Fox’s Knob and The Squeeze – Carry on Shropshire

‘How about climbing a volcano? Exploring some caves?’
The response is rolled eyes, attention drifting back to phones. I tell them to bring a torch and some decent boots. We’re short of funds and it’s the fag-end of the summer holidays. Jake’s restless about starting high school, Joe bemoans the speed of our wi-fi. Distraction therapy is needed.

The Wrekin is a steep hill formed of volcanic rocks – not really a volcano – so thankfully there’s no threat of lava for the tearooms and galleries of Much Wenlock and Coalbrookdale. We climb through a steep track that turns back on itself, giving framed glimpses of the misty Shropshire plain. As we step above the canopy of trees we see Shrewsbury, the silver glint of the Severn, endless acres of reddish-brown farmland.
This was the hillfort of the Cornovii tribe, rulers of these parts. It’s shrouded in cloud and stories. We sit by a trig point as I tell the boys the tale of the giant who wanted to flood Shrewsbury by tipping the mud from his shovel into the Severn. On the way he met a cobbler who showed him a bag of shoes full of holes. He said Shrewsbury was so far, he’d worn out all those boot and shoes walking from there. The giant gave up, dumping the earth on the spot where he stood and forming the Wrekin. Jake wrinkles his nose in disbelief and spends the twenty minutes it takes us to get to Hawkstone Park calculating the tonnage of earth needed.

 

The park and follies were once a medieval castle and grounds, later belonging to Lord Hill of Shrewsbury, Wellington’s second in command at Waterloo. Jake and Joe tear up the ridge and sprint beneath rhododendrons and towering coast redwoods, before climbing the White Tower and gazing out over the Midlands and Wales.

Then it’s a stride down to Swiss bridge where the boys inch above a steep cleft in the rock. Passing the wonderfully-named Gingerbread Hall, we climb to Raven’s Shelf and dizzying views of the golf course, where a young Sandy Lyle mastered the game. The drop into the valley was named the Awful Precipice by Dr Johnson, but it’s a majestic view of woods, parkland and distant Welsh mountains. Jake shines the torch into caves and tunnels, believed to date from the fifth century, perhaps Roman, which were carved out of the rock by men in search of precious copper. When we emerge, blinking into the daylight, we trek back along the limestone ridge, smiling that so many of the points we pass could’ve been taken from a ‘Carry On’ film. After the Cleft, we must get through The Squeeze and then use a tunnel to avoid Fox’s Knob.

We haven’t travelled far, and we’ve travelled cheaply. We’ve walked in the footsteps of Celts, Romans and Marcher Lords. It’s a curious landscape: just down the M54 from Wolverhampton, yet part Swiss Alps, part Italy, a hint of New Mexico.

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Wooden Heart

I spent years writing stories on trains and it certainly seeped into my work.

Here’s another from last year…….

Heat made the rails wobble as they stretched into the distance. He tottered along the platform, switching his briefcase from palm to sweaty palm. He’d had too much coffee, too little water and he’d hardly been off the phone since Euston. The papers were saying the Midlands was hotter than Marseilles. His phone vibrated in his jacket pocket and he tried to ignore it, but he knew Fisher had a thing about unanswered calls. He glanced at it and his shoulders sagged, relieved it was a text.
They’ve cried off. You’re off the hook.
He texted back. It’s cancelled?
No walk down memory lane for you then, matey. Don’t go astray.
Paul slumped onto a bench. An email followed, but he didn’t read it. It would be his latest tasks. He never got a moment’s peace. He massaged his temples, his fingertips working in spirals, thinking. He cringed as his sweaty socks slid against his leather inner soles. He got to his feet, bought a bottle of water with the last of his change and rolled it along his forehead.
‘Baking out, isn’t it?’
The taxi driver wore knee-length shorts and a faded polo shirt that clung to the spare tyre at his waist. He smiled and snatched at the briefcase and Paul didn’t protest. He got inside, slumped into the warm seat and closed his eyes, trying to imagine he was somewhere else. Smooth pebbles and icy water, as clear as glass, came to him. He knew the place so well. He said the name of it, surprising himself.
‘It’ll cost you,’ the driver said. ‘In this bloody traffic.’ Paul unfolded two twenties and slapped them into the driver’s palm. They crawled out of town in heavy traffic and Paul felt he could breathe again as they passed whitewashed cottages, fields of glowing oilseed rape and a lone, towering oak in a field of barley. He loosened his tie and stuffed his folded jacket into his briefcase. His shirt was stuck to his spine and there were wet patches under his arms. They passed the old hall and the dovecot, the disused airstrip where Paul had learnt to drive. ‘Just here’ll do nicely,’ he said. The driver frowned, watching him in the rear-view mirror. ‘Long walk back to town, bud.’
Paul took the business card the driver gave him. He opened his shirt as the driver performed a tight turn between the hawthorn hedges. Paul followed the lane, crossing the bridle-path and avoiding dense clumps of thistles buzzing with flies. Heat shimmered from the fields, blurring the outline of hawthorn and oak up on the ridge. At the bottom of the lane he let gravity run him down a grassy bank and he dropped to his knees. He loosened his laces and kicked off his boots so they landed in the reeds. His tie remained stubbornly knotted, so he took his shirt off first, not caring that he looked ridiculous bare-chested and still wearing a paisley tie, like some drunk exec doing a piss-poor nightclub striptease. He trod his trousers into the sand and pebbles and ran into the river stomping his feet. He splashed and snorted and dropped like a felled tree into the shallows. Tiny fish darted from his thrashing arms. He shouted what Fisher could do with his job and then, when he was spent of energy, he sat in the river, catching his breath. He felt the whisper of breeze about his shoulders as he sank in the gravel.
Afterwards, when the sun had dried him and begun to burn his shoulders and neck, he leant on a gate and looked out over the river valley. High above on a knotty branch was a loop of frayed orange rope. Could it be the same rope they’d used as a swing as kids? He circled the tree liking the feel of the roots and the damp peaty earth between his toes. Paul never went barefoot. It felt sensual and strange. The bark was mouldy but striped with slashes and gouged where names and dates had been carved with blades. It was a wonder the poor tree had survived so many cuts.
Andy & Kay
Potters Rule!
Pete +Stacey 4EVER
He ran his finger along a scar. There were names he knew. He walked around the trunk reading them. He read a name and read it again, his pulse jolting him. A heart, shaped more like an apple, had a clumsy arrow puncturing it. Joanne S 4 Paul M. He blinked. He took a photo of the words, checked his watch and saw it was the third. Her birthday. Twenty-two years his name had been carved in this tree. His name and Joanne’s.

Paul’s heart pounded as he stepped it out up the lane. He was being a fool, but fate had brought him here, hadn’t it? No, he said to himself: don’t be so bloody stupid. If he hadn’t had the meeting cancelled; if he hadn’t decided on coming to the river; if he hadn’t walked into the wood and seen the words they’d made in the tree; and today of all days. He tapped his phone screen and did a search. Ah! He dragged through the photos of cakes Joanne had baked. She’d always been keen, years before all that stuff was splashed over TV. Let Them Eat Cake, she’d called her place. She’d always wanted a little caff of her own. She’d won awards so she hadn’t been hard to find. She’d kept her name too, so maybe she hadn’t married.

