Friday, 27 July 2007

Oh the shark, babe, has such teeth, babe. And he shows them pearly white.

Bobby Darin, that was. Mack the Knife. Every time I hear that song it sends a shiver right through me and it sets my pulse racing. I keep it on a tape in the car and when things get too much I go and sit in the car and listen to it. Over and over again .

Me, I haven’t so much as a jack-knife. Not one that could be pinned on me easily anyhow. A jack-knife pinned on me – that’s good, that is! Did you know that Sherlock Holmes used to keep his letters pinned to Mrs Hudson’s wooden mantelpiece with a jack-knife? There’s not much I don’t know about Sherlock Holmes. I’ve been reading about him since I was eight. Over and over again. I read Agatha Christie too, and books about famous murderers like Doctor Crippen, and books about chemistry and books about forensic science.

For now, though, I don’t have a jack-knife of my own but there are all sorts of things I can easily get hold of if I want to. Every day I go to work at the college science labs.

There’s knives so sharp they’d take your thumb off without you even noticing. There’s wires, thin but strong, to strangle with, and acid to dissolve the body in afterwards so the police would never find it.

There’s even a little metal cupboard full of nasties. I have to be extra careful to keep that locked. You probably know about potassium cyanide. There’s lots of others you might not have heard of though. Thallium sulphate, that makes your hair fall out while it’s killing you. And phosphorus, that sticks to your skin and makes a fire that won’t go out even if you jump into water.

And the really great thing is, nobody thinks twice about me.

You know how nobody ever notices the postman? It’s in lots of detective stories. The detective asks who called at the house on the day of the murder, and nobody ever mentions the postman because the postman calls at the house every day and nobody notices. That’s the way it is with me. When they had a break-in at the college, they took everybody’s fingerprints, and I mean everybody’s, from the students to the principal. And they took mine too, because my prints were all over everything because it’s my job, and they wanted to eliminate me.

Eliminate. That’s a funny word to use, isn’t it? What they meant was, when they knew which were my prints they could forget them and look for someone else’s. But ‘eliminate’ is what they say in some of the detective stories, isn’t it? Not the Sherlock Holmes ones, nor the Agatha Christie ones where the murder is in a country house and the suspects are all nobs. No, I mean the American ones with gangsters in them. They say ‘eliminate’ because it sounds much nicer than ‘kill’ or ‘murder’. More scientific. More efficient.

There are a few people I’d like to eliminate, if you want to know the truth.

But mostly I’d just like to know what it feels like, to kill somebody.

All I’d have to do is take one of the sharp knives from the cabinet, or a coil of wire from the drawer, or a bottle of potassium cyanide from the poison cupboard, and slip it into my coat pocket. Nobody would think to check what I was carrying when I went home. By the time I go home there’s nobody else left anyway, as a rule. I lock up. I go home. Nobody takes any notice.

It would be so simple.

And so foolish.

Once something happens they are bound to check. They’d do a stock take and it’s just then that the detective draws everybody’s attention to the dog that didn’t bark in the night. And because I’m supposed to sign everything in and everything out and there’s no sign of forced entry then if the stock doesn’t tally with the records then they’d notice me at last and that would be bad news.

Oh no. That’s not the way it’s going to be.

I got the idea first at my Mam’s. Mam likes to do the full Sunday roast like we did when I was a bairn, and since Dad passed on she likes me to do the carving at the table. The swish of the knife on the steel turned in my mind into the whoosh of an executioner’s sword. I could feel my heart battering against my ribs and the rush of blood in my ears. And under Mam’s best tablecloth I could feel something stirring between my legs. Right there in front of my family.

I must have let my guard down because the next thing I knew about was Mam, shrieking like she’d seen something nasty. I looked down to see a red stain spreading over that white tablecloth, and an ooze of glistening cherry-red seeping from the base of my left thumb. There was no pain. I just looked from the wound to the edge of the carving knife winking with the reflected sun, and back to the wound again.

I had an answer.

Every respectable kitchen is full of death. Nobody thinks twice about it. And so easy to get hold of, too.

That’s why, when I’d set off good and early for the Summer School, I turned off the motorway into one of those mill towns, I can’t remember which one, little towns of gritty black stone that all look exactly like all the other little towns of gritty black stone. I bought a pork pie, a bottle of vodka and an eight-inch cook’s knife from Asda. Then I found a lonely spot in the moors to park.

I put Bobby Darin in the tape player and turned the volume up as far as it would go, and then I drew the knife from its plastic sheath, and I stroked its blade slowly from root to tip; up and down, back and forth. I pressed the point into my palm until a tiny scarlet bead burst from my flesh. I drew the blade, oh, so carefully, across the back of my hand.

I unwrapped the pie, and I cut it with the knife into two neat pieces.

Everything was ready.

A Shooting

Friday, 27 July 2007

Last night I dreamed I killed a man.

It was in the old market place. The sun shone on the striped awnings with that migraine intensity that comes after a summer downpour, blinding rays lancing off the wet rooftops and refracting from the droplets that clung to the leaves of the horse chestnuts. The street was crowded with shoppers and people were spilling from the open front of a pub.

The gun was in my hand. I didn’t pick it up, nobody gave it to me, it was just there. It was short and stubby and its heaviness astonished me. It felt harshly metallic and as soft as velvet and it nestled in my palm like a hamster, begging to be stroked and caressed.

He was just an extra in the crowd. Of moderate height, slender, bespectacled and vague. Short-sleeved white cotton shirt, trousers of burgundy corduroy. An assistant bank manager perhaps. Or a publisher’s slush-pile reader.

My right hand rose; I didn’t raise it myself. The fingers tensed. The trigger was stiff, tight. The muscles of my index finger strained and began to cramp. I shut my eyes and clamped my teethed together, and clenched my fingers as hard as I could manage.

