Crime · Short Stories

Wrench – a crime story

They left messages

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Stories

Fool’s Gold – a short story

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

Tumbledown cottage

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

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

Short Stories

My short story Lye Noon available to listen to here….

Lye, joint shortest station name in the UK and keen readers
Lye – setting for my short story – joint shortest station name in the UK and home to keen readers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve never had my work performed by an actor so what a great experience to listen to Jack Trow reading my story Lye Noon.

You can listen to it online here

It was great fun, if a little sad at times, to write and I hope you enjoy it.

It’s a story about one of life’s outsiders, Billy Boon, who suffers despite his wish to help and be accepted.

Billy is a devoted admirer of the Wild West too and isn’t afraid to dress the part when he’s out and about in the Black Country.

The story wouldn’t have happened without the commissioning and support of WM Readers’ Network and, in particular Roz Goddard.

I had a fantastic time working with Lye Down with a Good Book reading group. They were friendly and encouraging and very knowledgeable.

Thanks to Rochi Rampal, Duncan Grimley and Jack Trow too, for a great reading.

 

Short Stories

‘A Little Love’ wins Cardiff Review short story award 2016

Cardiff review - Fall 2016
Cardiff review – Fall 2016

I had the great news earlier this month that my short story ‘A Little Love’ has won the Cardiff Review short story award.

There’s an excerpt of the story here and a full version in the Fall edition of the Cardiff Review.

In the story the protagonist has a humdrum existence after dropping out of university to care for family and feels life may have passed him by. One night a surprise chance to do some good and feel he can really make a difference presents itself.

 

Outsiders · Short Stories

Out to Pasture

Newborough Warren

I’m playing hooky, skiving, swinging the lead, whatever you want to call it. The sky is black and a stiff wind is getting up, sending frothing waves crashing into the shore. Blobs of foam drift over my head and I paw at them attempting an Ali shuffle ankle deep in shingle. It doesn’t cheer me. I’m still in my shirt and tie, my only concession is an unbuttoned collar and sleeves rolled to the elbow as I kick up the surf and skim stones, desperate for that elusive seventh bounce from the water. I’m alone and there isn’t a soul, not even a solitary dog walker or fisherman, within a mile. The car park beyond the dunes is empty with windblown sand weighing heavy against a sagging fence. Without the steady supply of ice cream and burgers the gulls have given up and sought richer pickings inland. I take a deep breath and suck the salt-air down into my lungs. It’s what my Dad and the Victorians called bracing and it brought them here in their millions. I’m here for a different reason: it helps me forget.

I cheer and shout something rude about Pickering’s parentage but the wind blows my words and a spiteful sting of sand straight back in my face. My feet are blue and my legs pale where I’ve rolled up my trousers like those Mini-Milk lollies we queued for as kids. My skin tingles and burns the way your ear does when someone catches it square with a snowball, but I feel great and I feel free and I shout in a gap between the gusts.

Out in the bay a cormorant takes flight. It’s Monday morning, just before ten. Right about now, I’d be sending out the first of Pickering’s reports and sipping scalding coffee – coffee’s what the label on the machine says anyway – before being summoned into his office.

I grab the flask and take a swig of my own blend and jog back into the dunes. It is still and almost silent here, away from the crash of the waves. I have my own little den far up the beach, protected by millions of tons of golden sand and a forest of spiky marram grass. We once had a Scout camp here and Skip told us that many years ago the grass was harvested by the cartload to be made into mats and other household goods. Skip was an avid reader of local history. But take away the anchoring properties of the grass and the dunes are cast to the wind, he said. And before long the rich and fertile farmland becomes dunes too. I know lots of shit like this; none of it useful. Holidaymakers didn’t put bread on the table back then, so Elizabeth the First decreed that anyone gathering grass from the dunes would forfeit a hand. You had your hand chopped off for cutting grass. I’m sure Pickering would think that punishment liberal.

It’s not the failing that hurts because I haven’t – I’m second for sales this quarter – instead it’s being put ‘out to pasture’ that’s insulting. He wrote our names on a scrap of paper, mine was the only one beneath that heading. Yes, he’d actually written ‘Out to Pasture.’ I’ve got that note somewhere safe, tucked up case I need to use it. I push my toes through the sand and feel the grains fall between them. The note isn’t much, but I think it buys me today at least.

 

 

Crime · Short Stories

A Head for Business

Bishop's Move

Lang’s toenails bit into his soles. Lang hated silences, didn’t like eye contact, so Lang put an end to it.

‘You’re asking me to kill someone. You’re not buying a settee,’ he said.

