The Little Dark Haired Girl

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Gabriel James was an angry man, a tired man, for sleep was far from the restful business it was supposed to be. He had gone past the stage of drinking too much, falling asleep, only to then wake with a raging hangover and even more anger within him.

A skilled carpenter by trade, conscientious and never one to shirk responsibility when something – very rarely mind you – went wrong.

He had married late by his family’s standards, approaching thirty five, his mother dropping endless hints about more grandchildren, ‘if your brother and sister can produce such lovely children, why can’t you?’

“Simple one mother, I haven’t met the right woman.” It was, as if perhaps, Cupid had been listening during their last exchange, for within five months he had met Charlene and a year later was the proud dotting father of a beautiful dark haired girl, Libby.

But then his world turned upside down, the words branded as if with a hot iron into his brain.

“Good Evening, this is the Six O’clock News from the BBC with Sophie Raworth.

The Headlines:

We are receiving reports of what is thought to be a serious train accident near to Gatwick Airport and that all services out of both Victoria and London Bridge to the south coast are suspended. Early reports suggest that all lines are blocked . As soon as we have further details………………….

The date was Tuesday 19th December 2017.

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Fifteen Months Later

Gabriel sat calmly, his mother and mother–in-law on either side, the family all sitting in the row behind, each soberly dressed, hands joined as the Coroner announced her verdict.

“We have heard, over the past three months. evidence as to why thirty-five people were killed and a further forty one injured, in the rail accident adjacent to the railway station at Gatwick Airport on December the 19th 2017. I know it has been extremely distressing for all families present, whom I must commend for the dignity and restraint shown by you all.”

“As I have explained previously, this Court is here to establish the facts of what happened, but not to apportion blame. We have heard from The Rail Accident Investigation Branch, the likely scenario as events unfolded, but yet again their remit is not to lay the blame.”

“Sometimes, as Coroner, I have presided on cases where no blame could be attached to what had happened – the incident was truly an accident in the truest meaning of that word. However, I am not convinced that this applies to this particular case. We have heard different opinions, as always occurs, but I am minded of the advocacy of the RMT Union, that this was a foreseeable accident which requires further investigation.”

“I am therefore, as is my duty, writing to all the parties involved in this incident, the Train Operator, Blue and White Trains Ltd, the two Unions ASLEF and RMT and the ORR – Office of Rail and Road seeking further clarification about their understanding of Driver Only Operated Trains – DOO.”

Gabriel left court almost incoherent with rage. Three months of having to listen to how his wife and daughter and all those others, had died the most hideous deaths and yet no one seemed to be responsible. How could that be?

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Several Months before Tuesday 19th December 2017

Clarice Berman was a successful lawyer, not as financially successful as she might have been if working in a different environment, but litigiously successful. Her sense of the social injustice suffered by many had grown as she worked in a Law Practice deep within the East End of London.

Her background was solidly working class, her father, Wilf, a retired railway man. He had never been a strong union man, having no liking of the political games which always seemed to being played, had joined and paid his dues simply because to drive trains he had to belong to a recognised railway union. He retired nearly forty years later with a good pension, an immaculate record of attendance and an unblemished safety record.

Thus, Clarice listened, perhaps only half-heartedly to begin with, as her father sat raging at the television news coverage of the on-going dispute between the Blue and White Train Company and the main Unions about who should open and close the trains doors, Driver or Conductor?

How she wished later, that his prophetic words had remained just as a prophecy, ‘mark my words girl, this will end in tears for some poor sod.’ Quite who that, ‘poor sod’ might be, became very clear when she met Sam.

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Tuesday 19th December 2017

It should have been an ordinary shift, literally just another day at the office. Sam had signed on at 1305 hours, checked for any new safety notices or new speed restrictions on the routes he would be driving over. All in all an ordinary day stretched ahead. Brighton up to Victoria, a short break then a return trip to Gatwick Airport followed by a trip back to Brighton on a non-stop express service.

