Facing the Music – a short story

This is a short story called Facing the Music. It’s about a man called Bob who is forced to confront his past when he enters an abandoned building and makes a surprise discovery.

Bob has a tough upbringing without love and the fleeting chance of an escape through music. When he opens a door it all comes back…

A short story – Facing the Music

Where do you write?

Where do you find it easiest to write? I can write in noisy and crowded places. In fact I often find it easier to write when there are things going on around me. I wrote many short stories and a few non-fiction pieces when I was working on the railway. I would often be in crowded trains travelling between Euston, Birmingham or Milton Keynes. I still managed to write. I think train carriages are great as the view is always changing and there’s (usually) an unwritten understanding that you don’t interrupt the peace.

Cold Meece

Occasionally, for similar reasons to above, I write at the motorway services near Stafford. It’s not far from where I live, there is always space and I find it easy to concentrate. It’s a bit of a secret as most people stop at larger nearby services but the grounds here are great and not used much even in summer. Below is the fountain and lake and above the perimeter view towards Cold Meece.

Water way to travel

I like writing at home too – the kitchen table and soon the garden office we’ve built – as well as coffee shops in town. I’ve heard that some writers require a wall in front of their desk and silence. Stephen King writes with rock music playing. Hemingway famously wrote standing up.

Notebooks on the kitchen table

I’ve just completed a novel called ‘The Last Photo of You’ which took many, many months of labour. It’s weighed in at 98k words and is out there with agents so fingers crossed. I’m about to begin planning another book. As we spend so much time writing the right environment is critical.

How do you write? Do you need silence, or music, or coffee? Do you need a desk? Do you write on the move?

‘Adrift’ – a short story inspired by a tragic tale

This is a short story I wrote called Adrift. It’s inspired by the tragic tale of Christina Collins, who was murdered in 1839.

I’ve become increasingly interested in ‘place’ in writing. Within a short distance of my home is the fascinating post-industrial landscape of the Potteries and the Black Country – bottle kilns, warehouses, canals and chapels – and then there is the wonderful heathland of Cannock Chase and hills of the Moorlands, and the windmills, almshouses, pubs and halls of ancient market towns and villages. But beyond the physical there is another sense of place. We often take history for granted in this country but it is the lives and stories of those who went before us that add another dimension, an atmosphere or a mood, perhaps, to the landscape. Within a few minutes of where I write Izaak Walton fished and Norman cavalry brutally suppressed a Saxon rebellion. A doctor who poisoned those in his care was hanged in front of a crowd of tens of thousands and a wall was built around a town hemmed in by marsh where the bodies of executed men were thrown in a ditch.

These stories add to our landscape and our understanding and experience of it. Areas of towns and cities can be demolished and rebuilt but they may still retain a sense of what went on before. It was with this in mind that I wrote the short story ‘Adrift.’ Christina Collins (previous blog here) was murdered on a stretch of the Trent and Mersey canal in 1839. Christina’s tragic tale has become part of our landscape and the stories we tell each other. I hope Christina rests in peace, that I’ve been respectful to her memory, and that her spirit no longer wanders the towpath in search of help.

Yesterday was the facts, this piece is merely a work of fiction inspired by that story……

The wooden sculpture beside Workhouse Bridge, Stone

She kept walking alongside us, but she made no effort to talk. I coughed a couple of times and said ‘lovely day’ but she didn’t look up. When she kicked a stone into the water I put my book down, sensing an opening.

            ‘Are you OK?’ I said. ‘I mean do you need a lift or something?’

I don’t know why I said that. I mean who gives someone a lift at barely three-miles-per-hour? As we chugged ahead she straightened up, rubbing her spine. I hadn’t thought much of her clothes – perhaps that she was a bit dirty and dishevelled – as we trailed behind her. Now I had to make a conscious effort not to stare. Bedraggled. Dragged through a hedge backwards, Bill muttered. She wore a long black dress with a tatty overcoat, grubby grey shawl and scuffed boots. She brought to my mind a Victorian flower seller. She kept her head down as if she was looking for something – an earring or a coin – in the gravel of the towpath. I told Bill to pull in. He tutted and gave me that look he gives me when I buy coffee for homeless people or pet stray dogs. ‘Just for a minute,’ I snapped.

