The F Word

He would never solve it, but the image was clear to this day. It had been fifty years since he had last driven across that bridge, driving up to its crest meeting another car coming towards them on their side of the road.

He had his closed eyes, waiting for the crash, the pain, but nothing! Had he dreamt it? He still occasionally met the girl who had been with him, would ask her about it only to receive the same reply. ‘My eyes were closed tight shut and it’s the only time I’ve heard you use the ‘F’ word.’

 

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Reflections

We first met Mary and the Duchess in December 2016 when the subject was ‘Christmas Eve.’ The story ‘Some Apprehension,’ was set in 1917 with the main event taking place three years prior to that.

*******

‘It is through that broken window that we see the world……….’
Alice Walker

Friday April 22nd 1927

‘Good evening Mary,’ a slight pause, ‘Might I sit with you?’

Mary looked up, for she had been far away, unaware of the Duchesses approach, had been absently mindedly twirling a button on her coat, knowing that if she continued to do so, she would end up having to sew it back on.

‘Good evening Georgina, please do, I came to see how matters were progressing, for Edward is leading the congregation tomorrow, at very short notice, due to sickness amongst the Bishops retinue.’

‘He is recovered then?’

‘Yes, just a nasty cold and he will not listen, to stay put in the warmth, his duties first, so instead of just a couple of days before the worst was past, it was a week or more. ’ Mary paused, brushed a wayward strand of hair from her eyes. ‘ You came alone, no maid?’ Not waiting for a reply, Mary continued, ‘I walked up with Ruth as she is turning the music pages for the organist, but she was late home from school, the whole class kept in for some girlish misdemeanour or other.’

‘Ruth, she is what age now? I should know, remember even, but my mind seems careless with such details these days. No, no maid I am becoming too dependent on her and I came through the Long Room anyway rather than brave that cold unfriendly wind, as my last impression of it was that it is becoming very shabby through not being used, now there are so few family living here. We need to re-furbish it Mary and I shall value your advice, seeing how you’ve turned that once drab Manse into a warm and friendly place.’

The Duchess hesitated, looked around, seemed suddenly distant, then, as if gathering herself, brought herself back to the present, a trait which seemed to be increasingly apparent to those who knew her.

‘She is a young woman now, has been for some months, so thirteen or fourteen we suppose, for she had no papers or identity at the orphanage, god bless her. She has decided she is thirteen and so will last a year longer than if an old lady of fourteen!’

‘She is one of the lucky ones, she has you and your husband. Oh Mary, so many families ripped apart, never to be mended, many not knowing where their loved ones lie even now, eight years since the war ended and still so many unknown graves and unknown soldiers in known graves. What a travesty Mary, what a travesty of supposed civilisation.’

Mary sat quietly for she knew the Duchess, for all the apparent outward display of calmness, the aristocratic bearing, was a troubled woman, her once unchallengeable support and loyalty to her country and  belief in the establishment, now severely tested . A woman who had lost three of four sons fighting the Kaiser’s army and a husband who had stubbornly insisted that he be allowed to the front line, cruelly blown up and nursed for five long painful years, before an unknown hoarded quantity of sleeping pills and a bottle of whiskey had finally ended his torment.

The women sat quietly, watching the preparations, who would stand where, who would do what. To the casual observer, viewing these two ladies from behind as they sat close together in the front pew of the chapel, there would appear to be little to distinguish highborn and commoner, sensible overcoats against the changeable April weather, one trimmed with fox fur, the other a plain dark collar, partly obscured by a paisley scarf.

To that observer, they presented as calm, mature women, in their early fifties, neither  tending towards the dumpiness of middle age. At peace and dignified they might appear, but outward appearances can mislead. Had that observer been facing them, he would have noticed that neither could cast other than furtive glances at the  purple drapes covering the newly installed stained glass window. It was, as if, whatever was hidden, they would have preferred it to remain so. A window which come the morrow, would be revealed

********

Saturday April 23rd 1927

Mary had risen at six o’clock, the habit formed of years of serving in the big house. But it was a habit she did not wish to break, those quiet early morning moments, useful for reflection, gathering her thoughts for the coming day as the vicars wife, organising her mind. Once she was at peace that all was in as good order as she could hope it to be, she would make a pot of tea, butter fresh toast cut from the loaf that the baker had already delivered to the front doorstep and climb the stairs to sit beside her husband, still usually deeply asleep.

