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.

 

for more visits, tag Burnthorpe

 

 

Riccy and Uncle Daeda

Eblow was always excited when his uncle and cousin arrived.  They would hammer on the heavy wolf’s-head knocker like Thor in anger then push their way in as someone opened the door a crack.  Daeda would call “Halloooo!” in the deepest, loudest voice you could imagine while his son RIccy would get caught up in the jolliest of moods and howl “Yahooo!” at the top of his voice till it threatened to crack the stained glass windows.  If the hound was in its basket it would often raise its heads and join the cacophony with yowls in loud appreciation of the disarray and adrenaline that had burst into the large room.

Whatever the time of year Riccy would warm his hands in front of the old log fire.  If summer and only a twist of smoke and lick of flame from a single log he would grab a poker and stir the embers until shocks of yellow and gold shot skywards like gold leaf before it disappeared.  As it did this day.

Eblow stood beaming at the welcome visitors as they bear-hugged his mother and father in turn as they entered the room from different doorways.  RIccy was bright golden-haired, a thinner copy of his father.  Both had the same elongated noses that made them look like birds from certain angles, especially when their eyes glittered with hawk-like ferocity.  The fire in their eyes was a sure sign that a scheme was ‘afoot’.  One or both would pace and sit, scratch in the sand or drag out a tablet to work on, as restless as the Lethe or Styx until ideas were resolved or just scattered to the gods as fruitless schemes.

Riccy was a good fifteen years older than  Eblow,  a man now, a worthy citizen like his balding, grey haired father but still a great playmate in Riccy’s eyes.  Eblow was even now grabbed up and swung round in circles until his eyes watered and his head turned into the whirlpool to be placed carefully on the couch and ruthlessly tickled.

If Acolyte entered then he would be treated more sedately as the elder of the brothers, a slow and studied bow and salute from RIccy followed immediately with the production of an egg from behind the boy’s ear or prod at the tunic on his chest from which would come a wriggle and a chirrup and Riccy’s hand would slip into the fold at the shoulder and out would come a small bird, a linnet or a lark to be cupped carefully and released at the door.

The entrance of Anvil, the youngest of the siblings would solemnise the whole room and all turn to watch RIccy sit on his knees to be almost eye-level with the little girl as she walked over to him. She would always tidy his long, blonde locks, move them away from his eyes and kiss him on the cheek.  Then clap her hands and with a big smile turn and jump onto his back whilst he leaned forward onto his hands and moved on all fours, bucking and neighing like a horse or a bull until he collapsed from tiredness and sore knees.

Daeda was an architect, an engineer; “a designer of great things!”  He would boom cheerily at his guests or when visiting family, even in public if he had something to say but when working he would focus on the problem and, these days, tread carefully.

“How’s business?” Asked Medea, her hair waving briskly in the draughts wafted by the visitors’ entrance.

“Ah,” said Daeda and smiled round at the children still surrounding his son and his magic tricks.  Daeda then turned aside, easing her round with an arm around her shoulders so he would not be heard or even have his lips visible as he spoke.        “I have a job, a big job. Lots of planning and even more building to do.  Minos has given me another project.”

“What!” She exclaimed in response, pushing her voice down to an incredulous whisper on an elongated word.  She bent her head down, overshadowing the balding head and looked at him sternly, scarily.  “After all this time?  After that mess you got into last time?”  She managed to keep her voice low, just.

He became slightly defensive as he spoke, ” It wasn’t my fault, you know.  I was commissioned to build it, a life-size statue.  She said it was a gift, a sort of companion.  Anyway this is for MInos, her husband the king, not Pasiphae”

“You don’t build a companion for a gift from the gods! ” She hissed, her dreadlocks now insinuating towards him. “Especially when it should be a noble sacrifice,”

“I didnt think, I….I., well it was…..a secret.”    He closed his eyes, embarrassed. “Pasi said it would be a great gift, that she felt sad for the bull. Said it was lonely.”    After so many years he was still quite proud of his unique construction.  No one in the world could ever create such a creature as realistic in every way, as he out of wood and hide.  How was he to know:  Pasi had challenged him to build it for her.  He could never resist a challenge, especially from a Queen.  And it was beautifully made, with space inside for Pasi to lie, to be close to that blessed white bull.  He never noticed how passionate she was about it, that she had saved it from sacrifice.  That she had fallen in love with it!

