BESIDE THE STILL WATERS is our latest novel. Read the first chapters here and see our Books page for  more.


HE remembered the place from his best childhood holidays; when the family were together and, for a while, without pressures. Would it have changed much? Everywhere else had, to his nostalgic memories, yet in other ways remained what they'd always humbly been.

There had seemed little point staying longer in Barrow, which he'd reached in the hired car by early morning. It had been the obvious place to start from, back to his beginnings, now he had returned to Britain.

The town looked less run down than before but, then, he remembered it from being a child, when times were hard – as everyone used to say. Now, at least, there were signs of new ventures so different to back then; nail and beauty parlours, cyber cafés, there were even Italian and vegetarian restaurants.

But down his old street he had felt like a ghost, returning but not belonging. He had even spotted some familiar faces, just more worn by half a lifetime. They, in turn, had glanced at him quizzically, as though thinking, 'Could that be the Stone boy - Sam?' But, then, he'd seen the dismissal ('Surely not, they left years ago – and good riddance!'). He was just a passing stranger, probably lost; he looked and felt that way.

The Stones would be remembered badly, he guessed. The mother who thought herself better than others, with ideas above her station – though a pretty thing. The father, so full of himself – often of ale too – and never to be trusted around a bit of skirt; the boy, young Sammy, turning out as bad.

Yes, it had probably often been predicted that they'd bring down trouble upon themselves – and they had, in spades.

Stone drove on, rather aimlessly now. He had to find a B&B or, perhaps, for more privacy – a hotel, by evening. Still, that left plenty of time to explore. It was spring, his favourite time in the Lakes and Cumbria.

It was good to be out of cities, away from concrete, congestion and crowds. To finally again be free of commitments and appointments; all that stress of urban life, as society slowly regrouped from the pandemic inactivity and devastation.

He'd considered driving out to the far west coast, returning to the sea at last and the big beach there – where he'd first galloped on a horse; but that was really too remote, not what he was looking for, he'd realised. Stone wanted some quiet, time to think – and, perhaps, to write again; but also some life going on around him; not a place where everyone knew your business, or wanted to learn it all.

At Ravenglass he was reminded more of a ghost town from the old Western films, though the cottages on to its cobbled pavements were still quaint. It was as silent as the grave – and there'd been too many of those.

Then he had recalled, perhaps from his earlier thought of galloping along Silecroft beach, the place where he'd first learned to ride; that holiday in Lynwood. The area even had a restful sounding name.

Also, it wasn't far from Coniston, his favourite of the lakes, although called - for some mysterious reason - a 'Water' instead. Now, well before the high summer season, there should be plenty of accommodation; also, he could perhaps do some relaxed boating again.

Stone was now driving with more sense of purpose. His father had liked Coniston 'town' - “A quiet place, but not too quiet” - Stone now recalled him saying; his mother, too, she liked the shops there, where they didn't know her and treated her like a lady, though not the prices they charged.

They hadn't been able to stay in the town, which was really more of a large village. It was expensive yet more often than not 'full' – with even the small B&Bs showing 'No Vacancies' signs.

It was the first time, perhaps, that young Sam had realised they were poor; also, though he had tried to push away the thought, that his father might not be the hero and so great as he'd believed – being unsuccessful. It explained, perhaps, why his mother sometimes cried or looked sour; why he increasingly heard them arguing.

Even as he now journeyed to that place he'd enjoyed most when so young, a childhood sadness also descended upon him. He realised how hard it must have been back then for his parents, both steeped in a dying town, with ever more responsibility - perhaps each blaming the other. If they could only see him now; but what a price they'd all paid.

Instead of succumbing, though, Stone merely smiled at himself then admired the countryside, those lambs in the fields so full of life – gambolling, as the poets might have said – that 'Old Sheep Of the Lake District', as Horace Rumpole had described Wordsworth. Though, probably, the great man would have been more original than that.

The crusty but philosophical and irrepressible Rumpole was another literary favourite of Stone's. He had learned, through years in newspaper offices, to love 'characters'; those blemished souls who reminded you that, while life might not always go well or, even, justly, it was to be treasured and, still more importantly, enjoyed too.

There were characters in Lynwood, Stone had realised even at that early age when he'd visited a few times with his parents. They'd rented a caravan on a farm, a dairy and sheep farm with horses you could hire to ride. Cruck Barn Farm, he now suddenly recalled.

It had been run by a rather jolly, if rough looking farmer and his almost equally tough wife. She wore incongruous short, white socks and sandals, even when out of season and chilly.

Bates – that had been their name! Stone smiled. For the life of him, he couldn't recall the farmer's first name but now remembered his doughty wife was called Daisy, which had seemed too dainty by far. She and his mother had got on quite well, Stone thought. Daisy and her daughter Alison had even taken him in the odd evening, when his parents went on one of their rare nights out, together.

Her farmer husband and Stone's father had also gone to a local pub a short walk away; then the men had come back singing drunk, much to Daisy Bates' and his mother's dismay. It was called The Moon, that pub, he remembered now. “They are halfway to the moon, too,” Mrs Bates had muttered to his mum.

There had also been an older Bates child, a son who'd offered to take Sam up the nearby 'mountain', really more of a hill, called Black Crag he thought – the name had rather unnerved him. Fortunately, Daisy Bates had said it was too far and steep. Perhaps that son was now running the farm, Stone thought.

But his mind, as he drove, was now on Ali, the Bates' daughter - just a couple of years senior to young Sam. What would he have been, 13, 14 perhaps? His first time; when they'd been left playing in the caravan, his parents out, her family busy with lambing and calving or some other seasonal task.

Stone smiled at the recollection; that girl had been a minx, so much more mature and knowing than himself, the so-called townie. What an eye-opener that had been! He grinned but then had to concentrate as the chance came to pass a labouring farm wagon.

Yes, whatever happened to pretty, teasing Ali? That was over 25 years ago. Would she still be there, in Lynwood; perhaps now running that farm, or another?

Now he thought of it, a static caravan such as they'd had at Cruck Barn, would be ideal. He'd have his own kitchen and living room; could please himself about breakfast and other meals – even take himself off for a few pints down at The Moon, just a walk away along bridle paths.

Lynwood it would be, then, Stone decided, his spirits risen once more. There were a series of hills and, as his four-wheel-drive rental comfortably scaled the last of these, there came the first glimpse of Coniston Water, nestling among trees, glittering in the brittle spring sunshine. It fairly took his breath away, delighting him.

Then there was a steep decline. Stone accelerated past another heavily laden lorry then slowed as he suddenly saw the old-fashioned signpost for Lynwood at the roadside. To his surprise there seemed only a few huddled homes either side of the road with a couple of shops - more a hamlet than village. He was already through it and out into the open countryside.

But then he rounded a bend and saw an old inn right at the roadside. It looked familiar and he pulled into its empty car park. The Water's Edge, as it was named, appeared shut. Had the pandemic closed this centuries-old country landmark, like so many others?

Stone saw smoke rising from one of the cluster of chimneys and got out to stretch his legs. With the traffic now gone for a while, there was silence. He strolled further on, glancing through the old inn's leaded, stained-glass windows.

It was a low but long, rather crooked building, all rendered in grey, and appeared very old. Glancing through its many small, dusty panes was like looking back into history. Stone could make out narrow, low corridors and cosy rooms, furnished in red leather and darkened oak, some lit by lamps with dull, golden reflections of brass and occasional flashes of silver, picked out by the warm flicker of open fires.

But there was no one to be seen. A small printed sign, hanging in a window just before the solidly closed timber and metalled door, said simply 'Rooms'. There was no bell, only a heavy, cast-iron knocker which Stone shrank from hammering down.

He sighed, more than ready for a pint and pie, then he strolled on and peered into a stone-flagged bar, again with what seemed a substantial fire glittering in its unseen grate, hidden below a jutting slab of stone.

There were small, solid tables, comfortably worn chairs and pew-like bench-seats, then stools at the bar which boasted an array of hand-pumps and bountiful racks of bottles. It all looked invitingly snug and just his sort of place. How frustrating!

Stone was just ready for a drop of decent bitter and, perhaps, a wedge of sandwich, hopefully with chunks of mature cheese, pickles and, preferably, while seated in one of those cushioned pews facing that fire.

Instead he wandered out and round the building. There were a scatter of trestle tables with attached wooden seating; some folded parasols and crumbling statuary – a rather weathered female nude supporting a birdbath, assorted farm animals and fishing gnomes.

He'd hoped to find a rear kitchen door ajar and someone working - to check on opening times; after all, those fires were lit inside. But the only sign of life within the rambling inn was steam from an outlet on the first floor. It was clearly a bathroom, with an opaque window, unlike a few other leaded ones - presumably the inn's bedrooms so discreetly advertised.

There was a low fence and gate into a thickly wooded garden. Stone wandered into it, still stretching his legs. How fresh the spring air was, no wonder those lambs had been 'gambolling' so enthusiastically, hopping logs as the grazing ewes stared on.

'What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare?

No time to stand beneath the boughs

And stare as long as sheep or cows.'

Stone recalled the poem from school days in Barrow-in-Furness. He'd liked his English teacher, she'd brought those Victorian poets to life. 'Leisure', as this was called, had stayed with him because of its easy rhymes and simple pleasantness, to match its subject.

Poet W.H. Davies had been the son of a Welsh publican, a man with a wild streak as well as a way with words; an easy-going, handsome fellow, as Stone remembered Miss Taylor saying; a bent-briar smoker who looked like he enjoyed his leisure – not like an industrious, God-fearing Victorian at all!

Only when he'd lost a foot - jumping trains, the teacher had said, when travelling as a hobo in America then gold pan-handling in the Klondike - had Davies reluctantly returned to Britain, finally writing his poems and becoming famous; even marrying a pretty girl many years his junior.

Stone grinned, reminding himself he, too, was a man of leisure again; then walking on under the assorted ash trees, chestnuts and willows, through the thickets of rhododendrons and hydrangeas of this rather unkempt 'garden'. His father had taught him the names of plants, trees and birds on their rare but memorable walks and outings; his heart always being in the wild.

Then, as suddenly as in the hired Freelander earlier, Stone's thoughts evaporated. He stopped in his tracks and stared in delight as, just ahead through a clearing framed by the trees, the edge of the lake, Coniston Water itself, had appeared once more.

Close beside it, he saw now, there was also a ramshackle hut of some kind, or perhaps a boat house, even cottage . . .

“Oi! What y'doin' down there?”

Stone, who'd been about to investigate the distant clearing with its invitingly short, wooden jetty, halted and turned in surprise.

He felt instantly guilty and out of place, like the child he'd recalled being - all those years before; that wayward 'townie', an innocent visitor charmed - but also wary - at all the beauty and wonder about him. Could he really, and freely, roam all this?


THE shout had come from the inn, some distance away now. Stone found its source, an angry red face smeared with a snow-white beard, beneath an unruly mop of black hair. The man's head was poking out from that same window beside which steam was rising.

“You!” the disembodied, glowering head cried out. “Where d'you think you're goin'!”

Stone frowned – what a welcome! He didn't answer, as it would have meant him also shouting in a demented manner. But he reluctantly turned back and, pointedly strolling, re-approached the inn.

“Well?” came an impatient shout, even as Stone was closing the small gate behind him.

He looked up, standing his ground amid the pub's trestle tables. The man, he now saw, had been in the process of shaving – not displaying a white beard at all. But why was he so angry?

“I was just stretching my legs,” Stone calmly explained, “my car's in your car park.” Then he added, with deliberate irony, “I was considering lunching here, if you're ever going to open – I noticed your fires were lit, down in the bar and rooms.”

He was going to comment on the shortage of helpful signs or any information, but the head now disappeared.

Stone kept watching; at last seeing the bathroom window open wide again. The face was still swathed in shaving foam but now less florid.

“Didn't realise the bloody time,” the man called down, apparently placated. “Go round the front, I'll let you in.” With that, the window closed.

Stone raised his eyebrows, uncertain whether he now wanted to be the man's only customer. However, he did as he'd been told then stood still, patiently waiting before that solid, almost medieval front door.

It finally opened, with much muttering, then was secured with a heavy block of cast iron, shaped to take boots for cleaning.

“Sorry about that,” his greeter said, at last standing up, almost to Stone's height, a little short of six-two; but he was of even heavier build, with a generous paunch.

“Come in,” he added, standing back into a low-ceilinged corridor with Tudor-style beams and thick, plastered walls. “There's a snug or the bar with fires lit; were you dining, did you say?”

Stone smiled, stepping in beside his host. The pair of them almost filled the width of the hallway.

“The bar would be fine,” he replied, adding, “I was only thinking of a sandwich – and a pint.”

“'Course, whatever,” the publican said, stepping in front and swinging open a door into the small bar area Stone had seen and liked from outside. “I'm a bit behind, out fishing from early – then dozed off.”

Stone followed the landlord in, first taking in the blazing log fire in that vast grate. It roared away under what looked like a great slab of slate inches thick.

Then he studied the bar.

“A pint you say?”

Stone nodded, glancing along the pumps. “Better have Bluebird, I suppose.”

“Sure, or there's Hawkshead, all local brews.”

The landlord was filling a dimpled handle glass with the local bitter, after pulling off half a pint or so from the lines. He had managed to brush back his thick crop of black hair, tinged with grey. It still glistened damp from a shower. Also, he'd shaved though there was a cut on his neck, just below the solid, square chin, which he'd covered with a scrap of tissue.

He was a well-built bull of a man, except for that telling paunch – too much of his own produce, Stone suspected. Still it was a good advert of sorts, he'd never trusted thin chefs or publicans.

It looked a fine pint, too.

“A sandwich, you say?”

“Well, yes, I'm just passing through. I thought cheese and pickle perhaps.”

The landlord shrugged. He had on bright-red braces, well stretched over a red and white striped shirt, above baggy, burgundy-red, corduroy trousers. Adding to the flamboyant look was a red-checked cravat. His cheeks and neck also glowed red.

“Not a veggie, are you?”

Stone studied the man's strong, almost coarse features: a 'proud', well-spread nose - if you wanted to be kind; bushy, black eyebrows and weathered, ruddy skin – all lit by some intense, dark-blue eyes glittering intelligently and with some humour, or mischief.


“Thought not,” said the publican. “I was going to say, there's some pheasant if you'd prefer – left over from yesterday's game pie. Drop of champagne gravy – makes a grand sandwich.”

Stone grinned and nodded. “Talked me into it.”

His host looked pleased. “I'll have the same,” he volunteered, ignoring Stone's efforts to free his cash and cards from a back pocket and disappearing into a back kitchen.

Pheasant, champagne gravy – sounded encouraging, whatever the price. Also, yesterday's game pie had a nice ring to it, too. Stone sipped his pint and was equally impressed.

Taking his drink over to the settle seat he'd fancied from the window, he sat down and stared reflectively into the fire's embers. Perhaps a room at The Water's Edge might be an enjoyable experience for a day or two, while he looked for longer-term accommodation from this cosy base.

His attention rose to a blackboard above the fireplace, with an impressive array of specials - for starters and main courses, plus wholesome puddings. The host knew his business, at least when it came to cooking – and the cask ale.

Prices were top end, though, but not when compared with a couple of nights Stone had recently spent in London, being entertained by his agent Miles Waverley. He could hardly complain, though, as Waverley had been good enough to put him up in a spare bedroom of his Georgian home overlooking Hampstead Heath.

“Here we go!” said the landlord cheerily, coming through a bar hatch with a laden tray. He set out a large plate with a generously packed sandwich of thick, rustic white bread. There was a pot of relish and a separate simple side-salad of rocket leaves, green pepper and red onion slices with some oil; plus some solid cutlery wrapped up in a white, cotton napkin.

There was also a small, silver tankard with some ale but this turned out to be the publican's own as, once he had set out Stone's meal, he raised it and leaned against the fire's mantelpiece.

“Cheers,” he muttered and Stone raised his own, half-finished pint. “That's onion and plum chutney, by the way, home-made; that cob fairly soaks up gravy.”

Stone took a mouthful of the sandwich and nodded appreciatively, then tasted the chutney with equal pleasure. The whole dish was delicious. He felt impressed. “Excellent.”

“Good as leftovers go!” The landlord drank up.

“Well, I'll leave you to it, there's some bridge players come in early afternoon – in the middle snug, better get it set up for them.” He turned away. “I'll leave you to eat in peace – sorry about the misunderstanding, earlier.”

“That's all right,” Stone told him, adding, “but I'd appreciate another pint before you leave.”

“Certainly, Bluebird again?

“I'll try the Hawkshead.”

The landlord brought it over to him. “It's their red, makes a change.”

Stone nodded, pleased. “Tell me, you've a sign for rooms. I was thinking about staying a couple of nights – if you've vacancies.”

“This time of year – sure!” However, he didn't look entirely pleased at the suggestion.

Stone felt obliged to explain further. “I was hoping to get something longer term, maybe a caravan.” His host frowned. “They used to have statics up at a farm near here – Cruck Barn, as I recall. Are they still there?” He took another deep swallow to finish his ale, then eyed the next brimming pint-full. At this rate he wouldn't be fit to drive in any case.

“The Bates' place? Long gone,” said the publican. “No caravans or camping there now.” He shook his head. “Can't stand the tinny things, blocking up roads and spoiling the landscape.”

Stone pulled a thoughtful, non-committal face and nodded, just to be sociable. To such an inn-keeper it was all cheap competition, he supposed.

“There's a campsite and caravan park a few miles from here, but bugger-all else there, just some unwholesome clubhouse and fields of vans in the middle of nowhere.”

Stone had to grin at the dour description.

“Thought you were just passing through?” The landlord raised his thick eyebrows questioningly.

“Well,” Stone sighed, settling back in his seat. “Fact is, I might do some writing; want somewhere quiet, with a desk or table and so on, preferably near the lake. He looked hopefully at his host and shrugged.

The publican grunted, non-committal too, but looked a little more interested.

“Finish your lunch,” he instructed, with an air of having made a decision. “I'll set up that snug, then we'll have a little chat.” He smiled and looked into his empty silver tankard. “Not a bad drop this red ale, huh?” He laughed then went out through the bar's entrance door to the corridor, after leaving his tankard on the counter.

Stone shrugged again, then returned to his fulsome sandwich, also now trying the green salad with its dressing. That, too, was good. It was said, Stone recalled, that you could judge a restaurant by the quality of its smallest offering, the side-salad.

Another indicator of decent standards was a clean loo, preferably well aired and regularly checked.

Looking round, he doubted his host and this old place would win awards for its dusting or, possibly, hygiene levels but, then, neither would the Greek island he'd just spent months on before returning to 'home'.

He was also thinking of Josie, whom he'd stayed with for two nights after coming north from London. She'd made up a sofa-bed for him but, predictably, he'd never slept in it. There was still chemistry between them. Was that also why he fancied somewhere more private than a pub's B&B?

Josie had actually been in a relationship, before kindly offering to put him up. In truth, he'd only wanted some company for the evening, preferably female, after deciding to break his journey north at Lancaster. The sofa-bed had been her suggestion, also that he phone her once 'fixed up' in the Lakes.

Obviously, her latest relationship was floundering – like the last, longer enduring one she'd had. However, in the end, that had been a great disappointment to her too, poor girl.

Well, he'd see. It didn't do to get involved. He'd been taught that many times, but had he learned?

“Right!” said the landlord, returning, then leaning over the bar and refilling his tankard. He came over and, seeing Stone's empty plates, sat down opposite.

“There is something that might suit you,” he said, with a grin. “A bit of self-catering,” he added, then raised his tankard in a salute, as well as those bushy eyebrows above his darkly sparkling eyes.


THING is,” Gordon Corrigan said, conspiratorially, “times have been hard – what with the bloody pandemic over last summer then a poor Christmas. I've had to let staff go.”

Stone nodded. They'd at last introduced themselves; while he had explained his own circumstances to his now genial host: as a 'writer', recently returned from the Greek islands after packing up everything in Britain - back at what had long been home, Lancashire's Fylde coast.

He had not told Corrigan of his rather chequered journalistic career before, with its freelance successes and failures, nor the tragedies which had driven him abroad. Neither had Stone inquired into his host's personal past or career before this old inn with impressive meals. The man clearly owned the extraordinary, if rather ramshackle place - and they had both been divorced. That seemed sufficient for now.

Corrigan smiled then confessed, “I don't really relish having to get up and cook you a breakfast every morning – or come up and tidy your bed and bathroom.” He raised those thick eyebrows, pausing.

Stone merely grunted, sympathetically.

“I'd rather get up at dawn and go fishing – it would be more productive too, than one paying guest. If I got more in somehow, now people are at last holidaying again, then staff would be needed – follow?”

“Well, yes, that's business,” Stone pointed out.

It was Corrigan's turn to grunt, this time doubtfully. “Tell you the truth, old man, it's rather worse than that. If I did open up fully again the roof would need fixing, plus a few expensive plumbing jobs – then, of course, redecoration, advertising etcetera.” He groaned and shrugged, then lifted his tankard.

“Mind if I smoke?” asked the landlord, pulling out the fairly long stub of a thick cigar from his shirt's breast pocket.

“You're the boss,” Stone also pointed out.

Corrigan lit it from the fire with a coil of newspaper he'd ripped from a nearby coal shuttle, settling back again.

He sighed, “I can get by, just, but only ticking over, you understand.” He sat forward and rather chummily confided, “Grow or make everything here, pretty much – hunt the game, hook the fish, even plant vegetables. Got a damn great freezer out there,” he nodded toward the back garden, “plus vegetable patch, fishing gear. Only the gun's locked away upstairs.”

Stone grinned. “The country life, eh?”

Corrigan nodded. “That's how I like it; leave the breakfasts, lunch-time 'sarnies' and cleaning to the hired hands, when I had 'em. Now it's just drinkers and people willing to eat what I happen to be cooking.”

“I see.” Stone thought it all sounded rather hopeless, in terms of a business plan, but did have some sympathy. He'd rather got used to being self-sufficient, himself, back on the Greek island with, seemingly, his own cove. Fortunately, though, he'd had a beautiful woman to cook for him and some lovely company.

“In fact, that's why I shouted at you, when I noticed you prowling through my undergrowth!”

Corrigan laughed, then explained, “We had some tinkers, so-called bloody travellers, through here – nicking everything, even my vegetables the cheeky sods! As I said, there's a lot of good stuff in my freezer; got my own generator, too. Wouldn't want that disappearing, plus my fishing gear; other things too.”

