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

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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.

Good for Something

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“Gotcha!”

We were touching, chest-to-chest. I could smell his sweat. The whites of his eyes and the ebony black of his skin were an inch away from my face.

And I was scared stiff. I knew beyond any doubt, that I was a few seconds away from death or serious injury.

This was in 1962. I was a ten-year-old schoolboy, jumping onto the number 3 bus at the busy roundabout at Crystal Palace, London, at the height of the rush hour. Late for school, stupid and reckless, I had dashed on to the rear platform of the bus (in the days long before safety doors), misjudged my step and was teetering backwards. In that ‘all too aware’ stage of prescient danger I felt myself falling out of the bus and onto the road. I was going to crack my skull on the pavement, then fall under the wheels of whatever speeding car was behind me.

And there was nothing I could do to save myself.

It didn’t happen.

Because at the very moment when the bus suddenly accelerated, tipping me backwards to oblivion, the quick-thinking bus conductor grabbed my lapels and literally hauled me back to safety. My feet had actually come off the platform, one was already scraping the tarmac. I have this vivid memory of being hauled forwards and upwards through mid-air, about eight inches, being pulled up against his body, the bus’s grab-bar, which acted as his anchor, being the only thing stopping him being dragged out of the bus by my weight.

I was young, stupid, embarrassed and confused. And scared. I’d almost been killed. And black people were a mystery to me, in fact I’d never seen a black person up so close, nor had anyone saved my life before.

And, to my eternal shame, I never even thanked him. I just walked shakily into the bus, sat down, didn’t even talk to him, and pretended it hadn’t happened.

To my eternal shame, I didn’t even thank him. And I didn’t tell anyone about it. If I’d told my mother, I know categorically that she would have gone to the ends of the earth to find out the name of bus conductor no. 50462 (I still remember his number) from London Transport (before London buses were run by TFL) and thanked him personally and made it her business to make sure his employers and colleagues knew what a hero he was. Giving him money would have been crass, perhaps an insult, but, as she always said to me, “All people want is to know that they are appreciated, and that the good things they’ve done have not been forgotten.”

Now that I’ve retired, my children are grown up and my wife and I have parted, I’ve got plenty of spare time and more than enough money for my needs. So I decided to embark on what would obviously be a wild goose chase, and try to find the man who’d saved my life, fifty-four years ago.

The person in the media department of TFL turned out to be a young, delightful and enthusiastic chap, by the name of Jack Paradine. Jack told me that this was his first job after graduating in modern history at university, and he thought that my story was fascinating. He went on to say that black bus conductors of the 1960s were amongst the first wave of people who’d been encouraged to come to this country from Trinidad and Jamaica, to provide valuable labour. He promised to contact the ‘historian’ who kept the archives of the old London Transport, and, with any luck, he said there was a chance they might find out who bus conductor no 50462 was.

The next day he phoned back, full of enthusiasm. My conductor had been Sammy Adebayer, and he had his address in those days. Since, by Jack’s estimation, Sammy would be ninety-four now, the likelihood was that he had met his maker, but, Jack encouraged, “you never know. Good luck in your search.” He advised me to try the services of a private detective, as he’d told me they had access to electoral roles, censuses, and all kinds of other data that others could not reach.

The detective wasn’t hopeful, but within a day he phoned me back, sounding surprised. “Your Sammy Adebayer, according to our records, seems to be the same as the one I found, who matches with the census of 1961,” he told me. “He died ten years ago, but I do have a current address of his son – it’s in Birmingham.”

Having come this far, I thought, why not go all the way, and take the train up to the Midlands?

But my luck had run out. A neighbour told me that Fergus Adebayer had left that address last year, but they had the phone number of his wife. Passing on my mobile number to the helpful neighbour, the wife rang me ten minutes later, telling me that her husband had left her and she had no idea where he was. All I can think of, she told me, “Is to give you the address of my son Gary – he’s a good boy, he still keeps in touch with him.”

Feeling more and more despondent, trudging up the steps of the grim-looking block of flats, I wondered why I was doing all this. The man who answered the door seemed wary at first, but when he heard my story, he was welcoming and friendly and invited me inside, where his wife and children were bustling around the overcrowded living room.

“My grandad?” he said in surprise. “I can’t believe it! He saved your life? You’re kidding me.”

“No, it’s true,” I told him.

His face broke into a huge smile. “All my life I’ve heard nothing but what a no-good bastard he was. How he abandoned three wives and lots of children! How he ran around with gangsters and never held down a job for long in all of his life. If it hadn’t been for his brother, Jonny, this family would have been finished. Jonny died years ago too, but he was the great hero. Jonny looked after my mum and her brothers, apparently, he was the rock of the family, was my great uncle Jonny. Sammy, my granddad, I’ve always felt kind of sorry for him. He was supposed to be a really useless bastard. A waste of space. Good for nothing.”