Such a mistake he had made. Poseidon had given the bull to Minos. Poseidon was the one who was so angered, how was he, Daeda to know that?  that..and what happened, they said……

Daeda had pondered this time and again.  He had heard of the birth to Pasi.  Heard that she had brought the child into the world and kept it hidden.  Rumours had spread the city, the state, even the circle of the world and now he knew that Poseidon had produced a sacrifice of another sort.

“But I have to accept it. He’s the king!”

Medea leaned away from him, looking sternly with her unblinking eyes.  She sighed and he saw her relax a little.  He regained himself and his confidence:

“It’s to design a complex building, and build it.  I have no time at all to do it so RIccy will assist full time.  We can have any workers we need as long as we’re fast.   It’s just near Knossos.  A Grand Design of passages and halls and alleys.  A giant maze, that’s what he wants.  Roofed and no windows. ‘For the child to play in, and have visitors’, Minos said.  He said it must be safe and secure. A massive project! and I am the man to build it,”  he said, proudly emphasising the last words.

“It’s your penance to Poseidon”, she whispered it into his face.

However, Daeda’s confidence had returned, “Maybe it’s for the pleasure of the gods!”

“Daedalus,” she continued,”  It may not be this, this…… labyrinth, for which you will be remembered.”   Medea shook her head and the long locks wraithed around her head.

“Even better, ” he responded, regaining the volume with extra confidence, “Icarus”, he called to his son,  “we have great things to do.  We must hurry along.  Say goodbye.”

RIccy stopped playing with his cousins and joined his father at the great door.  Quick goodbyes and they hurried into the sunshine.  “Hurry Icarus, we must fly!”

 

to see further stories tag; The Frinks

 

 

Horse Trading

Horse trading

Grey was depressed. He was listless and unable to eat. Mostly he just stood looking at the gap in the wall where the blank window opened onto the back yard. Easing from one foot to another as the time moved slowly onwards. He was not aware of time passing at all.  He would raise his head and maybe look round at sounds of people entering the building but not the sounds he wanted to recognise.

A woman’s voice, “How is he today? Eaten anything?”

The boy called out from the neighbouring stall, ” Nope!  Boss says the horse’ll have to go by tomorrow, one way or another.”  He came out and stopped to drop the empty bucket at the edges of the planked wall. The metallic clack of bucket on the compressed dirt floor and the echo of  handle on rim caused Grey to turn his head a little.

“He said there was no hurry!”  She reacted urgently.

“That was weeks ago. There is now. The chestnut is fading away. Costing money and got no value.  Told me to tell you.  He wants his money ’cause the horse ain’t worth it no more.”     His voice raised for the last sentence as he walked out of the livery building.

“Shit!” Said the woman, pushing a clumped ringlet off her face.  She moved over to the edge of the stall and unhooked the rope at the front. Slipped inside, leaned on the wall as she rel-looped onto the hook. Then turned herself to look at the horse’s hindquarters presented to her.

“Oh, Grey.” She said loudly, sadly, “What are we going to do with you?”

The horse looked round, twitched ears in response following with a snort of air through large rubbery nostrils and a briefly rising upper lip.  Into silence again, silent contemplation of the window frame.

The woman stepped carefully over the straw not wanting to get muck on her boots and stood at the horse’s head.  She took the old carrots from her apron pocket. One hand stroking from the velvet  forehead down to the limp nostrils while she proffered the carrots. She whispered encouragingly to the horse imploring it to eat more, eat properly as it had in the first few days.   The carrots were sampled, eaten but not with enthusiasm.