She looked at Edward, grey haired, the visible legacy of his time in the trenches, the invisible locked away behind deep blue eyes. Occasionally, usually triggered by some sad or unjust incident involving those he ministered too, the invisible legacy would surface, tormenting, taking advantage of the temporary weakness of a good man  caught up in a great evil.

Oh how she loved this man! She had resisted his courtship for many months, but he had persevered, aware of her inner turmoil, trying to tread that very fine line between loving the bonny, healthy and attractive woman he saw before him and  not seem to be pitying her for her inner torment, the reasons for which he knew full well, she had no blame.

It was the Duchess who had been the match-maker, pushing Mary to face the future and to try to bury the past. But, it had not been that simple, as there were those who had no wish to let Mary forget and as in many small rural communities, memories were long and gossip cherished, embellished, until the truth was lost in a miasma of complexity and viciousness, for what better sort of gossip was there?

Mary sipped her tea, watched as Edward stirred, wakened, smiled at her. She put the cup down, leaned to kiss him ‘good morning,’ felt his hand slip inside her nightdress, gently holding her breast until both felt the nipple harden, inviting him to explore further, feeling him slip inside her, gently loving her, no lustful passion to which both sometimes gave vent, just gentle love on a day that promised much anguish for those that knew of the reality of war, rather than the pompous glory of those who sent others to die.

********

They walked arm in arm towards the estate chapel, their recent lovemaking insulating them from the east wind that still blew cold, huddling the sheep into the hollows of the field. They kissed a brief farewell, unashamed to be seen so doing . Mary watched as he walked in to the chapel and then turned to carry on up to the big house, a household she had joined some thirty odd years before, newly married, maid to the Duchess as new to the marriage bed then as was she.

Their friendship had developed, always with the reserve of maid and mistress between them in the early years, but as misfortune overtook them both, but from the opposing directions of cowardice and bravado, the reserve fell away until, ‘Georgina’ took the place of ‘My lady,’ when the women were alone and increasingly these days, not so.

********

‘Good morning cook, still with us then?’

‘Ay Mrs, little beggar seems far too comfortable tucked away in ‘ere to be bothered coming out into this cold and blustery world.’

‘You have all you need then?’

‘Ay, me lady done seen to that, what with that ‘usband of mine being far away on the ‘igh seas.’

‘No news of him then?’

‘Nay. I’m begin’ to wonder if he’ll not  bother to come back, I mean ‘e’s ‘ad ‘is pleasure, without bein’ crude, so as to speak, Mrs, an ‘e knows I’ll be looked after by me lady, so why bother?’

Mary looked at the cook, not sure how to answer, even as a vicars wife, for she had already caused trouble in the past,  saying what she felt about certain matters, looking at them from a woman’s point of view, rather than the church’s authoritarian and frequently less charitable one. Sometimes silence was perhaps better, even if quite difficult to achieve.

‘Then perhaps you could persuade that little one to stay tucked up warm and comfortable until this day is over?’

‘Oh, I’ll not let my lady down for I know how troubled she is Mrs, yes troubled indeed.’

Mary smiled as she climbed the back stairs to the Duchesses chambers, wondering yet again at the perception of these so called ‘lower’ women.

********

‘Oh Mary, why did I ever agree to this damned window?’

‘Because it is it the right thing to do, remembering all those brave men and women and their families. Why should it be only the Generals and Admirals that are remembered? Men who will have likenesses carved in marble to grace some plinth engraved with gold letters.’

‘Are you a closet suffragette then Mary, fighting for our rights to vote, to have a say in how our men are sent to be slaughtered? But, do we really want that responsibility I wonder?’