He steered into the side and I jumped off as Bill tied up. ‘What’s your name, luv?’ She sat down on a bench one of the boaters had put by his mooring. ‘Castaway’ was painted with daisies on the slats. Not original, but better than ‘Water Bored’ which we’d passed at the locks yesterday. She waved a grubby hand, muttered that she didn’t want to be a burden.

            ‘Can I get you a drink?’

Her throat was dry and hoarse. It had been a baking hot afternoon, close as we were to midsummer. Bill chucked me a bottle of mineral water. She looked at it curiously but didn’t drink. I unscrewed the cap, poured a little onto the parched grass and she snatched at it, guzzling it. She handed it back, half empty, apologising.

            ‘It’s no matter, luv. Where are you headed?’

She caught me glancing at her scuffed, broken boots and pulled them away under her dress. ‘London.’

            ‘Bloody hell,’ Bill spluttered.

She sipped at the rest of the water and dabbed at her lips with a handkerchief. ‘I’m going to see my husband. He works there.’

            ‘Has she not heard of the train?’ Bill whispered.

I glared at him as I took her hand. Her skin was pale as marble. Her fingers trembled, so I stroked her hand and asked her what had upset her.

‘I was travelling with men.’ She gave an involuntary shudder. ‘They were uncouth and they-’ I saw her eyes flick to Bill.

            ‘And they drank?’ She nodded, staring at the towpath.

‘What did they do to you?’ She shuddered. I’d seen it before. I knew what men were capable of. I rubbed her hand to warm it. I lowered my voice, so Bill could not hear. ‘When you want to tell me, I’m here. I’ll listen,’ I said.

The Trent and Mersey canal at Crown Wharf, Stone

She nodded, stretched, and set off along the towpath. ‘Now, where are you going?’

She frowned. ‘London.’

            ‘Hundred and forty, fifty miles. Got to be,’ Bill said.

            ‘You can’t walk to London, pet. Least of all in those boots.’ She dabbed at her nose and I knew she was stifling tears. ‘Hop aboard. At least take the weight off your feet for a bit.’ She didn’t want to, but she was weighing it up. Finally, sore feet and lack of puff won out and she stepped up. I guided her to the settee, while I filled the kettle.

            ‘Right, shall we crack on?’ Bill said.

            ‘Yes, you may proceed driver.’ I winked at her and she forced a tiny smile. Bill brought me his mug. ‘Shouldn’t you be watching for other boats?’ I said.

            ‘I haven’t cast off yet.’ He spoke in a whisper. ‘Got what you wanted, didn’t you?’ I shot him another warning glare. ‘Got yourself another pet project. Someone to rescue.’

I turned my back on him. ‘I’m sorry. We haven’t even introduced ourselves.’ I held out a hand. ‘I’m Ann Brookes and this is Bill, my husband.’

She took my hand, those trembling fingers still pale and cold as a pint of milk. I filled a hot water bottle and patted it, settling it down on her lap. She seemed grateful, yet embarrassed. She pressed her hands against the bottle. Her sleeve raised a little revealing yellowing bruises marked out like fingerprints on the inside of her wrist. She tugged down her sleeve. ‘I don’t mean to be a burden.’

            ‘You’re not a burden, Mrs-’

 She gave her name. I poured tea for us both, asking if she took. ‘I can’t call you Mrs Collins.’

            ‘Christina,’ she said.

            ‘What does your husband do, Christina?’

            ‘He’s an ostler. He works down there.’

I didn’t know what an ostler was but didn’t ask as I didn’t want to seem impolite. I’d ask Bill later. Bill was the king of trivia. I made sandwiches and, although Christina said she didn’t want to eat, she nibbled at her cheese and pickle.