She stroked the long muzzle. The horse slightly raised its head, the woman felt as though the two large eyes were fixed on hers despite the width of the forehead and their sideways bulge. “I have to go,” she finally whispered, “we’ll sort it.”

A final pat on the horses cheek and she stepped carefully out of the stall.  The horse turned away, returning to its apparent meditation.   The woman pushed back her hair again, brushed down the apron, took a deep breath and made herself stride out of the livery stable into the street toward the tented canteen at the other end of the wooden and canvas town.

For the next two hours she dished and  served the regulars and the new arrivals, passing through or hoping to strike it rich. None of that rich would happen, the gold rush had moved away, the rail tracks were pushing forward to the mountains now so the only hope of a living was to join a team of navvies or hook into their suppliers. Either of which was almost a lost cause, sewn up by the company managers, desperate to keep their costs down and schedules on time. Some people could make a fortune but rarely the man shifting iron or laying the trackway.

People were hired, imported and used, hardly able to walk away as much of their pay was in tokens to be cashed at the local stores and saloons, usually at drop-jaw rates.  Tied into staying in the town unless they literally walked away with the clothes they stood in.

As the queue shuffled along and along, with the other women she, Martha, knocked the beans, or rice, off the big spoons and onto the large metal plates. She responded to the men’s nods and grunts towards their choices with a smile and those that had some words of English she replied to  briefly, cheerfully.    The overseers would have separate bench and tables where food was left in the deep metal trays for them to help themselves.  They would get eggs or tomatoes or grits, which and whatever was available for a breakfast.  Bread, new or old.  Coffee pots tested and replaced with filled ones as the meal progressed.

The bell would be rung by a man man walking through the navvies’ tables. Breakfast stopped and the exodus to the wagons would begin.  Still a short journey to the rail-end but many miles to xonstruct before they skirted the mountain ranges and filtered towards the coast and the fast growing towns and prosperous fishing and portage quays. When the rail-laying got more distant the labouring would be tented where the train could reach safely. Be stopped, coaled and watered as a regular workhorse in supplying the men but more importantly keeping speed with delivering rail-bed, track, sleepers and all the other assorted equipment and tools to maintain the fastest levelling and laying possible.  The fastest track to the coast would get the pick of the contracts and this company intended to be first.

This day the men would be returning to town but soon they would be living under canvas until they reached the coast. Then the majority would be dropped and left to their own devices in deciding where to go, what to do and most importantly, how, with still so little money.

The women behind the trestles were running out of food just as the last of the workmen drifted in to pass over their tally for the meal.  A couple of stray youngsters dashed over to hustle any leftovers which were plated up for them by one of the sympathetic ladies.  Martha and Sarah moved out to the benches and tables to collect the abandoned mugs and plates, skipping round the legs and occasional arms of the men still there.

“Anywise”, continued Sarah, ” the saloon will still be there and with the traintrack moving on there will always be men goin’ up and down the line. Stoppin’ off here for a bit of fun. ”

“I thought you wanted to get out of it?”

“Customers can be generous at times, I’m savin’ to get out. I will. Herbi will have to do without his percentage when I’ve gone. He says he will replace me soon anyway”

“That’s when he cuffs and curses you!  He likes it too much, that man. Draws blood then gets a hard on.” Martha stifled the next words and stomped back to the small tin bath where they washed the used dishes.  Sarah slowed to collect the last of the enamelled mugs and hugged them close as she joined the silence with Martha.

“Because you’re so aloof, aren’t you!” A retort long in coming and quickly regretted. “No, I meant it because you’re lucky.  You’re not tied, not indebted like me.”  Sarah attempted a smile at Martha’s words and nodded in apparent agreement but said nothing.

