Buzzworld-X

Once upon a time, there was a fellow called Mr Blobby.  He was bulbous and pink with big yellow spots, and back in the 1990s he was very popular for a while.  He would knock things over and mess things up, repeating his catchphrase “blobby blobby blobby”.  Some people thought he was hilarious but other people thought he was just very annoying.  He was often on the television, and even had a number one record, cleverly called “Mr Blobby.”

His daddy, Noel, thought so much of Mr Blobby that he decided it would be a great idea to build a special Blobby theme park, and he did.  For a while people flocked to see Crinkley Bottom in Somerset, to marvel at Mr Blobby’s house, Dunblobbin, and laugh at the antics of actors taking turns in the Blobby costume.

But soon the novelty wore off and the visitors stopped coming. The moss and weeds invaded Dunblobbin, and it stood neglected and forgotten.

Until one day a man in a suit came by, and decided to buy the ruined park. He had a plan.

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The man in a suit was called Slater, a property man.  Blobby park was tacky and dilapidated but it sat on an attractive site with excellent transport connections.  His plans needed more space, and he had quietly bought up large pieces of land around the old site.  Also he recognised talent, and had heard about Dean Costello.

The French might call him an enfant terrible, the Germans might call him a wunderkind.  Just 29 years old, flamboyant and louche, Costello had already started to transform the theme park world.  Beginning from a junior position at Disney, he had turned around sagging visitor numbers at Disneyland Paris by devising exciting new attractions and by adding new twists to old favourites.  Disney had copied his ideas to their other parks with great success, and Costello had been well rewarded.

But he felt he had outgrown the Company, and the Company, becoming wary of his increasingly ambitious and edgy ideas – some of which they felt were unsuitable for a family attraction – didn’t argue.  So Costello parted from Disney, quite wealthy thank you very much, but now he was starting to get bored.  So the two men went into partnership: Slater would bring his property savvy and arrange the finance, while Costello would design the park.

They called it Buzzworld-X.  It wasn’t for children or young families: there would be a minimum age of 16 for admission, 18 for the numerous bars and some of the rides.  This would be a place where teenagers and young adults would want to come: professionals with money to spend, stag and hen parties.  A destination where you could spend two or three days, and would stay for a couple of nights in onsite hotels.  Costello, liberated from the constraints of Disney, set to work with relish on designing high-octane attractions.  

The park opened in a blaze of publicity, and the guests on that first weekend had never experienced anything like it.  For example, have you ever ridden the Tower of Terror?  The Terror is supposed to arise from sitting down in a seat, clipped in with a safety harness, as an elevator pretended to plummet in a scheduled and carefully managed drop.  

Buzzworld-X’s Death Drop was different –  Costello wanted to give them the fright of their lives.  He had specified a tower tall enough for a three second freefall drop.  The lucky punters were given ferocious health warnings and made to sign a blood-curdling waiver.  No seats, no seatbelts.  They were taken up to a great height in a theatrically creaky lift, by dustily uniformed bellhops who were clearly part of the show.  Nothing happened for a full five minutes, although some conspicuous signals had been given: the bellhops started exchanging nervous glances.  A couple of security men came in and started conferring in anxious whispers.  

After a while the mood among the guests turned from nervous anticipation to genuine fear, and one of the security men moved the bellhops aside and began an announcement:  “Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, we have been advised there is an issue with this attraction.  May we ask…”

There was a loud wrenching sound, the lift lurched to one side and suddenly plummeted, in a way that did not feel controlled at all.  At that moment, most of the customers believed they were about to die.  There were enough sightlines that they could see ground level approaching at speed, but they didn’t know there was a deep subterranean chamber where the fall would be cushioned.

The park roller coasters were ramped up to the maximum g-force fit and healthy guests could stand: anyone admitting to the mildest condition was excluded. Mechanical and hologram technology was harnessed to completely persuade riders that their car was about to hit a solid brick wall at 70 miles per hour.

The guests were usually too terrified to enjoy the attractions at the time, but in retrospect, buoyed by relief at their survival, realised they had actually had a wonderful time, and told all their friends that yes, they really must go.  Soon Buzzworld-X was booked out at weekends, busy all through the week.

Some of the attractions were sex or alcohol themed, and the tabloid press was soon raging against this “depraved, decadent and dangerous” park.  Of course the bad publicity only made people want to visit even more.  Kids rushed to go as soon as they turned sixteen: it became a rite of passage.

Inevitably there were casualties.  There were heart attacks and seizures, injuries as guests, in their terror, tried to escape.  One woman leapt to her death, believing she was about to be consumed by the flames of Hellfire Hall.  Unsurprisingly these incidents were more frequent than at more sedate adventure parks, but guests seemed happy to accept the risk that came with the extra thrills: indeed the sense of real danger only seemed to pull the punters in.  Buzzworld-X made a big feature – and quite a lot of money – out of selling life insurance as an add-on to the tickets.

Costello’s proudest creation, though, was Gun Battle.  You took your seat in a wild west style steam train, cow catcher and all, which trundled through a creaky wooden town.  You peered, unimpressed at actors playing out a stagey gunfight.  Suddenly a group of hooded men with genuine looking modern weapons stormed in and appeared to shoot the cowboys, who collapsed with copious blood pouring from their wounds. 

Thus far you might have believed you were watching the scheduled attraction.  Then the gunmen mounted the stage and started aiming into the train, and several of the passengers – perhaps including the one sitting next to you – then collapsed in a pool of blood.  You weren’t to know that these were park employees, posing as typical customers, paid to pretend to die several times a day.  More than once, serious injuries were caused by the stampede for the exits.

********

The first summer had exceeded their most optimistic projections, and bankers were besieging Slater with offers of finance for expansion. One Friday evening in September, Slater arrived at the park to treat Costello to dinner at the resort’s swankiest restaurant, said to be in the running for a Michelin rosette.  Without waiting to be asked, the waiter brought a bottle of Dom Perignon to their table.  The two men felt pretty good as they sipped their champagne and sampled their amuse-bouches.  

“You’ve done a fantastic job Dino” said Slater, waving his arms expansively.  “How do you get all these crazy ideas?”

“Oh, they just…come into my head…”

“But you have them so well trained!  I saw those gun dudes just outside…they’re pretty damned convincing!  If I didn’t know better…”

“Gun dudes?”

“You know, from Gun Battle.”  Costello continued to look blank.

Gun Battle’s closed until Sunday.  We had to give it a deep clean.”

“Then who on earth…”  But Costello was no longer listening.  He was staring towards the entrance to the restaurant.  Slater followed his gaze and they flung themselves under the table.

Passing Back the Wisdom

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It was a competition organised by the local bookshop. “Knowing what you know now, write a letter using exactly 100 words to yourself at the age of sixteen.”  That might be fun, thought Nick.  Surely it was only fair to give the boy the benefit of his experience?

Nick felt contented as he stacked the dishwasher and sipped the last of his beer.  Jenny had cooked a very tasty curry, and the dinner table had vibrated with the happy, lively banter of their two daughters. Business had gone well today: he still enjoyed it, but was planning to retire perhaps in five years’ time, when the girls were both off to uni, so that he and Jenny could do more travelling. They could certainly afford it, and Nick wanted to retire, he liked to say, while he could still put his socks on without sitting down.

