‘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.

Milly and Molly – a short story

A short story about a disgruntled office worker who crosses paths with a seventeenth century Staffordshire witch…….

You can read more about Molly Leigh here.

Molly’s grave

Amber says I’ve got fat fingers. Yes, Amber Rowlands. Her of the orange skin, cow eyelashes and bee-stung gob. Or as she puts it, guitar-shaped hips and blow-job lips. The office bike has a problem with me. She’s twenty-nine, she’s got a halo and angel’s wings on her profile, and she thinks I’m the weirdo.

‘What would you do if you won the lottery, Mill?’ she says, and we all have to play along for at least the fifth time that month. I tune out, already knowing Debbie wants a house off Grand Designs, Kayleigh wants a white Porsche that goes ‘like shit off a shovel’ and Diane wants to retire and knit booties for sick kiddies. Amber’s made my life hell. She says my fat fingers are like the pink, pudgy bangers her Dean sticks on the barbecue. ‘Her Dean’ left her for a mobile hairdresser. ‘He soon came running back when he heard I’d get everything,’ she said. How am I supposed to help what my fingers look like? Even if I stop going to Maccies and cut out the salted caramel bites it isn’t going to make my fingers any slimmer. Amber’s got a list of things about me that offend her. She sent them round on Whatsapp, her inner circle group. Top of the list is being ginger, then there’s having a boomer phone, no boyfriend, and liking music she hates. Oh, and reading books. See, I don’t conform and that’s my sin. I don’t talk about my sex life or my ovaries; I don’t spend Saturdays drooling in the window of Pandora. I don’t have a gym membership. I hate passing mirrors. I’m thirty-seven and I’m getting bullied at work like it’s the school playground.

What Amber doesn’t know – and this the wonderful irony – is that it’s her fault I met Molly. Well, sort of. It was the fat fingers she hates so much that made me hit ‘O’ on the keys when I should’ve hit ‘I.’ And I swear to God that the moment I hit that key a crow tapped the glass of my bedroom window.

Tapping ‘O’ changed my life. It meant no more doormat for me. No getting whispered about or having my screen display turned upside down when I forgot to lock it. Or having to present the engagement stats at the monthly meeting when we’d screwed up. Or getting all the really nasty, noxious complaints on social media to deal with. Or having my coffee mug pinched. O Why should I feel bad about doing what I did?

She says I’m a ginger, making the Gs hard when she says them, so they rhyme with ringer or finger. Banter, she calls it. ‘That a new hairdo, Mill? It’s good to see you haven’t given up…entirely.’ Sometimes she calls me Millicent. My parents were dull, but they weren’t sadists, I tell her. I was christened Milly. Amber has taken to posting stuff publicly and I feature in lists she’s made. ‘The People in Your Office’ was one she’d adapted from a newspaper article. I was number 8. ‘Invisible, no boyfriend, cats on her profile, knitting in her top drawer, buys the milk and teabags to win friends.’ I typed Milly Lee, a local search. My fat fingers made me hit the ‘O’ and so I typed Molly by mistake and swore. I was going to clear the search when an old, cracked photo of a woman with a crow on her shoulder stopped me. It was perished at the corners as if it’d been freed from an album. There were photos of the same woman standing beneath a fingerpost in a country lane. The woman was called Sybil Leek and she’d reputedly been part of Aleister Crowley’s circle. She was from Staffordshire and went about claiming to be a descendant of Molly’s before she’d left for America. I began to read and soon understood what had attracted Sybil to Molly. Everyone hated Molly and said she was an ugly bitch, and she didn’t care. She lived on her own and never went to church. She sold milk and she sang as she did so. She had a black crow, or maybe a blackbird, that perched on her shoulder, went everywhere with her.

I glanced out of my bedroom window. There was a crow perched on the Johnson’s TV aerial. He tilted his head and stared at me. Hello Molly Leigh, I said. A woodcut had given her a great hook jaw and black, piercing eyes. Her skin was lumpy as porridge and pocked. They’d cursed the poor woman and taunted her since she was knee-high, rumour and myth attaching themselves to fact until it was impossible to know what was true. But she was a real woman, born in 1685 with church records and deeds and property. They said she ate solids almost from birth, rejecting her mother’s breast to suckle on animals. That she behaved like an adult as a little girl. That she stole from them, watering down the milk that she sold. She lived in a thatched cottage long since pulled down and swallowed up as part of Stoke. The forest that surrounded it had been chopped down to build factories, potteries, and endless streets of red-brick terraces. But her grave was still there.

Monday morning. I hadn’t sat down when Mr Haskins called me in. He motioned for me to sit down opposite, without looking up. I’d worked for him long enough to recognise I was in trouble. His cheeks were ruddy – he was a known drinker – and his hair fuzzed at the crown where he’d run his fingers through it. He still didn’t look up from his screen. ‘The deadline is eleven and it’s already half nine,’ he said.

‘I thought I’d sent it.’ As my mother would say: You know what thought did. I dashed over to my desk, tapped in the password, and waited while the screen buffered. I clicked through to My Docs, but the file wasn’t where it should be. I closed the folder and re-opened it. It was no longer there. I tried again. I checked the recycle bin, my heart thumping faster. There was no sign of the report I’d spent two days writing and updating. ‘I’m waiting,’ Mr Haskins said, from the doorway. I held my hands clasped to my face in prayer. Amber was staring at me, dead-eyed, the faintest twitch of a grin on those bee-stung lips.