“I understand, no offence taken.” Stone eyed his near-empty second pint. He was surprised at being mistaken for a gypsy but, then, he was dark, a lone wandering male and, some said, appeared threatening.

“Good. Well,” Corrigan said, standing with a groan then taking both Stone's glass and his tankard to the bar, “on the other hand,” he continued, raising his voice with his back turned, “I have something you could rent.”

He turned, now back behind the bar and pouring them more beer. “That cottage you saw – out there beside the lake.”

Stone was a little taken aback. He frowned. “It is a cottage then? I thought maybe a boathouse.” He didn't say 'hut', not wishing to offend his host.

“Certainly!” Corrigan insisted, coming back.

He put down their drinks. “Got its own generator, too, and running water. Needs a spruce up but weather-tight enough; got a wood stove and fire, plus there's a paraffin heater and so on – all mod cons.”

Hardly, Stone suspected, but had to smile as he lifted his fresh pint in thanks. He'd reached a mutually beneficial, well-rounded deal on his recent island idyll. Might he do the same in the Lakes, given the eccentric nature of this unusual, though enjoyable place and its off-beat owner?

Stone took a long drink, aware of Corrigan eagerly waiting. “How much a month?”

There was a thoughtful sigh as Corrigan's business brain was almost visibly cranked into action. “Well, cottages go for about 400 a week round here.”

Stone raised his eyebrows. “I'd have to inspect it, but don't want to pay that.” Yet, he realised now, even a caravan might cost toward £300, then probably more per month in high summer and holidays.

“Hmm, well yes, of course,” Corrigan muttered, shifting on his chair a little uncomfortably. “As I said, it's perfectly habitable but could, possibly, do with a bit of TLC, I suppose. It was the gardener's, when I had one – a widower, nice old boy, God bless him.”

Stone smiled. “Tell me, err, Gordon, just how much would your roof and repairs cost, if you don't mind me asking?”

“Well, hmm.” Corrigan did now look as though he minded revealing such details, but was clearly totting up costs nonetheless. “Round here we help each other, you should understand. For example, there are three prices for my food and drink – one for visitors, another, less of course, for locals, then even less for the old locals – because they simply won't pay any more.”

Stone returned his amused grin.

“But in return, we get similar generosity – with both money and services and, well, with a good spirit. A lot of the work would be done on that basis. It would have to be. But, well,” he looked at Stone quite openly and concluded, “I'd be needing £15,000, just to get up to scratch again here and ready for full business.”

Stone nodded. He didn't want to add that the man clearly had got to rock bottom. The build-up of dust, lack of visitor signage and general malaise spoke volumes. But so did the host's abilities, handsome fayre and that generosity of spirit already glimpsed.

“Why don't I take a look and we might start working some arrangement out,” Stone offered.

The bushy eyebrows lifted, Corrigan's head rose too, silently, as he assessed Stone. Then he smiled.

It was half an hour and another pint later when Stone finally went out into the now sharper air and back through the gate between what were labelled, on rickety carved signposts, as 'Beer Garden' and then 'Retreat'.

He had left the landlord to serve two groups of four who'd come in to play bridge and have mid-afternoon snacks and drinks.

Stone felt tired as he made his way along the dirt and gravel path toward the real water's edge but, finally standing in that clearing, its air and beauty braced him once again. This was a stunning view of the now placid lake, deserted but for drifts of smoke from a few distant farmsteads across the water.

The 'cottage' itself appeared more like a shack, as he'd first thought. A rowing boat was tied close by, beside the short jetty, and there was a barn-like wooden structure which probably could house it; as well as being a storage area with tools and chopped wood.

Stone stepped up to the narrow, wooden verandah and small entrance door of the main cottage. Outside it was another of Corrigan's hand-carved signs. It read, 'The Resting Place'.

He smiled. Well, that was what he needed now, to rest. The thought of returning later for a fine dinner by that open fire in the cosy bar also appealed.

However, still uncertain, he turned and looked back through the wooded 'Retreat', as Corrigan called his overgrown rear land. There was no sign of the allotment or outbuildings for freezer and generator. No doubt it was all there, somewhere amidst the trees and wildly growing rhododendrons. From here a person couldn't even see the main inn any more.

Stone looked back across the glass-like surface of Coniston Water and its breathtaking hillside panorama. It was as though he had this whole beautiful vista to himself. Then, to his surprise, Stone saw he wasn't alone. Perched just feet away, on a stump of the jetty, was a stone-still barn owl. He remained as still himself, transfixed, watching the ghostly, flat face; then saw those pitiless black eyes blink once at him.

Stone smiled, then quietly pushed open the unlocked front door of the shack.

The interior construction, like the outside, was a mix of logs, brick and slate. It looked tidy enough and would be cosy if the wood-burner was lit. For now, Stone took a match from the box on the mantelpiece and lit an old, upright paraffin heater.

There was a well-used two-seater couch with wooden frame; an inviting, if rather sunken armchair with patchwork covers, and a rug over the bare floorboards. By the large front window, looking out on to the lake, was a dining table complete with a couple of straight back chairs, their seats softened a little with what looked to be home-knitted cushions.

It would do, he realised, and Corrigan had said it had a generator for the lighting, as well as running water. With that in mind he inspected the small kitchen, then a rudimentary shower and the lavatory.

All seemed habitable, for one man at least; even rather snug and quaint but, as he turned and stood uncertainly before the window again, it was the incomparable view which made up his mind.

Besides, he had drunk too much to drive further and, Stone reminded himself, he still had his Land Rover Freelander to unpack, then a fire to start. The prospect made Stone feel like a freelander himself which, he realised, was a good start.


STONE woke hazily to the unexpected smell of woodsmoke. But that was not unpleasant. He turned, rather stiffly, in the unfamiliar three-quarter bed – as Corrigan had described it last evening.

Yes, last evening – that came back vaguely with the dazed thumping in his head. He'd joined an early-evening darts match and then, after the players had left, enjoyed a hearty steak and kidney pie. It had been served with roast potatoes and other 'home-grown' veg in Corrigan's thick onion-gravy; followed by a steamed pudding with custard. Even its jam was Corrigan's own.

The last thing Stone remembered was a quiet session on the inn's malt whiskies in a firelit back snug with Corrigan, as they settled their terms.

Stone shook his head warily. He never got on well with whisky and wanted to reassure himself over the financial arrangements. Dehydrated, he got up and poured himself a glass of water in the kitchen, then returned and stood momentarily by the front window.

Had he really given the man a cheque for £3,000 and promised £12,000 more? Slightly shocked, Stone stepped out on to his small verandah, needing the sharp morning air. There was a mist rising from the lake and it seemed very early and eerily quiet; just the sudden shriek of a kite or some other hunting bird – that owl?

They'd agreed 12 months, which Corrigan was going to ask his solicitor to draw up a contract towards. After the initial £3,000, Stone was to pay a further £1,000 per month, £15,000 in all.

He swallowed then breathed deeply; the air was clearing his hungover senses. Well, he could afford it. But had it been wise? They had also agreed that Stone would cater for himself but, when he did dine or drink at the inn, it would be at low 'local' prices. Also, he could raid the vegetable allotment and, to a reasonable extent, the freezer, when necessary.

There would also be some eggs daily available from hens Corrigan also kept; plus access to his excellent home-made bread.

Both had also agreed that, should Stone's 'shack' need attention, repairs to that would come first.

Finally, it was decided that the contract could be terminated without further loss or cost by either party, provided reasonable notice and cause were given.

Well, Stone thought, £300 a week without further bills and with use of Corrigan's boat – plus allotment, freezer etcetera – didn't sound too bad. A couple of nights in a hotel could cost him that.

Any further doubts disappeared as he now turned, hearing a twig break near by. Then Stone caught his breath, as he stared back into the clearing. A Red Deer fawn was standing alone, just yards away; its body alert, with dark, soft nose twitching tentatively at the morning scents. It was spellbinding.

Stone studied the trusting, wild creature and their eyes met, then the fawn glanced away quite unhurriedly and, in a single agile bound, disappeared into the bushes of Corrigan's Retreat.

After a few seconds, still rather wonder-struck, Stone went quietly – and faintly dazed - back into his 'shack', as he'd decided to call Gordon Corrigan's 'Resting Place'.

His mind now on fresh endeavours, Stone went through again toer the kitchen. There he splashed some water on to his face and towelled it dry, promising himself a hot shower and shave later. There was something he felt impelled to do; it was a skill he had not used for years, perhaps since school.

From his luggage he found his writing aids, then a block of plain cartridge paper he used for notes. Tearing off a sheet and using a large hardback notebook as his easel, Stone went back out and sat down on a low, flattened stump beside the jetty. There he roughly sketched the clearing before him, then added his memory of the fawn, when it had turned, watching him.

Well, he concluded, it wasn't really accurate but did catch something of the magic of what he'd seen. Stone had always done quite well at art. Perhaps he'd also get some water-paints; the surrounding lakeland offered ideal landscapes for that medium.

He stood up and stretched then, after another admiring look at the misty lake, turned to go back indoors; then halted again. Now approaching, with considerable noise through the bushes, was Corrigan himself. The man looked troubled, last evening's bright, jovial face now darkly cast and brooding.

“Morning,” Stone called out and stood still, waiting, letting his arm with the artwork drop to his side. His landlord appeared surprised to see him.

“Ah, morning,” Corrigan said, almost absent-mindedly. He had stopped a few feet away. Today he was very well wrapped up in a padded, country-style coat and boots. He stared beyond Stone to the rowing boat moored at the jetty.

“You okay?” Stone asked, concerned. Had the man changed his mind or, even, forgotten he was here and what they'd arranged? It had been a long session.

Corrigan nodded but didn't smile. Then, seeming to remember his manners, asked, “Did you sleep okay?”

“Fine; more of a coma, really.”

Corrigan now managed a smile but only for an instant. His blue eyes had lost their dark, devilish sparkle today.

“I was just going for a sail. Been a bad morning.” He didn't seem inclined to say more.

Stone glanced at his watch. It was still only a little past eight – a bad morning, already? He frowned. Corrigan managed another half smile. “Helps me relax, on the water; trail a line and might even catch some supper – there's a sail, too.”

“Why a bad morning?” Stone asked.

Corrigan stared a while before he quietly answered. “There's been a sudden death, probably an accident – or so I suspect. Up near that farm you mentioned.”

“Cruck Barn?”

“As it used to be; near there – a woman killed, a good neighbour, I liked her.”

“How'd it happen?”

Corrigan shrugged. “Well, that's for the police to find out. They just wanted me to examine the body.”

“Really?” Stone was mystified.

Corrigan grunted. “Used to be a medic – surgeon. They employ me odd times, when the police doctor's unavailable; like today.”

“I see.” The man was full of surprises.

Corrigan seemed to be pulling himself out of his shock, or whatever it was troubling him.

“One of the Bates' family, from the old farm you mentioned.” He smiled grimly. “The only one who had stayed on round here – the daughter, Alison.”

Stone didn't say anything, suddenly taken aback, but his face must have betrayed the memories.

“Remember her?” Corrigan asked, curiously. His eyes had flickered with interest again, brought back to the present from his earlier dark mood.

“I do,” Stone confessed, shifting his position to lean on a post by the verandah. “Though we were just kids back then.” Corrigan was nodding but watching him fixedly, as though to glean anything he could from Stone's now set, serious features.

“An accident, you say?” Stone prompted.

“Hmm, yes, seems so. Nasty gash to the back of the head, but she'd almost survived that – perhaps from a stumble in that damn, dark barn of hers.”

Corrigan sighed then, watching for Stone's reaction again, added, “She'd managed to crawl towards the barn doorway, where her jacket had been hanging, half pulled it down – so it looked to me – perhaps to try and phone. Her mobile was nearby on the ground.”

The shook his head, glancing away. There had been a glint of tears forming in his eyes, Stone felt sure. He was surprised, for a doctor to react so.

“Well, we'll know more soon,” Corrigan said more gruffly, now avoiding Stone's scrutiny and walking toward the moored boat

Stone watched as Corrigan busied himself with untying the rowing boat, then stepped in and sat down, taking up its oars. Only as he was edging away from the jetty did he look up and back at Stone again.

“Glad you settled in okay,” he said, forcing a smile, then pulled back the oars to quietly disappear into that mist still hanging over the dark lake. The silence and chill it seemed to cast was oddly unsettling.

Stone went slowly back into his shack. He stared at the remains of last night's fire but his mind had gone back almost three decades, to a smiling teenage girl who had transformed his young life.



* * *


THE following chapters are from our latest published novel, The Golden Door (also see Books page). The front and  back covers are also shown below. Chapters from other books follow below.


The Grand Hotel

THE island appeared on the horizon like a mirage upon a powder-blue sea. As the hydrofoil flew onward, that distant terrain rose upward and spread; the hill at its centre growing higher; its tapering sides reaching further out into the Aegean.

From the stern's viewing deck Stone could now see a huddle of dwellings clinging to the hillsides, until just below a rounded, green peak, then thinning out along the sides above scattered boats moored out at sea.

To west and east of the central harbour, where his ferry was heading, buildings shimmered in quivering lines, their glistening white or sandy-gold stonework reflecting sunshine beneath red-tiled roofs.

How many years was it since he'd last come to the island, twenty? It didn't matter. Instead, he thought of the adventurous girl met here, like a mermaid on that rocky outcrop in a small cove of shingle beach, where only a white-washed chapel stood, Greek Orthodox of course. She'd been completely naked but unabashed.

What would the priest have thought of them?

Stone smiled, letting the wind on the fast-moving vessel blow his now grey-flecked, dark hair; tasting the brine of the sea on his lips, enjoying its spray which refreshed his face and exhilarated his ravaged, tired soul.

Yes, this is what he had come for; it was not such a foolish flight of fancy after all. Last evening, staying at a nondescript hotel near Piraeus, he'd wondered at this reckless departure from all he knew and had previously cared for so much.

Now, however, he felt a wave of freedom and, these days, rare excitement, as the hydrofoil slowed, sinking lower on to the water for their final approach into port; while the sunshine now embraced and warmed him.

Stone studied his destination anew, as more accustomed passengers prepared to disembark with their goods. Yes, it was the same long, concrete and stone jetty, then a pathway of stone paving so worn over ages it shone like marble, curving into the small, rounded harbour.

From there the town had opened into a square of two-storey tavernas, homes and commercial buildings. To the west was a rambling, blue and white-painted café he remembered, from sitting awaiting ferries, much frequented by old men sipping coffee and ouzo, smoking and chatting, watching others.

To the east, Stone saw to his relief, was the Grand Hotel, rising above that steep adjoining mass of the main dock used by large cargo and cruise ships. Standing there on the wharf's wide expanse was the statue of Bouboulina, freedom fighter and fleet admiral who'd driven out the Turks, still staring out to sea.

Further along the coastlines, he recalled, the atmosphere grew quieter. To the west was the Old Harbour with its boatyards, to the east a lagoon with smaller fishing boats than those anchored in this harbour where they were now pulling alongside.

Stone joined the end of a queue waiting to disembark; locals for the most part by the look of them, returning from shopping or business trips to Athens. March was too early for tourists. On the Flying Dolphin hydrofoils, from Zea dock, the mainland was less than an hour from here; whereas on the normal boat ferries it was more like three hours.

He nodded to the crew member he'd earlier tipped to help with his travel trunk, then lifted his shoulder bag and went ashore. They were all smart, these Flying Dolphin crews, and prided themselves on punctuality and efficiency. Someone had said the line was Russian owned, but Stone wasn't sure of that.

The deckhand, in dark trousers, white shirt and gold epaulettes, spoke in Greek with the deck officer then heaved Stone's trunk on to a nearby trolley. They then walked in tandem along the jetty, as fresh passengers boarded for the Dolphin's onward trip.

At the end of the jetty, a local porter left the ouzo café to take over Stone's luggage, a cigarette still dangling from his lips. No smoking restrictions or health and safety worries here, it seemed. Yet they must know of the pandemic fears that were building.

It was not yet mid-morning but already hot, though with a welcome sea breeze. Stone took off his jacket and, glancing back, saw the Dolphin deckhand, his helper, untying a remaining mooring rope then jumping aboard the elegant hydrofoil before it eased away out to sea.

Yes, the air was different, cleaner. The stares of the old men at their tables still as lingering and unhurried; these much-worn paving stones dazzling in welcome; the town quiet, gathering itself for another day under the sun in the timeless Aegean.

Stone smiled, strolling contentedly now toward the old but impressive hotel towering above and awaiting him; toward his new future, for how long, he had no idea or care.

On the Grand's terrace, raised above the coast road and wide expanse of shipping wharf, a waiter was opening parasols over a few tables. In the past, there had been a grand piano out here. It was one of the memories, that piano played by a white-jacketed musician among a handful of candle-lit tables, which had prompted his choice of hotel.

Not that Stone was aware of many other hotels here on the island, certainly nothing of this size or style.

Back then, on his only previous visit, he'd observed the elegant scene, reminiscent of a more cultivated past, from a distance – usually while walking toward the town's bars, while dining cheaply himself on a take-away souvlaki, or roasted chicken breast, from street vendors and small stores open late.

Now, though, the Grand appeared rather tawdry, outdated and unloved. There was no sign of the piano.

He followed his luggage into a large reception hall which needed repainting and had the cavernous, empty feel of a rail or bus station entered too late – after the last service had gone - without passengers or, in this case, other guests. Even the old ceiling fans were still.

There was an echo, accentuating the otherwise endemic silence, as his porter rang a bell upon the reception desk. Then the man, still smoking, turned and nodded politely toward Stone, awaiting payment. At least any fears of no-vacancies had gone, in this now barren, old edifice. Its fall from grace was bleak.

The receptionist, when she appeared at last, was young, however, with a bright smile and curious eyes.

Stone finished tipping the porter then got out his British Passport and credit card and smiled in return at the waiting woman.

She had that thick, raven-black hair of the Greeks, with auburn highlights perhaps henna-dyed. Her fulsome locks were pinned up but strands had escaped, curling down against her cheek and tanned neck. Her oval face had strikingly dark eyebrows and full, heavily made-up lips against her olive skin. She wore businesslike tortoiseshell-framed spectacles but they suited her.

“Hello,” she said, noting the nationality on the proffered passport and smiling again. She also eyed the considerable trunk standing beside Stone.

“Morning,” he responded, returning her warm smile again, happy to be at the end of his journey for now. “Have you a room, or suite perhaps, overlooking the sea? I'm just one.” It sounded sad, he knew.

The receptionist nodded, her reddened lips curling again in a softer smile; those black eyes lingering a little longer now upon his own.

She was intrigued, clearly – and, he sensed, a little 'interested', as they say. Stone instinctively glanced down at her hand and saw no telling ring, just gold bracelets. Their eyes met again, with a hint of shared understanding now, even amusement.

“For how long, sir?” She stared, expectantly.

Stone shrugged. “I'm sorry. Does it matter? I've really no idea.”

The receptionist laughed, a delightfully full laugh in this depressing, otherwise empty hall, then also shrugged. “No,” she told him, turning a register for him to sign, “we can accommodate you.”

Stone nodded and signed in: name, nationality, then paused over home address and, finally, left a dash.

The receptionist glanced at the entry as she turned the book back toward herself, then at him once more but, despite hesitating, thought better of asking more it seemed. Instead she reached for a key and pressed a buzzer beneath the counter

“I'll get help for your luggage, sir.” She handed him the weighty key. “The Poseidon Suite, daily tariff 120 euro, if that is acceptable. Perhaps, if you stay long, you may speak with the manager.”

Stone nodded and thanked her, turning as a small man in dark trousers, white shirt and slightly soiled white jacket appeared for the trunk. It was the waiter who'd been setting up tables outside.

There was a cage lift. The Poseidon was on the top, third floor, its grand sitting room windows opening on to a balcony, the Aegean and distant hills of the Peloponnese mainland beyond.

Stone stood alone, after the porter had been tipped and left; staring out from there for some time, not letting his recent or earlier past encroach upon his good mood, a sense at last of escape.

Then he went inside, to shower and unpack a little before his only conscious plan - ordering a chilled beer to enjoy on his balcony.

His new life had begun, that was all he knew and that mattered for now. He was as free as his past would let him be.


The Lagoon

IT was already becoming dark when Stone at last left his spacious but rather austere suite, the Poseidon.

Although comfortable enough, its furniture was old and the only wall hangings, gilt-framed paintings of the sea, were faded. He felt rather as though stranded in a sparse gallery or store room of antiques, long forgotten from habitation.

The plumbing, too, was dated and rather unsettling in its labouring noises. Still, he felt better for a shower and long rest, even some sleep on the enormous bed though, again, there were odd, complaining noises from its springs.

After his earlier bottled beer and some more unpacking, Stone had ordered lunch – a simple cheese and ham omelette with salad, served upon the stately, wrought-iron balcony. It was that which had convinced him not to dine this evening at the hotel. The omelette had been dry and the salad tired and too oily. He'd read somewhere, Stone had recalled while picking at it, that you could judge a restaurant by the quality and freshness of the side salad, its merest offering.

However, after nodding to an older woman now on reception, he did venture out on to the terrace, glancing into the vast, rather empty hotel restaurant on his way. Even at seven in the evening, there were only a couple of tables occupied with diners.

Outside it was equally quiet, just an elderly, bearded man of florid complexion wearing whites – even a gold-braided captain's peaked cap – and his well-dressed female companion, presumably his wife.

They were drinking coffee from a silver service and, upon noticing Stone watching, the man had let out a surprising bark or, rather, a short and throaty roar, like a big cat's warning; but then both had continued with their conversation, as though all was normal.

Bemused, Stone headed down the many stone steps to the esplanade above the dock. To his other side, the quaint harbour was now lit with strings of lights over more, similarly vacant tables of bars and cafés.

Perhaps he'd come too early to the island.

Even so, some lonely, uncertain impulse made him shy away from going into town. He could faintly hear Greek village music, so popular here, but did not want crowds, or too many curious eyes, any questions.

Instead he turned and walked towards the dark stillness, heading to the east where he could see some lights from villas rising above the quiet coastal road. Out at sea there were occasional boat lanterns and, on the distant point perhaps a mile away, more lights beckoned too – hopefully some quiet restaurants.

He was soon alone with just the sound of the sea, gently lapping only a few feet down against the low wall skirting the roadside. There was little tide here, he recalled. To his other side, as he strolled, there was a high stone retaining wall against the hillside and, above that, some large villas and smaller houses. The villas were old, supposedly Venetian.

