The Golden Hand

Have you ever had a moment when you see someone of the opposite sex, know they’re the right one for you, but nothing comes of it?  And you regret it for ever.

It happened to me in 1973. I was young and carefree, enjoying an evening out at a folk music club, and when my eyes locked onto those of the girl across the room. I knew then. And I’m sure she knew too, that we should be a couple.  It was as if I already knew her, do you know what I mean? As if I knew she was destined to be my soulmate.

I remember though that she had been there with a boyfriend, and I couldn’t think of how to talk to her, and like all those monumental moments in your life, there are only a few  seconds when you should do something,  and then they’re gone, and it’s too late, and you regret it for ever.  A bit like that James Blunt song, You’re Beautiful.

I remember that night there was a great singer on stage, Don Shepherd, a disabled man with a voice like an angel, and he was doing his version of Elton John’s, Your Song

That song has always been special to me, because it brings back such a special memory.

And who would have thought that all these years later I, as the foreman of a demolition company, was tackling the demolition of that very same pub, the Golden Hand, where the folk club had met in those dim and distant 1970s?  That wonderful old Victorian pub, where the pub sign of the palm of an outstretched hand, painted gold, still swung in the breeze.

I paused a moment, trying to remember Don sitting on his wheelchair onstage, playing the guitar  and singing, the crowd in the room, the lights, the music, the badinage.  And most of all the girl, with the face I somehow knew before I’d ever seen her, and whom I had only set eyes on once but never saw again. . .

Funnily enough, not long ago, I met a mate from the old days, and when I described her, he thought he knew her from my description.  And he told me he had heard that she had not moved from the area, had got married, but that she had died a year or two ago, from some horrible illness.

For most of my adult life I’ve had a pretty troubled time and there hasn’t been a lot of happiness. I’ve tried lots of jobs, but was always hesitant to go for promotion, scared to take on business ventures, or accept promotion, because in my heart of hearts I was afraid that anything I did would go wrong.  As I’ve got older it’s got worse.  Lots of things scare me, I have these phobias, and now I take pills for depression. Getting divorced and living alone doesn’t help.  And there are no pills on earth that can stop you feeling lonely.  I try to see the bright side, to make the best of things. 

But sometimes I find that with all my fears and phobias, life is a real struggle, and I wonder, what’s it all for?

Oh well, life goes on, I thought sadly, as we prepared the site for the guys operating those huge machines with mechanical jaws to make a start by toppling the roof and upper walls, so that they could crunch the masonry to the ground.  We’d gone through all the health and safety procedures, and now I was the last man on site, doing the final checks inside the old building. 

As I looked for the last time I was overwhelmed by a surge of sadness, thinking about the man I had once been at the start of my life, feeling as if I could take on the world and win. Contrasted with the man I was now, and all the things I had never achieved in my life.  But that was it, I had to face facts. In a few moments The Golden Hand, the pub where I’d spent all those happy times in my youth,  would be no more.

I got out of the building and called up Simon and John, the heavy machine operators, on my mobile, for them to make a start, by smashing down the roof.

Then, as I was walking away, I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye.

And there, at the upper window, was a woman, large as life, in what had been the main bar, the folk club venue where I had just been.  I desperately dialled Simon, but, at that crucial moment, there was something wrong with my phone and it wouldn’t work.

There was nothing for it but to run inside and rescue her before tons of masonry collapsed on her head!

I ran up the stairs, calling out “Run! Run for your life!”   Then when I got there, I saw her properly for the first time.

My heart stopped.  It was the same girl I’d seen all those years ago, the girl I’d never forgotten.  So my mate had been wrong.  She hadn’t died, she was here now. She was my age, now, of course, in her sixties, but I could tell beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was the same girl I had fallen in love with in 1973. And now I was falling in love with her all over again.

She looked at me.  She smiled.  She held her arms out.

Then the ceiling splintered and the walls caved in. 

Blackness. 

Nothing.

I woke up in hospital. There  were tubes and wires and pipes everywhere and it was semi-darkness.

“Dad!”  I recognised the voice of my son, David.  Now that his mum and I are divorced, David and his wife and children are the only family that I have.

“You’re in hospital, in intensive care, but you’re going to be okay,” he told me.

“Will you record what I’m telling you?”  I asked him.

“Course.  My phone’s recording now.  What do you want to say, Dad?”

That’s when I dictated all that I’ve just told you, all about seeing the girl I fell in love with, and why I had dashed back into the building and had the accident.  Simon and John, the crane operators, were nice guys – I didn’t want my injuries to be on their consciences, I had to make it clear that the accident was all down to me.

David’s a good boy. He listened without interrupting, and I could see him tearing up now and again, because, between you and me, I think he was afraid I wasn’t going to make it.

“Where is she?”  I asked David.  “The woman who was in the building with me?  Is she okay?”

“I don’t know, Dad.  They told me no one else was in there. . .”

And then I saw her again.  She was in the room with me.

“There she is.  Can’t you see her?”  I asked David.

“Who, Dad?  There’s no one here.  Only the nurses.”

And then I had this incredible feeling of lightness.  Suddenly I rose up somehow, and looked  back down at myself, there in the bed.  There were doctors and nurses gathering round, frantically doing things to me. . . David was in tears.

The woman took my hand. And we walked towards this incredible, unbelievable, wall of light in the distance.

And, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t afraid. . .

The Holiday Romance

“You must prepare yourself for the worst,” the doctor said, staring at us seriously. “You are aware that we can’t be sure of the outcome?”

“But we know you’ll try your best.”  Lynn’s mum could barely say the words before she burst out crying.

It had been a tough twenty-four hours, and this was the worst part of it, the seemingly endless hanging around in the hospital waiting room, the endless cups of tea and coffee that was the only way to break up the day.

* * *

I thought back to two years ago, when I’d first met Lynn. I’d gone on holiday with my two best mates, Jack and Matthew, and the last thought on my mind was finding a life partner.