Misery Monday they called it. Drinks were half-price with deals on spirits and, even though the week had hardly begun, there were plenty of office workers prepared to get ‘shit-faced’ as they put it, falling-over drunk. I wasn’t asked to go, I just tagged along. ‘Christ, you must’ve had a bad day, Mill, if you’re hitting the bottle.’ I’d had Haskins shouting at me for an hour. He’d closed his door, but you didn’t need to be able to lipread to know I was going to be performance-managed until further notice. I ordered a double scotch. ‘You don’t hang about, Mills,’ Amber said. She thought I didn’t see the wink to the others. I poured it under the stool when she was checking her lippy in the mirror. It had been pouring down outside so the floor was puddled and no one was going to notice a cheap scotch tossed on the woodblock. I got Amber a vodka, then another. Her eyes got misty, and her face flushed, and she got louder. She got more tactile, tapping forearms and stroking hands and winking. ‘Soz about what went on,’ she said. Was this an admission? She leaned in close, her perfume stinging my eyes. She was on her fourth double vodka and Coke. I’d sniffed and tossed two scotches and left another to a guy in a baseball cap with the legend ‘Muff Diver’ on it. He’d downed it and was minesweeping for empties. ‘You got stitched good and proper, Mill.’

‘In what way?’

Amber jabbed a finger towards the toilets as Debbie came out. ‘She knows what she did, the bitch.’ Amber stifled a burp. ‘When you were in the kitchen she was looking at your screen. Now, I’m not saying that she did anything but….’

‘What’re you saying about me?’ Debbie asked.

‘Just that you’re a star,’ Amber said, and clasped a hand on her shoulder. I got us another round in and told Amber her hair would look great if she wore it down. She’d come from the gym and still had it up in a bobble. She must’ve been drunk cos she didn’t bite when I suggested ‘trying a few things.’ I wanted her bobble. ‘Ouch. Go easy,’ she said. ‘There you go, it’s great when you wear it down.’ I went to the toilets and set the bobble down on the enamel sink. There must’ve been five or six of Amber’s frizzy hairs, with the roots still attached. I watched from the toilet door as a bloke I’d never seen before set Amber up with another drink. She slumped forward on the bar her chin supported by the heel of her hand. I put the bobble and hairs in a freezer bag in my pocket and slipped out into the frosty night.

It was bucketing down when I got off at Longport. It was getting dark, and the trucks were soaking the pavement with floodwater from potholes and gutters, so I pulled up my hood and took shelter from the rain in an empty shop doorway. I passed forgotten churches and chapels, a pottery works being demolished and a high street of chips and kebabs and fried chicken, Turkish barbers, and taxi firms. It was quite a climb and I kept close to the buildings to try and stay out of the slanting rain. A strong wind had got up and I kept an anxious eye on the crumbling ledges and chimney pots above. This part of the city seemed old, with cobbled stretches of lane and brick warehouses backing onto the canal. There was a sign for a lap-dancing training school with a silhouette of a pole dancer pinned to a crumbling grey building.

St John’s was on a bend at the bottom of the bank. This was the Mother Town of the Potteries. Three brick bottle kilns stood in fenced-off waste ground where busted mattresses and sofa cushions had been slung into the weeds and buddleia over the rusting fence. The churchyard was surrounded by empty streets, a hand-car wash with motifs of soap bubbles rising into the clouds, and a line of seventies terraces. I’d phoned in sick, knowing everyone would blame it on drink but hardly caring. I spent the morning checking what I’d read online and replying to a few emails I’d received from a woman in Chicago who had been happy to give me guidance and instruction. It must be amazing to live where you do, she wrote. So much history! And I bet Molly’s a local hero. Hardly. There was a blackboard tied to a lamppost with ‘Molly’s Cafe – 8am-2pm’ written on it in silvery pen. There was little else to point to the witch’s existence. I ran across the car park into the church porch, stooping into the tiny door beneath a sandstone arch to get out of the rain. My fringe was plastered to my forehead and my jacket steamed in the cold air. Molly’s Café was a greasy spoon, patio chairs set out around an awning with twinkling lights in a transport yard. I could’ve done with a hot chocolate, but it was closed, long since bolted, and padlocked.

I needn’t have worried about finding Molly’s grave. I’d favourited a pic of it in case, but there was no missing the stone table that was at right angles to all the other graves beside St John’s. There was no inscription. I crouched and checked all around the stone for initials or scrapes, but there was nothing. Molly’s grave was a little like a desk, a block of stones with a shelf on top. There were dips in the top stone where the rainwater gathered and puddled. ‘Are you well, Molly?’ I took an apple from my bag. It had been there two or three days, a forgotten lunch, but it was an offering of sorts. I set it down on her grave and took a few steps back, so I was sheltered from the rain by the walls of the church. St John’s had seen better days; it’s windows were fenced off with wire frames and there were CCTV cameras and warning signs about toppling headstones. I tried to imagine this place when Molly lived here, and it was thick woodland and streams and cattle grazing all around. When she’d sold her milk and been accused of watering it down by her neighbours. I took out my phone and read the words I’d saved.

