

Your father never knew, he may have suspected but he never asked. He had his little fan club, that dreadful Angela Allerton of the cerise lipstick and Marjorie Kemper who hung on his every word. Perhaps he had discreet dalliances over the years, I never asked.

Once he’d had the stroke, I did my best to make his last few months as easy as possible, he did so hate being ill, escaping only occasionally to my Jeremy Fisher for an afternoon of peace at the ponds. Then it was all over and for a while I felt the most dreadful guilt. Jeremy’s wife discovered she had a fatal cancer so for more than a year we had little contact except by letter.

You may have found them; I kept them all, almost forty years of them. Even now we are both free we send each other little notes.

My dearest Penny, I expect you are horribly shocked now, possibly disgusted and ashamed of me. For that I am sorry. Life doesn’t always go to plan; people don’t always follow the script they originally signed up for. When you scatter the ashes try to remember me as the person who loved you and Janey more than life itself. Forgive me if you can.

There are many things I should have done and not done but I have no regrets. Without Lionel there would have been no you. I lived my life as I thought best and my Jeremy Fisher with his fox head buttons made it all worthwhile,

All my love

Mum.

 

The bench was empty when Bill arrived, the air was warm with late autumn sunshine and the odd ripple creased the water as a fish jumped for flies. He settled himself down and set up his rod and propped it up, line trailing across the surface.

Taking his pipe out, he filled it, lit it and sat contentedly puffing, eyes half closed waiting.

Penny and Janey had come to see him; he’d known they would eventually. Jemima had left enough clues for them to work it out, his wonderful Puddleduck.

‘That disgusting old thing will be the death of you.’

‘I know, hopefully soon, I miss you so much,’ he turned to the woman beside him, ‘what’s it like?’

‘Very tranquil. I even saw Lionel; those bloody women are still trailing about after him.’

Bill laughed; he could quite imagine it.

‘My girls’ happy?’ her voice was tentative.

‘Oh yes my darling. I think they understand. They don’t hate you, though Janey said we should have told them. Perhaps we should, who knows.’

‘No, it was better our way, times were different then. I’m glad they can live with it, with me being unfaithful.’ She took his hand, ‘The scattering was perfect. I saw it all, didn’t think so many of the club would turn up.’

‘Of course, you were very important to them plus most of them would go anywhere for cake and fizz.’ Her fingers felt almost real, not as he was expecting. They sat side by side just as they always had waiting for a fish to bite.

On the far side of the lake another angler raised a hand in greeting and Bill waved back. It was perfect sitting here with his Jemima Puddleduck, not talking merely being.

‘Bill its time, we should go. We can come back and look anytime, perhaps our girls will come and fish one day.’

‘Maybe, your Penny said she’d explain to my girls, tell them about us, let them read the letters.’ He sat up a little, ‘Will it hurt Jem? Will I know?’

She shook her head, ‘Hardly at all. Stand up and bring your rod, I’ve some perfect flies.’

He nodded and together they set off across the pond, not a ripple marking their path, disappearing towards the trees.

Bill stopped for one final look, ‘Goodbye old boy,’ he said to the figure slumped on the bench. ‘Goodbye Jeremy Fisher. We’re going fishing.’

 

 

 

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!”

****************************************************************************************************

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.