Some homes were screened by pines, while there were also palm trees dotted along the roadside.

Occasionally, built into or out from the hillside wall, there was a shop or store of some kind, still open, with one or two locals inside or sitting out at lantern-lit tables having a drink. They nodded or just stared.

One or two other walkers also passed Stone on the narrowing, unlit roadway, politely calling out, “Yassas,” or “Kalispera.”

Then one of the horse-drawn 'buggy' taxis passed, the driver up front ringing its bell, a lantern swinging to the horse's trotting rhythm, throwing shadows and light across a couple of people sat inside its open carriage.

It seemed, from what he'd read, there was still no motor traffic to speak of on the island, excepting a couple of old, white Mercedes used as taxis and for special occasions, plus the odd utility vehicle.

The islanders did use motorbikes and scooters, but these were banned from the coastal road in the evenings, when people sat or strolled out. Anything other than bicycles were restricted then to back roads.

The occasional ring of that bell was the only sound now, in the distance, as Stone walked on toward those distant lights; along with the gentle lapping of the sea. There was the scent of herbs, too, from the roadside bushes or gardens above of dimly-lit homes.

Yes, it was a different world, quite magical. All the trouble of home seemed far away. The fears of the coming Covid virus and 'lockdowns' unspoken here or, probably, met with a shrug of indifference.

Yet, these islands and mainland had been the seat of wisdom and civilisation once. That was another thing which had drawn him back: wanting to understand, recapture something lost since his youth.

There was only moonlight to guide him now.

Stone walked on, enjoying the sea air and its occasional spray, the calming sight of the lantern-lit, small craft left moored out at sea, ready for fishermen in early morning. There were overturned rowing boats stored against the hillside wall. He must be nearing the lagoon by now, yet there was only a shuttered house on the roadside, standing alone, all in darkness.

Stone began to wonder at his memory, although he'd read up again about the island and its neighbours. Also, his doubts returned over the wisdom of coming here so early in the year, perhaps being stranded too.

He walked on, trudging now. Then he began to realise the distant lights were getting no nearer, nor that shadowy point. It seemed an optical illusion. They were still a mile or two away, perhaps some new development but, clearly, too far to walk.

At that moment of doubt, however, the path he was on dog-legged left and he saw the lagoon just as he'd remembered; its quaintly lit surrounding buildings overshadowed by dark hillsides, some pontoons and moored boats upon the silky blackness of the water – all so stunningly calm, restful.

There was the sound of classical music, too, drifting across with the land-filled breeze here of herbs. Stone smiled in delight and walked on slowly.

The first place open was a fish restaurant, he vaguely remembered, always busy with locals. Tonight there were just one or two people inside, seemingly clearing up, and outside a small, lantern-lit group on the awning-covered decking over stilts. They were at simple tables just above the water and opposite the restaurant premises; all men, locals, their dishes and plates now finished with, but still drinking.

Stone smiled at the curious but welcoming nods from these ruddy-faced men in their work clothes, as he passed by, hearing their laughter resume, envying their careless bonhomie but seeking peaceful escape.

He followed the sound of the violin strings, some soft piano prelude, passing still more overturned row-boats, one or two huddled homes, a family dining on their terrace, where a dog barked but was silenced.

The last building, before some storage sheds and a sloping jetty and wharf, was the origin of the music – Beethoven, he'd now decided. It was an elegant restaurant, its name 'Laguna' picked out in large white shells above an entrance arch festooned in vines and bougainvillea. It looked quite lovely but was very quiet. Just one couple were dining inside.

Stone entered and politely wished them good evening in Greek. There were only several tables, all otherwise unoccupied, but the whole interior had been decorated busily and in some style.

The floor appeared to be marble, with an elaborate mosaic showing ancient sailing vessels; there were Greek gods picked out in plaster and paint around the walls, ships' clocks and other brass paraphernalia, fishing nets hanging from the ceiling beneath glistening but dimmed chandeliers.

The man spoke rapidly in Greek then, seeing Stone shrug, said, “We're not open yet.” He nodded down at their richly laid out table with what appeared to be fillet steaks, baked potatoes and a terrine of vegetables, plus a large carafe of red wine, then added, “We have our meal.”

“Yes, sorry,” said Stone, disappointed. He'd barely eaten half the hotel's poor lunch-time offering and nothing since. The aroma from their steaks and a kitchen just visible beyond the nearby, well-stocked bar, had sharpened his appetite.

The woman, a blonde though with dark, watchful eyes and sharp features, spoke quietly but with an air of reprimand. It seemed to give the man pause for thought, as he lowered his cutlery and frowned. He was dark, handsome and a few years younger than the woman, who wore many gold ornaments including rings and was presumably the owner, or his wife or partner.

“Did you want to eat, or just drink?” he asked.

Stone smiled. It was hardly a welcome from a good host but better than just departing. “Both.”

The couple exchanged more conversation in Greek and the woman rose, smiling now at Stone before disappearing into the kitchen.

“My wife asks if you would care to have a drink and wait, then we can serve you food when we have finished our meal.”

The host, proprietor or whatever, set his squared chin and eyed Stone with interest, waiting. He was perhaps in his 30s, slightly younger than Stone, and very smart. So smart that Stone was pleased he'd taken care to dress well, if casually, himself.

“Thank you, I'd like that.”

The man got up without further ado, going behind the bar. “Beer, or wine perhaps?”

Stone considered, wondering how long he'd have to wait. “Both please, large.”

This, at least, appeared to please his host. To Stone's surprise, since there were draught beers on the bar, the proprietor went to a large fridge. But then he produced a handle glass misted with frost and carefully dispensed one of the counter's Greek lagers, before finally filling a large glass generously with red wine.

He brought them round on a gilt tray and hesitated, “Inside or out?”

“Outside, I think.” Stone didn't wish to sit watching them eat, waiting. Besides, he still wanted to be alone, unquestioned, left in peace.

They went outside, the man calling out something to his wife inside. There were a few tables immediately by the restaurant but also more spaced along a pontoon which Stone remembered fondly. He pointed toward it, out in the lagoon.

His host nodded, then led the way across wide boarding suspended just inches above the still water. Then he wiped a table meticulously with his free hand and finally lowered the tray and placed both drinks. As Stone took a chair, his host also lit the wick of a lamp.

“I shall bring menu later,” he promised.

“The steak looked good,” Stone said.

His host nodded, then laughed, again pleased.

Stone watched him go back into his restaurant, rather admiring the man's style, independence – except perhaps for his wife, and attention to detail. The music carried too, now accompanied by the occasional gentle splash as a fish rose to an insect in the dark waters.

He took a long, grateful drink of the chilled beer, which was excellent – everything his earlier drink at the hotel, on the balcony, had failed to be. Above the Laguna sign in its shells, he noticed now, was another picked out in golden letters – The Water Of Love. Stone smiled, now savouring the warming red wine, too. This, after all, had been worth the walk.

A memory, too, now stirred and further warmed him, as he waited.


The Memories

HER name had been Jodie, from Melbourne, and she was exploring Europe on the cheap, working when she could or needed more funds. She had been slightly older than Stone and also travelling alone.

Jodie had short hair, an impressive, all-over suntan and a beautiful figure. It had been quite something, a first for Stone, meeting someone new, attractive and talking to them completely naked.

He supposed, as he drank more of the chilled beer, she would now be in her early 40s. Back then he'd been approaching 21, a milestone - hence the urge to travel. His mother's death in a road accident had still hung over Stone, though why he blamed himself even he couldn't explain. He had not been with her then but, perhaps, that was the very reason for his guilt.

But now, on this gently floating pontoon in the languorous and scented air of this moonlit lagoon, he did not want to mar his peace of mind and quiet cheerfulness; not with old, bad memories - particularly knowing now what he was later to return to, upon going back home from Greece, by then 'a man', at 21.

Instead Stone thought of Jodie, whom he'd met as in a fairytale, sunbathing in that otherwise deserted cove on this very island. They had not eaten together here, by the 'water of love'. That had been someone else from that memorable time.

However, Jodie had known all the cheaper places to eat – and many of the local people. She'd been working for weeks here on this island Stone soon nicknamed Paradiseo; cleaning rooms or serving drinks, off and on as opportunity and the mood took her.

When they met, Stone had been walking alone, determined to investigate more of the island and not just be bussed about with other tourists.

As far as he recalled the details, he had caught the hourly town bus that morning to the main sandy beach, called in fact Paradise, on the quiet, undeveloped side of the island. It was only 40 minutes away, even on the island's dreadful roads, or you could get there still quicker on small ferries, or caiques, from the harbour.

It had been gorgeous at Paradise and sunny but, after a swim and snack at the beach taverna – just about the only building there – he'd decided to walk back along the coast and explore.

He'd also been reading an intriguing 1960s novel, now on his Kindle and again with him at the Grand Hotel. The Magus, by John Fowles, had caught young Stone's imagination and was set, some had said, on this island or, at least, its group.

He'd been hiking through forest paths skirting the coastal road for about half an hour when he reached the cove and, thinking it deserted, decided to strip off and, leaving his still-damp costume to dry, cool down with a swim. It was a shingle beach and there was only a shut-up, small church.

It thrilled him, too, to be naked as he gingerly stepped out across the pebbles. Then, as he'd begun to wade out, he had seen the girl lying in the sun on an outcrop of rocks you had to swim to reach.

At first he'd thought of returning for his trunks, fearing she might not be alone. However, it had felt wonderful once deeper in the water, so refreshingly free. The beach stones had given way to soft sand underfoot and it was so clear he could see his feet.

Looking back toward the beach there was just the little, white church amid the pines. By then he'd become more bold, as well as curious.

Stone had swum over and then, paddling water and still neck-deep, said hello and asked if he might join her. Jodie had smiled, still rather sleepy, then told him, in that perky, rising accent, “Sure, you bet.”

Stone smiled again at the memory, along with his mental efforts as he had dried - lying on his stomach upon the warm rocks in the baking sun – trying not to get an erection.

The girl was clearly used to nude sunbathing and this, she said, was a well known 'secret' spot where no one bothered others. A priest only came to the church on special occasions, she'd been told, and then by boat. There was only a rough path through the trees.

Stone had tried to appear nonchalant. But she had looked so beautiful and his eyes had strayed, unbidden, whenever she glanced away or again closed her eyes during their desultory conversation, discussing places visited and things seen, as travellers did.

Stone had already been to the far-off Cyclades, the islands where she planned to visit next. Before here, Jodie had been on Hydra, which Stone fancied seeing. It was where the beautiful, bohemian set, including at one time singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, were said to hang out. However, they'd both enjoyed Athens or, at least, the Acropolis at sunset and the Plaka, or old city.

In the end, she'd given him a ride on the pillion of her scooter, borrowed from some workmate at a town taverna where she waited on tables and washed up dirty plates.

They slept together the following night, after eating takeaways and touring the bars where she knew so many people and, it seemed, all the local characters.

For Stone, just over his first and only long relationship from Blackpool school years, plus a couple of seedy trysts with holidaymakers at his family's small hotel in South Shore, Jodie had seemed a dream come true – an education on the wider world.

What had followed though, with Marlene, had been his post-graduate course; from a woman, rather than a passing girl. Stone smiled at the memory but then his mind came abruptly back to the present, as he saw his hostess approaching across the pontoon from Laguna. She smiled in return, misinterpreting his thoughts as eagerness for his meal, and with a brief apology handed him an embossed menu.

“Not everything available just now,” she warned, standing close to his table and framed by the lagoon and stars around her. Her sweet scent vied with the sultry ones of nearby herbs on a gentle breeze.

“I rather fancied the steak, fillet?” Stone told her. She nodded and smiled again. How old was she, probably late 30s, even a little older? Certainly she appeared older than her dark, dashing but rather brusque husband.

She was still attractive, in a sophisticated way, while much adorned in that gold jewellery which glittered against her clinging, black dress; an attractive, rather clever woman, Stone felt.

“Medium-rare?” she asked.

“More medium than rare, please.”

She nodded again. “And more drink?” She picked up his empty pint glass, eyebrows raised.

“Could I have a carafe of this red wine?”

“Certainly.” She turned but then hesitated. “Are you holidaying here?”

Stone simply nodded and smiled.

“At a hotel?” She raised her dark-brown eyebrows again. “You don't dress like a yacht person.”

“Thank you. Yes,” Stone conceded at last, “I'm at the Grand for the time being, not sure how long.”

Her eyes widened. “Not the place it was.” She smiled knowingly then she shrugged and, with a further hint of apology at her curiosity, explained, “It is just this virus, they say it will get worse – maybe even make people quarantine.” She paused, then told him, “We fear, too, for our business.”

Stone nodded. “Yes, partly why I came – to be holed up here, rather than in chilly England.” He smiled, still thinking her fears were exaggerated – specially here, then promised, “You'll get my business anyway.” He raised his wine glass in salute and his hostess laughed, her face lighting up at last.

“I prepare your meal,” she said, then strode off down the pontoon, her neat, dark figure swaying against the shore-side fairy lights.

Her sweet perfume slowly drifted away too, leaving that musky night scent off the hills. A piano sonata now rang out from inside Laguna. Her husband, young though he was, clearly a man of taste.

The nearby fish restaurant had now closed and the lantern lights were extinguished on its sea decking. There was silence but for the soft piano music, not Beethoven now but Schubert, Stone thought, and the odd 'plop' of a fish in the black, otherwise still lagoon.

Stone let a long sigh drift upon the air. How odd it was, to find himself a lone visitor here. He finished the wine in his glass and, with a sudden chilled sense of loneliness beneath this vast canopy of stars and dark surrounding hills, he thought fondly again of his earlier visit but, this time, of Marlene – another sophisticated, older woman of, as they said, a certain age.

How old had she been back then? Possibly late 30s, even a little older – and himself half that. The preposterous holiday scenario made Stone smile again, at his own nerve, or good fortune.

The Australian, Jodie, was not one to be distracted from her travel plans – certainly not by a casual affair, as she clearly regarded Stone. He'd been, as he recalled, more dependent at that difficult time; uncertain if he should follow or accompany her.

“When it suits her she'll drop you, like a stone!” an older, wiser, mutual friend among the band of foreign visiting workers and backpackers had warned him. So he had stayed, although moping rather.

When he thought about it now, Stone recalled with some surprise that he had not wanted to go home for his 21st. His mother's tragedy just a few years before; his father's depression and drinking since and, also, his own sense of guilt and insecurity, had all made him unwilling to celebrate, even with his many friends.

Being on the island had excused him from all that and he also had an understanding from his workplace at home, too, after he had qualified.

He'd trained, following school, on the local evening paper in Blackpool - after the family of three had moved from Barrow in the Lakes, hoping to find more prosperity in the bustling resort.

Reporting had quickly suited young Stone, as people seemed to warm to him. He also found himself lucky in his pursuit of stories, usually being in the right place at the right time. Also, he enjoyed the writing, the variety of assignments and haphazard, often casual, office life – once deadlines were met - with much free time spent around a busy Blackpool, back then a thriving holiday town.

“Take time off, think about your future and, if you still want to stay with us, we'll sort out a promotion – maybe to the news or sub-editors' desks,” his avuncular editor had offered, knowing he'd just qualified, was almost 21 and had also been doing some freelancing for the national papers in Manchester.

The editor had also known, of course, about Stone's mother's death in a double traffic fatality – occurring out of their area but still qualifying as a story – with her new husband. Stone had earlier left their hotel home with her, as she finally walked out on his philandering father, but had never settled with her and the new partner. Instead, he'd returned and started work on the newspaper by the time she and her by then second husband were both killed.

Life at home, like the earlier success of their hotel, had never been the same again. His father had become more recklessly indulgent but without enjoying any of it, or so it had seemed to young Stone as he went on his own travels.

It was after he'd been doing a little bar and cleaning work, at one of the island's many town tavernas, that he'd met Marlene and her friends.

There had been three of them, all Americans and, as it turned out, from the same area. Had it been Ohio? One reason for their visit, they'd told him, was to enjoy the sea after coming from such a land-locked state. There was Marlene, an almost white-haired blonde with a pretty and fresh, rather girlish face and curvaceous body. She was confident and outgoing, very friendly just like the man of the group – Greg.

Stone had assumed the pair were a couple, accompanying their older companion whose name he couldn't now recollect. It had been a graceful name, though, one which suited her and her understated style in manner, speech and dress.

This older woman also wore a distinctive white head scarf at all times, rather like those old-movie heroines in open-topped limousines. She also donned dark glasses, adding to that reclusive star quality. None of them were your typical loud American stereotypes and Stone had immediately warmed to them.

The group had become regulars, stopping to drink and have some late-afternoon snacks after sailing trips on a yacht they'd chartered, along with its crew. They clearly had plenty of money and were very generous with their tips.

How odd and rather tragic the trio's Aegean idyll had turned out to be, though not for Stone whom they, to his surprise at the time, had adopted. Of course, he considered now, that would have been for Marlene's benefit; perhaps her own idea, or even suggested by the older woman.

Still, magical things seemed to happen on the island – rather as in that strangely haunting novel by Fowles. It struck Stone as even more extraordinary now that he looked back at it all. Also, it was beginning to give him the kernel of an idea and perhaps more . . .

Stone smiled, looking up, as his host now appeared again, striding steadily across the pontoon which swayed gently under his weight - and the heavily laden tray of food and drink he was at last bringing his sole customer.


The Schooner

THE sunlight was stunning as Stone swept aside the floor-length, heavy curtains of his Poseidon Suite bedroom. Beyond, the Aegean sparkled with promise, reflecting a light-blue canopy of sky with its occasional fluffy but also bright, white clouds.

Stone stared out toward the mist-shrouded mainland far beyond, his eyes glancing over the diverse vessels at sea or anchored nearer by. One or two yachts tacked in the mid-distance and then, startling him with its overnight appearance here, a beautiful three-masted schooner was moored just below the hotel, a stately newcomer beside the deep-dock wharf of the esplanade.

What was more, Stone observed with interest - if he wasn't mistaken from this distance, that strange man in whites and wearing a captain's braided peaked cap was standing just by the vessel, apparently talking to some crew on her long, sleek deck. Was the curious, bearded man roaring threateningly at them too?

Stone smiled at the thought then came back to the bed and checked his wristwatch, surprised to find it already after nine. Despite those erratic mattress springs, he had slept well. Clearly, the air and, of course, plentiful wine of the lagoon restaurant had suited him.

As he stared about the spacious, once elegant bedroom with its period furniture and fancy plasterwork, Stone also realised this was the first time for a long while he had awoken in good spirits.

He wandered to the airy bathroom and showered, then shaved, remaining naked. It was still pleasantly cool from the ceiling fan in his large bedroom as he dressed; also he'd left the windows open behind those thick, full-length curtains.

Stone pulled on some shorts and a short-sleeved shirt he wore loose outside them. Then he found his pair of soft-leather boat shoes from the trunk. That was dressing taken care of – ah, the joys of life's simplicity in warmer climes!

He went into the still larger sitting room to find it already warm from reflected sunlight through its closed windows. He opened them wide on to the balcony, leaning at its edge, breathing the fresh air.

Below, on the wide concourse of the esplanade come dock, the bearded man in whites had gone but crew were visible still busying themselves on the great yacht. They all wore uniform blue-and-white striped shirts above their dark shorts. At the schooner's towering main mast, Stone noticed now, there was the Greek flag but, also, a German one.

A three-wheeled utility truck, with an open, flat back behind its two-seater cab, was offloading supplies to a hoist beside the schooner. With luck if watching from here, Stone thought, he might see it set sail.

The little truck was one of few motor vehicles on the island, other than those occasional scooters heard along the coast road. It was good to see people strolling and instead. Nearby, there were fishermen mending or drying their nets out on the wide wharf; another skipper was painting his boat as it bobbed among those anchored in the small, curved harbour.

There was much to see from Stone's high eyrie.

Last evening he'd returned from Laguna in one of the horse buggies. Perhaps his hosts had alerted its driver earlier; why else would it have waited at the corner in darkness with no one about?

Anyway, Stone was glad of the ride after his quiet but enjoyable meal, alone except for memories of his last visit 20 years before. It had made still more vivid his recollection of Marlene; for they, too, had returned by buggy to where she was staying after their romantic meal, also on the lagoon's pontoon.

Back then, there had been different, older owners and the restaurant far busier in late-season.

Last night, returning, there had been no other person on the dark coast road, just the glimmer above it from sedate villas they passed. The buggy's lantern had swung gently as the horse walked, while its young driver remained quiet before smiling and nodding his capped head, when finally paid and generously tipped, beneath the by then deserted and quiet Grand Hotel.

Stone phoned down for boiled eggs and toast which, he hoped, wouldn't be too much for the hotel's disappointing kitchen staff; then also added honey to his late breakfast menu. He recalled that, like the yoghurt, it had been a delightful local treat on the island; then he had also asked for watermelon – another pleasant memory from his previous visit, as his mouth was still rather dry from last night's red wine.

He then left the suite's door ajar and went out on to the balcony again. Below him, after a while, a small procession had appeared from his hotel. It comprised the man in whites, his equally tall and well-dressed wife, much luggage with two porters, then a small, older man in a dark suit with white shirt and tie, accompanied closely by a middle-aged woman whom, Stone judged after scrutiny from above, to be the older receptionist he'd seen the previous evening.

They were clearly seeing off the 'lion man' and his wife – and at the side of the schooner too. Its crew were loading their luggage from the porters and their shipmates waiting on board to greet the apparently important passenger couple.

Was this also, then, the Grand's manager seeing them off, perhaps with his wife or senior staff member?

But just then Stone's odd assortment for breakfast arrived, along with a silver pot of piping hot coffee. It was laid out politely by the small waiter he'd seen previously, complete with rather faded and thin-worn linen napkins.

Stone led the waiter back inside and found a tip for him from last evening's change. By the time he had returned to his viewing place the little party on the wharf had disbanded. He watched the schooner easing away from the dock, under engine power but also with one forward sail. The bearded man could be seen beside the crew member at the wheelhouse. Then the main sails were unfurled and the schooner picked up speed.

Impressed, Stone turned to his humble breakfast assortment. To his relief, the eggs weren't too hard- boiled and still warm; his toast was crisp and plentiful, the honey as excellent as remembered. Even the coffee was rich. Perhaps it was a different chef organising the kitchen today. He left the melon for later, watching the schooner, now in full sail and heaving far over in a long, graceful tack towards the Peloponnese hills.

