The Dead Line

                                     

It started with a short sentence.

“Can I speak to Angelo, please.”

I rarely get calls on my mobile, mostly wrong numbers. “ No-one here of that name, sorry.”  Was my simple reply and I may have caught an “Oh” as the line clicked off.

It was a pleasant voice, female, probably young; i.e. young enough to be a daughter, maybe even a granddaughter of mine.  If I had any.

I returned to wire brushing the cracks in the block paving on the drive.  A cross between a most thankless and satisfying task for a mildly OCD person.  That’s me, I suppose.  Not a hang-up, just an observation.

I was almost relieved to stop when the mobile rang again.

“Was this a wrong number or is it just that Angelo isn’t there?”   The same female voice, this time a little less chirpy,  anxious.

This is where another flaw emerged and I had to respond that  “I didn’t know if it was a wrong number but I did know that Angelo wasn’t with me.  Or had been.  He certainly wasn’t helping me weed the block paving!”

“Oh.”  This time the line didn’t go dead and I just stood there waiting, listening.

“They gave me this number.”

“My number or the wrong one?”

“This one.”

“Okay, maybe I asked the wrong question. Philip Marlowe I ain’t.”   I shouldn’t have said that out loud!

“Who?  No, it’s Angelo I wanted.”  She sounded hesitant.

I should have killed the call but she would probably have rung back to ask why.  I was also curious and felt like Humphrey Bogart playing Philip Marlowe in one of his smoke-filled bars or hotel rooms talking with a mystery caller.    Well, I had just finished reading an old Chandler paperback and despite my age can still empathise like a good-un.

“Can I help?”  Foolish, foolish! I thought, as I spoke.

“If he is not there, it might be too late when he gets back. Just tell him I rang and said I’m here.” Her voice choked, broken now.

Young or old, alarm bells still ring, maybe more so as time passes.  I went for alarm!

“Too late?  I can come over now, if it is important. Where are you?  It’s never too late to talk.  Just tell me where and I will drive straight to you.”    By now my heart was bumping a bit and I had dropped the wire-brushy thing and started to go back indoors.    And I never once considered that she could be literally anywhere in the world.

“I’m at the station.”

“Which station?  Where?”

“Burnthorpe.  Railway.   There’s a train coming….”  She was almost screaming at the noise.

“No! Wait!” I shouted into the phone. I heard the roar of the train as it sped through.  I could imagine the blur and rush as the noise of the express shattered through the phone and the single tone followed disconnection.  I can hear it now, it’s a sort of tinnitus, an electronic whistle embedded in my brain that creeps out as a reminder in the dark.  I think I got myself into a panic.

And where was Burnthorpe?  I hadn’t heard of it.  It wasn’t local as far as I knew.  And I stood there with that damned whistling in my ear even when I looked and saw the red blob with ‘call ended’ on it.

Search engines on phones do have their uses.  My head cleared as I found Burnthorpe, a couple of hours drive away.  Or I could just ring the station.  And say what?  What would I want to hear?  Chances are they wouldn’t even talk to me, a strange man asking questions about a brief phone call, and that a wrong number and maybe a……?     I could pretend to be a journalist, or just nosey.

Burnthorpe rang a tiny bell.  All I knew about it was I had never been there, must have buried the name in some odd recess.

I live in a bit of a mess but sometimes I get that disconcerting enthusiasm to do something.  Finish tidying the office.  Write another chapter.  Well, rarely these days.  Finding something new to say about Enclosures means research, which I no longer have the patience for and ‘retired’ means I can’t cajole students into the subject.  It’s prime-time social upheaval but the glamour seems to have moved back to the ‘Dark Ages’.  Even that term is antiquated now!

But after that lost voice, those few seconds, I felt an almost alarming need to know.  It was quite odd to get that feeling from so long ago.  Maybe it was just the chance timing in the middle of a boring day for a bored old man.  I can say that but not you.  I say I am early-retired but truth be known I’m just a casualty of the cost-cutting, course cutting, redundancy-band of nearly sixty year-old university drones.     I might have gone a few years earlier but survived.  Having said that maybe I should have left five years earlier and got a big payout instead of a few quid extra on my pension.

Oddly, some of that actually drifted through my mind as I shoved the tablet and charger into my rucksack, checked wallet for cash and cards and headed for the door.  Bag on shoulder, glasses on nose and keys in hand I stood for a peremptory glance round the hallway before turning and shutting the door behind me.

I was sitting in the car, engine running in quick-time.  I sat there and realised I did know what I was doing and it was almost exhilarating.  I was off on a goose-chase, I told myself, but the woman’s voice echoed through the background tinnitus.     Maybe I was caught in my own web of fantasy, swapping village labourers for my other passions; pulp crime fiction, Philip Marlowe, Humphrey Bogart and gritty films.   Yes, I still have my childhood tucked away safely and it   escaped.  There I was, about to drive into the unknown, for no real reason.  So I did.

…………………………

What did we do before navigation-apps?  Now I stick in the post-code and hope for the best.  I followed the little blue arrow on my phone and the attentive instructions about roundabouts and exits for an hour or so.  After that I was offered a route that was quicker round congested traffic and I entered a world of ‘lost’ single-track lanes that criss-crossed bigger roads for no apparent reason until I was instructed to turn left onto a busy dual carriageway.  Within a hundred metres I was filtered off again and  driving alongside a small Industrial park which switched to a smaller retail park and finally a railway station.  Having ‘reached your destination’ I parked in an all too convenient parking space beside a police car.

 

Well, I had arrived.  One option would be to drive home immediately.  The police car seemed an ominous sign.  I unhooked my phone and slipped it into the jacket’s inside pocket.  Unclipped the seatbelt, opened the door and swivelled round.  At least I could wander around, looking casual, I thought.  Got out, straightened up, stiffly.  Saw a coffee shop opposite and went in to order a cup and find a toilet.  Why do you so rarely find a toilet in books? On Tele  yes, quite important in some series.   Relieved, coffee before me, I sat looking out at the police car.

“Do they just park there all day?”  I spoke to the barista clearing the next table.  He followed my gaze to the police car.

“Nah, must be somethin’ up.  If they park there they come in for a coffee and a pee.  Not today. Not yet, anyhow.”  He finished stacking the tray,  “Been there an hour. Another one came and went again.   Another barista nipped out through the swing door and returned having collected from other tables.

I sat there, fingers clasping the huge mug of coffee.  Luckily it was cooler by now.  I hadn’t hurried to drink it.  I was still in adventure mode but had no idea what to do so sat, a figure of indecision.

Oddly satisfying it was too.   Two minutes later and a line of customers came in. They arrived as commuters and called in for assorted coffees and balms and sat at most of the tables around me.

Two policemen and a woman crossed over the road.  I watched them approach.   It was odd that I should recognise one of them.  I thought. I shuffled down into my jacket even though it hid nothing more than my tie-less collar.

In uniform, the older man joined the queue. The others looked round the busy room and made a bee line for my table.  I felt my face redden as they asked “can we sit?”

“Sure.”

Sitting, they spoke casually about how long before shift ended and lack of plans for the evening.  Mind you they finished at 10 p.m., so little time for much as far as I was concerned.

It was then I realised what the time was.  And here I was, in a market town in the middle of nowhere, just about to be recognised by an old rival.  Old friend. Once, briefly.  And it was getting dark soon. Two hours from home via piddling little lanes that I really didn’t want to drive through again in the dark.

“Of all…”. He started as he reached the table.  Carefully placed the tray of coffees and continued staring, interrogating my face.

“……the bars, in all the world…..” Bogarts voice crawled through my head.

“ …. people, I would never have thought to see you here.”    He pulled his head back slightly as if getting a different perspective on the man who stole his girlfriend.   “It is Harry, isn’t it?”

He leaned forward again and shot a hand out stopping a few inches away from my nose.

“Long time eh?  Haven’t seen you for years. What twelve, fifteen?  Not since you walked off with my girlfriend.  Guys,” he moved his outstretched hand as introduction to his two companions.

“Meet Harry.  This is d.c. Maitland, referring to the woman and  sergeant Weatherly.”   His hand veered back to my nose. I took it and we shook.  He, firmly, and I surprisedly.  He continued speaking, “ Harry.  Harry Leem!  Fancy.” He sat and I still couldn’t figure his mood with me.  Time heals, I hoped. It looked like he had moved up if not on.   It was sixteen years, actually, and she used me as an excuse to walk away from him, Walter, like she used Richard to leave me a couple of months after that.

He had just become a sergeant and was stationed in Sheffield where we met.  He was on the course and I was the lecturer.  I would socialise with students in those days, a legacy of the eighties partying and got to know him as part of the group.

So here we were, me a redundant lecturer, failed author, sitting opposite a very braided police officer from whom I had stolen a woman he no doubt loved very much.  All because I worried about a phone call.  I wondered if he still read Chandler or rather today’s crowding list of authors; knowing mine wouldn’t be one of them.

“Don’t mind them,” he said, “are you here for a while or waiting for a train to somewhere?”

“I’m in the car.”   ‘Train to nowhere‘  zipped through my brain.  As Walter seemed quite relaxed at seeing me I dived in, “Actually, I might be here on a whim or an odd coincidence.  Listen.”   It was like old times.  Me, a lecturer with ideas,  wishing I was different, talking to someone who was good at listening and maybe interested too.   I told him my story.   It was brief but as I began the other two listened in silence.

“Are you sure she said Angelo?”  Walter spoke as seriously as he had listened.

“Yes” I couldn’t say more.

Can I have your phone, please?”

I automatically dug it out and passed it to him. He handed it to the policewoman.

“And can you confirm the time of the phone call?”

“About three this afternoon.” I hazarded.

“It will be on the log.” She said, “what’s the log-in?”

I told her. She checked it. “ 15.08 then 15.11. So the train you heard was the 15.11 express.”

“What happened?”  They had said nothing so far, “Is she?  Did she….? You know.”

The detective looked at the older policeman. He spoke, “ You are a potential witness. We will have to check your story, your alibi, if you like.  But I can say nothing seems to have happened.  Except she seems to have disappeared, maybe. Your story, the phone call, just happens to muddy the water.  Strictly speaking we have no reason to be concerned as she is an adult.  The problem is that her mobile is now disconnected and she was due to meet someone at this station. We know she arrived and waited and then was gone. The person she was to meet reported her missing.”  He looked at the detective.

“We need you to remain in Burnthorpe so we can interview and take a statement.”

“Why not now, I should be going home.  It’s late.”

“As it’s late it would be sensible to stay here in Burnthorpe.  They’re bound to have a room at the hotel round the corner. The Lazydaze Hotel.”

Did they expect a challenge?  It was too late to do otherwise.  I had no change of clothes but could buy clean from the store on the opposite corner; said Walter.  He ordered more coffees while I nipped to the store. The detective, Winnie, I was informed, would book me a room. The sargeant was posted back to the station and end of shift.

When I returned with my new boxers and shirt (forgot the socks!),  Walter was alone at the table with his and my cold coffees.  The police car had gone.  Chief Inspector Walter Copper invited himself to my car and the hotel.  Then booked and bought us an early meal where we picked our way through our last couple of meetings when he lost and I gained a girlfriend.     I muttered about being sorry and that she left me too, very quickly.  Once we found agreement that we had both lost and maybe he had made a better fist of life than me, we fell into a nostalgic conversation of catch-up of common interests.  Until I cracked:

“Off the record,” I finally asked, “Is there a problem for this woman? Who is she?”