The afternoon was full of starlings. A space opened up where people had been walking, talking, shopping, drinking. Around the rim of the space faces stared; blank, stupid and uncomprehending faces. The man lay on the wet road with a stain spreading across his white shirt to match his trousers. I lifted my hands to my face, palms forward, fingers spread, and they were pink and scrubbed. The gun was gone, it had never been there. I turned and melted into the crowd, steering a contorted path between the bodies, but I felt the burning of the stares and the jabbing of the pointed fingers. I knew it was only a matter of time before I felt the hand on my shoulder.

I woke trembling, convinced that the game of life was now over. Through the window, barred against its basement vulnerability, leaves of birch and black poplar danced and quivered in a stiff breeze against scudding clouds and a watery sun. I lay still and in my head I turned over what I had been doing the evening before and satisfied myself that nothing untoward and nothing eventful had occurred. Only then did I permit myself to emerge into full wakefulness.

I swung my legs from the narrow bed and padded across the room to the sink. There were two teaspoons of coffee left in the container, enough for one mug. I pencilled ‘coffee’ on the notebook leaf Blu-tacked to the cupboard door, then emptied what remained of the brown powder into the coffee maker and set it on the hotplate. It occurred to me to check the meter. It was very low. A cobweb was anchored to the picture frame on the wall beside the meter, with a predatory spider watching over the opened-out dust-jacket of a book under the glass.

Brushing away web and spider together with the back of my hand, I contemplated the jacket with its photograph on what would have been the inner flap. A photograph of a young woman, backlit hair flaring, wide bright eyes over high cheekbones, a broad smile full of perfect white teeth. Eighteen years old, in her first year at Newnham, the golden girl of British literature. There had been the press conferences and the interviews for erudite magazines on Radio Three, the champagne and the endless flashing of cameras, the glowing reviews and the prurient gossip.

Washed away on a tide of literary adulation, the young woman failed to complete her degree. The second novel had been five years of agony in the writing and emerged to luke-warm notices. The third had piled up in the remainder shops. No fourth has yet been published.

I pulled a length of toilet paper from the roll squatting on top of the radiator, put the door on the latch, and made my way upstairs. On the way I picked up the pile of mail that lay in the musty hallway, extracted the three that were addressed to me and tossed the rest on the table. As I sat on the loo I glanced at the envelopes. A credit card bill. A phone bill with red printing clearly visible through the window. A long, anonymous envelope, neatly typed address, franked with a WC2 postmark. It was Saturday and as a matter of principle I don’t open bills at weekends. As for the the third envelope I could guess what that was; it was too thin to be interesting, it could wait.

Back downstairs I rinsed the worst of the muddy debris from a mug and filled it with coffee. Rummaging in my handbag I found no pound coins amongst the shrapnel; the meter would just have to hold out until I got some change. I pulled from the bag the bubble pack of Premarin (yellow, plump), a brush laced with hairs (rancid butter mixed with grey), a Body Shop lipstick (‘Pomegranate’), a packet of Rizlas (blue), a throwaway Clipper lighter (cherry-red) and a pouch of Old Holborn (25 grams, nearly empty), laying them on the bed beside me. I sipped at the coffee, washing a pill down on the way, and gazed upwards through the barred window at the dancing leaves of poplar and birch while blowing lazy smoke rings from cracked lips.

The bus was held up; traffic was being diverted around the town centre. I got off a stop early and walked the rest of the way to the shops. As I turned into the market place I could see that the roadway was cordoned off with blue and white tape. Two patrol cars stood inside the cordon, blue lights flashing, and uniformed constables were milling about fending off curious onlookers. A young woman was crouched over a part of the road where a shape had been outlined in chalk wielding a big boxy camera with a crank on its side. An older woman with cropped honey-coloured hair stood by a scarlet motorcycle holding a matching crash-helmet under her left arm, in animated conversation with a lean sandy-haired man with freckles.

I turned on my heels to walk away, and as I did so I turned up my palms to examine them. The lines on the right palm seemed to be ingrained with grime. I lifted the hand to sniff it. There was something metallic about the scent, and something oily, and something else which I couldn’t place for a moment. Fireworks; yes, that was it. The smell of Guy Fawkes Night.

A man outside a pub grabbed his friend’s shoulder and pointed. Both turned to stare. Others around them picked up the line of their gaze and stared too. I quickened my step, slipped into Marks & Spencer which I knew I could leave by the back entrance. I darted amongst the racks, the skirts and blouses and bras, fearing at any moment the fall of a heavy apprehending hand on the shoulder. I could see flashing cameras again, from under a Burberry mac hastily flung over my head. I could see the prurient headlines. I could see my long last days counted out in phonecards, in snout, in dismal routine and boredom and the stench of drains and boiled cabbage. I could see the butch screws and the dyke cons feeling me up with their eyes.

A woman who’s killed a man, they say, enjoys some status in prison.

From the back door of Marks & Spencer I knew where to go. With a determined step I turned left, and then right. Only when I came to the entrance did I waver. I walked past, and then I walked back a way, before swallowing hard and striding up the ramp. At the top of the ramp the pneumatic doors of the police station hissed apart, opening like the jaws of a great locust, ready to swallow me up.

Appreciation of Assets

Friday, 27 July 2007

(One of my early attempts at a short story for the women’s magazine market.)

Helen Withers, the office manager, would loom over my shoulder. “What are you doing?”, she’d demand. I’d patiently explain that I was preparing a spreadsheet for the board meeting. So then she’d say “Well can you leave that now. I want you to sort out this stationery order” or “I need you to sort out the details for the sales conference”. I knew that Mr Stone wanted his spreadsheet ready for five o’clock but I didn’t feel I had any choice but to do what Helen asked, even though it wasn’t my responsibility, because she was my boss and I couldn’t risk losing my job.