The drama of that scene had made him momentarily forget previous thoughts about his writing – some new ideas at last! He recalled them to mind, most of the plot possibilities circling around Marlene and the woman she'd accompanied. It had been a sad story in the end, yes, but one safe to revisit - far in time and place from his recent tragedy. That horror still huddled within Stone, ready to tear his fragile spirit and cut deep with its hurt yet again, if he should only for a moment lower his defences.

Stone got his laptop but had to retreat a little into the balcony's sparse shade to see its screen without the sun's glare. Then, with just the occasional strands of distant conversations, buggy hooves and bells or scooter engines rising from the streets below, he opened a new file.

Stone wrote its working title simply as On Paradiseo, considering adding a subtitle of A Modern Greek Tragedy but then shying away from those words. He wasn't even sure if it would make a short story, a commercial article or more.

However, he set out the scene before him, except now with the schooner approaching rather than departing the island; all under the stony seaward gaze from the esplanade of Bouboulina, the nearby islands' 19th Century naval commander and heroine of the Greek War of Independence against the Ottomans.

It was said that if you touched Bouboulina's waterfront statue before departing, then you would return to the island. Well, it had proved so for Stone himself; would it now for his fictional characters inspired by those from his youthful memories?

He still had little idea of the story, though tragic it must be. There might, he intended, be room for some glimmer of hope along the way – perhaps after touching that bleak seafront effigy of these islands' fierce heroine.

His own heroine was taking the shape of that older American lady wearing the distinctive silk head scarf and dark glasses, her age duly reduced for literary effect and romantic opportunity.

Would the strange, bearded man in whites also make some appearance? There had to be love, too, and, Stone felt and hoped deep down, some unravelling of shared human experience, bringing understanding. The Greeks, after all, had been so prodigiously wise – far before the tramp over this ancient landscape of Roman military feet.

He thought of the German flag on the schooner; for they, too, had brought their armies here over these much embattled and bloodied islands.

Stone stared out at the peaceful, seemingly timeless panorama spread before him, letting his mind go blank once more. It sometimes helped his writing ideas, for journalism or fiction. However, this time he put away the laptop before he was tempted to look over his messages or even, God forbid, that latest online bad news for mankind – the spreading pandemic.

Still sustained by his late breakfast and at last refreshed by the generous slice of watermelon, Stone picked up his shoulder bag and went out, slowly descending the hotel's wide, winding stairs to its cavernous ground floor and reception.

“Kalimera!” he responded in kind, to the younger receptionist now back at her post again. Today she had on a more fetching lemon and red, summer dress and her dark hair was down, cascading about her lightly tanned shoulders. Her smile was beautiful, again warming his heart.

Stone paused and handed her his key, perhaps as an excuse to talk. “Lovely dress,” he told her with admiration.

“Thank you. Did you sleep well, sir?”

“I did indeed, yes.” He glanced toward the empty restaurant just visible behind her through a glazed, partly lace-curtained partition.

“Are you lunching with us today?”

“No,” he smiled back and shrugged his bag more firmly on to his shoulder, “going for a swim, on the town beach.”

She beamed, then observed, “It is a beautiful day for you.”

So, too, were her dancing, dark eyes now shining upon him, Stone was thinking; enjoying, also, this close human contact with someone alive, fresh and young – seemingly untouched by tragedies, real or fictional.

“There is a bigger sandy beach, too, over the island, called Paradise,” she told him, seeming in no hurry to return to her paperwork.

Stone nodded then, just to prolong their contact, explained, “Yes, I know, I've been here before – many years ago.” 'Before you were born', he'd been about to say but, with a sudden vanity – or was it a sly hope – he'd held back the words.

“Ah! I see – and now you return. That is good!”

“Hmm.” Stone smiled, running out of more to say but still staring into those eyes, feeling his former empty loneliness flood away into their depth and glow.

“Sir,” she began uncertainly, after a suddenly awkward, silent pause; actually glancing now to her side, where a little unseen office was located, its door open. Then more quietly she asked, “Do you still wish to stay for some time here, on the island?”

“Yes.” He smiled, wondering why she sounded so unsure herself. At least now, in this place, he felt himself coming alive again after barren months.

“It is only that, well,” she began to explain, “our owner has just left – and his instruction is that the hotel should soon be closed, for improvements.” Her eyes rounded and she added, “He believes this virus will get much worse; affect our business – all the island hotels.”

“I see,” Stone muttered, beginning to understand; also to wonder, with a little panic, if the new ideas for his future might be stifled before they could start. “Was he the gentleman who left on the large schooner? I could see, from my balcony.”

“Yes.” She nodded. “Mister Mueller, he is our owner.”

Stone sighed; would he himself, too, have to depart soon, he wondered glumly. But he smiled, seeing the girl's sudden concern at his change of mood.

“He seemed a little odd,” Stone dared to say, then explained, “I heard him, well, roar.”

Unexpectedly the girl laughed, heartily once more – it revived Stone's good mood again, so bright and cheerful in this crumbling, old hallway.

“Yes, it is his illness, poor man. Something like Tourette's, I think. You know? You call it the same?”

“Yes.” Stone grinned in return. Then he sighed, now easing off his light shoulder bag and, at last, leaning casually against the reception counter. He smiled at her again, sensing her suitably receptive, and asked earnestly, “So, you think I may have to leave here too?” He stared, waiting, seeing her uncertainty.

“Well, yes, if we do close,” she murmured, glancing again toward the office with its half-open door. Then she smiled more encouragingly and told him, “But you might take some rooms, even a villa – some are halved, with separate living for owners.”

Stone nodded, that had been part of his idea.

Then she shrugged, seeming to think him unenthusiastic at her suggestion, adding, “Maybe some other hotel stay open, there are tourist ones – from big holiday companies. They say, though, that soon international flights could stop.”

She hesitated, realising this was all bad news.

“I remember someone, from my visit before,” Stone told her, “who rented a house, down on the waterfront, where it was quieter.” He smiled, seeing her nod with interest. “Do you think that might be possible?”

“Yes, is possible.” She looked down at her desk, then found some notepaper and began to write. “This is our mayor, Mister Kostis, his office just by bank, before town beach. He can help you, I think.”

Stone took the paper and smiled back at her grin, she seemed delighted by their talk and this more positive conclusion; almost like a shared venture.

He nodded his thanks, then said, “I'll let you know how I get on and, by the way, my name is Sam.”

Stone left the imposing premises with a lighter step and mood, walking out into the sunshine and marvelling a little at the girl's revealed name, Olympia.

Well, he had some banking business to see to, for future funds. With that and, hopefully an interview with the island's mayor, he had enough to do; before, that is, he could enjoy a swim and, finally, late lunch.

Stone strolled into the harbour, then took a sharp turning toward where the bank and some stores made up the local equivalent of a high street.

He finally felt involved in life here; things were at last falling into place. Did it herald new hope, a fresh belonging – something to at last hang on to, to enjoy?


The Mayor

AS the bank's chief teller had advised Stone after their satisfactory business dealings, the mayor's office was easily found. There was a large Greek flag flying from the balcony.

It was a plain, stone building amid the row of stores on a winding lane eventually opening out into the promenade of the town beach, a narrow sandy cove lined with cafés.

The small building, Stone realised, was to all intents and purposes a town hall. Inside it he was greeted by a helpful and businesslike young woman in a reception area, beside the entrance hall.

Opposite her inquiry desk with office behind, were double doors at present propped open, revealing a meeting hall where a cleaner was at work; then plain but wide timber stairs ahead, leading up to a landing before dividing into two flights to the upper floor with that long balcony where the flag was proudly flying.

Stone would need an appointment, the receptionist warned – until he explained his business was renting a house. Upon learning that, she had slipped into the inner office then returned and immediately ushered Stone through and into the mayor's presence.

He was a rotund and balding, middle-aged man behind a large desk. The rather stuffy and cramped office seemed full of solid, wooden furniture overflowing with many files and papers.

Clearly Mayor Kostis was a family man, too, as his desk bore an array of framed colour photographs with smiling faces of different ages and genders.

The few pictures on the wall were much older, black and white photographs of the island when less built up, also showing tall-masted, working sailing ships anchored at its docks and unloading goods.

The mayor bustled to his feet politely and nodded in welcome. He was perhaps too short to shake hands across his wide, cluttered desk but waved Stone toward an upright chair at the side.

A dark suit jacket was stretched across the low back of a well-worn leather swivel chair the mayor firmly filled once more, before speaking quickly in Greek to his receptionist/secretary.

“Coffee, Mister er . . . ?” he then asked and Stone agreed with thanks, while providing his name.

Although short, the mayor seemed almost square in shape and also powerfully built. He had wide shoulders and a bullish neck, where his white shirt was unbuttoned above a pulled-down and rather faded tie.

Kostis looked to Stone more like a plumber, masquerading in ill-fitting office clothes, who'd lumbered into the town hall by accident and stayed, now too hefty to get down to the pipework.

He possessed a strong-featured face, however, with untidy, dark curls of hair around a sweat-glistened pate, matching thick, black moustache and a day's growth of stubble on his jowls. It seemed the plumber was struggling under all this paperwork.

Stone tried to get more comfortable on the unforgiving wooden chair and wished the ceiling fan was switched on, or a window opened.

The mayor was studying him with interest, those dark, intense eyes assessing now and imbuing Kostis with a different, more shrewd character. His English, though, was faltering.

“You are staying here – on holiday is it?”

“A vacation, yes. Maybe for the summer, or longer,” Stone told him slowly then, seeing a frown and anticipating further questions, he added as if in explanation, “I'm doing some writing – taking a long rest in the sun.”

Mayor Kostis nodded but his uncertain eyes belied his slumped, lazy pose. “You wish to rent house?” He licked his lips momentarily and waited.

“Yes, I'm staying at the Grand but believe it might close soon for renovations.”

The mayor looked more interested again, whether because of the Grand's name or this bit of local information about changes, Stone couldn't tell. He'd decided not to mention the virus or its significance.

They fell silent as their coffees were brought in on a tray – looking very strong against the white cups and saucers, with creamy condensed milk available from a small jug. Stone decided to take his black but it smelled so strong he also spooned in brown sugar. The mayor poured milk into his own.

“I have house on coast road, before lagoon,” Kostis told him. “Is available just now, very clean and quiet.” He frowned then, finding the words, added with a little smile of pride, “Well appointed.”

Stone stifled a smirk at the rather quaint description; genuinely pleased to hear of its location after his previous, enjoyable evening near there.

“That sounds fine,” he said, although guardedly, beginning for the first time to start calculating what he hoped to pay; wondering, too, if Kostis would have that huffy Greek pride and be offended by haggling.

“The usual tariff is 500 euro,” Kostis told him.

That would be a week, Stone presumed. A lot more than renting a house at home, even back in leafy Lytham. But, then, this was a sunny, holiday island and it was a seafront position. Besides, his suite was even more expensive. He'd indulged himself there, but now felt more cautious - thinking of perhaps months ahead.

“A month?” he asked, straight-faced and out of sheer devilment. The coffee was acrid, it had altered his mood and, he sensed, this mayor was ripping him off.

“Agh!” Kostis flopped back as though given an electric shock, his mouth open and all guile gone. But then he laughed like a jolly grandfather. Finally, he pulled himself forward and more upright.

“No, a week, my friend.” He gripped his big, working hands together; a wide, gold ring now visible, squeezed on to a still thicker finger. How did the man pick up a pen to write?

Stone raised his eyebrows, then frowned. He put down the half-drunk coffee and eased back again in the stiff chair.

“I'm talking for the whole season, Mayor, and,” Stone paused deliberately, choosing his words, “from what I hear there might not be a season, if the tourists cannot come. I think 1,000 a month about right – for such a long let.”

Kostis was shaking his shadowy jowls, looking rather pugnacious now. Stone wondered if he'd overstepped the mark and caused offence.

“Fifteen hundred!” the mayor said bluntly, “That's as low as I go.”

Stone let a silence grow, seeming to stare straight back but, in fact, studying the sweat on Kostis's brow and balding head.

“Twelve hundred, then,” he said confidently, “I'll pay in advance – but that includes any bills, electricity, water and so on, plus a weekly cleaner.”

Kostis stared at him, then his dark eyebrows knitted and his face set. “Perhaps if I show you the house, eh, Mister Stone?”

“Yes.” Stone smiled and politely added, “please!”

After a short phone call, Kostis pulled on his jacket and shuffled around his desk. He gave some quick instructions or explanation to his secretary then they left, Stone towering over the wider, bullish man.

To Stone's surprise, their transport was to be a small scooter. He squeezed on to what little remained of the seat behind the mayor and, not wanting to try and cling on to the fat man in front, just got his hands fixed on rear supports before the 50cc engine struggled away.

They went a different route, around the town.

Stone tried to relax and lean in with the many bends in this narrow back lane, which seemed to run behind the waterfront buildings and below the hilltop villas with their high walls and gates.

Occasionally the mayor, seemingly enlivened now he had escaped from his office, bibbed his horn or just shouted cheerfully to passing pedestrians. Clearly, he knew them all.

Finally they slowed and descended a short passage to emerge on the coast road Stone had traversed last night, just before that corner which led round into the lagoon.

Stone eased off the back of the small scooter with relief, then massaged his legs as the mayor propped up his machine.

They entered through a green-painted door in the side of a high, stone wall. Once beyond that surrounding wall there was silence in the pleasant spacious garden, except when birdsong resumed.

The first item catching Stone's eye was a hammock, slung between two mature trees - one with striking blue flowers.

Around it was a squarish, neglected lawn surrounded by colourful flowering bushes. There were also some wrought-iron tables with matching chairs, then other seats - wooden recliners awaiting cushions, their frames leaning amongst flower pots and old paving stones. Also, in a leafy corner, was a time-weathered statue of a Greek goddess or classic beauty.

The house itself was simply but solidly built, its exterior walls plainly rendered and with green shutters. Also, unusually for here, it had a flat roof with crenellated, stone perimeter wall rather like a fortress.

There were French windows, securely closed, and the sturdy, white-painted main walls and their woodwork all looked well maintained. There would be ample room it seemed for a big family.

Kostis had unlocked a stately, solid wooden door to one side and Stone went over to follow him inside. There was also a wrought-iron security gate behind it, to facilitate a flow of air to the interior. Stone had noted similar grates cemented into small squares in the garden wall, to keep the garden air fresher too.

It was also surprisingly airy inside and obviously well cared for – just presently unoccupied. The main sitting room was off a short entrance hall, with heavy traditional furniture softened by colourful cushions on sofas and chairs along with some rugs over the stone-paved floor. There was also a large open fireplace surrounded artfully by stone, its hearth now filled with logs and dried flowers.

The air seemed somehow scented, perhaps from many winters of woodsmoke, but still surprisingly fresh. The place was spacious but also felt cosy, with some gilt-framed oil paintings of island scenes and elaborate mirrors on its otherwise thick-plastered walls.

An open stairway led to the upper floor and there was a short, wood-panelled corridor to the kitchen, making the ground-floor area almost open-plan. To one side of the downstairs there was also a lavatory with sink and WC and a utility room, where some brushes, pans and buckets had been left by its half-open door.

“My niece, who is cleaner here, she has come today,” Kostis, following Stone's stare, informed him, adding, “once every week she come.”

They walked through to the kitchen, which looked old-fashioned but adequately equipped. Kostis pointed out a stop-tap under the large, pot sink; a fuse-board on the wall, also switches for ceiling fans; then a bunker where rubber boots, some tools, wiring, candles and logs were stored.

Stone followed him up the creaking wooden stairway which rose then dog-legged round off a small window-lit landing to an upper floor with three bedrooms. Two of these were furnished with beds, free-standing wardrobes and chests of drawers; one, smaller, just with a desk and easy chair. This study faced out to sea, like the master bedroom next door with a balcony.

Kostis also showed him a large bathroom with shower and checked the running water, the flush of its WC and a cylinder with heater for hot water. Then he pointed out a short, narrow stair up to that flat roof.

“To dry washing, or sunbathe,” he suggested, smiling while, Stone sensed, sizing up Stone's pleased reaction to his house and garden. It really was splendid, with more character and comfort than he'd anticipated.

They trudged downstairs and then out into the garden again. Stone was loathe to leave. There were still some intriguing outbuildings to explore. Also, he would have loved to lie down in that hammock then, later perhaps, wander up to the balcony of 'his' bedroom (he'd already decided) to lunch while looking out to sea.

But, of course, there would still be food and household provisions to buy and bring, luggage to move too, perhaps leases to sign – once all agreed.

“You like?” Kostis waited, clever eyes shining. It was really more of a statement than a question.

Stone nodded agreeably and smiled. Whatever the cost, he'd decided, this would be home for a while.

To his relief, the mayor gamely slapped him on his shoulder and led the way to the side gateway.

“My niece, she do shopping too, if you like – maybe even cook.” He laughed, then turned round after opening the green door, his bulk now blocking Stone's way. Then he asked, frowning, “You alone here, yes?”

Stone nodded again.

They returned to the scooter and Kostis kicked it into life with a brutal stamp on its starter lever, then began revving the handle throttle.

Stone paused, preferring the option of walking now. He wanted to consider his immediate plans and had not enjoyed the earlier cramped ride.

“I could move in today, if that's not too soon.”

Kostis looked pleased, sitting squarely on his scooter and waving a big hand towards the few inches of saddle he wasn't taking up.

“No thanks, I'll walk,” Stone told him. He licked his lips then added, “I could bring a cheque, or the money, this afternoon – pick up a receipt, contract . . .”

Somehow, he doubted they did rental contracts here but would feel safer with one, specially paying monthly in advance. He was also assuming the rental negotiations were over, or hoping so.

To his surprise, Kostis now just shrugged his hefty shoulders. “No hurry,” he said, “just see my secretary, for keys.”

Stone watched the mayor, almost overflowing his transport, labour slowly up the steep path then begin to pick up speed, bibbing its horn again, waving and shouting something – whether to himself or some unseen householder, Stone had no idea.

Along the coast road he savoured the sea air while walking slowly back to town. Yes, this was what he had needed.

Stone felt as if a heavy weight had been lifted from his chest and shoulders. He might be facing his 40th birthday but felt young and free again at heart.

He grinned as the sun warmed him through his airy, casual clothes; feeling only the gentle weight in his shoulder bag of his few necessary belongings: costume, towel, Kindle reading and cheque book.

Stone was looking forward to his swim.


The Beach

THE water felt refreshingly cool now, as Stone turned back with a tumbling somersault beneath the gently breaking waves. The spring sea had been cold at first, not yet warmed through a relentless summer sun.

He swam back more slowly, seeing his pile of belongings still there on the beach, under his awaiting towel – courtesy of the Grand Hotel. That was another thing he remembered, the people's honesty here, along with this wonderful clear sea even by the town.

No one locked their doors, they didn't even have house numbers. Only visitors liked to have keys, for their guest-house or hotel rooms – and, as he'd discovered, usually the same keys opened all doors.

On that last visit he'd also hidden his travel money under spare bedding in the wardrobe of his rented room; only for the cleaning girl to tell him she'd found it for him. It never occurred to her that he'd suspiciously concealed it there. Locals didn't expect thefts, though sometimes there were reports of misbehaviour through drink or emotional disputes.

They dealt with it themselves, finding culprits quickly – there was only one way off the island, by ferry at the harbour or, perhaps, private boat if desperate enough. Also, there had only been two policemen. One was enough, Stone had been told, but the other was there to give the bored man company.

He smiled at the recollection, now tramping up the quiet beach then spreading out his towel in the sun and flopping down happily. After squinting at the clear blue sky above him, Stone closed his eyes.

He was thinking of Jodie, the Australian 'mermaid', of them making love on that distant beach he hoped to soon visit again, once he'd moved into his house by the lagoon.

Back then, he recalled, they had been in a grassy clearing among the pine trees, just off the shingle beach – and undisturbed in their naked joy all afternoon. Young Stone had thought himself in paradise, any thoughts of his Fylde-coast home and work prospects in Manchester far from his mind.

That vivid recollection of Jodie's enthusiastic lovemaking was unsettling. Stone rolled on to his stomach, for decency's sake. There were only a handful of others lazing on the beach but many locals strolled by, or even stared from the village bus, curious to see new faces, or bodies. The Greeks, though, for all the tourist hype about hedonistic liberty here, believed in keeping up proper appearances.

Even the poorest among them had their quiet dignity and sometimes ferocious pride. Within reasonable holidaying allowances, they liked you to behave or, as one old expat had put it, maintain your self respect.

The free love in the sun, though, had been deceptive; along with those boozy chats and easy friendships with other travellers in the tavernas. Stone, even back then as a young man approaching 21, had realised that, within himself, he was still full of uncertainties and inhibitions beneath the occasional wildness. Marlene, the American, had taught him that.

His mental ardour damped down again, Stone rolled over into the sun, sighed, and thought a little about his story – One Way To Paradise, he'd now decided for a better title. Its central character, he was deciding, should be called Corrina – a slightly older American woman, with a tragic secret.

But much of Marlene would be within her. They had made love, too, after the departure of Jodie. Yet, despite the pleasure and surprises of that, it was perhaps his own leaving of the island, kindly seen off just by Marlene, which was still most poignant to him – for what she'd told him of himself, so incisively.

A dog was barking. Stone opened his eyes to the harsh sunlight again, then sat up, curious. The hound was barking at a thick-set, totally bald, young man walking along the edge of the surf and carrying pieces of what appeared to be driftwood. He was smartly dressed in shorts and shirt but rather childish style, for the sturdy chap must have been in his 20s. The mongrel dog clearly found him odd, too, but he ignored it.

Stone groaned, another curiosity – like the bizarre, older chap he'd seen by the bus on the small promenade here, dressed like a cowboy complete with imitation Colt 45s strapped about his waist; the moustachioed man in black, even to his western hat.

He shook his head, then got up to change. His trunks felt dried enough and he changed using the towel around himself, again for decency's sake. It was time to pick up his house key, leave his first month's cheque in return for a receipt, if not contract, then check out of his hotel. Perhaps, if Olympia was at the Grand's reception desk, he might ask about some of these local characters too. It was all grist for the mill of his half-baked story.

Sadly, it was the older receptionist on duty at the Grand when Stone returned. However, the efficient secretary at the town hall had proved both helpful and well-informed. It had also turned out that she was another niece of Mayor Kostis, the big, if short, family man. Stone showered, then collapsed on his wide bed in the airy hotel suite. He was not moving out until the following morning, so had hours in late afternoon to now relax and think – or just sleep.