“It might be in the paper tomorrow anyway, so maybe I can let slip a little.”

I instinctively leaned forward and Walter mirrored the movement.

“We don’t know any more than you have just told us.”  He leaned back, almost smiling, briefly.  “We just came in for a coffee break and a two-minute briefing after I got off the Leeds train”

I just felt stupid. “But you came straight over to me.”

“Because I recognised you and you were looking at me.”  He went serious again, “You might have been here about Ann.  I know she works on your patch.”

I didn’t.  I had just told him where I had driven up from but it sounded like he knew I hadn’t moved since those last meetings.  “Is she still in the force?”

“Yes. Married, kids, divorced; the whole lot but still in Sheffield and a D.I.”

“You?”

“The same.  Married, kids, divorced and still living here.  Burnthorpe has you by the throat, no escape.  Your turn, Harry.”

“You recall I was divorced back then.  Sorry about Ann, we should never have gone off like that.”  I did feel he deserved an actual apology albeit years too late.  I paused, maybe too long.   “Still single, no kids, out of work.   Well, redundant and early-retired but it doesn’t make it any better.”   I stopped. I pulled us back to my reason for being in Burnthorpe.

“So why am I still here?  Apart from trying not to talk about old times?  You wouldn’t book me in here for no reason.”   I looked round the sparse tables and furnishings, “Unless it’s revenge.”

“We need to check your phone; her call.  If we find her mobile it might help.  ‘Angelo’ is a new name.  As I said, she just seems to have disappeared. On the platform as the train arrives, then gone.  Maybe Angelo is a lead.  Her friend got off the train and but no one to meet her.”

He hadn’t given me any names. It made it hard to imagine.  “Do they have names, the women? It might help.”   I started to think they were A and B but that old memory of Ann stepped in.

I continued; “The train.  It was an express. On the phone it was obviously not stopping.  Too fast and getting louder.  That was when the signal just cut into a disconnected whistle.”  I found myself thinking almost logically. The first time maybe for some months.  “That’s why it got to me!  I was worried it was a suicide.  Maybe me and a wrong number, being casually rude was too much. “

Walter was listening without interrupting the pauses.

“Was there an express?  Maybe she threw the phone onto the tracks. Or at the train? In front of it, whatever.  Perhaps it was a stranger, a mugger.  That would be why it disconnected.    Is that the answer?  But why vanish?”

Walter took his mobile out.. tapped numbers and spoke into it:    “It wasn’t the 15.11 express, that stopped at the station.  It was the one on the ‘through’ track.  It was late and must have been just ahead of the stopper.  Talk to the drivers of both trains.  Get lights on the track and search for the mobile. Or bits of one.”    He listened while it was repeated back.  “And don’t forget to stop the bloody trains in both directions!”

“Thank you, Harry.”    He pocketed his phone.  “Timing, eh.  Bloody timing.”

I was feeling bolder, “What about CCTV?”

“None available.”  He shook his head pensively.  “What was that course we met on?  I just remember an arrogant bastard hitting on my girlfriend.”

“We were friends a few months before that.  But the lecture was ‘Social Unrest in the 18th and 19th Centuries’. Which was me.  And I sat in with you for the two on ‘Victorian Morality and the Police’ and ‘Forensic Evidence; collection and presentation.”  I felt no pleasure in that particular feat of memory.

“That was when you got bored and wormed you way between me and Ann”

Not something I could deny.  I was into the social side; forensics was much too niche for me,  Ann was much more interesting.

“Should I apologise again?”

“No; Walter under the bridge!”  He raised his whisky, drank and said he should go and that I should report to the station before ten next morning.

Was that a joke, I wondered as he walked out of the bar with a brief wave.  No handshake but then we were still a little wary of each other.

…………………….

It was a warm morning, the sun was up but looking soft at the edges, like it was hungover.

It was a fair distance walking to the police station from the Lazydaze Hotel and the freshness of my new clothes was worn off when I arrived that next morning and asked for Walter Copper.

“Chief Inspector.” I was advised and directed upstairs, “second passage on the left and check with his P.A.”

“P.A.?” I thought as I walked the lavender corridors.

It wasn’t so much a corridor that I turned into, more an alcove with a desk jutting out.  The placement, and the man behind it, seemed purely to obstruct entrance to the office door at his back.  I could read ‘C.I. W. Copper’; black on white in its frame on the wall.

“Harry Leem,” I began but stopped as the young man silently pointed fist and cocked thumb backwards over his shoulder towards the door.

“Go in, he’ll be with you in a minute.” He didn’t take his eyes off the small screen with its flashing colours under his other hand. “Yess!” He said under his breath.

I stepped sideways  between desk and wall then opened the door and entered.  More like a cupboard than an office.  Or a cell.  A high window, darker lavender walls, a small desk with an old p.c., plus notebook and pencils that filled the desk-top. There was a comfortable high-backed swivel chair with just enough room to swivel and a set of floor-to-eye shelves.  Some books, some momentos of ‘whatevers’ and six cards displayed on its top shelf.

‘Congratulations on your retirement!’  Said one. Others were more in the current taste of stills from old films with new words.  One caught my eye.  It was Humphrey Bogart towing the ‘African Queen’, up to his knees in water, looking knackered and the card read:  ‘I thought they said Cruise, not Crews.’    Philip Marlowe would have put it better.

The door opened. Walter peered in, jerked his head as he said, “Come on let’s get out of here.” I followed his sidling between wall and P.A. desk.

We walked briskly, he was used to striding, I had forgotten how and the memory didn’t want to return.

“We’ll go to the pub.”  He announced.

The walk was threatening to send me to hospital but we arrived at some bulging windows of a cream painted building on a corner in the old part of town.  An old wooden linteled  door. The building fronted the main road and round the corner,  sloping up the side-street.  We ducked our way in, a shabby table-high shelf to our immediate left with a biggish black book sitting on it.  Matt black and shabby to match the stained oak of the wall behind it.  It was like the shortest hall-way ever. You expected a second door but it never existed.  Two steps and we were in an old fashioned, stone slabbed bar with another bar to the side. Once there was a wall between but this was now a much more open view where the lath and plaster had been removed leaving the ‘renovated, polished’ beams in their original upright and angled positions.

‘Hi Walter!’  The woman called out as they entered, “Same as?”

“Just a coffee and…” I agreed to one too,  “And another.  Americano.”

She brought the coffees on a tray.  I had to watch as she walked across the bar, I’m old enough to know much better.  But then maybe not.  Obviously mature but a lot younger than me, us. Casually curling golden hair, framing her round and flawless face with a smile and twinkling eyes to catch anyone’s breath.  I noticed she was quite tall and her rounded hips balanced perfectly between length of leg and body.  The gently tailored dress and half-scooped neckline suggested equal perfection underneath.   Not a mood I catch myself in very often these days.  Too many students acting like waifs or mannequins took the edge off.  Plus a few brief couplings and goodbyes that weighed me down.  And at the back of it was still Ann.

I watched as she walked to the coffee machine and back.

She returned with a cafetière and mug for herself and sat with us.

“This is Angel,” Walter introduced her.  She held out her hand, I took it.

“And you are?” She asked, our hands still.

“Harry.  Harry Leem.”

“Harry,” she said thoughtfully as if committing the name to memory.  Her hand firmed with mine and she smiled right into me.  Hands parted, I watched her carefully plunge the cafetière.

“Coincidentally,” Walter started the conversation,  “Do you know anyone called Angelo?  Or maybe talking about someone with that name?”

She stopped pouring into a half-filled mug and put the cafetiere down. Looked up.

“Who is missing?  It was all the talk here last night.  I gather it’s a woman.  She must have a name, is she local?”   It sounded false, more guarded than interested.

“This has to be off the record.  Today is my last day, after tonight I am off the job.  They tried to kick me off today, the D.C.I. In no uncertain terms.”

“Winnie put him straight?” she said it without a smile

“Partly.” He looked briefly at me then back to Angel.  “Harry might be a witness so I’m on babysitting duty.  We don’t know if there is a mystery yet.  It might be that someone dropped their phone and stormed off.”

“Did you find the phone?” I had to ask him.

“Yes.  You were right.  It must have hit the first ‘through’ train and we found it, or the bigger bit at least.  With the SIM card.  They were testing it when we left. dropped or thrown, or by who, we don’t know.”

Thankfully I’m not a grammar-tart!

“Her name? And the friend meeting her, you said.”  Angel encouraged an answer.

“The missing woman is Adriana.  The friend on the train was  a contact rather than a friend.  She had come from Leeds to meet Adriana. They had never met and she had only spoken on the phone and no photograph.  She knew her name, that she had long black hair, thirty years old and wanted to escape an abusive partner.  To hide.  A woman called Nira was to meet Adriana at the station.   Nira may have had their tickets for the next train journey so no trace of where to would be found.”

“So Angelo is the man she is running from?”  I assumed.

“Yes, it seems so.” Walter agreed, “But Nira seems to know nothing more.  Harry’s accidental contact seems to firm-up the man’s name as Angelo but nothing else.  Hopefully the sim will give more.  Ideally the Contacts List will have full details of both.”

On hearing the name ‘Nira’ I noticed Angel’s eyes tighten a little and look away briefly.

She looked back at me, “And you drove here just on a wrong number?”

“The way it disconnected worried me.  And her voice was odd.  No accent but something seemed wrong.”

“Are you police too, ex police?”

“No,” I had to smile at that suggestion, “Ex rubbish lecturer in Social History mainly 18th and 19th Century”

“Oh,” she smiled quite sweetly but obviously no convert to the subject.

“Don’t put yourself down like that.” Walter stepped in, “you were good at stealing girl friends!”

“Ah.”  I had no more response than that.

She leaned across and patted my knee. “It must have been years ago, though.  He doesn’t hold grudges forever.  Well not many.”   This didn’t really help. I drank some coffee.

As I sipped at the hot drink I realised that his reaction was more like before the  messy collapse of our friendship.

Back to Nira, Adriana and Angelo.

“Has Nira gone back to Leeds?” Angel asked.

“Yes”

“Could Adriana have been asking for Angel rather than Angelo?”  I tossed a random thought.

“Why?”  She spoke and looked at me a little too sharply.

“I have no idea, just a question. Did you know Nira even if you didn’t know Adriana?  Is your mobile number similar to mine and or Angelo?  Is there any connection between Burnthorpe and Leeds regarding safe houses?  Which this seems to mean. Was Adriana really running from abuse or was it cartels or even the police? Did Nira actually hear Adriana naming this Angelo?  Is it just assumption because she said his name to me?”   I realised I was mouthing off a bit.  Musing out loud more than I should.  I hoped we would survive this interrogation when I had known her for a mere twenty minutes.  Let alone mending a fractured friendship with a retiring police officer.

I stopped.  We looked one to the other, conversation blunted.  “Oh Hell!” I thought out loud again. “Probably her partners name. Maybe she is Italian, he could be too.”   I tried to back-track.

I looked at the menu board propped on the wall waiting to be put outside.

The header was the pub’s name:  ‘The Jolly Puritan’    We were anything but that. I wanted to go home.

“The old vicarage.”  She spoke as if forced.  We looked blankly, waiting for more.  “Dad bought the old vicarage when they put the three churches into a pool. You know, a team approach going the rounds. They sold off our vicarage and spare land from the other two. Dad retired. Then he died.” She stopped and looked over to Walter. He nodded slightly in remembrance.

It meant nothing to me, I just waited.

“And?” The bar seemed surprisingly quiet as we sat there. Walter prised quietly.