What would he say in this letter? His first instincts were commercial: find some ancient horse racing results and tell himself to put twenty pounds on an accumulator, and then reinvest the winnings in Wal-Mart. But if his younger self acquired huge wealth through a stroke of luck, would that really make for a good life?  Nick had worked for everything he had, and that made him feel good about it.

Of course he had made mistakes in his life – who hasn’t?  But none that were irretrievable, or had led to lasting damage. Nick had learned some caution and humility from those mistakes: surely he shouldn’t deprive the lad of those crucial learning opportunities?  Ok, it didn’t work out well early on when he had trained with a firm of accountants, but he had been able to use his experience there to get the job from which he built his City career: put the boy off accountancy and his future might not work out so well.

He took the coffees into the lounge and kept half an eye on a high-school drama. Good-looking and preppy American boys and girls filled the screen, while he tried to picture himself at age sixteen in the lower sixth. Immersed in A-levels, struggling with the maths. Socially awkward, and immature for his age. No girlfriend in sight: he had attended a boys’ grammar school, and the only girls he even knew had been his brother’s girlfriends. Often a lonely boy. A boy who worked hard, mostly, who desperately wanted to succeed, and who beat himself up when he failed: a boy who knew he was loved by his Mum and Dad, but also felt that their love was guaranteed, and that love could mean little if it wasn’t earned.

Nick weighed his middle-aged contentment against his memory of the anxious, stressed-out kid, and he wanted to give the lad a hug, to tell him everything would work out fine. Getting tired, he decided to get something written down before bed. He cast around for some paper and pulled out the Disney Aladdin Genie Magic Notebook from the bookshelf where it had sat ignored for ten years.

Dear 1973 Nick

I know things seem tough for you now, but trust me, it’s going to be all right. You will go to a good university, then find a job that you love, and be well rewarded for it. You will find love with a wonderful woman, and have lovely children. You will live in a big, comfortable house in the countryside, and you will be happy.

Don’t be so hard on yourself when you fail at something. Take plenty of time to do the things that you enjoy, relax more. You worry too much.

I promise you it will be all right. Hang in there kid.

from 2011 Nick

He counted the words – 111. Did a contraction count as one word or two? No matter, he could trim it on the way home from work tomorrow.  The leisurely rhythm of the Metropolitan Line could be conducive to creativity.  He carefully pulled the page from the book and slotted it into his briefcase.

He slipped into bed and kissed Jenny goodnight, and soon fell asleep, next to her warm body.

 

Nick woke up alone. It was 10 am. He stumbled as he stepped off the edge of the mattress on to the rough floor, and put his foot into cold pizza sitting on a cardboard box. A naked light bulb hung in the corridor. He relieved himself, mostly into the toilet. Something moved him to look in the mirror. Nothing there to surprise him: three or four days of stubble, the long greasy hair, the belly hanging over his sagging pyjama bottoms. He saw self-pity in the drink-ravaged eyes. Suddenly he heard himself hissing at the face in the mirror.

“Why did you lie to me? You promised it would be all right! You fucking promised me!”

Finish line

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Start Zone C.  Just ten minutes to go now before the gun.  I fire up my Garmin watch, suck on an energy gel and tuck the empty packet under the fence.  I find a gap in the crowd, and as I stand among the nervous banter, I feel a familiar calmness.  I’ve negotiated the journey, the Expo, and got myself in the right place, at the right time, with everything I need.  I’ve done the complicated bit.  The rest is simple.  Not easy but simple: as my wife likes to remind me, “One foot in front of the other, keep going.”

The PA is blasting out upbeat music with a rapid tempo and feisty female vocals.  The training went well this time: no injuries, some good long runs.  I’m ready.

A countdown and the klaxon sounds.  The elite dash off to the sound of an over-excited announcer, and restrained applause from the mass of runners.  We edge forwards and after a few minutes are able to run as we cross the start line.  The first mile is quite frustrating, expending energy weaving past large and slow runners who have got themselves in the wrong start zone by predicting a hugely optimistic finish time.  But when I check my watch at the end of the first mile, I find that I’ve started surprisingly fast – faster than intended – but I feel strong, so I don’t slow.  I’ll leave that for later.

Well meaning spectators call out “well done”, and we think, we’ve done nothing yet; marshals call out “you’re looking good” and we know it’s a lie but thank them anyway.  We get into our rhythm, and start taking in the placards supporters are holding: “Toenails are overrated”, “Tap here to power up”, “Best marathon I’ve seen today”.  We high-five some of the kids who have come out to see their mums and dads.  Drummers, cheerleaders and bands line the course.

The early miles pass comfortably, with the mile markers flashing past with little apparent effort as I cruise through the sweet spot.  I reach halfway some way inside my target.  But I’m slowing already, so I know the second half will be very different.  I quietly let go of my most ambitious target of running a London “good for age”, and dig in at a safer pace to make sure I finish under four hours.

Negative thoughts swim in.  When my Garmin reaches sixteen miles, my first thought is great, only ten more miles to go.  But no, the official marker is still point one of a mile away.  And the distance is 26.2, not 26.  Somehow that 0.3 acquires a crushing weight in my mind.

At mile seventeen I suddenly get a stitch.  I try a trick I read about: exhale on every second footstep on the opposite side to the stitch.  I don’t know whether there’s any science in this, perhaps it’s a placebo.  It seems to work.

We enter a park on a broad path made uneven by tree roots forcing their way up.  I’m getting pretty tired now, the uneven surface breaks my rhythm, but I make sure to lift my feet safely above the bumps.

The mile markers grow ever further apart.  At twenty-three miles I calculate I can afford ten-minute miles now, and will still be just under four hours.  But my oxygen starved brain has forgotten the point two again.  I’ll have to find a late surge if I’m going to do it.  I grit my teeth and try to pick up the pace.

As I enter the last mile I start to feel light headed: I reach for a gel but I had the last one half an hour ago.  The last water and energy station is miles behind me.  Push on.  I feel my legs get weaker.  At last I turn a corner and see the finish line, close yet impossibly distant.  Two hundred metres to go.  The crowds are now five deep just behind the barriers, but I hear their roars of encouragement as if they were a mile away through a tunnel, a distant dream.  The sound from the PA swirls in my head.  I lose control of my legs and start to wobble.  I just need to walk a bit.  Stop a bit…

I’m looking at the sky.  I close my eyes.  There’s a moment of sweet peace.  I can stop, everything will be fine.  A figure bends over me, holds my head up and tries to get me to drink.  His face blurs and fades.

But soon I feel better. I get up, and feel a surge of energy.  I cover the last metres smoothly and lightly, and as I glide through the finish line I’m pleased but slightly surprised to see my mother, father and grandmother waiting there for me, looking just as they did when I was seven.