Every time this happened I’d hunch over the computer, furiously applying myself to the work with a clenched jaw. I knew I was worthy of better things, and one day when I’d shown what I could do a door would open and I’d be able to fulfil my potential. Since I had to give up my college course after Mum died, to keep house for Dad and the twins I didn’t have that all-important piece of paper so I was going to have to work hard to show my mettle.

At ten to five I’d find myself outside the door of Michael Stone’s office with my heart pounding and beads of sweat cold on my forehead. I’ve always been confident and determined, but I’d be feeling so ground down that I’d knock timidly and then mumble an explanation about not being able to finish.

Michael was always kind. I’d been temping at Charnley & Loveless for about three months when I was invited to join them full time and it slipped out that it was the Finance Director himself who had asked for me to be placed on the payroll. We’d worked together preparing his board reports and we’d got on well. Although I didn’t have a formal qualification I’d picked enough from my accountancy classes to know a thing or two about how a business worked, so that I made myself indispensable to him. Everything had been going fine. But I’d reckoned without Helen Withers.

A voice deep down inside me wanted to tell Michael how Helen was constantly distracting me from my work for him. But my confidence was low. I felt that there were eyes on me all the time, waiting for me to slip and make a mistake. I didn’t speak up because I thought he would take her side and not believe me. But he never complained. He’d look at me with grey eyes full of sadness, and just ask me to stay behind to finish the work.

“He lost his wife a year ago,” said Penny Mottram one morning as we were waiting at the sandwich trolley. “She had leukaemia. He’s found it hard to get over it.”. The trolley was a welcome break in the routine of the morning. It gave us a few minutes to gossip, and it gave me a brief respite from Helen’s constant interference. I picked out a chicken salad baguette. “The baguettes are good,” I remarked to Penny, “but the chicken salad would come alive with some black pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice.” That’s one of the things Mum taught me, after she had her stroke and I had to cook for the family. She was such a good teacher.

Something about Michael’s eyes touched me deep inside. He was a very attractive man, successful and still in his mid-thirties. But he seemed lonely. I knew he worked in his office every evening, long after everybody else had gone home. There was a lost little boy about him and I felt my heart reaching out. I wanted to look after him, just as I’d looked after Dad and the twins. I wondered if he ate properly. And then I had an idea – something I could do for him. I could make sure he had a meal while he was working late.

I spent that evening preparing a salad of salmon and penne and coriander with some little cherry tomatoes, and the following morning took it to the office in a plastic container with a fork and spoon wrapped in a napkin. Now and then during the morning I fell into daydreams, with shivers of pleasure at the thought of how much he would appreciate it.

Helen loomed behind my shoulder again, dumping a folder of papers on my desk. “Mr Stone asked me to give these back to you to correct”, she said. Her lips were taut and her voice harsh and shrivelled. “These needed to be sorted out days ago. You’re sloppy, you can’t just leave everything to the last minute, you’re going to have to learn to prioritise your work”.

“I finished those on Monday,” I wanted to blurt out, but the words wouldn’t come. I could feel the eyes of the others locked onto me and my cheeks were burning with shame. My shoulders stooped over the computer as if to make myself as small as possible. I would have melted into it if I could. And yet I knew it wasn’t fair, I was good at my job and those papers could have been given back to me for correction two days ago.

When the sandwich trolley came round I told Penny Mottram what had happened. “You’re being bullied,” she said. “Helen knows you’re good at what you do, and she knows that Mr Stone thinks the same. You’re a threat, because you’re better at the job than she is and she’s jealous, so she tries to put you down all the time. Don’t worry about it, if it wasn’t you it would be somebody else.”

“I hope you’re right Penny”, I said. I took my baguette and something made me lift it to my nose and sniff it gently. “Mmm,” I said, and unwrapped the clingfilm a little to make sure. “There’s lemon in this, and black pepper too. Perhaps I’m psychic! I know it’s not good if you’re on a diet but what would make it even better would be some chopped avocado in it to give a contrast of flavour and texture. That makes a real luxury sandwich, something to cheer you up when you’re feeling down.”

I kept my head down for the rest of the day. When Helen tried to interrupt me with a stationery order to be sorted I smiled sweetly at her. “I’m afraid I haven’t got time for that,” I said. “Mr Stone’s report to the board is my top priority at the moment. Why don’t you ask Adam to do it?”. I watched her lips parting and closing but whatever poison she was preparing for me wouldn’t come, not just then. She turned away and stalked to her own desk.

At a quarter to five I knocked on Michael’s door. “Here you are Mr Stone,” I said, handing him the sheaf of neatly printed papers. He looked tired, there were shadows under his eyes. “Thank you Sally,” he said, but his voice seemed to come from a distance. “I asked Helen to pass these to you on Tuesday, has it taken you this long?”

I summoned as much confidence as I could find. “Helen didn’t give them to me until this morning,” I replied, but I knew I was blushing and my hands were shaking. The next thing to do seemed hard now, but I breathed deeply and produced the bowl of salad. “I thought you might like something to keep you going while you’re working this evening” I stammered, but I couldn’t look him in the eye. “I made it myself. I hope you enjoy it”. I put the bowl on his bookshelf, with the cutlery on top of it. Then I mumbled goodnight and walked away quickly.

That evening I found it hard to eat myself, but I persuaded myself that Michael would really appreciate what I had done for him, and gradually I felt a thrill of excitement that made my skin tingle. After I’d gone to bed it took me a while to drop off to sleep, but eventually I slipped into a drowsy dream in which I went into the office to be met by Michael’s grey eyes, no longer sad but full of warmth and thanks. In the dream I could see those eyes across a candle-lit restaurant table, his hands reaching out across to mine and taking my fingers gently…

Helen Withers was waiting for me when I arrived in the morning. I’d hardly got my coat off and sat down. I didn’t need to see her, I could feel her shadow looming over my shoulder again. “Have you sorted the stationery order like I asked you?” she demanded. Oh no, I thought. I’m off balance, my eyes are still full of sleep, my head needs a cup of coffee to clear it, and I’m not ready for a fight. Keep cool, I told myself. Don’t lose your rag. “I was busy with Mr Stone’s report yesterday,” I said. “You were going to ask Adam to do it, remember?”

