Hawthorn blossom, Burleyfields, Stafford

Yesterday we walked the fields near Stafford Castle. It was cold, bleak, windswept. Sadly, the fields are being stripped for hundreds of houses to be built. Ancient bridleways, tumbledown farm buildings and outhouses, coverts and hedgerows will go.

I hope this one will remain as it lines the old bridlepath that runs along the first ridge above Castlefields.

It is a difficult time. But for a few precious minutes the sun came out, the wind seemed blunted by the hedgerow and we held out our palms and tilted our faces as we walked toward it.  

The hawthorn blossom shone in the sunlight. It lifted our hearts.

A riot of hawthorn blossom, Burleyfields

Along the old bridlepath hedge, Burleyfields

Short Stories

Shrine – a short story

It was a better class of shrine for Ernie. Not the usual stalks and withered petals you’d find poking from a lager can. White, pink, and red carnations were wrapped in tissue paper. My knee cracked as I picked them up to inspect the label. Scarlet card was tied with a ribbon where the tissue paper was twisted. Two kisses. No name. No trinkets. Once, there had been coins left here. Someone wrote in the local newspaper it was to pay the ferryman, but they’d been stolen or tossed into the river.
When he’d crouched to stroke the flowers, I’d waited, giving him his moment, keeping out of sight beyond the willows. He took a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and dabbed at the corner of his eyes, straightening up and sniffing the air like a deer sensing a predator. Satisfied he was alone he huffed on his spectacles, wiped them and set off along the river path toward town. Ben Fintry was his name.
I brushed soil from the tissue paper and put them beside the low, broken wall precisely where Ernie had been found. I’d lost count of the times I’d been here over the years, but I’d never seen anyone come or go. I knew someone did visit; I’d seen the things that were left: a half-bottle of brandy, a miniature after-shave from a Christmas set, chocolate coins. Ernie had been about sixteen when we found him. A dog-walker called Clement Milner had reported something white in the soil, something like bone. It had been a fragment of scalp. I’d had questions for Milner, least of all where his dog was. He’d remained a suspect for me but had died of cancer fifteen years back.
‘What was he doing here, Ernie?’ I muttered, and as I straightened up the ground span. I reached for a willow trunk and stood still as I could, pressing my forehead against the cool bark, waiting for it to pass. I felt for the bottle of water I kept in my backpack and poured it into my palm, using a cupped hand to wet my fringe. It came in waves. I tried focusing on the crevices in the bark, but they wriggled this way and that like snakes. I counted my breaths in and out, deep and slow, until it had passed.
Forty-five years to the day. Ted Heath was Prime Minister. Petrol cost buttons. T-Rex were number one with ‘Hot Love’. I knew all that stuff; I could reel it off. As the years passed by I’d had to find ways to help people relate. If I wanted witnesses I’d got to get folk to remember. For people in this town it was a big deal, like asking where they were when Kennedy was shot, or John Lennon. Everything seemed to stop, and the rumours still echoed on down the years.
We’d kept the precise details of Ernie’s grave to ourselves best as we could, and it was long overgrown since. It had been sandy banks beside the river, with rabbit scrapes and the odd clump of nettles or thistles. Nature had taken over in the intervening years with shrubs and trees springing up and clinging brambles. I took a breather, resting on my stick knowing I wouldn’t make the fiftieth anniversary.
I watched Fintry recede into the distance, swinging his cane, setting a brisk pace for his age. I wondered that I hadn’t seen him leave flowers, trinkets, whatever, in all these years. My heart quickened a little, but I told myself not to get up hope. I took my mobile phone from my pocket, snapped a photo of the flowers, tipped my cap to Ernie and made my back to town. I couldn’t ignore the twinge of adrenalin, the spring in my step, but I knew the chance of finding out Ernie’s real identity was slight. Find out who Ernie was, I knew, and I might find out why he’d been killed and who’d killed him.

