‘Some Apprehension’

pheasants

The Woodsman had let her have bunches of mistletoe and bright red holly berries in exchange for a kiss. A passionless one mind you, no more than a gentle peck upon his cheek. She had felt his arm brush against her breasts as he moved closer, but he did that to all the women, well the servants anyway. She had no real objection, in fact, pondered if she would have been insulted if he hadn’t done so.

She sat quietly in front of the freshly blackened range, the warmth filling the small room, the mantle clock ticking the seconds away. She regarded the clock, its shiny, lovingly polished mahogany case, the glass front and enamel dial unscratched, its engraved brass plaque, an enduring reminder, as if she needed one, of her late father’s long service and loyalty to the Estate.

The fire suddenly glowed a bright red as sap from the wood oozed into the flames, shooting sparks out over the heath rug. She stood up, stooped, deftly picking them up and throwing them back into the grate. She had done so, so often over the years, that her fingers had hard little patches of skin that had no feeling of the heat of the embers.

Now she was up out of her chair she straightened her pinny, decided to change it for a freshly laundered one, lightly starched pure white, for she was a woman of importance in the hierarchy of servants who tended the big house. She threw on her heavy woollen cloak, pinned her bonnet in place and left to walk up the long straight drive that lead to the Hall.

The night was clear, vague traces of high wispy cloud, the moon with a white ring around it, a ring that country folk always reckoned heralded snow. ‘A White Christmas,’ was it possible? It had been a while since one of those, but then again it had been four years since Christmas and the New Year had been properly celebrated in the Hall, let alone a white one.

Time perhaps to forget those past celebrations for they were unlikely ever to return, although she knew that forgetting them completely would never be possible. The happiness she had enjoyed as a child and young woman, working in the big house. But now on Christmas Eve 1917, she felt yet again the bitterness and anger rising, unbidden, at the events some three years past now, that she was certain would scar her memories for many years to come. Perhaps forever

********

 The big house – Rainsford Hall – to give it its proper title, was what one would expect of a large English country house, although the bottom fields nudged just across the border into Wales, a permanent reminder of past squabbles often won by the stroke of a sword.

The Rainsford family traced their ancestry back to the Norman invasion and had a long history of menfolk who went to war and women folk who produced prodigious quantities of young. There was a long picture gallery hung with portraits of these fighting men and fertile women, including, as is always required of long-lived noble families, a couple of black sheep. The family counted the fact that they had such ancestors as a blessing, as it was those men who provided the basis of the fortune that still made the family one of the richest in the country. Besides, they added a touch of glamour, romance even, to dinner parties which otherwise could have been deadly dull affairs.

********

As she walked towards the house she heard the gentle footed deer moving away into the safety of the trees, but the sheep kept up their steady grazing, for people bred no fear within them.

Christmas Eve, the Hall showing few lights, whereas in years gone by, every window would have been ablaze. Elegant carriages and expensive cars dropping off happy party goers looking forward to a pleasant evening, before walking across the open courtyard into the Chapel to welcome Christmas Day. Many would have stayed over, joining the Boxing Day Shoot followed by a Grand Ball within the elegant and traditionally candle lit Ballroom.

********

“Mary? Is that you? There’s fresh tea in the pot if you fancy, before you turn the beds down and there’s plenty of cake left over which was made special for the children. Little buggers were too excited to eat proper, all athinking what Santa would be abringing them no doubt.”

“Thanks’ Cook, just tea will be fine for it’s precious cold out there tonight. I swear that drive is getting longer as each year passes and I get older.”

“Be gone with you Mary, you aint old, I’ll be givin’ you near twenty years no doubt. Look at you, bonny and nicely rounded, just where the menfolk like a woman to be. Old indeed!”

Mary, as Housekeeper, took great pride in her work, but now, with so few of the family at home and mainly the women, she had time to spare, too much at times, too much to dwell upon the past.

The ritual of turning the beds down she kept for herself, for then she could make doubly sure that each room was to the liking of the family member or guest occupying it. Was it clean and freshly dusted, was there coal enough for those that liked a fire to last the night?

She would start with the younger women’s rooms. The wives of the Rainsford brothers, four in all, women bound by the common cause of fear for their loved ones, all abroad with the Army. Women who, once upon a time would have seen the servants as just that, servants to do their bidding whatever the time of day or night. Just servants, not as women who bled as they did, cried out in pain at childbirth, just servants.

But now there was less of divide between servant and served. Many of the maids had gone to work in the munitions factories as had the children’s nannies. Thus the family women folk unused to any manual toil, even to changing their babies nappies, had suddenly found their comfortable world turned upside down. The Duchess, a very self-sufficient and practical woman, which some considered had been learnt in the lower rungs of the aristocracy where she was bred, had gently chivvied the younger women from their languid easy lives, into the reality of a world at war.

When she had first arrived at the Hall a blushing newly-wed, newly titled, unsure of her ability to run the big house, Mary had become her maid. The women both aged twenty, both fresh to the marriage bed and its intimacy, both not quite sure if they were doing things properly, satisfying their men. Not that they talked openly about such matters of course, but the relationship between the Lady and her maid became, not one of open friendship, at least not to begin with, but of two young women who liked each other, had a respect for the difference in the ranks imposed by society, but who would occasionally giggle outlandishly together.

The Duchess’s husband, a few years older than his bride and an astute judge of character, had after a few months advised his new wife, ‘to keep an eye on her maid’s husband, for there is something about him that causes me apprehension.’

The Duchess, having elicited no further information, but having promised to, ‘honour and obey’, did just that.

********

The birds had flown high and fast on Boxing Day and the few men too old to go to war had fared no better than the womenfolk in bringing them to earth. There had been much merriment at the continual misses and in some cases, happiness from the youngsters present, that the pheasants had the upper hand.

The youngest wife, a pretty young woman, still finding her way in the pecking order  of the English aristocracy, had, it would long be remembered, missed every single bird that had flown above her, but had successfully bought down the old weather vane upon the barn where lunch was to be served. Many were the jokes about, ‘missing the barn door at thirty paces.’ Still, she had taken it in good stead, downed two large glasses of extra strong punch and declared that she would sit the afternoon out, much to the relief of the other guns and beaters.

Mary had watched from the barn, enjoying the comradeship on display, the children and dogs vying to see who could bring back any pheasant unlucky enough to have been hit. After lunch she had returned to the big house, inspected all the bathrooms for fresh towels, for there would be much demand for both them and copious amounts of hot water.

She entered the Duchesses  suite of rooms to lay out her evening clothes, for her maid had fallen ill and Mary had said she would see that everything was in order until she was able to resume her duties. Besides, she enjoyed the quiet elegance of the room, the femininity, the lavishness which was missing from her own humble cottage.

The Duchess came in, a handsome woman, cheeks red from the fresh air, long skirts laden with mud. “Well Mary, never have I seen such fun on a shoot! Why, I swear even the birds were waving as they passed us by, secure that they were more than likely to be quite safe! Tis good to see the women forget their worries for a little while and know that at least until tomorrow, there is no likely hood of them receiving that dreaded telegram. Even worse I suppose is hearing the telegram boy in the distance on that awful little motorbike of his, each wondering if their name is in that little brown pouch.”

“Come and sit with me while I bathe, for it is a while since we talked and your eyes tell me that you are not quite right my dearest Mary.”

 ********

The two women had talked, now friends with the passing years, enjoying each other’s company, less distinction between their ranks these days. Mind you, the Duchess would reflect on these occasions, that rank actually meant very little when one was as naked as a new born babe and being wrapped in warm white towelling sheets.

“Still troubled Mary?”

“Yes Your Grace.” She got no further as the Duchess cut her off.

“Mary, we are alone, we are friends, at least call me My lady’ as I know you will not use my given name, but My lady’ is a t least more familiar, less formal, less harsh, than ‘Your Grace.’