The shift had passed without incident even during the rush hour, as more and more passengers tried to squeeze onto his train at Victoria. He watched carefully the CCTV monitoring his train standing at the platform, finally receiving the signal from the platform staff that he was clear to close the doors, watched as the indicator on his driving console showed all were safely shut, released the brakes and started slowly down the platform towards the green light clearing him safely on his way.

Thirty-one minutes later, exactly on time, as he approached the airport, the train moving smoothly and quietly at seventy miles an hour, his life turned into a nightmare.

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Nineteen Months Later

Clarice listened to the quiet, withdrawn, rather shaky man in front of her, her father’s words loud and clear in her head, ‘mark my words girl, this will end in tears for some poor sod,’ and Sam was just one of many a poor sods caught up in the events of that Tuesday in December 2017.

Knowing that she was to meet to Sam, she had talked to her dad at some length as both had watched and read all that was published and reported from the Coroners Court. She needed to fully understand the implications of Driver Only Operated trains. Her father had produced his old battered Rule Book saying to her, ‘I was told all them years ago by them that trained me, that if I followed them rule books I wouldn’t get into trouble. So I did and I didn’t.”

“Them rule books were built by people having accidents and systems then put in place to stop ’em happening again and that included the Conductor opening and closing the doors as he has a clear view of the platforms rather than a Driver literally looking over his shoulder or peering at CCTV in bad weather.”

“May I call you Sam?” She didn’t wait for his answer but carried on, “I’ve read your letter and my dad is an ex-train Driver so he’s been able to fill me in on the detail, the technical bits I suppose you might call them Sam. So, over to you and then, tell me what you want me to do.”

“I’ve driven trains for nigh on thirty years, all weathers, all hours of the day and night excepting since the accident, been on permanent sick leave, until matters, ‘have been resolved as they say.’ He paused, “Well, I can’t wait until the authorities fudge their way to some deal or other, refuse to accept any responsibility, this whole thing is driving me slowly but surely mad.”

He paused again, taking in a deep breath, “Well Miss, you remember all the fuss a couple of years or so ago, the strikes about us Drivers taking over the opening and closing of the doors, the press hullaballoo about it. Many of us didn’t want DOO but our protest and that of the RMT the union to which most Conductors belong,  were drowned out by the press and Government just wanting to get the trains running.”

“We had sympathy you know, with the punters and we weren’t being bloody minded as the press accused us, just that many of us were very uneasy about introducing DOO on very busy main lines, almost as a norm rather than the exception.”

“I know some train services have run for years with only a driver on board but they have been the exception not the rule Miss as I just said. So this was used as a reason to push us into accepting DOO and remember Miss we were losing a lot of money and pension contributions when we was on strike. We had families to feed just like most others.”

“So Sam, what exactly is the point you want me to deal with?”

“You will understand from your dad I’m sure, that us Drivers are what is known as ‘Safety Critical,’ in other words trained how to be safe particularly when down on the track, who to get in touch with when things go wrong, how to keep the train itself safe. Well, the same training applies to Conductors, their first role is not checking tickets as many people suppose but keeping passengers safe when things go wrong.”

“A Conductor knows the danger of being on a running line and how to deal with it,, and he would be responsible for opening and closing the doors and despatching the train safely from the platform if no suitable platform staff were around. It’s all about safety you see Miss.”

“Driver Only allows a train to run with just one Safety Critical person on board – the Driver obviously. The person going through the train helping passengers etc. is not trained in safety procedures and so is a lot cheaper to employ Miss. Also, makes it easier for the Train Company to run a train if a Conductor is not available, before they would have to cancel the service. Cheaper to cancel a few services even though they would be fined for it, than have enough trained safety critical staff you see. So DOO lets them off that hook, lets them run the depots cheaper, make more profit.”

“I understand all that Sam, but the Office of Road and Rail wrote to The Chair of the Transport Select Committee House of Commons saying that DOO was safe for the despatch of trains from platforms.”