“Nira didn’t have any tickets.”  Pause.  “It’s only up the road from here.”   She stood and casually pressed  down the creases from her waist.  I sat, quietly numbed, waiting for a dramatic announcement.

“It’s a safe-house.”  She started to place the mugs and cafetière on the tray and carried it to the back of the bar.    “Any more coffee?”    We both shook our heads.

“We can have three people max.. women, girls, and any children.  More would fit in the house but people might notice too many. “  she spoke with her back to us.  Turning, continued;   “I don’t know about the mobile numbers, we should check.  Or the name Adriana is running from.  But yes; she would have been given my number as emergency contact. And the name.”

“It’s you.  You would answer to Angelo.  Near enough your real name.”

“But she wouldn’t know I was a woman.” She leaned on the bar. “A little bit of security, we thought.  Three years and nothing has gone wrong.  Meeting at the station,  both by train then a taxi to the house.  I ring Madelie and she collects them and back to the vicarage.  Nira just keeps an eye on her.  On the train to the station.

Walter spoke. “I am an old friend, you and I.   For years, you know what I know.”  He rubbed a smear of coffee on the table.  “Why not even a hint? And I am police, for goodness sake!”  He shook his head.  “You said nothing yesterday!” his voice full of exasperation.

A deep sigh and, “Because you are Police!”  She stood erect.  “ You never said ‘Nira’.  I didn’t know she, they, were coming.  I just react to a phone call.  Some of these women have nothing.  Literally nothing, especially trust.  Especially trust in men.  Yes, especially!”  Attack was the best form of defence, she seemed to have decided.

“You could have trusted me, even so.”

Angel switched her gaze from Walter to me.  We briefly held eyes before I bowed away.  At which she moved to the coffee machine, “I need another anyway.”

In the quiet Walter resumed his thinking out loud

“So, we can check your two numbers to see if they are close enough for a mis-dial.  That would cover that point.  It explains why she, Adriana, was at the station. Partly the phone but not her actual disappearance.  Did she run from someone?  Did he, or they, force her or was she willing?        The upshot is, she is missing, she has to be found.”   He was interrupted by an old cartoon ringtone. His phone.

“It’s loud so I hear it in all weathers,” he passed it off as an explanation then listened with infrequent “yup”.    Finished, phone back in pocket.

“It’s her SIM, we opened it.  Lucky for us she’d no idea of security.”  He continued, “ It had a tracking app on it.  She could have been followed.  Contacts include her own, and yours, or Angelo; we can check the number with yours.  And we seem to have a selfie or two.”

Angel brought her new coffee to the table.  Walter’s phone bleeped cheerfully again and he retrieved it.   Angel peered over to see its screen.

“That must be her.  No wonder she is running scared.” he said.

I looked across at the picture on the screen to see a young woman with long black hair and a worryingly swollen eye with massive black bruising and a cheek  that was just shining into deep purple with yellow outer edges.

Angel grabbed at my arm. “When was that? The date?”

“Three days ago.”  He scrolled down to more text. “ He left her messages but they haven’t sent them on.  His last one was 11. O5.  Just before she phoned you, as Angelo. “

“Is his picture there?” I asked.

“No. We are getting his details off his mobile account and trying for his current location.”

“Can you find where he was on his 11.05 text?”  Me again. Angel’s grip was beginning to hurt.

It suddenly felt incongruous.  Me, sitting in a pub with an old ex-maybe-friend and a woman I should have felt so much less for after only half an hour; and talking pseudo forensics with the almost retired policeman about abused women and maybe abduction or worse.   As they say, twenty four hours ago I was at home, bored.  Now I just wanted to get out and find that woman.  I had forgotten what adrenaline was like.  But then I rarely knew anyway.  Now I felt it, I wanted more.

Walter got his notebook out and wrote the number she had rung for Angelo.  It was my number. No surprise in the end.  We checked Angel’s number and the last six digits were the same as mine, as were the codes.  No!  Adriana had transposed numbers into my carrier’s when putting them into her contact list.  A simple mistake but it might have been her last.

He was on his phone, “ Get that search organised. From the railway station outwards. Circulate her photo.  Treat it as a suspicious action. We don’t know if it is abduction. Yet.”   He looked towards me, “ I will drop you at the hotel.  You can leave Burnthorpe if you like  but I might need to call you back. We haven’t done that statement yet.”  He stood. “Thanks Angel. I aim to forget about the Vicarage. You too.”  He looked at me.  I nodded.  “I have to rush.”

“I can make my own way to the hotel,” I thought it would speed him along.

“I can take Harry in five minutes.” Angel said quickly

“Whichever, I must go.”  He said and collected his hat, becoming the real policeman again. “I’m off. We’ll find her, Angel, we’ll find her.”     He ducked through the low doorway and must have knocked the Bible off the shelf.

Saying nothing, Angel glided to retrieve and replace the Bible.

She went behind the bar and explained that someone was due to start a shift and she could slip away for half an hour.  Plenty of time to drop me at the hotel.

I just shrugged and agreed to wait.  It wasn’t long before a young lad came in.  Following a brief conversation with Angel he settled both arms to rest on the bar, phone in hands and thumbs jabbing.

“Come on then,” to me as she whisked out via the gap behind the bar. I had to jump up and scramble through; following into and out of a kitchen, a final back-room and lastly a huge old door that opened onto a square yard and the brightest of sunlight.

“She handled the car like a pro; almost as good as I handle whisky”.  I rehearsed the line a few times as Marlowe came to my rescue while we dodged round the traffic and corners.   Had we been chased we would never had been caught.  We slammed into a parking space and the jolt matched the squeal of tyres.

“You can relax now.” She smiled as she looked to me, and twisted to get out of the car.

She was half way up the steps to the hotel as I managed to uncurl from the low-seat and straighten up.  I watched her moving up the steps and tried to choke Bogart’s voice before  I heard him say through gritted teeth “There’s a chassis to sashe with!”    Note to self: cut out reading Chandler.

Angel watched me approach the reception desk.

“If you’re staying in Burnthorpe your welcome to stay at mine until this is sorted.”

“At the pub?”

“The Vicarage.”  She continued, “There’s a spare room, if you want it.”  No signs, just a straight offer.  It made it easier to agree.

“You wait here, I’ll pay the bill then get my bags.”  I should have said rucksack, with its two unwashed items from yesterday but it’s only a habit. I had binned the carrier.

I went to the lift, she chose to wait in the bar.

It only took seconds to stuff shirt and boxers into the bag.  An automatic check round the room proved I had nothing to leave there. The sun flicked through the windows and off the mirror, catching my eye.  I am not one for bright sunlight so I turned my head a little.  Bad move. I saw myself in the mirror.

Three days since I shaved.  At least I had showered but the brown stubble I expected had patched into a thicker layer of grey bristles.  Not enough to be trendy but plentiful if you need to look gaunt, old and weary.  I must have lost weight as the creases down my jawbone sagged through the stubble.  “No wonder she offered me a room, I look homeless and friendless.”

I stopped the cynical voice before it started.   ‘And here I am with just an overused rucksack to my name’.  Excluding the car in the car park it was pretty accurate, actually.

The sun flashed into my eyes again. Stopped, flashed and stopped. Annoying.

Marlowe muttered something about reflections and mirrors and cuties.    I looked out the window.  It was not a pretty sight.  The railway lines ran a stones throw away.  You couldn’t see the station despite it being as close as a hundred metres.  Looking towards it I could see the signal lamps over each set of tracks fixed to the gantry above sets of points for switching lines.

I put a nose to the glass and looked out at the shabby building trackside.  You don’t see many of them nowadays.  An old signal box.   I couldn’t see inside, it’s windows almost one floor lower than my view and mostly greyed with dirt and rain from years of neglect.  I imagined it when it was a vital tool of the railways.  It would have been pristine cream with unbroken ornate eaves.  A  balcony with paling fencing, entered onto via a multipaned door.   That was my nostalgia kicking in.  In reality it was a near black ruin with its doorway jammed shut by an old wheelbarrow.  The sun seemed to reflect briefly off a corner pane.   Bogart would not be amused by this,  I turned to find an Angel; much more his style……

She was at the bar talking to the young man laying out beer mats.  She thanked him when I arrived at her shoulder.  She had been showing Adriana’s picture on her mobile.

“He’s not seen her.  Not seen any particularly odd blokes either.”

“How do you recognise odd?”

“Don’t worry, he would.  He pointed you out.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“Guess I’ll go and search then. Coming?”

I followed her lead outside.

“How do you know Walter then?  He just said it was from a long time ago.”

I was tempted to ask the same question of her.  “He was on a course and I was a young lecturer. We got on well.  That’s it. Typical lads.  Went our own ways and now meet again, must be twenty years.”   She got my short version. “You?”

“I was a kid and he sorted a boyfriend out for me.  I’ve had a soft spot for him ever since. If he was a bit younger….or I was a bit different.”

We were walking to the back of the hotel, nettles and weeds aplenty.

She spoke again,” He said you ‘snuck off’ with his girl.“  Angel smiled at the words.

In front of us was the chainlink fence running along the tracks.

“I reckon they will start at the station soon.  We can start here and work towards the platform.”

Okay, this was where my affinity with Chandler thinned a bit.  I didn’t fancy climbing the fencing when the police would get there eventually.  She saw me looking at the barbed wire curled along the top in all directions.  Moving closer to the fence she scuffed down the weeds near a concrete post.  “Come on then!”

I approached and she somehow unhooked the fence and raised it like a curtain.  I foolishly started forward to help, got stung by nettles and accidentally leaned into her.  I felt myself blush as I regained my balance.  Obviously I had been entirely deserted by any of the suave cops I used to read.  Still, it is a memory I find quite easy to remember.  I was unsure of the look she gave me.  Our faces so close, briefly.  I just remember her eyes as we pressed together.

No words as I crouched under the raised fencing then held it up for Angel.

“We can’t just walk along the track!”

She nudged me and suggested we walk beside the track, because of the trains!  Towards the station.  I could stay this side and she would run over the tracks to the other side.  With that she was gone.

I didn’t think, I just followed her, jumping across those glistening tops of rails.  Eight rails and I am not very elegant, or, rather, athletic.   We must have both been mad.  At least she had looked, I just ran.  She shook her head at me as I arrived by her side.  Saying nothing.

We had our backs to that old signal box.  My mind slunk back to my eight-year-old self, “Let’s look at the signal box.”  I would love to get inside and see if the levers were still there, maybe they still pulled!  I wasn’t put off by another withering look.

Surprisingly, Angel followed me along the wall and round to the jammed door.

“Watch out for trains,” I was now aware how dangerous it was.

“Half an hour,” she said, “before the next one. “But it will be this track.”

We looked at the upturned wheelbarrow, rotted and stained but still solid enough to be jammed under the brass door handle.  It could have been there for years, since it closed.  I looked up to work out which hotel window I had looked out of, counting along.  The sun was high over the hotel and hitting the box’s windows.  I recalled the reflection into my room.   What if?   I looked at the barrow and it was firmly fixed at the top although on the ground there were long scraped strips of fresh soil at each handle.

“That looks quite recent.”  I thought out loud. “Maybe it wasn’t reflection.”

It was all too easy.  Move the wheelbarrow.  Pull the door open.  Angel was in the gap first and calling.  Muted response but someone, female, scared.

………………………

We looked before we crossed the tracks this time although aware we should have plenty of time.   Three of us scurried under the fence.  Angel had an arm round the dishevelled woman, guiding her back to the hotel entrance and hurried her to the bar area and into an armchair.

