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“See these hands?” said the elderly man who’d introduced himself as George, holding up his fingers to show me. “These are killing weapons. The army made me sign a form to say that I’ll never get into a casual fight, because I couldn’t be responsible for the consequences. If I hit you I’d kill you, see?” He lunged towards me, hands aloft, waving the deadly digits in my face.
This was the first time I had gone into the pub called The Undeniable Truth, in the village of Foggy Bottom, where me and my wife Barbara had just moved to. My company had offered me promotion if I agreed to move out of London to the West Country, and so far village life seemed lively and interesting. I was enjoying my new job, had nice colleagues to work with, but so far we had no social life in the evenings, hence my sojourn to the nearest village pub. Everyone had been friendly and welcoming, but the conversation was taking a distinctly strange turn. . .
“You can kill with your hands, you say George?” a bespectacled gent with a walking stick and a large white moustache joined in our conversation. “That’s nothing. In the Ultra Green Beret Special Para Boat Squadron I was in they trained us to kill with our feet.” He leaned closer to me, lifting a Wellington-boot clad foot. “Get my big toe in your throat and you’d go down like a sack of spuds, my friend!”
“Well when I was in the hush-hush mob – you know the guys who nobody talks about – they trained us to survive in the jungle,” George continued, oblivious. “I lived for six months on worms and rainwater in the Amazonian rain forest.”
“Worms and rainwater?” chimed in another guy who was bald as a coot with a round shiny red face. “You were lucky. I had to dig in the ice for sea slugs, and occasionally kill a huge savage wild boar with my bare hands. It’s the only way to survive in a Siberian winter. . .”
I made my excuses and left. They seemed really nice friendly guys, I did like them, but the wild tale-telling seemed more than bizarre, and I couldn’t really keep a straight face.
I told Barbara about the would-be desperados in the pub, but she made light of it. “These country people are a bit over-the-top, that’s all,” she said. “But they’re nice. We just have to get used to them. And after all it’s not the only pub in the village.”
The following evening I popped into The Philosopher’s Dilemma. This looked a much more lively place, the drinkers seemed a bit younger than those in The Undeniable Truth. No sooner had I taken a seat at the bar, than a couple of men came along to chat to me.
“You’ve taken on Barnaby’s cottage then, have you, mate?” said the man who’d introduced himself as Arthur. He was about my age, fortyish, and was nursing his pint as if he loved it.
“That’s right, we’ve just moved down from London.”
“Well it’s very nice to see a new face. Now let me ask you something.” He pointed to my pint of beer. “Is that a pint of beer?”
“Yes,” I muttered, a bit surprised. “Isn’t it?”
“Ah now, according to Zen Buddhism, you might think it’s only a glass of beer. But in fact one might argue that the glass of beer only exists in your mind.”
“Glass, you say Arthur?” said a newcomer, who was slightly older and had a thinker’s frown and a huge thatch of grey hair and wore a large dirty blue pullover. “Come come now, I think you’re being a bit fast and loose semantically. You call that a glass, but I think of glass as a material not an item.”
“Ah but Grundvald Geitszberg wouldn’t agree there, he wouldn’t agree at all,” chimed in a man behind us in a strident northern accent. “Greitszberg would say that none of us are actually here in the pub. In fact this pub only exists in our imaginations. . . .Thinking logically, we aren’t here and we never were. We have to go right back to first principles. . .”
Once more that week I made my excuses and returned home to tell Barbara my tale of woe.
“You know what?” she remarked cheerfully. “I think we should both go out together tomorrow night. Go somewhere different, not some blokey pub. The girls at work were telling me about a new wine bar that they recommended.”
The Wagging Tongue was just off the high street, in fancy modern premises, and inside the décor was bright and smart and sassy. The walls were purple, the ceiling painted with psychedelic colours, and all the drinks seemed to be every hue under the sun. The subdued lighting created a wonderful atmosphere of calm.
Barbara had been right, it wasn’t a blokey place at all, and most of the customers seemed to be female, and none of them looked as if they were likely to pontificate about philosophy or how to survive in Siberia. As soon as we sat down at a table we were joined by a friendly-looking woman, who said her name was Veronica. She was middle-aged, dressed stylishly in a tightly-fitting dress, and was sipping Chardonnay.
“You live in the old Barnaby cottage don’t you?” Veronica began, smiling sweetly. “So you’re not far from the vicarage. Tell me, have you heard any strange noises coming from there during the night?”
“Well I have. My word, some of the things that vicar gets up to, you wouldn’t believe! Women coming in and going at all hours, not even trying to hide their shame! They do say that under his cassock he’s wearing stockings and suspenders. And apparently he takes drugs.”
“Yes, yes, he does,” butted in Sally, a silver-haired sophisticated lady who’d also drawn up a chair at our table. “Stoned out of his mind he was last Sunday,” she said sotto voice, leaning closer conspiratorially. “He could hardly blather out the sermon, kept stumbling. Course they do say that he sunbathes naked in his garden, waves his willy at all and sundry! Would you credit it, a man of God!”
“But how about that Dougie Brown, that farmer down Angleton way? They tell me no sheep is safe from his evil ways – been in prison for it, he has!”
“Well I never! The dirty devil!”