She continued not giving Mary the chance to intervene, “I can’t pretend to say I understand what you’re feeling, the distress and humiliation, the hurt of the vicious words thrown out at you by people one would have counted as friends. But Mary, my dearest Mary, it is three years since.”

“Yes my Lady three years since, but it is not only the distress and humiliation, but the fond memories destroyed by someone I though loved and honoured me.”

“Perhaps he did in his own way, but it was his character that was flawed Mary and in that you could have played no part.”

********

Mary quickened her pace, almost running the last few yards into her cottage. She sank into her chair and gave way to great waves of tears spotting down onto the still pristine white starched pinny.

She woke as the clock chimed three. The fire was low, but brightened quickly as she threw more logs on to it. She was cold and stiff but calmer than she had been for many months. What she would give for a deep hot bath! Maybe she would find the time later in one of the bathrooms up at the Hall. The Duchess had no issues with the maids so doing, given how uncosy where their bathrooms, something she intended to rectify in the near future

A fresh pot of tea would have to suffice and Mary sat cradling the cup, watching the flames, taking comfort from them, her anger gone at the man she had loved so dearly, the Duchesses words clear in her ears from the night before. “Mary my dear Mary, you must try to forget him, the taunts he opened you up to came from those in society who have a nasty piety about them, have no understanding that a wife cannot be blamed for the actions of her husband when he is so far away from her.”

Mary had opened her mouth but the Duchess held up a stern warning finger that silenced her. “No Mary you were not to blame.”

“Yes My lady but there are still some folk who will not talk to me, will cross over to the other side of the street rather than walk past me.”

“Then let them, for they will never understand, but you and I and the more generous folk in this household know the truth of the matter and that is what you must hold onto Mary! Now, to change the subject, rumour has it that the School Master has been calling upon you, sometimes with a bunch of flowers, so you should take heed that those of us who can think independently of the herd see no blemish attached to you.”

********

The day after Boxing Day there was much coming and going as the Christmas guests left, making way for those who were to come for the New Year. There was a great gathering up and changing of used bed linen, rooms being aired and dusted, freshly laundered sheets being ironed and hung in the laundry before once again being made up into warm welcoming beds.

Mary worked side by side with the others standing in for the servants who had gone to war in one form or another, glad that her mind was occupied but aware that throughout the festivities she had watched carefully the young mothers of the family and the guests with children, sheltering them from the real dangers their fathers faced. Menfolk who would rather have been shooting at those brightly coloured birds, rather than the drab, cold, mud covered men speaking foreign languages in the trenches on the other side of the barbed wire.

Thank god she had not been left with child she would muse, but then instantly regret that she had no child, for deep within she wanted to mother a son or daughter it did not matter, just not his, for she did not know if she could have loved it.

She was angry again even after three years. But with whom? Him? Or, herself for loving him, to start with anyway. But was it even love or had she merely been caught up in the headiness of a handsome young man paying court to her?

She wanted to remember him as he first was, before the bitterness had come, had poisoned him. But now she could not forgive him as she watched the other woman being proud of their men folk even in their widowhood.

Her husband, how she had gloried in that word in the early months of the marriage, was not an evil man, he did not beat her, he did not drink to excess, he appeared genial to all and sundry. But behind closed doors it became different, his tongue took on a violence towards her as war seemed to come closer with the inevitable draft of fit young men.

She would try to understand the reasons, soothe him as she felt a good wife should but she had little or no success. The angrier he became the more difficult his ranting were to follow. So her love for him began to wane to be replaced by sorrow that such a handsome young man could turn into so bitter a human being. And she had no reasons at that time as to ask why, other than to imagine it was somehow her fault.

********

They had come for him at dawn on Christmas Day 1914, offered him a last cigarette but he was in such a state of fright he could not keep it between trembling lips. The firing squad had smirked at him, already savouring the hot rum they would be given following the execution. Another day, another coward tied to a post, blindfolded and shot through the heart, a quick clean death.

They had no regrets, the firing squads, it was simple, a man who ran away, left his comrades to die on the end of a German bayonet, was a coward. A weak man who had enjoyed the cheering crowds as he marched to war, enjoyed the attention of generous women, despite a good and honest wife at home. A man, who when faced with bloody reality, had not stood his ground as did his comrades on either side, but had fled, crying and screeching. A man the others had already begun to regard with, ‘some apprehension.’

End

Bethany’s Chair

frigate-146987_640_1It had been at the back of the Grovers Antique Emporium for many years. Tatty, even when taken in from clearing the big old house on the hill. Now, spiders lived happily in the cracks and crannies of sprung joints and the dust gathered, casting a shoddy grey layer over what was once a rich, dark red velvet seat. But for a burst water pipe, it would, most likely in the nature of things, have slowly disintegrated until consigned to the fire to be lost for all time. An ignominious fate, for deep within the aging wood, a tiny speck of sap remained, as if knowing that one day it would nurture life as it had done in the past.

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Just as deep within that old chair life still sparked, so it did quite deliberately within Muriel Winter. She never even tried to call her impregnation, love making, or even a romantic tryst, just sex with the sole intention of falling pregnant. Despite the apparent casualness of her coupling she had in fact watched the men of her acquaintance – her circle – until she narrowed the possibilities down to two, both unmarried as she wished no other woman harm, she simply wanted a child.

She knew, almost to the minute, when she would be most fertile. Fortunately that time fell during the late evening rather than midmorning, which would have posed problems given that she taught the reception class in her village school. Practical sex education was not part of the curriculum.

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At six months, pregnant with twins, she developed a chronic backache. The women in the staff room were full of ideas about how she could cope, but kind and well intended as the advice was, it served no useful purpose. The ache persisted and Muriel even wondered if she should perhaps pray to some deity or other – was there one for pregnant women with chronic backache she pondered?

The only practical help was tendered by her friend Joan who would arrive armed with baby oil for a soothing back rub. Then she turned up with a tatty dirty chair declaring, ‘Muriel this is what you need and it’ll come in useful when you’re feeding your twosome! Found it in the skip outside Grovers as the shop is flooded out.’

The chair cleaned up well given it age and as the layers of dust and grime were stripped so the sap rose deep within, sensing that once again it would serve some useful purpose.

And as the age old varnish was gently stripped away it revealed a hand carved name upon the elegantly curved backrest. ‘Bethany Winter 1805 – 1873.

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The births had not been easy even for Bethany, a mother of five including one set of twins. Now two more healthy mouths to feed, be nurtured into fine young children. She had not gone to the birthing bed with any sense of ease or well-being, her soul unhappy, for she knew that as she bought new lives into the world, her beloved husband could well be fighting for his and the lives of her crew and ambassadorial passengers aboard his ship, HMS Jupiter.

He had sailed nine months before, deliberately not telling her that once again he was to face the storms and terrors of the Great Southern Ocean. He knew how she feared that passage, more than any he had sailed over the oceans of the world, his deformed arm broken by the violence of the seas around Cape Horn, bearing witness to the dangers of those enormous rolling seas.

It was the Admiral’s wife, a spiteful blowsy barren woman, who had taken great delight in telling Bethany of her husband’s voyage to the Pacific Ocean. She had watched with great satisfaction as the colour drained from Bethany, her spirits becoming as low and grey as her complexion.

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Muriel Winter went happily to her birthing bed, became entranced by her two identical daughters. She sat, satisfied in Bethany’s chair, watching the park across the road, the people, the dogs, the high spirits for life and living. And as she sat, the aged sap deep within the wood was content with the new life now being nurtured upon its restored red velvet seat. A great unhappiness undone after all those long years since Bethany, with her twins sat looking at the portrait of her husband upon the Gallery wall, certain that the Southern Ocean had at last claimed him.