“Yes Miss that’s right, but nowhere does it say, and this is the point the RMT was always banging on about, but was totally ignored Miss, nowhere does it say, anything about an incident occurring on Driver Only Operated trains when actually running between stations does it? Which is why miss, when my train caught fire and stopped on that bloody day, the passengers understandably jumped out of the train right into the path of an express coming the other way.”

“Think of it Miss, I had to sit and listen to that happening as I was trying to activate all the fire extinguishers as they hadn’t automatically kicked in on the trains engines and then get down to try and help all those crushed mangled bodies Miss.”

“A Conductor on board would have known what do to Miss. He or she would have known what to bloody well do to stop that happening, that’s what being trained as Safety Critical means miss, you know how to keep people safe or at least as safe as you can Miss.”

“I watched a beautiful little dark haired girl die Miss, all because of saving bloody money Miss and I want someone somewhere to be held responsible Miss. It will happen again Miss mark my words and only when someone really important gets killed will anything be done about it Miss.”

Sam paused, tears unashamedly in his eyes.

“So you want  to lay the responsibility where it lies do you Sam?”

“Yes Miss, simple as that really.”

“Ok Sam. Simple you reckon eh? It’ll take time you know and we’ll have to raise the funds to start with.”

“There’s many a railwayman will help with that Miss, you mark my words. Yes indeed, you mark my words Miss.”

End

Authors Note: The large majority of railway men who have the practical experience of working trains as opposed to the decision makers who only ever use them, will tell you that DOO is an accident waiting to happen, just as an airliner approaching Heathrow will one day drop on to London.

Fingers and everything else crossed, that my story never comes even remotely true and remains as fiction.

David Goodwin

 

 

 

 

That Little Man

little-manThe current Sixth Form at Greater Dene High School was, in Denis’s eyes one of the better ones he had supervised and taught over the last eight years. A generally bright happy lot, a group made up of all the usual suspects. The apparently quiet ones, who, upon closer scrutiny, did indeed run deep, the extroverts never able to walk past a mirror without a quick inspection of their reflection, the introverts in thrall to all the rest. The class comedian, in this case a comedienne, a great prankster, fortunately not a malicious one who was able to laugh when the tables were turned.

Some years though, he had found the students quite uninspiring and blamed himself for failing to rouse their interest, until he read the words of Alan Bennett,Teachers need to feel they are trusted. They must be allowed some leeway to use their imagination; otherwise, teaching loses all sense of wonder and excitement.

Thus, he reasoned, such a process was actually a two-way thing, the teacher must create within the student that wonder and excitement, that questioning, even if occasionally such discussions wandered very far off track. Sometimes he would just go with it, if sensible thoughts were being expressed, other times he would see the deliberate red herring that was being played out before him and reel the class back into line.

He had once nearly resigned from teaching, having become fed up of the continual political interference and subsequent harming of the children’s learning and the affect upon their later lives. ‘Modular learning,’ was a phrase guaranteed to send his blood pressure rocketing, convinced as he was that this was no more than a ‘box ticking’ exercise aimed solely at producing good league tables. It did not test the depth of a child’s understanding, merely that the right book had been read and these days, the ability to use Google.

The Head, sensing what was coming and completely unwilling to lose such a talented teacher, had offered him the Sixth Form. “It’s all yours Denis if you want it, broaden their minds, ready them for the big cruel world as best you can” – the next was said with a twinkle in her voice, “and keep the pregnancy levels down to the national average!” Not, you must understand, that he was responsible for anything untoward.

A history teacher both by inclination and training, he was completely absorbed by the subject and had a generic interest in all times and occurrences. Not for him a narrow specialisation in the Romans or Tudors, the Bronze Age or Sheep Rearing in Australia. It must be said however, that the study of the Ancient Crofts of the Scottish Islands he regarded as boring on the highest possible imaginable scale.