Jeremy Corbyn and the Large Flightless Bird

My brother Rob was visiting, and we had twenty minutes to pass before we could meet my daughter from her train.  Rob proposed a nostalgic wander around Rickmansworth, our local shopping town when we were kids.  We saw where our beloved Strawberry Fields record shop used to be (now a two storey car park), where WH Smith was and still is, and the previous site of the Cafe Suisse in Church Street – which we had often frequented in our youth – which was now the Lemongrass restaurant.  We had imagined that the Cafe Suisse might have been the “small cafe in Rickmansworth” which Douglas Adams was referring to in the opening passage of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Sadly Adams didn’t specify which cafe, although there were few in Rickmansworth in 1978 when he wrote the story.  Perhaps he just picked a curious sounding place from the outer reaches of the tube map.  Anyway, there was nothing on the front of the Tamarind Thai to claim the glory.

Rob asked whether I went to Rickmansworth much these days.  Yes, sometimes, I replied.  When I’m pressed into service for the Waitrose shop…if I ever need an actual bank branch…if we want to get a picture framed…if we need a jewellers…

“Jewellers?  Do you often go the the jewellers?”

“Sometimes.  I went there last year to get my wedding ring resized.”

“Why did you get your wedding ring resized?”

“Because of a rhea related incident.”

I can be ruthless, and I decided he deserved the full story.

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It was Thursday 8th June 2017.  I know that, because it was General Election day.  My wife and I walked to the local hall which serves as a polling station to cast our votes.  It was a beautiful day, so we opted for a longer walk and carried on across the fields and through the place we call No-Dragon Wood.

We emerged from the woods and walked on a footpath following the edge of a field close to farm buildings.  We were strolling along and chatting when I looked up and saw  a rhea charging towards us, wings extended, looking angry.  It must have escaped from the adjoining field where the rest of the flock were kept, separated from the public footpath.

You may not know much about rheas.  I certainly didn’t.  They are large flightless birds, in this case over five feet tall.  And apparently we had encountered this one at a bad time, because according to Wikipedia: “While caring for the young, the males will charge at any perceived threat that approaches the chicks including female rheas and humans.”

We tried to stand our ground but he was having none of it, and made aggressive pecking motions at us.  Soon it came after me – these fellows can run at 40 miles per hour – and in my effort to get away I stumbled on the uneven ground, landing awkwardly, and was on the ground as the thing approached me.

Amusing, no?  Well, no, let’s hear from a “bird expert” quoted in the press:

“They look nice but they are so strong it’s unbelievable. They aren’t listed as a dangerous animal but can kill you with one strike of their feet because their claws are six inches long.  They will also go for your eyes with their beak.”

I managed to stand up again before he was upon me, and together my wife and I scrambled an undignified exit from the field, moving briskly but not running, keeping our body language passive (which we found easy) and our heads turned to keep him in view.

I gratefully closed the gate behind us and we tried to regain our composure.  It was only then that I realised my left hand was hurting slightly from where I had landed on it.  Over the next few hours the modest pain subsided and had soon gone altogether.  But there was one lasting effect: the proximal interphalangeal joint on the third finger of my left hand was fractionally thicker, and my wedding ring could now be removed only with great difficulty.

As you will know, Jeremy Corbyn that day delighted his supporters by losing only narrowly to Theresa May.

I waited for a few weeks in the hope that my finger joint would revert to its previous size, but it showed no such inclination, so I made the trip to the jewellers which you have read about.

The next time we received our voter registration Household Enquiry Form, we both ticked the box to vote by post in future.  Voting in person, we decided, was too exciting for us.  And we’ve never since entered a polling booth.

Postscript 30 March 2020. In the first few days of the Coronavirus lockdown, my resized wedding ring has three times fallen off my finger, with no more encouragement than a coldish day, assistance from gravity, and perhaps lightly brushing against something. I conclude that after nearly three years, my proximal interphalangeal has reverted to its previous size and shape. To avoid dropping the ring down the u-bend or elsewhere, I have removed it, and will return to the jewellers in Rickmansworth for re-resizing when normal life resumes. And afterwards I will stay well away from that damned rhea.

Six Spades

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Aelwyn settled up with the taxi driver and walked steadily into the village hall.  He enjoyed his weekly bridge game.  His wife of five and a half decades had died last year, and apart from Sunday lunch with his son’s family, this was his favourite outing.

He had loved Kath deeply, but she had never been his ideal partner for the game – being often a step behind his reasoning – and he had long ago learned not to carry out postmortems on bidding or play.  She was aware of her limitations, and any criticism would have further damaged her confidence.  Aelwyn had partnered her with love, patience and understanding, in cards as he did in life, and she would play with no-one else.

It was different when Aelwyn partnered Geoffrey.  From the first, despite more than twenty years difference in age, they had an intuitive connection: they thought alike, and when dummy’s hand was laid out the bidder could always see his partner’s logic.  When they failed it was usually bad luck in the fall of the cards: they had a calm examination of what had gone wrong, and each agreed that they would have bid and played the hand as the other had.  More often, though, they won.

Aelwyn felt the familiar tingle of anticipation as he turned over his cards, and held them close to examine them.  Not bad, there might be something on here…Geoffrey was clearly very strong in spades, his own Q-10-6-2 could support that…soon they had arrived at six spades, and Aelwyn laid out his hand with his usual quiet assurance.

One of the opposing pair let out a small grunt, and there was a long moment when the three players all stared at the thirteen cards on the table.  Finally, with a tiny shake of his head, Geoffrey took the black queen out from under the ten of spades and placed it under the six of clubs.

Aelwyn stared closely at the rogue card and put his hand to his forehead.

“Don’t worry about it Aelwyn” said Geoffrey. “These things happen.”

Not to me, thought Aelwyn.  Not until now.

He sat and watched their opponents clinically take advantage of his mistake.  Geoffrey fell one trick short.  Perfect bidding, almost.

On his journey home, the taxi driver tried to make small talk, but Aelwyn was in his own thoughts.  At 89, he now felt truly old.  Old and useless.  He knew he had played his last game of bridge.  When he reached home he was soon asleep in his armchair.

Pulled Pork Baguette with a Side of Grief

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Fearful of mutiny by an angry mob of Striders, I thought it best to reconnoitre the walk route on my own, without pressure, so I could make my mistakes unobserved.  And I had made one or two, but managed to recover and regain the route before long.  So I arrived at the Cherry Tree, nestling in rural Oxfordshire, in good spirits.  I bought a pint, ordered my food and confirmed with the barmaid that the pub would be able to accommodate about twelve hungry and thirsty walkers of a certain age on a Monday lunchtime, subject to reasonable notice.

I chose a small table by the wall, sat down with my drink and fiddled with my phone while I waited for the food.  I was feeling quite contented, but perhaps I appeared lonely: a woman approached the table and addressed me.

“Would you mind if I joined you?  It’s rather better than eating on one’s own.”

I wasn’t sure I agreed with her: I’ve always been comfortable in my own company, and after a morning of walking, with occasionally stressful navigation, I wasn’t in the mood for making the effort to be sociable.  But she was no drunk or weirdo – a well dressed woman in her fifties: it would have been rude to turn her away.