Darcy’s pencil tapped on the blotter. Lang stood perfectly still, staring at the watercolours of the Lakes on the wood-panelling, waiting.

‘OK, enough,’ Lang said, turning for the door.

Bonner coughed. He was stood in the corner of the room, leather gloved hands clasped, shoulders rolled forward a little, mindful of dirtying Mr Darcy’s wallpaper. Bonner was there to mind Lang’s Ps and Qs apparently. It made a change from squeezing rent cheques out of drunks.

‘Half now,’ Darcy said, sliding an envelope across the desk, ‘half when the job’s done. The same as we always do it.’

Lang reached and pocketed the envelope, feeling it smooth, like shirt cardboard, against his chest.

‘And we’ll want proof,’ Darcy said.

Lang nodded.

‘So we know we’ve got what we paid for,’ Darcy said.

Bonner’s brogues creaked on the woodblock, reminding Lang he was there.

‘Proof isn’t a problem,’ Lang said.

He noticed Darcy had nicked his throat, staunched it with a tear of toilet paper, but it had still pinked his collar. He had blood on his collar and blood on his hands.

‘Don’t you want to know what he’s done?’ Darcy said.

Lang shook his head. He stared where the razor had cut.

‘Picked on you on the playground, didn’t he?’ Darcy said, smirking.

Lang gnawed at his cheek, snaring a flap of gristle and snapping it free tasting the coppery blood with the tip of his tongue.

‘Gerry said you were at school together,’ Darcy said. Bonner was Gerry, the huge lump he used for debt collecting, minding his sorry collection of bookies and pizza parlours.

‘Is that all?’

Darcy rolled his eyes, said he wanted his fucking head and dismissed him. Lang took the stairs two at a time, glad to be out of there, glad to be paid. He tapped out a cigarette, cupping his hands as he lit up. ‘H. Darcy’ it said on the brass plaque beside the door. Lang didn’t know what the H was for. No profession, no explanation, just a cheese-plant and a spilled stack of motoring magazines coffee rimed and dog-eared. Lang grinned, taking a deep drag, blowing the smoke through his nostrils. He was earning but, in truth, it was a job he would have done for free.

*******

Lang breathed on a smear of mayo, buffing the glass clean with his elbow. He brushed pastry flakes from the bald upholstery.

‘Take your seats ladies and gentlemen as a full ticket inspection will be taking place shortly,’ the voice said.

Magazines and newspapers went up like windbreaks in the seats around them. Fisk insisted on taking the window seat. Lang let him have that at least so Fisk could smile at the suburban semis with their rosebushes and their twinkling patio lights. Fisk could dream. He’d wanted all that one day and he might’ve had it if he’d knuckled down and stopped scamming folk. Tricking old folk out of their hard-earned was always likely to land Fisk in hot water and then he’d gone and stolen Ethel’s Christmas club money. That had been his worst move yet. Ethel Darcy.

Folk were still shuffling up and down the train in search of a seat, too polite to tell people to shift their arses and bags. A student in an Aussie hat hovered, clearing his throat. Rainwater dripped from the brim spotting the threadbare carpet near Lang’s feet. Lang’s cheek twitched. His jaw tensed. He gripped the armrest until his knuckles turned white, bloodless. Lang watched the student, eyes like slits. He knew his type well enough: a streak of piss with an Adam’s apple like a ballcock and a shower of blond curls. His rugby shirt had chewed cuffs where he’d picked at them. The student made like he was checking the seat numbers. Lang waited him out, humming, while the student dripped.

‘Excuse me,’ the student said. ‘Is this seat-’

‘My pal’s sitting here,’ Lang said. ‘You can see that.’

The student frowned. Lang started humming again. The student scratched the nape of his neck, staring at the window seat. His skin flushed like nettle-rash. The student hefted his bag and retreated.

‘Smart choice, pal,’ Lang said, snapping his newspaper out, business-like. He sipped the over-priced coffee he’d bought. It tasted of fillings. Fisk stared out of the window, tracing shapes in the condensation like a kid. He drew a noose and a scaffold. He dangled a stick man from the rope, legs flailing. The stick man had eyes like crosses and a downturned mouth.

‘Shrink would have a field day with you, Derek,’ Lang said to Fisk.

A guy with a beard like iron filings stumbled into their carriage, sucking on a crumpled juice carton. The automatic doors shuddered and snapped on the beard’s rucksack. He looked like a stricken tortoise. Lang laughed.