He broadly followed the National Curriculum, having no alternative in that respect and the results he and his students achieved led to an ever-increasing demand for places, so much so that a second Sixth Form was being muted.

He was widely read as one would expect, his small flat bursting at the seams with books, magazines, pamphlets, for he was never able to throw anything away as he always felt that at some time in the future, he would need access to the information they contained.

Whilst he was not dismissive of using the internet, he was convinced that real research could only be done by scouring the printed page, gathering clues as one went, making notes and then putting two and two together until some tolerably valid theory or confirmation emerged of whatever it was he was researching. Besides, the written work of many and varied scholars often using different sources for their research was, he would always argue, much more likely to be closer to the truth than some of the publications of dubious parentage to be found on the web.

He had already given up hope of inculcating such a total approach in his students and went along, with some reservation, about their Googling. Besides, when suspecting that there was too much Google and too little original thinking in the work presented to him, he would start a detailed class discussion in which any superficial knowledge was quickly exposed as just that. Some students cottoned on, others didn’t.

And so, at the beginning of the Christmas term, he, admittedly with some self-interest, set up an exercise with them, for in his personal life he was stuck, well and truly stuck, although he wasn’t prepared to tell that. Anyway, he reflected, as in part justification of his deviousness, wasn’t that just one of the traits of the subject matter?

********

He had stood in front of them, ready to explain the exercise. If pressed, by that little man who occasionally sits on one’s shoulder in times of perhaps not total sincerity, or when hypocrisy is about to be expressed or one is about to tell a whopping great lie, he would have justified his action on this occasion as simply following the words of his beloved Alan Bennet in encouraging them, ‘to use their imagination.’ The bit about Teachers need to feel they are trusted,” he conveniently forgot.

Had his students known it, they were about to help him (he hoped) in getting to grips with the topic of the writing group he belonged to. So far, his mind was still a complete blank despite having read and re-read the brief. The more he read it the greater became his turmoil.

‘I think that by narrowing the topic to one historic character, I should encourage the widest possible interpretation. So, while we could take some direct inspiration from Rasputin’s bizarre life, perhaps Rasputin could be the name of something else altogether in a story set in the modern day. Interpret it at your will, I suggest, as long as you fit some reference to the topic in your story.’

“So class, Rasputin, what do you know of him?”

“It’s a great song sir.”

“The Mad Monk you mean sir?

“Seem to remember reading somewhere, that he had a big todger sir.”

“Yes Ellie, I thought that particular snippet would,” he was about to say, ‘arise,’ when he had second very rapid thoughts, “appeal to you,” he finished with a slight blush over his face. “Apart from that, anyone know anything else?”

There was a general fidgety silence.

“Ok, then please all go away and research him will you, groups of five I suggest. No formal presentations or essays, just a discussion ok? One week today come prepared to tell me all you know about Rasputin and anything else that goes through your minds as you research him.”

That little man was still sitting on his shoulder has the class trouped off for their dinner.

********

He sat in his flat that evening with a slight guilt playing in his mind. Using his Sixth Formers to help with his writing? Was that quite ethical? He dunked another ginger biscuit in a mug of hot chocolate. Oh if his mother could see him doing that he thought, tolerant and loving as she had been, that was one thing she hated, her children dunking their biscuits. She never explained why, even if she knew he supposed, she just hated them doing it.

He argued the ethics back and forth until he had convinced himself that in fact, he was doing his students a favour in giving them a comparatively easy double lesson next week. There again, he wondered at his duplicity which was not helped by that little man doing what felt like a hornpipe upon his shoulders.

********

“Right them who’s going to kick this discussion off then?”

There was the usual eyes being averted by those not wishing to be called to open the proceedings. Janice, as true a blue stockinged girl as he was ever likely to meet, eventually stood up. “Sir, I’ve been asked to answer that. This is what we think sir.”

That little man on Denis’s shoulder went quiet, listening for all he was worth.