When nightfall came, Bill fixed us up to a mooring. Christina stepped off onto the towpath. ‘Robert is waiting for me. I cannot tarry. I’m grateful for the refreshment and-’

I raised a hand. ‘Ah, ah, ah. No way are we letting you trudge off into the night. She can stay here, can’t she Bill?’ There was no answer. ‘I said can’t she Bill?’ Bill muttered he’d fetch the sleeping bag. ‘You could get the train to London. We’d be happy to lend you the money.’ Bill dropped a dish in the sink. Christina wasn’t happy but under sufferance she accepted the sleeping bag. She didn’t want to take a stitch off and seemed confused or unhappy at getting inside it. In the end, I unzipped the bag – an old, quilted variety we’d had for donkey’s years – and let her use it like a blanket.

Hoo Mill lock, near Great Haywood – the last confirmed sighting of Christina alive

Screams woke us in the early hours. At first, I thought we were being burgled or there was a fire. Christina was sprawled out on the cushions, wide-eyed. I calmed her before Bill brought sweet tea. She muttered someone had ‘meddled’ but as soon as she regained her senses she said it was just a bad dream. Bill checked all the doors and windows were secure. After sipping more tea, Christina drifted off, but I struggled to sleep, worrying something awful had happened to her and I must call the police. Perhaps she had mental health problems and should see a doctor.

I awoke to the spatter of fat, drift of smoke. Bill was frying bacon. A pot of coffee steamed from the worktop. ‘Where’s Christina?’ Bill shrugged. ‘Did you even try and stop her?’

            ‘She was gone when I woke. OK?’

Her sleeping bag was neatly zipped and folded on the settee. She’d washed her mug and left it upturned on the draining board. I got on my boots and jacket and ran down the towpath, but there was no sign of her. I passed ramblers and dog walkers, but no one had seen anyone matching Christina’s description. When I got back Bill had spooned out my porridge. ‘If she’s gone on we’ll catch her up.’

‘What’s an ostler?’

‘Someone who looks after horses at an inn.’

‘You sure?’

‘Yeah, why?’

I said nothing. We never did see her again. No one else spoke of her.

Four years passed and when Bill retired he said a boating holiday would be the perfect wind-down. We stopped at a pub near Stone in Staffordshire for a proper warm beside a roaring fire and were getting all comfy and dozy when a man stood up to speak. Wednesdays were for swapping stories. He had a wispy white beard and wore a waistcoat and red knotted hankie tied round his neck. I glanced at Bill, who was frowning to concentrate as he sipped his pint.

            ‘It was June 1839, and unable to afford the coach fare to meet her husband in London, she had set out along the canal. A pretty widow, she’d soon attracted the unwanted advances of the narrowboat’s drunken crew.’

Bill set down his tankard.

            ‘Witnesses testified to their lewd language. She’d tried to report her fears, but no one had listened.’

The storyteller supped his pint waiting for his audience to ask for more.

            ‘As they passed this very pub a Mrs Brookes, wife of William Brookes, travelled alongside her for a few miles for support. Later, a few miles or so south of here, her screams might have woken the dead. The following morning, she was found floating in the water, drowned.’

The mention of our name, Brookes, made my spine tingle. He held up a pamphlet he’d written. ‘They say she still haunts the towpath. Ladies and gentlemen, the tragic tale of Christina Collins.’

I tell people this and they don’t believe a word of it, but we know the truth. I don’t care what they think. I only hope we provided some comfort for that desperate, frightened woman.

Trent and Mersey canal at Hoo Mill

Beacon Hill – a short story

It’s true to say that people prepare. I did. I powered down my laptop and washed my coffee mug. I locked my things away in my drawer. I stuck a note to my screen: ‘Back in an hour.’ I did a sketch of some false teeth, so they’d think it was lunch-stroke-dentists. One of the managers, Alex, was watching me. She did that thing where she twirled her hair through fingertips, looking for all the world as if she was daydreaming.

I picked up the phone, dialled randomly. That nauseating transatlantic-sounding tell-you-off voice told me I’d misdialled, but I was only wanting to look busy and as soon as Alex took her eyes off me and went for one of her lunchtime pow wows I grabbed my backpack and took off.

‘Want anything from the canteen, Pete?’ Liz called after me.