The carriage was silent, save for the tinny hiss of headphones. A woman clutched her handbag inside her cardigan. She wasn’t going to the toilet, she was changing carriage. Lang sniffed and wiped his nose on his wrist. He trailed a silvery snail-slick of snot across the seat in front. Lang drifted into sleep, remembering a time when Fisk had hurt him. They could have been back at high school. Whenever Lang pushed his luck Fisk would gouge him or strike him or burn him. It was the same all through school. Fisk always had to take charge.

The conductor waited till folk were sleeping so it gave him half the work. He could avoid doing his job and make out he was being considerate. He shuffled along, hitching his sagging waist, glimpsing at dog-eared tickets used as bookmarks or sketchpads. He was passing them when Lang thrust out a fist clutching both tickets. He’d paid walk-up price and didn’t want folk riding for free.

‘Thank you, Sir. He’s in the toilet is he?’ the conductor said, striking a pen through the tickets.

Lang frowned, puzzled. ‘Who is?’

‘Your friend,’ the conductor said, ‘the other ticket?’

Lang didn’t answer. It couldn’t be an easy job at times and this guy was clearly brain-fried. The conductor blinked. ‘Very good,’ he said, handing both tickets to Lang.

‘Best get the luggage off the seats. We’ve still got people standing,’ the conductor said, nodding at the blue box.

Lang stared at him. ‘This is my pal’s seat.’

The conductor nodded. His shift ended with a brandy; then it was someone else’s problem. Buying two tickets was hardly fraud, was it? Maybe the guy was at the on-board shop or having a crafty fag in the toilets.

Lang looped his coat around his shoulders and wriggled down into the seat. He didn’t hear a peep from Fisk. They took turns to sleep or stare at the moonlight reflecting on the flat, wet fields.

**********

Darcy was getting impatient. They had a number for Lang but it kept ringing out. Bonner begged to be let loose, but Darcy preached caution.

‘He’ll come,’ he said. ‘He’ll want more money, he always does.’

Bonner hammered his fist into his palm, liking the slap of polished leather. He was thinking he’d plug Lang in a concrete drainage pipe or bury him head first in the forest when the buzzer sounded in reception. They saw him on the CCTV, staring up at them, bug-eyed, lugging a holdall.

‘You’ve taken your time,’ Darcy said, when Lang strolled through the door.

Lang shrugged. ‘I had to find him first.’ He set the holdall down at his feet.

Darcy stared at the bag. ‘I didn’t know you enjoyed tennis, Dennis. Ha,’ Darcy said. ‘Tennis Dennis, I said. I’m a poet and don’t know it.’

‘The rest of my fee,’ Lang said, holding out his palm.

‘We had an arrangement. Proof was required,’ Darcy said.

Lang dropped to his knees.

‘And I didn’t tell you to come here,’ Darcy said. ‘You were meant to meet up with Gerry. Have you heard of text messages, emails and things like that?’

Lang unzipped the holdall. Bonner stepped forward. He reckoned Lang was unhinged, didn’t like the boss dealing with him. Lang took out the wooden box he’d carried with him on the train journey. It was painted blue and had a padlocked clasp.

‘What’s this?’ Darcy said.

Lang lifted the lid and took out a black plastic bag. Something toppled inside, weighty and bulging against the plastic.

‘What the hell’s going on?’ Darcy said.

‘Patience,’ Lang said.

Lang produced the blade and slit the bag. He peeled back the plastic and set Fisk’s head down on Darcy’s desk. Darcy’s eyes widened. His chair screeched as he leapt back against the wall. ‘Jesus,’ Bonner bawled. Lang stepped away from the head, hands raised as if he’d finished a sculpture.

‘You’re crazy,’ Darcy said.

He stood back, keeping the desk between him and Fisk’s leaking head.

‘He owed you money,’ Lang said. ‘He owed me too.’

Darcy’s voice was hoarse, throaty. ‘You could’ve taken a photo.’

Fisk’s eyes were open, bloody and dark. His hair was matted with blood at the collar.

‘The head symbolised power for the Celts. If you take your enemy’s head-’ Lang began.

‘Take it away,’ Darcy roared.

‘I’ll kill him, boss,’ Bonner said.

Darcy shook his head. ‘I want him out of here, now.’

Lang held out his hand. Darcy snatched an envelope from the drawer, throwing it at Lang.

‘Get out and take it with you.’

Lang dropped Fisk’s head into the bag, but it tumbled out where he’d cut.

‘Get out!’

Lang held Fisk’s head by the hair, like a war trophy, pocketed the envelope, and set off down the stairs.

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Published in Silver Apples

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