“Well sir, Rasputin seems a huge enigma to us. Son of a peasant, a mystic, whatever that might really mean sir, a preacher and advisor to the Tsar and Tsarina. And that sir, is what puzzles us sir. It’s difficult to find out about where he gathered all his knowledge, his learning from sir, we can only suppose it was from the times he spent in various Monasteries sir. Anyway what really puzzles us sir is how he was able to move from being almost a hermit, a monk, at times, to being an influential member of the Court.”

“Can I ask you all, leading on from the point just raised, where else might we have studied, very recently, another such apparent anomaly? A low born man rising to great heights?”

“Oh, you mean Wolf Hall sir?”

“Yes Peter, Wolf Hall. I never quite followed the pathway that led Thomas Cromwell, as you remember, born to a working-class family of no position or name, to becoming the right-hand man of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and eventually Henry VIII.”

“Anyone with any thoughts about how that might happen?”

No one offered any immediate thoughts. Janice was hopping from one foot to another, a sign he knew from previous occasions, indicating that she hadn’t finished her point.

“Sorry Janice, you wish to continue?”

“Like I said, we thought him a huge enigma, but neither did he seem to be all that bad a person when compared to the likes of Hitler for instance. He obviously wasn’t a very moral person sir with the drinking and womanising but neither was the Russian Court very respectable, according to history, so in a sense he was in good company in those matters.”

“Any thoughts then about why he was murdered?”

“Well sir,” this from Colin, the class pinup but with a brain, “Well sir, he obviously put a lot of peoples noses out of joint because of his influence over the Tsar and Tsarina that’s the way of things isn’t is sir, when the apple cart gets upset?”

Colin continued, “In fact sir, too influential by all accounts, as that was what caused him to be murdered sir. Even his death is a mystery sir and we supposed – us lot – that if indeed he did have some strange powers, that might be why the poison didn’t do for him sir and they had to shoot him sir.”

“Well that’s an interesting thought class, a mystic able to withstand being poisoned! It’s the stuff of fiction really isn’t it? Any other similarities between say Rasputin and Thomas Cromwell? No? Well one thing should stand out if you think about it.”

“Oh I know sir,” this from Jake affectionately known as, ‘carrot top,’ both met a sticky end sir. Rasputin shot and poisoned, Cromwell getting the chop.”

“Yes Jake. Upset too many people as Colin said, in all probability. We’ve still a few minutes to go before break so let us ponder, ‘do you think such a character could appear today? And if he or she did, well what? What do think might happen to them?”

“Probably end up in Parliament sir!”

“I like that Jill, yes indeed I like that!”

********

So Denis sat and pondered, that little man sitting quietly. Had his subterfuge really given him any ideas? The page, was literally, still blank taunting him now and the deadline was drawing ever closer, no wonder he thought, that many journalists took to drink. Ah well, perhaps a mug of chocolate and a bit of dunking, might, just provide some inspiration.

End

Alan Bennett quote:https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/a/alan_bennett.html

Wolf Hall written by Hilary Mantel

Ester

Just the flick of a switch. Six simple words, ‘Just the flick of a switch.’

Was she really prepared to break all the rules? A life time of obedience to both the teachings of the Church and her profession? But, she thought to herself, maybe sometimes you just have to don’t you? You could become so wrapped up in your own world of knowledge and experiences, so sure that you were always right, that alternatives seemed unlikely to be, well, anything other than just alternatives.

Never to be actually acted upon.

********

“Ester.”

“Ester,” but this time a little louder.

“Sorry Marion, I was miles away. Miles and miles.”

“Your soldier?”

“Yes, in a way I suppose yes, my soldier, for he has no family, no distant relatives that we have been able to trace. The Battalion Chaplain calls in to see him every week or so. Sits with him, tells him the news, the gossip from the barracks. His mates used to come in but since they were posted away, well it’s a bit far for them to travel, so it’s just the Chaplain. ‘Spose it’s a good job he broke his leg, had to stay behind or my soldier boy would have no-one.”