“Listen Peter,” Jack had said to me on our first night, after we’d checked into the hotel at the Spanish resort. “We’ve just finished university, we’ve slogged away for three years and now we’ve come away to get legless every night in the bars, and meet as many willing girls to have as much fun with as we can. The girl Lynn we met at the airport, she’s really nice, of course she is, and I could see you enjoyed chatting to her. But she’ll understand you don’t want to be lumbered with a girl in a wheelchair in a place like this. Okay, Peter, I know you feel sorry for her, but there’s got to be a limit to your good nature. Break your date with her tonight and come out with us– she’ll understand.”

“It’s true, Pete,” Matthew joined in. “You’re too kind-hearted for your own good. As Jack said, she won’t expect you to give up your holiday. Think of yourself, think of getting slaughtered on the local booze. Think of getting laid!”

“You two go out and have some drinks for me,” I told them. “I came out here to enjoy myself. And I enjoy talking to Lynn. I want to be with her tonight.”

Okay, maybe at first there was just a smidgeon of feeling sorry for a truly lovely girl who was paralysed and in a wheelchair and accompanied by her two kind sisters, who were looking after her. But after that first ‘feeling sorry for her’ moment I just gave in to the fun I had in talking to her, and getting to know her, and, for the first time in my life I fell in love.

I was so stupid in those days. I thought love was all hormones and physical feelings and sensations and erotic gratification. I had no idea that it was much much more than that. It was a whirlpool of feelings and emotions and yearnings and hopes and dreams.

During those few days, Lynn and I were inseparable. Her sisters looked after her personal needs, and to my surprise, they seemed a bit wary and suspicious of me, perhaps they were wondering why a normal healthy guy was spending time with a girl who was paralysed. But I didn’t really care what they thought if I’m honest.

“I was getting married,” Lynn explained to me, “when we had the car accident. Ken was driving, but he wasn’t badly hurt at all, whereas the airbag on my side wasn’t working, and I hadn’t put on the seat belt. Afterwards,when he found out I’d never walk again, he couldn’t bear to talk to me, just sent his mum to tell me the engagement was off.”

“What a bastard,” I said, furiously.

“Not really,” Lynn said reasonably. “Ken was a nice enough guy, it’s just he was weak. He knew he couldn’t be strong enough to look after me, so he just cut and run. He was really just being honest.”

And so, as I said, over the ten days we were together, we fell in love. I assumed that there was no way we could physically make love, and I was okay with that. But, to my surprise, Lynn found ways and means that I hadn’t thought of for satisfying our needs, and let’s just say that we were actually able to cross the physical barrier, which made our relationship even more sensational.

After the holiday I just knew I wanted to be with her and no one else. Some of my mates all thought I was mad, telling me that when ‘the magic’ of falling in love wore off, I’d soon tire of having a girlfriend who couldn’t walk, who I had to wheel around in a wheelchair everywhere. But my closest mates, Jack and Matthew included, told me that even though they were surprised, they backed my decision all the way, and wished us all the luck in the world.

I lived in London and she lived in Sheffield, so, a week after the holiday, I went up to visit her.

Imagine my shock when I went to her house and found out it was a huge place, practically a stately home! A passing lady told me that the family who lived there we pretty famous locally, he was a wealthy businessman, and it had been in the papers about his daughter having the car accident and being paralysed. “Such a nice lass too,” she concluded. “They’re right nice people, we were right sorry for them.”

I was so shaken and upset I couldn’t knock on the door, and fled to the nearest pub for a few drinks.

I got talking to this older guy who was sitting at the bar, because he had a sympathetic face and he looked as miserable as I felt.

“I can’t face going home just yet,” he admitted to me.

“And I can’t face keeping my date,” I explained. “I’ve come up here to visit this wonderful girl I met on holiday who I’ve fallen in love with. Everyone tells me I’m crazy because she’s paralysed, in a wheelchair, but I don’t care a damn about that, I just want to be with her. Her sisters don’t seem to trust me, and now I’ve found out why. It seems her family are dead rich, and it was in all the papers about her accident. But I had no idea – I thought she was just an ordinary girl, without any money or anything, like me. She used to talk about ‘the estate’ and I thought she meant she lived on a council estate, not that her home had lands! It’s terrible! I’m just a bloke from a pretty humble background fresh out of uni with a hefty loan to repay. I had no idea she was rich. So her posh parents are going to think I’m some scummy money-grabber, who’s hoping to wheedle his way into the family fortune, aren’t they? That must be what her sisters reckon. It’s a nightmare, and I just don’t know what to do.”

The old chap smiled. “Seems to me you haven’t got any choice. You know how you feel. You can’t just abandon her. At least you’ve got to explain things.”

“Yeah, I suppose you’re right. But tell me this—how am I going to get her family to believe I’m not after her money?”

“Funnily enough young man, I popped in here because I can’t face going home. You see I’ve been putting off meeting my daughter’s new boyfriend, whom I was afraid was a money-grabbing bastard. I was even thinking of offering him money to leave her alone. . . ”

And so I stayed with Lynn’s family for a while, and finally her sisters accepted me, realising that I had not read about the car crash in the newspapers, and that I had no idea she was Lynn McKinley, daughter of the man who’d invented McKinley Vacuum cleaners, and who happened to be a multi-millionaire.

Then eventually I found a job in Sheffield. I didn’t really think of the details of my future. You don’t do you? Life is about making sense of things as they come along, taking one day at a time.  The practicalities of living with a girl who’s confined to a wheelchair were things I was happy to learn, and, while I’m no great shakes at medical stuff or nursing, I reckoned that if her sisters and her mum could help her with all those daily tasks, then, when I got home from work, I could learn to do them too.

So I started my new job and we moved into a flat together.

But then my world came crashing down when it seemed she had to go into hospital. Unexpected changes have occurred as a result of her injuries, they told me, and again, Lynn’s mum went into details about the dreadful damage Lynn had suffered as a result of the car crash.

* * *

All eyes were on the door, when the doctor came back in.

“Against all the odds, it worked!” he said, breaking into a huge smile. “As I told you it’s an experimental procedure, and spinal surgery is always very difficult and we can never predict the outcome. But now there’s no doubt at all. She’ll need lots of physiotherapy to build up the muscles again, but in time she’ll be walking on her own two feet.”

The Red Jacket

“Well I like it.”

“It’s awful. It doesn’t suit you.”