He strolled past the shop twice, making out he was studying his phone. Let Them Eat Cake was painted in soft shades of blue and yellow and wedding cake-white, just like icing. There was no sign of her. Faint heart never won fair lady. It sounded as stupid now as it had when his granddad had said it. But it was all the justification he needed. Paul was never one to wonder, what if? Paul’s heart was thudding in his chest as he took a window seat, ordering home-made lemonade. A teenage boy had fidgeted with things on the counter before tying on an apron and taking his order.
‘Is the owner here?’ Paul said.
The boy was about to say something when the copper bell tinkled above the door. Paul turned to see a woman struggling with a box, trying to prop the corner of it against the doorframe while she searched for her purse or car keys. Her long red-brown hair obscured her face and it took Paul a moment to realise it was Joanne. He sprang from his chair and said, ‘Let me.’
When he’d set the box down on the counter she looked him up and down, tucking a silver-grey strand of hair behind her ear. ‘To what do we owe this pleasure?’ she said. She didn’t want to sit and talk with the boy about. ‘Tim’s my sister’s kid. Do you remember Beck?’ Paul nodded. Beck was a year older than Joanne and never gave him the time of day. He fished a twenty from his pocket and handed it to Tim. ‘Can you give us five, pal?’ Tim stuffed the twenty in his jeans pocket and ran off.
‘You shouldn’t have done that,’ Joanne said.
‘I’m sorry.’
‘He gambles. He’s driven Beck to her wit’s end. He’s working here so he learns the value of money.’
Paul sipped his lemonade. ‘This is really good.’
‘What do you want, Paul? I’m sure you didn’t come back here to praise my lemonade.’
‘I was here on business.’
She nodded, the faint trace of a smile on her lips.
‘I found something,’ he said.
Joanne stared at him. He swiped his phone display, sliding it across the table. The screen showed the heart etched in the trunk, their names picked out with the Stanley blade he’d pinched from his granddad’s tool shed. She tilted the phone a little and squinted, wrinkling her nose and Paul remembered the girl with the same gestures. There were lines around her eyes now, her skin a little taut at the mouth. She frowned. ‘That was years back. We’d have been fifteen?’
‘I’d forgotten we wrote that,’ Paul said.
‘We were kids for God’s sake.’
‘True.’ Paul’s hand moved across the table and Joanne sat back. He stirred the sugar in the bowl, heaping it at the rim.
Joanne shook her head. ‘I’ve got things I need to do.’ She got up and ran a basin of hot water. He followed her. He didn’t know what to do with his hands. ‘Why are you here, Paul? Look at your shirt.’ It was rumpled and dusty and weed had fastened to the tails.
‘I swam in the river.’
She dropped plates and cutlery into the bowl and Paul waited until the clattering had finished.
‘I was working here today. I was meant to give a talk. It got cancelled and-’
‘You’re a lawyer, aren’t you?’
Paul nodded. Perhaps she’d checked him out. Despite what she said maybe she’d been looking for him online. ‘How do you know what I do?’
‘Your mum, of course.’
‘She comes in here?’
‘She never shuts up about you. The whole town gets regular updates whether they like it or not.’
A red van pulled up on the opposite side of the road. Its brakes squealed as it came to a halt on the cobbles at the kerb. It had a rusty front panel and a cracked number plate. The driver was in shadow but he made no move to get out of the van. JK Builders was picked out in fading paint on the side panel and a local phone number was sprayed above the wheel arch.
‘Why did you come here?’ Joanne said.
‘Are you married?’
‘What does it matter?’
Paul sighed. ‘You don’t think things sometimes happen for a reason?’
‘Last of the great romantics, aren’t you Paul?’
‘Look, I hate my job and I made a decision I wasn’t going to do it anymore. I had to give a talk here and-’
‘That’s why you’re in town?’
‘It was cancelled. I went for a wander and I decided. Look, that doesn’t matter now.’
Joanne leant on the counter. The veins stood out on the backs of her hands. ‘You wouldn’t be here if your boss hadn’t sent you.’
‘I’m burnt out. I need a change. I’m sick of being treated like dirt. You know what I did this afternoon?’
‘You said. You went swimming.’
‘I went for a walk and I ended up sitting in the river.’
She made a sour face. ‘There are people you can talk to. You can get help for things like that.’
‘I don’t mean like that. I mean I needed to rest. I needed to see things differently.’
‘So, you saw things like a fish.’
Paul ignored her. ‘And I got dried off and I was walking and I found a sign. I found what we’d written on that tree.’
Joanne glanced at the door. ‘It’s not a sign. It’s kids messing about a long-time past.’
‘I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you, Jo. I was stupid.’
Joanne folded her arms on her chest. ‘You were a kid. We were both kids. You’re being daft. You don’t just pull some diary or photo out of a cupboard and wind back twenty-odd years.’
Paul reached to take her hand and she stepped back. ‘Why do you keep looking at the door?’ he said.
Joanne ran a hand through her hair. ‘I’m hot and I’m tired. Look, I want to close up.’
‘You normally close before midday?’
Paul tried to look at her but she wouldn’t meet his gaze. ‘Have you got someone?’
‘I don’t see what difference that makes.’
‘Are you married?’
The driver got out of the red van and perched on the bonnet, arms folded. He rolled a cigarette between thumb and forefinger, glancing across at the café.
‘Is it him?’
‘What about you?’ Joanne said, ignoring him. ‘You ever married?’
Paul shook his head. ‘I didn’t meet the right one.’
The driver got off the bonnet and strolled across to lean against a lamp post smoking. He put on a pair of black sunglasses and pushed them up the bridge of his nose. He folded his arms and propped a heel against his other foot. There was something about his stance that seemed familiar. ‘And you?’ Paul said.
‘Separated.’
‘Anyone I know?’
Joanne opened the till, began counting fives and tens. ‘It doesn’t matter. I don’t know why I’m even telling you this.’ She folded the notes in her purse and zipped it tight. Paul stared at her. ‘So, tell me-’
Joanne twisted the Celtic band she wore on her middle finger. ‘Jason Knight was a few years below us.’ Paul’s eyes widened.
‘But he stuck around, for a time,’ she said. ‘He didn’t finish school. He’d got into nicking cars. Yeah, I can tell by your face you remember him. You think I should’ve done better.’
Paul nodded. ‘Does he follow you and stuff?’
Joanne swallowed. ‘Why do you ask that?’
‘Cos he’s standing over the road.’
‘You what?’ Joanne picked at her thumbnail.
‘He’s got a beat-up red van, hasn’t he?’
She wore a long-sleeved cotton top but the arm had ridden up at the sleeve and she saw him looking at the bruises on her forearms.
‘Did he do that to you?’
She tugged down her sleeves. ‘Why are you here?’
Paul took off his jacket, slipping his wallet into his trousers, and set it down on the back of a chair. He unbuttoned each sleeve in turn, rolling them back till they folded past his elbows. He cracked his knuckles and made for the door. The bell rang as he crossed into the sunshine. Jason stepped out from the kerb, thumbs hooked in his jeans pockets.
‘Don’t be so bloody stupid, Paul. He’ll kill you,’ Joanne said.
‘I’ll have a word with him that’s all.’
Joanne stood in the doorway. ‘Leave it, Paul. I’m begging you. Please don’t go over there.’
Paul took her hand. ‘I’ll deal with it. He’s not going to bother you anymore.’
‘Don’t be an idiot. He’ll murder you.’
‘Like you said that was twenty odd years back.’
She forced a smile and gave his hand a little squeeze.
‘If I sort this, will you come out tonight?’
She said nothing so Paul strolled across the road. He kept his hands flat to show he meant no threat to Jason but his temples were throbbing.
‘Well look who’s back in town,’ Jason said.
Paul got closer, said he meant no harm. He kept his back turned to Joanne. It was no bother to lower his voice, reach inside his pocket. ‘What would it take for you to clear off?’
Jason snorted. ‘You want her?’
‘You get lost and she never sees you again.’ Paul held two hundred between his fingers, close to his chest, his back to the café. Jason didn’t like taking orders but he was looking at the cash, and licking his lips.
‘A hundred more.’
Paul took another five twenties, folded them.
‘I only wanted to scare her,’ Jason said. ‘I don’t give a monkey’s if you fancy her, pal.’
‘Fair enough.’
‘For another fifty I’ll let you make it look good.’
Paul stepped up, grabbed a handful of Jason’s T-shirt and got so close he felt the man’s sour, onion breath. He stuffed the twenties inside Jason’s jacket. He shoved him hard in the chest and jerked a thumb. ‘You steer clear of her and this place. You got that?’
Jason skulked off, spitting and scowling. He got in the van and tore off. Joanne stared at Paul, wide-eyed as he crossed the road to the café. ‘I should say thank you. But I don’t know what you want.’

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Longlisted, Commonwealth Writers’ short story prize 2018

Longlisted

Not the best week really, but a brighter spot today with a longlisting in the Commonwealth Writers’ (CW) short story prize.

Having devoted so much time to drafts of longer, novel-length work in the last 3-4 years it was great to be in the 200 or so whittled down from 5,000.

I don’t write so many short stories these days – I used to – and I do miss the joy of completing a piece of work, sometimes in a few days.

2018 has been a tough year so far, so I hope this heralds a change. But writing is not an easy discipline and as they say in football, ‘we go again.’