“Adam’s got other things to do, he’s much too busy,” she fired back. “I asked you to do it”. She was shaking her head slowly, her lips clenched tight, like a headmistress faced with a hopelessly delinquent child. I felt a surge of rage boiling up inside my breast and I had to clench my fists so tightly that the knuckles turned white. I said nothing, but reached out for the green folder and turned to the computer screen, muttering murderous oaths under my breath.

There was one shred of hope for me. I waited until Helen was busy on the phone, then went over to knock on Mr Stone’s door. “Have you got everything you need for the board meeting”, I asked. Michael looked up from his desk. I looked hard for the warmth and appreciation in the grey eyes, but there was none. They were cold and distant and more than a little puffy. “Thank you,” he said. “Helen will tell you if I need anything”. He looked down again. No thanks, no appreciation, nothing. A cold aching despair began to well up in my stomach. The blood drained from my face and my eyes began to sting with tears.

I glanced at the bookcase and saw the bowl and cutlery exactly where I had left them, untouched. I took them to the kitchen and flung the lot into the bin. In the washroom I looked in the mirror at raw, bloodshot eyes with streaks of dark mascara trickling down onto pale cheeks.

My body felt like a hollow shell. There and then I began to draft in my mind the letter of resignation that I would hand in that day. My head was whirling and my mouth was dry as I rehearsed all the petty humiliations. But where would I go? What would I do? I couldn’t count on a reference from Helen. There didn’t seem to be any way forward.

When the trolley came round I whispered to Penny Mottram what had happened and how I was feeling. “Don’t keep banging your head against locked doors,” she said. “You’ll only get a headache! You may find there’s a door wide open where you’re not looking.” And then there was another voice speaking to me, a warm, chocolate-brown voice that was saying “I’ve got a chicken and avocado baguette if you’d like one. Something to cheer you up when you’re feeling down”.

I looked round to see the sandwich man taking something from the bottom of the trolley, and looking directly at me, his eyes – they were blue, I noticed – piercing directly into my own. I’d seen the man before, but I’d never noticed him. Now I saw him properly for the first time with his dark brown hair and smiling eyes, and I saw the badge on his overall – Don Greenway, Homestyle Catering. And I realised that he had been seeing me all the time, and he had been listening carefully to the suggestions I’d made. I was burning with shame for not noticing him, but it didn’t seem to matter. Not now.


We called our restaurant The Two of Us. We wanted a name that suggested the intimacy we found with each other. Every evening, before we open, I make sure that there are candles on the tables, and a little vase of golden tulips, and people seem to like it, because we’re full every night.



Thursday, 26 July 2007

(I haven’t written any poetry for donkeys’ years, and I thought what I had written was lost. So I’m indebted to Alex Foster for digging deep in a pre-WWW place for some stuff I wrote around 1991. Of course, it may have been well-left where it was – what do you think?)

Badger (Bolt Tail, Devon)

There’s no-one here tonight but me; the sun’s gone down;
The lights are coming on around the cove.
Across the bay. and all along the coast
To where the sky is stained with Plymouth’s glow
Long cliffs are coalescing with the dusk.
Beneath my feet the rocks slide steeply, down
Past haunts of guillemots and razorbills
And tufts of sea-pink clinging to the land.
The last of land; Out there, past Eddystone’s
Winking light, lies half an empty globe
Of empty ocean. Above, a scattering
Of stars; a universe to hold the eye
Transfixed. I’m standing here so small against
The dark, and drawn both outwards and back home.
Although my heart would stay, I wrench myself
Around, and turn. The wind sings in the grass.
But hush! Another sound! Not wind, but what?
I freeze; a rustle in the greenery;
A shape – what cat’s abroad at such an hour?
In such a place? But not a cat: There’s two
Broad stripes that run along a slender snout.
Downwind, I’m still. A privilege to see
This secret creature poke and snuffle round
Amongst the foliage. She’s stopped. And now
She looks, and for an endless brevity
Her eyes meet mine. Two veiled lives have reached
An understanding underneath the stars;
A harmony. Then in a flash she’s gone.


Thursday, 26 July 2007

The Thames from New Hungerford Bridge

Saturday, 4 January 2003, 19:25

25 seconds at f5.6

Cold, brisk south westerly wind, mostly clear with some light cloud.

My most successful image around the clubs – three 20/20 scores in club competitions, and another in the 2003 Joint Photographic Clubs of Reading where it also won the Reading Chronicle Trophy for Best Slide in Show.

A Cuckoo in Bohemia – Chapter Two

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Aldbrickham, England, 2004

Had the Environment and Planning Directorate been able to order such matters as rigorously as they would have liked, they would have chosen a different kind of day for the Development Control (Visiting) Subcommittee to do their rounds of the more contentious planning applications.

As it was, the deluge pounded down from a sodden pewter sky and the Driver didn’t start his afternoon in the best of humours. He squeezed himself as best he could between the dogged slants of rain and the strictly non-smoking door of the solicitor’s office on Castle Street to keep his rollup from getting soggy. There was always somebody who made them late. And here he was now, a fat brown man with a florid face fixed in a malevolent sneer, waddling up the hill from the Cross Keys with a fat brown envelope wedged under his left armpit and wiping his leathery lips on the back of his right hand.

‘There’s always one!’ said the Driver, tossing his dog-end into the foliage of a world-weary peony in a concrete tub.

‘And I’ll bet I’m not the last,’ the Fat One growled. He heaved his ample belly through the sliding door of the minibus and into one of the double seats that were generally left to him alone, then ripped open the brown envelope and pulled from it a wad of papers in a rainbow of colours.