“Well I like it and I’m going to buy it!”

I was standing with my husband Gerald in the middle of the floor of the charity shop in the High Street, watching Gerald looking absurd, striding about wearing the bright scarlet jacket he was determined to buy. It was very embarrassing.

How could I possibly tell him that I didn’t want him to buy the jacket, because it was the very same one that my lover John had been wearing a fortnight ago when he’d died on stage?

My boyfriend John’s life had revolved around his music, and he performed as lead guitar and singer with an unsuccessful rock band. He was much younger than me, but I was passionately in love with him.

However, our affair ended when his attempts at repairing his electric guitar had caused hundreds of amps of current to surge through him on stage, and his final performance of ‘Light my fire’ really had been an apt swansong, since sparks flew out of his head.

The trouble is, once Gerald makes up his mind there’s no stopping him.

You see Gerald, my husband, is a very very predictable, boring man.  He’s an accountant. We have a lovely big house, I can buy anything I want, and I live a life of luxury without lifting a finger.

The downside is I have to share my existence with the most boring man on the planet, who makes me yawn when he comes into the room, and with whom I have absolutely nothing in common.

My aunt Eve described Gerald as  a ‘baked bean’.  “You don’t wanna marry him, Jane, he’ll stifle you with boredom,” she’d advised me.  “After all, you’re a lively, vibrant, sexy young woman, full of zest for life.  He’s one of those ‘baked beans’ men – exactly like all the others in the tin!”

We’d been unable to have children, and after 25 years of marriage, Aunt Eve had turned out to be right.  Now totally bald with spectacles, a fat belly and a pronounced ‘old man’s stoop’, my rich husband Gerald was like thousands of other boring looking men the world over.

Which was why John had seemed so exciting when I’d first met him, a year ago.  John had been everything Gerald wasn’t.  He had no money – he lived with his ghastly shrew of a wife in a high-rise council flat, and he never had a job and signed on for benefits, so of course I helped him with the odd wad of cash now and then. 

Why not?

I knew I’d never get over his death.  John had provided the liveliness in my life, a glimmer of hope from the stultifying tedium of my existence with boring Gerald, with whom I never even talked these days.

And to tell the truth I’d been astonished  in the charity shop when Gerald had insisted on buying the bright scarlet jacket with the black edging, that John used to wear on stage (it was too tight for Gerald anyway).  I pictured John’s horrible wife shipping out all his clothes to the nearest charity shop, and I cringed at the thought.

I also cringed at the sight of ugly, boring, fat Gerald decked out in my John’s gear.

It made me want to cry.

But oddly enough in the weeks that followed, to my surprise Gerald made some changes to his life.  He had a hair transplant, so that his bald pate that I’d known for fifteen years, now had a fine mass of dark hair sprouting out of it, and he told me that he’d decided to wear it in a ponytail when it grew long enough.  The gold-framed spectacles had been replaced by contact lenses tinted a racy blue colour, and he’d grown a rather dashing Zapata moustache, very similar to the moustache John used to have – one of the things I’d always liked about him.  And Gerald’s visit to a cosmetic dentist had given him sparkling white teeth. Hours in the gym had got rid of his pot belly, and the Pilates classes meant that he now he stood up taller and straighter than I ever remember.

Frankly I had to admit that he really did look twenty years younger.

To my amazement I occasionally saw other women checking him out when were out at the supermarket, something that’s never ever happened before.

And, strangely enough, I found we had more things to talk about.  Our relationship had really taken a turn for the better. We chatted together now, we actually had long conversations and laughed, we found we had things in common at last. History, politics, religion, you name it.  We chatted away at the drop of a hat, and life with Gerald was actually fun, and for the first time in years we laughed a lot.

I’ll never forget the night he first took me to the comedy club in town.

“The thing is, Jane,”  he told me, “I’ve always wanted to be a stand-up comedian, but I never believed I had it in me.  To tell you the truth I always thought I was such a dull kind of person, that no one would ever listen to me, or even notice me onstage.  But I think it’s all about confidence. So  one evening I just thought I’d ‘go for it’. And after a tricky start, I found I could actually do it!  People laughed.  I could really connect with an audience. They liked me.  They really think I’m funny, that I’m a live wire!”

To my amazement it was true.  When we came through the door, a lot of people rushed up and glad-handed him, hailing him as ‘Gerry mate’, and it was clear he wasn’t deluded as I’d imagined. He seemed to evince affection from everyone he chatted to: men’s handshakes lasted longer than a perfunctory squeeze, and people clasped him warmly on the shoulder.  A couple of people even enveloped him in ‘man hugs’, while several women kissed him on the cheek.   All the  people who’ve ever known us have always called him Gerald, and this glad-handing brightly popular ‘Gerry’ was quite a surprise.

As I sat in the crowd watching my  husband wow them with risqué jokes and lightning observations on life that had them rolling in stitches, I suddenly realised that my husband Gerald wasn’t a boring man at all. All these years I’d totally misjudged him and now, in a sudden flash of clarity, I could see that he really was all I’ve ever wanted in life.

Why had I wasted my time dating a loser like John, when the man I was married to was all I’d ever wanted and more?

What had I ever seen in John?  Gerald, my husband, was actually a much more interesting, lively exciting personality than John could ever have been.  And all these years I’d simply never seen it.

What a fool I’d been.

That evening Gerald had seemed extra excited, and I realised it was because he’d found his true personality and was happy at last.  I thought back to how Aunt Evie would have regarded my dynamic lively husband now?  No longer a baked bean, more like a rather splendid aubergine: shiny bright, individual, unique!

“Jane,” he told me at home after we’d had a couple of bottles of wine.  “I’ve never been so happy as in the last few weeks, since I semi-retired from the firm, and became a stand-up comedian.  My life has suddenly come together at last. I feel as if I’m really me, do you understand what I mean?”

“Yes,” I agreed, “life is wonderful.  I’m really happy with you, Gerald.  I honestly couldn’t be happier.”

He looked at me and a frown crossed his brow as he stood up and took a few paces.  “Oh, err, sorry Jane, what I meant was, my life is happier.  Not our life.”

His cheeks flushed. “Truth is, my life is better ever since I met Arabella.”