“You phone Walter,” she said. I didn’t have his number so she handed me her phone.

She was talking to the woman, Adriana, while I spoke to Walter.   He said he would come at once. I heard him shout to call off the search, then back to me to say, “I’m on my way.”

……………..

Walter arrived in short time, accompanied by d.s Winnie Maitland.   She went to the woman’s side and Walter to mine.

“Winnie can do the interview and put a call out on the bloke.” …. Assuming he was involved etcetera..  “how come you found her?”

I explained that Angel insisted on looking over the lines and I headed for the signal box for no very good reason.   Noticing the marks on the ground was key, I suppose.  Myself, I liked to think Adriana had been signalling me.  Somehow getting the reflection in my eyes.  Quite a classy thing to do.  A real storybook escape.  Maybe as good as any 40’s film, even of ’39 Steps’, standard.

We sat around.  Coffee appeared via Angel’s organisation.  She stayed with Adriana who spoke with detective Maitland.  Some time passed while I pumped yet another coffee from the urn they had brought out. then picked out a few biscuits and sat restlessly again.   I am not good at waiting.   More time.

Eventually Angel came over and said she could take Adriana to the Vicarage now but I would have to give them a couple of hours to settle.

“No problem”, was Walter’s quick response, “We can go to the station and take that statement.”

That was settled, then.

I had to tell my story to a different police woman.  Walter claimed he was actually retired now the woman was found. The detective I spoke to was going to follow it up, if there was anything to follow, that is, or was!    I think my tenses are somewhat confused now.

Anyway, it took a while. I just gave the salient details.  Basically the original phone call, meeting people and then the lucky search with Angel over the railway line.  I mentioned the possible signalling I saw from my window, just to add a little flavour to the story.  Without that it all sounded rather mundane, no hint of the ‘film noir’ that was in my mind.

Eventually we all ran out of conversation at the police station.  The few chairs that were filled had people staring at their computer screens and playing with keys or mice.  I was shown the canteen and waited for Walter to re-appear.

He turned up two more coffees later.

“Well, at least we know most of the story.”

“Here it comes”, I thought, “the denouement.”   I rested my chin on my hands and leaned forward across the table.  The eco-lights above my head not quite the spotlit shaft off Maigret’s  desk that would have been pointing directly into any visitors chair.   Where was the smell and blue gasping haze of Gaulouse cigarettes?  Or was it cigars? Pipe?    Walter sat opposite. No pipe. Large fingers and knuckles clasped lightly on the table.  He moved to stir his mug of tea; not a sign of nicotine or bruised knuckles.    “Perhaps I really should stop living in crime novels,” I thought, yet again.

“Is it finished?”  I said flatly.   Fool that I am!

“No, but I am. I am now officially off the case.  Any case, for that matter.  I am now one hundred percent retired.”   He picked up the mug and drank as though it was his favourite beer.

“Let me take you to Angel’s.  The Old Vicarage.  She will be waiting.  You can decide if you are staying the night.  Unless you want a night-drive”  More rhetoric than actual question.

Whose car was I in?  I had to re-run the day to realise it was mine.  Walter directed me the short distance to the Vicarage.  A large house set back off a dead-end road, not rambling but a bit mis-sharpen with age  and a few angled beams visible on the upper storey.  Deep eaves under a steep roof.  I could just see the roof tiles were layered in a two-tone zig-zag of red and orange.  Elizabethan or just mad builder?  Lights on behind drawn curtains.  Up the stepped path to the trellis presiding round the front door.  It opened.  Angel kissed Walter and let him in.  Ditto me.

Shortly after we were all seated in a big room filled with one settee and assorted armchairs, some of which were covered with fleece blankets.  Very much a room to relax and be comfortable in.  You could understand how frightened women, and children, could begin to feel safe.

We sat, Walter, myself, Angel and the newly rescued Adriana, plus the finely sculpted  Madelie who had been waiting in the house for some thirty six hours.   Adriana looked more bruised than her selfie.  Time and a shower had softened the bulge of her eye and socket but the bruising was much more and multi-coloured from almost black through purple to ochre to cream.  Even a touch of green, it seemed to me.  It must have been a savage attack by her partner……ex-partner.  The settees were  much more comfortable and companionable than the station canteen!  And we each had a glass of something to hand.

At last!   The full story got rounded out by each of us following the time-line, as it were, from when  Adriana was first put into contact for the safe-house.

Most of it is scattered through these notes but those  missing pieces of jigsaw were of the following:

The mobile going dead in the middle of the second call to me.   Was she kidnapped?      Adriana found trapped in the signal box, how did she get there?  Who blocked her escape with the barrow?     How did she signal me from inside?

So much for solving mysteries!

Well, for the first.  It seems Adriana was very scared by that text he sent, saying she was being followed and then even more scared when she spoke to me, a wrong number, twice.  At that moment she realised she had a tracking app. on her mobile.   That was how he could follow her every move.  In sheer frustration she had thrown her mobile, mid-call across the tracks, co-incidentally as the express approached.  Her phone hit the train and, surprise surprise, it broke and killed the call.

Was she kidnapped?  A text and the event made it a serious possibility.     Nope!  Scared anyway, she ran down the platform, off the slope at the end and trackside.  We were all surprised she wasn’t seen and at least shouted at!  Anyway she reached the old signal box, saw the door ajar and ran inside to hide.

Who rammed the wheelbarrow against the door to stop her leaving?    No-one had any ideas.  Obviously someone, probably a passing railman but no idea at that moment.

So she was stuck there.  First of all hiding in fear then just unable to get out.

I had decided she had cleverly signalled to me and asked how she did it.      She hadn’t!  So us finding her was all down to Angel on a whim to search at the back of the hotel.

Where’s the clever solving of clues then?

And finally; it seemed she wasn’t being followed, chased, whatever.  The threats on the texts were just that.  All his texts were sent from the one place.  He had been taunting, not following.

At the end of all that talking there was little sense of satisfaction but maybe relief that it might have been so much worse.  So that was it, the evening broke up.

I was shown a room for the night, gratefully accepted. 

Finally, as I switched off the bedside light, I wondered if this visit to Burnthorpe would be my last.  “ Of all the places in all the world, how did I get here?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Druis, Idris and Vidar

Druis, Idris and Vidar

“I tell you, there’s nothing here but me!”

“And I’m sure someone has taken liberties. It’s nothing particular, just something!”

Idris looked at Vidar, ” You’re always saying that!” he shook his head in resignation, ” I’ve been here all the time. Alone.   Stackin’ wood, sortin’ it for charcoal or tinder or logs.  Like you said.  And here you are, come back with the pony and you reckon someone’s been at it!  Well, it’s not me, nor anyone round here either!”

“Okay boy, keep it down. Whoever it was, I’ll find ’em.  I’ll sort it!”

“Will you load ‘im?”   Idris indicated the pony.

“No, it’s your turn.”

Idris managed to hold his tongue but compressed his lips and shook his head briefly, hoping Vidar wouldn’t notice. Luckily Vidar had already turned away, fingers raking through straggled beard as he peered once again around the coppice.

The pony was hoof-deep in the beck and picking at the cold water, the straps of the leather panniers over its back dangled down one side and drifted their free length in the current.  Vidar turned, hands on hips to watch the pony.  The birds, tight-clawed in the branches watched too.

Idris resigned himself to tying the faggots up before retrieving the now grazing pony to lash the bundles to its sides.  No easy job for one but as Vidar was prowling round looking for strangers that didn’t exist, Idris struggled with the job.

“Don’t you look at me like that!” Idris muttered as the pony’s head turned towards him, baleful eyes separated by a wide forehead covered in a fringe of mane that continued like a ragged curtain from the top of its neck almost down to hock. The rest of his body, except where flattened by the blanket then leather cloth to protect him from cuts from the branches was also covered in long horse hair, curled and coiled at his joints.   A winter coat that would soon need trimming, he hoped.

Vidar grunted a jump over the beck and rejoined Idris and lifted the other roped bundle with one hand, held it to the pony’s side while he quickly wrapped the dangling leash round it and hitched it around the two pommels at the front and repeated the action for the other two pommels, checking the carrier fitted tightly on the pony.

“Check the girth!”  Vidar said abruptly and moved to their overnight fire.  He spread the ash around as he checked it was out.

“As I always do.” Idris said very quietly under his breath.  The pony inflated his chest as Idris  bent to the girth, “You too eh?” And leaned against the pony’s side to unbalance it a little. The movement enabled him to feel the girth was tight enough to satisfy.  He stood and moved to ruffle the mane on the neck before sliding his fingers through the halter and down to where the bit fitted.

The pony twisted head, lips and jaw in an attempt to catch the fingers pressed into the side of his mouth, which Idris adroitly avoided as usual.  The bit rattled between the pony’s chewing teeth and it shook its head away again.

Vidar returned and checked the balance of the load again whilst conning around the clearing, still certain they had received an unknown visitor.  Still no obvious signs, just his feeling that the ambience of the trees and wild-life had subtly changed in his absence.

“Let’s go then.”  Vidar called to his brother who was busy collecting their belongings; bedrolls, pots and whetstones and twisting and tying them into bundles to hang from the shafts of their axes.    Vidar waited, took his axe and bundle and hooked the head over one shoulder with the bulky parcel resting on his back. Idris did similar, took the hanging rein of the pony and the trio started off.  All three of their loads swaying as they walked in step round the trees and thickets towards the track and in a hour or so, their farmstead.

“If the weather holds we can rope the logs and haul them tomorrow.”  Vidar spoke first as they stepped onto the main track.  “They’re  too big to lift onto the cart, might as well just drag them all the way.”

Vidar turned and looked back, certain he could feel eyes watching all their movement.  He saw nothing but felt a flicker between a clump of birch trees. Looked again and saw a shadow cast by the sun as it peered down on them from a break in the cloud.

If there was something there it was keeping itself secret and Vidar was fed up with chasing wisps of nymphs who should have known better.  They would be back tomorrow with the horses, maybe some spare time to find whoever it was, if they were still there.  His hackles would let him know.

Idris and the pony had continued so Vidar hurried to catch them up.  He lunged up the bank to the edge of the raised track and his foot was supposed to strike firmly onto a tussock. It failed and slid between two.  He stumbled, caught himself with one outstretched hand but lost his shoulder-load.  Swearing, he righted himself and bent to retrieve the axe and bundle.  As he did so he was sure he heard a girl’s laughter.  His hackles rose, there must be someone close. Vidar turned slowly and looked behind, breathed in through his nose to detect the slightest change in scents.

He saw nothing but the sunshine glancing off white birch.  His nose tingled slightly.  The laugh was short, joyous and young but the direction was unclear.  It was almost that he heard it in his head not through his ears.  “Mischievous nymph!”  He muttered in preference to swearing.

Vidar caught up with the swaying haunch and twitching tail of the pony as it picked its way along the uneven path . He squeezed passed the pony with its rhythmically swinging load, avoiding the waist high nettles at the side.  At the pony’s head he looked across at Idris.  Attention caught, Idris acknowledged the silent question with an exaggerated nod in the direction they were going. With a brief nod of thanks Vidar increased his pace towards their compound and his house.  He retained composure until out of sight then began to jog as fast as possible, hindered by the bundle he had to carry.  ‘Should have left it with the pony’, he muttered as it bounced uncomfortably on his shoulder.