End

Bethany Winter appears in ‘The Gallery’ published some months ago in CWG.

https://davidgoodwin935.wordpress.com/2015/07/18/the-gallery

James and Frank and Jebb

 

quill

There are times I regret joining the writers group. I only did so because I was bored and lonely, having recently moved to a new town, a new job, a new life really. It was an advert on the bus, my car was in dock being given its MOT.

Want to Write?

                                Either for Pleasure or Professionally?

     Come and Join us 7pm Every Thursday Evening at Gresfod Polytechnic

So I did, just over four years since. I now have friends, but if the truth be told, mostly of the drinking kind. I’ve settled into my job, can even think about buying a new car. And of course there’s Lila. Pretty, of mixed Roma and Polish blood, vivacious, somewhat hot-headed, kind and with whom I’m totally smitten and besotted. Quite what she sees in me I’m blowed if I know.

My flat is slightly bigger than average, not surprising really I suppose, as it occupies the entire top floor of a three storey Victorian house. I knew the instance I walked into the place, notwithstanding the usual garrulous estate agent wittering annoyingly away behind me, that I could settle here at last. Begin to look to the future after an unhappy chapter of change and upheaval.

Without realising it, what clinched the deal for me at that first viewing, was a small smartly decorated room overlooking the local park. It just seemed to say, ‘hello, I’ve been waiting for you all these years.’ And when I joined the writers group, without more ado it morphed into my garret.

A room in which to write a world beating novel, negotiate multi-million pound film rights, celebrity appearances, fast cars, even faster women. The trouble was, as I soon found out, my ambition was rather greater than my talent.

I enjoyed reasonable success within the writing group, winning the monthly competition once and with other respectable second and third places. Mind you I also bombed a few times scoring, to quote, ‘Null points.’ Ah well, even JK Rowling took ten years or more to be successful.

And now this month’s brief, “A characterisation of time displacement.”

I was a tad wary of the bit about, ‘if your character or characters (which could include yourself) are displaced in time.’ I mean, I’d just spent four years putting together a new life, though I hasten to add not under a new name or anything mysterious like that, hiding from creditors, witness protection or some irate husband. No, plain straight forward redundancy, twice in quick succession, although that doesn’t help ones self-esteem by any means. The fact that millions of others suffered the same fate is irrelevant really.

What about the, ‘which could include yourself’ bit? Did I want to do that? I had no wish to keep re-visiting my past although it would still occasionally intrude unasked, when least expected and certainly not wanted.

Right then, where to start? Well, understanding the brief would help!

I’d found, whilst writing previous stories, that as long as I knew roughly what the ending would be, or was supposed to be, then I could always get there even, if occasionally I had to change things round a bit. But what I really found was keep it simple, not too many characters as their interaction could become too complicated for a short story.

But what was left? What did the brief say? ‘If your character or characters.’

I sat pondering, quiet, for once nothing playing on my CD player, the coffee machine silent from its hissing and spluttering, my rather posh desk light casting a warm glow, the laptop waiting patiently to begin its work.

‘What do you think would happen if your character or characters (which could include yourself) are displaced in time by years or even just seconds, minutes, perhaps?’

Having dismissed myself from being displaced in time mainly because I’d lived such a boring and unexciting life and couldn’t think that anyone would want to swop, even for a milli-second, what could I write about? Some sort of sci-fi, you know moving through time bands, being beamed up like in Star Trek. But that’s not really my genre. I’m better at the historical stuff or even stories placed in academia and I enjoy writing them, am more comfortable in the past I suppose. Could that be a starting point?

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I have five days left to finish this damn story and my thoughts are still as scrambled as the eggs I’ve just eaten. Annoyingly, an idea is flitting around my head but it will not form. “Time. The Future. The Past. Your Character.”

And then it comes, like the proverbial flash in the pan! ‘Your Character.’  How many characters have I written about during the past four years? What if I looked at some of them, after all, in a sense when writing about a person fighting in the Napoleonic wars aren’t you in effect displacing yourself to that time? The sailor in the Southern Ocean battling to round the Horn, the little Chimney Sweep stuck in the chimney of some great house?

More characters, James Rollo, in James Rollo, Frank in The Last Supper both ending their lives on the hangman’s rope. Lucky Jesus Mathew in Number Thirteen, Captain Jonas Winter and his wife Bethany in The Gallery.  The nameless wheelchair-bound soldier listening to Churchill in The Library. The Academic, wondering if he could turn the world upside down in Stonehenge Revisited. My characters, my friends even and perhaps my favourite, Jebb Just:

“I’ve seen this before with fightin’ men. Can take months for ‘em to come back and then sometimes, not all of ‘em comes back so as to speak, does something in their heads. Scrambles their brains good and proper says the naval surgeons and Jebb was hurt bad, took a fearsome knock.”

Ah Jebb! Far from a coward, but suffering from what was eventually to be recognized as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but not until many a brave man had been put against a firing post and shot to death by his own side.

So many characters. But after Jebb, two others stand out, James Rollo and Frank.

James Rollo 

11th June 1814 

The heavy Frigate Lysander, 38 guns, lay at anchor within the reaches of Plymouth Sound. Her masts and rigging were dressed with the flags and bunting of a Fleet Court Martial and now, with that of an execution. The atmosphere aboard the ship was, as one would expect sombre, sullen even. Out of earshot of any officer there were mutterings, “‘angin’ the wrong man they is, the wrong man, poor sod. But ‘e’ll go to his death nice and quiet no doubt, for he’s a gentleman, not like some aboard who wear an h’officers rig.”

In the main cabin, the condemned man sat quietly, resigned to his fate. Two red coated marines stood guard, sweat already starting to show as the sun climbed into the sky, another perfect summer day. 

They came for him at eight o’clock. He walked calmly along the deck, shaking off the hands that would have pinioned him. Saw the rope hanging from the yardarm, felt his stomach clench, the fear biting. He refused the hood, standing in the sunshine as the charges and sentence where read out to him, his mind willing them to get on with it, let it be done.

As they hauled him aloft, the rope choking and cutting into him, he looked at his Captain through eyes starting to mist over. A final, great surge of anger with the man. Then the darkness, welcoming painless darkness.

 Frank 

The Last Supper..

Twelve hours to go. Twelve long hours before they come for me. Why do they have to be so friggin’ cruel and tell you weeks before, exactly at what time and what date you’re going to hang? Once all the due process has ended why can’t they just turn up unannounced and kill you? And before they come to ritually hang me, I’m to have my Last Supper………………….

………………………If I listened carefully, I could just hear some remote clock chiming my life away. Half past two, quarter to three. Three o’clock. I need a pee but I’m shaking now, can’t hit the bowl. God I want to scream! So scream! But at what? The fear of dying? June doubled over in front of me, silent, holding her head, her beautiful blonde head bloodied by the blow from the champagne bottle?

Five minutes. They’ve taken the eggs and chips away. I couldn’t eat them anyway. The orange juice has gone down, the whiskey doing its work. Three minutes. I need to be sick.

Two minutes. Fifty four years about to end dangling on a bloody rope, what a bloody bloody waste!

Shit they’re here! Stiff upper lip old boy. I recognise Pierrepoint, he has a kind face for such a trade as his. Hands bound behind me, legs strapped at the ankles and finally the hood. Darkness and suddenly I am back with June screaming at her why did she steal from me, she didn’t need to, we could have gone away anywhere, me the screw ‘em and leave man, wanting to settle down!

But she had just laughed at me. And in the split second of life left to me it became clear. I could never recall hitting her, such was my fury, but the fingerprints on the bottle, the blood splattered over me all pointed to my guilt, but the shadow, whose was the shadow?

So there we are, James and Frank and myself. James in 1814, Frank in 1955 and me in 2016. All mixed together, an unintended time displacement.