‘Out of respect for my husband, I take no part in these discussions, although Edward is all in favour of it, we steer away from the subject, it makes us both angry at the world dominated by men, and very often not very intelligent ones at that!’

‘Ah yes, the interbreeding, out goes common sense and intelligence, in comes pomposity and arrogance.’ My late husband wasn’t like that fortunately, just too damned patriotic I fear. Which brings me back to this window – and I struggle for my words dearest Mary. It seems somehow too perfect, if the end result is as the artists illustrations, for what it actually represents in my mind, is a commemoration to evil, the mindless ego driven vanity of nationalism.’

She turned away from Mary, close to tears of anger and grief, turned back, sat, looked at Mary, her expression almost blank. ‘Perhaps a small sherry, early as it is, for I need all the fortification I can get to deal with the next hours.’

‘Whiskey in your tea might be better?’

‘Indeed.’

*******

The service had gone as planned, the small chapel attached to the big house full and overflowing. The military band had welcomed the worshippers, not with rousing military marches but quiet dignified music, remembrance not celebration for the day was about commemorating not celebrating those war years. Mary had wondered how the bandsmen managed such control and beauty as the east wind chilled fingers and turned noses a bright red. She would make sure that a good hot toddy was ready for them once they had finished their duties.

Edward had been calm, his voice unwavering, no indication of the nerves Mary knew would be rattling round his stomach. It had been suggested that the Duchess would unveil the window, but she had point blank refused, ‘one of the village women should do it, for it is mainly to remember their men, those that survived and those who didn’t.’

And so the purple drapes had fallen away to reveal the stained glass, just four figures, Soldier, Sailor,  an Airman of the Royal Flying Corps and Nursing Sister, red cross vivid against her white uniform, the border of the window  also bright blood red, the grass upon which the figures stood, green and fresh, the artist emphasising new life, ignoring the reality behind that need.

A window commemorating the fallen, a window which bore no latin or religious verse, just the inscription:

1914-1918

Both women stood heads bowed not wanting to look at the perfect figures, unblemished by blood stains or mud, almost mocking  in it perfection. An unbroken window commemorating a broken and fractured world.

********

The big house, or Rainsford Hall, to give it its ancient title, fell silent, the guests gone their various ways. The Duchess had bade them all farewell, shaking hands with each, receiving kisses from some, smiles and curtseys from others. Mary and Edward had stood with her, until the last farewell had been bidden.

‘I’ll bid you both goodnight and thank you for today. I see my maid hovering, she does the most delightful hot baths complete with a tumbler of whiskey, no water though as she is Scottish and will not let me ruin her national drink!’

Some hours later as the Duchess, unable to sleep, her mind provoked by that window, the deaths of her sons and husband, the anger still welling up at his stupid bravery, she heard the faint cry of a new-born and wept.

********

Edward and Mary, Ruth between them linking arms, had walked slowly home, the east wind no longer blowing, the stars bright in a clear sky. Both were tired, for the day had been long and both had been watchful, ready to comfort those who found the window bringing back still raw memories. There had been no more than quiet dignified tears, the wind often blamed for red eyes.

Mary had bathed, taking longer than usual, brushed out her long dark hair now showing strands of grey, climbed into their bed only to be joined by Ruth. This was not that unusual, although much less frequent than in the early days when she had just come to live with them, then it was to seek human warmth and comfort, now it normally meant questions requiring either an explanation or some reassurance .

‘Mama, you look tired, it’s been a long day I know, but I have a question.’

And Mary knew, with the insight of the mature woman, what the subject would be, a subject she always knew was likely to come up and thought she was prepared for, but now, she was not so sure.

‘Mama, that window, with its figures, I understand what it’s for, to commemorate all those brave men and women who fought to keep us safe, but one of the village women said afterwards, when we were in the big house, something about, ‘there be widows and widows and some widows were caused by other widows no doubt,’ and she glared in your direction. What did she mean?’

Mary was silent, the previously well practised words of explanation suddenly stuck, unutterable in her dry mouth. She took Ruth’s hand, gathered herself, looked at her daughter and said finally, without emotion, ‘My first husband was shot as a coward on Christmas Eve 1914.’