Weight and measure sold I never,

Milk and water sold I ever

As I repeated them there was a rustling behind me. My heart thumped and I leapt back against the brick wall and turned to see a white polythene carrier bag, rise, and drift toward me. I stood perfectly still, as it passed within centimetres of my face. I felt the cold brick against my neck. The bag seemed to hover and then it dropped, crinkling, as it fell to the floor. Rainwater pounded it from a busted church gutter, pinning it to the flagstones. My heart raced. When I turned I saw that the apple had gone from Molly’s tomb.

I checked the gravestones around Molly’s, wondering if the apple had rolled or blown behind them. Alice, wife of Thomas Daniel, departed this life on 14 February in the year 1759. Valentine’s Day. ‘I’ve never had a Valentine’s card either, Molly,’ I shouted into the wind. The words were blown back at me. There had been a card last year, but it was a pretend one from Simon Hillman in Accounts and Amber had put him up to it.

Molly’s grave was at right angles to all of the other graves. This was done to try and settle her restless spirit. I took photos of her grave and the small stone trough beside it where they’d tried to force her wandering, troubled spirit. It seemed odd there was no plaque here, no sign of Molly’s life and death. Perhaps the council feared Satanists or freaks like me showing up to pay their respects or raise the dead and didn’t want it on the tourism list.

I was crouching to get a pic of the trough when a bird flapped its wings and took off, cawing loudly. I saw what he had been pecking at in the trough. The crow took off through the trees and over the abandoned land and bottle kilns with a fleshy, white piece of apple in his beak. Molly’s familiar. I no longer felt the cold or the rain. I repeated the rhyme again and again, raising my head to the night and the driving rain. ‘We could be sisters, Molly. Help me, Molly.’ I blinked away the cold rain, my vision blurred so I could only see the faint glow of streetlamps and porch lights in the houses across the graveyard. ‘I know you’re here, Molly. You sent me a sign. Help me, Molly.’ Yet nothing happened. The carrier bag lay where it had fallen, pinned to the pavement with rainfall from the broken gutter. Shards of apple lay in the trough, where the crow had pecked and stabbed at them. I’d hoped for more, but I was elated. Molly had sent me a sign. The woman in Chicago said the crow had been Molly’s familiar. Molly had gone everywhere with her crow or blackbird – no one seemed sure – on her shoulder. I unzipped my bag and took a mesh pouch from the pocket where I kept my pills. I ran round and round the tabletop tomb like a schoolgirl, chanting the rhyme over and over, stamping my feet in the puddles and turning my head up to the sky as the rain lashed down. The pouch rested on the tomb. It was tied with a ribbon and had two things inside. There was a wish I wanted Molly to grant written in copperplate writing with Indian ink. And there were those strands of Amber’s jet-black hair caught in the bobble.

I went back into work on the Thursday, so my sick wouldn’t be taken as a hangover. Amber was usually in first, straight from the gym with damp hair and glistening skin. She’d corner someone by the water cooler, and we’d all be forced to listen to an interminable conversation about lap times, or recovery or carbs or something. There was no sign of Amber – her coat wasn’t on her chair and her porridge box was untouched. ‘What the heck does he want?’ Debbie said. I turned and saw the crow was on the window ledge. He turned and tap-tapped the glass, his eyes staring at us. Debbie tried to shoo him, but he wouldn’t budge.

‘Amber not in today?’

‘She took some leave,’ Debbie said.

‘She not well?’

Debbie rested her palms on her hips. ‘What makes you say that?’ She waved a magazine at the window, but the crow didn’t budge.

I shrugged. ‘Nothing, just wondered.’

A few weeks passed with no news of Amber returning to the office. She hadn’t been on Facebook or Insta either which was weird. No one was talking about her which was odd too. They were proper gossips and there was no chatter or disappearing off to the kitchen or toilets which meant they knew something. I was going to ask Debbie or Michelle when Mr Haskins strolled out into the space between our desks and clapped his hands. He seemed tired and took off his glasses to huff on them and wipe them before he spoke. ‘OK, now listen up,’ he said. ‘I’ve got some news I need to share about Amber.’ Debbie glanced at me and looked away when I met her gaze. Mr Haskins clasped his hands and stared down at his shoes. ‘This really isn’t an easy message to deliver,’ he said. He was interrupted by the crow hopping along the window ledge, tap-tapping at the glass.

She’d planned something in the conference room, but it turned out she couldn’t face it. It was typical that when Amber was on a downer she instantly became the victim and got everyone’s full attention and support. Amber said she’d see a few of her close colleagues ‘and Milly too.’ We trooped down the corridor clutching phones, pens, and pads for want of something to do with our hands. Amber sat at the far end of the meeting room table; her head bowed. She wore a pink baseball cap, pulled down. The others started asking her if she were OK, and could they do anything. She said she felt a bit faint. Debbie got her a glass of water. I said she should take off her cap if she was flushed. ‘You’re not even aware, are you Milly?’ Debbie snapped. ‘No, it’s OK,’ Amber said, glancing up. ‘It’s not Millicent’s fault. She’s not to know.’

‘If I’ve said something wrong then I’m sorry but…’

Michelle told me to button it. ‘It’s about Amber for once, not you.’