“Arabella?”

“She’s wonderful.  She was married in name only to this musician called John, who was always having affairs with lots of bored rich housewives to con them out of their money.  He had an accident and died onstage recently. I actually met her when she was taking his clothes to that charity shop where I bought that red jacket you hated so much.  She tripped up and dropped them on the pavement and I was there to help her and we got talking.  It was like fate.”

“Arabella is wonderful,” Gerald enthused, oblivious to my discomfort.  “Despite putting up with a useless, cheating turd of a husband for years, she’s taught herself to be a contortionist. Do you know, she can fold herself double so that her toes touch her nose, she can twists her hand straight back on the wrist. She can even have her body facing forwards and twist her head around to look backwards! I’ve never met anyone like her!”

“A female contortionist?”

“Do you see?  I realised, that if she can learn to do all those astonishing things with her body, then why shouldn’t I do astonishing things with my life?  I can turn things around– be the person I’ve always wanted  to be! And I’ve done it! Arabella has made me see life in a completely different way.  Since I then I realised that all these years I’ve spent with you I’ve simply been going through the motions of life, treading water, not being myself at all.” He paused and looked serious.  “Jane,  I think we should get divorced.”

“Divorced?”  I stammered,  “but why?”

“Oh Jane. Why couldn’t you have found yourself someone else years ago? You obviously weren’t happy with me. You should have, I don’t know, had  affairs with sexy men, climbed a mountain, done a few daring things instead of sitting around the house like a pudding. You could at least have tried to do something original. Sorry but the truth is I can never be happy with you.”

“Why not?”

“Frankly, because you’ve bored me stiff for twenty-five years.”

Derby Day

I love working in a betting shop. I love the buzz, the excitement and the action, when you have to punch numbers into the computers, count out cash and listen to the sound of the racing results on the TVs all at the same time. But most of all I love seeing the smiles on the faces of the punters who’ve had a flutter and won, especially the dear old pensioners who often spend most of the day in our shop.

Which was why I felt so sorry for Victoria, the girl who’d joined our team a week ago.

It was Friday evening and we were the last two to leave, and all the talk had been about how tomorrow, the day of the famous Epsom Derby, the busiest day of our year, was going to be.

That night I was very excited, because I was meeting three of my best girlfriends to go to a Michel Buble concert in town. We’ve all been crazy about Michael for years, and tonight was the night we were actually going to see him in the flesh!

But as I was getting ready to leave, I could see that Victoria was upset, in fact she was leaning over her desk and crying.

“What’s the matter?” I asked her, going over and putting my arm around her shoulders.

“I’ll never get the hang of this system,” she complained. “I can’t keep up with you all, my queue’s always longer than everyone else’s, I just can’t do this job. I’m going to have to pack it in.”

“You can’t do that,” I told her. “I know it’s hard at first, but you’ll get there in the end. We want you to stay, we all like you.”

“And I like you – I even like Richard, our boss, everyone’s been kind to me, but if I can’t do the job it’s not fair on everyone else.”

“Come on then, Victoria, let’s take a look at what you’re doing.” I took my coat off and sat down beside her. “Show me exactly what you don’t understand.”

“Do you have time?”

“Yes, of course.”

I couldn’t tell her that I was already late for meeting the girls in town for the concert. As I started going through things with Victoria, I realised with a heavy heart that no way would I make it in time. Perhaps I could get in at the interval? I texted Val, to tell them not to wait for me, and that I’d get there when I could.

In the end it turned out that Victoria didn’t understand our computer system and she’d been making the same mistake again and again, and it took a long time to explain things to her. Once I pointed out how to do it properly she was over the moon.

“Thanks a million, Sonya!” she told me. “Now I know what to do, I think I’ll be okay. And tomorrow, when we’re all up against it, I’ll be able to pull my weight, thanks to you.”

Victoria was so grateful, I couldn’t really feel bitter about missing the concert, nor could I tell her and make her feel guilty. Well, I reckoned, it was just one of those things. My mates would tell me all about the concert, and who knows, maybe Michael would come back to the UK next year, and I could see him then?

There was one consolation, I thought as I sat on the bus going home. I would see David and maybe we could have a nice evening together for a change; he’d been so busy recently that our loving moments together were getting less and less frequent, because, as he told me, he was under such stress.

David has been living with me for six months. He’s very clever, you see, and he knows all kinds of things that are a closed book to me. When he moved in, he told me that he’s always wanted to be a writer, and that he was going to leave his job and write full time and pen a novel, that he was certain would be a bestseller. “After all, what’s the point,” he told me, “of staying in my boring job so I can pay you a share of the rent and bills, when in a year or so I’ll sell my novel, it’ll be a bestseller, and we’ll be rolling in money?”

I couldn’t argue with that and even though it all sounded a bit bizarre, I admit I don’t know about these things, and David was so certain he was going down the right road, who was I to stop him?

Oddly enough, none of my friends seem to like David, but it’s because they don’t understand him. They laugh at me sometimes, call me the ‘Queen of Denial’ when I tell them he has to be out a lot going to writers’ circles to discuss his work with other writers, and needs me to lend him money for bus and tube fares and meals. And a few weeks ago, of course I also had to lend him the money to go to Paris on his own, because he had to do research there for his novel, which is right now at a critical stage, hence the stress he’s under, ‘trying to get under the skin of his characters’ and struggling with ‘writer’s block’.

When I got back to my flat everything was in darkness, which was strange because David had told me he was going to be spending the evening and night working in his study. I went along to the bedroom, wondering if he’d gone to bed early.

The light was on in the bedroom. On the bed was Rosie, a girl he’d introduced to me as a fellow writer a while ago. She was naked, with her back to me, and sitting astride David’s skinny body. By the noises they were making, I didn’t think they were discussing how to overcome his writer’s block.

In the shock and confusion I didn’t know what to do. They were so caught up in the moment that they didn’t even see me, and almost as a reflex action, I grabbed my phone and took a picture of them.

Then I turned round and ran out of the flat, not bursting into tears until I was actually on the street.

I didn’t know what to do. In the end I went round to Mum’s house, and although she didn’t tell me ‘I told you so’, I knew that was what she was thinking.