“Well,” I told him, “he was certainly good for something. He saved my life, or maybe saved me from something possibly worse – being seriously paralysed or brain dead. And I’ve been a doctor in a London hospital all my working life, so, in fact, he made all my work possible too, when you think of it that way.”

“No kidding me!”

We chatted a bit longer. And, to my relief, he accepted my cheque for £20,000. He was over the moon, telling me that, added to the couple’s savings, meant they now had enough for a deposit on a flat in a decent area, where his children could go to a good school and have a fair start in life.

“It’s not just the money you’ve given me I’m grateful for,” he told me as I was shaking his hand at the door, promising to keep in touch. “It’s the knowledge that, scoundrel that Sammy obviously was, I accept that, but now I know that my grandad did at least do one good thing in his life that we can all be proud of. He wasn’t just a good for nothing waste of space like everyone says. And that means a lot to me. The money means everything, of course it does, but knowing grandad Sammy wasn’t the complete arsehole that everyone says he was means a whole lot more. I can tell my kids that although their great grandad from Trinidad did lots of bad things, he did do this one good thing in his life. You’ve given us all a good memory of him. Can you understand?”

A couple of weeks later, I got a photo of my erstwhile saviour: Gary had sent an old black-and-white snap of his grandad, Sammy Adebayer, wearing a suit and smiling at the camera. I put it on the mantelpiece in pride of place.

Next day, my new friend Jack Paradine phoned me at home.

“Peter, I’m so so sorry, but there’s been a mistake.”

“About what?”

“Well, it seems that Alistair, my friend who looks after the archives of London Transport, has muddled things up. Bus conductor no 50462 wasn’t Sammy Adebayer, it was in fact his brother, Jonny. To double check, Alistair tracked down the personnel records and it seems that Sammy Adebayer was sacked at the end of 1961. Something to do with stealing money, attacking a passenger or something. Brother Jonny is the good guy who saved your life. Looking at his work record it seems that Sammy was pretty much good for nothing.”

“No, Jack,” I told him, smiling at the black-and-white picture of Sammy, who was beaming at me from beyond the grave, as if our shared secret was a great joke. “Everyone is good for something.”

Black Shuck

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Tales of a large black ghostly hound have been reported for centuries from all around the British Isles. However ‘Black Shuck’, also known as the ‘Spectre Hound’ or the ‘Hound of Hell’, the huge wild dog that portends disaster to anyone who sees it, is specific to parts of Norfolk and Suffolk, especially in coastal villages, where sightings have been reported for more than a thousand years. There’s even talk of links to the Vikings’ superstitions, suggesting that the hound was actually the god Odin’s ‘dog of war’. Black Shuck is said to be one of the oldest ‘phantoms’ of Great Britain, its name deriving from the Anglo Saxon word ‘Scucca’ meaning demon.

This unnerving experience happened to me a while ago now, and it still makes me shiver to remember it.

“He was the biggest dog I ever saw, more like a horse. Black, vicious eyes like saucers. I was terrified, so I was.”

“And you saw it last night? On the building site?” I asked Pat O’Reilly, who was sitting across the pub table from me with his two friends.

He crossed himself before replying. “As God’s my witness, so I did, sir. And I don’t mind telling you that I ran. I ran for my life! Sure that dog was massive, I’ve never seen anything like it. When I stopped running and turned round it had gone. Just vanished into thin air.”

“And it was floating around on a sea of mist?”

“Something like mist,” Pat blustered, half closing his eyes to remember. “Twas all swirling like a misty lake, you couldn’t see its legs properly.”

I waited for the almost twitching upper lip, the glint in someone’s eye, the incipient smirk of ridicule aching for release.

But Pat and his friends were obviously very good actors.

Phantom dogs with slavering lips and wild eyes, chasing him for his life? For goodness sake! Should I fall in with the joke, I wondered, or front them up?

Because I don’t like being ridiculed.

And I could easily see why this big unimaginative building worker was making fun of me, and why. The previous week the national newspapers had carried a story with the headline The architect who believes in ghosts!, proceeding to mock my latest investigation into a haunted manor house, making me out to be a naïve crank. I don’t ‘believe in ghosts’, it’s just that I’ve experienced some strange things in my career with old buildings, and I’ve always been keen to investigate them scientifically, but, frankly, I have an open mind.

I’d already taken a lot of stick from friends and acquaintances about the wretched article, but meeting ridicule from men I was employing on a job was another matter.