“I’m not a one to talk badly about anyone, you know me. But what about Sheila Brown, his wife?” demanded Veronica. “Had every man in the village, some of the boys too. What a trollop she is, they say she’s got hairs on her chest.”
“You can’t really blame her I suppose, not if her husband prefers making love to a sheep…”
When we got home, by mutual consent Barbara and I felt we didn’t fancy going back to The Wagging Tongue.
But as time went by, and we got used to the village ways more, I got more comfortable with my job and I realised how much I had enjoyed the company of the nice guys at The Undeniable Truth.
It was very touching, the way they welcomed me back.
“We do like to see a new face,” admitted George. “We wondered if we were going on a bit and were shocking you with all our tales of derring-do last time you came in.”
“Oh no, I’ve just been busy, that’s all. The thing is, I’ve got a confession to make to you fellas. When I was in London, I wasn’t a salesmen, as I told you. In fact I worked for MI5.” I looked around to make sure that only my immediate comrades could hear what I was saying. “You see they had to retire me from active service. Thing is, they only let you kill twenty people a month and I had exceeded my quota. It wasn’t really my fault, there was this Russian gangster aiming a rocket launcher at me. His girlfriend, who had these huge breasts, she had a spray canister of nerve agent ready to squirt into my face, so what choice did I have?”
After that I got into the habit of going to The Undeniable Truth regularly. And then I got a book on philosophy and popped into The Philosopher’s Dilemma and thoroughly enjoyed talking rubbish with my new friends there. Barbara took to going to see the friends she’d made at The Wagging Tongue and had a great time dishing the dirt on all and sundry. When she came home she’d keep me entertained for hours with all the hair-raising tales of the sordid goings-on of our neighbours.
However, a few weeks later I was in the queue in the post office and I was mortified when I overheard a conversation behind me between two elderly ladies:
“Do you know the new people who’ve moved into the old Barnaby cottage?”
“No, but I heard about them. Londoners, so they do say. And my word, it seems they’re not half peculiar. The woman spends her time gossiping and pulling people to pieces, and the man is a raving crackpot and a pathological liar.”
“Well, what do expect from Londoners? They’re not normal folks like us.”
(photo courtesy Diego Torres)
As the flames grew higher I saw the little girl in the upstairs window. She was waving frantically, banging on the glass.
I had been walking along the road shell-shocked, stunned, still reeling after having had the biggest disappointment of my life.
You see, during all the time that I was desperately fighting to break into the inferno via the front door of the house, I honestly didn’t care if I lived or died.
Mary, the woman I’d been having an affair with for two years, had promised to run away from her husband with me tonight, it had all been arranged. I was to meet her at the Asda car park at the edge of town, and we would drive off to start our new lives together in a new town. Both of us were without children and middle-aged. I had no ties, but Mary had a useless tosser of a husband, whom she hated. She had told me that she had wanted to leave the drunken, vicious bastard for years, but as a devout Catholic she knew that it was wrong to break her marriage vows. If she abandoned her marriage she knew that she could never take communion, light a candle for her mother’s soul or ever be fully accepted into her church again.
But, hard choice as it had been, she had finally decided to make the break and had promised to meet me as arranged. She had prayed a lot and, even though she knew that Father Paul would disagree, she finally felt that God would understand.
When she didn’t turn up I knew that she had changed her mind, and that she must have spoken with the priest again, and he had persuaded her to follow God and not me. Her Catholic faith had trumped her desire for happiness, as had happened a couple of times before, when she’d almost agreed to come away with me and let me down.
So this was it. My final disappointment. There was no point in asking her again, for I had got my answer.
And right at that point, I hated God with a passion I didn’t think was possible. I felt that if I was to die now, God could stuff heaven up his backside. I would take my chances with the other bloke, the one with the pitchfork and the flames.
I’d already called the fire brigade. Luckily the door broke on my third attempt to kick it in, and as it smacked back, bouncing back against the wall, I ran onwards and up the flight of stairs.
The landing corridor was full of smoke, and the first door I tried was to an empty room. But once I was in the second room I could see the little child now, apparently unconscious on the floor. She stirred as I picked her up, and I also caught sight of a baby in its crib. I picked up the baby in my other arm, clutching the little girl against my chest.
But even as I strode on, I had the terrible premonition that I was too late. I made it out onto the landing, but the flames had really taken hold and as I covered the children’s faces as best I could and forced my way through the wall of flame, something gave way beneath my feet. All I cared about in the world was saving the poor little helpless creatures in my charge, but as the world went black, I knew that there was nothing on earth I could do for them now.
I don’t know how much later it was when I had the strange dream. There was this weird white light all around and an odd feeling of peace. And Mary appeared from somewhere, smiling at me, reaching out her hand for me to hold. It was stupid of course, but in that moment I really felt as if she was there, with me, when I knew such a thing was impossible.
But much later I came down to earth with a bump, face-to-face with a chubby-cheeked woman in a white coat, who reminded me of a contented fat cat who had just enjoyed a large meal.
“You’re doing very well, old chap. Your heart stopped for a brief period but lucky you were in the Intensive Care Unit by then and we hoiked you back to the land of the living. You’ve got a few injuries, but no permanent damage, you’ll be tickety-boo in no time.”
“The children?” I asked.