Ruth searched her mother’s face, holding tightly onto her hand, taking in those few words, ‘Oh mama! And was he?’

‘Yes Ruth, he was I’m afraid, he ran away from the battlefield.’

‘But I’ve read mama, that that was not uncommon. Many men ran away from the fighting.’

‘True my darling daughter, they did, but there were those who ran away because they had seen enough horror, seen their friends killed in front of them, seen the wounds, the suffering and there were those who just ran away when the first shots were fired, they deserted their post and in the army that is an unforgivable sin. The mark of a coward.’

‘So what did that woman mean mama, there be widows and widows and some widows were caused by other widows no doubt?’

‘There are the widows whose husbands were killed fighting the enemy and thus are the widows of brave men and proud but sad to be so, and then there are widows like me, whose husbands ran away and in so doing let down their comrades. There are women and their families in this village who blame me for their loved ones deaths, because my man let down their man, didn’t stand shoulder to shoulder when most needed.’

‘But that is so unfair!’

‘No Ruth, it might seem unfair to blame me, but I now understand why they do, but I did not at first, perhaps I did not want to acknowledge his weakness, no woman cares to admit that of her man. Children were left without fathers, fathers who would work to feed them, clothe them, suddenly, there is little money coming into the cottages, but I seemed unaffected in that way. I had my work in the big house, a Mistress and Master who understood me, a cottage of my own left to me by my father, and then I married the vicar and still appeared to live in comfort and all that is true, it can’t be denied.’

********

High about the alter, the newly consecrated window with its four figures seemingly looking down upon the empty church, was bathed in moonlight. The stained glass lit as if from heaven. If the same observer who had watched those two women, those two friends, during the previous evening,  had looked closely upon the panes of glass, he would have seen or might imagine he saw, the tiny cracks which more accurately reflected life, than the artist whose only intent upon its creation, was perfection.

End

The opening quote in full is:

‘A writer’s heart, a poet’s heart, an artist’s heart, a musician’s heart is always breaking. It is through that broken window that we see the world…’
Alice Wilson,  American novelist who wrote, ‘The Color Purple.’

 

Ronnie Cole

trollsIt really was quite unremarkable, that little bridge, at least when viewed from a distance. To the imaginative, it was a place where trolls might hide, only to reach up in best fairy story style, to snatch little children and gobble them up. Indeed, to the really observant, it might seem to have something mystical or a pervading evilness about it, as many a dog would not walk across it, preferring to take their chance swimming across the swiftly flowing water.

Upon closer inspection, it was in fact an ancient bridge on one of the many old sheep drover trails that crossed the country. Two great slabs of slate resting upon an outcrop of rock, not quite mid-way across the watercourse. To those whose mind might veer towards the practical, the question would be how did those ancients transport those hugely heavy slabs of slate so many miles from the nearest quarry? And indeed why? Was there no better local alternative? Questions never likely to be answered, unless some long lost ancient scroll came to light.

Old it might be, but it was still usable, except by wary dogs of course, as it sat in the bottom of that classic glaciated valley, deep in the heart of Snowdonia.

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Like many things in life, discretion, in any form, is where one finds unobtrusive quality. Thus, the small private dining room of a grand old Tudor house, deep in the Cheshire countryside, held only one table. Rectangular, centuries old mahogany burnished to a deep even glow. Designed to seat ten in classically upholstered comfortable chairs

In addition to the table, currently set out for five diners, were three comfy settees and two arm chairs. Placed just so, small elegant tables, not coffee tables you understand in such a setting, upon which were four envelopes, stout manila envelopes sealed with old fashioned red wax.

At exactly seven o’clock the envelopes were opened, the contents, just two pages, were read, studied and then returned to their original envelopes. A tall, clean shaven dark suited man entered, with never a glance left or right, almost as if he was wearing invisible blinkers, collected the envelopes and left silently.

The discrete bulge under his left armpit was observed by all. Top security then, even out in the wilds, and no wonder, given what they had just read.