Apart from me, Pat O’Reilly and a couple of the other members of his gang of building workers, The Pheasants Game pub, in the village of Dunster, on the Norfolk coast was almost empty on that freezing cold winter’s night. The big house I’d been commissioned to design and supervise the build on the nearby clifftop was in its early stages, and I’d come up to see how far the excavation crew had come—their job was to dig the trenches to the various specified depths prior to the pouring of concrete foundations. I’d never met any of the Irish building workers before, but it seems they’d heard of me, and were obviously amused about my seemingly naïve interest in the supernatural.

“And its eyes, Mr Dark,” Pat was going on, “Sure they was as big as saucers! It’s terrified I was, I’ve never seen a dog that size running free, and it looked as if it was going to tear me to shreds. What in all that’s holy could it have been?”

“All right Pat, this had gone far enough.” I got up, stepping around the table. I grabbed him by the collar and dragged him to his feet, my face inches from his. “The world and his wife has heard about the ‘phantom hound of Norfolk’, and you thought I was stupid enough to fall for your story because you’ve read in the papers that I’m some patsy who believes in ghosts,” I snapped angrily. “You’ve had your joke, so now you can just bloody well shut up and remember that it’s me who’s paying your wages!”

As I released him to collapse back into his seat, I stormed out of the pub and marched down the road.

Upset and lonely, I reflected that it had been a humiliating end to a gruelling day: driving up from Kent, meeting this tough gang of Irish building workers before I’d even had a chance to snatch a meal, and then discovering that they were all laughing at me. Truth was, that even before Pat O’Reilly had tried to make a fool of me I was upset and worried about this job, which had been a hassle from the start.

I wanted to go straight to the hotel and to bed, but I was worried about the progress of the excavations, and if Pat and his gang of jokers were as stupid as they appeared to be, they were probably lying about their progress on site, and I knew I wouldn’t sleep until I’d taken a look for myself. I had a powerful flashlight, plus there was plenty of moonlight, so I took the opportunity to stroll back to the building site to take another look at the trenches that Pat and his boys were supposed to have dug.

It was easy to see why my client had wanted a house on this beautiful clifftop location. There was a panoramic view out to sea, and it was a delight to see the ‘footprint’ of what was going to be a four-bedroom house laid out on the ground, the six-foot-deep trenches following the lines of what would eventually be its outer walls.

Suddenly I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder.

Scared, I turned around, to see Pat, standing behind.

“Thought I might find you here, Mr Dark,” he began, moving to stand beside me.

I decided not to refer to my outburst in the pub. “I’ve been driving all day to get here, and this is the first chance I’ve had to see how it’s looking. I’ll have to make measurements in daylight, but it looks as if you’ve done well.”

Pat nodded, and I noticed how tall and Celtic he looked, with his clear blue eyes and silver hair and cool gaze—the kind of man you feel you could trust—making me realise that idiots come in all shapes and sizes.

“Listen, Mr Dark, I’m sorry for upsetting you. I can see how it must have sounded back there,” he said quietly.

“All right Pat, let’s just forget it. I can take a joke.”

“I don’t doubt it, sir.” He paused, looking serious. “But the fact is, Mr Dark, none us have read that newspaper article about you. Didn’t even know your name until our gaffer told us you were coming earlier today. And everyone in England might have heard about this ghost dog, Black Shuck, but I’ve lived on the Emerald Isle and the States for most of my life, and it’s all news to me.”

I looked at him, expecting to see the twinkle in his eye before he laughed, having tried to ridicule me for a second time.

That was when I noticed that my flashlight was still on, pointing out into the darkness. Without a word, we both at the same time were drawn to the twin reflections of something like red sparkling jewels, picked out in its lonely yellow beam that stretched out into the darkness.

“Switch it off, for Christ’s sake!” Pat yelled, knocking the flashlight out of my hand. “The light’s attracting it!”

A primeval terror took over. I swear I felt the earth underfoot tremble as the shape in the distance thundered closer. All around the thing there was a swirling mist.

And then we heard the wild howling sound, that set the hairs on the back of my neck pricking up.

Closer now. It was a huge vicious snapping dog, a killing machine on four flailing legs, running hell-for-leather towards us.

“Get down!” Pat snarled in terror, grabbing my coat and pulling me down after him into the trench.

Just before I sprawled down on my face in the mud at the bottom of the grave-like space I saw the huge beast running towards us, its teeth bared, wide saucer-like eyes.

They blazed bright red…

Winner takes it all

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“You’ve won a million pounds.”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely. You bought a ticket at Freshways supermarket a month ago, and you’re the lucky winner. Congratulations.”

I was staggered by this phone call out of the blue. Had a vague memory of buying the ticket from an emaciated young girl who looked suicidally depressed and I reckoned that selling a ticket might cheer her up, but I had no thoughts of winning.

After that, things moved pretty fast, and I admit I found it all overwhelming. I’ve never had much money to speak of, and now I’m retired I make do as well as I can, and I manage all right in my small flat. My wife died two years ago and my two children, a boy and a girl, are grown up now with children of their own, and I hardly ever see them from one year to the next. I wondered how they would take the news of my win.