The two women, and the others bustled about and eventually closed the lids on the boxed plates, mugs, cutlery and all other small parafinalia that need protecting from the weather, dirt and dust until tomorrow.    The fire under the barrel for hot water was put out. The huge grill was already almost out of glow so all jobs were donewith until the following morning when the whole day was repeated.

“See you tonight?” Asked Sarah, ” it’s a quiet night, there’s no money around.”

“Maybe.”

“I just said!  Look, I’m just mouthy. I say things, I don’t think. Sorry!”  Sarah stroked Martha’s arm in further apology then walked away from the canteen to her room at the saloon.

Martha collected the large tray covered by a clean linen cloth and walked over to the Main Street, crossed carefully across the muddied street and continued to the wooden building opposite the saloon.  It was the one thing she still had in the despairing little town of Silver City, two rented rooms in a building she and her late husband used to own.   It still had the M.D. shingle outside and the word ‘Surgery’ painted on the frosted glass window but on the wooden steps up to the door a plank lay from bottom to top step with the word ‘Undertakers’ painted vertically downwards.

She climbed the ubiquitous outside stairs and at the landing she balanced the tray on one hand and breast to open the door. Reversing the operation inside she heard and accompanying click to that as she pushed the door closed.    Taking a breath to regain her presence she paced the distance across the room to the partially open door of the bedroom. “It’s Martha,” she stated loudly enough and pushed the door wide with the edge of the tray.

The man propped up on her bed sank back into the pillows and lowered the pistol onto the bed covers.  Matter of factly she put the tray on the cleared space on the chest of drawers, turned and lifted the gun off the covers and carefully lowered the hammer down to rest and placed it beside the tray.

“Well at least you are beginning to take notice rather than sleep all day.  Some food.”  After putting the gun in the top drawer she passed a spoon to the man and carried the dish to him, “Stew and gravy and bread.  And if you can hold a gun on me you can feed yourself.”   She stuffed a pillow behind him to raise him up. He still yelped a little when she moved him,”You can stop that, too.”

She continued holding the dish steady on the eiderdown as he poked at and ate some of the meat.”.  Are you thinking straight today?  Do you know how long you have been here? Do you know where here is?”

“As good as.  Days, several, I guess. And here is here. Yours?  It sure has no hotel benefits.”

He ate carefully.

“Two weeks. You should be dead. I got them to bring you here. If you hadn’t lived the Undertakers is just downstairs.”

“Give the doc my thanks.”

“He’s dead.”

“Oh.”  His memory jogged somewhere that she was a doctor’s wife. Was. Was. “He’s dead”

“That’s what I said.” She continued. She had a lot to say while he was still weak and awake.  ” I still have his bag and tools; instruments.   I got quite handy watching and helping, as his nurse.  Had to pull the bullet out from the other side so you have holes front and back. Sorry.   But you are alive.”

“And still leaking like a sieve.”  He looked down at the bandage round his chest with its red line drifting through it.

“You just did that yourself, getting the gun. As I said, you are alive.”

He pushed the plate to the edge of the bed. Martha’s hand reacting to his attempt to move it.  As she moved her hold he grabbed at her wrist and held it tightly, he thought, ” Why bother?”

She removed his hand and took the plate away.  “Do you want some coffee?  I brought it over, it will still be warm, not hot.” He turned his head to the window, closed his eyes.  She ignored him and  got the coffee.

“You should be mobile in a few days. I am wondering what you will do?”

“Report back and start again.”

“Where’s that?”

“New York”.

She held her voice steady and changed the subject, “the livery want paying for your horse. Today, tonight.”

She paused, he said nothing but turned and reached for the mug she was holding and took a swallow.

“Still warm.” He handed it back and leaned back on the pillow.

“They mean today. They kept the horse fed and watered but it is over two weeks and they want their money or the horse is sold, tomorrow. Grey, your horse.” She emphasised the last three words.   “Have you got the money?” She knew the answer having had ample time to ferret through his saddle bag,  bed-roll and clothes.