I sat in the waiting room staring at the screen, watching the appointments fall further and further behind schedule. I took out my notebook, scribbled Ernie with a bookie’s pencil and underlined it. Ernie as in Greek urn. Daft really, but we had to humanise him, call him something. Ernie was buried under a cracked Greek urn, dragged from the cemetery by vandals. Someone smirked and said Ernie – maybe one of the SOC guys, it wasn’t me – and it stuck.
When Doc Henderson finally pressed his buzzer, I trotted in, not bothering to take off my coat and told him I was fine. I didn’t mention my wobbles. I’d got used to waiting them out. Henderson didn’t look convinced, didn’t try to, but he had better things to do than waste his time on an old cop headed for the knacker’s yard. I snatched my prescription, both bulging paper bags, and headed for the library. Living in a small town it’s incredible what you get to know about folk’s habits. You pick stuff up all the time, sitting in coffee shops or taking a breather on a park bench, all the time filing it away till one day it’s useful. I’d seen stolen kisses from councillors, hands resting on secretary’s hands a fraction too long, cash in envelopes at the services. Ben Fintry wasn’t in that category. I’d seen him about the town for years, but we’d never crossed paths. A dapper dresser in tweed suits, dickie and polished brogues, Fintry bought and sold antiques. Nothing dodgy mind, else I’d have known. But then Fintry also bought flowers and left them at the shallow grave of a teenager who’d been dead for almost fifty years.
The copper bell tinkled as the door swung open. Fintry was sat at his till leafing through some sort of almanac. If he recognised me he didn’t show it. I made a deal of checking out some Royal Doulton figurines while I got a better look at him. He licked a finger and, without glancing up, turned the page over. ‘You were down by the river,’ he said.
I resisted the opportunity to clear my throat. He disappeared through a bead curtain and I heard the rush of tap-water, a kettle being filled. ‘Do you take?’ I told him milk, no sugar. He set the tea things down on the counter. The tray was a silver Butler’s ales and stout, rescued from an old pub. ‘How did you know him?’
‘I don’t know him.’
‘Ernie, you know who I mean. You’ve lived here all these years.’ I glanced around at a shop stuck in a time-warp. ‘You know who I’m referring to.’
He blew his tea, sipping it. ‘Can’t a man leave flowers for a fellow it seems everyone else has long since forgotten about?’ The porcelain clinked as he set down his cup. ‘Or perhaps not everyone has forgotten.’ I felt a sharp pain in my gut. I clutched at the counter till the dizziness passed. He was watching me, but he didn’t say anything. ‘If you’re going to play silly buggers,’ I said. ‘I can ask you questions down at the station.’
He snorted so hard the tea might’ve come from his nostrils. ‘You’re long since retired, so don’t try pulling my leg.’
‘How did you know Ernie?’
He wrapped his fingers around his cup. ‘Baltic in here, isn’t it? And it doesn’t seem to matter what I do.’ He told me to bring my tea through the back. ‘Seeing as you’re not going anywhere.’ Two bars glowed on an electric fire. He pulled a cord and a bare lightbulb began to eat into the gloom. There was a smell of singed dust and liniment. Paperbacks with broken spines were stacked on a high, frosted glass window blocking out what little daylight broke through. Two, old beaten-up chairs faced each other. He scooped an armful of books and newspapers off the nearest one and told me to take a seat. ‘I didn’t say I did know Ernie.’ He made those speech mark motions around the word Ernie with his fingertips. I hated it when people did that. ‘Besides, looks like you’re the one who failed to let go.’
I stared at him over the rim of the cup. ‘Meaning what?’
‘Meaning you pound that bloody path through meadows all the time. I’ve seen you.’
‘You’ve been putting flowers on the spot all these years.’
He nodded. ‘When I could. Not just me.’ Which made sense. I knew there’d been gaps. ‘Remember a Dennis Lovegrove?’
I wracked my brain. There was a Dennis, a young apprentice who worked on the railways. Dennis went missing. One of a long line of missing kids and young men the investigation had waded through. All paper then, too. No exaggeration to say the box files and folders were knee-deep in the office. ‘It wasn’t him,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘We did the checks. Anyway, you never came reported. Ah-’
Fintry’s jaw tightened. ‘Ah what?’
‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘What went on was none of my business. Different times now.’
Fintry smoothed his trousers at the knee. ‘Well, I’m glad to see you’re more enlightened these days. There were some nasty comments made at the time.’
‘None by me. Each to his own as far as I’m concerned and if it’s in the privacy of-’
‘I wasn’t seeking your approval,’ Fintry said. He stooped to turn up the fire. My leg was no more than ten inches away and the heat was yet to permeate the damp gloominess of that room. I could recall any of my cases, especially this one. ‘He was seen going to London, catching a train. Dennis.’
Fintry smiled, shaking his head. ‘He made sure he was seen, but he never caught that train.’
I sat back in the chair, praying Fintry wasn’t messing about. ‘If you have new or important information you’d better tell me what you know.’
Fintry got up and went to a small box-room I assumed was a toilet. He came back with a red leather photo album packed with images of beaches and pets and aunts and uncles. Tucked away in a flap in the back was a shot of two young men leaning on a farm gate. Fintry still had the tousled hair of the young man on the left, grinning. ‘We went away together. He didn’t catch the train. But I could never tell anyone.’
‘What happened then?’
‘That remains private, don’t you think?’
I shook my head. ‘When you parted?’
Fintry got a far-off look. ‘I don’t know.’
‘You know that’s not Dennis though, don’t you? We did the dental work, checked the descriptions. Ernie was barely five-foot six.’ I nodded at the photo. Dennis was a head taller than Fintry so must’ve been close on six-foot.
‘Of course, I do. I’m not a fool. But this poor fella, whoever he was-’ and I felt his glare burn me, ‘and you’re never likely to know. He went missing about the same time as Dennis.’
He didn’t need to say any more. Dennis had moved on, chosen a life away from a small town where he couldn’t make a future. I got my coat off the chair, grateful to button out the damp. It felt as if the river mist had found the inside of Fintry’s shop.
‘You’re not a well man, are you?’ he said.
I shrugged. Forty-five years. I doubted I’d got as many days left. Proper pair we are, I thought. Condemned to our pasts. The copper bell tinkled my departure. I’d found no answers and never would. And lost love was why he dropped flowers at the grave of an unknown man.