‘You’re supposed to have read those papers before the meeting!’ snarled the Bald One in the seat behind.

‘You can bugger off too,’ said the Fat One. ‘Where’s your little lady-love today anyway?’

The Bald One’s chest rocked with a panting laugh. ‘She’ll be along. Not like her to miss a visiting committee. It’s her special treat’.

A gangly man rose to his feet from the front seat next to the Driver. His pale skin and thin silvery beard gave him the intensely pained look of a revolutionary poet. He was forced to stoop as he peered back through the bus, otherwise his head might have wedged in the roof. ‘J-J-Just one m-m-m-more we’re waiting for,’ he said. ‘Has she s-s-sent apologies, Ms-s-s Willmott?’

‘I’ve had no apologies from the committee clerk, Councillor Grainger,’ said a short, bouncy woman with big dark curls and huge round tortoiseshell glasses, sitting in the seat behind him.

‘Thank you,’ said the Revolutionary Poet. ‘We’ll wait another five minutes, I think, and then it’s just too bad’.

‘Here she comes now!’ said Big Curls, . She had left her seat and was leaning out of the door to get an unmisted view. ‘All set for the seaside by the look of it’.

‘It’s a fine day for the English seaside,’ said the Bald One. ‘Has she got her bucket and spade?’

It was true that some of the members, if not most of them, regarded their Visiting Sub duties much as small children looked forward to a school outing. With this elderly councillor – portly, arthritic and craggy-faced – who now arrived you got the feeling that the Visiting Sub was the highlight of her life. Up the hill she came now, plodding along with a fluorescent orange sou’wester to keep the rain off her head and a bulging wicker basket in her hand from which protruded a well-stuffed plastic carrier bag and a large Thermos flask. She looked rather like an elderly Paddington Bear.

‘Right, th-th-that’s everybody,’ said the Romantic Poet, as the Driver helped Paddington Bear into the seat behind the door where she could spread out in comfort. ‘Come on Driver, we’re already late, let’s be on our way’.

‘I hope you’ve got yer Kiss Me Quick hat, ’ the Fat One said to Paddington Bear. ‘When we’re done we can have some cockles under the pier. ‘ His words tailed off in a reptilian snigger that brought flecks of foam to his lips.

From the carrier bag, Paddington Bear took the tools and materials for crocheting. She brandished a crochet hook with menace. ‘Your cockles will be feeling this if you don’t learn some manners,’ she scowled.

‘It’s the Whitley Wood school of charm,’ said the Bald One.

‘You can shut up too, you poncey Tory bugger!’ said the Fat One.

‘B-B-Before you all get too relaxed and s-s-start enj-j-joying yourselves,’ said the Romantic Poet, ‘can we just listen to the p-p-planning officer while she tells us about our p-p-programme for the morning?’

‘Spoilsport!’, said the Bald One.

Big Curls twisted around to face the councillors. ‘As you see from your agenda,’ she purred, ‘we’re going to have a look at the supermarket site at Kingsmead, and then we’ll go over to Tilecot Wharf to see the proposed residential development there. First though we’re going to the proposed outdoor pursuits centre at Avalon Vale. Partly because we thought you’d want to get that out of the way on a day like this, and partly because somebody from the developers is meeting us there to tell us about the project’.

‘That’s Shitstone’s in’t it?’ asked a woman with blue-rinsed hair and flat Sheffield vowels laced with acid. ‘If it’s owt to do with Shitstone’s I think we should let them bloody drown. Especially if it’s old man Keithy himself’.

‘That’s my mate you’re talking about there,’ snarled the Bald One.

‘You’re quite right Councillor,’ said Big Curls. ‘The application is from Shipstones Properties.’ She carefully emphasised the first syllable. ‘But Mr Shipstone isn’t gracing us with his own presence. He’s sending his personal representative to talk to us.’

‘C-C-Can we have a little p-p-professionalism here?’ said the Romantic Poet.

‘Aye Boss,’ the Fat One growled. ‘When you’ve grown out of short pants you can tell us about being professional’.

‘Oh give over,’ Blue Rinse snapped , raising her head from the notepad she was scribbling in. ‘Leave him alone, you big bully!’

‘You got something going with our Chair??’ retorted the Fat One.

Before a confrontation could develop the bus lurched violently. ‘Sorry guys,’ said the Driver.

They were entering the area known unofficially as Avalon Vale, where the paved road gave way to a rutted track upon which great pools of ochre-coloured water were spreading out amongst the jutting nodules of flint. The Vale was a cause for pride with at least some of the locals. For those who knew about it anyway, especially those few who lived there, and more widely since the local property developer Keith Shipstone announced plans to develop a big leisure complex there and had made a cause celèbre of a parcel of land that most people in the area were previously unaware of. Though no great distance from the town centre, it was isolated between the railway embankment to the north and the canal to the south. The land round about was scrubby grass, broken by thickets of elder and bramble and buddleia. A terrace of cottages built in a ponderously ornate mixture of rust-red and bone-yellow brick huddled by a canal lock as if seeking shelter from the lousy weather. On the river itself a line of narrow boats lay moored. Most of the windows in both cottage and boat displayed mystical symbols in coloured glass, stickers with the logos of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, or posters protesting against animal cruelty.

For all their enthusiasm for the natural environment, the denizens of Avalon Vale had their limits, and the driving rain of a sodden October morning lay firmly outside them. Even the animals of the Avalon Community Farm were staying under cover, except for one puzzled white duck assessing the habitat potential of the new lake in the middle of the track. Human life on the scene was limited to a reception party of two, One of these was a tall and handsomely-built woman in her forties, with a clipboard under her right arm and a large umbrella in vibrant shades of red, blue and green in her left hand to protect her neatly-tailored trouser suit of fuchsia linen from the downpour as she guided the bus to a spot where the sliding door would open onto reasonably dry ground. The other was a man of indeterminate age who posted himself a short distance away, between the bus and the lock, apparently heedless of the weather. He was lushly bearded and sported black hair tied in a pony-tail that hung down to the small of his back. With his right hand he supported a placard attached to a length of two by two longer than himself on which was painted, in green letters now blurred and streaking, the words SAVE THE VALE.