“Nope.”  Pause. Wry grin.  “I will if they give me my job back, in New York!”

Martha felt herself pull back at the words. Not what she expected to hear but spoke,

” Pinkerton, your wallet says..”

“Those were the days.”  He shook his head slowly. “Gave up, sold up, drank up.  ‘Til I got news of those two. Followed their tracks right out here, town after scrubby town to this dirt-hole of a place. Still, made my peace with them.”

“You killed them!”

“Yep!” He looked out of the window stained by the dusty rains. “With a bit of help.”

“The horse, Grey?”

“Yea, a lucky trick. Useful but not what I trained him for.”

“So, you are not a Pinkerton. No money, no work.  No prospects from the sight of you lying there. You’re getting blood on the the sheets, again.”

He shifted to sit himself up further to look at the blood now dribbling below the bandage.   Martha put the coffee on the chest of drawers  and  set about finding clean dressings and bandages.

“What about the horse?”  She called from the other room.

“I will steal him tonight and just drift away.”

“You’ll be dead in a few days. From the wound or the posse. Herbi  won’t let it go.  You need a quiet few weeks before you can ride distances let alone live rough now.”

“I’ll steal him early in the morning then, after a rest”. He lay back and Martha abandoned the idea of changing the dressings for a while.

She looked at him. Stubble thick on his face hiding the paleness of his skin under the weathered tan.  He was nothing like her dead husband but had an attraction that caught her when she first saw him.  Stray men were always riding into town, loitering around her or the other women, either at the canteen or in the saloon she had taken to visiting, for the company.  Sarah was the most friendly, the woman who helped her when her husband, the doctor, was killed.

Martha had seen this stranger at the canteen. They had locked eyes, she never did that, but he was looking at her in a relaxed, comfortable and direct gaze which felt right in responding to.  Why she took him food in the saloon she had no idea. Helping a stray, she put it down to. Young boys, maybe so but never the likes of him. Dirty, rag-tag man who looked too useful in a fight; and carried a gun.  She stopped looking at him on the bed and turned to pick up the tray.  The gun lay heavily, dangerous, in the open drawer. She pushed the drawer shut, too carefully, she realised as she spoke.

“I can pay for the horse.  As payment you can ride with me.  I want to leave in three days. If you can sit in a buckboard by then.  Grey, your horse can tag on the back.”

“Leave?”

“I sold up. Rent is done to the weekend so I am leaving.  With or without you.”  She picked up the tray.   “I’ll be back in a couple of hours, four o’clock.  Grey will be sold at six tonight.   I will expect an answer. “She looked back at the grimace as he moved to say something and saw the blood oozing down through the hair on his chest.  “I will sort that out and bring your clothes back. At four.” And walked out of the bedroom leaving the door open, put the tray on a table and marched outside, down the stairs without stopping or looking back.

He watched her skirts sway through the doors, dismissed by the closing of the outer door.  Hanging  on the high bedpost was his grimy hat, below it the now empty belt and holster.  A brief look round the room confirmed he had no clothes and he sighed back onto the pillow.  No contest.

……………….

She returned promptly at four with a mug of coffee and clean clothes.

“You can have my husband’s last two shirts. Your pants are okay but holes and blood ruined your shirt.”

He looked at the clean white linen in dismay.  Martha dropped them on the bed, gave him the coffee and left the room.  Sitting up he realised the ooze had stopped and congealed. He tried the coffee, cool enough to drink but almost tasteless.

Martha returned with clean bandages and a wash bowl. ” Don’t complain about the coffee, it’s all you get.”    She set about unwinding the dressings on his chest and washing  the wounds with diluted iodine.   He could just get his eyes to focus on the welted, burnt hole by his collarbone but his “Aghhh” and jerk reaction told him the departure point of the bullet was bigger and much more ragged than the entry.  The woman carefully rebound the wounds, pulling the lint tight around his chest, relaxing slightly as he winced and finally looping, tucking and knotting the ends.  He lay back, seemingly exhausted.  She did not mention the horse, nor did he, just closed his eyes to shut out the ache.