‘I’m good,’ I said. I didn’t want to make eye contact with Liz. She was one of the good ones. She watched me all the way out of the office. It was just after one, hardly a cloud in a perfect blue sky. To anyone who wondered I was taking lunch, fetching a ploughman’s from the TasteeBite café. I stretched, took my sunglasses from my shirt pocket and put them on. I didn’t even glance back at the place. Did I have regrets? Did it matter?

I walked past my car, crouching to place my set of keys on the driver’s side wheel. I looked up at our department on the third floor. Sunlight dazzled the grey glass windows, so it was impossible to see if anyone watched me depart. I couldn’t help but imagine what would be said later. I didn’t notice anything odd about him that day. I mean he’s quiet at the best of times. But no, it was the last thing we expected.

I bent under the break in the wire fence, shielding my face from a cluster of nettles, and crossed the car park behind our office. Lockdown was easing, but Covid-19 meant that no one had been here for weeks and I’d seen rabbits getting bolder and even fox cubs playfighting in the reception area at dusk. I grabbed at saplings as I made my way down a steep bank, so I didn’t slide and emerged onto the old track at the back of the Army base.

There were no CCTV cameras visible. Certainly, none pointing towards the lane. Security investment ran to a rusting sign bearing the silhouette of a German Shepherd. I loosened my collar, unknotted my tie and threw it into some foxgloves. It was heating up and I was glad of the line of beech and sycamores throwing shade across the lane. I climbed the gravelly, potholed track, wincing each time a rock jagged my thin soles. Rapeseed glowed in the sunlight. After months of rain which brought flooding, an unseasonably warm April and May in lockdown had baked the earth. Ridges and boot prints have been fixed in the cracked mud. It felt good to be here.

I paused in the lane, before the steady climb to Beacon Hill. Gorse mingled with woodsmoke and honeysuckle climbing against a gable end of a cottage. The rhythmic thud of a pile-driver could be heard as work on the western bypass continued unrelentingly some three miles away, but other than that the town was peaceful. Birdsong filled the air, and the bleat of lambs just a few days old.

I rested on a stile to wipe my eyes. All of this was within a five-minute walk from my office. In fourteen years why had I never taken this path? A little further on I rested against the trunk of an old oak, hoping I was out of sight. But why would anyone be looking for me when I was on lunch? I doubted they could see me, make me out at this distance without binoculars. I didn’t cut a distinctive figure. I was as plain and ordinary as ready salted crisps, instantly forgettable. I took a baseball cap from my backpack and put it on, pulling the peak down so it obscured my face.

I patted the tree, guessing at its girth and wondering that it had stood here, by this creek with its crumbling mud banks, for some two hundred years. An acorn might’ve fallen as Dickens was born or Napoleon defeated. And it would go on for many more years. He’d see us all out. We are tiny, insignificant blips in time, and we leave little permanent trace.

I passed Beacon Farm, where a family was soaking up sun and sipping orange juice through straws. I didn’t want to ignore them but was desperate not to be trapped in conversation. I tipped my hat, and felt a fool for doing so, but I doubt they looked up. I took a puff of my inhaler. Rapeseed or grass pollen got to my chest. I dipped my head into my shirt as I climbed for there was no other way around it.

In the field below a collie sprinted for a tennis ball, almost losing its footing such was the rolling gradient. I thought of my granddad’s dog, Eric; of running in the dunes for his ball and setting down his chipped enamel dish of milk. Did it all come back to you like this? Was this how it was meant to be? Was I being reminded of choices, what I stood to lose?

My great uncle Fred ‘topped himself’ as my mother put it. So, perhaps it runs in the family. I was brought up to believe it was the ‘coward’s way out’ and a selfish act that left those behind with the sufferance and burden. Well, I have a message for those people who want suicides buried at crossroads, so their souls wander, or outside the church grounds:  You can be at peace with your decision and not wracked with guilt or in turmoil. I had chosen a time. I had chosen a place. I left no one behind.