The committee sorted themselves in a broken circle around the tall woman, making a splash of vibrant colour in a scene of monochrome dreariness with their bright umbrellas and fluorescent hooded cagoules. They watched the woman with the expectation of a class of infants awaiting a much-loved story. No doubt their expectations encompassed an interest in what the woman had to say, but no doubt they held greater hope that she would be brief; the shuffling of feet and the impatient set of the mouths around the circle certainly suggested that.

‘Good morning everybody, and thank you for coming out on such a vile day,’ said the woman.

‘Can we go home now please, Miss?’ said the Fat One.

The woman wrinkled her lips into a wry smile. ‘My name’s Claire Pepperdine,’ she continued, ‘I’m Keith Shipstone’s personal assistant. Mr Shipstone is taking a close personal interest in the Gordon Harper Centre and he asked me to say how sorry he is that he can’t be with you today owing to a prior engagement.’

‘Poor sod might get his toupee wet,’ said Blue Rinse.

‘Well, maybe,’ said Claire Pepperdine. Her smile was stiff and patient. ‘He sent me to get my hair wet instead. Anyway, Mr Shipstone is taking a close interest because he wants to make a personal gift to local people in honour of an old schoolfriend of his who died.’

‘Pass the bloody bucket will you, please!’ muttered the Fat One.

The Romantic Poet stiffened visibly and the temperature seemed to drop several degrees further. ‘Can we have some order please,’ he said. ‘I’m s-s-sorry Ms Pepperdine, do c-c-carry on.’

‘Patronising sod,’ muttered the Fat One. A sharp jab from the Bald One’s elbow drew from him a sharp hiss and brought him an icy glare from the Romantic Poet.

Claire Pepperdine smiled her little formal smile again. ‘I’m sorry, I know you all want to get back into the dry so I’ll be as quick as I can. Shipstone Properties are seeking outline consent for an outdoor pursuits centre on a small part of the vacant land in Avalon Vale. Gordon Harper was a soldier, a Royal Marine, who was killed in a training exercise twenty years ago.’

‘I remember him,’ said the Bald One, nodding gravely.

‘The centre would serve the young people of the area,’ Pepperdine continued in an effort not to be thrown from her script. ‘And we hope it will have a wider regional significance as well. As you’ll see from the plans, the building itself will be small and very discreet, and has been designed specifically to blend in with the character of the Vale. Mr Shipstone believes such a centre would be the most fitting tribute to his friend. Anyway, I’m sure your officer will go through the plans with you in detail but I’ll try to answer any questions you may have now.’

‘Can we go and have some tea now?’ Paddington Bear warbled from under her dripping sou’wester.’

‘Has the local community been consulted?’, asked Blue Rinse, glancing at the pony-tailed man along the track who remained motionless and silent.

Big Curls juggled her umbrella and her folder of papers for a moment before finding the sheet she wanted. ‘Leaflets delivered to all addresses in Avalon Vale’, she read. ‘Seven objections. Two saying it will attract undesirables to the Vale…’

‘That’s what the lady said the centre was for!’ said Paddington Bear.

‘Not a planning consideration!’ barked the Bald One.

‘Exactly!’ said Big Curls. ‘Anyway, three more objecting to the traffic the centre would generate. Two saying it would disrupt the natural character of the Vale’.

‘Will we get a chance to talk to members of the local community?’ Blue Rinse asked. She had taken off her wet and misted glasses and was concentrating hard on wiping them on a piece of tissue.

‘Unlike us, the local community are sensible enough to stay indoors on a day like this. They’ve sent their representative I see,’ added Pepperdine, nodding in the general direction of the man with the pony-tail. ‘You can talk to him if you like.’

The lone demonstrator allowed his stone face to crack into a smile as he strode towards the group. ‘I’d be very happy to tell you all about the real agenda,’ he said in a dark baritone voice.’

‘W-w-well, I think that’s it,’ said the Romantic Poet miserably from under the hood of his cagoule. ‘We should be moving along now.’ The circle of councillors murmured assent and began to move towards the shelter of the bus.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Blue Rinse, holding her ground. ‘I’ve a couple a couple of small points I want to clear up with Ms Pepperdine.’ Her shorthand notepad had appeared in her hands and she was leafing through it.

Nobody was much minded to talk to Blue Rinse when the gathering broke up three quarters of an hour later. She hung back behind the others as they made their grumbling way back to the bus. Claire Pepperdine abandoned her cool stoicism, tossed her folded umbrella into the back of her dark blue Volkswagen Golf, slid into the driving seat and pulled away through the mire, sending a wake of bilious water rippling across the track. Only the lone demonstrator stuck to his pitch, watching the departures with his Mona Lisa smile.

The councillors began a wan clambering procession into the minibus. The Driver folded his Sun and abandoned it to the top of the dashboard in order to help up Paddington Bear. As soon as Paddington had made herself comfortable, she took the Thermos flask from her basket and poured herself a cup of tea that steamed in the humid atmosphere. The Bald One headed straight for his redoubt in the back corner. Then he turned to smirk at the Fat One easing his capacious gut on board, steadying himself with his hands on Blue Rinse’s waist.

‘Piss off you old goat,’ Blue Rinse hissed over her shoulder. She flung herself into her seat with a scowl.

‘Don’t know how to treat a lady!’ said the Bald One.

‘I don’t need lessons in manners from a poncey Tory git!’ said the Fat One.