She smiled. “They’re fine, miraculously there’s hardly a mark on them. Thanks to you they got out of that room, another second in there and it would have been a different story. You’re a very brave man. I’m afraid we don’t even know your name, sir, because all your clothes and possessions you were carrying were lost in the fire. Can we call anyone to tell them that you’re here?”
“No, thanks,” I told her. “I’m divorced. I live alone. There’s no one to tell.”
She nodded, and I saw that momentary recoil, that edge of sympathy and shock that people always have when they know you have no family or close friends.
No one knew it of course but I didn’t need anyone. Mary was going to be my family, Mary was going to be my best friend.
Later on, Mr and Mrs Edwards, the parents of the children, came to see me, effusive in their thanks and condemnations about the ‘wretched baby sitter who’d left them alone,’ and all the ‘Anything we can do to help you, you only have to ask’ kind of protestations, but I reassured them that I had been glad to help. But in fact I felt a bit awkward and embarrassed. Because they didn’t know that I was accepting their thanks under false pretences. Of course, like anyone else, I had wanted to save the children’s lives. But if I had had any sort of reason to go on living, would I really have perched my existence on a knife-edge as I had done? It was difficult to say.
As I was leaving hospital, I felt pretty bereft, wondering what sort of life I was going back to. I had given up my job and my rented flat in London, to come and start a new life with Mary up here in Scotland. Having been a travelling salesman for so long, one town was much the same as another to me now, and I was beyond caring where I lived or what I did. I reckoned that I might as well carry on breathing in Bradford as Builth Wells. My job was how I had first met Mary, when she worked in the sweetshop in Edinburgh, and I had arrived to sell her our company’s new range of chocolates.
My bank had been very helpful, and one phone call had elicited my temporary debit card. So I went to the shops nearby, to buy a big box of chocolates for the nurses, who had been so kind to me. Oh yes, having been in the trade, I’m a bit of a chocolate aficionado, so I visited several places, finding and selecting the biggest and best boxes of chocs I could find.
When I got back to the corridor outside my ward, laden down as I was, I noticed a familiar figure, a woman, walking very slowly and carefully, looking as lost and lonely as I felt.
“Mary?” I asked, hardly recognising the pale-faced lady who was the love of my life.
“Mary, what’s happened to you?”
“I was walking to Asda to meet you with my suitcase when I had these terrible chest pains. I collapsed in the road, and luckily a passer-by saw me and called an ambulance. All that stress of making the decision must have taken its toll on me. I had a heart attack. And here in hospital I died twice, and I had this dream that I was with you. There was this amazing white light. Jack, do you know, they told me I had died for a time. But it was nothing like I expected it to be. God didn’t envelop me with his love, I just felt as if I was going to break wind all the time, and all I could really think about was holding your hand, and trying to tell you how much I loved you.”
“Where’s your husband?”
“He came to the hospital once, to tell me he’d read my note saying I was leaving him. I haven’t seen him since.”
In my mind I apologised to God for all the harsh things I had said about him.
Something tells me he’d understand.
(photo courtesy of Gerd Altmann)
“Did you know him?” asked the nurse as we looked down at the dead man, seventyish Harry. In the grey early-morning light, the hospital ward with its bed-fuls of weary suffering patients, looked as dismal as I felt. I really didn’t want to be here.
“Oh yes, I knew him alright,” I answered, feeling a surge of emotion. “When I was fifteen, he took a huge interest in me. In fact he completely altered my life.”
I shivered miserably as I remembered. Then I looked down at the dead man in bed, and remembered the disquieting look in his eyes when he’d seen me for the first time: interested, curious, keen to get to know me, plus that undeniable glint of lasciviousness I’d already seen too many times.
Of course now I was a completely different person. I’d become tough, hardened by all my gritty, life-changing experiences, all the things that had been facilitated by Harry’s efforts. I looked down at him, wondering if after all the things he’d done in his life, whether he was finally at peace. I knew that I hadn’t been the only young girl who’d come under his spell.
* * *
Fourteen years ago, when I’d first met him, I had been scared, tired and desperate, having been living on the London streets for three months. In the autumn it hadn’t been so bad, but now in the freezing misery of January, I just longed for warmth and food. Harry, a pleasant looking, well-dressed man, was passing and he looked down at me.
“Would you like me to take you somewhere for a good meal?” he asked me.
I looked back at him warily. In the twelve weeks of living rough, even though I had encountered a lot of kindness, I had soon realised that nothing is for nothing, especially when it’s an older, horny man who clearly fancies his chances with young girls. After all, if all he’d wanted was to help me, he’d just have given me a fiver and gone on his way, wouldn’t he?
No, I realised, wriggling uncomfortably. It was my company he wanted. . .
But, I hesitated, and that had been my downfall. I was colder than I’d ever been before and I hadn’t eaten all day. Would it be so bad? I’d already been tempted to do things with men for money, something I’d never have dreamed of doing before. And at least Harry looked clean.
“Okay,” I told him.
He didn’t talk as we walked along the road to the burger shop and we settled down at the table and he watched me eat the huge burger, fries and coke. After I’d finished eating, I told him about leaving my home in Sheffield, about my mother not believing that my stepfather was sexually molesting me, and how living there had been completely impossible, and how terrified I was of them finding me and having to go back there. Until I was sixteen, the police could take me back there at any time, and I’d be back in his clutches.