She introduced herself as Clare, rather formally shook hands and sat opposite me at the small table.  We were too close not to talk, and I assumed that she wanted to converse rather than sit in silence.  So we exchanged small talk.  My food arrived before hers, and she gestured me not to wait, so she was doing more of the talking.

She was partner in a firm of accountants in London and she had taken the day off.  She mentioned that her husband was a partner in the same firm, who commanded a huge daily charge out rate.  When the conversation turned, as it will, to the weather, I mentioned that it had been one of those rare summers when I wished we had a swimming pool.  She responded that she couldn’t say that, as they had one at home.

In a wide ranging and superficial conversation we agreed that Lord Carrington had been a gentleman, and that Boris Johnson certainly was not, we discussed our respective careers, and then she asked me if I had any children.  So I prattled happily about our older daughter, smart, diligent, funny, analytical, and our younger daughter, a small force for chaos, art student and singer in a band.  Eventually it was time to return the question.  I was about to step on a mine.

“And you?  Do you have children?”

“I had two of my own.  A son and a daughter.  And a stepson.  My daughter died in a road accident in July.”

“I…oh God…you mean last month?”  She nodded.

“She was 26.  She was driving home from work on a country lane and a truck came round a corner on the wrong side of the road.  She died immediately.”

I floundered at the enormity and horror of what she had just told me, and feebly attempted a few words of sympathy.  She continued.

“She was six months pregnant.  The baby would have been my first grandchild.”

So far she had been composed, but was now making an effort to hold the tears back.  I continued to mutter platitudes and shift in my seat.  After a few minutes we had both finished our meal and I wished her well and we said an awkward goodbye.

I resumed my walk, once again getting gently lost in the west Chilterns, reflecting on her courage in exposing her grief to a stranger in the pub, and hoping she found it somehow therapeutic.  And I thought of some things I could have said which might have been more helpful.  And Clare went home, I hope, to continue her slow healing process.  One day at a time.

No Dragon Wood

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It started off as one of those little jokes, those tricks so many parents play on their children to try to persuade them to take a little exercise.

After roast beef and Yorkshire pudding with Nana and Grandad, and once the dishwasher was happily chugging away, we tried a strategy to get our little darlings tired out by bedtime.

“Who wants to explore No Dragon Wood?”

Rachel and Alice cried out in enthusiasm, tempted, as we hoped, by the exotic promise of the name. So we set off, and it was only when we reached the wood that Rachel thought to ask us –

“Why’s it called No Dragon Wood?”

“Because there are no dragons here.”

She mulled this for a few seconds, and I sensed she was considering a complaint. But the logic in my answer persuaded her, and by now she was enjoying the outing. She giggled and carried on walking.

Of course a trick like that works just once, but as the girls grew older they discovered for themselves that a walk in the country could be enjoyed, and the route through No Dragon Wood – which continued to be shown on maps with the less romantic name of Bottom Wood – was a frequently chosen option.

There may have been no dragons, but I felt sometimes there was magic of a kind there. It nestled close by the M25, and the roar of that mighty motorway was ever present, louder still in winter. Perhaps this discouraged other visitors, but for me the place had an eye-of-the-storm peace. And there were very few houses nearby, putting it out of reach of all but the most energetic dog walkers. This meant that if one of these more energetic walkers, to give a random example, had a mind to sing loudly as he walked his Labrador through the wood, he could be fairly confident that none but the dog would notice. It was rare to meet another human there.

And perhaps the path through the wood once followed a regular course, but it was rarely maintained, relying on the few feet that walked there to improvise new routes around the many fallen trees. So it now wound its way up through the woods in drunken swirls, with moss-covered logs frequently strewn across.

Alice even used it for an art project, writing stories and making strange videos based on No Dragon Wood. It had become embedded in family mythology. So when one day I saw that the battered old stile had been replaced by a smart new metal kissing gate, I sensed an opportunity.

I sought out the fellow who administered the Chiltern Society’s Donate-a-Gate scheme, to ask whether a plaque with some appropriate wording could be attached to the new gate. I explained the story, and suggested that a more whimsical inscription might make a change from the many sombre benches and gates in memory of much missed Grandma, who loved to walk in these woods. He was very helpful, and gave me the good news that although his scheme was focused on central Buckinghamshire, and the gate was actually a short distance into Hertfordshire, the Society was on this occasion prepared to make an exception and take my money.

I consulted the family on the wording, and Rachel came up with an extra line – “No dragon related incidents since 1415” – a phrase heavy its unanswered question, and which hinted at the impossibility of proving the negative.

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And the plaque was duly installed and celebrated. We have walked through that gate many times in the last few years, congratulating ourselves on our little joke.

But this evening my wife and I are on the M25, heading home after a short break on the south coast, and we run into stationary traffic: we are being diverted off the motorway one junction short of our destination. As we inch towards the exit, we can see armed police by the roadside, police helicopters, huge military helicopters, and in the distance, just to the left of the motorway, a huge plume of smoke rising into the air.

 

From Chorleywood, take the track beside the Stag pub and turn left along the path at the back of Heronsgate: when you reach the field adjoining the M25 walk diagonally downhill to the stile at the edge of the woods.  From Mill End follow Long Lane and take the path on the left across a field, leading under Denham Way and up to the M25 footbridge: then follow the path diagonally left down to the stile.  From Maple Cross use Chalfont Road or walk through Woodoaks Farm to the M25 footbridge.  Fire extinguishers optional.

Photograph from Chorleywood Walker taken 9 April 2020 (see comment below)

Midnight

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I had to bring Emily to this place, to this beautiful place, where my mother brought me twenty-seven years ago.  “Remember this time.  It’s the way life should be.” And I sensed, even at the time, she was telling me that happiness is elusive and fleeting, as she held me in her lap, as we sat on the sand and watched the waves rolling in under the moonlight, and as I examined the pebbles in my hand.

And now in her memory we come back to this same cottage, arriving late and in darkness after the working day.  Emily settles in bed and is soon asleep while I look out of her window towards the sea.  I’m tired, but sleep won’t come.  I get up, and look at the moon shining through the trees, the trees which border the track down to the beach.

And an open top car quietly pulls into the driveway, and there is Emily’s father, but as I first knew him.  I know he cannot be there, and also that he is, and that I am seventeen. He waves and opens the passenger door and gestures me into the seat.

I leave the cottage and go to him, and we drive off through the forest without a word passing between us, and the wind blows our hair.  My heart races with fear, with excitement.  He gets out and stands at the edge of the trees, looking down on the sea.  Suddenly I feel the deepest longing.  I follow him and he looks in my eyes and we kiss, slowly and tenderly.  He extends his arm towards the sea.

“But…”

He puts his finger to my lips.

“Shh.  There is nothing but you and me, the sea and the moon.”

And I see it is true.  So we walk to the waves, and paddle, and wade and swim.  And we play and laugh and hold each other in the silver sea.  Then as he looks in my eyes I feel myself being pulled down.  I struggle at first, but he smiles at me reassuringly, and I feel a sweet calmness upon me.  All is well.  All is well.