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Dinner was of course exquisite. Small, perfectly cooked and presented dishes, each persons preferences catered for, competent PA’s much in evidence. Although they all knew each other by their given names, it would have been difficult not to considering their overall responsibilities, at such meeting as this, they were only ever referred to as North, South, East and West. A quaint throwback perhaps, to the days when allegiances were not always known and trust was for the gullible. But equally, a first line of defence against inquisitive journalists, when papers, which should never have been removed from their office, were left absentmindedly on trains.

The fifth member and head of the group was simply referred to as either, ‘Arctic’ or ‘Antarctic,’ depending in which hemisphere any subsequently agreed action would take place. Tonight, she would become, ‘Arctic.’

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The protocol was to think upon what had just been read, whilst enjoying the food, nothing said, other than to observe the niceties of passing the salt or pepper, or water. No alcohol was served, for clear heads would be needed. Besides, each person present knew that every word spoken, every nuance would need to be committed to memory as no paper notes were allowed and certainly no mobile devices that might either record unobtrusively, or even worse, be bugged.

Arctic raised a freshly plucked eyebrow, bright red lipstick appearing untouched by the meal. “Well?”

North broke the silence, “Possibly too close to home? Last time we operated as such, we had the very devil keeping the press out. But apart from that I have no problem with it, some would say about time, overdue even. Outlived his usefulness, what with the peace accord.”

Those well-manicured eyebrows sought either approval or dissent, for she was not known for being loquacious.

“Whose going to be the operative? Going to have to be good to sort this chappie out.”

“The thinking is Cole, South, given his history and character.”

“Good chap,” this from East.

“Yes, one of our best, But I’ll put in a backup Too important to fail,” at which Arctic rose, smoothed down her skirt and bade them all,  “Goodnight, I’ll leave you to work out the details and I’ll have a word in the appropriates ears in Fleet Street and the Media. Perhaps,” a sardonic smile crossing her face, “perhaps a gentle reminder that the Cabinet office is looking at the next Honours List eh?” And with that, she was gone, her aptly named scent, “Poison,” wafting across that rather unobtrusive room.

“Ah, gongs for the boys if they toe the line then eh?” Thus spoke West, ever, after a lifetimes experience of dealing with the establishment and justifiably so, the cynic.

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Anyone meeting Ronnie Cole for the first time would be unlikely to pass any later comment of anything exceptional or noticeable about the man. Just under six feet, neither scrawny nor muscle bound, no addict of the gym, indeterminate accent, hair just beginning to thin, shading grey. Clothes neither shabby or smart.

Unremarkable, which is exactly as he wanted it.

He’d been summoned to the presence and as he waited, he wondered would it be the bright red lipstick or the black? The black tended to signify one being asked to do something out of the ordinary and thus potentially dangerous and therefore of course, exhilarating for the men and women who thrived on the adrenalin pumping far faster than was long-term, good for them. The red could mean nothing more than surveillance or guarding some entity the Government didn’t want killed whilst on their doorstep.

It was the black with matching nail polish. “Cole come in. Fully recovered at last I hear, been a long job, getting you back on your feet. The medical men and mind doctors say you’re fit to be let off the lease again, yes?”

“Yes maam, still get the odd twinge, as no doubt you know, but it will help the concentration wonderfully, in not letting it happen again.”

Cole left the building, the long scar in his right side, which had caught the blast from the shotgun, throbbing, a psychological throb. It always did when he thought of Art Finnegan, the only man who had ever bettered him and Cole was not of the character that could easily cope with that.

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To a person of dubious character, who wished simply to melt unnoticed into the background, it is not immediately apparent, that the Snowdonia National Park in North Wales, might be a first-choice location in which to do so. Just a handful of main roads, easily blocked by the police should the need arise. But, to a reasonably competent map reader with a good map, the truth of it would soon be clear.