Would James have changed places with Frank for the swift professional hanging conducted by Albert Pierrepoint, instead of being hauled aloft to strangle slowly, angry at the deception but unable to extract revenge in those final agonisingly painful moments?

Almost certainly Frank would not exchange places with James. But did he drop to his death realising at that very moment that he too was innocent? Did he even have time to finish the thought? Who knows? I certainly don’t, but as the creator of these characters I have been with them, changed places with them as I wrote about them.

I imagined their terror, James on a beautiful summer morning, a proud man, determined not to show his fear even as he saw that rope hanging from the yardarm. Could I be so brave or did I simply write what I hoped I would be able to behave like?

As for Frank, shaking in his cell during those final cruel hours, I was there with him, grateful that when they came, they took him and not me………….

End

 

 

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kwaJimu

zulu“Six months, old boy, twelve at the most but the last couple won’t be pleasant I’m afraid, so say, six realistically.” I’d asked for it to be given to me straight – can’t stand all this faffing about when unpleasant things have to be said or done – and my friend Doc Woods has certainly just done that.

“Whisky old boy? Take the edge of the news eh?”

“Well yes, thanks, thought you might also be going to tell me to lay off the stuff.”

“Absolutely no point old chap, you might as well enjoy it. Can’t do you anymore harm now.”

The whisky was good, a straight single malt, but then I wouldn’t expect anything else from old Wooders. I’d known him since our school days, when he’d flattened me in the inter-house boxing match. Got me own back though – took his middle stump out first ball, can still see that stump cart wheeling away, the bails flying, the look on his face. I mean, he had just been selected for a schoolboy trial at Lords.

“Look, this sort of news doesn’t usually hit home until after a few days, if you have questions, come and see me then, just turn up old boy, I’ll be here.” With that we had shaken hands, I’d put on my old camel coat, half thinking there’d be no point in getting a new one now and bowler and bidden him ‘good day.’

Thinking back, I‘m not quite sure how I made it from Harley Street to my club in the Strand, but obviously I did. Well, that was it then. Wouldn’t even make a biblical three score years and ten. My father had racked up over ninety years and mother eighty four. I was going to let the side down, unless a miracle happened and as I’d never seen one of those yet in my sixty five years I wasn’t going to rely on one now.

“Harry old chap, how’s it going? Long time no see old boy.” Even thought I really wanted to be left alone, I could not refuse Robbie Johnson’s company. He was a solid sensible chap, down to earth but with an innate kindness and generosity.

I don’t know why, but I found myself unburdening to him. Obviously, unconsciously, I needed to get this death sentence off my chest, a problem shared and all that I suppose. Robbie had sat there, quietly listening. He had motioned the waiter to bring more whiskey and when the glasses had appeared, had sent for the bottle instead.

“Sorry old boy, we’ve both seen enough death and slaughter in our time, but that was always some other poor fellow catching it. But this brings it home, too damn close to home. What will you do? Have you thought yet or is it all still too new, too raw?”

“Hundreds of thoughts I suppose, a whole rabble of them, all jumbled up, no sense, no reason, no order to ‘em.” The waiter came by and I asked for a couple of Padrón cigars, why not, bugger the expense, no point in not spending the money I had.

“Lords for the cricket, my godson is playing for Middlesex you know. The theatre and if I last, am still able to get around, still compos mentis, those Promenade Concerts that fellow Wood has made his name for.”

“No overseas travel then? No last trips to France or Italy?”

“No,” I paused, “Since Mary died, I have no wish to visit those places alone. I’ll stick with England, although Scotland may well tempt me, midges and all. See the old regimental headquarters for one last time.”

“Your house keeper will nurse you then, or your man?”

“No, neither, too much to expect of them. Besides I think she is much taken with a soldier in the Grenadiers, wouldn’t be surprised to see her marry. As for my man Wilkinson, absolutely not. I’m on the verge of releasing him anyway. The more I see of him the less I like him. There is something, what shall I say, of his character, something harpish almost shrewish that increasingly turns my skin. I don’t know Robbie old boy, I simply don’t know, other than I shall die at home, no hospitals.”

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It was Marjory, Mary’s dearest friend, who came up with the answer a couple of weeks later. “Leave it to me Harry, I’ll sort a nurse if that’s what you want. A pretty one maybe? Or would a man be better? Mmm, perhaps so, when it comes to lifting you. Yes a man.”

I must admit that a pretty nurse had attractions, but I knew that the ever practical Marjory was right, towards the end, a man would be better. Even if I lose weight, which seems to be a characteristic of the illness, there will still be a lot of me to heave around. I mean, I can scarcely remember when I wasn’t well over six feet and turning the scales at over seventeen stone, with little fat even now.

Besides, I have always been surrounded by men, seen how they behave towards fallen comrades, their unashamed open hearted compassion.

And that’s how I came to share my last months with Jim. He came from Marjory, bringing a personal inner calmness within him that I knew instantly would serve me well. We did in fact travel, not physically, as even Scotland proved a little out of reach, but in our minds we travelled, back in time.

We talked, became friends – there was never any master servant in our relationship – we were just two old soldiers bonded by the sights and sounds of battle. Marjory, ever the astute one, had paired us as well as bacon and eggs, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding sit together on the same plates.

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As my illness progressed, it was now towards the middle of summer, I became more and more dependent upon Jim. My legs refused the simple order to walk but fortunately my bowels retained their discipline. This being so, we were able to make the trip to Lords, a taxi, then me being pushed in a rather swish chair with wheels. Jim pushed, I steered.

At first, the authorities of that august but raffishly snobbish place, refused entrance to Jim. “Servants are not allowed in the pavilion under any circumstances. You Colonel are, obviously, as welcome as ever.”

A little later, as we sat comfortable in the pavilion watching Middlesex make a complete fist of it against some minor county, Jim had asked me what I had said. “Oh I just asked him would he refuse entrance to the Prince of Wales, or some such other crowned head of Europe, even if they were not members? When he replied that of course not, I asked him then why do so to a Prince of the Zulu nation?”

For Jim was indeed, a prince, the seventh son of Cetshwayo, former King of the Zulu Homelands.

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As my illness progressed I became quite house bound and would have become exceedingly bored and cantankerous, had not Jim hit upon an idea to keep me amused and in so doing, the pain at a manageable arms length.

I also learned just why those Zulu warriors and their commanders swept all before them in battle. For Jim and I started to play toy soldiers. We had perused for hours various catalogues and then purchased a great number of ready painted soldiers, various cannon, model redoubts, walls and trees to add contours to our battlefield, the covered top of my billiard table.

Neither of us being men to do things by halves we re-enacted the Battle of Waterloo. Even when Jim drew the straw to play Bonaparte, he was ever the victor. Thank goodness that Jim or Cetshwayo were not in the field that day, for the Zulu Impi would have cleared all the European armies of both sides from the field.

I saw the natural soldier within him and as we talked, late into each night, whiskey nulling the pain within me, Jim began to speak of his homeland. But it was not the south African veldt that I knew, had ridden over. Then every gully or fold in the land hid the potential of an ambush, a chance for the Impi to steal our rifles and ammunition and then turn them upon us.

He described to me his Africa, with an understanding of the nature of the place that I would never have even were I to survive for many years more. There was a quietness, that faraway look in his eye that people have when reliving their past, a look of regret that he was now far removed those great tracts of green, lush rolling lands. The vastness so flat that the horizon curved with the earth and the heavens looked down, as many diamonds in the sky as under the earth.

He spoke of it all, for he was completely at one with nature, understood it, the scents of nature and animals and heat all rolled into one, The Southern Cross, so important in finding ones way across those featureless tracts. He relived the changing scents as the night drew in, the heat closing into freezing cold dangerous nights for those caught without shelter. The danger, not only from the cold, but from the beasts that would take a man with no more thought than if he was an Impala.