The hilltop above was wooded, thick with sycamore and carpeted with bluebells, with a sprinkle of campion at the edges. A perfect spot. I was taught at school that it was called Beacon Hill as a beacon was lit here to warn of the Armada. I don’t know if it was true or not as our history teacher, Saxby, was always winding us up. I leaned against a fence post, to sip water. A haze had settled over the town. To the west was the Castle, to the south and east the heathland, GPO tower and treeline of the Chase. There were distant glimmers from the M6, sunlight catching the windscreens of lorries.

I ducked under the rusted barbed wire and cleared a patch in the dry leaves. I smoothed out a linen bag and sat down, legs outstretched. It was hot and still. I sat in the shade of an oak, the town and valley and heathland beyond framed by overhanging branches. I sat counting my breaths in and out. I don’t know how long I sat there. I didn’t cry though I did try and force myself to. Tears wouldn’t come. I’d been on a sea fishing trip off Anglesey as a teenager and, moments after we turned from the jetty the boat began to lurch and roll and I threw up over the side. We couldn’t go back till the tide turned I was told, but I think they were having fun with me and I was holding the side of the boat and chucking my guts and I kept on throwing up till there was nothing left. I was in agony, lying in a foetal position on the floor of the boat with the spray and the slime and the fish scales, retching and groaning and nothing coming up except acid spit. My tears were like that. Running on empty.

I unzipped my backpack and took out the tub and shook it, enjoying the rattle. I clicked off the child cap and poured a handful of pills into my palm. Not a time to back out. I closed my eyes and swallowed a handful, knocking them back with water. I slumped back against a tree trunk and was shaking more tablets from the tub when I became aware of someone watching me. I sat bolt upright and stuffed the pills into the backpack.

            ‘Sorry, if I startled you.’

I turned to look at him but said nothing. He stood still. I said it was going to get hot and chided myself for talking weather. He was staring out at the fields through thick black sunglasses. The type rock stars wore when puffy faced after a session or escaping the press. He wore a heavy, black woollen overcoat and must’ve been sweltering. He had the hairstyle to go with it, too, if a little dated. He had the long, tousled locks of a bass player.

The fields swept down steeply below us. He traced the line of the telegraph poles and wires with a finger, as if he was conducting a miniature orchestra. What with the coat and the conducting I thought he might have mental health problems. I was getting up, when he turned and said: ‘I found something.’

            ‘Sorry?’

            ‘I said I found something. Would you like to see it?’

I got up, dusting the soil and leaf mulch from my trousers. If I felt a little overdressed in brogues and work shirt I had at least unbuttoned my collar rolled up my sleeves. He stared at me intently. He had black stubble, like iron filings, and a strong jaw and was pinched below the temples. He wasn’t red-faced or sweaty, despite the heat, and somehow he’d got up here.

            ‘I should be going,’ I said.

            ‘At least have a look, my friend.’

            ‘I need to be back at work.’

Uninvited, he sat down beside the spot where I’d cleared the leaves. He wore heavy boots, like biker’s ones and black jeans, faded at the creases through too many washes. He had patches with band names and flags sewn into the denim. ‘You know you’re not going back to work.’ He opened his palm and there were two small cubes. I had to lean in to see there were fading dots on them. A pair of dice.

I must’ve looked alarmed as he raised a finger. ‘Not mine. I found them here.’

            ‘Found them where?’ I said.

            ‘They belonged to a soldier. Know how old they are?’ He tilted his palm and I instinctively put out a hand to catch them. ‘You’re holding a bit of history in your hand.’ He gestured behind us, where the fields became heathland, gravel and sandy scrapes and rabbit burrows. I gave them back to him.

            ‘I got to get back. Else I’ll be in bother.’ I don’t know why I was telling him this. I felt like a schoolboy. It would be discourteous, odd, to get up and walk away. I wasn’t like that. That sort of thing’s deeply ingrained – letting someone tell you to wait cos it seems impolite to argue. He patted down his jacket and took out a mobile phone, offering it to me. ‘So, phone your boss and say you’ve got the guts ache, whatever.’ It was a phone I’d never seen before. Not for some years anyway. Chunky with rubbery buttons. The kind my nephews poked fun of and said were built for ‘boomers.’ I guessed he had sight problems or difficulty with his fingers, perhaps that explained the sunglasses.

            ‘But I’m not ill.’