Amber raised her head and spoke in a soft, hushed tone I’d never heard her use before. ‘I don’t know what has happened to me these last few weeks,’ she began. ‘I felt odd first. I was tired and I was so, so sad. I kept crying and then…..’ Debbie patted Amber’s shoulder as she struggled to stifle tears. ‘And then this happened. I want to prepare you for….’ Amber whipped off the baseball cap and, although they must’ve known, there were gasps. Amber was bald, save for a few strands of hair at her fringe and her crown. Her skull was like a white swimming cap. She said it was called alopecia. ‘The doctors say it’s stress. Anyone can get it.’ Amber was given a box of tissues. ‘Will it come back?’ ‘How are you?’ I squeezed out of the room, making apologies. ‘You’re very brave,’ Debbie said. I gripped the ledge and stared out of the landing window. It couldn’t be. I ran some cold water in the toilets and splashed my face and neck. I tried to remember what I’d said and done at Molly’s grave. It had to be a coincidence. Later, when everyone had gone home, I was catching up on a report when the tapping came again at the window at twilight. ‘Go away,’ I shouted. It didn’t stop. When I looked up the crow was on the ledge, tilting its head and staring at me. At first I took it for cloth or thread, but when I went to the window I saw what it held. The crow’s beak was stuffed with long strands of jet-black hair.

The next morning Mr Haskins said we needed to speak ‘urgently’ about my progress. I opened my desk drawer and took out a model of a Mercedes SLR. It was the same model and same ghostly silver as Mr Haskin’s. I ran it across the desk into a box-folder, so it tipped it on its side so the wheels span. I laughed. Tonight, I’d be taking it to Molly’s grave. Then we’d see about performance managing Milly.

They’ll Not Find Her – a short story

Motorway

‘What shall we do with the body?’ The other one rubbed his chin. ‘Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, eh? We’ve been through all this. It’ll be like she disappeared. She’ll be walking down the lane and then-’ he held his palms open, fingers splayed, as if releasing a tiny bird. ‘There, and then gone.’ I couldn’t stop watching those hands. Thick fingers and cracked skin that would feel like sandpaper. He’d done hard graft once. I could see them through a gap in the plastic foliage dividing our seats. ‘They’ll not find her.’ I didn’t want to move; I was terrified yet transfixed. And I was certain I’d heard something that was dangerous. Something that would bring harm to me. So, I kept listening, unable to help myself.

It’s my business being nosy. I’m a writer and a lot of what writers do is stealing. We don’t invent; we take from what we see around us and give it a little tweak here and there. A favourite spot of mine for nosing and people watching is the motorway services and that morning I was sipping a latte, trying to finish a story I’d promised a magazine but was three days late in sending. I’d gone there to escape the four walls of my home office and the constant drilling that was next door’s latest property makeover.

They’ll not find her. I got drawn in, hooked by the words that came in the quiet gaps between the chimes of the fruit machines and the clatter of dropped cutlery. ‘They all got tats’ he said, and a chair was dragged across the floor, interrupting him. ‘A black rose, yeah-’ and a blast from the coffee machine drowned him out before I might hear where.

I know it’s risky letting the imagination fill in the gaps, but what would you think if you heard two fellas – proper hard cases and handy looking – talking like that? A mobile phone rang, its vibrations causing it to dance across their table. ‘Leave it’ he said. He had a Black Country accent, blunt and heavy vowels, and while I still couldn’t see his face, I’d clocked him when he’d strolled over clutching a cappuccino. It was a large one but seemed tiny in his gloved fist. He wore a heavy grey woollen overcoat, the lapels pricked up against the icy wind, and black leather gloves. He had a few days’ stubble, and his grey-black hair was slicked back tight from his forehead and temples, so it curled where it met his collar. He wore an expensive citrussy scent that drifted across the food court in his wake.

I slid down in my booth, worried their silence meant they might’ve noticed me. I was obscured by the divider of plastic plants, but it wasn’t much comfort knowing they might walk round this way and think I’d overheard everything. I could go to the toilet, but what if they followed? I’d have to wait them out. Perhaps it was all a prank I told myself. They probably did stuff like this all the time in case some nosy sod like me was listening in.

The other fella was on the phone, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. When grey coat set off towards the toilets, hands stuffed in his pockets, I slotted in my headphones and offered up a silent prayer, but he didn’t notice me. Most days I got my favourite spot here, this little corner booth where I got to hear things. I was out of sight of the other tables and, as it was a good twenty metres from the coffee shop queue and toilets, people got careless, especially when it was quiet later at night. I’d seen bags left and collected a moment later by someone else. I’d heard football agents promise they’d get a striker in by the weekend, but they were smart not to name players or teams. I saw a heavy gold chain pulled from bubble-wrap and handed over; cash swapped once for an oil painting. I watched a couple kiss, lost in each other as hail rattle the veranda, as if they’d never see each other again in this life.

They’d gone their own ways with grey coat standing in the food court, chatting into his phone. The second bloke wore a black bomber jacket. His scalp was shaved to the bone. He had pale, blue-tinged skin and was prone to spots, reminding me of a kid in my year cruelly tagged Pizza Face. No one was going to call this guy margherita. He barged the fire-doors and strolled out onto the terrace, lighting and puffing on a cigarette, blowing smoke into a blue sky.