I already did voluntary work at the local food bank, and gave what I could afford to a charity for the homeless, so, after my family, my second thought was helping them out.

Then a lady of about my own age called round, what’s called a ‘financial adviser’, from Freshways.

“Hello, Mr Frost,” she said cheerfully, accepting the cup of tea I’d made her. “My name’s Jane, and I’m here to give you advice on ways you can invest the money, so it’s not too overwhelming for someone like you.”

“Someone like me?”

She coughed in embarrassment, glancing at the hole in the sleeve of my old jersey. “I mean a person who’s never before had money to invest, who might feel intimidated by figures and finance.”

“I don’t intimidate easily.”

“Sorry, I really didn’t mean to be rude. It’s our training you see, we have a patter we’re supposed to use. But that always makes me cringe, it sounds so patronising, I really am sorry.”

“Forget it.” I realised that she felt embarrassed. She seemed really nice, and I liked her instinctively.

“Well firstly I would suggest, that if you do want to dip your toe into the equities market, unit trusts would be a good place to start.”

“Oh no,” I said firmly. “The idea of my money being divided into lots of little fractions, each invested in a different equity, and some twit charging a percentage for his trouble? Ridiculous, that doesn’t appeal to me at all. If I was to go for equities I’d look at something long yield maybe, but with an eye to growth.”

She laughed. “I can see you know a bit about finance already!”

“My hobby is mathematics,” I explained. “I was a car mechanic all my life, but after I retired I took a degree with the open university in economics and then took a masters. Out of curiosity I’ve been reading the Financial Times for years now, and I read company balance sheets for fun. Take it from me, Jane, Unit Trusts are a con. For growth I’d think in terms of technology shares, but for a consistent high dividend you can’t beat equities in oil and leisure – hospitality companies in particular.”

Jane stayed and chatted for a long time, telling me about how her husband had died five years ago, and I explained about my own wife Gwen, and how her death had devastated me.  As she was leaving, she spoke to me seriously, laying a kindly hand on my arm. “Look, Fred, if you’d like my honest advice, why don’t you just blow the lot and enjoy yourself? From what you’ve told me you’ve spent most of your life thinking of your family and other people. Planning for the future is all very well, but with the world as it is now, and you’re not getting any younger, why don’t you just spend it? Go on cruises, buy yourself a Rolls Royce, see the world. You only live once.”

The following day, Freshways asked me to do a ‘press morning’, and I foolishly agreed. I found it incredibly embarrassing, with people in the audience in the church hall, and the director of Freshways presenting me with a huge cheque that I had to pose behind, along with a girl in a tiny bikini who kept giggling. They explained to me afterwards that this wasn’t a real cheque – it was just for show, and the first tranche of the money was being paid into my account at the end of the week.

After that publicity, the begging letters started. My local hospital, who’d treated me for a nasty illness last year, asked for a donation for a new scanner for their X Ray department. And various strangers wrote to me with their tales of woe, from someone needing a new artificial leg, to a lady who needed costly psychiatric treatment, and people with sick children who were in dire financial straights.

As soon as she heard about my win, my daughter Alice came straight round to see me, for the first time in months. She’s a vicar, with her own parish in the north of England, and she married George, who’s also something big in the church hierarchy. They have three children that I hardly ever see.

“Well, Dad,” she said, pouring the tea and beaming. “The very best thing you can do is make over the money to me and George. That way we can give you anything you need from it as a sort of pocket money, and we’ll avoid paying inheritance tax when you die. In fact it’s very lucky really, we were only looking at larger houses recently, and this could come in very handy. The most important thing is not to let Graham have a penny – you know how hopeless he is!”

When her brother Graham came round, accompanied by his mousey wife Jane, he looked as if he’d got a nasty taste in his mouth. He’s a schoolmaster, and all he ever does is moan about his job , and their children are practically feral, known to the police as the local tearaways.

“The most important thing, Dad,” he said, “Is not to let Alice get her hands on a penny of it. I bet she’s already asked you to give her the lot?”

“That’s none of your business.”

“You can’t trust her, Dad! She’ll never let you have a bean, whereas if you give it to me, you know I’ll hand over anything you want, plus if you have to go into a home when you’re old and ill, if I have the money, then they can’t make you pay. You have to think of all these things.”

In the next few days, I tried to phone Jane, from Freshways, as I couldn’t quite forget her and really wanted to see her again. But after a couple of brief conversations, she declined my invitation to meet up with a feeble excuse, so I faced the fact that it was the end of a possible new friendship.