“Please let me help you,” Harry had said, putting his hand over mine on the table. “Let me find you a place to stay. Let me look after you.”
Of course I was repelled, snatching my hand away as if it was being burned. An old man like that, looking after me? I’d spoken to a few girls, and I knew the score. Pimps were all over the London streets, trying to find the youngest girls, the ones who hadn’t been ruined by drink or drugs or aids, the ones who could attract a lot of punters.
“Do you really want to go back out there?” he’d asked me.
It had begun to snow again. And I’d only just got warm from the restaurant’s heat. My limbs were tired, my headache was bad, and the sudden large meal I’d eaten was making me feel sleepy.
I just wanted to cry and sleep in a warm bed. I just wanted to go back to being a child again, to feel loved and cared for.
“I’ve got no money. Can’t get a job. I’m bloody desperate.” I began to cry uncontrollably.
He was obviously either some kind of old perv, or else a pimp looking for recruits, and I didn’t know which.
Nevertheless, the question was right there in front of me.
Was I really going to sell my soul?
“You don’t have to go back out there,” he went on, wearing down my reserves. “I know a nice hotel near here. A decent clean place. You could get a good night’s sleep, have a bath. . .”
It was the mention of the bath that did it. I decided to go for it, there and then.
“Good.” He smiled for the first time. “Believe me, you won’t regret it.”
And that was how my new life had begun.
As I say, after that I did a lot of growing up. I saw the raw ugliness of humanity first hand, I saw lots of illness, suffering and death and struggle. And I learnt a lot about myself.
I learnt that above everything else I am a survivor and I always will be.
That first night I wallowed in the hot bath for hours, then plunged into the warm lovely bed with the clean sheets. I slept all night, solidly, forgetting about the likelihood that Harry, and maybe other men with him, might arrive at any time.
And then I woke up in the morning, and my heart sank. Sure enough, Harry was there. Sitting quietly in the chair beside my bed, watching me sleep, no doubt fantasising about what he would do to me.
“Listen,” Harry had said. “I’m very sorry. But I betrayed you. I betrayed your trust.”
“You betrayed me?”
Then I had a moment of panic. I realised that maybe this was his convoluted way of telling me that it was payback time right at this moment! That I would have to be ‘nice’ to him.
“I know that Rebecca isn’t your real name. When you went to the toilet in the cafe, I went through your coat pockets and found an old letter with your real name and address. You’re Sally Stephens, not Rebecca. I drove to your house in Sheffield during the night and explained to your mum why you’d run away. She realises you were telling her the truth and I’ve bought her here. She’s waiting outside.”
“Mum?” I said in amazement as she same through the door.
We were hugging each other like there was no tomorrow.
“Oh Sally, I’m sorry I didn’t believe you. I’ve thrown the bastard out. It’ll just be the two of us from now on, I promise. I really promise I’ll never let you down again. . .”
* * *
I came back down to earth in the harsh lighting of the hospital ward in the present day, as tears stung my eyes. I remembered overhearing Harry chatting to Mum later, about how he’d helped other homeless children in the same way.
“I’m sorry to have called you, Dr Stephens,” Sister Patel said, misreading the dampness of my eyes for my usual, desperate tiredness from my relentless work schedule. “I know you’ve been on duty in A & E all night, but there’s no one else. Will you register the death?”
“Of course, Sister.”
As I looked down at Harry, I thought of being a bit older than the others at my sixth-form college, my astoundingly good A-level results and everything else that had followed in my life.
And as I put my stethoscope onto Harry’s chest I listened for the heartbeat that had gone forever.
(photo courtesy of kirkandmimi.com)
“I’m leaving you, you pie-faced bastard! My mum was right about you, you are a useless, talentless waste of space. What did I ever see in you?”
So saying, my girlfriend Sue, threw her cup of tea in my face and flounced out of my flat for ever.
It had been an unpleasant period in my life that was getting worse by the day.
I’d lost my job a month ago, and, in between rushing around looking for other employment, I’d begun writing the novel I’d been planning for years. At least I had Vampire Dawn, to concentrate on, even though money worries and uncertainty about my future somehow precluded my concentration, so that the great novel of the twenty-first century was taking much longer than I’d anticipated. In fact, although I’d got a really cracking first chapter, I realised that my original idea had somehow disappeared. After setting the scene of my dystopian horror story set in the year 3060, when vampires ruled the world, somehow I couldn’t work out how to go on with it, and all I could do was stare at a blank computer screen.
How could you get writers block when you’re not even a writer?
Later in the pub I was telling my brother Jack about Sue’s departure and how desolate I felt.
“I mean, Jack, she said such hurtful things. I mean would you say my face looks like a pie?” I asked him indignantly.
“A meat pie, you mean?”
“Blimey, hardly a blimmin’ cherry tart!”
“Well, since you mention it, your face is very round, very pale, and now that your hair’s receding so fast, I suppose you could say—”
“Okay, okay,” I snapped.
“You’ve got to admit,” he went on, oblivious to my discomfort, “Sue does have quite a way with words. She’d have been a good writer. Mind you.” He leaned forward to look at me seriously. “There is a plus side. No more Sue, no more Sue’s mum. And you know what they say, don’t you? If you want to know what your girlfriend is going to be like when she’s older, just look at her mother.”