Alas, I didn’t make the CW shortlist but best wishes to the writers who’ve made it to the final 24. You can read about them here: http://www.commonwealthwriters.org/2018-cssp-shortlist/

To learn more about Commonwealth Writers visit http://www.commonwealthwriters.org/

 

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New Life – a short story

There is a London they don’t see

Cancelled. I stood in the middle of the almost empty concourse, staring up at the displays, praying it was some sort of mistake. I dropped my case onto the marble tiles. I was tired and sweaty and my shins ached from the pounding I’d given them up Tottenham Court Road. The tendons in my right arm hummed and throbbed where I’d gripped my briefcase. In London, in leather soles, there’s no relief from the flagstones and concrete, the granite and tarmac. Even the grass in the parks is trimmed tight, hard and bald underfoot. I did a little jig to shift the weight from my sore, aching feet, like a nervous boxer readying for the first bell.
Someone groaned and I turned to see a woman with a frizz of auburn hair shake her fist at the screens. Every few minutes there were mutters or groans as the displays updated, but the last train north was still cancelled. I wanted to complain, to shout at someone, to tell them that I was on a warning: You dare miss Kate’s birthday. You just bloody dare. I scoured the ticket office and concourse, the Cornish pasty franchise and the entrance to the Tube, but no one from the railway was daft enough to show their face.
I kicked off my shoes and gasped as I pressed them against the cold tiles. A blister was forming at my heel and a hole had appeared in the black wool that pinched around my big toe. I’d neglected to cut my toenails. I always bloody forgot. I stretched up on tippy-toes as much as I could bear it and rocked back on my heels. I rubbed my spine and winced and was rewarded with a reflection in the window of a shop that sold French moisturisers. I looked a proper fright and wondered where the guy on my driver’s licence had gone, and the last twenty years with him. I had dark crescents under each eye; depression, the internet said and I wasn’t arguing. My hair needed a trim and was going to steel wool again at my ears. A dusting of dandruff lay about my shoulders and collar. The pockets and arse of my trousers sagged and, as I turned, I saw the seat was shiny. I was as wide form the side as the front. My jacket was shapeless from keys and phones and all the other shit I carried about and I’d fixed two new holes in my belt since Christmas.
I slumped against the locked-up information kiosk. Across the concourse an old fella in an orange tabard, with a greying mullet, three days’ stubble and a prison worth of keys hanging from his belt, pushed a huge broom in zig-zags, picking up paper cups and sweet wrappers and burger cartons. He had a slight stoop and his head seemed to sit at an odd angle as if he had a stiff neck. He used one of those cloth brooms that looked as if it’d got cuts of a candlewick bedspread stuck to it, that was meant to clean as it swept. I gave him a nod, but he didn’t spare me so much as a grunt. He whistled a tune from an ad I knew. Something classical, but I couldn’t say what. When I fancied a blast of the classics Charlotte had always changed the station. Gravy music, she called it. She said it was the stuff she’d been made to listen to at Sunday lunches while forced to chew on sprouts and pork crackling. He swept a little further, turned and saw he’d missed a shred of paper. It was barely a scrap, the silvery paper you got in fruit pastilles. He must’ve been sixty if he was a day, but, despite the stiff back or neck, he dipped like a ballerina, snatched at it and dropped it into his trolley. Pride in his work and for the minimum wage too. You had to admire that. There was something familiar about him, but I couldn’t say what. Perhaps he had a doppelganger keeping the streets clean up north. I’d always liked watching folk work. There’s a special pleasure in grabbing a coffee while some poor bugger has got to mend a gas pipe or dig a grave.
I grimaced as I trod back into my shoes. Groans came from the few of us that were left, jabbing at phones, cussing and praying for the impossible. Oh, hang on. A flicker. No. Milton Keynes was back on. Further north wasn’t happening. Well, that was it. My fingernails dug into the soft leather handle of my case. I wanted to tilt back my head and scream, but only the pigeons in the roof would hear. I chucked my case down, made to give it a boot like a footballer who’d been red-carded, and instantly regretted it as it clattered onto the tiles. A transport policeman stared at me from the first-class balcony. I nodded an apology and he folded his tattooed arms and shook his head. When I picked up my case he’d gone.
Something trembled in my jacket. I remembered my phone was on silent after Danby’s emergency six o’ clock. Given the news we’d be restructuring for the second time in three years I’d been too shocked to say anything. I’d have thought you of all people would have something to say, Tony. ‘Mm?’ was all I could manage. I’d found a pub off Fleet Street, sank I don’t know how many pints of London Pride and then the answers had all come to me. They always did when it was too late, didn’t they?
A reminder popped up in my diary. Kate’s birthday. Christ, what was I going to get for Kate? I’d have to trudge over to one of those shops that sold tea towels and keyrings or mouse mats with Tower Bridge and Big Ben on them. I wondered if a jigsaw of the Tube or a red London bus would get me off the hook. I’d never got the hang of what a daughter wanted. I hefted my case and looked for somewhere to sit, to think, but I couldn’t find a bench. There were no bins to be found either. It seems terrorists are winning the war when it comes to litter and sitting down.
I stepped outside, rubbing my hands together as my breath rose, silvery in the night sky. Night buses chugged at the traffic lights. A guy in a stripy sock hat and a long grey coat that could’ve belonged to a naval commander shuffled up, getting foetal among some crumpled newspapers. It’d be cold tonight, might even be frost. I dipped into my jacket pocket and smiled, remembering I’d given up. Two years since we’d decided I should stop but some moments are perfect for a sly drag.
‘Want one of mine?’ a voice said and I flinched.
I turned and saw the guy in the sock hat had vacated his bench and was offering me a smoke. He held out a hand as if begging for change. It was soiled, rimed with nicotine. A sorry roll-up lay limp in his palm.
‘I- I’m sorry I don’t,’ I said.
He tucked his thumbs in his belt. His eyes were watery with cold. ‘You looked like you did.’
‘I quit. She didn’t like the smoke in the house.’ He scratched at the corner of his mouth. I wondered why I was telling him this. He twirled a grubby finger at the plane trees in the square, the rooftops, the moon. ‘This is my living room. So, I can please myself.’ He rocked on his heels and seeing as he wasn’t going anywhere I said ‘Ah’ and gave him some loose change from my trouser pocket, picking out a chewing gum pellet. He shook the change in his fist, holding it to his ear and listening to it the way Kate did with seashells.
‘Never mind,’ he said. He looked me up and down, appraising me. ‘You could always try the-’ He scratched at his temple, named a few hotels in spitting distance. I thanked him and he went back to his bench. I walked as far as the path ran and feeling a little wobbly, gripped a railing in each fist at the end of the square. A drunk vomited into the gutter, clutching at an empty newsstand and gasping. His phone and his keys fell from his shirt pocket and he cursed and patted the pavement with his palms as if he were blind, cabs tooting and flashing their headlights as they shot past. I sat on a low wall, deflated now the beer had worn off, leaving me a sore head and a bursting bladder. I made for a bush in the corner of the square, dark and waxy-leaved like a rhododendron, and tugged at my flies as I half-ran, scared I’d wet myself. I had grey trousers on. I wasn’t risking a wet patch. There might be coppers about, could be CCTV, but it was dark and I didn’t care. I had to go. I stepped through a break in the canopy of leaves, adjusted myself and let a stream of my hot piss spatter the leaf mulch and litter. It steamed and made a ring of glistening foam where the jet struck the dark earth. It was such relief, such bliss to let go and for a few precious seconds I leaned back and stared up at the moon, feeling I was tiny and insignificant down here and my problems were pathetically small in a universe that stretched to infinity. For every star in the sky there’s a grain of sand on every beach in all the world, I’d told Kate once when I’d sat and read to her.
As I shook and zipped up, that bloke came past, hands in his pockets, whistling. He’d changed out of his work gear. My heart fluttered. I knew I’d clocked his walk before. At first, I didn’t want to believe it, but I was sure the cleaner with the belt full of keys was Colin Silvester. Col had something wrong with his neck or spine too. He’d had it for years. But Colin Silvester had left a pile of clothes at the riverbank. Seven years back that was and no one had ever seen him again.