In the next days, Alice and Graham were constantly phoning me, telling me why I should make the money over to them, talking about inheritance tax, the cost of old people’s homes, and how Janet, my dead wife, would have wanted me to consider our grandchildren and not to be selfish. The calls often ended up in tears and angry recriminations and dire warnings about ‘how Mum would have given it to us!’

It was true that I did need to work out something for the grandchildren, even if I had to face the fact that my own two children were awful grasping shits. Maybe I’d have to see a solicitor about setting up a trust or something?

Sod it, life was getting so complicated.

The trouble was, I realised, that I had spent all my life thinking about my wife and family and people who were worse off than I was, so I’d got out of the habit of thinking about myself. Was it wrong to think about myself and buying a few things just for me? Was I being selfish, not giving the money to my children, for the sake of the grandchildren?

The strain was getting to me. In every post there were more begging letters, and the food bank were pestering me constantly, anxious to know how much money I could give them now, to allow them to buy a huge consignment of tinned pies from Portugal.  The charity for the homeless were thinking of making a bid to buy new premises, and told me that a big donation right now would be particularly welcome. . .

There was a knock on the door. I was delighted to see Jane, my elusive friend from Freshways, standing on the step.

“I’m dreadfully sorry,” she began, her face a picture of doom. “I really don’t know how to tell you this. Something absolutely awful has happened.”

“Go on.”

“Freshways has gone bankrupt. They’ve only paid a couple of thousand into your account, and you won’t get any more. I’m terribly sorry.”

“Come in, Jane, please.”

I looked at the pile of begging letters that was growing higher every day. I thought of the angry phone calls from Alice and Graham, and all the bitter rows I’d had with them, the tears and the acrimony.

Suddenly, I felt as if a huge weight was lifted off me.  I started to laugh.

Jane stared at me, and eventually she joined in.

“You know, Fred, I so enjoyed meeting you,” Jane said, as she recovered from her mirth. “I really wanted to see you again, but I didn’t want to accept your invitation to go out with you in case you thought I was after your money. Whereas now…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cut to the Quick

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“I cut off my husband’s penis. But then of course you know that.”

“But you’re sorry about it?”

“Oh yes, it was a terrible thing to do.   I’m thoroughly ashamed of what I did.”

Yvette Parsons had caused quite a sensation two years ago when she had ‘grievously assaulted’ her husband, David Ronald Parsons, and the case  had become quite a cause célèbre in the tabloid newspapers, where it was known as the ‘Parsons’ Penis Case’, akin to the American case of Wayne Bobbitt, whose wife had done the same thing.  The court had taken into account her husband’s cruelty towards her, as well as her fragile mental state. Nevertheless, the judge had given Yvette a four-year sentence, and in a week’s time she would have served two years of her time, and the parole board were releasing her early.

I was working as a reporter for the local paper on the case, and my next question to her was: “So why did you do it, when everyone I’ve spoken to tells me that you’re a thoroughly nice person, agreeable, friendly and likeable?”

Indeed the more I talked to her, the more she struck me as perfectly well balanced, pleasant and personable.

“As you know, two years before I met David, I won the lottery,” Yvonne told me, flicking ash from her cigarette and passing a hand through her shortish blonde hair.  “Four million quid to a girl who works 9 to 5 in a factory and lives in a council house is literally a dream come true.  I was in my twenties, living on my own with no family nearby, and it was pretty well intolerable to stay where everyone knew who I was.  I wanted a complete break, where no one knew who I was or about my win, so I moved to a posh part of town, even changed my name, decided to have a completely fresh start.  Trouble was, loneliness was something I’d never thought about, especially as I had no job, no way of meeting people.  I got a dear little West highland terrier, Benji, and he was my only companion really.

“I was fat and out of condition, so I joined a gym, thinking it might be a way of getting a bit of a social life. But they were rich people, from different backgrounds to mine, and although I chatted to them, shared a gossip over coffee, they never really accepted me.  I was always the odd one out.

“David was one of the personal trainers at the gym.  The moment I saw him I was mad about him.  All the other women fancied him, and I couldn’t get over the fact it was me he asked out.  We got on pretty well, so well in fact that after a couple of months he asked me to marry him.”

“Wasn’t that a bit sudden?”

She nodded.  “I should have realised it at the time, but I was in love, more fool me.  I should have realised he was wrong for me the first time he met my little dog, Benji.  Benji hated him, snapped and snarled all the time, and David hated him back.  He kicked him once, and he was always threatening to open the door and let him out onto the busy road so he got run over.  Then, a couple of months after the honeymoon, we had a real shouting row, and he hit me.  He told me that he only asked me out because he’d found out about my lottery win.  That he was actually seeing lots of other girls and he was going to go on doing so, and that he didn’t even fancy me.  I was heartbroken, but do you know what he said?  He told me that if I didn’t like it we could get divorced.  But that he’d take me for a fortune—I checked with a solicitor, it was true.  Even though we hadn’t been married long, he could still get a huge settlement off me if we divorced.