(Based on Midnight by Five Fathoms Deep, and The Big Big Sea by Martin Waddell and Jennifer Eachus)

Colin

boys in line

My primary school was near the middle of town: a Victorian building, surrounded by tarmac playgrounds, bounded by black iron railings. Boys would play in one part, girls and infants in the other. I remember it vividly. I went to look at it recently when I was in town: since 1967 nothing has changed, it’s still the same, even the light blue paint trying to brighten up the doors and windows.

There was a boy called Tony. A friendly lad, and bright enough that he was in 3a rather than 3b. He had a speech impediment, although he could always make himself understood. He also had an incontinence problem, which resulted in his wetting himself in lessons from time to time.

He was a playground buddy, and when we tired of kicking a sock-ball around the playground, Tony and I would join with a boy called Colin and the three of us would run around playing ‘it’ or some other game of our own invention.

At the end of break, or playtime as it was called, a teacher would come out and blow a whistle: the boys were supposed to form into orderly lines ready to file back into class. One day, Tony was standing close to the front. The boy standing behind him, who was called Carl, decided it would be funny to hold his nose (although Tony was dry) and take himself to the back of the queue. The next in line was a crony of Carl’s, and did the same.

One by one, as they came up behind Tony, the boys peeled off. I had started about ten places behind him, but rapidly moved up the queue. Soon it was my turn.

I went to the back.

Colin had been one place behind me. Now he stood behind Tony. There were jeers.

“Are you a bed wetter too, Colin?”

Colin’s face turned bright red, but he stayed there, and at last we filed into class.

* * * * *

Recently I discovered that Colin and his wife were running a small B&B in the West Country: as we were planning a holiday in Cornwall anyway, we booked a couple of nights there. It was a lovely place, and after fifty years Colin’s character was just as I remembered it. When we were leaving, I asked my wife to take a picture of the two of us. Looking at it later, it struck me how contented he looked – happy in his own skin, a good man.

At Brookfields

Care home

when’s the tea coming no no its coffee now what’s in the cup it’s coffee cold still full that must have been this morning’s when’s the tea coming I hope it’s not those bloody custard creams again it was nice to see Kathryn is she my wife oh no it won’t be she must be my daughter but she didn’t stay very long I don’t like the fat black woman who brings the trolley round no no I mustn’t say that turn the radio on there it is I’ll Keep You Satisfied Billy J Kramer & the Dakotas Lennon/McCartney I remember it made number four after a number two and a number one Bad to Me turn it up can’t hear it Peter next door banging on the wall screw you where’s my earbuds where’s my earbuds WHERE’S MY FUCKING EARBUDS ah in the drawer is that where I normally keep them condensation on the window I’ll climb on the chair to wipe it no it’ll happen again and I’ll get into trouble and they’ll tell Kathryn why doesn’t Emma ever come or was that Emma who came today she sometimes comes Wednesday afternoons is it Wednesday today last night asking the questions David Mitchell last night wasn’t it no the night before or did I watch it on catchup go out and play rummy no that finished I think no one else remembers the rules or they forget they’re in a game stupid old gits and wander off rude I know Duck Soup I’ll watch Duck Soup and fast forward to when Groucho comes in battery flat damn where is charger WHERE IS CHARGER oh in wall as usual bet it’s bloody fish tonight it’s always bloody fish it’s dark outside was it dark when I looked at condensation don’t know, what time is it six o’clock tells me nothing must be winter then morning or evening feel tired might go to bed when’s the coffee coming or is it tea bet it’s bloody tinned tomatoes for breakfast it was nice to see Kathryn

Ronald

Ronald

Call me Ronald.  My full name is Squeaky Ronald Reagan, a Spitting Image dog toy, although no dog has ever played with me.  And now no dog ever will.

Aelwyn started it.  He won me in a New Statesman competition.  Not having a dog, not being a fan of the real Ronald Reagan, and judging me ugly, he designated me a sort of negative trophy, and he and Kath infiltrated me into their son Rob’s luggage just before departure.

Rob made sure I came back with them after their next visit to Edinburgh.  Then on their next visit, Aelwyn hid me at the back of Rob and Fiona’s booze cupboard, among all the undrinkable holiday souvenirs.  I was there for a few months.

Then Rob decided to involve his brother Rik’s family, and hid me in little Alice’s bag just before the end of the holiday.  But Alice heard her bag squeak just in time and handed me back to Rob.

And so it went.  Rob had me presented to Rik’s family with their welcome flowers when they arrived at Disneyworld.  Rik conspired with a co-operative neighbour to get me placed on Rob’s driveway from four hundred miles away.  Rob hid me in a recess under a small statue in Rik’s garden, and when there was no sign that anyone was looking for me, sent Rik a virtual jigsaw piece every day by email hinting at where to look, until I was found.

And Rik persuaded the local florist to include me with Rob and Fiona’s joint birthday flowers.  And Rob persuaded Chorleywood bookshop to pop me into a bag along with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to be presented to their niece Rachel soon after midnight.  Rik acquired a matching Margaret Thatcher, and left her next to me in the spare bed in Edinburgh.  Happy days.

And Rob acquired a domain name with Rik’s name in it and posted pictures of me on tour in the US and Canada.  Rik persuaded Rachel to set up a dummy website with the same address as Rob’s site, but .co.uk, displaying Rob’s usual environmental journalism beneath a large picture of me.  Unfortunately when asked, Rachel was unable to reverse her handiwork.  Rik had me presented to Lindsay as a special award from her trampoline club.

And Rob wrapped me as a joint Christmas present for Rachel and Alice.  Rik and Debbie insisted on providing the cake for Rob and Fiona’s sixtieth birthday party, and the cake squeaked as soon as the knife came down.  No-one was rushing to eat it.  Rob hid me among the Christmas decorations in Rik’s house, so I was discovered in mid-December with the Festive Banana, under the tinsel.

Eventually the game slowed down and then stopped as they ran out of ideas.  I sat and gathered dust in a drawer for years and years.  I thought I’d been forgotten.  Until five days ago.  Then I heard a woman’s voice saying “found him”.  I heard whispering and giggling, and a hushed conversation in an office.  I was placed in a huge wooden box, next to something large and slightly unsavoury.  I heard an old man chuckle as the lid closed.

And now it’s getting warm.  Very warm.

The Restless Miller

Moulin de la Camandoule001

It was August 1989.  Debbie and I had just flown from Venice to the Côte d’Azur after the first week of our honeymoon.  We had flown in a small Air Littoral plane, looked after by an extremely efficient and immaculately turned out stewardess who appeared entirely competent to pilot the plane should the need arise.

We picked up our hire car at Nice airport and drove in the afternoon sun to the Moulin de la Camandoule near Fayence.  We had stayed there before and loved it: a lovely old olive oil mill converted into a small hotel.  It was owned and run by Wolf Rilla and his elegant wife Shirley. We later learned that Wolf had been a film director and writer, best known for directing John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos as Village of the Damned.  He made a slightly irascible host, but this seemed somehow in keeping with the mellow, slightly scruffy charm of the building.

We had fond memories of our previous trip to this place: one evening in particular lingered in the mind when the diners on the terrace were unsettled to see and hear a thunderstorm steadily approaching.  Wolf stalked around fretfully while Shirley quickly and quietly helped the customers move indoors, working her way down from the most anxious.  It was clear who kept the place ticking over.