‘Maybe you should have stayed at home!’  That voice giggled into his head again.   He felt a catch of panic. He, the calmest one in the world. Or so Vidar often convinced himself. He lived for the forest, his working with the timber, the frequent silence of the pine forest but here, in this mixture of  deciduous he was all too aware of the thrusting and fighting of the bird life amongst themselves not forgetting the creatures that paraded secretly in the undergrowth, not caring whether it was pine or beech as long as the ferns and brambles enabled them to blend.   He didn’t worry that he only caught fleeting glimpses of deer or rabbit.  Sometimes he would see a fox stock-still sniffing the air, maybe turning its head to acknowledge his presence. Then Vidar would feel the understanding of the fox at work, or ready for wasteful play. Empathy of a sort running through his own veins.  But this voice! The infectious sweet giggle was new in his head.

He pounded on.  The thump of feet on the compounded path was all he heard, his running had quieted the nearest birds.  Out of the thinned trees and for the final few yards of paddock he slowed to a walk.

Druis was kneeling in the herb garden loosening weeds and letting them collapse and dry in the sunshine.  She stood carefully, brushed her skirts clean of soil whilst watching the approaching Vidar.  Smiled, keeping her face towards him.

Vidar maintained his pace and relaxed, smiled in response to her.  His senses returning to normal as he approached the woman.  He reached the timber cabin and slipped the bundle casually from his shoulder and leaned the axe on the stoop.

Druis, bright eyed and smiling still, reached her man and took his brown hands in hers then touched his cheek and forehead as if smoothing away a crease of anxiety.  He lowered his head and felt the further relaxation of his body. Their foreheads met softly and his arm moved to her buttocks and pressed her to him.

She giggled and twisted aside. “Beer, then food. “ She said and skipped to the doorway where she stood. “But before!”  She nodded toward the edge of the trees, “ there’s Idris!”  and slid inside the house.

Vidar watched Idris and the pony walk towards the cabin on the raised pathway, offered a greeting as his brother led the pony to the stall at the side of the cabin.  He went to help unload the wide bundles of faggots from the pony’s sides and remove the saddlery and harness. Vidar was about to offer Idris food and drink when he was hugged by his brother and, ”Until tomorrow.  You need to be with that woman of yours.”  A couple of mutual shoulder slaps and Idris marched off to his family cabin at the end of the clearing.

So many times he had watched his brother walk away to the old house and had felt the pleasure of being alone again, at the edge of the forest.  For some years he had been chided for preferring his own company and the whispering of the trees as he worked.  But that had changed.  He had met the magical Druis in the forest’s grove of Lallam from where the beck leaped out of the limestone scarp.  She had brought a lightness to his life.   Entranced him, loved him that very first meeting and kept him company ever since. She kept their house, tended the garden and now carried their child.

Day by day, as her belly swelled, as the baby grew and moved, Druis would rest a little more and think of Vidar wandering, working, in their forest home.  As Druis sorted and filtered the recent memories with those of her forebears into storytelling dreams, she could almost feel her child moving in unison with those dreams, feel the gurgling laughter of her little daughter and those fluttering footsteps over the woodland trails where the stories would lead.  A secret she would love to share with Vidar.  Soon.

She waited.  Vidar pushed the door wide and heard the chuckling stream of laughter in his head before Druis beckoned him into her arms.  As her belly pushed into him she had to lean her head back slightly for their lips to meet.  She chuckled at the unbalancing position they were in and her voice mingled with the fragrant, childish laughter already in Vidar’s ears and running through their pressed bodies.

 

 

see also:  The Frinks

 

 

 

writing: the first sentence:

First line:

I know the struggle between advice and your own idea can be like warfare when looking at a blank page.

“The first few words of any writing establishes the tone of the work and its narrative stance”………likely but no gaurantees

“The length of the first sentence is a good gauge of the authors style”…… pretty fair comment.

“The first sentence will hook the reader into the story”………………….ummmm!    It will encourage you to read-on but the first few paragraphs, maybe pages, are needed to convince the reader to stay loyal.    Anyway, writer’s formula or no, it is still the reader that makes the ultimate decision to continue…… or abandon at any stage……

“Readers:  Some you win, some you lose.”

For me the actual process of writing is a cross between having a starting point and an inkling of direction but no real address to end up at; or the opposite in having a final point of disclosure with an annoying twist at the end; but the who and how is a mystery.

The nub for me, start or finish, is a caught word or phrase eavesdropped, ideally from a stranger.   As characters emerge, their voices establishing who they are and indeed where they are enables a story to flow.  Like the proverbial story of a spring of water  finding its way to the sea; you may find attachments and sub-stories, information falling like rain and ideas flooding or suddenly soaking away into nothing.

The first enthusiasm of scratching paper should not be daunting or carved into stone.    This is where basic ideas, plots and characters start to fill the mind rather than just the page.  If complicated it may be time to consider an outline plot:  basic datelines and possibly a ‘hinge’ sentence that has established itself.  Draw a ‘mind-map’.    The noting of key characters and establishing names.   Names to me, like shoes to an actor, establish the character.  Not that the name conforms to a type or any of that old stuff but having a few key people sitting in your mind, on your shoulder, as you write about them builds their reality and it is you that have the important work of making them as alive to the reader as they are to you.

When do you actually write the ‘starting’ sentence that may define your work ?   The lines by which your work lives or dies?

Whenever you like!      But you have to consider it a hook to catch a reader’s interest.  I suppose it should be relevant to the storyline  and likely to resonate sooner rather than later; like a poem that has echoes throughout a series of stanzas, or the nail-biting end of a soap, to be continued; a chapter in the latest thriller or the now ubiquitous series of films.   People are mostly designed to want answers, look for patterns and signs.  It is authors that have the authority to provide those trails no matter what the subject.  To offer a footpath, small or otherwise, to the conclusion.    And that conclusion may well be inconclusive!

If you listen to different authors (actually I first used the word ‘writers’ but  ‘authors’ seems to raise the stakes a little!) who are widely published they will point out the way they start writing.; where research and plot take them and if they construct a chapter-plan or character-chart, or none.  The options are really as many as there are authors and what they offer is in fact proof that the ‘writer’ writes in their most effective manner.  Effective may well be the least efficient but practice and time usually builds technique.

So, are we any closer to a first sentence?     It may well be the last one you write……..in that particular genre/style/article/novel etc. etc……. not ever…….if you are a writer you will be unable to stop.        It is your responsibility to decide!

Ideally you will be your own editor and eventually find the right words for your work, be it short-story through to a never-ending saga, which will satisfy your belief in your work.   Length cannot be defined, nor words describe a style but confidence in yourself is required.

Of course you may be totally wrong!  Despite previous success/es, creative-courses or even text compilers(!!), only actual success and time will prove.   Read, re-read and edit, ask friends to comment but build on comment positively.

Once upon a time publisher’s editors would  “grammatise” and rewrite wherever required to enhance the book sales, unless the author was prestigious, grammatical or of James Joyce in style and status.  Today an author may be more averse to such alterations.   BUT, do listen to advice if offered.

That first sentence?  Assorted authors have said that to start writing you need a blank sheet of paper and to start writing a word:  and another and another.   It may not matter what the words are though perhaps they should be different.  Eventually your  ‘first sentence’ will appear.          If not?   That is another page and we will not accept it here.

This screed may not have helped very much except to proffer that it is you, the ‘author’, that has to make the final decision on that elusive snake: the first sentence.

 

Notes from Whittlestreet Crime Writer’s Circle

The Magazine Story

 

“……… And that, dear reader, was the beginning of the beginning!………”

 

The magazine made a lazy scrunching noise as I screwed it up then tossed it to the other end of the settee.  Even more annoying was it sliding off the cushion and onto the dog’s back. From a mildly twitching sleep she jumped onto all four legs before looking round and down at the runkled pages lying where she had been.  A baleful, accusing, look at me and she collapsed again with all four legs splayed out, snout flat on the floor and a heavy sigh. That was it!

Wouldn’t you have expected more of a reaction?  Not that the magazine was heavy, maybe the equivalent of a stiff pillow landing on your back when you are fast asleep  but even then the shock ought to be more than a look and a disappointed sigh.

Mind, I never got worse than that when the phone rang and I had to get up and go out, leaving the wife, when we should have been in bed playing about!    I suppose I should say ‘having sex’ but I always was old-fashioned.  Yes, I got too used to a look and a sigh.  So did she, I suppose, watching me leave in the middle of the night.  It got too regular.  Me always going rather than coming.

Then it did get worse.  She left.  I got home at ten in the morning after an extended shift all night.  A messy GBH, bit of a chase and then the interview and write-up.  By then I had been awake over twenty four hours and managed to say ‘hello’ before hauling myself upstairs and collapsing on the bed.   She called ‘Bye, I’m leaving’ up the stairs.  I didn’t even hear the door close.

You guessed it!  She was gone.  I woke mid-afternoon, stiff as a board, with the dog doing its deer-hound impression in a desperate attempt to get someone to open the door to get out.  Eventually I twigged and scrambled down to open the garden door.  Even more eventually I saw the note leaning against the kettle.   A very small scrap of paper with just one line written on it, the last word squeezed in and nearly falling over the edge.   I read it as I waited for the kettle to boil.    What do you do?     I read it again.  So short a note and no ifs or buts; gone!

All the emotions you would expect filtered through me, I won’t actually say them, use your imagination!  The problem was that I was due on shift again in three hours and still had a dog dropping toys at my feet trying to entice me into the garden to play.    It was okay for the dog having just relieved itself; it took no notice of my predicament.  Mind you it hadn’t cottoned on to the fact that I was now it’s benefactor.    It would have been more worried if it had realised sooner.

I read the brief one-line letter again.  You really ought to say more than ‘I’m leaving and won’t be back’, and that written on a torn-off strip two inches high.  Maybe that’s what I deserve.  We never had much quiet time.  Had!  Work eats into your life and there’s no life left!

I spent the next hour drinking more mugs of tea than I should, sliced some cheese, made some toast and broke it into a cheese sandwich.   The dog.  Can’t leave the dog all night on its own, haven’t even taken it for a walk.    Sod it!

I brushed the crumbs off my shirt, realised I was still in the same clothes I put on thirty-six-odd hours ago and looked at the phone. I didn’t dare ring her mobile.  I think I smelled of my own sweat, maybe the smell from the victims vomit hung around me too. The dog dropped the toy at my feet yet again and pleaded, eye to eye with me.

Resolutely I moved to the phone and rang the Station. We don’t have such a thing as HR just the Duty Sargent.  I rang him, spoke with a bit of a hitch in my voice and just garbled that the wife had walked out and I had to look after the dog until I could sort something out.

I relented over the dog and went into the garden.  It followed, pushed its way past me at the door and collapsed by the wall of the yard; looked at me from its prone position, eyes flickering between me and the ball it had let dribble out of its mouth.    We played for a few minutes.  I threw the ball onto a paving slab for it to bounce onto and off the yard wall at an angle for the dog to jump overly-excitedly and catch it.  Thud, bonk, scrabble.  Thud, bonk, scrabble.  And a third time.  Fourth time the dog just watched as the ball rebounded and bounced mildly on the slabs to a stop.    She sat on her haunches, looked at the ball and up at me.  A quick stick-out of her tongue and strolled back indoors.  Typical!

So, another satisfied customer.   At least it didn’t involve projectile vomit or handcuffs this time.

I followed the dog.