I crouched behind the bush. He stood still, sniffed and listened, his back turned to me. Sirens drifted from the west, blokes shouted as they came out of a pub. He raised a hand and said: ‘I don’t have no money, so you’re wasting your time, kid.’
Kid. Col used to say kid. I came out from behind the bush, held my palms up to show him I meant no harm. My heart was pounding. ‘Colin. Colin Silvester,’ I said, unable to stop the croak in my throat.
His cheek twitched. His accent seemed to shift, switch southern. ‘Nah, mate. Don’t know what you mean.’
‘It is you. I’d know you anywhere.’
‘You got me mistaken chief.’
‘Chief? Come off it, Col. We played darts for how many years? It must be six, maybe seven….’
He ran a hand through a sweaty fringe. He wore a denim jacket, torn at the shoulders and dark jeans with great turn-ups. A voice in my head said it couldn’t be him, but he had the same birthmark on his chin, the same wiry hair that’d been left to grey and hang lank at the collar.
‘Got a cigarette?’ he said.
‘I don’t anymore.’
‘Then you’ve changed too.’ He took out a packet, handed me one and sparked up for both of us, cupping them from the wind. ‘I suppose this is the bit where I say I’ve been waiting for this to happen for years and get found out and now it’s finally happened….’ He waved a hand, took a long drag on his cigarette and let his words and his thoughts drift into the London night. ‘Too cold to stay out here.’
‘Where then?’ I said. ‘You want to grab a whisky?’
‘Not really.’
‘Fine then,’ I said. I picked up my case and turned on my heel.
‘Don’t piss about Tony. You’ve missed the last train and, anyway, I don’t want you blabbing, do I?’ He flicked his cigarette into the gravel, grinding it with his heel. ‘Let’s get that scotch then.’

I got a table where he’d have to pass me to get to the toilets or the door. I plonked my stuff where I could feel it against my shins and gave him a twenty. He came back with two doubles, no offer of change. He slumped into his stool, raised his glass and said, ‘New life and all that,’ downing most of it.
‘Is that what this is? Cleaning the floor at a railway station?’
‘Is there something wrong with hard work?’
I sipped my scotch. It nipped at my throat. ‘No, but you were management and-’
‘And what?’
‘You must’ve been on a good whack.’
‘Another?’ he said. I sighed and reached into my wallet, but he’d already gone off to the bar. He brought back two more whiskies and slid mine across the table top. ‘Just cos I clean toilets doesn’t mean I can’t stand my round.’
I ran a finger around the rim of my glass. ‘Are you happy, Tony?’ When I didn’t answer, he said: ‘Cos you don’t look it.’
‘Are you?’ I snapped.
When he didn’t answer, I said: ‘They found your clothes by the river and everyone thought-’
‘I know what everyone must’ve thought. And I did think about doing it as it happens. When Jean died I-’ He ran his hand through his fringe. ‘Look, I’d got everything I needed, but there was no one to share it with. I had to make a fresh start. I didn’t top myself but I would’ve done if I’d tried to go on. I had to make a go of it elsewhere.’
‘You could’ve told us,’ I said, hating myself for sounding whiny.
‘Nah,’ was all he replied.
I nodded. I’d read the newspapers, listened to the police briefings. We all had. For the first few weeks Colin had been a missing person, classed as vulnerable following the death from MS of his beloved Jean. When he wasn’t found the rumours spread that twenty thousand in wages had gone missing from the office safe.
‘I know what was written, what was said about me. I kept up with the local papers online,’ he said.
‘People were worried about you.’
‘Worried? People said I’d done a runner. That I’d gone off with their money. Do you think I’d have done that?’
I let the scotch hit the back of my throat. ‘No,’ I said. ‘You weren’t like that.’ I hadn’t spoken up for him though.
‘Well, I’ve spoken to the police. They’re happy I’d nothing to do with that.’
‘But if the police know where you are?’
‘I’m not missing. I’ve no one to report me missing. I’ve no one left. This is my life now.’
‘But you’re still missing.’
‘I’m not. The police know where I am. I told them not to say anything. I can live where I want.’
I snatched at my scotch, draining the last of it.
‘Do you feel cheated, Tony?’
I shrugged. He folded his arms. ‘Would you rather I’d been washed up on a beach? Or that I’d started a new life in the Costa del Whatever with your month’s pay packet?’
‘Course not.’
‘See, I’m happy here. I wouldn’t have thought so once, but things change. I’ve got a flat the size of an eggbox that takes five minutes to chuck a duster around. I can eat fantastic food, get cheap theatre tickets, whatever, cos it’s all on my doorstep. When I’m not on shift I go to the British Museum, the British Library, the Tate, all of it free. I walk for miles at night over Millennium Bridge and Westminster Bridge and along the Embankment cos I can. I sketch sometimes or I just sit and stare and think I live in one of the most amazing cities in the world. And you know the best bit?’
I said nothing.
‘It’s all going on around me and no one notices me. That suits me just fine. London’s the loneliest or the best place in the world depending on your lookout. I’m one of life’s spectators.’ He paused, spun his glass on the table. ‘What do you do at night, Tony?’
I pushed my empty glass away. ‘Oh, it’s one, long, non-stop party for me, Col.’ He got out his phone while I went through to the gents’ toilets, not caring anymore if he stayed. I stood at the urinals, cooling my forehead against the white tiles. He knew what my nights were about. Since I’d had to get a place of my own I was seeing less and less of Kate and working more hours than ever. I didn’t get to wander past St Paul’s and stare at the Parthenon Marbles. I got home late and knackered and washed a microwaved bhuna down with lager on a tray in front of the TV. Colin came into the toilets. ‘Just checking. You OK, mate?’
I forced a smile. I had the management job, the Audi. I was supposed to be asking him if he was chipper. I went back through to the bar, set him up another scotch, took a beermat and scribbled my number on it.
YOUR SECRET’S SAFE. STAY HAPPY
I walked out into the night, sniffing the cold, sharp air. So, a toilet cleaner was giving me life lessons. My feet didn’t feel so sore anymore. I could get a room later. I decided I’d walk down past St Paul’s, lean on the bridge and watch the lights on the river.