It took a while for him to tell me of his family, the reticence of a deeply hurt but proud man. He spoke of his mother, his sisters and brothers. How from his earliest recall, the competition between them for affection from their father. How sibling plotted against sibling, for in the Zulu kingdom only the fittest and strongest survived, to be related by familial blood meant little.

Loyalty was owed only to the King and to the other Impi as brothers in arms. Distrusting his father, for he had seen two brothers speared to death for daring to challenge Cetshwayo, Jim had left the homeland. But when Cetshwayo had finally been defeated and exiled by the British, father and son had met in Cape Town and both were sent to England.

They spoke not at all in that long sea journey, nor ever again. Jim had gone to Horseguards, had enlisted in Van Duman’s south Africa Corps. All as himself, exiles. They had fought in India striking right into the heart of that wild exotic country, but if the truth be told, the British Army had never quite accepted them.

The defeats in Africa were raw for many a year. He spoke to me of India, as if it were his second home, for I had never been rostered to a tour of duty on that continent. The heat of summer, the spices, the Castes and how he felt for the lowest ones, he himself having suffered abuse from the white people who thought themselves superior. He hinted at a woman but would not be drawn and then he would always return to his homeland.

As we talked, remembered our pasts, drank our whiskey, it became clear that many years before we may well have been trying to kill each other. We had fought as enemies. Had we even fought each other, hand to hand perhaps? We would never know for certain but one thing was sure, we both fought at the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, ‘kwaJimu’ in Zulu, Jim’s land.

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He spoke of the early days of his soldiering. Learning his trade over the rolling hills of southern Africa. Spear against spear, the assegai, a deadly little weapon wielded by brave men, who, until they had killed in battle were not permitted to enjoy the delights of the womenfolk of the tribe.

Men eager to kill, to enjoy that reward. Then it was spear against guns and red coated infantry. Infantry who had a proud history of being ‘The Thin Red Line,’ but whom, after they were slaughtered at Isandhlawa never fought the Zulu in such formation again, but faced them in formation squares, showing respect for a brave and skilful enemy.

Those of us who had fought these black warriors knew of their valour, their savagery, how the British Army with its arrogant aristocratic commanders had underestimated them in the conquest of southern Africa. How, asked the men of Whitehall, safe in their barracks, could we be bested by these savages, dressed only in loin clothes, carrying a spear and shield, how could they better the British infantry with its discipline and long history of victory upon victory?

If they had met Jim, they would have understood.

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Jim moved my bed into the main room of the flat as it overlooked Hyde Park and I could remain in limited touch with the outside world. My appetite had gone, ruined by the morphine although Jim and I were still able to share a tumbler of whiskey as the light faded at each day’s end and we reminisced, as other than fitful sleep was now beyond me.

Being soldiers whatever topic we talked about we always ended up with soldiering. Always of course in the past for there was no future for me, but I drew comfort that I was able to look back at that part of my life and feel no regrets, had no skeletons in the cupboard of cruel or needless slaughter of an enemy.

Yes, I regretted the death of my dear wife, the lack of children, but professionally I had no regrets. Wooders had been visiting more regularly, bringing morphine to kill the pain that was killing me. I had spoken to him, obliquely, asking about the dosage. He knew what was in my mind.

I had thought about it, suicide, but somehow that seemed a coward’s way out, until Jim, understanding me better than I had ever realized, spoke openly to me about it. Had we both not helped others to die? The aftermath of battle? Those wounded beyond redemption, lying terrified where they had fallen. The quick stab of the assegai, a single clean shot to the neck. A hypodermic full of morphine, what was the difference?

I decided that I would survive until November, the fifth to be precise, for I had always enjoyed a good bonfire and fireworks display. Why not literally, go out in a blaze of glory? The fireworks were good the bonfire bright and cheerful, but now it was my time. Jim left the curtains open as the fire in the park died down. A slight breeze blew the embers hither and thither, scattering the ashes.

I lay propped up, no pain now, taking a last look. This room that still bore Mary’s touch. I had struggled into my regimental dress coat and campaign medals. And there was Jim, this Prince of men, one time enemy now my friend. He stood quietly, proud, dressed as a Zulu warrior in full ceremonial cloak and animal skins, his mark of respect to me.

We shook hands, no words, non were necessary and then just a gentle sharp touch in my arm. I felt the heroin begin to do its work, but before the finality I heard them again, those Zulu Impi. At first the sound was no more than a faint taunting on the air, but it was enough to raise the hairs on ones neck. Assegai being beaten against animal skin shields. Shields as tall as the men that held them. Shields that were used not only to protect but also to batter and beat the enemy before that short stabbing spear did its bloody work.

Jim’s face appears to me, but now he is young, an enemy with death on his mind, ready to kill me, not knowing that in years to come, as a friend, his is the last face I will see.

End

Our Walk

teleThe dogs have no idea of the history of this lane, to them, it is simply part of their walk, albeit right at the beginning, so their spirits are high at getting out of the house, even if it did mean vacating comfortable sofas on a bright windy day.

The lane looks like millions of others to be found across our country, hedgerows with gaps filled by fences weary with age, or newly erected wooden palings to keep the cattle from straying. It is Spring, although the cold north wind denies that fact.

There is a faint greenness in the hawthorn hedges, still neat and tidy and square from their annual trim. They are interwoven in places with dark green ivy still carrying berries which the birds ignore. In patches, nature’s barbed wire has taken over, shrivelled blackberries mouldy upon the stems.

It is the bedrock of this lane that makes it unlike those millions of others. It is Sandstone, dark, blood red. As equally famous in Cheshire as its cheese and the flat fertile plains.

But this lane is not flat, neither is it particularly wide. It rises steadily, one of those long slow inclines that makes its presence felt in legs that suddenly grow tired, the not so fit, slightly breathless.

The dogs amble on, noses alert, interested, but gone are the days when they would run crazily from side to side – age comes to us all, slows us all down, even them. Both give the Badgers latrine a wide berth and when we come to their Sett, Sam sticks his head down it. I have visions that one day his flat Boxer nose will emerge with a Badger attached.

The lane crests and then begins its long slow descent, narrower than before, until it bends to the right, a shallow gentle bend which opens out into huge flat fields, fields that by now should be a garish yellow, had not the planted crop of rape been stunted by the cold wet winter.

The dogs stand tasting the air, waiting to be told which way we shall go. Polly I know, will angle towards the right as that leads to pheasant country and she has a nose on her worthy of any gun dog. Sam will opt to go straight on towards a gloriously muddy pond, from which, he will, if I fail to stop him or he is overcome by sudden deafness, emerge a shiny green and stinking to high heaven.

But it is my turn to stand, not through any indecisiveness on my part as I have already decided we will retrace ours steps back up the lane, as it is more sheltered from the cold wind than any alternative way home. No, I stand because the story writer in me demands it.

Huge flat fields, peaceful, but they were not always so, for the three of us are standing upon a battlefield. Musket balls and cannon balls can still be found and metal that might have been a sword, a pike, a vicious halberd or a horses bridle.

And just as I can see the armies facing each other, Cromwell’s and King Charles1, I have thought for all the years that Polly and I have walked this way, so can she. If not the armies then perhaps she senses the ghosts of the dead, for there were many a hundred on that day. Some days she stays close, will look behind, lick her lips which I know is a sign of her being uneasy, but there is nothing there, neither man nor beast.

And so we slowly climb the lane, just wide enough for two horses abreast, solid enough underfoot to allow the passage of a Kings Cavalry, over three thousand in number, to wend their fateful way onto Rowton Moor.

End

Leonie Scarlet

no10

“There is evidence showing women in both Iraq and Afghanistan  have had considerable success in acquiring intelligence from children and women. However, in all these cases, it should be noted that they are attached—not assigned—to combat units, and their primary purpose is not to “close with and kill the enemy.”