Back indoors, shift cancelled, dog played with, I had eaten; nothing for it but to watch television for an hour or maybe get the whisky bottle.  I should have gone to work.   No time to think there.   Always doing something even if only gossiping or catching up with ongoing crime.   Sorry, should call them cases these days, they are not crimes until CPS tells us to proceed and that only happens if all forensics are there; and on and on.  Even when they put their hands up it still has to hang around getting the paperwork certified.

I sat there like that.  Thinking.   Soaps were on, I couldn’t watch them without the wife being there.  They were her favourites, I usually just sat and half-watched.  That was good enough to follow the storylines until the police programmes at nine o’clock.    I stopped thinking and watched the dog wash its arse yet again.  That reminded me I still hadn’t showered but I couldn’t be bothered.  ‘Still too tired’ I thought to myself but knew it was more than that.

Maybe I was working too hard, rather, too often.  But there is always work to catch up, thieves or whatever’s to chase and officers off sick to cover for.  I can understand when they get hurt, that’s often enough, but all the buggers that claim tension or depression get my goat.  They should get up off their backsides and back on the job.  I do.  I work day after day, or rather night after night getting covered in sick or kicked or somesuch just like the others.  You put on a brave face, pretend to smile even if you haven’t slept a wink for days.   You have to be nice to the public,  positive with colleagues, always watching their back, your back.  My back!  What would it matter anyway.  There’s always some other sodding policeman to step in the gap when your down.

When I’m down?  I’m always down, always working, always angry or tired.   Both.   Poor girl, all she’s got for company is the bloody dog.   Looking at you all the time, trying to tell you something.  Always wants to be sitting beside you, head on your lap and pleading for sympathy.   Sympathy?   Who needs sympathy when you have to get up and be assaulted in the streets because you wear a uniform.   Stick to it.  Forget what the gov. says, and the doctors.  And look at today.  What am I worth?  A torn-off scrap of paper with not even a goodbye, just ‘I’m leaving’ .

It couldn’t be worse!  What happens now?  Self-pity is what I call it.  Depression they said but I don’t hold with it.

I sat there and saw the television screen glaze over and heard voices mangled.

Okay, I picked up the magazine, found the shortest story I could and forced myself to read it.

“One page:  cozy, girlie chat in a cafe. My goodness, where do they dig up these short stories!

It started off badly, surprise surprise! And then it frayed me at the edges as they started realising they were two peas in a pod, or some such rubbish and actually liked all the same stuff.   Within two thousand words they had moved from enemies to bosom-buddies about to house-share because of their mutual two-timing boyfriend!”

That’s how it finished; with the ‘beginning of the beginning….’.   And I crumbled the magazine and threw it and it fell onto the dog.    Okay, I admit it now, I sat there, misty-eyed, watching the dog settle again with its huge sigh.  I sat there.  Sat there.   Sat there in the now dark room for however long.

I never heard the front door open, no click disturbed my darkness.   A familiar hand ruffled my hair, a quick kiss on my balding spot.

“Hello love, shouldn’t you be at work?”

“I thought I would keep the dog company.”  I didn’t dare move or imagine, just fiddled with the note she had left me.   Folded it into a narrow strip and then again while she went upstairs.  Maybe to pack another bag?    I unfolded the note, flattened it on my knee.    I heard the toilet flush, tap run and then her feet on the stairs as I looked down at that unforgiving note.

..’..until really late, sorry, love you lots!’

She came into the room, ” I had to go and see Carol, she’s so upset! That husband of hers has left her.  It’s so good to get back here”. She sat heavily beside me, snuggled closer and grabbed my hand holding the note.

“Sorry it was on a scrappy piece,” she waved the hand she held, that held the note,  “it was the first bit I found in the drawer and I was in an awful rush, only just room even on both sides.”

The dog, intrigued by the waving hands with the fluttering piece of paper actually moved to sit in front of us and swayed her head sideways in its rhythm.  To me, she was shaking it in a,  “I told you not to panic”, mode.

I gently squeezed the hand that supported mine.

 

 

 

tags:  Burnthorpe

 

 

Little Sparrows

Madelie suddenly realised she must be feeling better.  Or rather, on consideration, as she was singing along with the radio, happier.  She could feel herself jiggling with the music as she peered into the wardrobe and ran her fingers along the shoulders of the hangers and their draped clothes.

“This little piggy went to market……” as she twisted the cream and chocolate crimplene dress for a fuller view before moving on, “This little piggy stayed at home……..”. As she moved on to a purple square-necked cotton shift, briefly, before alighting on the orange trouser-suit and with a “wee, wee, wee” deftly unhooked the hanger and settled the suit smoothly on the bed.    A simple white-collared blouse followed though she had more difficulty over a choice of tie.  Three were laid over the orange jacket in the hope that one claimed her attention most.

Pleased at making these decisions she looked out of the window through the large-patterned net and at the sun creeping above the houses opposite.  The chimneys drew black shadows along the terrace of sloping slate roofs and the nearest added the skinny shadows of the television aerials.

Maybe it was the rising sunshine that had lifted her above that black line in her mind under which she had been hiding for so long.  Hiding?  Yes, she had been hiding, it felt like it.  But what from?

She folded her arms and took a step closer to the glass and saw some sparrows dipping into the gutter opposite, reappearing with tufts of lichen then disappearing in a flurry of wings.

She looked down at the thin red streaks on the inside of her left arm, just below the elbow.  Stared out of the window again and lowered her folded arms a little, hugged them tighter to her ribs so her breast hid the marks.  The sparrows returned and busily tussled in the guttering and flew off again as each grabbed some packing for a nest.

Madelie had almost lost that sunshine moment but breathed it in again as a cloud shifted in the breeze and a shaft of sunlight hit her eyes making her turn away from it.   The movement brought the radio back into focus and “didn’t we have a lovely time, the day we went to Bangor!” made her smile again and back to dressing.

Fresh underwear stepped into,  bra settled into and hooks briefly struggled  with.  Sitting on the edge of the bed she folded first one leg of the tights over her hand then her toes into the toe of the nylon and unwound it over her foot to knee then repeated the operation before standing and adjusting the ridged waist-seam up to her hips.  Finally checking, straightening and smoothing the whole legs.   On the whole, she thought, tights were more comfortable than stockings, unless you snagged a leg, got a hole, then you had to bin the lot.  With stockings you stood a chance of having  a spare that matched.

Next was the blouse. Still smooth from being ironed though not that slightly crisp feel had it been freshly ironed.  Definitely not warm like straight off the ironing board!   She bent her head to watch her fingers button the blouse from top to bottom and brush away imaginary creases.

The radio chattered, early morning, bright and breezy cajoling from the ‘dj’ before another record, “now it’s time for ‘Mott the Hoople’ ” and the music slid into her head again.

Foot and leg, slight wobble, other foot and leg and she drew the orange trousers up high and adjusted her hip so she could pull the side-zip up then hook-and-eye the waist-tab securely.

She looked down at her flame-orange legs and indecision crept in. “Too bright?”  She had been a shabby dresser for so long that this was a dramatic step too far, she feared, briefly.

“No,” she said  aloud, “I’ll match the sunshine!”  And she turned to decide on the tie.

End over, hand over, round and under and through, eventually she got the rhythm and directions right and looked at herself in the mirror again to adjust the tie.   It was one of the newest style. Narrow Italian silk and design of bright horizontal bars of colour that eventually repeated after a scattering of red, white, green, yellow, orange, blue.

After a final easing the knot at her neck and removal of a defiant piece of fluff from her trousers she    Retrieved the jacket from the bed and eased into and buttoned it. Looked in the mirror and undid the buttons. More satisfied this time she left the room, grabbed her bag, checked for keys then rushed out of the little flat to try to gather some lost time.

Her rushing from the door down the short path and turning to briefly jog into town flushed the sparrows out of the hedge whisked them back up to the guttering in a series of squawks. Within a few steps Madelie slowed to a brisk walk and the sparrows had drifted back into the comfort of the hedge.

Walter didn’t recognise Madelie.

“Hi! Mr policeman.”

“Mornin’ …….”. No more than a word and a half-raised arm as the woman in the orange trouser.-suit walked smartly passed him. He watched the brightly coloured figure swinging away from him, her short black hair sculpted to her head. She turned the corner but he failed to recognise the side-on figure and features as she moved out of view.   He thought no more about it and went back to running his eyes around the street.  “Being observant” his sergeant called it.  So he continued walking, enjoying the sun warming the fresh morning with his people-watching and eaves-dropping on his way to a tea-break in a local cafe.

He too turned the corner, stopped briefly to click his radio and let the control room know he was having his break before turning the speakers volume down to a less startling level and entering his usual cafe.  The man behind the counter called a greeting and promised to bring the tea and sandwich to Walter, as usual.

“Thanks,” he called out and looked to his seat at the window.  The girl in the orange suit  was at his table in the window and he hesitated to go there.   She smiled at him, waved him to her and then he recognised her as Madelie, one of the irregular customers at the Jolly Puritan pub.  She used to sit near him, out of the way of the more effusive drinkers and darts players but more recently perched on a bar-stool and chatted with Angel working behind the bar.

“I didn’t recognise you.” He said, sitting opposite.  Her coffee was delivered and “I’ll bring your tea and sarnie” said to Walter by the man before he dashed back behind the counter to the kitchen.

“Good.” She said decisively to Walter. “I decided to change my wardrobe like I’m changing my outlook.”

“You mean from drab beatnik to flower-power girl?”  he meant it as a compliment but she looked at him blankly, stopped the grin before it appeared at his somewhat behind-the-times remark.

Madelie smiled inwardly as she forgave his comment.   “Not so much that. More that I decided I should try the happy, smiley person in me instead of miserable and mopey.  I woke-up this morning and today I changed into a brighter me.”

“You can say that again.”  He said. “In the pub you match all the shadows, dressed in that orange you can be seen for miles.”  Walter felt it lacked a complimentary feel so added, “You look great!”

Silence as his tea and sandwich were placed on the table.

Embarrassed, he took to stirring his tea then gave attention to his bacon sandwich while Madelie looked outside and watched the pigeons, no they were doves, trailing along the kerb bumping each other as they chased invisible crumbs.

“I’m just here for a quick breakfast break.” He spoke to break the silence.

She turned back to Walter and felt again how reassuring she found his presence with his solid form, especially in the safe police-uniform and his not unattractive face. He had let his hair get a bit longer since she had seen him, more over his ears than tightly shaved round them. Even his side-burns had been allowed to grow, she noticed.  Madalie surprised herself by thinking he looked much more fun now than when he had walked her home after the night in the Jolly Puritan. “Perhaps he has decided to go for flower-power!” She smiled briefly at this thought, echoing his out-moded imaging.

Walter caught her smile and passed one back, which they both held as their eyes also smiled to each other.    He broke away first, taking the serviette and wiping at the grease on his fingers. Not completely successful he shook his head sadly and took out his handkerchief to wipe a finger. He was relieved it was a clean one, if she actually noticed!   He quickly stuck it back in his pocket.

The young woman watched him over her coffee cup and sipped at it as he looked back at her.

“Time for me to go. I think of this as fifteen minutes community work as well as breakfast, you know.”   He stood and picked his helmet off the floor and adjusted it straight and strap tucked neatly under his chin.

“I didn’t realise I was your social work” she smiled up at him.

“No, no, that’s not what I meant” concerned he leaned on the table, prepared to sit and explain.

Madelie stopped him with a hand put on his, “I was joking,” she said up to him, “Its nice to see you.

Let’s talk in the pub next time. We can put the juke-box on and annoy them with the Stones or Bob Dylan.  They’ll all ignore us then.”