‘Ooh!’ said the Bald One. ‘That’s true. They bring you up nicely in Whitley.’

‘Right, you bastard!’ the Fat One spat. This was beyond banter, this was personal and below the belt. As he lunged towards the Bald One his foot caught Paddington Bear’s wicker basket and he pitched forward across the bus, his belly lurching into the Bald One’s corner seat. The sudden shift in weight caused the bus to rock.

Slowly but inexorably, the rocking turned into a steady slide. The sodden mud under the back wheel began to ooze into the ditch, and the wheel was being carried with it. The bus settled itself into a comfortable repose at a disconcerting angle.

The Driver launched himself from his seat and stormed to the back where The Fat One was heaving himself to his feet. ‘Right, children,’ he snapped. ‘I don’t know what game you were bloody playing at but you got us into the ditch and you can bloody help to get us out of it. I want you out there lifting, okay?’

‘We don’t have to get out again do we?’ groaned Blue Rinse.

‘Suit yourself darling’, said the Driver. ‘You can sit there all bloody day if you like but we won’t be moving from here unless everybody helps.’

‘I hope you don’t expect me to do any lifting’ said Paddington Bear, pushing herself heavily to her feet.

‘Right!’ said the Driver when they were all outside. ‘I want all the men down there lifting.’

‘What do you mean, all the men?’ asked Blue Rinse, her hands indignantly clutching her hips.

‘If you want to help too, that’s fine by me,’ said the Driver. ‘I don’t bloody care who does it. The more the merrier.’

If Blue Rinse didn’t particularly want to help, that wasn’t the point. With her face cast in Sheffield-steely determination she strode after the men – the Fat One, the Bald One and the dour Romantic Poet. Big Curls followed her in sisterly solidarity, and the five took their places behind the bus, stooping to grasp the coachwork.

‘Someone’ll have to get down there in the ditch,’ said the Driver. ‘You won’t get enough leverage like that.’

The six looked from one to another but nobody moved.

‘Need any help?’ asked a dark and mellow voice. In the excitement nobody had noticed the demonstrator with the pony-tail, who had sauntered over without his placard. All at once they seemed to notice for the first time his thigh-high waders.

‘Join the party if you like, Mr Whateveryernameis,’ growled the Driver.

‘You can call me Thunderstorm,’ he said, stepping into the ditch and pulling back his sleeves to reveal lean, muscular arms thickly covered in dark hairs attached to powerful hands that gripped the wheel arch. ‘Right, driver,’ he said, ‘in you get and give her some welly. The rest of you – when I give the signal, heave!’

The Driver gunned the engine. Thunderstorm looked directly at the lifting crew and gave a sharp little nod. Seven pairs of shoulders strained and the offside wheel inched clear of the glutinous ochre slime. The racing wheels threw up yellow mud which spattered lifters and hapless bystanders alike. The nearside wheel found a purchase on the flints under the mire and the bus pitched forward.

Thunderstorm read the moment with precision. He let go at just the right moment and stood upright in the ditch, watching the discomfiture of the councillors who floundered around off balance. The Fat One was the least fortunate. As his support lurched away from him he lost his footing completely and for the second time went sprawling headlong. He appeared to bounce off his stomach as he hit the ground, and then rolled into the ditch with a splash, coming to rest against a dense clump of brambles on the far bank. The Bald One, who was soaked through and mud-spattered himself now, could not hold back a gloating guffaw. Blue Rinse began to titter nervously and then to laugh out loud, leaning forward with her hands on their knees. Big Curls and Paddington Bear, who had been too deep in their own conversation to notice what was going on, now turned and stared, and then clutched each other to shed helpless tears on each others’ shoulders. Even the Romantic Poet allowed his dour face to crack and disrupt the gravity of his professional detachment.

The Fat One muttered strange and incoherent oaths from the ditch, aimed at everyone and no one in particular as he groped for a foothold. The bottom of the ditch was soft and didn’t easily yield a purchase for his feet. He grasped for support at what came to hand. What came most readily to hand were brambles and nettle so that he let go again quickly, stumbling and falling back into the murky water to the ever-increasing delight of the spectators. Only Thunderstorm kept a cool head. He waded over to the Fat One, lifting him and guiding him to a place where he could climb out. The sight of the dripping and cursing Fat One hauling himself out of the ditch redoubled the helpless mirth of his colleagues.

A shrill scream ripped the air, bringing the laughter to an abrupt stop.

The land-bound councillors turned at once to find the source of the scream. Big Curls stood frozen, the colour drained from her face, her mouth hanging open and her eyes fixed at a point that lay beyond the still-muttering Fat One. Every eye turned to follow her gaze.

Thunderstorm had not left the ditch. He had waded over to the far bank to investigate something that lay amongst the brambles. The thorny tendrils had parted to reveal a muddy shoe. Above the shoe and attached to it, a ghastly bluish-white human leg. The colour of the faces of the ring of councillors he turned to face.

‘I don’t suppose anybody here’s got a mobile?’ he said.

A Cuckoo in Bohemia – Chapter One

Thursday, 26 July 2007

(A Cuckoo in Bohemia has been complete in draft for several years now, but is undergoing its umpteenth rewrite. Please be free with constructive criticism here as elsewhere on this site)

Angola, 1979

The jungle has no friends. It treats everything with equal disdain.

For a few moments before the dawn, a hush falls. The insects that have buzzed and whined through the night fall silent; the birds stop their squawking; the creepings and rustlings and slitherings suddenly cease. Those small animals that have successfully escaped death for one more night have crept back to their holes, and those larger animals whose attention they have evaded retire to digest their meal and sleep. All that remains is the relentless, incessant drip drip drip of water on leaves in the thick, steamy darkness.

The rainforest is changing shifts.