(U.S. Military Briefing Paper)

Lashkar Gah, Helmand Province Afghanistan July 21st 2010

The Platoon watched, ever on a high alert at this particular checkpoint, the adrenalin pumping their senses to a clarity that could not be sustained once off watch, then the tiredness, the draining of any reserves of energy.

Militarily, it was a nightmare for the troops. The Taliban could approach closely, well hidden by the natural folds and irrigation ditches in the ground, inflict maximum casualties at close range and then disappear just as quickly, sheltered by that self-same terrain.

Leonie watched from behind the reinforced concrete and sand bags of the checkpoint. She swatted away an annoying fly whilst never taking her eyes off the ground in front of her.

A movement caught her eye. A young girl of no more than nine years walked alone towards the checkpoint and this in itself raised the troop’s suspicions. Leonie shouted to her to ‘Stop,’ ‘Go back,’ she tried all the variants she knew of the local dialects, but still the child walked slowly forward.

Her mind registered the soldiers readying their firearms and although she was far from a religious woman, she was intoning God for all she was worth, to stop the girl, turn her back. But God wasn’t listening to her when the child disappeared as the explosive strapped around her was exploded by the Taliban hiding safely a distance away.

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Eight Years Previously

It was not until Leonie Scarlet entered her twenty second year, that she turned the corner which changed her life. She had what she considered was the hangover of hangovers, spirits coupled with a few lines of coke. And now, shaky, nauseous, her eyes feeling as if they would pop out and never return, she was having to cope with the very urgent need to wee.

Having survived on the streets for six years, she knew better than try to hold it in as that made the agony even worse. She looked around for a reasonably private corner where she could pee unseen. And as she squatted, the relief plain upon her face, so she saw, if somewhat blurred, the sign in the shop frontage:

RECRUITING NOW!

JOIN THE MODERN ARMY

A World of Experiences Waits Just for YOU!

Twenty four hours later she was back. She had spent the rest of that day and night in a hostel, had washed and ironed her clothes, had her hair trimmed by one of the other girls and now, stone cold sober she waited. She had no doubts that she would be accepted and she told the recruiting Sergeant the truth about her life, and he, being originally from one of the worst sink estates in the north east, knew he was looking at pure gold.

He had made a few additional comments on the interview papers: Street wise, punctual, articulate, speaks Welsh and English, determined, slight bruising to the knuckles – been fighting? Offence or defence? 

For Leonie it was a dream come true. Regular meals, fresh underwear every day, not having to find somewhere safe to sleep and certainly not having to guard her food from being stolen by others. She would stretch out in her bunk every night and wonder at her good fortune, determined not to spoil it, but neither wasting too much energy on thinking back over those years on the streets.

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During those early weeks of training, she was singled out by her instructors, as having that indefinable trait of being slightly different from the other recruits in her squad. A potential which the Army recognised, plotted in a potential course to maximise her possible talents, and it wasn’t in the Cook-house.

“Right, Private Scarlet, what are we going to do with you? Hmm? Good overall reports, instructors happy – that makes a change. Doc says medically you’re as fit as a Butchers dog.”

The Sergeant paused, looked up at the young woman sitting in front of him. She was five foot eight, slimish, jet black hair, dark green eyes. She was also what he would describe as ‘tinted,’ had etiquette allowed, although the records showed her as, ‘Olive skinned,’ with a small brown mole under her left breast.

“Private Scarlet, what’s your ambition then? Want to conquer the world?”

Leonie sat back, relaxed. ‘In for a penny, in for a pound,’ she thought to herself, this was her opportunity to state her case. “I’d like to be a Sniper sir, like the Russians allowed their women to be in World War II sir.”

“Would you indeed, why?”

“Because I can shoot very straight sir, and you won’t let women fight on the front line so that would be an alternative sir.”

The Sergeant looked her in the eyes, saw the unfathomable depths in them, the lack of emotion. ‘Street wise indeed,’ he thought to himself, ‘along with the craft and artifice that such an existence demanded to survive.’ The skinned knuckles mentioned in her interview report.

“Can’t see that happening Private, not yet anyway.”

“What about being a Spotter then Sir?”

“Possible Private, possible, but you’d need battle zone experience before you’d even be considered and then we’d have to consider if a highly skilled shooter would tolerate a woman spotting for him? I don’t mean he would doubt your ability, just that in a tight corner most men would put the woman first and that could be detrimental to both, couldn’t it Private?”

“Yes Sergeant, I suppose so. What do you suggest?”

“Well let’s just go over a few things first shall we – it’s old ground, just to confirm what you put on your recruiting form. You’re bi-lingual, Welsh and English.”

“Father unknown, no known living next of kin?”

“Yes sir. None at all.”

“Taken into care aged seven, mother unable to cope.”

“Yes sir, she drank. Worked the Docks in Tiger Bay sir.”

“The two languages Private?”

“Fostered out sir, to a farming family sir. Kind people but they spoke only Welsh, so it was learn or starve sir.”

“I see, but at sixteen you were on the streets. Why?”

“The Foot and Mouth sir, wiped their herd out, killed the old man really, broke his heart, then Angie, his wife took ill and I had nowhere to go. The Council wouldn’t take me in as I was sixteen so the streets it was sir.”

“But you survived.”

“Yes sir and now I want better than that sir.”

“Right Private Scarlet, that’s it, you may dismiss.”

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The Sergeant sat back thinking. ‘A Sniper eh? A Sniper.’ He had no doubts she would make the grade, he had observed the same traits in Leonie as in those men who fought and killed at a distance. Skilled men, invariably quiet, self-contained. Men prepared to watch and wait for hours, unmoving as wind and flies and bugs crawled over them, waiting for the opportunity for a killing shot on the enemy. And such men would often work with a skilled Spotter, as able as the marksman to judge the wind, the elevation, the distance.

Sniper fire, feared by soldiers the world over.

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The Army, in its wisdom, now better able to fit square pegs into square holes, sent Leonie to language school, Arabic with dialects and French. Three years of intense work and Corporal Leonie Scarlet emerged as near a perfect linguist as could be produced, was seconded to the Intelligence Corps with further specialised training and finally, almost four years after that surreptitious pee, found herself posted to Iraq.

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She was of course successful, her self-confidence, the slightly coloured skin enabling her to merge with the crowd, be less of a stranger to the women and children and men she encountered. Iraqis’ naturally suspicious of these invaders, frightened of being targeted as collaborators should they appear too friendly to this woman who spoke their language, understood the dialect. ‘Could be a bloody native,’ one of the squaddies had remarked, what with her colour and headscarf. Nice arse as well.’

Leonie stayed in Iraq for an extended tour, which suited both the Army and herself, after-all she had no one back at home to worry about or who was worrying about her. She learned her trade, picking up soft data in the market places, but always careful not to become friendly, not to become personally involved. She needed to keep her distance from the horrors she saw around her, the car bombs and tribal differences causing indiscriminate slaughter in a once peaceful land.

It was surprising therefore, that despite this hard won tradecraft, she allowed herself to bypass the wisdom of it during her second tour of Afghanistan in the summer of 2010.

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Lashkar Gah, Helmand Province Afghanistan July 21st 2010

The shocked soldiers latter reported that the girl seemed to be drugged, her eyes seen through powerful binoculars had looked unnaturally large and she was not sweating the nervous sweat that would be expected.

Leonie hoped with all her heart that they were right and not just making it up to make the child’s death easier to deal with. But for Leonie that event, that day, was the beginning of the end of her Army career some two years later and the start of one that the public were never to hear about. Although there were rumours of course.

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10 Downing Street October 2018. Cabinet Office Briefing Room A

“Well gentlemen, you’ve read the briefing paper. Any thoughts?” The speaker, a seemingly anonymous little man, conservatively dressed, clean shaven, an immaculate white shirt and Guards tie. “Sir Robert?”