I typed the words out. They’ll not find her. I stared at them, forgetting my story, forgetting my deadline. When the tune for the grabbing machine kicked in, or Clifford the Dog or whatever, I tilted to my left on the pretence of tying a shoelace, to see if I could get a better look at them. The grey-haired one was facing me but didn’t see me. He was talking into his phone but was too distant and his words were obscured by nickelodeon music. I started typing. When I looked up I saw ponytail had gone. His cigarette lay where he dropped it, smoking among the gravel and windswept leaves. Grey coat pushed through the double doors to the car park. And then they were gone.

George was mopping the corner of the courtyard. I beckoned him over. ‘Those fellas,’ I said. He shrugged, twisting the mop head. George was Portuguese but wouldn’t share his real name. He said English people were terrible at saying it. He was the utility man of the services team. He mopped floors, cleaned the courtyard fountain, fixed the chairs and parasols, and got cars going on winter mornings with his jump leads. He patrolled the site on smoking breaks, seemingly lost in thought but I knew he never missed a trick. ‘Two big men. One had a grey coat.’

‘Yeah, I see them.’

‘Do you know them?’

George grinned. ‘They’ve been in before.’

‘What car do they drive?’

George leaned on the mop handle. He whistled through his teeth as if it was a big ask. ‘Silver Merc. Nineteen plate,’ he said. ‘Other fella has a Range Rover.’ George was staring at me. ‘Did they say something to make you sad?’

I leaned in, lowering my voice. I didn’t want to say too much until I was sure of myself. ‘They were arranging something. Bad things.’

A grin flashed across George’s face. He shook his head. ‘He’s in sales. I’ve seen him have meetings here.’

‘I haven’t.’

George shrugged. ‘You get lost in writing, thinking. I can mop round your feet and you hardly notice me.’

‘Something bad was happening.’

George propped his mop against the wall, dragged out a chair and sat down. ‘You come here how often?’ He answered before I could. ‘Three, sometimes four times a week. This is your little hideaway, but we all know you’re here. Perhaps they know you are here too.’

‘You think they were doing it on purpose?’

‘Having fun Mr Saxby, that’s all. Maybe they know you are the Great Writer, and they are supplying you with your next story.’

‘Maybe,’ I said, but I didn’t believe it. I decided I’d give the services a rest for a few days.

I woke at three with a start, next door’s Rottweiler set off barking by the foxes up on the ridge. I couldn’t sleep after that, so went downstairs and dropped onto the couch with a glass of water. I got out my laptop, signing in before it drained of charge and scanning the notes I’d typed.

They’ll not find her. 947am. M6 Services. CCTV? One drives a silver Merc, the other a Range Rover.

I’d added descriptions of them. I typed kidnap and abduction and did a local search, but nothing came up that was recent. The nearest was a body found in mid-Wales with the detective leading the search appealing for information to identify a woman ‘believed to be in her 40s.’ I guessed the poor woman was in a grim state of decomposition if they were hoping to ID her through a charm bracelet and pink cotton blouse.

The story did nothing to quell my fears. Had the two men acted last night, after I’d overheard them? Perhaps it was too early for news. What if the person they’d snatched hadn’t been reported missing yet? Or they had no one to report them missing? I’d have to do something. Thankfully, fifteen years in local journalism wasn’t entirely wasted. You build up your contacts.

Crawling…

Clive Petrie sat on the bench outside the Shire Hall. He wore tinted glasses, a tweed hat and the kind of oatmeal slacks and jacket you’d find in the Sunday supplements. A fisherman involved in espionage. Those who wouldn’t know Clive would’ve thought he was dozing but I knew what he was doing. ‘Shoplifters. Just come in on the train. Look at them.’ He spoke through the side of his mouth without turning to acknowledge me. I don’t know what he did to relax. Retirement was killing him. ‘What’s the problem?’ he asked.

‘You’ll say it’s nothing. That it’s daft.’

Clive hadn’t taken his stare off the group. I saw some east Europeans queuing for steak bakes. Clive saw organised crime groups, stripping shelves of Christian Dior and Chanel No.5. ‘Don’t give me the chance I can’t say, can I?’ he muttered.

I waited for his full attention and outlined everything I’d seen and heard that morning. He took off his glasses, huffed on them and wiped them with a handkerchief. ‘The problem you’ve got is hearing fragments of the conversation, isn’t it?’

‘I didn’t think you’d believe me.’

‘You asked for an opinion and I’ve given it. I wasn’t there but going on what you’ve said I reckon you misheard them.’

‘I know what they said.’

Clive replaced his glasses. I caught my reflection in the lenses and didn’t like what I saw. ‘Yes, but you don’t have any context. They could’ve been chatting about something perfectly innocent. They could’ve been talking about wives or girlfriends. She’s out shopping. They’ll not find her. You know the sort of thing.’ Clive tried to look sympathetic. ‘Do you know how many calls we used to get like this?’ I shook my head. ‘Hundreds every year and that’s just on our patch. God knows what it’s like now with social media. You know, people mess about and fool around and sometimes they do mean stuff like that when they say it. But it’s just talk. Have you never said you could kill someone or felt like wringing their neck?’

‘Hasn’t everyone?’