“Well the following night he kicked Benji again.  I was so angry that I started hitting him.  He hit me back hard, knocked me right across the room.  And then he just stood there laughing at me, then he told me he’d had enough and he was going out to see this other girl.  And he came home in the early hours, smirking and drunk, jeering at me, telling me how much more attractive she was then me and how he found me repulsive.  Then he collapsed into bed, pissed and giggling before he passed out.  So that’s when I did it.”

“You cut it off.”

“Yeah. I held the end of it in one hand, closed my eyes and then hacked down and sawed with the other hand, with a really sharp carving knife.  I regretted it instantly, of course, I was horrified at what I’d done!  He was screaming in agony, blood everywhere, so I called the ambulance.  But by that time, Benji had picked up David’s penis in his teeth and had started chewing it. I managed to grab the bloody thing out of his mouth, luckily he hadn’t bitten into it too badly. I wrapped it in a bag of frozen peas and gave it to the paramedics when they came.  In all the rush and confusion, Benji ran outside and I heard a screech of brakes, and realised David had got his wish – my poor little dog had been run over.

“So there I was in a police cell, Benji had been rushed to the vet and I didn’t know if he’d survive, and they were doing a big operation on David, micro vascular surgery they called it.  After a few days they found the operation was a failure.  Apparently there was a bacterial infection that stopped the healing process – they thought it could have come from Benjie’s teeth. They had to amputate.”

“What a mess.”

“Not really.”  She smiled.  “In fact it all worked out quite well in the end.  I was held in jail, pending the court case, meanwhile David fell into a deep depression and started drinking heavily. One night he got drunk and drove into a wall and killed himself.”

“So no expensive divorce?”

“No.  And best of all, Benji recovered.  The vet who’d operated on him fell in love with him and looked after him for me. And he visited me in prison and fell in love with me too.  So it all worked out well in the end.”

 

 

Lucky Day

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“May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back…”

“Thanks,” I told the woman who was sitting in the shop doorway, a cheap sleeping bag crushed up beneath her.

“It’s an old Irish blessing,” she went on, giving a beautiful smile that lit up her unwashed face below the scruffy uncombed hair. “In other words: Be lucky.”

“Thanks again.”

“Sure, don’t be thanking me, ’tis I should be thanking you.”

I didn’t need her blessing, for right now, luck was the one thing I seemed to have in abundance.

In fact it seemed as if my life just couldn’t get any better.

Three years ago I had come to the big city and I had made it big.  I had a really good job with a prosperous PR agency, and my recent pay rise had allowed me to get a mortgage for a lovely flat not far from here.  A flat that I shared with my girlfriend, Carrie, who was by anyone’s standards much higher up in the beauty stakes than I was.  Indeed I had overheard someone muttering about me, grudgingly saying, “That ugly bastard John is really punching above his weight with a classy beautiful girl like that.”

Walking to work this morning I’d come across the girl.  She was crying to herself.  I passed her once, then walked back, for seeing how upset she was, was breaking my heart.  This woman was about my own age, yet she was clearly destitute, sleeping rough, while I had everything I wanted in life.  For a moment I couldn’t believe how unfair life was. I had a decent life, surely she deserved to have the same?  What’s more, there was something familiar about her face, but I couldn’t work out what it was.

When I returned she was dabbing at her face with a tissue, but the look of sadness in her eyes when she looked up at me pierced me to the heart.

“Look,”  I began, “I don’t want to be patronising, but would you be offended if I gave you some money?”

“Do I look offended?”  she smiled as she took the fifty pounds I handed over.  “You’re kind.  That’s rare in the city of London.  Rare indeed.”

“Have you lived here long?”  I asked her.

“Since I was sixteen and my da got a job in Battersea.  A while ago my parents died, and I couldn’t stay in the flat, and when I lost my job I couldn’t find work anywhere else without an address.  I was in a hostel for a while.  I miss home, sure I do.  I grew up in the countryside of Kerry, lots of fields to play in, trees to climb, everyone had time to talk to you.”

“Not like here.”

“Sure, that’s true enough.  Everyone’s wrapped up in their own little world, scurrying along, not noticing anything.  Not caring a damn.”

We chatted for a bit, but the situation was awkward for both of us, and I was already late for work. After we said our goodbyes, I felt my day had been ruined. I was no longer looking forward to going to the office bright and early, as I usually did, to talk about fresh ideas, new clients, all the new business coming in.

But when I got there, there was something indefinably different about Goodbody, Jenkins and Dean.  As I pushed open the huge glass doors and went into the lift I met Roger, who worked with me.  His face was like thunder.

“Didn’t you get the text?”  he snapped, not returning my smile.