Instead of relaxing, though, Stone felt a terrible unbidden need eating into him; for sex, for human contact, for love. His limbs ached for it after the sensually awakening swim and lazing on the beach; his memories of Jodie, naked, then the remarkable Marlene in the quiet bedroom of that rented house of those three Americans, so long ago, but not far from here; then, of course, of Esperanza.

Oh God, how that hurt, the memory of her! The loss tore again at his insides; that bewildering tragedy of her and her daughter's terrible fate; while he stared up at the peeling plasterwork of the Poseidon Suite's ceiling, a dusty chandelier and slow-turning fan; alone.

Stone cried for the first time in many cold, lonely weeks; first silently, then in deep, shuddering gasps which finally left him exhausted, purged for now. Until some memory of those he'd loved so desperately, whom he'd planned his new and remaining life around, caught him unprepared and vulnerable again.

He lay on the large bed, still lonely but quiet now, dozing fitfully through silent late afternoon until the light faded then sounds of life rose again from below in the town. He'd had nothing to eat since breakfast but was reluctant to brave evening streets, to face others even if friendly but, naturally, curious too.

However, the thought of being unable to sleep through the night - and his demons returning - at last drove him to leave the bed's sanctuary; to shower again, then dress and, with quiet, readjusted dignity, step out once more and, passing an unoccupied reception desk, stroll away from his silent hotel.

Thankfully, the town still felt subdued in its dim lights and gradual easing into the early tourist season. Waiters at bars and tavernas merely nodded, having just risen and bathed themselves from the afternoon siesta. Stone wandered like a returning lost ghost, noting familiar places or new changes; yet pleased again by this warm, inviting atmosphere.

Hungry at last, he scaled the steps of a restaurant he'd remembered in a quiet town square. It was on a flat roof from which there was a fine view of an ancient church, floodlit at night.

It was more expensive and select than those busier, touristy places closer to the harbour. Just one couple, middle-aged and tanned – perhaps yachties from the Old Harbour area – occupied a corner table.

The elderly waiter showed Stone to an opposite corner, overlooking the square and church but also isolated slightly by flowering bushes in pots and the rooftop wall. The waiter lit a table lantern and, with studied deference, opened their embossed menu.

Stone ordered beer; wine would follow, then the food, something Greek and local this time. Here, he sensed, would be fine. He could collect his thoughts, straighten out his mind and emotions once again, even people-watch a little before, eventually, walking back to the Grand, no doubt passing livelier bars by then.

There was much to look forward to, after all.

It was a fine meal; freshly baked kleftiko, its meat falling off the bone; potatoes roasted with onions and tomatoes, many herbs too. The red wine, also, proved good and, finally, a brandy coffee.

But Stone did not walk straight back to his hotel. Instead he wandered across the quiet square, savouring the close warmth even in late evening and the musky air, heading to the floodlit church.

There were gravestones outside, all illuminated by candles in small lanterns and, in the dark, stone entrance, an aroma of incense still lingered. Deeper inside were the gold and gilt haloed saints, heavy tapestries, wood polish and silence. Stone sat down then prayed silently, for peace to those dear departed, but also for himself; then lit two candles in memory.

* * *
Below are the  first chapters from our seventh Sam Stone investigates thriller/romance, Cast The Last Stone, just published (see Books page). Excerpts from other books follow below.


“ELVIS has entered the building,” a deep voice announced from beyond the shadowy stage. A frisson of excitement ran though the darkened auditorium and Esperanza tightened her grip on Sam Stone's hand.
Beyond Espie, Stone noticed with a smile, little Angelina had sat up in her seat full of expectation, mouth falling open, her dark, shiny eyes rounding in anticipation.
Then someone nearby in the theatre gave a whoop, making Stone wince. He despised the American habit that had infested live performances and television in Britain these days.
The Lowther Theatre spotlights rose a little to show vague figures now standing by the stage microphones, taking up instruments, readying to play.
More whoops came and murmured conversation, then the rich tones of the late King of pop rang out, silencing but also thrilling those listening, sending a shiver up Stone's spine.
'If you're looking for trouble, then you've come to the right place,' Elvis sang, still unaccompanied. 'If you're looking for trouble, just look right in my face.'
The 12-piece band kicked in and the much-loved theatre in Lytham's Lowther Gardens came to life, as a tribute singer looking remarkably like the late Elvis Presley in tasselled, black leathers strode across its stage and into the limelight.
Little Angie, Stone noticed, was grinning with pleasure at the supercharged opening to the show, which her mother Espie had only reluctantly agreed to let her attend.
It seemed the Golden Oldies of the pop world were attracting younger fans in the absence of anything as sensational in today's music. The old hits flowed on.
Espie herself also looked delighted at the standard of the musical tribute. Stone sat back, relaxing and enjoying the show – along with a large Merlot he'd brought in from the bar in a plastic glass.
This was the life, almost like a real family – sharing the fun and excitement – and all on his doorstep from nearby Duck Lane. What's more, the two females he cared most about in the world would tonight be stopping over at his cottage, rather than returning to the flat Espie rented across town.
A glow of pleasure and contentment gradually spread through Stone, along with the strong red wine now infusing his blood; 'Elvis' helped too!
There had been plenty of trouble in Stone's own life to date, even through a tragic childhood. But that was the stuff of blues, of gospel – of harsh experience.
Still, it was heartening to know others had suffered and survived as well: those songwriters, those who now listened and cheered, even the King himself.
Stone later glanced again at Espie and Angie beside him, while sliding down a little more in his seat – aware of his tall, bulky frame blocking the view of a couple of women seated behind.
The girls were all enjoying this frenetic performance, deep voice, hot songs – even the tight leathers and tassels! This Elvis still had stamina.
Stone took a final appreciative swallow of his Merlot – not bad, even at an exorbitant £5 a glass. The obvious delight of his two rapt companions, from that land of music the Philippines, also added to his enjoyment. They should do this more often!
“This next number was voted their favourite by Elvis fans in the UK,” the tribute singer was announcing, while wiping sweat from his brow. The band started up and Stone felt Espie's hand slip into his.
“Maybe I didn't love you, quite as often as I could have; maybe I didn't treat you, quite as good as I should have . . .”
Espie's soft, small hand tightened about his fingers, surprising Stone a little. Was she sending him a message, about his own unfortunate failings of the past?
'If I made you feel second best, girl, I'm sorry, I was blind; you were always on my mind, you were always on my mind.'
Stone turned and Espie smiled up at him, her face wonderful and bright in the dimly reflected lights.
'Maybe I didn't hold you, all those lonely, lonely times; and I guess I never told you, I'm so happy that you're mine . . .'
Stone swallowed, his throat suddenly gone dry, but smiled back and gently squeezed her hand in return, staring into those glittering, almond-shaped eyes.
'Little things I should have said and done, I just never took the time; you were always on my mind, you were always on my mind.'
The band was building up to a finale and 'Elvis' swinging his free arm not holding the microphone, about to wrap up the first, fast-moving half of the show, his audience now fully absorbed and thrilled.
Of course, those were the words and thoughts of so many men, of so many lovers over the ages – and the final, desperate plea – now belted out in the first-half climax, but perhaps – in real life – too late for many.
'Tell me, tell me that your sweet love hasn't died, and give me, give me one more chance to keep you satisfied, I'll keep you satisfied.”
The band finished the up-tempo number in great style, with Elvis half-bowed and splay-legged to cheers, whoops and some screams. Then the lights rose. “We'll be back in 20 minutes,” he promised, breathlessly.
“Wow, is great!” was Espie's judgement, grinning at Stone then laughing with a delighted Angie.
“Ice-creams?” asked Stone, himself fancying more wine, as he rose in the suddenly well-lit and relatively modern, little theatre. Then he made his way along the aisle and forward, down a few steps.
Not only should they do this more often, he decided, but he would take them to the wonderful, Victorian Grand Theatre in nearby Blackpool – for a show or even a pantomime, perhaps even with their own box. They'd love it, he realised – amazed not to have thought about it before. To Angie, now almost seven, the glitteringly restored Grand would seem a magical palace of fairy tales. She'd be enthralled!
As he waited in the short, patient queue, Stone resolved to make some inquiries and bookings next day; or, as it was a Sunday, on Monday – or soon afterwards.
He handed over their ice-creams by slipping up a narrow space between the stand of seats and the wall; then left again, this time heading for the distant gents'. Finally, Stone made his way back through the bar, just as the crowds were dispersing for the second half.
He ordered another plastic glass of wine, this time choosing Shiraz and handing over another fiver and pound tip to the obliging young barmaid, who had given him a warm, encouraging smile.
Only as he waited for the drink did Stone notice a vaguely familiar figure, now stepping discreetly through double fire-doors from Lowther Gardens outside. Wasn't the tall, rather stocky, middle-aged chap a councillor? However, it was a long time since Stone had to deal with local politics as a reporter.
The fellow was well-dressed and, presumably, just returning from having a crafty smoke outside – rather than slipping in without paying. However, he looked rather furtive nonetheless, moving quickly to the two lady volunteers manning the auditorium doors.
If this had been a city-centre theatre and the man perhaps of Middle-Eastern appearance, Stone might have feared some potential terrorist act. That was a sad thought, but this was quiet, 'leafy' Lytham, one of the most sought-after places to live in the North-West.
Stone followed the figure, equally quickly as lights inside began to dim again and the returning band and 'King' were announced to cheers. He nodded to the sly smoker, still standing watchfully near the volunteer ushers, and the man – almost Stone's height – met his gaze without reaction. Perhaps the fellow had forgotten the row where he'd been sitting.
Stone nimbly went up a few steps to their seats, apologising to a row of ageing Elvis fans who had to stand up again and let him pass, then settled himself again beside Espie and Angie who were clearly excited about the second half.
It was then, as Stone had turned towards the stage and got seated, that the protesters shoved their way inside. There were three of them, two men, one woman, all relatively young and carrying makeshift placards. They had suddenly appeared from the bar area and rushed the two unsuspecting volunteers about to close its doors, although the suited man Stone had noted earlier had not helped. In fact, he had appeared to accidentally obstruct the two ushers.
In that brief confusion the three protesters were in the main auditorium and shouting; one made it up on to the stage, holding a sign saying 'Immigrants Out', the other man and the woman remained standing in a centre aisle, shouting, “Britain for the British – make us Great again!', while waving other placards Stone couldn't read in the dimmed lights.
On the stage there was chaos as the returning musicians hesitated and some stage-hands appeared and got in a tussle with the demonstrator there. Soon he, then the others, were removed to cheers.
Finally, there was quiet. Stone became aware of Espie's hand, still gripping his in nervous concern. He turned and saw the anxiety written across her face, a frowning, alarmed Angie beside her.
“It's all right – just some stupid protest,” Stone said. “Must be for these elections that are coming.”
But Espie's face had fallen in dismay, her earlier excitement crushed. She gently withdrew her hand, sad eyes now meeting his, then said, “They mean like us, Angie and me, we immigrants.”
“No,” Stone assured her, “they'll mean illegal ones – from Africa, the Middle East – not you, darling!” But he saw she wasn't convinced and felt for her. Beside Espie, Angie, too, looked on edge now, uncertain of herself and of her safety or welcome here.
Clueless bastards, Stone thought, but, on stage, the impersonator was talking calmly, voice deep though clearly equally perplexed. As an American, perhaps he also now felt unwelcome.
“Well Elvis sang for everyone,” he said, his southern drawl stronger now, “rich and poor, black and white – he didn't look down on anyone.”
His words were greeted by cheering, even his band members applauded, then answered the political disruption in the best way they could – by bursting once more into their music.
“Hope you had a good break, something to eat, a little to drink,” Elvis wished the audience. “This next song reminds me of my favourite cake.” It appeared the 'King' had a sense of humour as well of equal rights. The next number turned out to be In The Ghetto (or gateau), greeted with wild whoops and loud applause.
Towards the end of the show it seemed the disruption had been forgotten, as that warming aura of well-being and exhilaration returned to the theatre.
A heavily sweating singer now paused before his last round-up of golden hits and, in what seemed a set routine recognised by regular fans, he came to the edge of the stage with silk scarves to hand down.
Two or three women were already standing there, waiting and holding flowers in return, as Elvis bent on one knee then, singing Love Me Tender, dealt out scarves to eager reaching hands.
“We go too – for Angie,” Espie suddenly said and, to his amazement, Stone saw his girlfriend nimbly follow her daughter through gaps in the metal safety screen between them and the theatre wall. Knowing he couldn't follow, Stone watched as they then squeezed along the narrow space up to the closed bar doors then quickly over to near the stage.
He had to grin in delight as, hoisted quickly on to her mother's shoulders, Angie managed to reach the last of the coloured, silk scarves being handed down by their idol.
Many more people were standing up now, swaying to the medley of music that was rounding of the concert. They included the tallish man, the supposed councillor Stone had noted earlier in the bar and beside the doors when the demonstrators burst inside.
To Stone's surprise, the same man now grasped the scarf as it slipped momentarily from Angie's grip while she was being lowered to safety again by Espie. The little girl's face fell as the man held up the scarf in triumph, ignoring her protests and swaying and singing along with the crowd.
Elvis himself had turned away and was winding up to a big finish. Still more people were crushing forward and it was with some relief that Stone saw Espie emerge, returning with a despondent looking Angie still staring backwards and obviously feeling robbed of her treasure.
Stone went down to join them, as soon as his aisle finally began to clear.
“She upset, some man he took her scarf,” Espie explained. Beside her, Angie was in tears. “Maybe we see Elvis in bar,” Espie added.
Stone nodded. The tribute singer and band had promised to sign DVDs afterwards in the bar, where already a thick queue was forming; a crowd big enough to sink Stone's hopes of them all soon getting home.
“Okay, you wait – I'll just pop to the gents' again,” he told Espie, before reaching down to give Angie an encouraging hug.
Then Stone followed the tall figure he'd seen making for the same conveniences, with that triumphant pink, silk scarf still about his wide, suited shoulders.
There was a queue, too, inside the gents, where a line of restless men waited to relieve themselves. Stone just upped his pace in time to stand behind the 'councillor' at the back.
“'Scuse me,” he said in a menacing whisper, drawing the scarf from the man's shoulders and making him turn sharply in surprise. “I believe this belongs to someone else – the little girl it was given to.”
Stone met the man's eyes without blinking and gave him a casual but confident smile, adding, “She's with me.”
He could see the man think about some action or protest then change his mind, weighing up the confidence of his even bigger, slightly younger opponent.
Instead the affronted older man merely nodded and, still tight-lipped, muttered, “All right, no need for any fuss, is there?”
Stone nodded and turned away, not needing to relieve himself and sure of not being attacked. As usual with bullies, the man was a coward.
He'd just made another enemy, that was all.


THAT man, with the scarf,” Espie asked once more, her voice quiet in the dark of Stone's bedroom, “he just give you the scarf then – no trouble?”
“Yes,” Stone assured her, yet again, adding, “it just sort of slipped off his shoulder.”
Espie's eyes shone in the moonlight just penetrating the room's blinds, searching his, clearly still not believing him.
But how wonderful she felt to Stone, as she now at last relaxed and lay alongside him, still tutting a little but admitting, “Angie very happy – specially when you tell her it was from Elvis.”
She laughed but quietly, aware of her daughter sleeping not far away – with that treasured silk scarf on the pillow beside her, ready to show school friends.
Espie's eyes sparkled and her hands wandered.
“Hmm, you are always on my mind,” Espie whispered in his ear, as Stone groaned in appreciation. She then slipped one silky leg between his and pressed her whole body into his, holding him tightly.
“I love you, you beautiful girl,” Stone told her, kissing her neck, her ears, her lips, then exploring further, hearing her murmurs now of need and satisfaction; knowing each other's ways so well.
When their quiet lovemaking was finished, they both stayed entwined, holding each other, until Stone sensed Espie slipping into sleep.
He eased away and finally lay on his back, a little apart but close enough to feel her presence, her breathing slightly shifting the one sheet above them.
Soon it would be cold at night again, very soon the autumn would be here, dark nights, quiet evenings.
How marvellous and different it had been this evening, to walk home together along Lytham's Green promenade then get cosy again in the cottage, sharing a pizza supper until, with Angie asleep, they finished their wine, he and Espie, sitting close together.
Stone thought again of his earlier resolution to take them all to some suitable show at the Grand, to hire a box, which he used to enjoy years ago when theatre reviewing, long before working on the national papers, then television and, finally, for himself.
Perhaps they should also take a school friend of Angie's for her company - and to show off to, no doubt. Stone smiled at the thought. How that little girl had taken over his tough, well-worn heart! Then he considered that it was high time she had a younger brother, or sister . . .
In the familiar dark silence of his bedroom, broken tonight only by Espie's gentle breathing here safe beside him, Stone suddenly realised with a stab of need but also profound alarm, how much a family would now mean to him, or to them all.
The realisation stunned him, almost comically.
Yes, he had been married before; even had looked forward to children; before such passing dreams were torn apart by realities, by others' ambitions, by – he suspected – his own inadequacies, fears and, he should admit, past tragedies still haunting him.
How did that song go from Les Misérables, the one which sent shivers down his spine? I Dreamed A Dream, that was it – along with the line and that change of chord and tone which so touched the listener . . .
'But the tigers come at night/ With their voices soft as thunder/ As they tear your hope apart/ As they turn your dream to shame.'
The words brought a shiver now to Stone and he gently eased a light blanket up the bed to cover Espie as she slept so peacefully.
He closed his eyes but the bliss he felt before or even the release of sleep wouldn't come. It had always seemed he brought tragedy to those he loved, even from childhood. Many had said, including Espie, that he should put that behind him. However, it remained, deep within. Besides, there was that other reality. Between occasional exclusives for the national papers or TV, along with the diminishing royalties from his few literary efforts, Stone was practically broke.
He didn't even own this cottage he rented – and struggled to afford. Neither, of course, did Espie own her rented flat – which was also too small for them all.
At least, little Angie was due to inherit.
There was money coming in time, with her maturity, from her late if little known father in the Philippines and the so-called 'aunt' who'd mostly brought the girl up while taking in a desperate Espie.
So, was that his great long-term basis for these thoughts of marriage, family and a shared home at last that he'd been indulging – living off his step-daughter's money and Espie's better earnings than his from her hairdressing salon?
Stone now shrank from the thought. Somehow all the music, those inspiring lyrics, the posturing and his own preposterous male ego had divorced him from reality. A frightening uncertainty and sense of hopelessness now overtook him instead for he knew, at heart, he just wasn't good enough.

THE light knocking drummed gently through his mind, as Stone opened his eyes to rays of sunshine and a renewed sense of goodwill. The busy day and evening before, the wine and late supper had all served to make him finally sleep without further interruption. Doubts were gone, only their lovemaking remembered.
A small, dark hand appeared round the bedroom door and waved apprehensively, followed by a giggle.
Stone sighed, all thoughts or hopes of more romance slipping away, then silently crept from his bed. He glanced around the door and saw two huge, watchful, dark eyes staring up anxiously, full of hope, mischief and energy – but uncertain of the reaction of all-controlling adults.
He had to smile, then raise a finger to his lips, glancing back to make sure Espie was still sleeping before edging out of the bedroom to join Angie.
“Your mum's still asleep,” he told her, taking her hand. “Come on, we'll go downstairs and make some breakfast, okay?”
Angie nodded eagerly, she had on pink pyjamas brought by Espie with other assorted items in an overnight bag, but also the silk scarf from Elvis. Her deep-black hair was a glorious mess framing her excited, unblemished face. Even her smile, now, was complete; that rather engaging gap in her teeth finally filled with age. She was a little darling.
“Ah,” Stone groaned, opening the fridge, then observing, “no bacon, that's a blow. Don't suppose your mother brought some?”
Angie shook her head, clearly unimpressed and looking rather serious at this setback.
“Well, we've got a little bread, some beans and, oh, only one egg,” Stone announced but saw he was not succeeding in redeeming the situation, only digging an ever deeper hole. How could he have forgotten to top up provisions? He sighed.
“The cat!” said Angie, now spotting next-door's small tabby waiting expectantly on Stone's patio.
A double-glazed back door gave them a full view of the cottage's low-management back garden with its few potted bushes and hanging baskets, now rather faded and worn by the summer sunshine.
“You want to give it some milk?” Stone asked, then helped Angie with a saucer and unlocking the door. By the time the kitten was patted and pampered, there was barely enough milk for a couple of cups of tea or coffee.
“I think I better nip to the corner shop,” Stone told Angie when she finally came back inside. The kettle was on and he made them both tea, as Espie had said coffee now gave her daughter headaches.
“Me too, I want to go!” announced Angie.
“Well, all right, get changed then – quietly,” Stone instructed; then followed her back upstairs and slipped into a tracksuit, discarding his bathrobe.
“What time is it?” asked a weary Espie, emerging from the bedsheets, sitting up half naked.
Stone enjoyed the beautiful spectacle but muttered reluctantly, “It's still early, don't worry – just nipping to the shop for eggs, bacon, bread, milk. Angie's up too, she'll come with me. Stay and sleep.”
Espie smiled and nodded, then sank back into the bed. “Just for few minutes,” she muttered but, before he had eased on some trainers she was already breathing heavily again, clearly still tired after a busy week at her salon just up Duck Lane.
They crept out of Number Seven, closing its door quietly, both smirking in muted excitement.
It was already a beautiful day, an Indian summer almost - since the calender now insisted autumn was under way. A fresh, invigorating breeze blew from the Ribble estuary across the nearby Green promenade.
There was no one else along the cobbled lane and they both walked jauntily up its centre, Angie hopping between the larger stones or street gullies singing some repetitive rhyme.
Turning into Henry Street which led to Lytham's Piazza, the trendy town or 'village'-centre, Stone hesitated. The tall, dark owner of the newsagent's was standing outside his premises, looking forlorn with a bucket and dripping rag, his young, broad shoulders slumped in obvious dismay at some setback.
Stone and Angie walked slowly towards the obliging Indian man he only knew as 'Rammy', short for Ramesh he'd always assumed. Rammy and his beautiful young wife, Gitanjali – known to all their customers as Gita, had owned the all-purpose store for more than a year now and worked hard while opening 'all hours'. They lived on the premises too.
The couple had proved to be a godsend for late or disorganised shoppers, like Stone, as well as always being friendly and obliging. Their little boy Josh, younger than Angie, was a delight; also, like her, he was usually to be seen on a much-loved cycle.
Today, though, was supposed to be all about tennis, which Stone had been trying to introduce Angelina to. He had hoped that, after a leisurely breakfast, they might miss the nearby Anglican service, which Espie favoured on Sunday mornings, but go instead to the neighbouring sports club alongside St. Cuthbert's. There he was teaching Angie on a special, purpose-made junior court, aided occasionally by club coach Greg Porter, himself now the proud father of a little daughter.
That cheering anticipation now drifted away as Stone saw the cause of Rammy's distress, a sickening sight rekindling the acrid taste of cruel, ignorant hatred.
“How awful, Rammy,” Stone commiserated as he came alongside the shopkeeper.
'Go home Pakis' and 'Muslims F- Off' had been smeared in blood-red paint across the plate-glass window, itself now cracked and broken in parts.
Rammy had managed to clear off most of the obscene word's letters but was struggling without paint stripper to wipe away the rest and clearly upset.
“They come late at night,” he told Stone. “I hear the smash when they throw stones.”
“It's terrible, they're idiots,” Stone told him, alarmed, too, at the distress now showing on Angie's face. Was she remembering the protest of last evening at the theatre? Were perhaps the two events even linked? Their locations were certainly close enough.
“They are stupid,” Rammy agreed, “my ancestors came from India, not Pakistan, and we are Christians – and second generation British. Both Gita and I were born down the road in Preston.” He threw his red-stained rag into the bucket of soapy water but then smiled down at Angie.
“Hello, little Angie, and how are you my darling?” he asked, ruffling her hair a little. “Josh is inside,” he added, “go and say hello.”
Angie smiled back but stayed silent where she was, still taking in the drama of the damage and hate-filled vandalism.
“She's hungry – I forgot to get in some food for our breakfasts,” Stone confessed, making the usually cheerful Rammy laugh at last.
“Ah, Sammy,” he said, putting a friendly hand upon Stone's shoulders and leading them into his damaged store, “at least some things never change!”