Public Information Films – a poem

This is a poem I’ve again chosen to republish after reading aloud….

Those frightening films that were produced
To show how danger could seduce
Make us play chicken on motorways
Do stupid pranks cos Simon says
Dive in deep water when it’s hot
Stack up some pallets. Burn the lot.
Run from behind the ice cream van
Take sweets from sherbet lemon man
Stand near pylons to fly a kite
Trespass on railway tracks at night
These films taught me that when others dared
I’d sit it out, prefer to be scared


Garage Flowers – a poem

Previously published on this blog, now read aloud with a clip


Lifted, dripping, from the bucket

Carnations wrapped in cellophane

Stalks and browning petals for his Mary

With kisses on their anniversary

Cut-price, stickered, diesel-tinged. It’s the thought that counts

Snatched from a garage forecourt, all of it amounts

To biting nails and wondering, counting the hours

She gave her a life to a man who gave her garage flowers


Charles II and angels

Despite looking a little weathered Charles II’s hair is magnificent.

In an earlier blog I wrote of the kings carved on the front of Lichfield cathedral. Charles II takes his place at the side, convenient for discreet assignations at the Chapters tearoom.

The cathedral is a beautiful place to spend time. I’ve fond memories of sketching here as a boy and attending writing workshops. St Chad’s chapel is so calm and peaceful. The Herkenrode stained glass incredible.

This wall painting, below, perhaps from c13th century?, caught my gaze this morning….there is something to find each time.