When I phoned the girls and told them, they were sympathetic too and offered to come round, but I told them, no, tomorrow was going to be a busy day at work, so I’d best try and get my head down. Since Mum lives nearer the concert venue, I’d already arranged to stay the night with her, so David wouldn’t be wondering where I was. Not that he cared.

Next day, in our short tea break, I told Victoria all about it.

“And the problem is, you can’t face him, to throw him out of the flat?” she asked.

“No. I can’t bear to set eyes on him, I hate him so much. But I’ve got to confront him sometime. And who knows what will happen then? It’s a nightmare. All his clothes and things are there, so maybe it means he’s got some kind of legal right to stay in the flat, I don’t know the law!”

“Don’t worry, Sonya,” Victoria reassured me. “My brother works for a lettings agent. Give me your keys and he’ll know what to do for the best and he’ll help. And can you show me that picture again?”

“I’ll send it to your phone,” I told her. “I can’t bear to look at it.”

It had been a hectic day, and at 6 o’clock we were closing up. Ann, Sally and Val, my mates, had come round to take me out for a drink to cheer me up, and Victoria was going to join us.  I had pushed the problem of how to get rid of David out of my mind, I just couldn’t face it. I couldn’t bear to set eyes on him ever again, but of course I knew that I would have no choice.

Then, as we were all standing on the pavement, a car drew up. This very handsome, tall guy got out, and Victoria introduced him as her brother.

“Hello, you must be Sonya,” he said, “I’ve sorted out your little problem,” he explained, handing me two big bunches of keys. “I’ve had the locks changed and got all his belongings shipped out to a storage depot for him to collect later.”

“Did he just agree to move out, then, just like that?” I asked in amazement.

He smiled. “Not just like that, no. But I happened to recognise that girl in your photo. Her husband goes to my gym, and he’s a pretty famous amateur heavyweight boxer. All I had to do was threaten to send the picture to Gary and he couldn’t scurry out of there fast enough.”

I looked up at Victoria’s brother, very much liking what I saw. More than anything else he’d done me a big favour, when he didn’t even know me, so I knew that he was kind. And in my book kindness counts for a lot.

“Had anybody ever told you, you look a lot like Michael Buble?” I asked him.

“All I can say to that is, if it’s true, poor old Michael then!” He laughed and looked me in the eyes. “Look, Sonya, is your night out girls only, or could I tag along?”

Writers’ Circle

“I hope you don’t mind me reading this one—I’m afraid it’s a little bit near the knuckle,” said the small middle-aged man with the beady eyes.

“Good gracious no, no prudes here, Cedric, anything goes,” said Camilla Upton-Sleeve, beaming benignly at him behind her huge spectacles.

Cedric was a newcomer to our writers’ circle, a rather forlorn figure in a dirty anorak. He had joined our monthly meeting, where the members read out a short story, a poem, or part of a novel, for the others to discuss afterwards. More often than not it’s a kind of mutual admiration society, everyone being too polite to be anything but complimentary about each other’s work. I write nonfiction books for a living, so I rarely read anything, I just go to listen and to meet my friends. They’re a thoroughly likeable lot, and it’s a friendly convivial evening, in the upstairs room of the Dog and Duck, and with alcohol and coffee on tap.

The nervous looking man who’d just arrived was almost completely bald and looked rather furtive, his eyes shifting to right and left as he licked his lips with a darting tongue that reminded me of a reptile.

He pulled a folded piece of dirty paper from an inside pocket and began to read: “My wife refused to have sex with me, so I decided to go to a brothel,” he began in a surprisingly deep sonorous voice. “I went upstairs with one of the girls. After she’d taken her clothes off, she took hold of my…”

What followed was beyond disgusting. It was vile filth, more explicit than the most outspoken top-shelf magazine or erotic book you could imagine. Sexual couplings were described in almost gynaecological detail, and as he read on, Cedric’s eyes blazed more brightly, sweat broke out on his upper lip and spittle gathered at the corners of his mouth. His excitement mounted as the staccato speed of the filth from his mouth came faster.

When he’d finished there was absolute silence. Elderly Harry Morton, who always wore a smart suit, collar and tie, was intently studying the toe of one of his shiny black shoes and frowning. The huge figure of Camilla Upton-Sleeve, resplendent in her scarlet kaftan and wide trousers, shifted uncomfortably. She had blushed a bright red and a nerve was twitching in her cheek, while her gaze was fixed on the floor.

Amateur poet Roger McBride, who was normally the soul of generosity with his praise, was the first to say anything. “Look, Cedric, I’m sorry but that was quite horrible—I’d go so far as to say it was downright offensive.” He softened his tone. “You could have summarised all that disgusting sex in one sentence, and then got on with a decent story. For instance, I gather that some of these girls are coerced into doing these dreadful things by criminals—you could have had the hero falling in love with a reluctant prostitute who’s actually a decent girl, rescuing her and facing the gangmaster. Lots of guns, action, adventure. Now that would have been a story.”

Camilla went on: “Cedric, when I said anything goes, I didn’t mean it literally. I’m sorry, but I’m afraid you just read that out to shock us. And you succeeded. I would like you to go now and not come back.”

Cedric looked around the room, and everyone nodded, giving half-hearted apologies, and mentions of ‘find another writers’ group old chap, no offence’ kind of comments, as he got up and left the room.

However, to our horror, the following month he was back. Camilla had explained to us before he’d arrived that he’d phoned her, full of abject apologies, begging to be allowed to come back, and promising faithfully that the next thing he read would be something wholesome and acceptable.

Everyone was a bit embarrassed, but we tried to make an effort to make him feel welcome. When it came to his turn to read, it all began innocently enough:

“I was going through a really bad time. Feeling thoroughly depressed, I wandered around town and found myself in a rough area. I encountered a woman who invited me into her flat. Once upstairs, she took off her clothes…”

What followed was virtually a carbon copy of his previous reading, the only difference being the nationality of the three bisexual prostitutes and the colour of their underwear.

As he was reading faster, panting with excitement, Roger stood up. He told Cedric to stop reading immediately, Camilla backed him up, and the pervert was told in no uncertain terms to leave and to never come back.