THAT's wonderful!” called out Stone, echoing the encouragement given earlier when Angie had a short hitting session with the club coach Greg and his little daughter Penelope.
Now Stone was with Angie, on the special kids' court alongside one of the outside carpet courts where Greg was giving a lesson to Linda Howarth, a skilled freelance hairdresser who often helped Espie when her salon was extra busy, or supervised if she was away
“Great shot!” Greg encouraged from that adjoining court, “Keep it going Linda, your drive-volleys have really come on.”
“Do you really think so?” asked the sociable blonde who, like their popular coach himself, seemed to be able to chat continually without undermining their strokes or attention to a game. In fact, most of the ladies enjoyed talking while playing; gossip was king.
Stone preferred to concentrate in silence but knew Angie needed adult encouragement, of which she'd enjoyed little in her difficult, confused, short life.
At least, now, she seemed to have forgotten the unsettling earlier scenes at Rammy's corner shop. That unpleasantness had rather overcast their breakfast back at No. 7 Duck Lane, until Espie had announced that she should meet a friend at St. Cuthbert's Sunday morning service – but they themselves could, by all means, play a little tennis instead.
That decision had lifted both Stone and Angie, who'd both already felt the exhilaration of the morning's sunshine and its sea-driven, briny freshness.
Apparently this morning's service was to be a joint affair with a sister church, a Catholic one which one of Espie's best Filipina friends attended. It was partly to honour those killed, including a priest, in a recent terrorist atrocity in the Philippines – blamed upon 'religious' zealots and, inevitably, encouraging a severe crackdown by the present right-wing government holding sway in that would-be paradise.
Espie had privately assured Stone he needn't feel guilty about not joining her prayers, as she feared it might all be upsetting for Angie after the racist demo of the previous evening – then the shop vandalism.
“Why all this hate?” she'd asked him, exasperated, before he and Angie left, “Why do these people so upset others they don't even know?”
Stone could only shrug, sympathetic but also secretly relieved he would be in shorts and heading to the cricket and tennis club, rather than dressed up and stuck in a potentially long, stuffy religious service with many speeches and, probably, a follow-up gathering for tea, cakes and polite conversation in the church hall.
Angie had obviously felt the same, eagerly getting into her latest, mainly pink sports outfit and finding her, again, pink racquet to go with that scarf.
“Don't let her tire, though,” Espie had warned Stone before they left for the nearby courts. “She sick twice last week, after her cycling.”
The little girl's recent bout of headaches and sickness, her unusual temperatures and tiredness were a worry to her mother. Stone, however, had seen Angelina mostly when recovered and suspected Espie was overreacting to the effects of the shifting seasons. In the Philippines it always seemed hot and humid.
They had now moved back from playing gently near the net with the beginners' soft, red balls, to finely hone their topspin forehands and backhands, and were now hitting out with quicker green-spot balls from the baselines of the shorter junior court, which Stone – as well as Angie – was thoroughly enjoying.
The court was partly shaded by a grove of mature beeches and sycamores around the historic, black-and-white timbered cricket score-box.
It was a beautiful setting, which Stone loved and appreciated, just along Church Road and separated from Henry Street and Duck Lane by the beautifully landscaped and colourful Lowther Gardens park.
But, now they'd got their shots into shape and built up a sweat, Stone decided against a final game with proper balls. It was getting hotter as the sun shifted further west and high overhead, while he was also minded of Espie's concerns about exhausting Angie.
Stone also fancied a beer and had noticed, upon popping into the wooden clubhouse earlier, that Loweswater Gold, a favourite ale of his from the Lake District, was one of the three hand-pump choices tended lovingly by steward Terry Batty.
“Time for a break,” Stone announced, adding quickly, “or don't you want one of Terry's treats?”
“Yes, please!” cried Angie, a brief look of disappointment disappearing at the prospect of a sugary cake from the jolly, avuncular steward, to go with a bottle of pop. Stone wasn't sure that the watchful and health-minded Espie would approve of either, or his early adjournment for a pint on the club terrace.
As they waved their farewells to Greg and Linda, were now conversing on the next court, the bells started to ring out at neighbouring St. Cuthbert's, just the other side of the club's thickly wooded perimeter.
Was the service ending already? Stone hoped not. It was barely past noon. Espie had said she would meet them afterwards at the club pavilion, before they all headed back to her flat and prepared for a roast dinner in early evening.
Oh, well, there was no rush, a determined Stone decided, increasingly eager for that pint – then another.
A few more flash cars were in the club car park but, here in sought-after Lytham - which had house prices to match those down in the best home counties – motors weren't the ultimate kudos. Cycling or, even more so, being able to walk to the club from your nearby home was still more impressive to some than a new but probably leased BMW or Range Rover. It signified you lived in Lytham's centre, not a distant neighbouring suburb where homes were cheaper. Such was the inverted silliness of local one-upmanship.
Stone had to smile, as he settled himself on the terrace with a pint of Gold and was instructed about the cricket situation on the nearby square by Terry. People appeared to think him well-off for only strolling over from Duck Lane when, in fact, Stone barely managed to pay his rising rent there and had seen one of his recent cars repossessed. Still, life felt good; he got by.
“Well caught!” yelled the hearty steward as Lytham despatched another opposing team member from the Liverpool League in which they played.
Stone more often watched cricket on a Saturday at Blackpool's equally lovely ground several miles north, as he'd spent his formative years in the raucous South Shore hotel-land there, before heading to Manchester then London to 'further his career'.
Years later, after that career floundered along with his marriage, he had returned here to freelance – in what was then the more relaxing Lytham.
Except that this idyllic area wasn't relaxing any more, not away from these lovely grounds and certainly not at weekends.
The former shrimping village was a victim of its own success and quaintness, drawing in family visitors and wealthy outsiders, along with many noisy, show-off revellers at night to its multiplying, trendy wine bars and over-priced restaurants.
As if to echo Stone's thoughts, while Angie sucked eagerly on her sugary drink to drown the chocolate and cream cake Terry had spoiled her with, polite applause from bystanders was halted by the sudden, dramatic smashing of glass.
They turned to the nearby changing rooms but the returning batsman hadn't taken a swipe at the large plate-glass windows there, as they'd at first feared.
The noise had come from further away - and must have been still more dramatic to be so loud, for they could now hear shouts and one or two screams from the church hidden in trees behind them.
“Hello, what are those two up to?” the steward wondered out loud, turning from where he was standing beside Stone's table on the small terrace.
Stone, also standing in concern now, followed Terry's glance to a track behind the car park which led from near St. Cuthbert's. Two young men, both wearing hoods, were running away towards a distant public footpath that crossed the top of the cricket ground.
Behind them a police officer had emerged, halting when he saw how far ahead the youths were and getting on to his walkie-talkie. Then the officer turned and went back at a jog into the wooded border of St. Cuthbert's extended graveyard.
“Stay here with Terry,” Stone told Angie, as casually as he could manage, then he glanced at the steward with a meaningful stare and explained, “Espie's at the church. I'll go and see what's happening.”
With that, Stone hurried off, breaking into a run when out of sight of the clubhouse.
He climbed a short, wooden fence and was soon among the gravestones where both old friends and former enemies were interred. Ahead he could see a huddle of uniformed officers outside a shattered stained-glass window in the magnificent, old church.
They waved Stone back as he approached and shouted, “Some kids threw a brick,” when he asked what had happened.
“Anyone hurt?” he called anxiously.
“Nothing serious,” an officer said, as they carefully combed the immediate area.
Stone went round the front of the building to find more police there but also boisterous demonstrators. Officers were clearing people out of the church grounds and waved at Stone to also leave.
“My wife's inside,” he shouted, rather exaggerating their partnership. His Press card would probably only get him moved away quicker, judging from the pushing and shoving near the church lych-gate and increasing anger among some of the officers.
“They'll all be out soon – just move away, please, sir,” the officer instructed.
At the entrance to the church, Stone could see his old friend and occasional tennis adversary David Chapman, a reader at St. Cuthbert's. David caught his eye and nodded then, with a calming gesture of his hands, indicated everything was all right.
Stone crossed to the main Church Road, going out of the grounds by another gate manned by a police officer. “Protest trouble?” he asked her.
“Looks like it – and some yobs with stones,” she answered, adding wryly, “surprised they're up this early on a Sunday.” The blonde grinned, blue eyes sparkling.
Stone smiled and nodded. There was some jostling among the crowd ahead, so he crossed the road for a clearer view, then he saw the man from the theatre last evening, who'd taken Angie's scarf. Suited once more, with what looked like a club or regimental tie, the tall, middle-aged man also noticed Stone, then spoke to two companions, more casually dressed, younger men standing beside him and a dark Rover saloon.
The two younger, stocky men began to approach. Stone frowned, thinking he recognised one – from some time ago, but with a different look perhaps – both men had razored short hair; both walked with a confident swagger.
Stone whistled over to the rather attractive PC he'd just been speaking to and, although she was now in discussion with an older, female passer-by, the officer looked over curiously.
Stone nodded at the two approaching thugs, now almost level with him, looking back meaningfully at the police woman.
“Hoping to hide behind her skirts, eh Stone?”
The man who'd spoken was the thicker set, wearing a leather jacket despite the sunshine. He had a knowing smirk but Stone had also heard a clicking from his metal tipped shoes as he'd approached. They'd met before, always under unpleasant circumstances.
Stone raised his hands in ostentatious surrender. “I don't want any trouble,” he told them.
Now the other, slightly shorter skin-head laughed, with a decidedly nasty inflection. “Well you've got it anyway,” he spat out.
“I don't think so,” Stone said and started to turn away, until Laughing Boy reached out and gripped his tracksuit top.
With a swift turn on his heel and then a grab, Stone twisted the shorter man's arm viciously up his back until he screamed out, then kneed him hard behind his knee, making him collapse.
Smirker, with the steel toe and heel caps, was just swinging a wide right hook as Stone turned back and ducked, then drove his head into the man's gut, making him gasp for air. Stone lifted his head sharply, connecting with Smirker's lowered chin and nose, making the injured man stagger back, bleeding.
The blonde police officer was already halfway across the road, stopping traffic. Also approaching was the 'councillor' type from up the road, the scarf grabber, though still keeping a safe distance.
“That's enough!” the PC warned, as the shorter man staggered up angrily from the pavement beside Stone and his bloodied partner came forward again.
“I saw it all, officer,” Scarf-Pincher was saying. “This man,” he said, pointing at Stone, “threw the first punches.”
“Didn't have much choice,” muttered Stone, “don't usually go around attacking pairs of brutes like your friends.”
“All right, all right,” the PC said, “that's it!”
A plain, dark Vauxhall saloon had stopped beside them and its passenger-door window wound down.
“I'll handle this, constable,” said a confident female voice.
Stone had turned but was distracted by shaken-looking worshippers now being escorted out of the church across the road, then he recognised the speaker from the unmarked police vehicle.
“All right, Sarge,” said the PC, re-pocketing a notebook she'd taken out along with some cuffs.
“I saw it all,” the tall, suited man insisted again, this time turning his attention to Debbie Taylor, as she got out of the CID saloon.
“I'll deal with this, sir,” Taylor told him firmly.
Scarf Stealer angrily returned her stare for a moment then thought better of it and, turning sharply on his heel and ignoring his injured associates, went back to the parked Rover.
“You two beat it, now, or I'll book you,” Taylor hissed at the two thugs who, looking rather taken aback but relieved, now gave Stone a malicious glare then followed in their friend's footsteps – only to see him drive off alone.
“What the hell are you up to Sammy?” asked Taylor, shaking her head with weary disapproval and making her pinned-up, streaked-blonde, long hair escape a little from its tight clips.
“Just keeping the peace, Debbie,” he assured her.
“We've got enough trouble here, without you pitching in, okay?”
Stone shrugged, rather affronted, but nodded and smiled agreeably. After all, he hadn't even scuffed his knuckles, though his head – famously solid among former rugby comrades – was throbbing painfully now.
“I was waiting for Espie,” he explained to Taylor, who'd become a good friend. They had both tennis and mutual pal DI Prudence Penny in common, since Pru had moved away with promotion. But Taylor looked tired today, rather burlier than usual – perhaps with more desk work and less villain-chasing.
“Ah,” said Debbie, more softly, following his glance to the emerging parishioners at the church. One or two demonstrators were being assisted none too gently into the back of a police van which had pulled up outside St. Cuthbert's. “I see.”
Stone waved to Esperanza, who was with a Filipina friend he remembered, and the pair began to cross towards him and Taylor.
“Shouldn't it be inspector?” Stone now asked his CID friend, relieved at seeing both the two girls crossing to him appeared unhurt.
“It was,” said Taylor, her face hardening again, “acting inspector anyway – but not any more.”
Stone raised his eyebrows inquisitively.
Detective Sergeant Taylor frowned and, with a wave to Espie, got back into her car, then said through the window, “brought in someone else didn't they – seems I didn't have the right profile, or colour anyway.”
Stone nodded, a little surprised and rather taken aback by the usually irrepressible officer's sudden, bitter tartness. But, then, this was proving to be a difficult Sunday for them all, certainly a Sabbath with scant rest nor peace.
Then, as Taylor was driven over to join the other officers and quietened crowd, Stone smiled at Espie and her charming friend, Maribeth, as they approached.
However, inside himself and despite the afternoon sunshine, the mood of this day had turned distinctly gloomy.

* * *

Below are the first pages and chapters of our newest publication, Borrowed Times. This is a light-hearted, uplifting memoir with observations about life, also cartoons and selected newspaper columns. It is available on Kindle and in paperback (see Books page). Front and back covers are also included here .

First chapters of our latest published novel, The Lost Hero (see also Books page), appear below these excerpts from Borrowed Times

The Ideal Age?

I WAS inspired to begin this journal as my 70th birthday approached. Some uncompromisingly down-to-earth, although also biblical, words of my late father came to mind. “Three score years and 10,” he remarked to me when also at that noteworthy age, adding, “so I'm now living on borrowed time.”
He'd been happily retired to the North Wales coast just five years at the time, was sun-tanned and appeared very fit for his age – walking hills and doing press-ups and sit-ups daily, while also enjoying home-brew to relax in the evenings.
Dad lasted just another five years before cancer claimed him quite suddenly but mercifully quickly. Poor devoted mother, some 12 years younger, lasted another 30 long years – reasonably happy around her growing family and also very healthy (although less given to strenuous exercise), but with life, to use her words, “never the same again.”
I'm a cross between both – taking daily exercise but, at heart, preferring a more laid-back approach to life. Although a journalist previously and author now, I remain a retiring person by nature. Writers usually prefer to stand on the edge of the limelight, enjoying the spectacle but safely in shadow.
“Retirement always was your ambition, wasn't it?” quipped the last of my increasingly younger editors, when telling me the newspaper “could let me go” almost 10 years ago. (Though I've continued to write a weekly column for the same local daily paper.)
Although 70 now, when I awake most mornings I feel more like 35, half my real age.
I felt the same at a nearby hotel's outdoor swimming pool the other day. Despite 10 fairly swift lengths of that pool, when I exited a harsh reality dawned. I heard a chap in his 40s or younger remark to the only woman swimming (also 'youngish') that – and I quote, “I didn't know it was pension day!”
The only two other swimmers remaining were also fit-looking pensioners, so he clearly included me in that light-hearted put-down.
Such comments used to rankle, even if meant in good humour, like being greeted by cheery shopkeepers with the words, “Yes, young sir, and what can we do for you today?”
('First, drop the sarcasm,' I was tempted to say.)
But nowadays I rise above such insensitive though harmless remarks, even if they are nudging reminders that I am older then I may feel.
At the time – beside that pool, I turned the other cheek, so to speak, just as I do now with aggressive or offensive idiots, drunks and boorish drivers.
At my age, you realise you're more fragile than you think – while being overtaken by other pedestrians on the pavement, struggling to do up your own shoe laces before going out, or needing support from nearby furniture when getting down low to plug points.
In what is rather grandly known as my 'study' (just as much our overflow and laundry room), are more than 20 books published under my name. Most are regarded as thrillers and romances; some are even classified by Waterstones as 'erotica'!
However, just to the side of those upon my desk are also personal medical papers which tell a different story. There are diet directives to improve my cholesterol levels, then another instruction leaflet, this time about 'ear irrigation'. Finally, there are X-ray results showing arthritis in both hip joints (also my knees and wrist but those aren't as bad).
Having said all that, at the time of writing I still only take a dose of cod liver oil every day, play tennis and dance. That's heartening, even if Moses' warning of 'labour and sorrow' yet to come (see Borrowed Quotations at front) ring warning bells in my head.
You see, dear reader, this is the best time yet of my life. I might have had a happy childhood but, then, school got in the way. I was glad to leave it.
Working for a living meant an income and more freedom at last. But I daydreamed in offices, or my other diverse places of work over the years, of 'being my own boss' and truly free.
This, of course, did not entail the realities of being a busy, lowly paid freelance always desperate over the rising domestic bills. The dream was of easy success and no such mundane worries.
I just wanted to spend my days doing pretty much what I felt like turning my attention to – knocking out best-selling books, writing humorous newspaper or magazine articles; being fêted and welcomed by all, whether at the pub or in more salubrious surroundings.
The nearest I've ever come to all of that is now, in 'retirement'. My books (popular locally but a long way from 'best-sellers') are written at my leisure – mostly in the mornings while my good lady (called She Who Knows in my weekly newspaper column and blogs) reads the Daily Mail in bed after a shared breakfast of toast and tea.
Later we do a few things together: tennis, dancing, eating out; but I'm also free to pop into the friendly, old inn on our corner or the nearby new micro pub and meet friends or other neighbourhood regulars.
It's not a bad life, especially when the sun shines on our Irish Sea coast of the Fylde with its rolling countryside set between the Pennines and Lancashire hills close to the Lakes and Snowdonia.
We're not rich but we have what we need and more. Also it's amazingly friendly in this area. Living elsewhere has taught me to deeply appreciate that.
Lancashire and the North-West of England is exceptionally sociable, in my fairly wide experience. But I've never been anywhere other than Blackpool itself where passengers routinely thank the bus driver when alighting at their stop.
In my case, I'd like to thank the Almighty for letting me alight here for so many years. There were other choices: Manchester, London, even Wales, along with Australia or even the Far East.
However, I realised some years ago - and with a considerable sense of shock - that this Victorian and, one might even say, infamous seaside resort area was where I'd had the best fun and most enjoyed living.
Can't say better than that, can you? Also, She Who Knows is here, which does me a power of good. What's more, she loves it too – except when wet and windy in winter. But then we have our cosy cottage!
But, of course, there's a price to pay for happiness along with this freedom which I at last enjoy now in retirement (my writing is so poorly rewarded but enjoyable that it hardly constitutes work.)
This price, naturally, is age. But I still wouldn't change anything.
What age would you choose as ideal, dear reader? Few of you, I suspect, would pick your 70s. More likely would be, say, 35 – avoiding youthful anguish and trials. But with the rider that you would also, as they say, 'know what you know now'.
However, that knowledge which experience brings would do you little good back at 35 again, as it wouldn't apply anymore.
At 35, you see, you would have the strength and vigour to take life full on the chin and inevitably try to change your destiny. While, at 70, you just enjoy what comes naturally, living more day to day.
Let's take a closer look at those ages of man (or woman though, as we must learn and accept, we're thankfully very different in many essential respects).
    • The sweet but frustrating teens, full of discovery but also angst!
    • The testing 20s, when 'thrusting' forward and upward but worried at being left behind.
    • The teetering 30s, at your peak in many ways but perhaps with young family to support and big career choices – driven by fear of 'missing out' on shared goals.
    • 40s, or even 50s, still fit and hopefully 'arrived' in life, but often also feeling trapped and working for younger 'upstarts'!
    • Even the 60s can be a worrying learning curve and time for profound adjustments.
No, take my word for it, three score years and 10 can herald a golden period, if you embrace it.
However, there are some down-to-earth considerations when, as my father phrased it, you're living on borrowed time . . .
* * *
I'm closing each chapter with timely thoughts and feelings recorded in columns, courtesy of our local newspaper, The Gazette, from spring 2018 of my 69th year to the end of 2019, my 70th . Then beyond, into 2020, through the traumatic COVID-19 pandemic which changed life for us all, especially us 'oldies'. The column currently goes under the heading:

A Word In Your Ear . . .
IF you're reading all this, well done! Today not many, I'm told, have the attention span for newspapers. Instead, they get news 'bites' through social media on smart phones and tablets.
Unfortunately, such titbits are often wrong, sometimes deliberately. Fake news is a growing problem and, besides, a short 'bite' can only tell part of the story.
I was also amazed, when working in a newspaper office, how few young people read books.
We're all familiar, too, with the sad spectacle of couples entering restaurants then each talking to someone else on mobile phones. Even babes in high chairs scroll through online pages with electronic games. It keeps them quiet but what about engaging with the real world?
Similarly, families at meals – a precious time to share - are often separately occupied with electronic gadgets while picking absently through food with a fork, American style.
At a recent classical concert I was stunned to see an orchestra percussionist slide a mobile phone from behind her music sheets, then reply to a text. She did it twice, while still drumming, and didn't miss a beat!
Don't get me wrong. I'm writing this at home on a laptop and will email it to the office. How much easier than typewriters and phoning in stories to 'copy-takers'.
Mobile phones are great for personal safety and keeping in touch wherever we may be. The electronic age brings easier lifestyles and better communication. However, as always with progress, it comes at a price.
We shouldn't lose sight of human aspects of everyday life which are essential to our happiness. There may be someone at the end of that phone text, media message or email, but it's that person who matters, not the gadget itself.
Still, I'm told more young people are now reading books - thanks to discovering literature on Kindles. You can even read me online!
* * *
And Another Word . . .