Small villages tucked in deep valleys accessed by narrow roads. Other houses perhaps just two or three, often traditional secretive looking welsh long houses, served by equally restricted tracks, best suited to rugged four-wheel drive vehicles or scramble motor bikes, rather than swish town based saloons. The sheep drovers trails from centuries past still passable, so what at first might seem as an inaccessible swathe of country side, was in fact exactly the opposite.

And the final piece, for almost guaranteed anonymity for the person of dubious character, were the walkers, hundreds and hundreds of them every day, almost all clothed identically, many with facial hair, the women wearing beanies, a multitude of accents, regional and foreign.

A huge area, sparsely policed, usually by men and women coming to the end of their careers, none with anything to prove other than to live quietly to collect their hard-earned pensions. All well versed in the wisdom of turning a blind eye, but of course, there always is an exception to the rule.

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Art Finnegan knew that his time was limited. What was left of his organisation was riddled with informers. In his less sanguine moments he never understood why he was still alive, why he wasn’t in some solitary dark grave with an English bullet through the back of his neck. The thought had come more frequently over the last couple of years, sending a shiver of fear through him, bringing home to him his potential mortality. But how, he would reflect, does a leopard ever change his spots? A born and bred terrorist, a red-blooded fighter for the cause he wholly believed in. Or, did he? Still?

That he was still alive could only mean that his protector was still in place, but for how long? Deep down, he knew the answer to that, until political expediency dictated otherwise, for there were some in Government who would never like it to be known of their association with such a man.

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Cole pondered his briefing. Finnegan had left Ireland, almost certainly crossing the Irish Sea, landing somewhere in the wilds near Harlech and then, where? Easy territory for a determined man to disappear into and equally difficult for any watcher or follower, no matter how skilled. Finnegan had literally, disappeared down the proverbial rabbit hole.

Instinct told Cole that he would not venture into England, too many surveillance cameras and GCHQ listening to millions of mobile phone transmissions. Computers analysing every conversation for various key words, for speech patterns that could give away a man just as easily as if he had left his DNA or fingerprints casually lying around.

For several weeks after it was known that Finnegan was no longer in Ireland, there was a complete lack of intelligence about him. The rabbit hole turned out to be a gigantic cave. GCHQ drew a blank, so any communication from Finnegan was obviously not by mobile. Cole, following his instincts, gamekeeper turning poacher, requested that the telephone exchanges in the north of Wales and along the English border be monitored with the same speech pattern software. It paid off.

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Police Constable Angharad Jones, still lived in the house in which she had been born some fifty-five years earlier. She had followed in her father’s footsteps and after a couple of years had disappeared down south, ‘London,’ the local scuttlebuck reckoned. The woman who eventually returned years later was far from the naive young policewoman who had left.

One is never allowed to truly leave the Intelligence Service, its ways, its ingrained training, thus, Angharad had quickly shed, if not to outward appearance, the air of the nearly retired country Bobby. The instructions were clear, she was to mount surveillance on a tatty, faded red telephone kiosk, at the junction of three minor roads whose main traffic was roaming sheep, rather than anything with an engine.

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Cole was edgy, had been since he had left London. The harshness in Arctic’s voice had surprised him, so different form her normal honeyed tones, the instructions concise, brutal even; “Put him away for once and for all, I’m relying on you as never before. He’s up to something and we still don’t know what, other than it will shed blood.”

So now he stood in a shallow valley of some god-forsaken welsh place, the name of which he couldn’t even begin to pronounce, but which his discreet sat-nav informed him was exactly where he should be. The rain drifting sideways, the sort that drenches in a few seconds.

He was dressed as any self-respecting walker would be. He could feel the weight of a small, powerful, non-descript looking pistol, tucked in a pocket adapted to hold it comfortably and without danger of it snagging should he need to quickly bring it into use.

He approached to within twenty yards of a small cottage, a dim light just visible where the curtains did not quite close, that careless gap, unlike Finnegan though Cole, just wide enough to shoot through, head shots. All clean and simple, seconds only required, buzz the disposal team on his encrypted phone and then away into the wind and rain.

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“Your version, Cole.” The harshness in her voice matched the lipstick. No pre-amble. Just a total hardness, no femininity, nothing.