‘But aloud? You get my point. Hold on, we’re off.’ The first of the Romanians had shuffled into Boots. None of the others followed, preferring to eat their pasties out of the biting wind. I didn’t see what harm they were causing or what service Clive thought he was providing.

‘They met at a services though, didn’t they?’

‘Ah, so it’s all about the location.’

‘It’s a bit dodgy, isn’t it?’

‘No, not really.’ Clive’s knees creaked as he got to his feet. ‘Make a story of it. Or just forget it,’ he said. ‘That’s my advice.’

Two days I kept away until escaping the hammering of plasterboard tacks got the better of me. Anna said she’d bring my latte over. ‘I know where to find you.’

‘I don’t always sit there.’ The corner of her mouth twitched. ‘George in?’

‘Not till Thursday.’

I opened up my laptop and began to type ‘kidnap’ in the search bar. The screen flickered and dimmed. My battery was running on dregs again, less than ten per cent. I rummaged through my bag, but there was no sign of my charger. It was at home or had maybe fallen out in the car. Anna set my latte down and asked what I was writing. ‘Sorry to be a pain, but could you keep an eye on my stuff?’

‘Sure,’ Anna said. And added, ‘if you’re quick.’

‘Two mins. Promise.’ I jogged out of the main entrance, dodging a junior football team in their shiny tracksuits. The car park was busy, and I had to wait for an old woman to reverse park tightly between two people carriers when she could’ve had six spaces to herself just a few strides away. I stepped onto the crossing as a silver car shot around the side of a minibus almost hitting me. I raised a heel and turned sidewards instinctively, like a footballer in a free-kick wall about to be struck by a thunderous shot. It was a silver Merc. The driver waved a fist and swore at me and as he leaned forward over his dashboard. I recognised the man in the grey coat. I clocked the plate. Three letters and three numbers. A private plate. I made a rhyme of them so I wouldn’t forget. He took off his sunglasses and I ran off, nipping between tightly parked cars and vans. I glanced back and saw his Mercedes shoot off past the trailers and vans. I watched him till he’d disappeared between the gap in the conifers. I should get away before he came back. I should shoot off, but I didn’t have my laptop.

I jogged across to my car, checked the footwell and beneath the seats and the seat pockets, but I couldn’t find the stupid thing. I had enough useless chargers for phones and laptops to make a spaghetti of plastic leads. I clicked and opened the boot, knowing I hadn’t been in the boot for weeks, so it wasn’t going to be there. I just try to rule places out when I’m looking for something; it’s like a system. I lifted the boot and was leaning in, poking past the petrol can and tatty AA road atlas when I heard a boot scrape. A sole on gravel, like a match striking. I turned as something struck my neck. I stumbled forward but someone caught me. Hands gripped tight under my armpits. I got a whiff of something sharp, lemony. My knees buckled and I was lifted and tipped and the car park and the trees and the sky span. I remember lying on my side, but I don’t remember anything else.

Anna checked her phone. Two minutes? He’d been five already and she wasn’t paid for minding bags and laptops. She glanced over to the main door and seeing there was no sign of Mr Saxby she snapped his laptop shut, slid it into his case and cleared his things. She asked her manager, Greta, what to do and was told to put the things in a bag in the cleaning cupboard. ‘I hope he’s alright. It’s not like him.’

‘I’m sure he can look after himself.’

Two coaches came in, and then some football fans, so they got busier, and Anna was told to ‘jump to it’ and she forgot all about Mr Saxby’s things. She forgot to label them too, which would delay things even further when the police called for them six days later. When the digital forensics team accessed the laptop, they found notes of a conversation in a document he’d created, but they didn’t mean much. They’ll not find her. They knew Tim Saxby was a writer and dismissed the document as prelim notes for a story or piece he was working on.

Kids were playing near a flooded quarry in Derbyshire, some thirty miles to the east, when they spotted something shiny in the murky waters. One of them threw stones and got a metallic sound. Despite the weeds and debris, they made out a car just beneath the surface. It hadn’t been there the week before and they called police. It was Tim Saxby’s car, but he wasn’t inside it. The national newspapers reported on the mystery of a missing writer, suggesting his fate could’ve been similar to one of the stories he penned.

Three days before the car was found a woman was let out of a van in the Staffordshire Moorlands. She tripped in the grass verge, leggy and exhausted, and sat down, sheltering against a drystone wall. She was pale, her long blonde locks dirty and greasy and her skinny jeans filthy with rust and grit. She’d lost weight and she was sobbing. She’d been given a chocolate bar and a bottle of mineral water and told which way to walk. There hadn’t been proper food and she was light-headed and suffering cramp. She took her shoes off to walk, carrying them despite the frost. She crouched and wiped her ankle with a dock leaf, where it was sore and swollen. She’d scratched it, so a thin red stripe ran into the rose tattoo. She stared up at the golden ball of sun obscured by the cloud. She wore YSL sunglasses, and a jacket cropped above the waist that seemed to be made of eagle’s feathers. She was an odd sight for anyone who might’ve been walking or cycling the lane that morning. She could’ve tottered out of a city nightclub if the nearest one wasn’t thirty miles away.