This time we were met by a youth named Tim who appeared hungover.  I explained in my halting French that we had booked a room there for the week, and he stared back in a panic.  I muttered something to Debbie about the luggage in the car, and Tim’s face lit up.

“Thank God, you’re English!”

After unpacking, we cooled off in the pool, and strolled around reminding ourselves why we loved the place.  The beautiful stone, the old aqueduct.  Heavy black iron tools of unknown purpose still displayed in alcoves.  Nothing had changed.  Dinner didn’t disappoint either: an unfussy, delicious table d’hôte menu.  And perhaps a little too much wine.  It had been a long day, so we retired to our room for the night, and were soon asleep.

For a while.  Then I woke up sweating in the warm night air.

I made out a large figure looming over the end of the bed, breathing slowly and heavily.  There was a strong smell of wine.  He seemed to be waiting before taking some sort of action.  I told myself it was an illusion, and stared at the figure, expecting it to dissolve under rational inspection.  Instead the outline seemed clearer, and the breathing more laboured, as if he had just run up the steps.

I stared in disbelief and fear for some time, before I finally switched on my bedside light.  There was nothing there, and my wife of ten days was sleeping beside me.

In the morning I told her what I had seen.  As I described it, I realised it was only the sound of her steady sleeping breath that I had heard: yet the same sound coming from someone awake would have sounded heavy, threatening even.  Half waking, I must have built the menacing image from the sound.

Relieved to find a rational explanation, I put my experience down to wine and rich food.  So we spent the week exploring the area, reading by the pool and cooling off.  Just being together.

On the morning of our departure, we were going for breakfast when Debbie looked back at our door and noticed traces of faded lettering next to our room name, Le Meunier.

Shirley came to the table with our coffee.

“Have you enjoyed your stay?”

“It’s been lovely, thanks.”  She set the coffee down.

“You’ve been lucky with the weather.”

“Really? I thought it was always like this here.”

“Oh…it comes and goes.”

“Tell me…Le Meunier…the miller, isn’t it?

“Yes, that’s it.”

“Did the name of the room change at all?”

“You noticed that?  Yes, when we bought the place it was called Le Meunier Agité – the restless miller.  We didn’t think that was a very relaxing name for a bedroom, so we changed it.”

“I can see why.  Do you know how it got that name?”

“Well…”  She lowered her voice confidentially.  “I don’t normally like to tell our guests…it wouldn’t help them sleep…”

“Do go on, we’re leaving today anyway.”  She smiled and pulled up a chair from the next table.

“According to the story, it happened about 1860.  The oil from this mill was said to be the best in the whole area. The miller was a large man called M. Tardieu, and one day he took his oil to market.  He’d only been at his stall an hour when the chef of a wealthy local landowner paid him a good price for his entire stock.  He bought a bottle of wine to celebrate, and drank it on the way home.”

“He got home about lunchtime, tired, hot and drunk, and went straight to his bedroom to sleep it off.  There he found his wife in bed with the apprentice.  He fell on the boy and started strangling the life out of him.  His wife ran out and found a heavy milling tool and hit her husband on the head.  He died instantly.”

“The story went that he still visits his bedroom sometimes.  Although I don’t know that anyone’s ever seen him.  Just a silly story, I think.”

Debbie and I looked at each other.

“Yes.  Just a silly story.”

At Pantclyd Farm

Pond

Richard Edwards b. Llanuwchllyn, Merionethshire, 27 Feb 1885.  d. Llanuwchllyn, Merionethshire, 24 Jun 1905.

Family trees can be cold, dry things.  But look, there he is, a pale, sensitive lad of perhaps eighteen years, with wavy hair and full lips.  He was my great uncle, although I never knew him, of course.  Nor did my father, born fourteen years after Richard died.

He stands against the farm wall, a pensive expression persistent through the long camera exposure, among a group of stocky, bearded and weather-beaten farmers, and their wives, plump ruddy-cheeked women, arms strong from manual labour.

Cambrian News, Thursday 29th June 1905: INQUEST AT LLANUWCHLLYN

Ellen Edwards, Pantclyd, was called to give evidence.  She said she was the mother of deceased, a joiner by trade.  She saw him last alive about 5.30 p.m. on Saturday.  He was starting from the house and said “I am going for a bathe.”  He did not say where he was going, but she guessed he had gone to the lake behind the house.  He was in the habit of going there.  Seeing him late returning, she sent his brother, thirteen years old, to search for him.  He returned and said that his brother’s clothes were a tidy heap by the side of the lake, but no trace of him could be found.  His father then went, followed by the whole family.  He was found in the lake and his body was dragged out.  The pool where the body was found was over seven feet deep.

Richard found an old towel and muttered something to his mother about a bathe as he went past her in the kitchen, and he emerged into the farmyard, still hot in the midsummer evening sun. A footpath across a field took him to another field with a large pond at the edge.  He smelled the camomile pressed under his bare feet and felt a thrill of anticipation.

Thomas, the blacksmith’s son, was already there, lying dozing on the grassy bank.  Richard crept up on him and dropped a few blades of grass on his face.  Thomas awoke with a splutter and sat bolt upright, then started laughing.

They stripped off and ran into the pond, and waded between the reeds, watching the dragonflies hovering in the sun while they lay in the shallow water and splashed around.  At length Thomas shouted out “I didn’t bring a towel, I’d better get yours” and started to charge out of the water.

Richard chased after him and pulled him back in the water by his arm; then Thomas caught him by his ankle, before they made their way, shoving each other and laughing, to the bank.  They dried themselves and lay down on a sunny patch of grass listening to a skylark high above.

Thomas lay on his side, his head turned away.  Richard contemplated him,  His mouth was dry as he took in the strong back and the muscular brown arms.  He reached out and tentatively stroked the boy’s back.  He encountered no resistance for a while.  Encouraged, he allowed his hand to continue beyond the base of the back…

Thomas suddenly jumped up.

“Get off me you dirty bastard!  I didn’t believe what they said but it’s true!”

He pulled on his trousers, forced his feet into his shoes, and ran off still fumbling with his shirt.  As he climbed over the gate, he turned round and shouted before disappearing from view.

“You dirty, dirty bastard!”

Richard lay motionless for a few minutes.  A chilly wind suddenly blew across the field. He felt tired, numb.  He felt cold and empty as he gazed across the pond.

*   *   *   *   *

A verdict of “Accidentally Drowned” was returned.  In moving a vote of condolence with the family, the Coroner said that he deeply sympathised with them in their bereavement.  The motion was seconded by Mr L.J. Davies and passed unanimously.

Look, here’s another photograph.  Or rather no, it’s the same picture, this time faded and cropped to show only Richard.  At the top left corner of the image we can see the curve of an oval frame.  A photograph that might have sat on his mother’s dresser or mantelpiece until she died nearly thirty years later.  I think she looked at that picture every day.