HOW did your Easter go? Well, of course, dreary weather didn't lift our spirits much but, as always, one did try to be good.
This didn't just extend to not wolfing down Easter eggs. From around Lent, I've attempted to lose a few pounds by cutting back on beer, fry-ups and chips etc. She Who Knows has helped me, by her example of moderation, while also washing my favourite trousers which now, as a reminder, feel too tight.
But I confess that, within only a few days, my best intentions rather floundered. So much so that, as we neared the Easter weekend last week, there was more a sense of failure than triumph. Neither could I even sit through the Easter service on telly from Kings College, let alone make it to my local church (as I managed last year).
However, I was struck by a simple wooden cross they had erected in the graveyard of St. Paul's, here in Great Marton. It was a gnarled, crude thing which, with its vivid and rather ragged red cloak attached, seemed to reflect the agony of crucifixion and saintly sacrifice.
It made me feel more guilty at my personal failures and easy indulgence through the holidays. But then, by Monday, that torn red cloak was replaced by a beautiful golden one of splendid material, no longer hanging forlornly but carefully folded about that cross.
This perked me up surprisingly, along with the cheering colours of crocuses, daffodils and other spring flowers outside the church I so often pass by.
Then the words of a sermon, at a rare Sunday attendance, came back to me – about how saints had been sinners, too, and even apostles being only human.
It dawned on me, at last, that it wasn't all about becoming righteous somehow; it was the day-to-day trying which mattered. That's what spurs us onward!

* * *


Caught-Short Talk

EVER hear those guttural grunts of Japanese, or its wails when pitched higher?
What about the frenzied chants and then strangled whoops of those desperate renegades in westerns, whom we used to call Red Indians?
You'll hear it all at Edmonds Towers when I'm 'caught short', most often when She Who Knows has just become engaged in our bathroom and only toilet.
Incidentally, She Who reminds me that I should also mention here a pointer on etiquette from the formidable Barbara Cartland that, if one must talk of such matters, we should say lavatory, or even 'end of the passage', but never toilet. But I'll stick to 'loo'.
Of course, like so much of ageing and 'carrying on manfully', this can be a matter of mind over matter. If you can convince yourself you're not desperate and can wait a few minutes, then it won't matter.
Sadly, however, that only seems to work when it least matters. You can bet that if you're, for example, caught in a public place without a public convenience near, then you won't manage to contain yourself.
Like many of the problems of age, this has become something of a joke; a condition to scorn. But, then, why not? Perhaps it is best to see the funny side, even of such indignities.
I learned in the Urology Department of the Vic, our local general hospital, that 'sprinkling' occurs often enough as men age and their prostrate weakens. You learn to take precautions – never let a loo pass by.
However, it's also learning which are the safest trousers to sport – specially in summer when you might not have the protective cover of a coat, or even a jacket to whip off and hold nonchalantly in front of any sudden embarrassing stain.
Obviously, pale pastel shades of chinos are high risk, as are even dark moleskin trousers – so I've found.
If courting danger by a long walk or bus ride, for example, especially after drinking, then you can't beat dark cotton or, even better, corduroy.
There are even special absorbent underpants, I noticed while collecting She Who Knows' massive monthly package of prescriptions at the chemist. Fortunately, I've not felt the need yet for those.
You have to see the funny side, because others will. Besides, it's just typical that – after dancing round like you're on hot coals and chanting in red-indian speak while awaiting an available loo, invariably the need has passed by the time you get in there!
For any cockier, younger men reading this, they may well snigger – but remember the old churchyard epitaph . . .
'Stranger pause, as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you shall be.
Prepare yourself to follow me!'
What's more, that's only if you manage to live the full, allotted term.
Of course, it doesn't help a man's plight when towns are so security conscious now, with many roadside conveniences closed because of drug abuse there or just the council costs of maintenance. Nor are back alleys still a welcome relief – most are gated.
I've not got to the state of carrying a spare bottle in the car on long journeys, mainly because I don't drive long journeys anymore – hating the traffic and, in any case, they're usually prompted by some promised celebration involving drink. So, let the train take the strain.
However, it seems outrageous that resort towns such as Blackpool should encourage town-centre visitors to eat and drink and then fail to provide any public facilities for them to relieve the effects. As if to further make matters difficult, large stores also tend to hide their conveniences in basements or the top floor.
My usual trick if desperate in the street is to pop in a pub and pretend to know someone in a far room or corner, throwing a cheerful wave at some surprised patron there. The bar staff then lose interest and I pop into the loo then out of another exit if possible. It would hardly do to keep drinking beer just to relieve oneself!
As one gets older you forget those carefree days of youth when, should you find yourself in the country and near one, you could clear a five-bar gate with your urinary power of stream.
It's now a matter of standing quietly in a corner of the gents' urinals and peeing steadily but weakly as younger topers come and go cheerfully (usually without washing their hands afterwards, the louts!).
Still, it gives me more time to think about these weighty matters; prompts some philosophical conversations (although hampered by those noisy, automatic hand-driers) with other users and much discussion, of course, about the weather. Also, let's not forget, as it takes us so long now in the pub lavatory that means we are therefore drinking and spending less to boot, so to speak.
The unfairest blow is if, just as one safely finishes without spillage or 'sprinkling', the urinal suddenly flushes and soaks the front of your trousers.
As for going to the loo at night well, that too gives us more time to ponder on the human condition and strengths and failings of mankind, which is why we older ones are so wise and worthy of more respect!

* * *

A Word In Your Ear . . .

IN a recent episode of BBC's Endeavour, DCI Thursby (a much more interesting character than hero 'young Morse') won a tango contest dancing with his wife.
They maintained dramatic posture and impressive manner but, for me, it didn't ring true. There was gaucho menace, yes, but what about hissed complaints from wife to husband, then his gritted responses?
She Who Knows and I attend afternoon tea dances now that, as with Thursby, retirement time has arrived. But it's rare my performance inspires praise, let alone prizes. Of course, it doesn't help that we've both got arthritis, particularly her, poor love.
“You're gripping me too tight!” she'll complain, shaking our clasped hands, “and please, keep your left arm lower.”
Then she makes her own arm a dead weight during twirls and my hand accidentally brushes her freshly coiffured hair as she swings underneath. This prompts an exasperated sigh and wifely glare.
“You're making my shoulder ache!” I protest in a spirited effort at self-defence, which nonetheless sounds weedy and ungracious when spoken out loud.
However, none of these setbacks occur with her other male 'leads' – especially tutors, whom she occasionally partners. “Oh, he supported me so firmly,” she'll enthuse afterwards, adding, “You should feel the muscles on his arms!”
She Who's a natural, also, at that unflinching eye-contact in steamy Latin numbers. But this is not necessarily inspired by passion.
“You've got two hairs sticking out of your left nostril,” she complained recently, adding with dismay, “What's more, they're grey!”
This all helps build an atmosphere of drama and emotion as we join other couples manoeuvring each other around the ballroom to quicksteps and foxtrots.
Perhaps Thursby keeps his lips buttoned until next day, when sharing a pint at the local with young Morse and eating his sandwiches. However, that scene doesn't ring true either.
Try munching on your home-made butties in a pub at lunchtime, you'll soon get your collar felt!

* * *

And Another Word . . .

AH, the darling buds of – well - April, but soon May. Spring sunshine is finally smiling upon the Fylde. I've got out my shorts, gardening hat and sun-tan lotion. The birds are singing by Edmonds Towers and I've been struggling from the shed with our garden furniture.
What a difference good weather brings to our holiday coast! She Who Knows and myself have cheerfully survived our winter hibernation at Great Marton. We're now treading the tennis courts of leafy Lytham, then lounging over drinks and snacks outside cafés, people-watching. We've a favourite place on the high street there, where quality is good and prices right, but I only mention it to you in 'Whispers'.
Meanwhile, at Blackpool, we're making the most of magnificent Stanley Park and its excellent art-deco café, Park's. Instead of wind-muffled, dog-walking figures, we're now surrounded there by strolling couples and playful children. Even the ducks seem happier, despite the end of those April showers.
Should the rain re-appear we'll head as usual up the other end of the coast, to friendly Fleetwood's historic North Euston Hotel and its elegant ballroom tea dances. What a host of facilities we have to enjoy on our diverse coast! Soon we'll even be running trains again – and trams – from Blackpool North.
Come this Saturday I'll hopefully be languishing back in the sunshine, sinking a cold one or two at our resort's nearby cricket club, as this season's sporting fixtures get under way. The facilities there are top notch and, like Lytham, St Annes or our other summer sports clubs, a great place for all the family to relax in safe but uplifting surroundings.
Yes, the tourists have much to enjoy along our Promenades and busy side-streets but, inland, there is even more for us fortunate locals. What's not to enjoy?
I'll see you there!
* * *

Here are the first few chapters of The Lost Hero, now available on Kindle and in paperback. Front and back cover designs are also included. Go to our Books page to obtain a copy.


RAIN swept over the misted windows of Patrick's crowded store, smearing shadowy images of early-evening traffic and the occasional cowering passer-by.
Inside, despite the huddle of people closely seated in short, neat lines, it was eerily silent. Everyone was waiting for Dan Frost's next words, even Patrick who'd already read the author's latest best-selling novel.
“As that weary tenant reached the bottom of the stairs, uncertain of his footing in the dark, he paused at a sound from further down the hallway.”
Here Frost paused too, eyeing his captivated audience of respectful fans with calculating, cool-blue eyes; his carefully cultured voice falling to a soft, velvet pitch; his tanned features freezing theatrically.
“It was the last noise he was to hear – the creak of a slowly moving wheelchair . . .”
At that very moment, the silence was shattered by a clattering at the bookshop's door.
All heads turned and what they saw, now half inside the doorway, made many more gasp with exclamations of alarm or surprise; some others smiled, believing the caped figure in a wheelchair to be part of their book-signing evening's entertainment.
Only proprietor Patrick Fermour sighed with dismay, but then forced a forgiving smile for the latecomer to his store on such a wild, autumn night.
“Good evening, Ollie,” Patrick said, now rather delighted at this timely interruption and its impact upon his famous guest writer.
“Bloody weather!” complained the large, shrouded man as he muscled his wheelchair past the half-opened door, bringing with him a briny blast of sea-blown wet air.
The door's bell rang merrily as it now automatically shut behind him. Meanwhile, the full grizzled face of Oliver Standish was revealed as he pushed back his sou’wester and raised his bearded chin from the folds of the sodden cape.
Standish's cantankerous glare made all but the most stubborn onlookers quickly turn back to the waiting author, still patiently seated behind a desk laden with his books at the foot of the long, narrow room.
Just as Frost frowned then licked his thin lips ready to continue, Standish demanded loudly from Patrick, “Who is it tonight, then?”
“It's Daniel Frost, Ollie, he's just started his reading,” said Patrick from behind his counter, tonight also serving as a wine and 'nibbles' bar, but he couldn't resist adding mildly, “You haven't missed much.”
“Any good?” asked Standish in his blunt, stentorian manner, completely indifferent to the resumed reading but curiously examining the nearby wine selection.
“Very mellow, this Merlot,” said Patrick more quietly, diplomatically side-stepping the question. He passed a medium-filled glass to the disabled former tramp. Standish grabbed it with a large, gnarled fist. This emerged from his cape as quick as Frost's murdering fictional landlady, who had just despatched another of her hapless tenants with a carving knife.
“Prefer something with more bite,” grumbled Standish, as he drained half the contents of his glass. “A Pinotage or Barolo, even Malbec would do.”
“I'll make a note for the future,” promised Patrick politely and again in muted tones, seeing Frost's anger down the room as the author raised his own voice and ploughed gamely onward with his reading.
Standish grunted, seemingly uncertain whether Patrick was being sarcastic, but then nodded, accepting his host's usual impeccable behaviour and good nature. He manoeuvred his wheelchair into line with but still well at the back of the seated rows, neatly bringing it alongside Patrick and his makeshift bar.
There was applause as Frost finished reading the first chapter with its usual reader-hook ending promising more sadistic killings or prurient sex. The author smoothed back his dark hair and smiled, eyes gleaming as he surveyed the audience and now totally ignoring Patrick Fermour and the rude man in the wheelchair at the rear of the cosy, well-lit store.
“Are there any questions?” Frost asked pleasantly.

If these tended to be hesitant or too few on such occasions, Patrick usually had a couple in mind from his scanning of the latest book and snapshot knowledge of the visiting writer's idiosyncratic methods or favourite themes. However, the ladies present were raising hands as eagerly as a class of primary children.
That thought struck an increasingly painful personal chord with Patrick. All too soon his daughter Amy would start proper schooling, earlier than he'd expected. She was just four, but always a daddy's girl.
Across from him, Patrick could see his reflected image in a glass display case, beside the gross, slumped figure of Standish. His features were caught in a moment of mourning for the coming loss of his little girl's innocence. His rather long, now brooding face look strained beneath his steadily greying, brown hair.
He looked old or, at least, worn – certainly compared to the immaculately dressed author, now enjoying talking about himself in a booming voice. Was that tan false, like the dyed implanted hair? Patrick knew Frost to be at least five years his senior.
Young, unspoiled Amy came back to mind. Soon, Patrick realised, her hero worship and unquestioning love would begin to fade; then there was the other, deeper fear. Just the thought of Amy's pain if he and Becky should ever separate speared his very soul. How had life and their future become so clouded?
“Got a Shiraz, or anything close?”
Standish was staring at Patrick, who'd failed to hear at first, or to react as generously as usual.
“Sorry, Ollie,” said Patrick, shaking off his painful thoughts. He fumbled among the now mainly empty bottles. “Yes, here's one,” he said, about to give the older man a fresh glass but then stopping, as Standish thrust out and impatiently shook his empty one for him to fill. Patrick did so, liberally.
The remains of the wine evening would only be poured away. Personally, he already had a headache from a long, frustrating day and would have liked to be upstairs, reading Amy to sleep, rather than listening to Frost talking about himself to his doting readers.
Still, Patrick reminded himself, as Dan Frost himself was profoundly aware, 80 per cent of fiction was bought by such women. They were both a labour and a delight in Patrick's working life. Male readers perusing the hardback shelves of the store seemed more interested in biography.
Standish grunted his thanks but frowned at the label. “Ah, an Aussie,” he muttered and Patrick was left unsure what the once well-to-do imbiber thought of his free wine.
But, then, there were all the books to be handed out, with payments gratefully taken.
“Who was that old bugger?” demanded Frost after the customers had all gone. Patrick was putting back the chairs, while being otherwise ignored by the relaxing author now looking through empty bottles for a another drink.
“Our famous tramp,” Patrick told him, pausing to get his breath and straighten his back. Like most tall men it often pained him now, as he approached 40.
“Looked well enough turned out, for the weather,” muttered Frost, pouring out a finger or so of white only to abandon it for a little more remaining of a red wine.
“Usually is now,” conceded Patrick. “Lost the use of his legs a short while ago and now stays mostly in sheltered accommodation – 'til summer at least. Came from a good family.” He eyed the author, now tipping back his glass, then added, “but fell by the wayside with the drink, I'm afraid.”
“So, is that why he's famous?” Frost had now turned, a little more interested, and was straddling one of the remaining chairs near Patrick's counter.
“No, well, perhaps partly.” Patrick grinned, his clean-cut face freshening in an instant as his full smile and usual good humour returned. “But he famously had more ASBOs than anyone else in the country.”
“Really,” Frost said, impressed, “what for?”
“Well,” Patrick's grin faded, “drunkenness mostly, either incapable or disorderly; specially round churches, Ollie always seemed to favour them.”
“Like you,” observed Frost, “I hear you're off to one tomorrow – and dragging the poor girl along too.”
Patrick frowned, then went back to the chairs.
Clearly, he realised unhappily, Becky must have told their illustrious guest of his plans on Sunday for himself and Amy. Becky herself always liked a lie-in, her one chance in the week.
“Why do you bother with all that?” demanded the annoying author smugly. “Don't believe it, surely?”
Patrick gave him a fading smile and grunted, “Ah, you know,” as he completed the tidying up but not his rather weak religious response. He was in no mood for a philosophical debate, specially with Frost whose own view of any after-life stopped short - with the heartless but lucrative regaling of violent, and usually unnecessarily cruel, deaths.
As he took the last of the heavy wooden chairs into the back stock room, Patrick wondered unhappily if the two of them had anything planned while he was out with Amy tomorrow. The 'two of them' he thought, silently repeating his unspoken association in some dismay. He did not like to think of his beloved wife and Frost as a pair.
Then he considered poor Oliver Standish, back out there battling the elements and his wheelchair to some small bedsit in a council sheltered housing unit.
Upstairs, when he'd finally got rid of Frost to his nearby hotel, it would be cosy from the living-flame gas fire; Becky would probably be reading and also listening to some classics, while their darling daughter dreamed of castles and chivalrous heroes, or whatever little girls dreamed about.
He was a lucky man, Patrick realised – ashamed of his earlier suspicions and selfishness; after all, there but for the grace of God . . .


THE stairs to their flat above the shop were accessed by a side-door off the stock room, as well as by a back door from the small yard where they parked the car. The stock room was in fact an extension, whose roof also served in the summer as a balcony area off the upstairs sitting and through dining rooms, both separated by a rather grandly plastered, period arch.
Their short avenue of old shops was just off The Crescent, a once elegant line of stores with residences above that ran over one side of the railway bridge that dropped down into the main St Annes Square.
A purpose-built resort town, St Annes On Sea barely existed before the 1870s when the new fashion of sea bathing brought first the railway then crowds of summer visitors. Its pioneer investors set it out in grand style with Victorian pomp and propriety. Parks and gardens abounded and, though there were the hotels and theatres too, there were also as many churches.
Some council housing and modern-style commercial properties appeared in the 1950s to 80s but, generally, the style of the rather sedate town was kept to Victorian gothic, elegant Edwardian or even earlier mock-Georgian grace.
The once equally grand suburban hinterland had been taken over by rows of bungalows, their front gardens concreted for the elderly who moved there in their last years. Only the increasingly busy Promenade had kept apace with modern styles, in new hotels and, more lately, blocks of luxury apartments for the retired.
Crescent Books had an almost Dickensian wood and glass exterior but its upper half boasted a rather gracious parade with its terrace neighbours, above their huddle of higgledy-piggledy store entrances at ground level. The shops were on a steep gradient down from the main Crescent highway over the bridge.
Patrick wearily mounted the narrow stairway, where Amy's colourful splashes of artwork adorned the rough-plastered walls. Frost had hung about until quite late, unhappy at the steady downfall outside, then even hinted he might join them upstairs for a 'nightcap'.
He'd been dismissed with the explanation that Becky would still be bathing Amy and then the arrival at last of his taxi. These were always notoriously scarce in bad weather.
The stairs opened immediately into the Fermours' home or living quarters, made rather grander than downstairs by that elaborate plasterwork and high ceilings. Becky had also decorated and furnished with immaculate taste – considering she was American.
Patrick always felt himself relaxing and his heart became uplifted upon turning in at that landing doorway, with the fairly spacious kitchen to his left, now dark and deserted, and the glowing lamp-lights of their sitting room, where the fire also glimmered.
It was cosy but also had such period style. When a bachelor living there it had been far more sparse in furnishing and comfort but now it truly felt like a home. Sadly, though, Becky was right of course. They would have to find a bigger house, with a garden, as Amy grew older. Perhaps get a puppy, too, as promised.
Patrick stopped in the entrance to the living room, just before a shallow step-up from the kitchen under that graceful archway leading into their now also dark dining area with balcony beyond.
Becky was sitting, legs curled up under her reclining figure, at her fireside end of the small, two-seater sofa; reading as he'd anticipated. The flames from their fire also reflected across her rapt, beautiful features, beneath that thick, tumbling, auburn hair. She looked so, well, bonny – he knew she wouldn't like the term – and, yes, so radiantly healthy. Why was she now always complaining of feeling tired?
Some Beethoven sonata, the Pathetique he thought, had masked his approach, though it was kept low so as not to wake Amy whose partly opened bedroom door was so close by.
“Oh,” she said, looking up on hearing his gentle cough – he'd been requested not to 'sneak up on her' - “all finished at last?” Becky glanced at the Victorian carriage clock on the mantelpiece. “It's late!” Her eyebrows shot up as she closed her book, “A success?”
“Well, yes, considering this weather,” Patrick reported. He'd been about to squeeze in beside her on the sofa but she had now straightened out her legs on to the neighbouring cushions. Instead he sat down in the closest of two armchairs facing the fire.
“Many there?” she asked, gathering up her things now.
“About 40-odd, the stalwarts.” Patrick smiled to himself, staring into the living-flame fire's glow. “Ollie Standish arrived late, soaked through poor man.”
Becky tutted then shook her head. “You shouldn't indulge him – he never buys anything!”
“Hmm,” Patrick mused, “you know, apparently ASBOs have been replaced by something called a Criminal Behaviour Order – so Daniel told me. At least Ollie knew Frost's research was dodgy. That woman, the serial killer he based his book upon, wasn't disabled at all. All her tenants were though – in real life.”
“Is that why you're so late – letting Standish finish off all our wine?”
“No, Daniel did that. His taxi was a long time coming – with the rain. Still,” Patrick smiled as Becky got up on to her feet, “took well over £250!”
“You've put it away?” she asked, concerned.
“Yes,” he reassured her, “it's in the store-room safe.” He looked at a pot of coffee and small jug of milk on a tray on top of the small table, but there was only one used cup and saucer. Besides, the headache was still there. Perhaps, at this time, water and an aspirin would be his best course.
To his surprise, Becky sighed heavily, but then explained, “You still insist on calling Dan Daniel, don't you? You know how he hates that.” She smiled ruefully but then shook her head in a rebuke. “You don't like him, do you?”
“Well, that is his name, or at least half of his real name – Daniel Snow.”
“Not to his readers it's not.”
Patrick had to smile, accepting his rather childish guilt. “And, of course, 'Snow' would have sounded too soft, I suppose.”
“Not his image at all,” agreed Becky with a conspiratorial smile. “You're just jealous.”
There was a telling silence, as she prepared to move, probably for their bedroom after checking upon Amy, then the bathroom.
“Should I be?” asked Patrick, then regretted his words, along with the sly sentiment it betrayed, as she met his concerned stare.
However, Becky just frowned then said easily, “No, of course not.”
As his wife went to Amy's room then to the bathroom, Patrick set about his nightly routine of switching off lighting and heating then clearing away any leftovers in the sitting or dining rooms. There was damp coming through the outer walls again, which was worrying. Even so, he tried to brighten his mood.
When he could hear Becky coming out of the bathroom, where a cistern was still flushing, Patrick couldn't resist calling out an invitation.
“You know I'm with Amy earlier – at her favourite, the United Reformed?” When his wife didn't bother commenting, Patrick went on, “Well, we could meet up in the square if you like - after, for lunch.”
There was still no reply, so Patrick reappeared on the landing and watched Becky slowly brushing her long tresses of hair in the bedroom's full-length mirror.
She turned her head, giving him a thoughtful gaze, then shrugged – going back to her hair – and speaking distractedly into the mirror.
“Can't, I'm sorry – meeting some friends for lunch already. You take her, though.” Becky turned back with a brief smile then went deeper into the room, out of his view.
He felt dismay at his interest and offers being dismissed again; just as she had refused to be drawn about a possible American trip to her father, or mother, for Thanksgiving – or even a birthday break in the nearby Lakes; all intended for her, to lift her recent weary moodiness; as well, of late, her aversion to sex. Did she sense his unspoken suspicion, his fears?
Patrick stared at their partly closed bedroom door, inviting with its suffused lighting within. But, instead of passion or comfort, he felt that clutching cold night air which reached up to him from the dark stairs.
It was almost like Frost's murderous scenario from earlier; but now real and here. Was their love and marriage, their joy, to suffer a series of deaths too?