I had to admit to myself that the bloodless corpses in my novel had been partly inspired by Sue’s ghastly, stick-thin, evil virago of a mother.
“People who are very thin can sometimes have a mean nature,” Jack observed. “Sue’s mum never liked you, did she?”
I nodded. “And the feeling was mutual.”
“You set too much store by a girl having a good figure and not being overweight. Sue worked out, her muscles were toned, she had a fantastic figure. Admit it, her sexy shape was the only reason that you overlooked her horrible personality. Fat people are often nicer than thin people. It’s a known fact.”
The following day I woke up to find that Albert, my cat, had done a poo on the pages of chapter one of Vampire Dawn, obliterating the deathless prose of my opening paragraph. As I looked at the mess, it seemed to summarise my life.
There was a knock at the door, and, in a foul mood, I opened it.
“Good morning. Would you like to buy a gypsy’s charm for good luck?” said the attractive girl who was standing there. Her lovely red hair was captured in a colourful headscarf, gypsy style, and she was dressed in a kind of old-fashioned smock, carrying a huge basket of bouquets of little flowers. A beautiful radiant smile lit up her face, but I was in no mood for charm.
“No I bloody don’t want a good-luck charm,” I snapped at her. “I don’t believe in all that nonsense. Clear off and don’t come back!”
“How dare you speak to me like that?” she told me, her face crumpling up as if she was about to burst into tears. “I’ve a good mind to put a gypsy’s curse on you!”
“Go ahead, curse away,” I told her, “you can hardly make things worse!”
As I slammed the door in her face, I thought of the shock and sadness on her features when I’d yelled at her. I was instantly ashamed and opened the door and rushed after her to apologise, but she’d vanished round the corner and I couldn’t see her anywhere. I realised how badly I had behaved and felt dreadful.
When I came back into the living room, Albert stared at me as if he was scandalised, swishing his tail. “I know, I know mate, you’re right,” I told him, unable to resist picking him up for a cuddle as I thought of the girl I’d been so rude to. “I shouldn’t have snapped at that girl, it was stupid and childish. Sometimes you do things you regret and you just have to live with the consequences.”
“Do you?” Albert seemed to say as he stared back at me, wild-eyed with accusation.
The following morning, Jack turned up at my front door, the grin on his face almost reaching his ears. “You won’t believe what’s happened,” he said cheerfully, leading the way into my living room. “You know Jane and I have been trying for a baby all these years? She’s only told me that the doctor’s certain that she’s pregnant—didn’t want to tell me until she was sure! So after that I felt really lucky, went into the bookies and I’ve just won a fortune on the horses. The drinks are on me tonight.”
“Congratulations, you deserve a bit of luck for a change,” I told him, genuinely pleased for my good-natured brother.
After he’d gone, something strange happened. I sat down at the desk and I found my fingers flying over the keyboard. At last my story was taking off, and I really felt as if I was getting somewhere. New ideas were pouring through my mind so fast it was hard to get them on screen in time.
Then I had a phone call from my Auntie Pam. “Oh Alan, you won’t believe what’s happened! Dan has just phoned to tell me we won the lottery! Thousand and thousands, I can’t believe it!”
Only yesterday, Auntie Pam had been telling me of her money worries, and how my uncle needed a hip operation there was a huge long wait, and she couldn’t afford to have it done privately.,
Then, when I got home after my long walk I found I had a phone message on my landline, to tell me that my interview for a job as a postman had paid off and they were offering me a chance. Wow, what a result! Getting up for the early shifts would be hard at first, but I had a mate who was a postie, and he told me that it’s brilliant—all the walking keeps you super fit, which would mean I could start playing football again, the money’s regular and you finish in the early afternoons.
But there was a cloud on my sunny horizons. Ever since I’d seen the gypsy girl I’d been feeling even more guilty about being so rude to her, and for some reason I couldn’t forget her lovely face. I thought back to all that ridiculous nonsense she’d told me about laying a curse on me—provably wrong, when in fact since she’d come into my life everything had changed for the better.
But I was feeling so guilty that I went to the farmer’s field at the edge of town, where all the gypsy caravans were parked. After a bit of asking around, I found the girl, Rose, near one of the caravans, carrying a bucket.
“Look I’ve come to apologise to you,” I said, wondering why I hadn’t noticed how beautiful she was. “I’d had a bad morning, but I had no right to take it out on you. I’m very very sorry I was so rude. Is there any way I can make it up to you?”
“It’s me who should be sorry,” she confessed, leading me to one of the caravans and sitting on the step. “You see, my great granny was a white witch. Mum kept all her old notebooks, and in the back of one of them are all the details about curses and blessings, the words you say, and how you do it. So, just for a laugh, I looked at them again, and with my sister, we said the words that were meant to curse you. Lit candles and said incantations, all kinds of stupid stuff. I’m so sorry, we just did it for a laugh, we never in a million years took it seriously. I knew nothing bad would happen really.”
“Well, plenty has happened to me, but all of it’s good. I got an offer of a job, and I suddenly got all these new ideas for the novel I’m writing. And my brother and auntie have had tremendously good news too.”