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Wrench – a crime story

They left messages

Emma had begged and pleaded and left little sticky notes on the cooker hood and pinned to the cork board above the sink. She’d left catalogues open at the right page on the kitchen table and printouts folded and stuffed in Michelle’s handbag or the dash in the car. No means no, Michelle had said, determined to make a stand. You’re thirteen for God’s sake. Emma had roped her Auntie Julia in, but Julia would agree with anything once she’d cracked open the Merlot.
Michelle went through it all in her head again. All that stuff she’d read in the papers about stalkers and weirdos and stuff happened to other people, didn’t it? Emma showed her mum the local free-sheet. She pointed to an article from the police – WE’RE WATCHING YOU – saying they were online and working hard to combat cyber-crime and grooming. Michelle felt herself wavering, blowing the surface of her tea while she bought time to consider. Emma was a bright girl and you couldn’t watch them all the time, could you? You do your best for them and you send them out into the world, Gary said, as if he’d know. He’d hit the road before Emma had left nursery.
Emma was relentless in wearing her down. All the others have got one. I’m always the one who sticks out, aren’t I? Michelle folded her arms, said her decision was final. End of, she said. But a little voice, like an angel perched on her shoulder, kept telling her: this was you once, Michelle Harvey. You didn’t want to be the odd one out either. She tried not to think of the crepe pumps she’d been forced to wear for PE and the little cord bag she had to carry with her name stitched into the side in shiny gold thread when all the other girls had the latest sports bags. She’d sucked up all that embarrassment, all that shame and here she was passing it on.
‘You’ve got a phone,’ she tried. ‘I don’t see the problem.’
Emma curled her lip. ‘Oh, big deal.’
Michelle took Emma’s hands in hers, but they were stiff and cold. She was wearing perfume, one of her own she’d been bought for Christmas though, no longer a stolen snatch of Michelle’s Marc Jacobs. She didn’t know whether to feel glad or offended about that, but her girl was becoming a woman. ‘Love you, you know.’ Emma muttered that she knew and slumped on the settee, tucking her feet beneath the cushions and ending the conversation.
‘It’s just because I care about you, that’s all.’ She might have added that she knew what men were like, but that would only bring a scoff from Emma. ‘I’m just making sure you stay safe.’
‘Dad says it’s alright.’
‘And he’s concerned about your welfare now, is he?’ Michelle had been separated from Gary for three years. He’d spent two of them at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Gary spared them no time, sent them no money. His sometime role as a parent was agreeing with whatever his daughter wanted and forcing Michelle into the unwanted and thankless role of bad cop.
‘At least he gives me space.’
Yes, twenty-three miles of it, Michelle almost said. ‘You get a lot more freedom than I ever did, young lady.’ Young lady was a borrowed phrase, one of her mother’s. Michelle caught sight of herself in the wardrobe mirror, pale and blotchy and crowbarred into her size 14 jeans, with knitted brows and tired hair that was dull and greasy. Christ, she was becoming her mother. ‘I’m sorry, love,’ she said. Funny that it was the image of her mother – what she was becoming or might become – that broke her in the end. ‘But there’s got to be some ground rules.’ She hated herself, knowing she’d lost already.
Three days later a package arrived and Emma snatched at it, tearing the tablet from the bubble wrap. Michelle was fumbling through the packaging, looking for one of those tiny instruction books in seventeen languages when she noticed Emma was halfway to setting it up, her fingertips gliding across the screen. This was her first tablet, but she didn’t need lessons. Michelle pursed her lips, tried not to think what she might have got up to on Beth’s and Hannah’s already. Emma sprawled out on the settee and took a snap of herself and shared it, squealing when the reply came back from Bethany.
You joined the 21st century at last xx
Emma sprang from the cushions, threw her arms around her mother, hugging her so tight that Michelle’s mohair sweater tickled her cheek. ‘Thanks mum, you’re the best.’
‘Yeah, I have some uses.’
Michelle made them tea, hovering in the hallway while the kettle came to the boil and messages pinged back and forth from Emma’s tablet. Each time a message popped up a little bell rang. Did she have so many friends to talk to? Emma sensed her mother’s presence and tilted the screen away. ‘I’m OK mum. I’m not hacking into the Pentagon or anything like that.’ Michelle held her hands up in surrender. She scalded the pot and leant on the worktop while the tea steeped, thinking it wasn’t the right moment but she’d have to restrict Emma’s time, ask for the tablet to be left on the mantle where she could see it, or at least turned off late at night. It wasn’t as if she was a technophobe – Michelle had a mobile phone – but Emma said it was an embarrassment. It was one of those ‘ancient bricks’ Emma said with big, clunky numbers on it for ‘coffin dodgers with cataracts.’ Most of Michelle’s friends were always online, but she wasn’t interested. After a day staring at a computer screen at the call centre, the last thing she wanted to see was another keyboard.
‘You’ll be old one day,’ Michelle said, although she was only forty-one. Later, when the bells failed to ring, she saw the screen on the tablet would light up for a few seconds, so Emma must’ve silenced it. She texted Gary, something she hadn’t done for weeks. He told her to lighten up. All the kids are doing it and you would be too if you weren’t so old. He’d put a smiley face after that as if he hadn’t meant it. Gary’s latest model, Amber, was twenty-one.
Emma was running a hot bath so Michelle microwaved her tea – she hated waste – and went online. Michelle tried to concentrate, reading what other parents were saying and doing as she sipped her tea. She didn’t sleep that night and kept tossing and turning, wrapped up in the covers, when her phone vibrated on the bedside cabinet. She squinted at the green diodes on the alarm clock, bleary-eyed. It was a little past two. It was Gary and he’d been drinking – the only time he got to thinking – if you could call it that.
Any bother with fellas you know where to come
Michelle took a sip of water. Another message pinged from Gary. Something about ‘doing time’ if any fella laid a hand on his ‘little girl.’ She turned off her phone and padded across the landing to the toilet. Unusually for a teenager Emma slept with her bedroom door ajar. She hated the dark and settled for the soft amber shade of the landing light poking through the crack in the door. Michelle peeped around the door, watching Emma just the same as she had when she’d been in her cot. Still my baby, she thought. Emma was curled up foetal and the duvet had rucked up between her back and the wall. Michelle kicked off her slippers and crept across the soft shag pile carpet. She’d almost reached the chest of drawers when she froze as the tablet vibrated, its screen bathing the white ceiling in a rectangle of soft blue light. Michelle stood perfectly still, breathing through her nose, waiting for her pulse to settle and stop thumping in her neck. Emma shuffled under the covers and turned in towards the wall. Michelle was being stupid. It’d be some automated email, she told herself. She must’ve waited three or four minutes until she was sure Emma was sound and her breathing steady. She reached across the pile of clothes Emma had kicked off and took the tablet, holding it almost at arm’s length as if it was a bomb that might go off. She inched back across the landing and closed her bedroom door with a toe, listening to check Emma hadn’t moved. Michelle made a break in the curtains and sat down on the window ledge. It wasn’t quite a full moon, but you could see its milky reflection in the windows and windscreens along the avenue. She’d seen the message, a man’s name. It wasn’t a name she knew.
Are you awake? 
She took a deep breath, muttered ‘sorry’ and swiped the screen to read.

Did Emma know she’d read her messages? Three nights had passed and Emma had hidden the tablet while she slept. It wasn’t in the bedside cabinet, wasn’t stuffed in the growing pile of laundry. Gary told her not to worry. She’s home, isn’t she? There hadn’t been much to read, after all. Whoever ‘Jack’ was he seemed to want to talk about music mostly, sometimes films.

Friday evening, a little before teatime, Michelle was stacking towels in the airing cupboard when Emma sidled past on her way to the bathroom. ‘Oh yes?’ she said.
‘I’m getting ready,’ Emma said and slammed the bathroom door, sliding the bolt across.
‘What are you getting ready for?’
Emma sighed, stepping into the shower. ‘I’m going out with Fee and Beck.’
‘You can have your tea first. We need to talk.’
Michelle was picking up socks and crumpled T-shirts when she saw the tablet on Emma’s jeans at the end of her bed. Michelle sat on the end of the bed, listening for the gush of the shower head, the creak of the copper pipes. She swiped the screen and began to read.

Gary told her to lock the doors and windows, said he was working local and he’d be round in twenty. ‘Blame me if you like. She’s going nowhere.’
‘She’s already gone.’
‘She’s done what?’
Michelle rubbed her forehead. ‘She’s not a little girl anymore, Gary. I couldn’t keep her here.’ He cut the connection. Ten minutes later he was hammering on the porch door. She’d changed the locks the day he’d walked out. He was in filthy mechanic’s overalls, with paint spattered down the shins. At least he hadn’t brought Amber. ‘Where the hell is she?’
‘She’s out with her friends.’
‘And you know that, do you?’
Michelle filled the kettle. ‘They called for her. She’s gone into town. She’ll be OK.’
Gary cracked his knuckles. ‘How do you know they’re not covering for her? How do you know she’s not with him, Shell?’
She slid his mug across the table, handed him the sugar. He still took three sugars, was still built like a streak of piss. She opened the kitchen drawer and took the tablet out from beneath the tea towels. ‘She hasn’t arranged anything. I’ve been reading their little chats.’
‘Does she know you’re doing that?’
‘No. Well I don’t think so.’
‘She’s got a password?’
‘She has to share it with me. That’s the rule. But she’d hardly be happy about me reading this, would she?’ She tapped the screen, entered the password and handed it to him. He scrolled up and down, his jaw clenched and she saw that familiar tic in his cheek. Gary shrugged. ‘He’s some dirty old man.’
‘But what if he’s her age? What if he’s just a lad?’
Gary shook his head. ‘Doesn’t feel right.’ Gary was typing. He held the tablet, frowned and deleted what he’d written before starting again. ‘That’s better. Look’
What R U doing?
They sipped their coffees. Gary said to wait. Michelle was washing up when the tablet vibrated.
‘It’s him. What did I tell you?’ Gary said.
‘What if he’s a mate, Gaz?’
Gary wasn’t listening. He typed away, grinning when replies came back. ‘Nine tonight,’ he said.
‘We shouldn’t be doing this, Gaz. She told the truth. She isn’t meeting him.’
Gary’s jaw clenched. ‘You seen what he’s been writing?’ He jabbed a finger at the screen. ‘Asking her if she’s got a bloke?’
‘Remember some of the stuff you wrote to me?’
‘That was different.’
‘How?’
‘She’s my girl. If he’s done nothing wrong, well he’s nothing to worry about, has he?’ Gary got up. ‘Catch you later, petal.’
‘Gaz, are you going after him?’
Gary gave her a wink. ‘That’s for me to know, sweets. You sit tight.’
Michelle climbed the stairs and watched Gary from a gap in the bedroom curtains. He was slinging stuff about in the back of his van. He slammed the back doors, didn’t bother to padlock them. He pulled a woolly hat down to his ears as he broke into a stride. A wrench gleamed in his right fist. What had she done?