He relaxed a little. She moved her hand off his.

“Yes, that would be great. See you at the end of the week. My shifts change Thursday so, Friday then?”

“It’s a date!”

He nodded, “See you, then. Bye.”   Did she mean a date? As in date?  He paid for his meal, gave her a surreptitious wave as he walked passed her to the door.  Outside, as he walked on she returned the wave.  The two ring-doves hopped and flapped a few yards away at the policeman’s sudden appearance then settled to strutting and pecking again as he proceeded on his beat.

Madelie had suggested the meeting in the pub on a bit of a whim.  She often saw him at the pub, sometimes sat next to him but they rarely chatted except when it was a quiz or darts night.  On the latter it was more a shout than chat to get any words over the clamour of the players.

More recently she had perched herself on a chair at the bar when Angel was working.  At least  they could talk in the quieter moments.  Angel had become such a good friend. ‘Actually’, Madelie admitted to herself, ‘Angel helped me climb out of the black, lonely hole I was in.’

She went to the counter, purse in hand but, “The copper paid for yours too” added another little shaft of sunlight to her day.

The day breezed along as sunnily as it had started.  Working in a shop kept her busy. Meeting and greeting customers was sometimes daunting but often it was young women around her age and younger that were easiest to talk with.  The best parts was when she was able to help them chose from the new dresses that blossomed round the shop. Mary Quant was on everybody’s lips and bodies, for that matter.

At lunch-time several clutches of noisy girls came to rush their break in the dress-shop in preference to eating.   The newest and brightest dresses hung from the current mannequins on the staging in the windows. One or two models scattered on plinths next to the rack of special design or label, their backs to the rack where the carefully crafted pinning would be undetected down the back of the dress.  From the the front the nipping gave a glowing elegance to the dress despite the vacant chalk eyes and bald head.   Along one of the back walls stood the older models covered in pinafore and printed cotton. Large flowers or blocks of Parisian street scenes flowing down to the shins but failing to detract from the armless and headless upper reaches of the model.

The girls would come and go as individuals, the door opening and ringing the bell like an old bed-ridden aunt who is necessarily impatient for attention. Repeating as the door closed. In a small town most people grow-up together, young newcomers often getting whirled up with new friends.  Leaving school and first jobs means catch-up time when they meet and where better than a dress shop full of the latest, brightest and shortest clothes?

Labels, nippy copies. Bright colours and acid designs. Boucle with its softness and crimplene galore with its myriad of colours and prints.  Mary Quant held apart from Biba, or gingham versus Mondrian next to touches of Monet and Picasso.  The whole shop could echo with giggles and gossip as they dared each other to the lowest V or most showy thigh.  Pleated skirts that flew as they moved or denim that hugged and pleaded with outrageous zips.  Sometimes one would be dared too far and she would buy and hug the bag excitedly with an “I’ll wear at the next party!”  Or “I darent show my dad nor my mum for that matter” even a “Roy won’t know what hit ‘im.  I will have to keep me knees tight” and many variations on the theme.

Lunch time passes and the flocks of chattering girls drift away.

Madelie’s day moves along too and the early morning lady swaps brief notes and gossip with the replacement afternoon assistant.  Madelie, working a middle shift, as it were, makes them all a mug of tea, including the owner who arrives, chauffeured by her son in his new car.  He calls them all outside to coo over his vermillion, open top, Austin Healey Sprite.   “Best car I’ve ever had,” he chirps, “mind you I nearly got the new Mini but I was too cramped driving. This one’s only a two-seater but there’s more room.”

“He forgot to say his old car was a Ford Anglia!”  Said his mother. “He only got this to annoy me; and attract the girls.”

“Right on both counts.” He responded, “Can I take you home, mrs Emersby?” and opened the door for her.  She got in with a little difficulty, hoicking her skirt up higher than intended and trying to pull the hem over her knees after sitting down; failing and resigning herself to seeing her knees within worrying closeness to the gear leaver as he curled himself back into the drivers seat.

She started to wave but gripped the edge of the door as he lurched away.  He flung a ‘sorry!’ her way as he changed gear and they dashed off, the remaining women turned back to the shop.

“I must say, you’ve taken to brighter colours like a duck to water.”  Madelie was appraised by the owner as they stood behind the small counter. “And you make a fine mug of tea.” She took a mouthful and spoke again, a tender tone replacing the jocular, “And you’re smiling a lot more.”

Madelie took a slow sip from her mug and considered.  She watched as a couple hesitated outside, the girl quickly studied the mannequin’s dresses in the window, pointed at one and was ushered away by the young man at her side.  After a few steps she stopped, he stopped and shrugged as she pushed through the door. She moved for a closer look at the dress and he found a nearby lamppost to lean on and watch the traffic flow while he waited.

“Yes,” said Madelie, I do smile more. I suppose one smile just brings on another.” She turned and looked at the older woman. “Thanks.”

No need to recall the darker days of the last few months.  She had turned a corner and realised that music was still playing and new friends were better than the old.  She still missed the black jumper and cardigan and one day she would even dig them out.  Perhaps that little Chinese lady had been right!  Even the policemen were nicer these days.  She put her mug down.

“I had better get on and change these ladies.”   And proceeded to select the new blouses and jumpers for the assorted torsos around the shop walls.

…………..

PC Walter Copper’s day had proceeded in a similarly innocuous way.  He paced his way along his beat, stopping, chatting and observing and by lunchtime had worked his way back to the station.  A quick lunch break in the canteen and then a short time filling in his day-sheet, wishing he had more than a couple of memos in his pocket-book.  No actions other than a brief companionable chat with old Joe the tramp and a brief word on the time of day with several of the old chaps sitting outside on a bench sunning themselves.   A smile and cheery greeting from Winnie the new WPC at the station as they passed; he off home and she arriving for the evening shift.  He cycling, she walking.

A few minutes later and he was wheeling his bike to his front path and the shed at the side where it stood.  He tried to shut the low gate by leaning sideways whilst holding the bicycle saddle to keep himself and bike more or less upright. Just reaching, he pushed the gate and it crashed on its post and latch before catching on its rebound.  The noise of the clash scattered a ribbon of shouting sparrows out of the hedge and into the tree of the neighbour’s garden.

“Sorry spadgers,” he muttered, regained his balance and pushed on to park his bike and go indoors.

The house was sadly quiet as he sat to wait for the kettle to boil.  It took a long time for the water to bubble and the steam to build up enough pressure to push through the whistle on the wide spout.

He sat watching the kettle, knowing he shouldn’t.

“That’s another day without a story to tell.” he thought, “Except maybe the sparrows.”

 

 

Burnthorpe,  Madelie Carew,

 

 

 

 

 

 

Neptune and Poseidon

Neptune looked across at Poseidon.

“It is difficult to meet on neutral territory.  It is best we meet in the forests. Here we can be seen by all and they care nothing for us.”

Poseidon looked at the old man and his long straggling beard.  “It is always good to talk, we can’t always be at cross-currents.  It is an eternal struggle, a calm is brief rest.  Why meet?”

Neptune fingered the grey beard. “There is someone new.”  He looked at Poseidon through sea-green eyes, “Have you bred her?”

“Me?” Who do you speak of?”

“Of whom!”

“Who?”

“Anvil.”

Neptune watched Poseidon check-listing his memory, grew irritated at the glazed expression as the mind worked. “No.  Nymphs, naiads, humans, well more or less, sylphs and hobbits and such  like but not one called Anvil.”  He shook his head, at a loss.  “You?”

Neptune gave his beard a tug of annoyance.  “Why ask you? Why meet in this blasted forest if it is mine?”

“Maybe you forgot? You’re not so young anymore”

Neptune felt his water pressure rising. “You’re no cub anymore!”

Poseidon smiled, “But I have plenty of cubs I can play with. The variety is quite enjoyable. The coping strategies interesting. Keeps me young. You should have been more prolific, it’s fun.”

“There are already too many of us interfering in the lives of others.  The humans believe in us, in all of us. Isn’t that enough?”

“Well, its Romans versus Greeks.  We chose our sides and its up to us how we play them.  Chess is always a long term game.  Incidentally, I am probably older than you, and I’ve still got it!”  Poseidon, clean cut and in full belief of his status as a god felt remarkably calm as he saw Neptune wavering before him.   “Maybe you should talk to Zeus, maybe Thor or trot along to Osiris.  You never know it might even be Gog or Magog trying a stunt over here.”    He looked at his hands.  “I must change, I have someone to visit.”

Neptune began to regret this meeting.  “She created a storm.” He said urgently.

“Oh well done her!” Was the sarcastic retort.  No longer interested he stood and stepped into the stream that flowed between them.   Poseidon let himself relax into it.

Neptune watched Poseidon glisten and cascade downwards into the now golden coloured water.

“She caused untold mischief!”  He shouted to the dissembling creature before him.

Poseidon raised his hands, shrugged his shoulders and plashed as a golden waterfall into the fast running shallows before rolling into a golden wave that thrust itself away from the dark forest and along to the cragged shore line and into the sea as a final white horse splashing atop a crested wave.

“Maybe Medea and that Ferryman of hers have created a new force between them.”  Neptune stood, “Here, I have no salted tears but offer to nourish!” He spoke to that around him.

The broken trees twisted forwards.  The howling knots between scarred bark were silent as branches moved and cracked.

He pressed his trident into the moss and mould and down into the soil.  Holding the trident still he closed his eyes and inhaled deeply.  His exhalation produced a heavy mist that covered the stark trees around.  A second exhalation and the mist thickened, coalesced and droplets sank into the ground like a sheet of melted ice.

Neptune slipped into the stream and meandered back to his salty home, hoping he had not offended Vidar one of the  forest gods,  by allowing his vexation to settle on their lands.

see tags:  The Frinks

The Mystery of Catbrain Lane

WPC Winnie Maitland was new to policing.  This was her first posting after Passing Out and it had been to the sticks of Burnthorpe.  She was not very impressed.  Either with the town or its crime rates. Or rather what the crimes seemed to consist of.   “Mind you”, she thought, “it’s better to be outside than in that wretched little rest-room they put aside for the women working in the station.”

She shifted her feet into a more comfortable angle on the grass slope they stood on. Winnie was waiting for her companion to say something, or was he expecting her to conclude something from the scene?  She sighed and looked down at the mud now creeping over the toes of her once polished black lace-up shoes…”I suppose it’s better than talking lipstick with the secretary, or dress making with Sarg’s wife when she brings him the sandwiches he leaves behind.  Why won’t he tell her he hates sandwiches and eats at the pub?”

Winnie looked across the miniature valley again then at the young policeman at her side and back to the silent scene before them.   Her thoughts wandered: “I bet Wendy was picked up again last night. If I could talk with her, get her to explain what’s so wrong.  It must be something. I could help, whatever it is.”

“It’s a vardo.”   Walter Copper spoke at last.

“What is?”

“That is.”

“For goodness sake! The campsite, the tent, the caravan, maybe the horse?  Be more specific.  Please!”   Winnie didn’t have time for all this silence and now the guessing games.

“The caravan. They all live in it and travel in it.  It’s a  ‘vardo’,  a Romany caravan.  The children sleep in the tent if there is no room in the van.  There’s always some children.”

“There’s no-one about. It looks clean, even the wheels.”

“They always are.”

“The horse is just standing there, not even tied to a tree or anything.”

“Hobbled.”

“Oh.”  She was beginning to lose patience with this struggling conversation. “There’s no one there, it looks pretty.  Pretty okay, that is.  Shall we be off?”