I soon forgot the incident, and our meetings went back to the normal, agreeable events we were used to. A few weeks later I was helping out at the church fete, where Robin Gargle, our popular local vicar was making a big effort to make it a success.

The tea urn in the refreshment tent wasn’t working, just before it was due to open for business, so I volunteered to try and fix it. So I was lying on the floor, tinkering with the electric cable, when I saw a couple of people come into the tent. They couldn’t see me, hidden under the table, and with a shock, I recognised Cedric, the pornographer. With him was a very young girl, whom I recognised as Sally, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a friend of mine. Sally was a rather dim, naïve girl, and she looked much older than her years. She was wearing a tight tee-shirt that exposed here navel, and a very short skirt.

Cedric had his arm around her shoulders, and was talking quietly to her, attempting to pull the naïve young girl closer to his body.

Fury took over, and I leapt to my feet and stormed from behind the tea table across to them.

“Sally, your mum and dad are looking for you,” I told the child. “They’re at the bring-and-buy stall.”

She giggled and ran off.

I cornered the repulsive little bastard, grabbed his collar and pushed him up against the central pole that supported the tent.

“Do you know that girl is fifteen?” I told him. “What the hell were you doing with her? Right now I want to wring your bloody neck, you filthy little pervert—”

“Look, please! I didn’t mean—”

Our row was interrupted when the vicar, Robin, came into the tent. I let go of the rat as my friend came across to join us.

“Thanks a million for fixing the tea urn Jack, you’ve saved the day as usual,” Robin enthused, oblivious to the atmosphere.

He beamed at the rat. “And thank you so much for coming such a long way to support us, Bishop. Jack, I see you’ve already made friends with my boss. I’m so glad to see how well you two are getting on. Jack, do you know that you and Cedric have got a lot in common? He’s a writer like you…”

Touch and Go

“Aye it can get a wee bit lonely up here, it can indeed.”

“I like my own company. Besides I’ll be busy.”

“So you will, laddie, so you will.”

As Angus Macready and I looked up at the sheer majesty of the fine stone walls of Cregallan Castle a wind whipped up and I felt the stirrings of the headache that had begun this morning. A nasty tense stab that disappeared as soon as it arrived. It was twilight on Blantyre Island in the Highlands of Scotland, and an interesting formation of dark clouds had gathered above the blackened stone of the castle’s Nairn Turret, where I was going to be working for the next few days.

“Well, I know it’s all prepared for your stay,” he went on. “There’s plenty of food and drink in the scullery, and the master bedroom is all prepared. “When do you think you’ll be finished?”

“I’m not sure,” I told him. “There are over 200 paintings inthe Nairn Tower, and many of them need quite a bit of drastic restoration. How about if you call for me in a week?”

“A week, aye, right enough, I’ll be back away here on the morning tide.” He turned back from the boat after we’d unloaded the third of my large wheeled suitcases. “You do know that there’s no mobile phone coverage,and the phone land-line has broken down again?”

“Yes, I know I’m going to be completely cut off from the world.” I smiled at the friendly sailor’s weather-beaten face, detecting a frown of concern in his kindly eyes. “But the McGregor family are paying me well to restore their collection of paintings, and I think I can put up with my own company for just a few days. I know there’s not even a signal for television or radio, but I’ve bought plenty of books, and I can even get on with some of my own painting if I get really bored.”

“Oh aye, Alistair, I forgot, you’re a bit of an artist yourself, are you not? Are you sure you dinna need a hand to take this stuff up to the castle?”

“No, Angus, I’ll be fine, you get off home. I really appreciate you coming out specially for me like this when you’re off duty.”

“Aye well, see you soon, laddie.” Angus prepared to cast off the mooring at the makeshift jetty and to turn his boat around to get back to the mainland village of Killicrankie. “And dinna you worry about the ghosts. I never believed a word of it.”

“A word of what?”

“Never mind, laddie, better I don’t fill your head with silly ideas. I’ll be seeing you soon.”

As the boat engine puttered away and Angus’s tiny craft appeared smaller and smaller as it moved towards the horizon, I walked back down the steps and across the pebbly sand to the main castle entrance, and took a perverse pleasure in using the large heavy key to open the huge, gleaming wooden door that led into the main hall. At once I was aware of the overpowering aroma of old stone, aged timber and furniture polish. In one way it was nice to be all alone in this wonderful place. After a nasty divorce, peace and quiet had never before had quite such an appeal, and besides I was going to be very busy.

Someone once told me that loneliness was a state of mind.You could feel complete, totally at ease, utterly relaxed and just bask in your own thoughts. However, hearing nothing at all from the outside world, not even the news on the radio, was going to be strange. But on the other hand, not hearing about terrible calamities such as floods, fires, wars and political infighting might even be a tonic. As Angus had said, there was plenty of food in the huge scullery’s frig and freezer, and the McGregors told me to take as many bottles of wine from the cellar as I wanted, so if I wanted to I could get sozzled every night to forget my troubles.

After bringing in my equipment and spare belongings from the jetty, I wandered around the huge building, along the fine passages and up the spiral stairs to the turret rooms and even got lost for a few minutes until I made my way back to the huge palatial living room with the log fire with its detailed instructions of how to light the logs in the hearth.

It had been a strange day, and a sad and happy one in equal measures. I reflected on the attractive woman I had met in Killicrankie village this afternoon, while I was waiting for Angus to arrive to take me across to the tiny Island of Blantyre.

Ellis Thomson had been a wise and worldly American girl who was in Scotland to trace her ancestry. We had met in the graveyard of St Bride’s church, where Ellis was on her knees, sliding a swatch of her uncombed long blonde hair away from her large bespectacled eyes, as she tried to decipher the wording on an old gravestone. I’d noticed her fingernails were dirty and her jeans muddy at the knees, and her lively voice and expressions made her face exquisitely animated. She told me excitedly that she was almost certain that this was the grave of her four-times great-grandmother.