Silently she left the room, closed the door, tidied her things in the other room and hauled out a couple of carpet bags from under the small drop-leaf table in the corner.  From inside one she took a pouch, undid the cord and counted out the dollars, quietly.    She abandoned the bags on the floor and left with one hand deep in her pinafore pocket, clenched round the pouch with its remaining contents.  She closed the outer door, quietly locked it. Paused, took a decisive breath  and proceeded down the wooden staircase, across the still muddied Main Street and towards the Livery Stable.

A short, failed bargaining later and she left the stable with no dollars, not even the pouch, but leading and pulling a recalcitrant horse, Grey.  They made their way to the back of her old building, now the Undertakers and into its yard where she could safely stable this sad horse with her old one. She hoped the two horses would get on better than she and the man seemed to.  Then she returned to the Livery and shortly retraced back to her stabling, carrying the saddle with stirrups crossed over the seat.  The rifle swinging awkwardly for her as she slipped through the mud.   At the enclosing stable gate in the small barn she swung the saddle onto the top rail, dragging her arm out from under the leather.  By the time Martha lifted the kit bag from around her neck and unfolded the saddle blankets off it, she was hot and flustered.  She hung the bag from the pommel and laid the blankets along the remaining space on the gate.  At which point she was angry at herself for buying a man’s horse, for making decisions he wasn’t aware of. Determined to carry it through despite the fluttering worry of it being wrong, too wrong and looking disaster in the face!

Martha stood, wiped her hands over her screwed-up eyes and down her face and sank them into the now empty pocket, except for her key. She pushed air noisily out of her mouth and opened her eyes. Two horses responded with heavy, noisy,  sweet breaths and vibrating lips, teeth pushed forward and eyes that looked balefully towards her before turning their heads away.

“Yeah, sure! Me too!”  And she walked away, ” ‘Night, you two!”

…………………………………

The street was deadly quiet, all black and moonless with just enough starlight to see buildings as hulked shadows of broken skylines.   The rapid knocking on the door disturbed Martha, woke her.  She lay on the settle while her senses cleared and the knocking grew louder and she heard the voice calling her name. Sarah’s voice.

“Jeeze, what now?”  She got up, fumbled for a coat and had it over her shoulders to open the door a little.  Sarah pushed her head through the gap, pushed harder and into the room.

“We’ve gotta go!  He’s gotta go! You too if your sensible. I can go with you. Now!”

Sarah was holding Martha’s shoulders urging action with every hoarse whisper. “Now, before dawn or it will be too late!”

“What?”  As a doctor’s wife she was used to patients and call-outs but Sarah made no sense. Sarah added a few more words and brought in the hold-all she had dropped outside at the door.

Martha raised her hands to quiet Sarah and find herself time to absorb Sarah’s story.  They both heard the creaking of the springs behind the closed bedroom door.

The door opened and they automatically turned to look.   He saw the two women standing stock still as he pushed the door wide.  One with saloon-bar satin dress, low-cut with lace frilled up to the black velvet band round her throat, the other in a checked linen nightshirt of her late husband and his long grey raincoat over that.  Seeing the two women as they turned towards him he too stopped.

Silence while all three took in the scene.

“It’s Sarah. Put your gun away and go and put some clothes on.  We have to leave.” Sarah’s tone left no room for refusal from a still-drowsy and injured man. He turned back into the room and closed the door quietly.

Another pause. The two women leaned on each other’s shoulder and stifled their laughter at the retreat of the big naked man with a revolver.   But the humour soon turned to urgency, speed, as Martha collected the few things she just had to pack. Two carpet bags and a horse and buggy, all she had left to show for her thirty years.

Martha dressed quickly while Sarah repeated her news that some men were coming for ‘the Pinkerton’ and that Martha would get hurt if in the way and she, Sarah, would ‘get it’ if they found out she had informed.  “So you said I should go with you. Now I think I have to, or we’re all dead!”.