She was crying because she was free and no longer – perhaps for the first time in her life – cared how she looked. She’d been kept in a cellar and had lost track of the days without a watch and a phone, listening to drips in the darkness or the scrape of the bolt in the door. As she stood leaning on the weathered fingerpost at the bottom of the lane an immaculate black car pulled up. They didn’t pip the horn or say anything, not wanting to alarm her. The back door opened, and she saw her husband. He jumped out and hugged her. He cried too. She’d never seen him cry before. ‘I hope you’re not crying about the money,’ she sobbed.

‘Don’t be so bloody daft.’ A policeman helped her into the back where she was wrapped in a blanket. An ambulance was on standby, where it wouldn’t be seen, to check her out. All had been prearranged. Nothing would be written about this. There would be no newspaper stories. The woman was returned. She could give no description but was sure there were two men. A mask had been pulled over her head and she’d caught something. A scent. Did they say anything? No, they’d been careful not to talk. But he wore a strong scent. Citrussy. She rubbed her ankle where she’d been scratched. ‘They took a photo of my tattoo, didn’t they? The police officer said it had been to prove it was her, that she was captive. They’d held her foot as they’d done it and she’d kicked out, blindfolded, and one of them had grunted and dug his nails in. She was safe now, but she’d prayed for hours in that cellar. Prayed that someone out there would see or hear something and help her. Everyone in the car, except her, thought she’d been lost. Something had rattled the men who took her, but no one knew what.

Left Luggage – a short story

Left Luggage

They found a suitcase behind a wall in our house. Bound up with parcel string, it was wedged tight against the chimney breast, cobwebbed, and caked in brick dust. It had been walled in behind plasterboard that was tacked to the ancient beams. The board was papered over with woodchip and brushed with a slap of dripping emulsion. All my fault. I’d invited them in.

I couldn’t remember a time when the wall hadn’t been there. God knows how old the case was. It was tartan-patterned and could’ve been a child’s toy. But the parcel string that criss-crossed it, holding it together with granny knots and reef knots, suggested something was held within it. The tartan was a pattern like a skirt I’d been made to wear for Sunday school – post-box red with navy and straw lines – but I was sure that it wasn’t mine. I sniffed and drew in damp, mustiness, a lingering trace of lavender.

I should never have called the workmen in. I could hear Cecil’s voice now. ‘What did you want to do that for? Stupid bloody tart. You know what happens now, don’t you?’

We’d had problems before when we’d used a local firm. They knew the reputation of Outlands and they’d taken photos of the rooms and staircase, even posing for selfies by the tree stump. Cecil swore blind they’d taken some of our ornaments as trophies, but he was such a hoarder I don’t know how he could remember what was here and what wasn’t.

I’d tried to assess the old place, room at a time, wondering how we were going to see our way through another winter. I’d started with the back bedroom and spotted patches of damp, seen that the paper had begun to peel away and the plaster beneath was crumbling. So, I got the builders in. I was careful not to pick a local firm but, yes, I’d started all this. I should’ve known better.

That afternoon, crashing out after a late, late shift I was sprawled out on the settee, headphones on, cushions shoved against my face, trying to drown out the hammering and scraping from the back bedroom. Drilling, then sawing, then stomping about and crowbarring floorboards off creaking beams. Three of them managing to sound like an invading army. The foreman it was, Mick, who’d tapped my foot giving me a start. I tugged the headphones off, so they clamped round my neck and I sat bolt upright. I hated anyone touching my feet. ‘What,’ I said, sharply. I held the cushion like a shield in case my dressing gown rode up and gave him a flash.

            ‘Sorry luv. I did knock.’ Mick was a gentleman and didn’t let his gaze drop, though I’d caught him clocking my black-painted toenails in the kitchen. He’d shaken his head at me shuffling about, bare soles slapping the red tiled floor. ‘You’ll catch your death, petal.’

‘I don’t do slippers. I’m not ready for dying yet,’ I’d told him.

            ‘Bit of a delay,’ he said. ‘I need you to look at something.’

Mick’s face was pinkish as if he’d shaved and stood in the wind. He was the hipflask type, tot of scotch in his builder’s tea to keep off the chill. He wore a dusty, padded checked shirt stuffed with receipts and bookie’s pencils. I pulled my heels to my bum, tucking my dressing gown tight as a drumskin and picking at a cornflake that had stuck to the towelling fabric.

            ‘You’ll have to tell us what you want to do,’ he said and set off, jogging up the stairs, not waiting for me to follow. ‘It’s not the electrics again, is it?’ I called after him. The wiring at Outlands might’ve been put in by Thomas Edison. Any more than a hairdryer and a kettle on the go and the lights flickered and shorted out. ‘You need to come and have a look.’ I tugged at my dressing gown as I climbed the stairs, tying the cord tight. I felt like a proper lazy bitch, in my bedclothes, with my bed-hair, in the afternoon. I wanted to put on some joggers, a sweater, at least pull a brush through my hair. ‘You need to come now,’ Mick said. ‘Tell us what to do.’ He’d paused on the landing, resting a hand on the newel post. I didn’t like his tone. Serious, I thought.

            ‘I’m coming, I’m coming,’ I said.