He ran a hand through his hair, tucking a thick strand behind an ear. ‘Would you be upset if I spoke frankly?’

I shook my head.

            ‘Ok, then. Taking an afternoon off isn’t important the way you feel right this moment, is it?’

I didn’t answer.

            ‘Now is it? You’ve either got the world’s worst headache or you came up this hill and you didn’t plan to come back down it.’

I picked at my thumbnail. ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ My voice tailed off, sounding apologetic. I hate it when I do that but can’t stop it happening. ‘I hate myself,’ I blurted out.

He got up, took a packet of cigarettes from his coat, tapped them and expertly flicked one onto his lip. He lit it and drew in deep. He’d stepped out from the treeline, so I had to hold up a hand to see him. I don’t know how he stood it in that coat. ‘Aren’t you hot?’

            ‘Why would you hate yourself?’

I didn’t reply. What was the use in explaining to a stranger you’d spent your life trying to fit in and failing. All I’d ever wanted was to swim in the shoal, be mediocre, be invisible. It wasn’t as if I wanted to star in the school play or be striker for the first team. I wanted to be not noticed. Where’s the justice in getting kicked and spat at and bullied when you only desire to be left alone?

            ‘Want to share it?’

            ‘What are you doing here?’

            ‘Think of me as one of those fellas telling guys it’s OK to talk and you got to open up and all that kind of thing.’ He took a few urgent strides and swung his arm as if he were releasing a discus, sending the dice into the field. ‘Why did you do that?’

            ‘They’re not mine. They belong to the land. There was a battle here in the Civil War and hundreds died. Did you know that?’

Saxby hadn’t mentioned that in history lessons. He stooped, I thought to pat my shoulder or arm, he snatched at my backpack. He emptied the pills and crushed them into the soil with his boot.

            ‘You’ve had six, maybe eight, so you’ll live.’

I blew my noise, stuffing the hankie into my trouser pocket. ‘How long were you watching me?’

He stuffed his hands in his jeans pockets and kicked at a thistle, sending the head flying off into the field. ‘What are you good at?’

            ‘I’m going home,’ I said.

            ‘Well that’s an improvement.’

            ‘On what?’

            ‘On trying to kill yourself. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? But you weren’t ever serious, were you?’ I picked at a dandelion I’d squashed with my heel.

            ‘You’re lonely and you hate your job. They’re making redundancies and you reckon you’re next for the chop. Besides, you don’t have enough water or pills to do it.’

            ‘You don’t know anything about me.’ I hoisted my backpack onto my shoulder.

            ‘Maybe not. But I’ve known plenty like you.’ He patted my shoulder. His fingertips were yellowed, and his hands callused. ‘What you’re going through is bad. I’ve been there, trust me. But it will get better. It won’t always be like this.’

I waved a hand and set off down the hill. ‘I have to get back to work.’

            ‘I’m trying to help you, Peter. And I’m Nick, by the way. Should’ve introduced myself.’

He held out a hand though I’d already moved off. I took another step, my weight carrying me down the slope. Peter, I thought. I hadn’t said my name was Peter.

            ‘I’m sorry about your wife, Peter. Truly I am, mate. But she wouldn’t want you to feel this way.’

I stopped and pinched the bridge of my nose. Tears welled up and I had to wipe my eyes, blurred as they were and sticky with pollen.

            ‘How do you know about..’ I wiped my face with a handkerchief. I shouted his name, but he’d gone. I clambered up the bank, and ducked through the fence, where I’d sat. The broken tablets and dust lay in the parched earth, beside the patch where I’d cleared leaf mulch and twigs. I peered under the canopy, adjusting my eyes to the shade in the woods. There was no sign of him. I sat in the same spot and the tears came. I don’t know how he knew about Annie, or my job, or any of it. I cried until I was exhausted, and I made a pillow of my backpack among the leaves and slept.