“Well, I was within feet of the cottage when Finnegan ran for it. There was a door in the far end of the cottage which he came through at a rate of knots, bowled Angharad, over as if she was fairy dust, which she isn’t. Obviously tipped off, he just ran, no boots, just his ordinary clothing. Couldn’t get a clean shot at him, too many bushes in the overgrown garden.

“So, he got away from you?”

“I went after him, ‘spose he was fifty, sixty yards in front, jinking from side to side to avoid being shot. He literally cleared that old bridge in two steps, whereas I went head over heels into the water. Never saw him again as you know.”

“We searched the whole area, Cole, nothing except we found the bridge had been smeared with grease, except for two narrow strips. Finnegan obviously knew exactly where to put his feet.” With that, Cole was dismissed with a slight turn of the head. He left, wondering if he would ever be summoned to that room again. Finnegan’s escape would be regarded as a failure on his part, perhaps the biggest black blot ever handed out.

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Six months later no one was any the wiser as to Finnegan’s whereabouts, other thought Cole, that the man himself and whoever had tipped him off to get the hell out of that cottage. But who?

Cole was aware of the witch hunt that followed, the accidental unearthing of two men whose subsequent allegiance had proved undependable. But, of the person who tipped off Finnegan, there was no sign, no clue, not even the vaguest hint. And that of course troubled Cole, for he had intended to exact revenge for their previous encounter, intended to square matters and not, as had happened, been bettered again by the same man.

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As one would expect Ronnie Cole was not the sort of man who gave up on problems, particularly one that tarnished his hard-won reputation as a professional spy, even killer, neither of which either definition troubled him. It came to him when least expected, what was that Sherlock Holmes used to say, something along the lines that when you’ve eliminated all the possible and then the impossible, then what’s left, must be the probable?

Angharad.

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She didn’t deny it, sitting quietly in her sitting room, whisky glasses reflecting the red glow of the gas fire.

“So, what now? Turn me in?”

“No, no. No one knows I’m here and no one will. I’m finished with the Service, that’s been made clear, pensions waiting for me to sign for it, but I can’t go on not knowing about Finnegan. Dead,” he paused, “or alive?”

“Dead. Dead as mutton.”

“You?”

“Yes.” There was a coldness in her voice, hatred, cold stark hatred.

“You can prove it?”

“Oh yes, but you’ll have to be prepared to get wet.”

“Why, Angharad, the killing?”

“Simple, Cole. He murdered my father, broke my mother’s heart. You remember that bombing just outside Conwy, was meant to get the young Queen? Dad was caught in it and ever since I’ve had to listen to Finnegan on the radio, playing the big brave man, a man who never once faced a soldier with a gun, a weasel who slunk around murdering women and children. A coward.”

“So, you tipped him off?”

“No, just pretended to fall over the rubbish bin outside the cottage and out he came as I knew he would, it was his alarm signal, he’d so carefully placed it, almost hidden, with the lid balanced just so. Let him flatten me so that it looked good.”

“And you caught him where exactly?”

“The far side of that bridge. The track narrows, funnels between two walls, put a trip wire across it and that was that. Broke his neck, like they trained me to do all those years ago.”

“The body?”

“I’ll show you, tomorrow when its light, but swear to me Cole, as one murderer to another, that you’ll keep it quiet. Don’t want him found and martyred as some parts of the press will do.”

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It really was quite unremarkable that little bridge, at least when viewed from a distance. To the imaginative, it was a place where trolls might hide, safe from prying eyes. A bridge that many a dog would not walk across, preferring to take their chance swimming across the swiftly flowing water.

Two great slabs of slate resting upon an outcrop of rock, hiding a secret. The children of the area knew of the deep recess, in the outcrop, some had even hidden there, the adventurous ones, when the water in the stream was low in high summer. But now, the water never was low, the flow always the same, the overflow from the upstream dam.

A secret hiding place for evermore.

End

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The Little Dark Haired Girl

lines

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?

xxxxxxxxx

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.

xxxxxxxxx

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.

xxxxxxxx

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