“What text?”

“The firm’s bankrupt!  Dennis Goodbody’s done a runner and they’ve called in the receivers.  We’re all redundant, and it doesn’t even look as if any of us are getting paid for this month, let alone the week in hand.  And the bastards told us by text!”

“What do you mean?”  I couldn’t believe what he was saying, until I checked my phone and saw that he was right..  Only last week Dennis Goodbody was glad-handing us all, giving out bonuses, saying the London office was going from strength to strength.

By now we were on the first floor and all my colleagues were walking around outside the door to the office, which had a huge lock fitted onto it.

I couldn’t stand hearing the grumbling anger of my ex-colleagues, the talk about claiming our pay in the small claims court and so on.  Reality had come and kicked me in the teeth.

When I got home, there was also something strange about my flat.  In the bedroom it seemed that all Carrie’s possessions had disappeared. I found her note on the kitchen table.  Something about ‘us growing apart’ and her meeting an old school friend on Facebook, and falling in love with him.

And then I realised that I was more worried about not getting Carrie’s share of the mortgage money than I was about her leaving me.  It was true, we had grown apart, and I had been so busy at work, I hadn’t noticed. I had no savings, so with no job and no way of paying the mortgage,  the building society would foreclose in a matter of weeks!

I remembered the months of applying for jobs to get the position with Goodbody.  And with Brexit the economy was even worse than it had been a year ago, so if by some miracle I found a job, no way would it be as remunerative as what I’d been used to.

Fuck!

By chance, I found the girl I’d met this morning in a café round the corner from where she’d been sleeping and I joined her at the table.

“I remembered where I’ve met you before,”  I told her as I sat down.  “A folk music club in Streatham. About fifteen years ago now.  You were with another guy.  I saw your face, and I never forgot it.”

“Yes,” she agreed.  “I remember you too!  You kept looking at me, and I wondered why.”

“I wanted to talk to you, but I didn’t have the courage.  I was stupid back then.”

She looked into my eyes, and for some reason I remembered the words of an old song: ‘catch a falling star and put it in your pocket, never let it fade away.’

“And so how was your morning?” she asked, smiling.  “Did the road rise up to meet you?”

“Not really.  To be honest the road rose up and kicked me up the arse.” I went on to tell her what had happened to me.

And for some reason as I told her what had happened, I couldn’t stop laughing at the absurdity of everything.

She joined in my laugher.  “Sure it must have been a cack-handed blessing right enough.  I’m so sorry!”

“Don’t be sorry.  I always regretted not getting to know you at that folk club.  I never forgot you.”

And as we ordered more coffee, I realised something.

That this had actually turned out to be the luckiest day of my life.

 

Down and out

I stood in the queue with all the other down-and-outs, wondering whether the food tasted as awful as it looked.

It was a pretty dispiriting scene: a large church hall, stinking of unwashed bodies and misery. We shuffled forwards slowly, coughing, burping and grunting to each other.

I’d made a few friends today. Max, who’d been a roofer, until he’d fallen from a height and injured his spine, so that he forever walked with a limp and was unable to climb ladders. Losing his work meant that he’d soon lost his flat and then his marriage went by the wayside. And Bob, who used to work in a bank but had a problem with alcohol, so that he lost everything that mattered to him apart from the occasional shot of booze.

I’d soon learnt that my comrades and acquaintances who were euphemistically were referred to as having ‘no fixed abode’, weren’t all at rock bottom because of alcoholism, drug addiction or just sheer bad luck. A very few of the others had actually adapted well to the life to the extent that it was almost second nature, and they’d probably have found ordinary living and a nine-to-five job, more of a struggle than life on the streets.

And you know there really is quite a network of good people who help us. It always warms my heart to see a new face behind the steaming tea urn or the boiling pans and food-filled plates. Sometimes it’s a youngish person, mucking in and doing the humdrum duties, often it’s the silver haired ladies and gents, the newly retired I like to think, rolling their sleeves up and doing what they can to help us unfortunates. The nicest ones call you ‘mate’ or ‘love’ like they mean it, and you can almost bask in the warmth of the kindness in their eyes as they beam at you.

I’ve been to all the different places in town: the soup kitchens, the homeless shelters, the food bank, the Salvation Army hostel. Word gets around amongst us about the places to go for a warm-up or a bite to eat. Because, believe it or not, most of us who’ve experienced life at the sharp end have got to know pleasures many people never know about. Mainly it’s the joy you get from sharing the little you have with others, whether it’s buying a few cans when some kind punter has dropped a tenner your way, or putting the word out about a new shelter that’s started up when the rain’s begun to pelt down. Most of us look out for the youngsters and the vulnerable ones – especially the young girls. Many’s the time I’ve put the frighteners on some bastard who’s tried to force his attentions on some poor defenceless kid, and other guys have done the same.