“Except you. Time to do the drug round.”

********

The Hospice was quiet, not like during the day, as Marion and Ester dispensed drugs and kind words to those who could not sleep. Drips checked and changed, each re-checking their charges, ever since two old rascals had succeeded in slipping out, only to be returned somewhat merry, by the police.

“All present and correct except for Bob.”

“He’ll most likely be in the Chapel, I’ll check, you lock up the drug cupboard Marion.”

Ester walked down the long corridor towards the Chapel, shoes making barely a sound on the carpeting. The almost silent whispering of soft leather on the pile carpets reminding her that she really must buy some new shoes, for her old comfortable ones had started to leak, even in the lightest shower of rain. She hated new shoes as she never seemed able to find a pair, no matter how expensive, that didn’t pinch and hurt, making the night shift seem even longer.

She was surprised that Bob was not in the Chapel and a moments panic started to rise within her. She checked every room, every toilet and at last found him sitting quietly with her soldier. One old veteran sitting holding the crippled hand of a young comrade. She withdrew silently, the image of them in that instant, was she thought, one she might never forget.

Just the flick of a switch. Six simple words, ‘Just the flick of a switch.’

********

God, did the shoes pinch! Ninety-five pounds and still they pinched, but perhaps, she wondered, was she more sensitive these days?  Her mind never really seemed rested, so perhaps her pinching shoes offered an alternative to those thoughts that grew and confused her more and more each day.

There was no-one she could turn to either. She lived alone, no friends she felt she could trust. She was due a few days holiday, had booked to go to Llandudno, take the air along the promenade and pier, treat herself to some of those disgustingly fattening but delicious doughnuts.

It was if Mother Nature knew that Ester needed some warmth in her life, some brightness, as a change from the ambiance within the Hospice. The wind cooperated, just the gentlest of breezes coming off the sea, creating a friendly warmth enjoyed by all.

She sat not far from the bandstand, people watching, all seemingly without a care in the world, which she knew could not be true. The doughnuts had gone down well, great yellow beaked seagulls waiting to rush in for any crumbs. And all the time in her head those few words, ‘Just the flick of a switch.’ ‘Just the flick of a switch. Six simple words. Time to think them through. Come to a decision.

********

She was from, what would once have been called, ‘a humble background,’ mother and father being stall holders in the local market. Devout Catholics, ever ready to be guilty about anything and everything, never more so than when their only daughter, Ester, won a prized scholarship to the local Convent School.

Happy as they were about it, they could not show it in public for that, they would feel was gloating, which was sinful, requiring many extra, ‘Hail Mary’s’ to subsequently wipe the slate clean.

Ester prospered in the strict learning and moral environment required by the Nuns, and would have had little difficulty academically, in gaining a place at Cambridge, but she wasn’t convinced that that was the road for her. The Nuns, ever eager to guide their charges into ‘worthwhile’ careers, had been shocked at what they perceived as a wasted opportunity. A Red Brick University, who in their right mind would not seize that chance? But they knew of Ester’s stubbornness once her mind was made up and they made no real effort to make her change her thinking. If not the life of an academic, then either of the other two worthwhile careers on their shortlist would do.

On a crisp October autumn morning, shortly after her eighteenth birthday, she boarded the 8.23am express to London en-route to begin her nursing career with Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps.

********

She dozed in the sunshine, the happy shouts of children playing on the sands reaching into her sleepy mind. But slowly, the happy squealing turned into shrieks of terror, the warm breeze into the heat from blazing building.

Bosnia. Northern Ireland. Iraq. Afghanistan. Lesser unreported skirmishes but all with the same result. Bombs and bullets that did not discriminate between soldier and civilian, the old and young struck down and, she came to believe, that the dead were often the lucky ones.