I should’ve known there’d be bother. We didn’t have the cash to fix up the back bedroom, but it was my idea we could tart it up, rent it out for a few quid. Mick had been in the game for donkey’s years and his brief assessment, with hands on his hips and sucking his teeth, was to knock the wall through and create a bit more space. Then he’d sort the damp. ‘In here, look,’ he said. It felt odd being invited into one of our own rooms, but then I’d rarely been into the back bedroom. I always found it cold, damp, unsettling. A full-length mirror stood in the corner, black-spotted and blurry with condensation. Or perhaps Cecil had smeared something on it to protect it. Thickly varnished floorboards bowed in the middle of the room like the hold of a ship. Patches on the ceilings and walls had gone the colour of old maps. Stiff chocolate-brown and orange curtains hung from a plastic rail and I’d left them, so I didn’t have to see outside.

The back bedroom looked out upon what was left of the woods. On the bank opposite, beyond the gorse and the brambles, was the stump. It was there that I’d stumbled, wrenching my knee, as I ran from Craig Moffatt. Tangled in the roots of that stump, had been a skull. I didn’t know what it was and could only see a pale, smooth patch of bone poking through the black soil. I’d dug deeper and put my fingers through an eye socket.

            ‘You won’t see from there, petal. You’ll need to come in.’

Mick frowned at Gary’s use of ‘petal’ even though he was always doing it himself (perhaps it was a rank thing) but I wasn’t bothered. I was clinging to the doorframe, leaning in, as if I might be able to see that way. The room was bare, all gone except for the cloudy mirror. I’d thrown what little furniture was left, after breaking it up with a claw hammer. I’d chucked it into a pile in the yard, doused it with some petrol I’d found in the outhouse and watched black smoke drift towards the motorway as the sun set. Cecil had no use for the petrol since his old Jag had gone to the scrapyard. It’d sat there rusting on bricks for years. Gary and Pete – I think the other one was called – were crouching over something. They both wore heavy workmen’s boots which looked at odds with their shorts and yellow hi-vis. Gary pointed at a break in the plasterboard. He’d put a hammer or maybe a boot through it, but it was powdery and shot through with damp. I clasped my dressing gown to my chest and stooped to see whatever I was meant to be looking at. Gary pointed his phone at it, so the lit screen picked out a small, white plastic handle and a tartan pattern.

            ‘Some sort of case,’ Pete said.

            ‘Strange place to go on your holidays,’ Gary said, grinning.

            ‘I got them to put it back,’ Mick said, glaring at him. ‘Till you were here.’

My scalp prickled. They know about the house, I thought. They know all about its reputation and its past. ‘Drag it out then,’ I said. I’d no idea why they’d take it out and slot it back. Perhaps Mick wanted me to see exactly how they’d found it. I wasn’t getting on hands and knees in front of that lot in a dressing gown. Gary reached in, where he’d shone the phone and tugged at the handle. He got three fingers looped around it, unable to fit his whole hand through. The case scraped on the brick dust and boards as he dragged it and set it down at my knees.

            ‘Someone did not want anyone getting in there, did they?’

I didn’t catch it, but Mick gave Gary another look that silenced him. I swallowed back dust. Outside it was a dull, wet afternoon but what weak, retreating sunlight there was picked out the stump in a wash of yellow and grey. Do you know anything about this? I sat down on my heels, screwing my eyes tight, shutting it out.

            ‘You OK, luv?’ Pete said.

I coughed to clear my throat. ‘I expect it’s something of Cecil’s,’ I said. ‘Proper bloody hoarder, you know the type.’ Mick nodded. Gary and Pete were decent enough to get up and go for a smoke. I watched them make their way down the stairs, patting pockets in search of tobacco tins and papers. They hadn’t got as far as the hallway before they were muttering.

            ‘Oh yeah, watch that. It’ll break else,’ Mick said. He pointed at a silver chain and locket which had got trapped in the case as it’d been snapped shut. ‘I’ll give you a few minutes. Shout up when you’re ready.’ Mick handed me a blade for the parcel string. I watched him make his way down the stairs and listened for the tinkle of cups on the draining board, the clank of the pipes.

I should’ve waited for Cecil. I’d have to tell Mick not to mention it to him. Far as Mick was concerned I was paying. I took a deep breath, held out my trembling fingers. I took the knife and snuck out the blade. I ran a fingertip over the tartan pattern. The case was dented here and there, scratched with brick-dust. I cut the first piece of string and it twanged it had been pulled so tight. I stabbed and cut at the others until a cat’s cradle of parcel string lay beneath the case. My heart was pounding. I closed the bedroom door. Outside on the crazy paving, the men were smoking, hands clasped around mugs of orange tea. Mick glanced up, and seeing me, looked away. I knew they were talking about me.

A child’s case, almost a toy. That meant it didn’t belong to him, thank Christ. I got the blade inside the case and levered it against the lock. The blade slipped, and I had to crook my elbow into my hip to drive it in and twist till the lock came away from the case. I slumped back against the wall, light-headed with the effort. I opened the case, flipping the lid back against the wall. What did I expect to find? Clothes were neatly folded. A mohair sweater and a topaz dress that smelt fusty but shimmered like a peacock’s feathers when I draped it over my arm. I rummaged through the musty clothes. There were no labels, nothing so convenient as a driving licence or passport. Not even a receipt. Mick called to see how I was doing and, as I got to my feet, I kicked the locket and it slid beneath the boards, dragging the slender silver chain with it. I’d need a story for the builders. Cecil had made me promises he hadn’t kept. The suitcase meant there’d been at least one more victim.