The sudden lull brought Gordon instantly awake. He lay rigid in his bag, his senses alert, his brain fighting a murderous battle with the desire of his hands to scratch the infernal itches all over his sweat-drenched body, his ears tuned intently to the silence. Somewhere to his right a fluting whistle called out. Not a bird. The Captain. A hidden observer watching Gordon’s face closely might have seen the taut muscles relax just a fraction, before a sudden cramp in his back caused him to wince and tense his jaw. Beyond his feet a monkey let out a shrieking whoop. That was Jonno. Gordon allowed himself a terse little smile and counted to ten. Then he pursed his lips and let out a sound best described as a cooing, rising in pitch and ending in a short trill. He was proud of that. He’d practised it for hours. He waited, listening once more with renewed intensity. The forest was wide awake again now. To his left and behind his head the shriek of a parrot tore through the background hubbub. Fritz. That made four. Gordon allowed his muscles to relax and he smiled to himself. All present. All correct.

At that instant the sun broke through the steam and set the forest ablaze with colour.
The odd quartet, ragged, unshaven, squatted wordlessly over a spartan breakfast of foraged leaves and nuts and berries and the treated brackish water that tasted so chemically disgusting before hoisting their packs onto their backs and moving onward into the forest. For a whole morning they made steady progress through the vegetation; more slowly in those places where the trees thinned out and the extra light penetrating the canopy had allowed the undergrowth to grow thick and lush. His comrades were invisible. To know they were there was an act of faith. And of finely-tuned hearing. He cursed frequently under his breath the malevolent roots that clutched and the branches that whipped back into his face. The air grew steamier as the cruel sun rose higher in the sky, sapping the energy from his legs. In the boiling wet heat the sweat ran in sluggish rivulets down his face and dripped onto his body. Insects nibbled and probed for the scratches and scabs and tender spots of his skin. The heavy stench of death and decay clung to his nostrils. He gritted his teeth and clenched his fists against the fingers of lethargy that stroked his brow and tempted him with the burning desire to crawl into the bush and fall asleep forever. Only the coded animal cries from the tangled undergrowth impressed upon him that the unity and interdependence of the squad was one with the complex web of forest life, and kept him to the relentless push forward.

Towards mid-afternoon, at a place where the forest became sparser, came the cry, the frightened chatter of a monkey, that told Gordon that a comrade had found something amiss. His instinct flung him to the ground, his ears alert and tuned. Another call. Move to the right. Careful, don’t make a noise. Dirt road here. Barely a track really. Nothing to see where he was. Something wrong. Maybe. Perhaps a trap. Circle round. Check for possible ambushes. Circle inwards, towards the centre of attention. In the bush he caught sight of the blackened face of his squad leader, who looked straight at him and then nodded to one side. He followed the nod to the body.

The African was stretched out along the track with his arms at an angle in front of him. Flies were swarming around the sticky black mess that stuck the once-white shirt to his back. This man had been fleeing from his killer. The Mission must be close now. Gordon knew that his comrades would now be filled with the same dread that filled him; dread of what they all knew they must find when they got there. They waited, but no ambush came. All the same, when they spread out and moved on, following the track on either side, Gordon’s ears were tuned ever more finely to the chitterings and squawkings and howlings, alert to anything out of place. His nose twitched, sniffing for the alien scent in the rank, decadent perfume of the jungle. There was definitely a new note to the smell now. Gordon found himself daydreaming of his boyhood . Absurdly he heard in his head the strains of With A Song In My Heart, and in his mind’s eye he saw his parents and sisters sitting primly around the family dining table, the girls in their best dresses fresh from Sunday School. It took him several moments before he realised what had prompted this vision. Hanging in the still, leaden air was the sharp smell of garden bonfires, and over the top of that the scent of roasting meat. He was jolted back into the present. This couldn’t be good.

The sun was dipping low in the sky when they reached the Mission compound. There was no sign of activity. No sign of life. You could never be sure though. There were certainly signs of death. The carcasses of two goats lay in the white dusty yard. They had not been dead so very long; even in this heat they had not yet completely decomposed, though the stench of rotting flesh made Gordon’s stomach heave. The door of the mission building swung ajar. With the other two remaining on guard, Gordon and the squad leader edged along the wall towards the door from either side. They paused and listened. The captain tossed a stun grenade into the open doorway. A deafening explosion and a blinding flash of light shattered the air. Gordon burst through the door into the blackness with his Ingram at the ready.

The Mission was filled with death. In a room that must have been the kitchen, an African woman sat on a chair with her face slumped in a pool of congealed blood on a table. On the floor another was stretched out. Gordon could do nothing for them. He passed on. In the chapel, a middle-aged European woman lay on her back on, her head dangling backwards over the edge with hideous limpness, hair matted with congealed blood, a black gash across her throat. Her nun’s habit was rucked up under her armpits; her naked legs were splayed. Gordon did not linger here either. He rushed out of the back of the house, where somebody had put a lot of work into creating an English garden. He stood still and listened. His finely-tuned ears picked up a soft, dreadful moaning, scarcely perceptible. He followed the sounds behind a wall to a tree.

There was a man there. An elderly European man, with a twisted pale face and a few strands of grey hair clinging to his scalp. He was hanging from the tree. His outstretched arms were tied to branches and transfixed by knives thrust through the wrists. His abdomen had been slit vertically and blood had soaked his priestly garb and dripped into a sticky pool on the ground beneath him. The blue eyes that looked imploringly at Gordon told that he lived still. Gordon felt pale and giddy and nauseous but had enough strength left to raise the Ingram and pump a burst of bullets into the old priest. Then he dropped the Ingram, walked over to the wall, retched once, and emptied the contents of his stomach to a livid stain on the parched white ground.

In the time it took to pull himself together, the years of discipline and training, that had not prepared him for anything quite like this, abandoned him. He was no longer aware of his comrades or what they were doing, nor did he much care. Turning his back on the wall, the tree, his life to date, he rose on unsteady legs and shambled off into the darkness.