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?”

Vertigo

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“I killed my wife,” said the man sitting opposite me in the cable car.

“Excuse me?” I answered, bemused, thinking I’d misheard him.

“She was sitting where you’re sitting now, and we were passing over the valley, just as we are at the moment. What a splendid view, isn’t it?

“I’m not quite with you.” I tried to make sense of what he was saying.

“Perfectly simple. I killed her. The thing is we’d been arguing all day, and she was going on about how much money she’d screw out of me in a divorce settlement. So I couldn’t stop myself. Just looked at her smug self-satisfied face as she went whining on and on, opened the door and pushed her out.”

“Really?” I was barely listening to this madman. I was terrified of travelling to the top of the mountains in this cable car and had been dreading making the trip. Now we were halfway up, getting higher and higher, and I’d kept my eyes tight shut so as not to have to look out of the window. I just longed to reach the mountain peak and get out and sit down on firm land, and not to have to look down to a view thousands of feet below me.

Nor did I want to have to talk to this maniac, who was sitting opposite me.

“Yes, it wasn’t that hard really, She was so surprised she hardly realised what was happening. And when she went, she fell through the air just like a sky diver, quite extraordinary. It was quite beautiful to watch her fall really. I had my binoculars and was able to see what happened. She crashed through a greenhouse roof and landed headfirst in a crop of tomatoes.” He paused. “Funny that. She always liked tomatoes.”

I didn’t reply.

“So young man,” he went on. “Are you scared of heights?”

“Yes, terrified.”

“So why are you travelling in a glass-sided cable car above a valley that’s 2,000 feet below us?”

I flinched at the thought. “I write for a travel magazine and I have to describe the view and this cable-car experience for an article I’m writing.”

I looked at him properly for the first time. He didn’t look mad at all. He appeared to be perfectly ordinary: a man in his late sixties, chubby, mostly bald with some white hair, wearing a light coloured suit. Beside him was a thin, bored looking man of about my own age, who was absorbed in looking out of the window at the view below us, and taking no part in our conversation.

“Have you always been afraid of heights?” the ‘murderer’ persevered.

“Yes. Ever since I was small.”

“Well, what I’d suggest you need to do now is bite the bullet. Step over to the door and lean out over the drop. If you can do that you’ll have faced your fear. Then you’ll never be afraid of heights again.”

“No, I couldn’t do that,” I replied. “It’s bad enough just being here.”

“One step at a time, eh? Well there’s no need to worry. This car is as safe as houses. I should know – been using it for years, ever since we retired to this area. It’s perfectly safe. And it really is a beautiful view down there.”

He was behaving so matter-of-factly that I wondered if I’d misheard what he’d been saying earlier on.

“Excuse me,” I began hesitantly, “but didn’t you just tell me that you had recently murdered your wife?”

“Yes I did,” he replied equably. “And now my problem is what to do next. Do I go to the police? We were alone in this cable car, no witnesses, so I could pretend she just jumped. But it’s a risk. If they don’t believe me I’d face years in prison.”

“Yes.”

“Alternatively I could go on the run, but I really don’t fancy that at my age. Or I could kill myself. Hmm. Quite a range of options really. What would you do?”

“Well, to be quite honest, I don’t think I’d have murdered my wife in the first place.”

“Point taken. At the time it seemed such a good idea. But now I really am in rather a fix.”

The journey continued, and when we arrived at our destination, it was such an incredible relief to step out onto land. I wondered if there was any other way to get back to the town I’d just left, so as not to have to go in the cable car again? I really didn’t want to face a return journey in the wretched horrible claustrophobic cable car.

My new friend bustled off quickly and strode away out of sight.

As I began my walk into town, the man who’d been sitting opposite me, and beside the murderer, was staring at me, frowning to himself.

“Absolutely astonishing,” he said, coming closer and staring at my face. “I really can’t see a thing. They can do miracles these days, can’t they?”

“What do you mean?” I asked him.

“Well, the earpiece and the mic for your phone. It’s so tiny I can’t even see it. All through our journey just now you were chatting away to yourself, obviously talking to someone on the phone, and yet your microphone and your earpiece must be so tiny as to be virtually invisible.”

“Wait a minute,” I told him. “I haven’t been talking on the phone. I was talking to the man beside you. The old man who was sitting opposite me.”

“What old man?” he said in surprise, smiling at me. “We were alone in that cable car. There was no one else there but the two of us.” He ignored my amazed expression.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry into your business, clearly your phone call was private, I promise you I wasn’t listening.” He moved closer to me, talking in a quieter voice. “Hope you didn’t mind me chatting to you, but between you and me I’m a bit nervous, as I’ve got a pretty grim job in front of me. I’m a reporter for the local paper, for the Brits who live out here. A fortnight ago some English bloke who’d retired out here apparently went mad, pushed his wife out of the cable car, then went home and shot himself. It’s up to muggins here to find out the facts. I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything about it, have you?”