“Well, Prime Minister, there is very little to go on. There are no forensics at the scene and absolutely nothing at the point from which the shots have been fired, assuming that is, that we’ve actually identified the correct spot. Interestingly neither is there any CCTV coverage, blind spots all of them.”

“You say, ‘at the scene,’ you mean where the bullets hit.”

“Yes sir. At all fifteen locations, nothing to help us. The bullets shattered into thousands of small pieces. The only commonality is that to do this they must hit something very solid such as concrete, steel, granite, that sort of material. And actually that doesn’t help much really, there are millions of such locations.”

“And the targets?”

“Yes well, that’s the thing sir. None of them hit, all frightened out of their wits as they all heard the bullet pass them by.”

“So it’s a fair assumption that the gunman could have shot them down, had that been the objective?”

“Indeed, Prime Minister, indeed.”

“May I sir?” The interjection came from a lowly place at the bottom of the table. “Peterson sir, The Home Office with a bit of MI6 and MI5 thrown in sir.”

“Bit of a mongrel eh Peterson, what did you do to deserve such a task? Goose someone you shouldn’t have?”

“Actually sir, it’s a fair point, the mongrel bit sir, it’s an unusual co-operation. Spies, spooks and police all wrapped together. I’ll explain sir. We knew of the shootings, the targets all being prominent men with permanent bodyguards during every hour of the year.”

“Well sir, I did a bit of discrete asking around, the U.S., Germany, current and recent trouble-spots, the Middle East, Ukraine, again.  The commonality is that all the targets are either ex political leaders, financiers or arms dealers’ sir.”

“But why only come close to killing them, not actually doing so? I suppose you have an answer for us about that eh?”

“Yes sir, it’s almost diabolically clever and simple sir. You can only kill a man once can’t you?  But,” Peterson paused for effect, “you can frighten him time and time again can’t you sir, if you’re such a good shot, the targets will never be sure when the next shot might not miss, will they sir?”

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An Hour Later

There were just the two of them in the room now, the Prime Minister and Peterson, reeling slightly at being alone in such high and powerful company .

“Well Peterson, any ideas about who might be behind this? A group?  A Loner?”

“Well sir, I’m pretty sure it’s a woman sir, Corporal Leonie  Scarlet, ex-army, brilliant linguist, tours of Iraq and Afghanistan and unofficial duties in The Yemen.”

“Ah. The Sheik, the one that got himself shot?”

“Couldn’t possibly say sir.”

“Hmm. How did you find her?”

“Oh a bit of luck really, nothing for over nine months then a pal in the U.S. finally came back to me with zero incidents over there, they’d all been in Europe. So that got me thinking. Why? Bearing in mind that such a shooter would use a weapon specially tailored to their skills, the obvious answer, once it clicked with me, was that they didn’t have the resources to either travel to the States, or more likely couldn’t be sure of importing the weapon and then getting out again. So most likely it was a European.”

“So I put feelers out, gun clubs, shooting schools and the like. Also, I had a contact in the MOD. They keep track of all their Snipers, mainly to keep tabs on their mental stability and also just in case one goes rogue on them. Nothing, but she suggested I might delve a bit into Army Marksmen or Spotters, as another possibility.”

“There are surprisingly few actually with that outstanding talent, given the Army’s trade is killing and I also guessed the person responsible would not still be in the Army, the dates of the shooting incidents indicated a person free to travel, not someone possibly bound by lengthy tour or duty rotas.”

“So I looked at all the discharges in a period six months before the first shooting, people who were particularly good with a rifle. Perhaps someone discharged under a cloud, or perhaps someone who just suddenly threw in their papers, people the Army would least have expected to do that. And that’s how I found her sir.”

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The Police picked her up without fuss, but the final destination was a complete surprise to her. She had only ever seen a picture of the front of Downing Street, never giving much thought to the fact that there must be another way in, or out

She was shown into a small well-furnished sitting room to be greeted by the Prime Minister and a man introduced to her simply as, ‘Peterson,’ who did the talking to start with.

“Miss Scarlet, you’ve been shooting at people haven’t you? Can you explain why? And by the way this conversation is off the record, no microphones or anything like that. So why?”

Leonie, looked from one to the other, not at all overawed as she had dealt with top brass on a number of occasions. Besides, she was thinking, they obviously somehow know about me and there was me thinking I had outsmarted them. So, what do they want? They must want something otherwise I’d be in a cell by now, so what do they want?

“Well sir, I guess you know my service record, my experience in Iraq and Afghanistan,” (both men noted the omission of The Yemen). I saw all the usual stuff, the bloody mayhem of a car bomb in a crowded market place sir, the cruel vengeance taken on men and women just for belonging to the ’wrong’ tribe.”

She paused, gathering her thoughts, quiet, self-contained. “But then sir, I witnessed the Taliban blow up a little girl sir, a little girl I knew to smile at, had become friendly with, given chocolate to – against the rules I know – but she was such a sweet little thing. Since that day I’ve been left to wonder if my actions caused her death, those bastard Taliban men taking revenge thinking she was betraying them, telling me secrets, which she wasn’t sir.”

She continued, “something just snapped sir, the injustice of it all, the senseless killing all because of the political pride of a few men around the world. Men only interested in their so called legacy and certainly not in the well-being of the millions they were supposed to be leading towards better things.”

“That’s either very self-righteous of you or perhaps self-justification Miss Scarlet don’t you think?”

“Possibly Prime Minister sir, but it’s what an awful lot of people out there think. They would like to see men who worked from this building put on trial sir, see if they have a case to answer as war criminals. Men who sat behind desks bent the rules, caused the deaths of thousands sir, military people, civilians, little innocent children.”

“So you decided to take matters into your own hands?”

“Yes sir.”

“You see this shooting at them as a solution then, but be careful not to kill them?”

“A warning to others sir, be very careful what you start.”

The Prime Minister stood up, thinking. A neat simple solution?  Solve the world’s difficulties before they became politically intractable? And if, occasionally, she failed to miss? So what?

All unofficial of course. All un-attributable. And Peterson could always be the fall guy couldn’t he?

“Miss Scarlet, how would you like to work for Mr Peterson? Appeal to you would it?”

End

Station to Station

A word of warning, this story might not be for the squeamish. It uses just the title of the Bowie song ‘Station to Station,’ but bears no other similarity whatsoever.

Saturday February 21st 2015 04.47hrshs1251

Sometimes you just know, don’t you? No matter how many times the phone has rung when you’ve been on shift – probably thousands of times over the years – you just know as you answer it, that this is going to be no ordinary run of the mill call. Not the usual call from train crew reporting for duty, or going off shift, or someone ringing in sick, or the Signalman tucked away in his box querying something or other, no, this call is trouble.

There is something in the tone, silenced as you pick up the receiver, automatically looking at the clock on the opposite wall: 4.47am on a cold wet windy February Saturday morning.

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“Dave?” A hesitation in the voice or perhaps the mobile signal dropping slightly, difficult to tell.
“Is that you Dave?”

“Yes Alison.” I know its Alison as I could recognise each voice of the two hundred and fifty train crew working out of the depot, mind you, so can the other managers when they’re on duty.

“You’re very faint, what’s the problem?”

“I’ve hit somebody coming through Llanfairfechan Station.”

“You sure?”

“Yes, he was trying to scramble up on to the platform, couldn’t miss him.”

“Where are you?”

“Standing at Penmaenmar Station.”

“Are you still in your cab? How are you? Don’t get out, stay put.”

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I had dealt with similar incidents before, five to be exact, but this one was going to be different. The others had been suicides or straight forward accidents of people trying to beat a train across a level crossing. The result was always the same, a traumatised train driver who could do nothing to avoid them, paramedics left to pick up the pieces – literally.