She frowned. “I can’t understand it. Oh, wait a minute, I think I know what must have happened!” She nodded, and as she began to laugh I felt as if the sun was coming out after a cloudy day. “You know what I must have done? The writing was all spidery and old, and I couldn’t make it out properly and guessed here and there. I must have said the words for the blessing instead of the ones for the curse.” She stopped smiling and became deadly serious. “Mind you, it’s brilliant that it works, isn’t it? Maybe I should try again, and this time do the blessing and see if it works out as a curse?”
“Oh no! Please please don’t!”
“If you could see your face!” She was laughing again. I realised that Sue and her mum hardly ever laughed. “When you get to know me better you’ll find out that I joke around a lot.”
“When I get to know you better?”
“Yes.” She looked into my eyes. “Something tells me that we’re going to get to know each other very well. Have you got a girlfriend?”
“Not any more.” I thought of Sue and her dreadful mother, and what a narrow escape I had had. “I think your blessing was working retrospectively when she walked out on me last week.”
“There you are then,” she went on. “I broke up with my boyfriend last week too. It must be fate that we met. Oh look,” she turned to look behind me. “Here comes Mum. You’ll like her, everyone likes my mum.”
In the distance was the largest woman I’ve ever seen in my life. I remembered Jack’s remark about girls often turning into their mothers. Looking at the faces of mother and daughter I could see how alike they were, and that no doubt one day Rose would become grossly overweight like her mum, and her face would also be encased in rolls of fat.
But do you know something? I didn’t care. Jack’s words came back to me: Fat people are often nicer than thin people.
“It’s odd,” Rose said to me on our second date a few days later. “My granny tells fortunes. She’s always predicted that I’d meet an important man in my life on my twenty-second birthday. And I did.”
“And did she say anything else about me?” I asked, full of pride.
She paused for a moment to consider. “She said you’d have a face like a meat pie. But I don’t mind. Looks aren’t everything.”
(photo courtesy of Robert Waghorn)
“What’s the matter, mate?” said the man who came to sit next to me on the bench on the seafront at Brighton. Seagulls were swooping and diving and screaming above us, my headache was getting worse, and I was on the point of wondering whether to go to Beachy Head along the coast, climb to the top and dive to my death.
“Cheer up, it might never happen,” he went on.
“It already has. You won’t believe the mess I’ve got myself into.” I confessed to him. He seemed like a pleasant character, about mid-thirties, my own age, with a friendly smile on a boyish, open face.
“A problem shared is a problem halved,” he went on.
“When my girlfriend finds out what I’ve done, it won’t be a problem, it’ll be World War Three,” I told him. “You see, she has a house along the road there,” I said, pointing. “I’ve been living there this week, looking after it for her while she’s away, working abroad. I told her I was going back to my flat in London on Friday night, but at the last minute I decided to stay the weekend without telling her. Since she’s not coming home till Monday, what’s the harm, I thought?” I closed my eyes, shaking my head, trying to dislodge my misery. “If only I had done.”
“Last night I decided to go out on my own, go to a few pubs and clubs. Take in the Brighton scene. Just to relax and enjoy myself on my own.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing, only I met this wonderful girl, Jane. We got talking, I’d had a few drinks, and before I knew it I had invited her back to my house—or rather my girlfriend’s house. I’m not really a two-timing bastard, honestly. Between you and me, Sam and I have been going through a bad patch, not long ago we’d decided to break up. We argue all the time nowadays. This house-sitting was a case in point—I didn’t want to come all the way down here and travel up to London and back every day for my work, but she wanted her plants watered and her fish fed, so muggins here agrees reluctantly. And when she told me I could go home on Friday, I thought, why shouldn’t I stay a couple more days if I want to? Have a chance to look around Brighton, instead of just rushing to and from the station like I did all this week.”
“And presumably Sam wouldn’t approve of you taking a girl back to her house?”
“Are you joking? I’ve only got to smile at a girl, and Sam is shouting and swearing at me. If she knew that I’d spent a night of passion with another woman in her bed. . .” I paused, covering my face with a hand. “But that’s not the worst of it. I sort of hinted to this girl that the house belonged to my mate, Sam—kind of gave the impression that my friend was a man.”
“And I don’t know what happened after we made love. I guess I was more drunk than I realised and very tired. At some stage I must have passed out. Next thing I knew I was waking up in bed. Alone.”
“At first I was really upset because she hadn’t left a mobile number or even a note, and I really wanted to see her again. Because to me, it wasn’t just a one-night stand, I really liked her. Then, when I opened the bedroom door, I found out why she’d gone without a word. We’d been burgled. Nothing taken from the bedroom, where I was asleep, but everywhere else there was chaos! Upended furniture, drawers tipped out all over the floor, they’d even peed on the shag-pile carpet! And the laptops, the spare phone, the microwave, the telly, the hi-fi, even some of the furniture had gone. Everything of value had been nicked and the house had been wrecked.”
“And you slept right thought it?”
I nodded. “I was out for the count. So now, not only will I have to confess to Samantha that I took a girl back to her house and had sex with her, but that same girl phoned some scummy friends and they robbed her blind! What am I going to do?”
“Have you told her yet?”
“No, I daren’t. She has quite a temper, and she’d come back on the first plane and smash my face in! Oh God. I’ve been wanting to end our relationship for some time, but I didn’t think it would end like this. Last time I had a row with her, she broke two of my ribs. She does that karate, unarmed combat stuff.”