Richard Edwards

The Fisherman’s Girl

Seahouses cottage

The Isle of Mull is a long way from London, so Jennifer suggested we could break our journey home in the north east of England, a neglected but beautiful corner.  There is the dramatic coastal scenery, spectacular castles at Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh, and you can take the one and only Billy Shiel’s boat trips out to see the puffins and other bird life on the Farne Islands.  There are also beautiful beaches, although you might not wish to linger too long in the water.  If the kids are happy, they say, the grown-ups have a chance.

So we had booked a holiday cottage in Seahouses, a couple of streets back from the sea, and now we made a detour to pick up the key from the owner. Mrs McCready was a kindly but rather worried looking lady in her sixties, and I sensed her quietly observing our daughters as she handed over the keys.  At last we approached the cottage through tiny streets never intended for SUVs.  We squeezed the car into its space, and Rebecca and Charlotte leapt out to explore while I fumbled with the keys.  Once inside, Jennifer made the tea, put the welcome pack cookies on a plate and started working out a shopping list, while I brought the luggage in and the girls tore screaming up and down the narrow stone stairs.  It had been two fisherman’s cottages, converted into a holiday let as far as the architecture would allow.  Some of the rooms were cramped, but it was a charming place.

The weather was kind to us – not exactly warm, but mostly dry with plenty of sun.  Towards the end of the week Rebecca’s school friend Constance came to join us for a couple of days, and we picked her up at Newcastle station – after we had taken a wrong turn and spent some stressful minutes stuck in a bus lane.  Then we drove to a section of Hadrian’s Wall, and had a rather chilly picnic.

It was an agreeable week of castle visits, clifftop walks, cricket on the beach, fish and chips…and the girls spent many happy hours pottering on the wide, rocky foreshore at low tide.

On Friday – our last whole day of holiday – when we had just sat down for breakfast, we heard a commotion from the seagulls outside.  We left the table for a while to watch them swooping, diving and squawking, and agreed that something must have agitated them.  When we sat at the table again, Charlotte was staring at her cereal bowl looking confused.

“What…I…?”

“What is it darling?”

“I’m pretty sure I didn’t put any milk on my Shreddies.”  She continued to stare at the bowl, and raised a hand to pull at her curly blonde hair.  There goes Cartoon Charlotte, I thought, always having her little dramas and adventures.

“Don’t be silly darling, how else did it get there?”

She said nothing and looked at the milk bottle.  Then gave a little shrug of acceptance, but seemed subdued while she ate her cereal.

 

Saturday morning arrived, and we squeezed five people and suitcases full of unused clothes into the car.  There were no parking places near Mrs McCready’s flat, so I left Jennifer at the wheel while I went in to drop off the keys.

“Was everything all right for you?” There was something anxious in her tone.

“Yes thanks, it’s a lovely little cottage.  I should mention, though, we broke a wine glass.”  I proffered a five pound note.

Mrs McCready waved it away.

“Oh, don’t worry about that, they’re only cheap ones.  But, tell me, did anything unusual happen while you were staying there?”

“Unusual?  I don’t think so, no.”

“Oh good.  It’s just that…there have been a few incidents over the years.”

“Oh?”

“There’s a story about a girl who lived there in the 1820s. Quite a sad story.”

“Really?”  I tried to sound interested, but couldn’t stop myself glancing back at the door.  We had a long journey ahead, and Jennifer would be getting impatient.  But the lady wanted to tell her story.

“She lived in the lower cottage, which she had inherited. She got herself pregnant by a young lad who went out in the fishing boats.  Her parents were dead, and there was no-one else who would help her.”

“But the young fisherman stood by her, and promised to marry her.  But three days before the wedding was due, his boat was lost in a storm.”

Mrs McCready paused and looked out to sea, as if expecting the boat to return.

“The girl managed to have her baby.  But she had no help, and the boy’s family would have nothing to do with her.  It was winter, she was nearly starving, and she couldn’t feed her baby properly.  The poor scrap didn’t last a week.  The girl was found washed up on the beach, with the baby wrapped inside her coat.”   She stopped and seemed to be waiting for a reaction.

“Oh dear, that’s dreadful!  Did you say there have been…incidents?”

“More stories and rumours, really.  But there’s a kind of tradition that she still visits her cottage sometimes.”

“No!  She doesn’t sound like the chain-rattling type.”

“Not at all.  The story goes that once every few years she comes into her old kitchen, and makes sure the children have enough milk to drink.  The poor sweet girl.”

 

“What took you so long?” said Jennifer as I got back into the car.  She looked over at me before starting the ignition.  “Are you all right?  You look a little pale.”

“It’s nothing.  She just wanted a chat.  Let’s go home.”

High Barnet Train

High Barnet

 

High Barnet 4 mins.

Four minutes, then.

Nicholas walks to the end of the platform, where the train will come in at, oh, about 35 miles per hour.  Four minutes to dwell on how he got here.

 

“Trade like a professional with Square Mile Index”

“Cheap Finance Guaranteed for Homeowners”

 

From where he stands, an artfully placed tannoy hides the indicator board, so he walks back along the platform.

High Barnet 5 mins.

OK, it’s going backwards.

 

Nicholas had spent the day in the British Museum, and then walking around Hyde Park in his suit, and was careful to take his normal train home.  The house looked beautiful in the spring sunshine when he arrived.  Hannah greeted him in the garden with a kiss, and brought him a beer from the fridge. Jack was running around kicking a football.  Kate, not usually demonstrative, broke off from planting her patch of garden, and ran to give Dad a long, slow hug.  Almost as if she knew.

 

He closes his eyes to blank the pain.

High Barnet 4 mins.

 

He couldn’t tell Hannah that they would lose the home she loved so much, the home on which she had worked so hard. Not that she would be angry with him: she would be affectionate, supportive, forgiving of his stupidity, and he couldn’t ask that of her, he didn’t deserve it.

 

Merton, smooth and confident, trying to do sympathetic:

“I’m afraid they have insisted on last in first out.”

“The way things are at the moment…”

High Barnet 2 mins.

 

That was quick.  Nicholas feels his heart thudding in his chest.  Nearly time. “A person under a train.”  In the past, he has smiled ruefully at this detail so readily supplied to explain delays.  Well, there will be delays this evening.

 

“Such a nice evening, I’m going for a little walk.”  And a little Dutch courage.

 

A mouse runs along the track.

 

Jack’s face is there, freckled, likeable.  On some level, Nicholas liked to think he was a bit of a hero to his boy.  Not any more.  You screwed up, mate.

 

“If this margin call is not met within 7 days, we will be forced to liquidate your portfolio.”

And the neat little solicitor, adding the charge to the mortgage deeds:

“Mr Harris, I really should advise you…”

 

A group of French students walk past, talking loudly.

High Barnet 1 min.

He moves purposefully back to the start of the platform.  Maybe 45 seconds now. Detached, he pictures what will happen: flesh, blood, bone and muscle all one to the weight of speeding metal and glass.  Momentum = Mass x Velocity.  Problems solved.  Does the apple fall to earth, or does earth fall to the apple?

Now the rails twang, and he chooses his spot, let’s see, ten feet from the mouth of the tunnel.  For Your Own Safety Please Stand Behind The Yellow Line.  He feels the rush of stale air. A rumble, barely audible, grows to fill his head in seconds.  He sees the reflected yellow light growing on the walls.