Gary chose a spot behind the bandstand, clearing a space in the litter and dead leaves beneath a sprawling rhododendron bush. The Dingle was where he’d first met Michelle. He’d been drinking cider, couldn’t remember what he was doing there, maybe fishing. It was something her mates had fixed up. She was shy and unsure of him, the first girl who’d made him wait for a proper kiss.
The bench by the river was what he’d agreed with Jack. Now Gary was cursing himself realising there must have been ten benches by the river, stretching from the war memorial all the way to the weir. It was cool for summer and that suited him. He didn’t want folk poking around, didn’t want any witnesses. A couple of students were kissing, drumming their heels against the bandstand. An old fella was walking his terrier sniff and piss against every dandelion. Gary got to his feet when he spotted a bloke in tracksuit bottoms and a faded baseball cap hanging about under the bridge. Gary felt for the wrench in the leaves, gripping the cold metal and sliding it up his sleeve.
Gary walked along the river path, hands stuffed in his pockets and his head bowed. If this was Jack, he was no spotty teenager. Baseball cap had turned his back against the breeze to light up a fag. Smoke blew over his shoulder. He was waiting, alright. Gary jogged across the grass. Baseball cap took a deep draw as he turned. Gary let the wrench slip from his sleeve.
‘You’d be Jack,’ he said.
‘Yeah, that’s-’ Baseball cap’s eyes widened as Gary swung the wrench, socking him in the jaw. Metal cracked bone and he fell sideways, splashing headlong into the river. His cap drifted downstream, tangling in the reeds. ‘You leave my girl alone or you’re dead.’
Baseball cap floated face down, a trail of blood bubbling from his head into the muddy river water. Gary heard the shouts, but he didn’t react to them. He’d only meant to give him a scare but now Gary was panicking cos the bloke wasn’t coming up. Gary waded into the river and was waist deep when he was struck across the temple. He blacked out as he went under.

She’d left her tea untouched, wracked with worry. She was gathering the plates when the doorbell rang as she knew it would. She saw two of them through the frosted glass. They asked her to confirm her name. The taller one had a shaving rash on his neck, a speck of toilet roll dabbed to staunch a cut. ‘We need you to come to the station.’ The taller one took her by the elbow. They wouldn’t talk in the car but the taller one was driving and kept glancing back at her in the rear-view mirror. They were buzzed through a metal gate into custody and sat her down on a bench.
‘He’s here, isn’t he?’ she said. Neither of them answered. ‘I can see his bloody boots outside that cell door.’ A puddle of water had spread around the sopping leather. The custody sergeant set down his pen and beckoned her over. ‘He’s your fella, is he?’
Michelle frowned. ‘Not anymore.’
‘You understand why you’ve been arrested?’
Michelle nodded, but she couldn’t recall the words. ‘What’s he done?’
The sergeant said nothing but one of the younger officers spoke. ‘He’s just put one of ours in a coma. That’s what he’s bloody done.’
The sergeant told him to shut it. She had to sit down. She put her head between her legs as blood rushed through her ears. She heard something about fetching a glass of water. They put her in a room with a policewoman. ‘You don’t choose your men well, do you?’
‘He’s not my man.’
The policewoman couldn’t have been long out of college, but she pursed her lips and told Michelle what had happened. Jack was a young detective constable. It was a cop who’d written those messages. If Emma had turned up as he thought she would, he’d have marched her straight round to her parents and offered them advice, warned them of the dangers of grooming. It had happened to his sister and what he was doing wasn’t official police business. But he hadn’t met Emma. Instead he’d run into Gary. His skull was fractured and there was bleeding on his brain. They got the wrench from the river. Michelle said she was sorry, said they could take the bloody tablet.

Posted in Crime, Short Stories | Tagged | 2 Comments

Shug – a short story

Caretaker

He was spiking soggy leaves in the quadrangle, stalking them as they blew in spirals, stooped against the bitter wind. Miss Shanks watched him wince and rub at the base of his spine as she sipped her tea. He reminded her of a native she’d seen spear-fishing in the Sunday supplements. Shug had the same wrinkled, baggy face as that Pacific islander and he needed a shave too. His bottle green overalls were filthy at the knees and just the thought of all the sweat and grime in his black woolly hat made her nose wrinkle. He had a habit of drying it on radiators when he’d been out in the rain or snow and once she’d caught a whiff in the corridors; it was like a dog drying by a fire. As if reading her thoughts Shug looked up at her window and she shuffled the papers on her desk.
She’d inherited Shug – what kind of a name was that anyway? – from Mr Porter, along with a school that had a reading age well below average and unacceptable attendance. She’d listened to Mr Porter, forcing herself to resist jumping in, so she could at least try to understand his legacy. He was an affable man with moist blue eyes and dry warm hands he’d use to shake for a little longer than was necessary. His trousers were shiny and his tweed jacket frayed at the cuffs; as keen for retirement as its owner. But Philip ‘call me Phil’ Porter was good with people and that had bought him time.
‘Families here don’t have much, Pamela. We’re not quite what you’ve been used to.’
She’d tried not to bridle at the use of her Christian name, the assumption that it was her that needed to change and not the pupils and staff at St Paul’s.
‘Attendance is improving. We work with the parents but it’s not the children’s fault. If they’re not supported adequately at home, we must do what we can for them here.’
She tapped her pad, tilted it away from him. She’d written nothing down. Mr Porter offered her a biscuit to go with her milky tea; in a mug, of course. Miss Shanks was watching her figure and pushed the plate away.
‘They’re happy here, Pamela. I like to think they enjoy coming to St Paul’s.’
She gnawed her lip. That swarthy man was pushing a cart onto the school field. The sole of his left boot had come loose and was flapping about like a dog’s tongue. He stopped below the rugby posts at the bottom of the field, hitched up his trousers and hefted a black plastic bag onto the turf.
‘What is he doing now?’ She tried to keep the irritation out of her voice.
Mr Porter smiled. You don’t have to worry about Shug. Shall we get on?’
She crossed to the window and watched as seagulls swooped and circled down from the grey sky. Shug scooped a handful of something and scattered it on the grass. The gulls began to wheel and bomb as they pecked and snatched at the crusts.
‘Should he be encouraging vermin?’
Mr Porter peered at her over his glasses. He coughed and turned over a page, signalling that part of the conversation was over.
‘Does he like pigeons?’
Mr Porter frowned. ‘You’d have to ask him.’
‘I’ve tried but he doesn’t talk to me.’
‘Ah, he was like that with all of us at first. Give him a little time.’
Miss Shanks had not forgotten her chat with the lollipop man. She’d learned more in five minutes with Ernie than she had in three weeks with the rest of them. She’d had him in for coffee, of course, told him he was a vital part of St Paul’s future and he would be getting a new uniform. He ate seven custard creams, but she learned Shug had strolled up one day and begged pasties and toast from the dinner ladies. Instead of calling the police they’d fed him and on the cold days he’d been allowed a warm in the boiler room. ‘When the boiler broke, he went and fixed it,’ Ernie said. ‘Proper odd job man he is, but he wouldn’t take any payment.’
It wasn’t the response Miss Shanks had wanted. Ernie bit into another biscuit, spraying her carpet with crumbs. ‘See, when Mr Bennett went and retired with his feet the school was left without a janitor.’
‘And Mr Porter took on Shug?’
Ernie nodded.
‘What’s he like with you?’
Ernie grinned. ‘He’s a character. I like him. We both served in Cyprus.’
Miss Shanks tried a smile. ‘Why’s he called Shug?’
She’d tried a search on Google and learned that Shug was a nickname for Hugh north of the border, but he didn’t sound at all Scottish.
‘He calls everyone Shug, sometimes Duck too. So, it just stuck I guess. It’s short for sugar.’
‘He’s never called me that,’ Miss Shanks said.
Ernie almost choked on his tea. ‘I don’t think he’d dare,’ he said, laughing.
The following morning she’d got in early and gone out of her way to pass Shug’s little cupboard beneath the stairs. The door was ajar but she rapped it with her knuckles and, when there was no answer, she poked her head inside. The kettle was just off the boil, so he couldn’t be far away. There was a stack of old coffee jars half-filled with crusty sugar, teabags and hot chocolate. A stack of newspapers was bundled and tied on top of a fridge. Other than that, there was only a battered and patched armchair, a beer crate she guessed he used as a footrest and a calendar tacked to the plaster. She ran a fingertip over a grainy image of men stood in front of a bottle kiln, tracing the curved outline, the cobbles and the swirl of smoke. She was pushing the door to when Shug gave her a jolt. He was standing down the corridor, his arms folded on his chest.