I was woken by a dachshund sniffing at my feet. Its owner was anxiously calling for it, so I sat up and apologised, saying I was napping in the sun. The dog owner, a woman in a pink sunhat, scuttled off shouting for Bobby to follow. Twigs and dead leaves had imprinted themselves upon the skin on my arms and cheek. I sipped the last of the water and saw the photo of Annie. I don’t remember taking it out of my wallet but must’ve done so before I’d fallen asleep. It was a black and white shot I’d taken of her sitting on the harbour wall in Crail, a little fishing village in Fife. I kissed the photo and slid it back inside my wallet. Wherever Nick was, he was long gone. I felt something inside my trouser pocket as I put my wallet back. I took two objects out and held them in my palm. Bone dice.

Nick lived forty miles away, so I don’t know what he was doing on Beacon Hill that day. He had a place out in the sticks but wasn’t too hard to find. I searched on the band names I’d seen on his patches and soon found a Nick Reece, who managed bands and ran a few festivals. He hadn’t been active recently, unwell I guessed, so I’d sent an email, then followed up when I didn’t get a reply. That wasn’t answered either, so I decided to drop in on spec and see if he was about. I wanted to say thank you. It’d been six weeks since we’d met on Beacon Hill.

I pulled up at the end of an unadopted lane outside gateposts in need of paint. It was flat, open land here and had been used as an airfield in the Second World War. An ad for skydiving was fixed to the gate in the layby. Fly-tippers had dumped old kitchen cabinets. I got out and went through the gates, making my way up a short U-shaped drive. I’d been right not to drive into the yard as overhanging branches and a fallen willow tree left little room to manoeuvre. The brass doorknocker was the Green Man, branches and leaves growing from his mouth and nostrils. I reached for it as the door opened. A woman with frizzy grey hair and round wire glasses told me I’d better come in.

            ‘I came to see Nick Reece.’

            ‘I guessed,’ she said.

She had to be in her sixties, perhaps older. She wore bee-pattern stripy leggings and a denim jacket with patches stitched all over it. I guessed at an aging art teacher. I followed her through to a conservatory, desperately in need of renovation. The glass was warped and distorted the view of the wildflowers and pot plants beyond. ‘You met Nick then?’ she said, gesturing for me to sit on a cast iron seat with a knitted rainbow cushion. Before I could answer she’d stepped back into the kitchen. I heard cupboard doors slamming and the tinkle of glass tumblers. She set down a tray and poured lemonade without asking.

            ‘Is it homemade?’

            ‘Nick isn’t here,’ she said.

‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to barge in. Should I come back another time?’

She sat and folded her arms on her lap. ‘Where did you meet him?’

I told her Beacon Hill, explaining where that was and what he’d said. She didn’t know that area but took out an A4 pad and wrote everything down. There was a lot of neat, slanting handwriting in that book.

‘Is everything OK?’

She left the conservatory and came back a few moments later holding a framed photo. ‘This is my Nick,’ she said.

I nodded. No glasses, but same jaw, full head of thick hair. He wore the same woollen overcoat.

            ‘Did he give you anything?’

I held out my palm, showing the dice. She smiled. ‘Can I ask you a personal question?’

            ‘Is Nick here?’

            ‘Were you in some trouble when he spoke to you?’

            ‘I’d like to speak to him. He helped me.’

            ‘Only that was his thing.’ She leaned in and tapped my knee. ‘I’m sorry luv, but you can’t speak to my Nick.’

The realisation hit me, and she saw it in my eyes.

            ‘That photo was taken the day before he died.’

How do you accuse a widow of lying? How do you explain her husband standing on a hill talking to you when..’

‘Six years ago, last July,’ she said. ‘I knew why you were here cos you’re not the first. I’m glad he helped you. I hope you’re better now, that things have improved?’

I nodded. I still held the dice in my palm. ‘How?’ I said.

            ‘How did he die? Crashed his motorbike touring the west coast of Scotland. He always said you never hit anything softer than yourself on a bike.’

I handed her the dice, but she shook her head. ‘He gave you those, to remember by. So, keep them and go and live your life. You know what he was saying?’

I shook my head.

            ‘He was telling you to roll the dice. He always did.’

She ushered me out and I sat in the car, wondering how many times she’d answered the door to confused strangers. I started the engine. I shook the dice and rolled them along the dashboard.