Ready to Leave.

At last a blur of silver and he starts to go.

He hears a French girl screaming “Non!”

He remembers how Hannah looked when they first met.

For an instant, he looks the driver in the eyes and sees fear. He checks and stumbles: the front carriage catches his shoulder and sends him spinning backwards into the wall.

 

Then numbness with pain, white sheets, bright light.  Hannah’s hoarse voice:

“Nick, you silly boy.  You silly, silly boy.”

Her hand around his fingers.  Feeling right.

Bit Nicer

Vista general del hotel y la piscina

Jessica didn’t want to come in from the balcony, where she was looking down between the rails at something.

“Come on darling, we’re all ready to go” said Robert irritably.

She continued to peer through the rails.

“It’s just…that daddy looks bit nicer.”

It was a gleaming modern hotel in Tenerife, extravagantly fitted out by an award-winning Spanish architect.  Robert still found it somehow oppressive.  He walked onto the balcony to take a look.  Outside a ground floor room, a young dad was settling a small boy into his pushchair.  He could see what his daughter meant: the man was good-looking, and had a friendly and patient look as he attended to his child.

Ouch.  The ways of fatherhood had not come easily to Robert: he knew he wasn’t the most empathic or relaxed dad, and if possible he tended to leave most of the work to Helena.  But he did his best, or thought he did, and this unsolicited piece of feedback was difficult to take.  And “bit”…the affecting childish attempt to soften the blow only confirmed the sincerity of her comment

Well, on we go, thought Robert, as the family headed for the crazy golf course.  This at least was a chance for him to show off his pack leader credentials.  Or it would have been, but Helena was enjoying a lucky streak.  An elderly German couple watched indulgently as Jessica carefully took hold of the full size putter half way down the shaft and prepared to take her shot.  They widened their eyes in delight and applauded when the ball hit the angled bend and rolled to within three inches of the hole.  Then Jessica slumped to the ground.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

Robert parked the car, paid the £7.80 parking charge and walked with Helena into the hospital.  They held hands as they approached Jessica’s ward, but let go their grip before their daughter could see them.  Jessica looked tiny in the bed, in her outsize hospital gown.  Her wrist was attached to a drip.  She sat up carefully and gave a small smile of welcome when her parents came in, and they gently hugged her.

“The doctor says they’re going to make me go to sleep, and when I wake up my heart will be better.”

“That’s right” said Helena.

“The girl in that bed over there says some people die when they have an operation.  Is that true?”

Helena stroked a curl of blond hair from the girl’s forehead.

“It will all be fine, darling, I promise.”

Jessica considered this for a few seconds, then bit her lower lip and nodded slowly.  Her mother squeezed her hand.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

Three months later the family was in Cumbria.  Robert found himself at last getting into the holiday mood, as they strolled round dramatic scenery in the spring sunshine.  Lauren and Jessica scampered ahead exploring the rock formations, and Helena and Robert walked behind.

After a while they heard the scrunch of stones and a wail: Jessica had tripped and scraped her shin.  She hopped back to her mum.  Helena, ever ready with the first aid kit, cleaned and dressed the wound in no time.

Robert looked down at Jessica’s face, and saw how tired she was.

“Shall I carry you?”

She looked up and met his eyes, and nodded.  She reached up her arms, and as he bent to pick her up, she put them around his neck.

Absolution

fence-broken11

“It’s easy, just walk normally like I did.”

“Don’t want to, it’s dangerous.”

“Chicken.”

“It’s stupid, don’t want to.”

“Buk-buk-buk!  Buk-buk-buk!”

 

The small fair-haired boy bites his lower lip, his smooth face bright in the sun.  He climbs the ladder and steps gingerly onto the beam, spreading his arms like a tightrope walker, and moves steadily to the halfway point.  He feels confident enough to look up and smile at the other boy, but as he does so a wasp flies towards his face.  He makes to swat it, and loses his footing.  A loud throbbing fills the air, and his arms flail as he tries to regain his balance…

 

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

 

Mark was awoken by a sudden cry, which he soon realised had been his own.

“Are you all right, sir?”

He nodded hasty assent, as the steady hum of the aeroplane populated the sound from his dream.  No, he was not all right.  He loosened his tie and sipped water from the bottle in the seat pocket.  It was the same dream, with slight variations, that had besieged him well into his twenties, then eventually left him alone.

But two days ago his uncle had called, suggesting he should come back from Shanghai at the first opportunity, and now the dream had never been so detailed, or so vivid. He flicked through the in-flight magazine to regain the appearance of normality, knowing the decision had been made: he must tell her.  Perhaps there was still time to be forgiven.

 

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

 

Mark sauntered into the hot playground with his schoolbag over his shoulder.  It was near the end of term, and he felt a vague but insistent glow at the thought of the holidays soon to come. He had taken a detour on the way home, hoping to meet some friends there, but had found it empty.

He swung himself lazily for a while, then decided to intercept his brother on the way home and bring him back there.  He leant against a wall by the newsagent, and immediately Stephen appeared.

Surprised and flattered by his big brother’s attention, Stephen readily agreed to go to the playground.  Mark soon regretted his impulse.  What a sissy, eight years old and still couldn’t swing himself.  Mark soon tired of pushing, and was about to suggest going home, when he had an idea.

“Fancy an adventure?”

So they skirted the cricket pitch to the college grounds, crossed a lane, then edged along a nettle-strewn path with a battered high wooden fence on the right.  Soon Mark lifted away a woven wooden panel leaning against the fence to reveal a ragged gap.

“I’ve been meaning to show you this for ages.”

They slipped through the hole, and Stephen’s eyes widened as he took in a huge dilapidated greenhouse.  Broken windows hung from the frame, and the ground was a mess of glass and plant pots.  Here and there stray tomato plants pushed through, filling the air with their warm scent.

But the frame appeared solid.  Mark spotted a ladder resting against the fence, and propped it against the end.  He was soon able to plant his foot on the wooden beam at the apex of the sloping glass.  He walked steadily along, and sat carefully astride the far end.  He grinned down at his brother.

 

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

 

A cry of alarm, then the shattering of glass, a scream, and sudden silence.  Mark jumped down fully twelve feet and stared numbly at the red pool spreading over the ground.  He heard a door opening somewhere and ran, taking off towards home, then diverting through the woods.  He forced his way through a thicket, and sat shaking against a tree, head in hands, furiously thinking.

 

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

 

As he parked at the hospital, Mark recalled the coolness of that eleven year old boy with uneasy respect.  How had he dared to walk home and greet his Mum so normally, to ask casually where Stephen was?  To say that he had been at the swings all the time, and to stick to his story even when the police questioned him?  Their father had survived his younger son by only six years, and in that time Mark would sometimes feel his father’s eyes quietly searching his face.  But he had held his secret.  Until now.

He had rehearsed his lines many times.  “Mum, it’s about Stephen…”  The nurse led him over to his mother’s bed.  He drew the curtain closed, and sat down.  He took her thin, warm hand, and looked into her eyes.  But there was nothing left.