When she got back to her office Mrs Roper reminded her about the MP’s visit and the arts workshop with the children. ‘Would you like tea?’ Mrs Roper said.
‘Alison, will you come and sit down for a moment?’
Mrs Roper sat down and clasped her hands on her lap. I’m still making her nervous, Miss Shanks thought. She’s still Mr Porter’s secretary at heart.
‘Is it Shug?’ Mrs Roper said, fiddling with the cuff of her cardigan.
‘He’s a little……strange, sometimes. Does he like working here?’
‘He’s no bother at all. He’s good at his job.’
‘Everyone keeps telling me that, but I don’t get so much as a good morning from him and, to be honest, he could certainly do with smartening up his appearance.’
Mrs Roper cleared her throat. She wouldn’t meet Miss Shanks’s gaze. Miss Shanks wanted to get Shug in, but she didn’t think he’d speak to her. She didn’t want to be alone in an office with him staring and silent. The staff had grudgingly accepted her new authority, but Shug undermined her more than the rest with his silence.

When it was Mr Porter’s last day she had been relieved, if a bit anxious about the work that lay ahead. After all the handover palaver that seemed to have gone on forever, St Paul’s was hers to shape, drive forward at last.
‘Well Pamela, you’re captain of this ship now.’ Mr Porter gripped her hand. ‘I know you’ll have your own ideas and really I’ve no right to ask, but do give Shug a chance. He just needs a little time to get used to you, that’s all.’

Monday came and Miss Shanks still hadn’t got around to having her chat with Shug. She had chosen a jade brooch to wear with the new blouse she’d treated herself to at Marks. She wanted to look her best for the MP. She’d tried to get Shug to take a day off and when he wouldn’t she got him clipping the privet down the field. She was checking her lipstick when a flustered Miss Sayers knocked and ran in without waiting for an answer. ‘We’ve got a problem.’ Miss Shanks had to sit her down and calm her before she admitted the sculptor they’d booked had emailed to say he couldn’t make it. She’d tried a dozen times but he wasn’t answering his mobile. ‘Can we cancel? I mean these things happen, don’t they?’
‘No, we can’t,’ Miss Shanks said. ‘Too late anyway, now.’ A silver-grey Mercedes crept into the last space on the car park. Simon Hartley MP jumped out, clutching a briefcase. He gave them a cheery wave.
‘What are we going to do?’ Miss Sayers said.
‘Bring him in and we’ll have a coffee while I think.’
Miss Sayers nodded and scuttled off. Miss Shanks thought it wouldn’t be the end of the world if the pupils got messy and experimented. OK, they didn’t have a sculptor but they had clay and 4C had bags of enthusiasm. Simon Hartley would just want his face in the local rag, wouldn’t he? Mrs Roper tapped the door and said the photographer from the local paper had arrived and what should she do?
‘Tell him I’m on the phone. I’ll be five minutes.’
‘He says he’s got other jobs to get to.’
Simon Hartley checked his watch as he came through the door. ‘It’s brilliant what you’re doing here,’ he said. ‘A fresh start and all that. Shall we crack on?’
Mrs Roper brought coffees, fumbling the mugs and teaspoons.
‘Don’t we have any cups and saucers?’ Miss Shanks snapped.
‘I don’t want to appear rude,’ Simon Hartley said, ‘but I have another engagement straight after this one.’
‘Of course, I’m sorry. We’re just setting up the room.’
‘I’d have thought you’d be ready,’ Simon Hartley said, frowning as he sipped his coffee.
She couldn’t think of anything to fill the silence.
‘It’s a great idea, so well done. Get the experts in and see how it’s done eh? It’s inspiration for the children, isn’t it?’
Miss Shanks blew the surface of her coffee. She felt stupid, cursing the new blouse, the jade brooch and the dab of Estee Lauder.
‘The kids love getting mucky and chucking clay around, but it’s about getting them thinking about the bigger picture, getting new skills, isn’t it?’
I’d have agreed with you until five minutes ago, Miss Shanks thought. There was a knock on the office door.
‘Yes, yes, alright,’ Miss Shanks snapped.
Simon Hartley gave her an odd look. Miss Sayers peeped around the door and smiled. ‘You can come through,’ she said.
‘Cracking,’ Simon Hartley said, jumping to his feet.
As he got up Miss Sayers gave the thumbs up. What? Miss Shanks mouthed. She followed Miss Sayers along the corridor. Simon Hartley was talking to the photographer making jokes about his best side. A crowd of pupils had gathered around the art room door and she had to tell them to clear aside so they could get in. There were whoops and jeers and a group of forty or fifty children – as many as could fit in the classroom – had crowded around a man who was hunched over a desk. On the desk beside him there were teapots and mugs and plates and it took her a few moments to realise he was working a potters’ wheel. It was Shug and he was smiling and laughing with the pupils telling them they’d better build him a kiln.
‘Where did you get him?’ Simon Hartley said. ‘He’s amazing.’
‘I’ve made you a cup and saucer,’ Shug told Miss Shanks. ‘Emma said you were fed up with mugs.’
‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘Are you going to fire me?’ he said, almost a whisper.
Miss Shanks’s face was ashen. Then she realised Shug was smiling and he meant the cup he dangled from his thumb.