Fortunately I had my small magnifier in my pocket, and we spent a long time peering at the engraving and attempting to decipher the letters that were so largely eroded. Instantly we felt into an easy rapport, seemingly almost knowing what the other was going to say before speaking. She told me, coming to Killicrankie was an unplanned detour in her holiday in the UK, and she was on her way to Edinburgh, many miles to the south, which had been home to more of her ancestors. As we’d shared a pot of tea in Granny Smith’s parlour, the tea shop in the tiny high street, she’d taken a great interest in my life as a struggling artist, and how I cleaned and restored valuable paintings in order to make ends meet.

“But, Ellis, tell me about your life in the States,” I asked her.

“Me? I work as a curator in a small museum in a tiny New-England town, I guess what you’d call a village. See Alistair, I just love anything old, I always have, especially old coins and medals,” she told me enthusiastically. “And I sure love it here. Scotland is such a beautiful place, especially way up here in the highlands. Guess I wouldn’t mind settling down somewhere like this.”

“What do you think of this?” I took off the chain with my St Christopher medallion and laid it on the table in front of her.

“Is it old?” she asked.

“Not that old. But it belonged to my grandfather. See that round dent in the corner? He told me that in the battle of El Alamein, during World War Two, he was hit by a German bullet and that medal saved his life. He bequeathed it to me in his will and I’ve worn it ever since.”

“And has it brought you luck?”

“Not yet. But I love it. Mostly because I loved grandad, and it reminds me of him.”

“It’s beautiful. Keep it safe.”

After that everything went to pot. Archie, the local bus driver, came into the tea shop, asking if anyone was heading for the nearest town, because he was leaving earlier than planned and there’d be no other bus leaving today.

And so, in a rush and panic, I helped Ellis gather her things up from the table, and then went with her to the hotel to fetch her suitcase, so that she could hurriedly board the bus, with Archie looking on in frustration.

And when she’d gone I realised two things. I hadn’t had chance to ask for her phone number. And then to my horror I discovered that I hadn’t got my St Christopher medallion, and remembered us both grabbing all her bits and pieces off the table and pouring them into her large handbag, no doubt gathering the medal along with everything else without either of us realising it. I had searched all around our table in the cafe, so that really was the only explanation.

So I’d lost my lucky medallion, along with any chance of seeing Ellis again. What’s more, my nasty headache was getting steadily worse. As to any ideas of seeing her again, of course Ellis’s life was in the USA and mine was in England, so I knew fate was against us. Besides, after my recent divorce I had lost a lot of confidence, and I couldn’t believe that a lovely woman like Ellis might be interested in me, what with my big nose and sticky-out ears.

Next day I was up in the top of the Nairn Tower, where I’d setup my equipment, and I was making great headway with the paintings, many of whichI knew to be priceless. Cleaning and restoring old paintings is a very difficultprocess. Some of them were so affected by the atmosphere that small areas ofthe paintings had faded away completely, and it takes the experience of yearsto know precisely what colours and types of oil paints can be used to copy the originalartist’s intentions.

But on the second morning my raging headache woke me up at dawn. It was so bad that I couldn’t think properly. I staggered down the majestic staircase into the grand lower hall, finding that my neck was so stiff that I could barely move it.

As I struggled to rummage through the bathroom cabinets in the hope of finding aspirin or paracetamol I felt my face and body burning, and I knew I had a high fever.

It was hard to think, but at the back of my mind I remembered someone telling me about the symptoms of meningitis, and as the horror of this possibility took hold, I tried to assess my options.

 I was done for.

As Angus had told me, there was no contact with the outside world, and I was on an island. Even if I could summon the strength to go outside and try to start a fire on the beach no one would see it anyway, for hardly any boats or ships seemed to pass and the mainland was quite a way away.

I lay down on the hall’s flagstone floor and dreamed that I was in a land of bright burning lights. But every time I woke up I saw the grey cold hardness underneath me, and I knew that I was completely alone.

And that this was where I was going to die.

The next thing I knew there were confused images, movement. And I was dreaming of Ellis, the wonderful girl I’d met in Killicrankie. I dreamed that she was looking down at me.

And behind her were people walking around: nurses, doctors. There was that antiseptic ‘hospital smell’, so different from the stone and furniture polish and oil paints and turpentine aromas I had been living with.

“He was very lucky you found him in time,” I heard someone saying. “It was touch-and-go. Just a few more hours and the brain swelling would have been fatal. Meningitis has to be treated urgently.”

And then the girl, Ellis, came into view.  Her beautiful smiling face was like that of an angel.

“I’d been in Edinburgh for a day by the time I found your St Christopher in my bag,” she told me. “I knew how much it meant to you but I couldn’t get a return train for a few hours. Getting to Killicrankie took time too, but Angus immediately agreed to take me across to the Island. We found you in the hallway and we managed to get you back on the boat, and the hospital helicopter took you from Killicrankie to here.”

The doctor came into the room and prodded and poked at me. “I’ll let you and your girlfriend have a bit of privacy,” he said, smiling as he left the room. “You’re not out of the woods yet I’m afraid. She’s going to have to look after you for the next few weeks.”

“He’s right,” Ellis said, taking hold of my hand. “No arguments.”

As Ellis smiled down at me I knew that my St Christopher had done more than just save my life. . .

Born Lucky

aeroplane-1838708_640

Everyone hates me.

I’m an inspector for Accountancy Solutions. I’m the guy who swoops into your place of work when your boss thinks someone’s nicking money or goods, and goes through the accounts to make sure things are in order.  And if they’re not, it’s muggins here who points the finger at the likely culprit.

I do pretty well at it. I’ve got a lovely wife, and we adore each other, in fact we’ve got the perfect marriage. My boss Colin is also my best and oldest friend. Elizabeth and I have got a beautiful big house. On the whole I enjoy my work.

Born lucky I suppose you could say.

So why do you think I risked everything I’ve ever worked for to help a perfect stranger out of trouble?

My strange experience happened in Edinburgh.  My company had sent me up to Frigid Foods, a large distribution centre for supermarket produce, where the boss suspected that money was going missing. And I’d done the job to a tee.

Which was what was upsetting me so much.

I was waiting at the airport for Flight 409 that was leaving shortly, to take me back to London. I was brooding and unhappy, remembering the ‘criminal’ Mary McCarthy, the extremely attractive middle-aged lady in the accounts department, who’d asked me into her office as I was leaving.