“Have you been to the police yet?”
“On my way now. I’d better do it right away because she’ll need to claim on the insurance.”
At the police station I spoke to the man at the desk, and he filled in forms for me to sign, telling me not to touch anything, and that one of their officers would be calling round later on, and saying that they would contact the householder to let her know what had happened.
Later that morning, a male and a female police officer came round. When I looked at the woman, I did a double-take.
“Hello Toby,” she said, smiling as they came into the house, the same house she’d been in only a few hours ago. I remembered that while we’d discussed just about everything else, we’d never talked about our jobs.
“We’ve got some good news for you,” Jane went on cheerfully. “You’ll be glad to know we’ve recovered all your friend’s stolen items.”
“That’s marvellous!” I said, still stunned. “How on earth?”
“After you fell asleep, you looked so tired, that I didn’t like to wake you. But as I was leaving, just as I was about to leave a note with my mobile number, I heard a noise. I hid, because when I saw the intruder I recognised him as one of our local faces.”
“Criminals. Robbers to be precise.”
“Yes,” continued her colleague. “Archie Andrews specialises in ‘insurance jobs’. That is, he arranges with a householder to rob them, so that they can make an inflated insurance claim, getting back much more money than they ‘lost’, claiming all kinds of things missing that were never there in the first place. Lots of people operate this kind of scam, and it’s very hard to prove.”
“Unless you’re able to take a video of what they’re actually taking, like I did, and let them drive away, thinking they got away with it,” Jane said, smiling. “I realised you couldn’t be in on it, because the householder always makes sure they’re a long way away when it happens. And just to make sure, one of our guys followed you out of the house this morning, in case you were going to meet Archie, to secretly take back the goods—as sometimes happens too. His conversation with you confirmed our suspicions that you were just a pawn in the game.”
“A pawn?” I asked, still trying to make sense of it all.
“When we arrested Archie he confessed that it was a set-up and he’d arranged it all with this lady, Samantha Fortescue, whom he claimed he was in a serious relationship with. She’d made dubious insurance claims in the past, and he explained that getting ‘some daft mug’ to house-sit for the week was a ruse to make the insurance company think she’d done her best to keep the place burglar-proof.”
I was lost for words.
“I really enjoyed meeting you last night, Toby,” Jane said to me quietly, as her colleague was occupied with some papers. “Why don’t we do it again sometime?”
Last night I had that dream again. The one where I’m really thirsty, and a lovely glass of cold water is just beyond my reach. Or I’m ravenously hungry and there’s chicken and chips on a plate, but it’s yards away and I can’t walk.
I suppose that’s what my life has become: a yearning for what I can never have, a dreadful admission of failure.
I’ve always been indecisive, and it’s been my downfall ever since I can remember. If there’s a decision to take, I always look on the black side, hesitate, then end up taking the easy course, the safe option rather than take any risks. Whether it’s laziness or lack of courage, I don’t know, but I just can’t help it.
As I sat in my car outside the flat of the girl I’d fallen in love with, I pondered on the fact that I’d never summon up the nerve to risk trying to have a relationship with such a sexy woman, even though I could dream about it. I’d just sit here on occasional evenings, hoping to catch a glimpse of Rachel, who worked with me at the bank, but who hardly noticed me. It wasn’t so much Rachel I was in love with, as what she represented. Liveliness, sexiness, impulsiveness. Freedom. Rachel was everything my mother had warned me against, and everything that I loved. A girl who had long legs, wore short skirts and lots of make-up, especially that delectable cherry-red lipstick. The kind of girl I wanted. Part of the life I wanted to have.
When I was at school I wanted to join the army, be a man of action. But my parents encouraged me to take a ‘safe’ job in the bank in our local High Street, and now, at twenty-eight, my career was set, especially as after a lot of family pressure, I had agreed to marry a ‘suitable’ girl, who my mother approved of. Sarah was one of those girls who other women think is attractive because she’s got ‘nice hair and such a good complexion she doesn’t need to wear make up, not like those tarty girls.’
Sarah always reminds me of one of those bright shiny metal buckets you see in hardware shops, that clang when you put them on the ground. Nice enough, very handy, but solid, reliable, heavy and boring. Our wedding was fixed for next year and Sarah and her battle-axe of a mother talked of nothing but wedding preparations, while I thought of nothing but escape plans. When I mentioned that for the price of an expensive wedding we could buy a decent car, she didn’t speak to me for two days.
“Trouble with you, Desmond,” Sarah was always telling me, “is you’re a dreamer. You’re not a tough guy or an adventurer, you’re just an ordinary bloke, like most people. So why not just make the best of your life? You’re very lucky. You’ve got a good job with a pension, a nice family, you’ve got me, what’s wrong with that? Why are you always so discontented? Aren’t I enough for you?”
No, she wasn’t. But how could I tell her that? I felt as if I was in a prison, and the walls were getting closer and closer surrounding me.
I wanted to break out of my life. I wanted to be free.
Yet I was too scared to break the chains that held me.
Chains. That reminded me. I looked at the back seat of my car, where my hammer and other tools were ready to do some DIY work I’d promised to do at Sarah’s flat. She had been wittering on about hanging some pictures on the wall for ages.