Posted in Short Stories | Tagged | 3 Comments

Fool’s Gold – a short story

Not the brilliant Stone Roses’ track, but a short story…

Tumbledown cottage

Friday:
‘Any better suggestions?’
Carol said nothing. He gripped the wheel, digging his fingernails into the soft leather leaving a cluster of half-moon impressions. He jabbed the button on the dash killing that irritating newsreader voice that had got them lost in the first place.
‘What are you grinning about?’
‘Nothing at all, my love.’
‘Cos you’ve got nothing to smile about. In case you’ve forgotten you’ve got us lost and it’ll be dark soon.’
It had been like this all the way down the A55: niggles and moans followed by silence. Why did he have to get so close to that Mercedes? When would they stop for a flat white?
‘You should’ve got the postcode off matey.’
‘Yes, love. I know I should but it wasn’t a good signal, was it?’
They’d been through this twice already. Matey was Gruff, the Mr Fix-It at the local solicitors.
‘Your fancy woman would know the way.’
‘You’re jealous of the Sat Nav now?’
‘Don’t flatter yourself,’ Carol said and folded her arms to stare out of the window. The gold necklace he’d bought her glistened in the sunlight. There was a time when she’d been glad to get a bunch of daffodils in an elastic band, called him a romantic fool and ruffled his hair asking him which churchyard were they from? These days she thought expensive jewellery was the least she deserved. When he’d taken the gold necklace out at dinner she snatched at it and told him through narrowed eyes, ‘Don’t be getting any ideas, Pete Sutton.’
She frowned, swatting away a midge. Pete knew what she was thinking: Where do I plug in my hair-tongs round here? How the hell am I going to get a decent facial? Pete opened the window and sucked in the cool evening air. He closed his eyes and felt the breeze lift his fringe. He got a sweet trace of flowering gorse, the salt tang of the Irish Sea.
‘So, we sit here like lemons, do we?’
‘Christ, Carol. Give it a rest, will you?’
He didn’t have a postcode and the Sat Nav couldn’t cope with Welsh. The little windy lane they were looking for had so many vowels in it he’d likely copied it down wrong.
‘I said….’
Pete didn’t wait for her to say it. He rammed the gearstick in first and roared away scattering gravel in his wake and flattening the thin Mohican of turf that ran down the centre of the lane.
‘Does anyone live here?’ Carol said.
It was true they hadn’t seen a soul since they’d begun the steady climb from the coast road. The lane had got narrower and narrower and the dry-stone walls and scratchy brambles had come uncomfortably close to his front wings. He pulled up outside a cottage but the curtains were drawn.
‘We’ve been here before.’
‘No, we haven’t. I’d recognise it.’
‘I’m telling you. I’m not going to argue with you.’
Pete offered up a silent prayer; thinking if only that were true. He pulled in hard and snapped on the handbrake and got out. ‘Come on then, light of my life,’ he said.
‘What are you playing at now?’ Seeing he wasn’t coming back Carol grabbed her shoes from the foot-well and tottered after him. ‘We should get a hotel, get something to eat. Pete, for crying out loud…’
‘Don’t need to,’ he said. He was resting on a gatepost, grinning. Ten, maybe twelve years had fallen from his shoulders; the takeover and redundancies; his cancer scare and Julia and Stewart emigrating. Stand on your tip toes at the gate and, yes, it was just possible to see a tiny blue-green sliver of the sea beyond the abandoned quarry. Last time he’d come up this lane he would’ve been eleven and squeezed between their slobbering Labrador Ben and a stack of cricket gear, windbreaks and Dad’s fishing tackle. ‘It’s fantastic, isn’t it? A new start’s just what we need eh?’
‘You’ve got that faraway look,’ Carol said.
‘We had some good times here.’
Pete had never seen eye to eye with his Dad, but talk about buckets and spades and boat trips round the harbour and he got all misted up.
‘As long as your ghost isn’t still here,’ she said.
‘You what?’
Years ago, they’d been in a pub with friends and the drink had flowed and Pete had shocked Carol when he’d spoken of a ghost that had sat on the end of his bed as a kid. She’d always had Pete nailed as the practical sort who didn’t believe in the supernatural but he said it was an old sailor and he’d been so scared he hadn’t been able to move. His eyes were like black pits and he’d pointed at something through the window. The others had laughed and he’d got in a round of drinks to change the subject.
‘It’s got opportunity written all over it,’ Pete said.
Keep Out or Falling Masonry should’ve been written all over, Carol thought. New Place, it was called in Welsh. Well you could’ve fooled me, Carol thought. The drive up to it was full of potholes and broken half bricks jutted from the gravel. Pete didn’t have a key to the padlock so she had to carry her shoes and walk on the grass verge her feet sinking into the soft turf. New Place was enclosed by trees full of noisy crows. There were slates missing from the roof and fertiliser bags had been stuffed in their place to try and keep out the rain. The windows were streaked with grime.
‘What do you think?’ Pete was beaming. ‘We can get a conservatory put in and I want one of those wood burners. If I built a veranda thingy we could get a hot tub.’
Ever since he’d had the call from Parry’s solicitors he’d been glued to any property or renovation shows he could find. But you didn’t need to be an expert. Any fool could see his Auntie Gwen had left them a wreck. Carol’s thinking was to pull it down and stick on some holiday lets; those cute little timber chalets that were springing up all over the place. They could get six hundred a week each in the season, no trouble. Pete produced a long, thin key on a knotted piece of parcel string. He jiggled it about in the lock and it turned with a rusty scrape and they went in.

The White Lion was crowded but Pete found them a snug that wasn’t too near the toilets or coat stand and gave Carol a menu while he weaved his way to the bar for drinks. A few years ago, they’d have been serving up gassy lager, oven chips and scampi. Now it was all craft ales and Mexican and Thai food served up on slates with homemade relishes. Carol checked her watch. Pete wasn’t making much progress at the bar, so she draped her jacket over the chair and went to the toilets. It was chilly and she hoped she wouldn’t have to wait long. She sat in the second cubicle. The door opened, signalled by chatter and clinking glasses from the bar. Someone went into the next cubicle and sat down. After a few minutes a woman said her name. ‘We still on for tomorrow?’
Carol cleared her throat, agreed. ‘Come at three.’
The bolt slid across and the door swung open crashing against the tiles. Carol found she needed to pee after all. She was met by Pete in the corridor holding her vodka and tonic and a pint of something called Double Dragon. ‘Thought I was going to have to send out for a search party, petal.’
‘Just women’s trouble,’ Carol said, knowing Pete would never press.
Sunday:
When they’d got the wood-burner going she had to admit it wasn’t too bad. Dotty old Gwen had some decent furniture and the room had heated up so much she was glad for some fresh air on the patio. Gwen had painted a bit too – not Carol’s sort of thing – but she had to admit she had talent. She’d used something like a butter knife to spread splodges of oil paint. She’d caught the sea crashing over the rocks.
‘She was pretty good, wasn’t she?’ Pete said.
Carol yawned. ‘I’m bushed. Do you want me to take your book up?’
Pete followed her up the creaking stairs, no doubt angling for an ‘early night.’ How many times did she have to tell him she was worn out? She got under the covers, pulling them up to her ears as she had as a little girl – and listened to him breathing and sighing, hoping for something he wasn’t going to get. Finally, he cussed under his breath, clicked off the bedside lamp and before long he was snoring. Carol lay perfectly still, but wide awake beside him.
A little before three she heard the key in the lock and she went into the bathroom as they’d agreed. She put down the lid on the pan and sat on the toilet, listening. She heard a foot on the stairs and prayed Pete hadn’t woken. Usually, he could sleep through a tsunami. The bathroom floorboards were knotty and warped, the cracks between them wide enough to post a letter, so she took great care to inch around the skirting and open the door a fraction. There was a full moon and she’d left the blind up on the landing so it cast a faint, milky light on the stairs. She took a deep breath, grimacing as she opened the door a little more, cussing that she’d forgotten to grease the hinges with butter. They didn’t squeal and betray her and she offered up a silent ‘thank you’ to the heavens.
She saw him and swallowed. He gripped the banister rail and crept the last few steps to the landing. He was an old guy with lank, greasy hair and a dark complexion. He took a pipe from his pocket and bit on it. He wore an old cord cap and a creased woollen shirt beneath a greatcoat. He was perfect for the job. He watched each step and he pushed the door open with a gentle palm. Carol sat down on the toilet, counting to ten to slow her breathing, her racing pulse. The door was ajar and she caught the drift of tobacco, a low humming and a few words of a song before Pete screamed.
Monday:
She made coffee. Pete sipped at it, holding the cup with both hands. Pete had bolted from the room. He wouldn’t go back upstairs and he wanted to drive, go anywhere. She said he was in no fit state to go anywhere, so they’d sat through the small hours in the rocking chairs talking, drinking coffee.
‘I know what I saw.’
‘I know love. It’s alright,’ Carol said.
‘You must think I’m tapped. It was him again. I know it was.’
Carol ruffled his hair thinking he was that boy again, desperate to get away. She sipped her coffee. It was important she didn’t rush him.
‘They were coming back from Australia when there was one almighty storm and they went down off the coal rocks. They were prospectors and carrying a fortune in gold, some of their pockets were full of it. They got a line ashore but some of them wouldn’t leave without their gold. They were still looking when they drowned. He’s still looking now, isn’t he.’ Pete shivered, blowing on his coffee.
‘Well he’s not going to have any luck round here,’ Carol said.
Pete stared at his feet.
‘What are we going to do then?’ she said. ‘I mean we can’t stay here if this is what happens.’
‘I’m sorry love. I’m not thinking straight, am I?’
Carol gave him a hug. ‘I don’t blame you. What happened was horrible.’
‘You believe me, don’t you?’
Carol smiled. ‘Of course, I do. You know what you saw.’ She went over to the window and gazed out over the gorse. ‘We’ll have to think about selling, though. It’d be impossible for you to live here.’
Pete said nothing.
‘We can’t stay love, can we? It’d be crazy,’ she said.
‘They haunt people cos they’re unsettled.’
Carol rolled her eyes. ‘You’ve been watching Channel 5 again.’
Pete shook his head. ‘If you can sort out what’s upsetting them they move on.’ He bit his lip. ‘The thing is I’ve done something I shouldn’t have….’
‘What did you do?’
Pete fingered the hem of his sweater. ‘He was searching for gold. If we gave him gold-’
‘No!’ Carol ran upstairs. ‘Where are they, Pete? What have you done with my earrings, my necklace? Shit, where the hell is my watch? Did you give it to that man?’
Pete climbed the stairs. He took her hands in his. ‘Not a man, a ghost. We’ve given him what he wanted so he’ll go away. I had to do it. We’ll stay here tonight and he won’t come again, you see.’
Carol stared into his eyes, searching for a glint, a gleam, anything. Pete stared back, giving her nothing.

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