Tearfully she’d confessed to being the one who’d taken the money, something which I already knew.  She explained about her daughter’s drug addiction, her desperate attempts to find her counselling and therapy, and the huge cost of treatment at the addiction clinic.  This was the reason, she told me, that she’d ‘borrowed’ money from the company’s account, intending to pay it all l back before anyone noticed.  Indeed, she told me, she’d got a loan that very day, and had already paid back all that she’d taken, but it would only show in the books tomorrow, too late for her to cover up what she’d done, particularly as I had now completed my audit.  For obvious reasons we inspectors arrive out of the blue, so that no potential crook has the opportunity to cover their tracks.

Of course she knew there was nothing I could do to help her, she didn’t even ask.  Just sat there, telling me about her depression and misery, how she was divorced, and had been prepared to pay literally anything to find help for her daughter, who’d ‘fallen apart in front of her eyes’, but thankfully at long last had found a boyfriend and was on the road to recovery. All I could do was advise her to tell her boss the truth next day, before they got my company report, and to throw herself on his mercy.

She replied, grimly telling me what I already knew: that as soon as he found out the company would be obliged to prosecute her, she might even go to prison, and she’d certainly never get another decent job.

FLIGHT 409, LONDON. ARRIVED

Was the notice that flipped up on the huge announcement board, that broke into my gloomy thoughts. But just as I stood up to go through to the departure lounge, I knew that I couldn’t go.

I just couldn’t go!

I pictured Elizabeth, my wonderful wife, getting ready to drive out to meet me at Heathrow in a couple of hours’ time.

But I still couldn’t go.

For some weird reason I knew that there was no way that I could leave Edinburgh. Next thing I knew I was running out of the airport and leaping into a taxi. When I arrived back at Frigid Foods, the man on the reception desk was surprised to see me.

“Thought you’d finished, Mr Cook,” he said.

“Something I forgot,” I told him.  “Is it all locked up upstairs then?”

“No, the offices stay open until eight in case anyone wants to work late.”

“Thanks.”

As I climbed up to the third floor I had a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach, a gut-churning fear of I don’t know what.  I raced hell-for-leather up the last flight, and reached the accounts office door, crashing through, to hear the sound of furniture falling. And I arrived to see Mary McCarthy dangling by the neck from a noose that was fixed to the ceiling.

I made it in time to lift her legs, and eventually managed to reach up and disentangle the noose, so that she fell down into my arms. She was slack and almost comatose, but it was merely drunkenness that was affecting her: I could smell alcohol on her breath, but she was breathing fine, panting in fact. It looked as if I’d arrived in time to stop the noose doing any damage at all.

And, unsettlingly, I realised how attractive I found her to be.  I longed to kiss her, and hold her in my arms. When I’d settled her on the chair, I found another one and sat in front of her.

“Why did you come back?”  she demanded, aggressive in her drunkenness.  “Why did you stop me?”

I shook my head to clear my thoughts. “Because I’ve had an idea.”

“An idea?”

“I can make it go away.”

“What?”

“I haven’t emailed my report yet.  The money’s going to be in the company account tomorrow. I’m going to fudge the figures. I can pull some wangles, make the missing money ‘appear’ where it shouldn’t, at dates it didn’t.  I’ll tell your boss there are no discrepancies, that everything’s fine.”

“But why? ” She stared at me in amazement.  “If anyone found out—”

“My career would be toast.”

“So?”

How could I answer her?  I hadn’t got a clue myself.

“Maybe it’s because I’ve had more than my fair share of good luck. I’m in love with my wife, I enjoy my work, I’ve got money, and I simply can’t face going back to my lovely happy life at home and leaving you in the shit. I like you, Mary. And I’ve seen enough criminals to tell when someone’s straight and decent.”

“You feel sorry for me.”

“Anyone would feel sorry for you. I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to have a problem daughter to cope with.”

“Oh God, Michael, I don’t know what to say. Thanking you doesn’t even begin to cut it,” she said quietly after a while.  “You know I simply can’t believe this is happening. I mean what do you get out of it?”

“Nothing. I don’t want anything, I just want to put things right. Forget this mess ever happened.”

“But—”

“Come on. Let’s get out of here and find a decent place to eat. I’m starving.”

We found a nice pub and had a good meal. And Mary relaxed more as she ate, and the drunkenness wore off. And with a sinking heart I suddenly realised how utterly stupid I was being.

For in the last half hour I’d done something I’d never ever done before in my professional life, and I was going to live to regret it. I’d fallen for a pretty face, and stupidly risked everything I’d worked for, for the last twenty years: my well-paid job, my lifestyle. And if I lost my job my wonderful wife Elizabeth would suffer too.

Oh God, Elizabeth. We’d never had any secrets from each other, and I knew I’d have to tell her what I’d done. That’s the kind of marriage we had, we could tell each other virtually everything. I could tell her what a bloody fool I was to have done this rash act of kindness and she would understand.

Or could I?

Was I betraying her?

But for the next hour Mary chatted away about her life, her family, her daughter’s troubles and so on until I suddenly realised guiltily that I hadn’t phoned Elizabeth to tell her I’d be on the later flight. While Mary went to the toilet, I dialled my home’s number on my mobile, then cursed as I remembered that the phone people had been tinkering with the wires in the road outside our house, and the landline phone was behaving erratically.

Strangely, the next time the dialling tone gave way immediately to a conversation, and I recognised Elizabeth’s voice on what had to be a crossed line. Then I heard who she was talking to:

“Shut up Lizzie and listen!” said the male voice I recognised as Colin, my best friend and boss at Accountancy Solutions.  “I tell you there were no survivors at all on flight 409. Yes, yes, poor old Michael, I know, it’s terrible, but face it darling, he was killed on take-off, everyone was.  At least it makes things simpler for us.  Now you don’t need to divorce him.  And knowing Michael, I bet his life was insured to the hilt.”

“But Colin darling, it’s all so sudden, I can’t get used to it…”

In a daze I looked up at the large flatscreen TV on the wall of the pub.  There in front of me was the wreckage of the aircraft I should have been on, with the words underneath reiterating that all the passengers on Flight 409 were killed in the crash.