I knew the station at Llanfairfechan, the platform. The space under the platform was totally enclosed, unlike some of the older platforms built on wooden stilts, wide gaps that provided a safe bolt hole to duck in to if caught on the track by an approaching train. The fact that a person should never have been on the track in the first place was irrelevant, the wooden stilts and gaps meant a place to duck into until the train had passed safely by.

But Llanfairfechan offered no such bolt holes. Any person caught trying to climb up out of the way of the approaching train would need to be quick and lucky. If not, well, three hundred and fifty tons of train travelling at seventy miles an hour would catch them in the narrow gap between train and platform, smear them along the platform edge and then more than likely what was left would fall under solid steel wheels.

I didn’t need to be told, I just knew what had happened and the last thing I wanted was for Alison to climb out of her cab and be faced with a long bloody trail of human debris along the side of her train, including the door she would have to climb out of. And neither did I want any passengers getting out onto the platform to take sordid pictures of some poor unfortunate’s demise and post them all over the internet.

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It’s surprising just how many thoughts can go through your mind in a split second without any conscious effort in doing so. There are procedures, rules, sensible rules developed over the years by incidents such as I was now dealing with. But sometimes, perhaps those rules needed to be bent a little, for one thing I was sure of, I could not leave that train with six hundred rugby supporters on it standing still virtually in the middle of nowhere.

In theory the train should be evacuated in case it has suffered mechanical damage making it unsafe, but the station platform at Penmaenmar was too small to accommodate that number of people. I needed to get them down to Llandudno Junction with its warm waiting rooms and early morning shift coming on duty and able to deal with them.

But I should not, in theory allow that train to move. Apart from the safety aspect there was also the problem that any fatality is always treated by the Transport Police as a crime scene until proven otherwise.

What was the person doing on the tracks? Simply crossing them to save time going up and over the footbridge? Had the person been pushed off the platform by others into the path of the oncoming train? Was the person drunk or under the influence of drugs?

And the person who often most needed answers to these questions was the train driver. The need to know that no blame could be attached to them, they could have done nothing other than sit and watch, as if in slow motion, waiting for the thud as train and flesh met.

And even though no blame could be attached, it didn’t make the sense of responsibility for killing someone, go away.

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“Alison, are you still there?

“Yes and Tony has come up to join me.”

“Ok, I’ll speak to him in a minute, but how are you?”

“Shaky, wanting to be sick.”

“Put Tony on please.”

“Tony, you ok?”

“Yes Dave and before you ask, I came along the track to get to Alison, not along the platform.”

“Right. All the punters still on the train?”

“Yes loads of ‘em are asleep fortunately.”

“Look Tony, we need to get you to Llandudno Junction and before you say anything I know what we should really do under the circumstances.”

I didn’t know how Tony would react, a dyed in the wool railwayman of many years’ experience, a stickler for following the rule book and for which he shouldn’t be criticised.

“Tony, when you were doing the tickets did any of your punters have railway passes?”

“Yes one older bloke, reckoned he drove these trains a few years ago. But before you ask Dave he’d been drinking so is no help.”

“Ok Tony, how does Alison seem to you?”

“Shaky, Dave, white as a sheet.

“Hmm, only to be expected. Look, ask her could she drive very slowly to Llandudno Junction. It’s what? Six or seven miles and not to exceed twenty miles an hour. You stay up front with her ok?”

“We’re not supposed to Dave, but if you tell me to I’ll have to do it won’t I?”

“Well you could refuse as it’s a safety issue, that’s your prerogative but one final question. What’s the weather doing with you?”

“Blowing a gale. Sea spray coming over the wall and road and the platform lights are out.”

“Well, that settles it then, you can’t evacuate the train there, what have you got six hundred odd punters?”

And at that point we lost the mobile signal.

The Railway Police found what remained of the body at dawn, hardened men, but even they were shocked at what they found.

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Saturday February 21st 2015 18.45hrs

“Evening Keith, all quite now?” I had gone off duty just after 7am in the morning leaving Keith to sort out the mayhem. As an ex-atomic submariner, it took a lot to phase him. We were working twelve hour shifts that weekend, covering for one of the other managers whose daughter was getting married.

“Yes, just printing off the log for this morning. Was chaotic till about 11 o’clock, shifting all those punters off the train that hit that poor bugger, plus the normal Saturday shopping crowds waiting at the other stations. The lads rallied round as usual and came in at short notice and we managed to run three extra services along the coast clearing all the punters at the other stations.”

“There was trouble at Prestatyn as usual, the hop-heads all late for their daily fix in Shotton. Still the police chucked three of ‘em off the station so I bet they had the shakes good and proper!”

“And Alison and Tony?”

“Both off the job until further notice, as they should be. I’ve told them to stay at home.”

“And the fatality?”

“Hmm, nasty one Dave, worse than usual. Young woman, five months pregnant.”

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Friday June 19th 2015 11.30hrs

“Hello Alison, come through, you’re looking well.”

“Thanks Dave.”

“Tea?”

“Yes please. Two sugars.”

“Ok, now what has the Doctor said, has he cleared you to come back to work?”

“Sort of, restricted duties, no main line driving yet. Just shunting units on and off the depot and round the station as necessary.”

“And what do you think about that?”

I saw a flicker of uncertainty cross her face, her eyes looking away from me, then quickly back with what I judged a forced smile.

“I just don’t know Dave. I’ve been having nightmares, can’t get the picture out of my mind of that poor woman – she must have been terrified – trying to get out of the way. The police told me she was running away from her husband, who’d caught up with her and pushed her off the platform. He confessed to it, even though the CCTV wasn’t working. Guilt I suppose,” she paused, tears just showing in her eyes, “her and the baby.”

“And that’s where I’m having real difficulties Dave. I pick up my infant son and it all just comes back and back and back, every day.”

“Are you still seeing the Counsellor?”

“Yes. Have you seen Tony recently?”

“I have indeed. He hasn’t quite forgiven me for making him break the rules as he sees it, but he’s admitted, off the record of course, that it was the right thing to do. He’s come off the trains, is working in the Booking Office at Bangor.”

“He really looked after me you know. Those six miles to the Junction seemed to go on forever. When we got there, he sat with me, just gently holding my hand as I couldn’t stop shaking. Then the Transport Police arrived and took me to my Doctors and then home.”

She sat calmly, any inner turmoil not now apparent. “I must go, my mum’s picking me up, going shopping for clothes for my son and then we’re driving up to put flowers on that poor woman’s grave. It’s something I’m ready to do now. Say I’m sorry.”

She left and I sat, the phone quiet, strange for a Friday morning. I doubted if Alison would ever drive a train again, even just pottering around the depot. My mind wandered back over the months since that phone call.

The devastation caused by one man’s spiteful revenge on his wife, all because she didn’t like the names he was suggesting for their unborn child. The gruesome death of her  and her unborn child, the trauma to Alison, simply doing her job, but now unable to sleep through the night without reliving that early morning over and over again.

The Policeman, used to dealing with such incidents, who, when searching for the body, realising what he was looking at, had run away to vomit, the embryo clear in his mind. The heavy drinking since, in a previously tea total man.

The member of staff assaulted at Prestatyn station, an older woman, her attacker a man over six feet tall. A man who simply wouldn’t understand that his train was delayed because some poor woman had been killed and no trains were allowed to move past the scene, in either direction, until the police were certain that they had found as much of her remains as they reasonably could.

Finally, the go ahead that normal services could be resumed just before mid-day. But for many it was already too late, their day spoilt, lunch appointment missed, shopping trips tainted by the though of what had happened not far from where they lived. Flights leaving without them and at least eight young aspiring ballet dancers missing their all important exams.

But then history tells the same story over and over again, one man causing mayhem, the innocent ever the sufferers. The phone rings – back to the present – it rings again, impatient to be answered.

End