What I disliked most when I started on this lark was the bad hygiene and the smells and the squalor. Who would have thought that the use of a private bathroom would be an impossible-to-attain luxury? I like being clean, me, I used to be fastidious about cleanliness in the old days.

All the volunteers are friendly, but there’s often this invisible barrier when they talk to you, know what I mean? Some of them might ask you about your circumstances, but you’d never dream of asking about theirs.

Funnily enough, it wasn’t like that with Molly. I liked her the moment I first saw her, stirring a large pan of stew. Molly looked to be in her sixties, about my own age, with lots of hair, lovely freckles, and the kind of great big genuine smile that warms your heart.

Molly and I got chatting that same evening she first arrived at the soup kitchen. After a while I felt as if I knew her well. She even told me all about the replacement hip operation she’d had in the summer, and how well she’d recovered from it.

“I’ve never lived in an ordinary little house or a flat,” I didn’t mind admitting to her. “In fact I don’t usually stay in one place for long.”

“Not like me then. I’ve been a real stick-in-the-mud. My husband was a solicitor,” she confided in me. “We had a comfortable life really – I worked as a secretary in London until I retired. Hugo was quite a bit older than me, so I suppose we both expected him to die first.”

“You’re not like the others, are you?” I said to her. “They never tell us about their lives, I suppose they think we’d be jealous of your good fortune. But it isn’t like that. You have your life, we have ours. We don’t get jealous. In fact some of the guys here enjoy living on the street.”

“Do they?” she said.

“Yes. There’s companionship at least.  How many rich widows and widowers do you reckon there are, living alone with all the money they’ll ever need, but no one to talk to?”

“That’s very true,” she agreed.

And then we began to chat about all kinds of things: our families, my divorce, politics, history, current affairs, putting the world to rights. Molly and I met up the following day, and all the time she had for her breaks she spent with me. Same happened next day and the day after. I got to look forward to our chats. In fact talking to Molly was the highlight of my day.

After the weekend I went the soup kitchen, looking forward to seeing her, but she wasn’t there. I was really disappointed. But I reckoned that she’d probably got bored and found some other voluntary activity to occupy her time.

That’s when I decided to pack it all in.

What on earth was the point in going on at my age? Might as well give it all up now, for I’d suffered long enough. End it all. Take the easy way out.

But as I was leaving, never to come back, having made the momentous decision to end it all, I saw her in the distance, rushing up towards me.

“Barry!” she called out, slightly out of breath. “I’m so glad I’ve caught up with you. I left that place. I didn’t really get on with the others. They told me I was too familiar with our ‘clients’, and I had to ‘maintain a distance’. I told them to stuff their job.”

“Good for you.”

“But I’ve been thinking. In our chats you’ve made me realise how unfair life is. That you can’t get a job or claim benefits if you haven’t got an address, and you can’t get a room if you haven’t got an income. Well, the thing is, I’ve got a spare room, if you’d like to stay with me. It really upset me when you were telling me about the indignity of life, not being able to keep clean. You’d have privacy. Your own room, use of kitchen and bathroom. And with a proper address you could claim the benefits you’re entitled to.”

“That’s really kind of you, Molly.” I felt so choked with emotion that I found it hard to speak. “But I won’t be taking you up on your offer.”

“Oh!” Her face fell. “Why not?”

“Well the thing is, you see, I really can’t accept your charity.”

“But it’s nothing to do with charity!” She said angrily. “I want to help you because I like you. I like your company!”

“And I like yours. But I’ve made my decision.”

“Are you certain?”

“Absolutely. Oh Molly, by the way, what make of hip replacement did you have?”

“Hip replacement?” She was still angry, the twin red spots on her cheeks still prominent. “I think they said it was a Winterhalter unit. A newer type apparently. Why?”

“It is one of mine then! From the way you walked so well so soon after the op. I can always tell.”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

“I retired as a consultant orthopaedic surgeon six years ago to produce the hip replacement units I’d invented, and you’ve got one of mine. They sold rather well all over the world. I became a multi-millionaire and retired, but I wanted to do something worthwhile with my money, so I spent this year researching the best charities to support and work with. I reckoned that the best way to really find out which would benefit best was by testing them out at the sharp end. And I decided just now that I’ve learnt all I’m ever going to.”

Molly’s mouth fell open even wider.

“So thank you Molly, but I don’t want to move into your spare room, because I’ve already got a rather embarrassingly large detached mansion of my own. It’s strange but in addition to researching exactly how best to use my money when I sell it and move somewhere smaller, I rather hoped I might also be lucky enough to meet a nice woman to share my life with, who likes me for myself and wasn’t just interested in my money, like all the others. I think perhaps I’ve succeeded on both scores, don’t you?”