Hurriedly packed, a look round the room and Martha went into her old bedroom to see if he had dressed as she told him. She was afraid he wouldn’t manage, if so he might struggle on the buckboard. There was no alternative.  The town had no law, the bosses in the saloon held sway over the town, almost all its folk and especially the women working in the saloon and the navvies tied to the railroad.   He was sitting on the bed. Dressed but looking at his boots, somewhat forlornly, unable to pull them on.  Kneeling down she helped him struggle into them, instructed him to push as she pulled, encouraging him to be quick. She blushed quietly as she felt herself moving away from nursing mode to something more than mothering.

She rose and helped him up.

“Get yourself a coffee.” She told him. “Sarah, come help with the buckboard.”  They both slid out of the door, down the stairs and round to the stable at the back.

There, they quickly reversed the mare into the shafts, hooked up collars, bridles, traces.  Hoisted the three bags that now contained all they were able to take onto the rack at the back and strapped the tarpaulin cover over them.  Martha then had to rush back and undo the buckles in order to lug the saddle into the space followed by the bedroll and blankets and refix the tarp and buckles.  The Winchester and saddlebags she pushed under the small backseat.

“Hitch the chestnut to the back and I will get himself down here,” she said hurriedly to Sarah and was scuttling up the stairs before the last word.

Dressed and on his feet he may have been. Walking he was able but lurching down the stairs was too much and he was leaning heavily on Martha as they rounded into the Undertakers small yard and stable.

“Back seat! She ordered.  Tried to heave him in but they stalled.  She called Sarah and the two women managed to shove him over the rim of the buggy and high enough to twist and sink onto the second row of wooden bench.  He sat in the middle, each hand gripping each arm bracket of the seat.  He said nothing but swore heavily to himself as he stabilised his head and body over the pain that ticked rapidly in the beat of his pulse.

Sarah climbed into the front seat and the buckboard sank at the movement and then to the opposite corner as Martha climbed up then creaked ots springs and settled.  The man breathed with relief, carefully.

“Let’s go!” Martha picked the rains, gave them a shake and a “Move on!” and with another encouragement the mare took the strain and jerked the now weighty cart and its motley passengers into life.  Wheels turned and they trundled out into the street and with a heavier flick they gained a little speed down the Main Street. Hooves and wheels quietened a little by the mud.

Grey, hitched to the rear of the vehicle was not amused and dragged at the initial pull.  As they turned out of the yard he tuned his steps to that of the mare in harness and accepted the situation.  The horse could smell his usual rider and see the huddle at the back of the cart, smelling different to normal but near enough.

“You got my horse.”  Said the man.

“You mean my horse.”Said Martha, “I hope he’s worth it, his keep took all my money.”

“Yours?”

“MIne.  You can keep his name, Grey.  I’m calling him Brownie.” She said with a hint of challenge

“I’ll buy him back when we get to a bank and telegraph office.”  He spoke.    Silence.

They hit the end of town and turned onto the empty but well used wagon trail.

“Wrong way already.” He called out painfully.  “West is the other way. You can get trains to New York two days away, west.”

“You’re with us now.” Martha called back cheerfully. “We are going to Portland.”

“Do you know how far that is?”  He was startled, no strength to argue, yet.

“Yup!”  She swallowed hard and said cheerfully, “Back in town they will follow us to the trains. If they bother.  We left some clues for them to follow you; all the way to New York if they are really after you.  We two are just lost baggage to them. If they find you in New York you’ll have to look out for yourself.  If you live through to Portland, that is.”

“Portland!”  He grimaced and clung on.

grey-imageGrey heard the voices, recognised the man’s swearing and settled into the rhythm of this strange journey.  He was feeling better already, except for the word Brownie!

 

 

 

 

 

tags: Abbot’s Road, Grey Riding