So it was a shock when I was broken out of my reverie as I saw the two men rush out of the house across the road, with a woman held in between them. As they passed I could just make out the gun one of them held against her back. They got into a van, and started it up.
I thought quickly. This area was known as a haunt of prostitutes, and I had heard rumours of a gang who brought East European women to London in order to force them into the sex trade.
As I pulled into the traffic behind the van, I dialled 999 on my hands-free.
Luckily the police operator caught on quickly. I think my mention of the firearm got their attention, and as I gave the van’s location, number plate and direction of travel, they assured me they were on to it.
“I’ll keep on their tail until you arrive,” I told the operator.
“Thank you, caller, that would be very helpful. But don’t attempt anything yourself. Armed response vehicles are on their way.”
“Would it be a good idea to not use the blues and twos?” I asked, proud of my adoption of police slang I’d gleaned from TV shows, hoping I’d got it right. “So as no to alert them?”
“That’s up to the officers’ discretion. But generally we try to not alert suspects unless we have to. Can you describe your car please? ”
Quite soon I saw the police cars in my rear-view mirror. They were keeping behind me, cleverly hoping not to alert the men in the van.
My heartbeat was sky high. My mind was racing.
For the first time in years I really felt as if I was alive.
The van stopped in a road not far away outside a large building that advertised itself as a hotel. I stopped nearby, a little distance away from the police cars.
The scene unfolded quickly, and, as the men hustled the girl out of the van, I heard the police warning. “Armed police! Kneel down on the ground. Do it now!”
The men did so, but not before several men had come out of the house and there was a lot of noise. At that point three more police cars arrived, and officers poured out onto the street , some of them going down the steps into the hotel’s foyer.
I was parked up, a bit behind the police cars. Which was why no one seemed to notice the exit at the side, where I caught a glimpse of a line of four girls and two men who were running out of the building, the men clearly forcing the girls on, covering them with what looked like a shotgun.
The police were fully occupied many yards away. The van was about to pull away. There was no time to summon help.
I made the decision, grabbing the hammer from my car’s back seat and dashing out into the road. As the van pulled away, I leapt up onto the bonnet, yelling for them to stop.
It moved off fast, with me clinging onto the roof rack with one hand, legs sprawled out. It was moving faster.
Acting on instinct, I smashed the hammer against the windscreen, even as I heard the roar of gunfire, and felt the surge of hot air burning above my ears.
With the windscreen gone I didn’t hesitate to bring the hammer down hard into the face of the driver. The van slowed. The other man aimed the shotgun at my face, but I grabbed the red-hot barrel and forced it upwards, my hand thrown as the gun fired once again, into the sky.
Then the vehicle slowed. Suddenly it was all over. Police surrounded us, and, as I slid down onto the road, I felt reassuring hands supporting me as my ears rang in agony because of the noise of the shotgun’s blast.
“Looks like this was their centre of operations,” said the policewoman who was holding my arms, helping me to stand upright, asking if I needed an ambulance, and telling me her name was Alison. Her words came to me as if through a fog of pain in my ears. “About a dozen women they’d been holding there as prisoners. We can help them now, sort them out, get them their passports.”
“Will they be deported?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “They’ll probably seek asylum. But whatever happens it’s better than the fate they were in for with the scum who were holding them.”
“I’d love to do your job,” I told her.
“Really? Then what’s stopping you, mate?” she asked. “The Met is recruiting right now and you’re under thirty, right? They like to take on people who’ve done other jobs, got a bit of experience of life.”
“Yes. Mind, it’s not everyone who’s suited to the life. Can be deadly boring, there’s awful shifts, and the bosses treat you like rubbish.”
“But you like it?”
“I like it most of the time. And I wouldn’t want to do anything else.” She paused, looking at me. “And I’d like to say, what you did just now. . . Not many people would have done that. Not many men can take quick decisions like that. You were very brave.”
Just at that moment, my mobile rang. I took it out of my pocket and answered.
“Desmond?” Sarah snapped. “Where are you? Why are you so late home? You promised to put up those pictures tonight!”
“I just helped capture some gangsters who were kidnapping East European girls to force them into prostitution. I’m with the police now. I jumped up onto their van and they fired a shotgun at me and singed my hair. It’ll be in all the newspapers, maybe even on the telly news.”
“What are you talking about, Desmond? More of your stupid daydreams? Police? Gangsters? Have you been drinking? Do you realise you’ve missed Coronation Street?”
I cut the call while she was still talking, because Alison was moving away.
“Please, don’t go,” I said to Alison, touching her sleeve to call her back. She wasn’t wearing lots of make-up, and she had trousers and not a short skirt. But she was every bit as sexy as Rachel but in a totally different way. “Look, you’re probably married or in a relationship,” I began warily, prepared for the inevitable brush-off. “But if you’re not, would you like to come for a meal with me sometime?”
“Yeah, love to!” She smiled, looking at her watch. “I’ll be off duty in an hour, but since they’ll want to talk to you back at the station, we could meet up there. There’s a lovely boozer I know of, where they do good meals.”
“And maybe you could tell me how to apply to join the Met?”
“It’s a big decision.”
“I’m a decisive person.”
And suddenly, I realised it was true.