She had shed many a tear over the wounded and sighed at torn bodies that were beyond help. Slowly she felt an anger growing within her but with whom and why? Was she angry with herself that she could do only so much to help or with the politicians that made these wars and conflicts? Men and women, safe in secure offices often hundreds of miles away from the bloodshed?

But her worst fear was that she was becoming angry with God himself. ‘The All Merciful God,’ but she increasingly saw only contradictions to that. Religions and sects tearing at each other’s throats, often for some ancient slight that still demanded blood be spilt.

And these thoughts, sitting at the seaside, brought her full circle to her soldier.

********

His room was bathed in sunlight, the machine keeping him alive beeping steadily showing all was well.

“Well its not all well is it my love, my soldier boy. I bet you were a handsome young man, a head turner for the women, had broken a few hearts. And now look at you.” Ester turned away for a moment gathering herself, the professional woman who had seen as many horrors as any person, tears in her eyes .

She wiped his face, moistened his blackened lips, gentle rubbed cream into his hands, hands drawn into claws by muscles wasting away. Could she do it? ‘Just the flick of a switch.’

Her hand moved towards the innocuous white plastic switch. A simple action, turn it off, but wait, first she must disable the alarms for that would bring other staff running to help. And afterwards if she got away with it? Would her conscience allow her to keep it to herself, what she had done, for she would have taken a life instead of preserving it as her oath require of her.  How would she face her God when next she went to church?

********

Probably, without realising it, she had made her decision. But even more questions presented themselves to her. A normally honest open woman, less God fearing than when much younger, should she try to hide what she had done, or do it openly and take any consequences that came to be?

She would certainly turn the alarms off, for once committed, she must make sure that her soldier passed away and was not brought back to his non-existence by the others on duty.

And what of the Law? Murder or manslaughter? A mercy killing even? Murder she thought, for turning the alarms off would be seen as premeditated. Either way, she would go to jail, was she prepared for that, for this young soldier who had had no qualms that she knew of, of fighting for his country and to protect those unable to protect themselves.

She would think about it, she had two days off before she worked the night shift again. The days passed relatively calmly. She went to mass but sat out the communion feeling that it would have been hypocritical to take the wafer  with what she had in mind.

********

‘Just the flick of a switch.’ The alarms Ester, but first a prayer. She took his hand said the Lords Prayer, reached to smooth his hair. Now.

She heard the door open, managed not to look startled or guilty, turned, expecting to see Marian or Rose, the other night nurse, but instead, it was Bob.

“Sister.”

“Bob, missing the drug round again are you?”

“Don’t make much difference Sister. The cancer will do for me soon enough. Any change with ‘im?”

“No Bob and there never can be. I’ve seen enough injuries and maiming in my time to know that.”

“Aye, so ‘ave I Sister. Poor soul. It’s ‘is birthday today you know, twenty-six. Twenty-six an’ done with life these past two years. Don’t seem fair somehow Sister.”

“No Bob, life is not fair for many.”

“I’ve ‘ad a good life you know. No good at school but the Army sorted me, the comradeship, aye particularly the comradeship.”

There was a pause. Ester looking at Bob, small skinny Bob. The weight had fallen off him over the last three months, the pain creasing him at times but he would emerge from it smiling and cheerful .

“’Ow long will ‘e last d’ think.”

“Could be years, it’s only the machines keeping him alive and as he has no relatives to ask the Courts to switch them off, well,” she left the sentence to trail into the quiet of the room.

“What about that official Solicitor bloke or ‘is Battalion even, Sister?”

“Too politically sensitive so I’m told.”

“Friggin politicos, they start things an’ when they get difficult, they don’t want to know. Friggin politicians.”

“Tell you what Sister. I’ll sit with him a while, you go about your duties.”

She turned as she left the room once again taking in the scene. An old dying veteran, the crippled young soldier.

The alarms went five minutes later, but no one rushed, for instinct told them all, that this was the best way.

Just the flick of a switch.

End

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘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