With that she turned to walk back the way they arrived.

“Wrong way.” he said, ” Up through that open gate and down the lane at the back,” and walked forward down the little slope where the grass leaked into the mud at the side of the small brook running through the lowest point of this valley’s meadow.  WPC Winnie followed unhappily with each squelching step.

Walter took a large step over the narrowest part of the stream. Winnie stopped at the edge as it was too wide for her to step over with the uniform skirt she was wearing to below her knees. “Damn, how you’re supposed to be able to run in this!.”  Hesitating enough to let Walter move forward, he never bothered to look back, she took a step backwards. He continued forwards  toward the ‘vardo’.  WPC Winnie Maitland grabbed at the lower sides of the skirt with both hands and yanked the hemline up high and took a step and a leap over the brook, keeping sight of the spot for her landing.  At the high point of her exaggerated leap Walter turned to offer help just in time to see a flash of police woman’s black stocking top and white thigh.

She landed squarely, without slipping and brushed her skirt smoothly down. He was facing the caravan again as she looked up to follow.

gypsy-caravanHe stopped within a few feet of the steps down from the front of the  vardo, the lower half of its ‘stable’ door closed.  Winnie caught him up and continued to the tent beside the caravan, lifted the fly and peered inside.

“Looks cosy in here. The quilting is really pretty, all hand stitched and lots of it. Nobody in, of course.”  She stood up. “Come on Walter, my feet are soaking, can’t we get back to the station now?”

He stopped imagining the inside of the van, piecing what he could see with what he had been told as a youngster.  The bright paintwork inside and the clever fixtures with all the decorated panels and the nick-nacks and family icons, heirlooms, that would be safely packed away for the travelling and put on display when parked up for a few days, or weeks at a time.  Reverie broken he started to traipse up the slope to his companion and the open gate to the lane.

As he reached Winnie they heard a stifled, almost scream, from behind them and he grabbed at her arm. “What was that?”

“The horse?” She said hopefully and looked at the horse, still as a statue standing on three legs, its fourth slightly cocked, seemingly off the ground.  Head drooping slightly, ears just at alert, it didn’t seem interested in anything.

“I seen ya!”  A woman’s voice panted from inside the van.

Policeman looked at policewoman. “Come on”, he said and moved toward the van.  A gulped noise from the van and a pained, “Holy, holy, holy”.

Walter put a foot on the second step and grabbed at the ledge of the half-door ready to push himself into ‘who knows what’.  His head appeared above the door and he could see into the bright interior of the vardo.

“Don’t you dare come in here Copper. The woman can!”    His head remained in situ until he reversed quickly to the ground and pushed into the WPC as she stood at the bottom of the steps. She was knocked away as his back reversed into her.

“You go up, she needs you.”  His eyes were wide as he spoke.  His reaction seemed urgent so with a quick shrug of shoulders and a hoarse “What?”, at him.  She brushed him aside and climbed the steps.  At the top she looked in, “Oh no!”  Fumbled the bolt open and clambered into the cabin of the van.

“What do I do?”  She called from inside.

“You’ve done the course more recently than me.” He called back quickly, “Anyway, I’m not allowed in.”

The woman shouted at them to “stop mithering and shut up”.

“Shall I radio for help, for an ambulance?”  He called up to them.

“No!”  Yelled the woman.  Walter said no more and took his hand off the radio at his shoulder.

“What do I do now?”   He heard Winnie ask in a panicky voice.

“What I tell yoi.” The firm response.

Walter walked over to the horse at the rear of the caravan.  He was trying to keep out of the way but in earshot.  After some time he heard swearing, assumed it was the woman but couldn’t be sure.  Heard a short high-pitched scream that wasn’t the woman and more silence.   The horse responded to his rubbing its neck by pushing towards him and bending his neck so the brown and white head knocked into Walter”s arm.

“No, no apple for you, Pie”.  Rejected, the head turned away. Then he heard the wail from the van.  A thin, angry squeal that briefly filled the the scenic little meadow-valley they stood in.  The piebald’s ears twitched to alert in the direction of the sound.   PC Walter decided he had to go and do his duty and check on his colleague.

He gingerly tiptoed up the steps, peered over the ridge of the door and continued to the top step where he leaned on the ledge with both hands and spoke to the WPC,  “How is she?”

“She did fine,” said the woman quickly, now draped in a huge, hugely patterned quilt and sitting on a mound of cushions on the bench at the side.

“I thought she would faint but she kept a head on her shoulders.   Its her first one I reckon.” She continued, looking at Winnie.

WPC Winnie Maitland stood at the back of the vardo, next to the neat black-leaded stove, still warm from the small fire kept in it.   She held a bundled cream shawl in her arms and was beaming into the wrinkled face inside.

“Ere, give ‘er me.”  The woman waved her arms for the newborn baby and Winnie relinquished the baby-parcel to its mother.

“What type is it?” He screwed his eyes at his wrong words.

“It’s a girl-type.  You know, female?” Said Winnie.

“As long as its out, any type will do.”  Said the woman softly to the baby. She put her forehead to the babe’s then kissed the little creased brow.  The baby cried.  She rocked it in her arms.

“What will you call her?”  Asked Walter.

“What’s your name?” Came the reply, looking at Winnie.

“I’m Winnie and he’s Walter,” came the hopeful response.

“Well,  Winnie,  thanks for the help.  You can leave as soon as you like.  My girls will be back from runnin’ the town any minute now so you can trot along.  Their dad and the lads will get back before sunset so we can get on.”

“Oh.”  Winnie, slightly abashed,  looked at Walter, “Shouldn’t we stay, call a doctor or something?”

‘If she says we go we can go.” He shrugged.  “You said lads and girls, are you sure they able to help you. You might need help.”

‘Three boys with their dad and the two girls here at camp, should be enough for me to keep under me thumb.”

“Right then, I will radio in that we are back on the beat.”  Said Walter, ” Come along WPC Maitland”, and he turned down the steps to hear Winnie ask:

“Has she a name? I’d like to remember today, and her and all this, and you.”

“She’ll have my name, it’s Catherine.  She’s the sixth generation with the name.  In fact”, she continued proudly, “she’s the sixth generation to be born in this very spot. Not the van but this meadow.  We’ve travelled these lanes for a hundred years now, so be it, a hundred more.”

Winnie stroked a finger gently down the baby’s shawl, “‘Bye, Catherine”,  and stepped out and down to Walter.   They walked to the gate and onto the rough tarred road towards town.

“She didnt want us there, did she?”

“Doesn’t need us, once the baby’s born. In fact you turned up at the exact right time.”  Walking through the gate.

“Shall I shut it?” Putting her hand on the top of the five bar gate.

“No. she said they were returning soon”

“I hope the baby will be okay. I think I will get a midwife to call just in case.”

“She won’t thank you for it.

They continued down the lane and stopped at its junction with a properly metalled road back into town.  Two girls came screaming round the corner in long chequered dresses and flaring cardigans.  They stopped as they met the two police officers. Looked at them both.  Giggled into each other’s shoulders.  Whispered conversation briefly.  Within seconds they were separate again and looked at both constables. With another outburst of giggles they plonked the wicker baskets they were carrying on their heads with one hand and immediately danced round  the two adults with a teasing, “Copper Copper, who’s a Copper Copper?”  And were off up the lane apparently screaming in fear of their lives.

“That’s the two girls”. Walter remarked casually, watching them run away.

“You’ve seen them before, then?”

“Oh yes, a few times.”

Winnie walked to the turf at the side of the road and tried wiping the mud off her shoes and only succeeded in spreading it more thinly. “Damn”, she thought out loud.  Walter watched.

She saw the etched black letters of the road sign and made a connection,

“This is the same name as on the gate to that field. This is Catbrain Lane and that was Catbrain Meadow on the gate.  Where on earth does that name come from?  Was there a cat-murderer on the loose?”

Walter moved on, Winnie followed but they had to step into the gutter as a truck rushed towards them. One headlight was covered over with tape and they could see four hunched bodies squashed in the cab as it approached and sped past.  The klaxon sounded as it neared and a few hands waved gaily as it scrunched by. The sides were heightened by planks above the wooden sidewall. The two automatically turned to watch it hurl round the corner. It slowed right down, choked into a lower gear and blue-smoked its way round to roar up the incline.

“That’s the dad and brothers” he said turning back and walking on.

“She was right then.”

“She’s always right.”

“You know them all then?”  She was intrigued now. What mischief had they been up to?  She reckoned Walter Copper was the sort of bloke that always had mishaps and teasing.  Suspected he was easily embarrassed.  Wondered how he could actually be an effective policeman.  Began to think she wanted a different beat, or rather a different colleague to show her this tin-pot little town.

“Catbrain” he started.

“Who me?” She tried it as a joke, it landed nowhere.

“It’s not dead cats, you know.”  They were walking briskly now needing to get back to the station. They had kept in touch by the radio but now the desk sergeant was getting impatient. He had allowed them to deal with the emergency but was not happy with their inaction re medical care and wanted an immediate report written up.

“It’s a joke, sort of.”

“Some joke.”

“Well, yes.  That’s a Romany field up there, has been for years. Like she said, it’s been used as a laying-up camp for several generations.   A fact, it’s not generally known, but we do.  Old families in the town that is.”

“Come on,” she thought, get on with it.  Your so slow, just like everyone round here. “The travellers own that land?  I didn’t think they owned anything, just wandered around all the time.”

“Romany, gypsy.   She, they, are Romany, not travellers. There is a difference. They might own some land but only in place to place for stopping.  They don’t stay long in one place.  Always on the move to earn a living.”

“Like tinkers, you mean?”

“No, not like tinkers.”  He was getting sidetracked. “The name of the lane and the field.  The field came first but the lane just followed on with the same name after a while.  All fields had, well, have, names. They just do and Roads running by or to usually catch the name.  Like Church Road or Vicarage Lane in towns. ”

“Catbrain?”  She was scornful, “Some joke!”

“It’s that clan’s family name.” He paused too long and she made a noise of disbelief.

“The family name is ‘Brain’.    She told you, in the caravan. The baby’s name,”

“Is Catherine.  Is Catherine!  It’s Cat., short for Catherine.  Catherine Brain!”

“They keep the family first name, the ancestors if you will, in their memory. They keep them to themselves. They have special times, gatherings and storytelling.  Parties with memories and storeytelling; oral history.”

“Sagas round a camp fire?”

“They’re not Vikings! Well yes, family stories, true or just elaborated.”

“And this ‘joke’ does everyone know about it?”

“Not particularly, it’s not shouted about but I suppose outsiders do know.  They like to keep their secrets, their privacy. They don’t really see it as a joke, either.  Don’t go telling all and sundry.  I only told you because you helped the baby get born.”

She wasn’t bothered, it wasn’t too much of a secret to keep, easy to forget.  But watching a baby being born! That really would be something to write home about!  Though she did ask:

“How do you know all this if it’s a sort of secret joke?”

“Well.”   The station was in sight and he had to tell another sort-of secret.  “She’s my auntie, that’s why I had to stay out when she told me to.  My dad married one of her sisters and they set up home in  Burnthorpe.    I visit them when they arrive here.  Just to keep in touch.  They know I’m  police  but I promised to drop it whenever I am on their property.  Which I do, as long as I can.”

By which time they had reached the station, feet in unison up the two stone steps.  “It’s a sort of secret, though.”  He finally whispered into her ear.

Another one she felt able to keep.

 

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