YOU go with the other children,” Patrick encouraged, with a guiding hand on Amy's shoulder. But she looked uncertain, examining the faces of those little ones who'd been nearest to them and not finding any of the few friends she'd already made here on past visits.
Amy then looked up at her father with a rather desperate expression and shook her head, reaching out as she did so to hold on to the trousers of his long legs, still standing beside him in the church aisle.
Just a year or two before, Patrick knew, she would have also buried her face into his clothes to avoid any challenge or embarrassment. Now she was trying to be braver.
Then a pretty, pig-tailed girl, perhaps two or three years older, at the end of the line of youngsters now making their way forward, as invited by the minister, turned and smiled encouragingly. She even waved her hand and waited for Amy to join her.
With a gentle push, Patrick added to the inducement for Amy to join the group, who'd be taken to one side of the altar to join in an activity, while the adults listened to a sermon.
Amy only paused once, to look back at him, and Patrick gave her a smile and nod of approval before seeing her run to catch up with the others. He smiled, too, at some of the watching adults around him, but felt a little tug at his heart as Amy disappeared from sight. It was the Sermon on the Mount and, for once, the visiting minister's voice carried well with the microphone, instead of standing too close and inviting electronic interference, or mumbling, as many did.
At the nearby Roman Catholic church there had also been a good deal of Latin and creed with which Patrick hadn't been familiar. The Anglican service they'd tried a couple of times was also fairly 'high church' although, like everywhere else where he had taken Amy, people were friendly and welcoming. However, the way they held hands together to pray, to wish each other peace and the taking of communion had all made Amy rather self-conscious and shy.
To Patrick, it was an interesting variety of churches to visit and people to meet; many even turned out to be customers and they would stay to chat afterwards over coffee, while the children made new friends and played.
He still hadn't decided on a faith; his own having been a small Baptist chapel back in his native Cornwall. His parents, though, had only sent him to Sunday School there because it was the closest to their remote home. They themselves were rather easy going agnostics who leaned towards the Church of England.
Becky's parents were different. Her father, Wilbur C. Hayes, was proud of his pilgrim roots which he'd traced back to northern Quakers. In fact, his middle name was Chester, after the Cheshire town they came from originally. Her mother, Nancy, had been Catholic but more concerned with the local clerical and social hierarchy in Boston than the faith itself.
Patrick stared up at the intricately carved, Gothic rafters and ceiling of this surprisingly grand United Reformed Church; he also studied the hallowed Saints in their oval, stained-glass windows as he listened to the sermon's text. He was familiar already with Jesus's advice to 'Think not of tomorrow', but that didn't always pay when running a small business; similarly, the censure against 'building up treasures upon earth' - instead of in Heaven - seemed irrelevant, the way his and Becky's enterprise was slipping steadily into the red.
Certainly, neither of Becky's parents would have concurred with either sentiment – nor, probably, had much sympathy for that tortured, near-naked figure hanging in agony at his crucifixion, the centre of worship at Catholic and Anglican altars. Here there was just a simple cross, with its silent message of hope.
Today, though, the minister's stress was more upon 'turning the other cheek' and loving your enemy. Patrick marvelled at its radicalism, even now, and preferred that to 'an eye for an eye'. However, on the other hand, he was not sure it would help in reality to invite further beating or robbery from a drug-crazed modern-day assailant. Certainly, pacifism didn't fit with his own family's famous history of daring-do.
When Patrick did silently pray, before the Lord's Prayer was chanted, it was for his own family of three; their love and happiness, peace in their home.
Amy had joined him again, bearing some paperwork she'd cut out and painted, before loudly joining in the final prayer. As ever, she politely added, 'Please!' before 'Give us today our daily bread' – making a few heads turn to meet Patrick's tolerant smile.
They let the church begin to empty afterwards, as Amy fiddled again with her artwork. The brightly coloured shapes she'd cut out, then glued upon what looked like a bursting cage in a sea of blue, were also surrounded by strange, brown, log-like lumps.
“That's nice,” he told her, watching her lowered head full of auburn curls, as Becky's must once have been, bowed over her paper and crayons. “What is it?”
Amy looked up at him with what, from an adult, would have been a frown of disbelief at his slowness in understanding. Then she sighed and told him brightly, “These are the fishes and those,” here she prodded the brown logs, “are the bread.”
“Ah!” Patrick said, now pointing to the grey, cage-like mass, “And that's the basket I suppose.”
Amy nodded, as though to a younger child. “But I don't see how – they fed the,” here she paused and frowned again, muttering, “multi . . .”
“Multitude – it means lots of people.” Patrick looked around. There were now only a few worshippers left in the aisles, most of those being helpers tidying up hymn books and sermon programmes.
On the whole he'd enjoyed the service, which had been straightforward and not too 'touchy-feely'; that increasing trend always rather embarrassed him. It was also comfortable in this church, with modern carpeting and heating as well as good refreshments. There was no need to rush either. He still wasn't sure about lunch.
“Well it was a miracle,” he explained to Amy, easily, then – seeing that hadn't satisfied her curiosity and reasoning – realised he'd have to come up with some better answer. He wanted to keep her interested in such questions; to develop faith in the power of good, in human kindness and helping others; or, perhaps simply, to believe and enjoy 'all things bright and beautiful'. Glory was something else, more adult.
It didn't have to come from one faith in particular. If they were available, he'd even take her to some more exotic places of worship, perhaps Buddhist or Hindu, as he'd visited on holidays in the past; even mosques, depending on their rules over children entering. Later on, Amy could make up her own mind.
“Sometimes,” Patrick began, lowering his voice partly out of discretion but also to inspire her closer attention, “when things seem impossible, just one person starting to try can make a difference – encourage others; change minds and hearts.”
He looked about the now empty aisles for ideas and saw her own efforts. “Like the fishes and loaves,” he explained, “perhaps there were others there who might have food to sell, or had it close by at their homes. With the disciples doing as Jesus asked and kindly sharing their supper, perhaps others felt inspired to do similar and give out meals to help the crowds getting hungry.”
Patrick was not at all sure of his thesis and realised it would probably once have been considered heresy or, at least, blasphemous to so rewrite or undermine the miracle. However, he didn't take even the apostles' testaments at face value; nor approve of condemnation of non-believers, any more than he did in a 'tooth for a tooth', or all the hell and damnation of the blood-soaked Old Testament.
It was Christ, after all, who'd changed the beliefs of the church - with his teaching of love and forgiveness, of worshipping the joy of goodness, rather than bowing to authority or convention.
To his relief, Amy nodded her head and smiled, satisfied – for now. There would be many more questions to come, until he struggled to answer and, no doubt in the end, she stopped bothering to ask him.
They at last edged out of the church and, though Amy hesitated in the social gathering near the tea, coffee and cakes, Patrick kept moving – nodding to one or two faces which seemed familiar or who, possibly, had simply noticed the beautiful, small girl with her tall father who'd visited only once or twice before.
“Thought we'd go in the square, fancy a pizza?” he asked and saw Amy's face light up. She smiled again, checked her artwork was safe under her arm, then reached up and took his hand.
“Will Mummy be there?” she asked as they came out of the church. “Is that where she was going?”
Patrick smiled too, but with his heart sinking a little, and turned up their collars against the cold air. A mist was descending over the quiet town centre from the seemingly endless nearby beach and distant Irish Sea. He could never get over the sudden chill such a sea fret brought here, compared with invigorating mists in the craggier inlets and rugged hills of Cornwall.
It was the downside to Lancashire's otherwise lively and diverse holiday coast. However, back home there would have been far fewer restaurants and activities to choose from, or such a mix of local people.
“Not sure,” he told Amy, adding, “see if you can spot her – with her friends.”
However, the only familiar faces in the biggest, family-priced pizza parlour were again his customers, many with children of Amy's age or slightly older. Becky, he assumed, would be somewhere quieter and more expensive – with those lady friends who 'liked to lunch', or whoever else she might be meeting . . .
He shook away the thought and deceitful doubts, enjoying Amy's pleasure instead. Despite the cold outside, she followed their shared cheese, ham and tomato pizza with a large strawberry ice-cream covered in chocolate sauce, while Patrick drank a cappuccino and again agreed to study her colourful crayon work.
When they returned home Becky was still out. Patrick busied himself turning up the heating and making another hot drink, this time cocoa for himself and chocolate for Amy.
When the phone rang he half expected it to be her, but it was a man's voice – not Frost's either – but more hesitant and warmer, genuine.
“It's Jim,” said the caller, adding, “Jim Fairburn,” when Patrick didn't respond. “Look, I'm sorry to ring you on Sunday but it's something which couldn't wait – perhaps the answer to a prayer.”
Patrick had to smile, thinking how very good and welcome such an answer would be. Besides, he had always liked and been grateful to the book dealer for his experienced help and good advice.
“I'm listening,” Patrick told him, his voice lifting again with humour and goodwill.
“Good,” said Fairburn, “because it's something which could change your lives.”


OH, you've started cooking,” said Becky as she appeared upstairs.
“Thought I better had,” Patrick called back from the kitchen, where he'd put in the roast joint half an hour before and was now chopping up vegetables. “Good lunch, I take it,” he added, keeping his earlier irritation at her long absence out of his voice.
“Yes,” she answered finally, now coming into the kitchen doorway after divesting herself of overcoat, scarves and boots. She sighed. “'Fraid I'm not very hungry.”
Patrick felt a stab of disappointment and annoyance over his hopeful anticipation of a cosy family meal, especially after the big news and his likely departure in days. But, then, he was also relieved she was back, safe and sound, with them at home.
“Well, there will be plenty for you to eat later in the week then,” he reasoned, turning and smiling at her intrigued expression.
Her face was slightly flushed, too, from the kitchen's heat after the cold outside. He liked that. She still wore a rather heavy, rust-coloured jumper that matched her hair. The flush made her even more feminine, vulnerable and approachable; sexy somehow.
“What do you mean?” she asked, concern now shadowing her earlier bright manner. “Won't you be here too?”
Was that worry he read in her eyes also a reflection of guilt? But Patrick wondered only for a moment, with his eagerness to share the news.
“Jim Fairburn rang,” he told her, adding, “you know – he deals with the wholesalers Bertram and Gardners for us, always very helpful.”
Becky's worried look was replaced with what, relief or just mild interest. “Yes, James, the agent.”
Patrick took a deep breath and turned his back on the now bubbling saucepan of mixed veg, to face her and paraphrase the long, amazing call he'd received. He could hardly believe its message, or impact, even now.
“There's a large consignment of books – mostly new and many hardbacks – sitting in a container dock on the other side of the world. They've been condemned, for political reasons, and will be dumped – out at sea I think, since public burning would be bad PR to the rest of the world.”
Patrick took another breath. Becky waited for more information, frowning with renewed concern.
“But there's been some indecision about their disposal and something called an SOS-O, a Stay Of Sailing Order, issued – for 24 hours.”
Patrick eased the boiling pot down to a simmer and came over to where Becky was standing. He sat down at the table there, rather than standing over her.
“Jim was approached, apparently, by local authorities who wanted to sell the books to an outside dealer – mainly to get the controversy off their hands. They're all published in English and quite legal over here – they include Jeffrey Archer's for heaven's sake – plus many fresh editions of classics, as well as first editions, he said. There's several thousand of them.”
“We can't afford them!” said Becky.
“We can at one dollar,” Patrick said, smiling.
“Each?” Becky still frowned.
“No,” Patrick laughed, “for the lot!”
Becky didn't share his joy but now came over and sat down beside him. “But why so cheap? What's wrong with them?”
Patrick shrugged. “Nothing, Jim says. He's examined the container, making sure there are no drugs hidden, or illegal immigrants, anything like that. It's just the minimum to make a sale legal.” He laughed again at her doubting features.
“Why didn't he snap them up himself, if it's such a great deal?” Becky asked.
Patrick smiled. “Well, he's a middle-man, an agent, isn't he, not a bookseller? It was also just before his departure, I think, and he wanted to check it all out more fully. Besides, he sounded absolutely genuine in thinking of us and our problems here.”
Becky looked doubtful.
Patrick shrugged, Fairburn after all was just sticking to what his business role was as a thorough professional, time tested and already very successful.
“Apparently,” he told Becky, “the international dealers – along with more local ones there – don't want to fall out with the mainland powers-that-be who condemned them. They will make far more profit from future business with government contracts and approval, so Jim says. He's only just back from business out there.”
Becky swallowed. “Don't tell me we're buying them – and you're going half way across the world for the privilege – please Pat!”
Patrick tried to look reassuring and gently took her nearby hand in his. It was frozen, so he held it in between both his palms.
“It's a great opportunity, love, but we'd have to move on it straight away, there's a deadline. Jim called us because we would be at home – above the shop. He also knows we've been struggling badly since summer – it'll be do-or-die this Christmas.”
“I've told you already, I can help, I've the money.” Becky looked annoyed, her eyes imploring.
“Yes, I know – but for how long? The business has to support itself to survive.” He paused, leaving the old argument over her Trust money from her parents. “Jim's not seen all the books, obviously, but there are new ones from some of the world's leading authors, as well as, he believes, some valuable first-editions.
“It's not even sex scenes that got them banned, particularly, but also so-called glorification of capitalism and other 'anti-social propaganda' – like freedom of speech, probably,” he told her.
Patrick licked his lips, surprised by her lack of excitement over the opportunity. He had now had plenty of time to think it all over and warm to the once-in-a-lifetime offer and challenge.
“We're talking, he believes, about a retail value of around a quarter of a million pounds – at least.”
Patrick let the enormous figure hang in the air. Then Amy entered the kitchen and immediately joined them at the table, laying out again the church artwork from earlier. Becky frowned once more, studying the bright clash of shapes and colours.
“She learned about the miracle of the fishes and loaves, the feeding of the multitudes,” Patrick told her.
Becky nodded her head and made murmurs of support and delight as Amy pointed out the components of her work before announcing, “My computer stuck.”
It was a rather outdated, cheap tablet player that Amy had already outgrown and which would need replacing this year.
Becky stood up, ready to go with her to their daughter's room. “Sounds like another miracle,” she commented to Patrick. “You know what my father would have to say?”
Patrick nodded. “WC?” He asked and saw her flicker of annoyance over his playful abuse once again of her distinguished parent's first initials. “Yes, he wouldn't expect anything for nothing – and certainly wouldn't hand it out either.”
“Exactly,” said Becky and began to leave the room with Amy, then paused again in the doorway, “and where is this miracle of yours happening?”
“Hong Kong,” said Patrick. “Also, it has to be a company director, apparently, hence me – or you.”
“My God,” muttered Becky, shaking her head, then led their daughter away.
The thought of their conversation came back to Patrick just two days later, as he took the train to Manchester Airport and his afternoon flight across the world – to buy £250,000 worth of new books for $1.
He had called Jim Fairburn that Sunday night after dinner, determined not to let the opportunity just slip away. The agent already had a tentative booking ready for him to print out, on a remarkably cheap flight out of Manchester Airport, from where Fairburn was a regular business traveller.
It had been encouraging, too, that Fairburn was a veteran in wholesale dealing, around the UK and overseas, and highly thought of throughout the industry.
Jim was also, and unusually for the trade, based in the North-West, at Manchester. He had always proved glad to help Patrick in the early days and remained full of enthusiasm and support now - in return, naturally, for his customary five per cent of profits. It was Fairburn's own considered confidence which had finally persuaded Patrick to accept.
But Becky had failed to share his optimism. Now he was actually embarking on his determined journey, it did fill him with the foreboding felt by Becky. Yet, she had given no real argument against it – only checking over and over what their helpful book distribution expert had told them.
The authorities wanted rid of the controversially banned and potentially politically embarrassing shipload – even at such a ludicrous nominal price.
Patrick also realised he was relying heavily on a man he only knew through business over the years, mainly by phone or email and a few brief meetings at trade fairs in London and Manchester. Still, the genial Jim had never disappointed or failed him.
To give Patrick a little more leeway, Fairburn – freshly back in the country after his Far East business trip – had also agreed to contact the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities involved to get an extension of the shipping order, for at least a further 48 hours, as well as informing them of Patrick's imminent arrival there and the firm interest of his company, Crescent Books.
Still, the spectre of father-in-law Wilbur C. Hayes frowned down at the now nervous Patrick, seated alone in an otherwise cheerfully crowded airport train. His overnight bag was small, acceptable as in-flight luggage, and he carried as much cash as he'd felt safe to withdraw from their account – about £300.
Some of the cash, his passport, tickets, credit card and smart phone were all in the inside jacket pockets of the lightest suit Patrick had found – after checking temperatures across the world.
But now, just having passed through Preston rail station, he was freezing. Still, with luck – and God's will, he dearly hoped – he'd be able to return in a few days with their business saved and a plentiful Christmas and New Year in prospect, whether spent on holiday in New England as he had thought Becky wanted, or simply at home – as Patrick would have preferred.
After all, although not religious in the traditional church sense, he had prayed for as much recently – some outside help or blessing to lift them from small but inhibiting debts, giving them chance to expand, try out new ideas and take more business risks.
Now there was some tangible hope. As Jim had said, it could change their lives – his, Becky's and little Amy's, bless her. They'd be safe again.
That thought, at least, made Patrick smile, as he huddled again in the corner of his double seat and stared out at the bleak, late-autumn landscape of chilly North-West England.


TO his surprise and now delight, Patrick had been bumped up from economy to business class.
It had been on condition that he took a flight leaving Manchester half an hour later than scheduled but, he was reassured by the check-in staff, eventually landing in Hong Kong only 10 minutes later than his earlier, now over-booked flight.
He hadn't flown with the Middle-Eastern airline before but, as Fairburn had said, they had a growing reputation and the price was highly competitive.
Now, as he settled into more spacious seating in a smaller, clearly more exclusive cabin section than he had previously been used to, Patrick let his misgivings go, too, and, returning the welcoming smile of the sultry but attentive stewardess, gave way instead to relief and elation.
His bag was safely stowed above his head by the time the window seat beside him was finally claimed by another late arrival and lone traveller.
She was an attractive, tanned woman of about, he guessed, his own age or, perhaps, a few years earlier in her 30s; well-dressed, with a shiny, expensive looking handbag of some unusual leather and a matching holdall which Patrick helped her lift up into the spacious overhead cabins.
The lady was slim but ample enough in the right places to brush against him as she took her seat. She looked slightly flushed, perhaps from rushing, but revealed a striking smile of gleaming, well-kept teeth before sitting and carefully inching down the fairly short skirt of her travel suit.
Her hair was her most remarkable feature, black on top but slightly blonded at the sides, which then became shaved rather severely. It had a designer look, rather like that smile, her clothes and baggage.
Patrick felt impressed but pleased he'd dressed carefully for the trip which, he suspected, was why he'd been bumped up a class in the first place, as well as being, like her, alone.
Within minutes they were taxiing towards take-off, as two stewards demonstrated safety procedures before also taking their seats.
Patrick stared ahead, working out again the times of arrival; his first contact numbers for business then, of course, the call he should make home – considering the time differences. There was also to be a re-fuelling stop, in Qatar, but no change of plane for the onward flight. He didn't know how long they would be grounded there but hoped for a chance to stretch his legs and perhaps buy something exotic for presents.
Well at least, whatever happened, he would be staying on this same plane. That made things simpler and rather wonderful – as he was in business class.
Patrick felt himself finally relaxing as the surge of take-off eased and the big jet levelled out. Their captain's slightly faltering English promised a comfortable flight in fine conditions, then quicker translations followed in Arabic, he guessed, then what sounded possibly like Cantonese and Mandarin.
Beside Patrick the woman unlocked her seat belt but Patrick kept his on, though loosened, as advised. They were offered drinks, the Arabic-looking stewardess addressing Patrick first, as he was nearest, and speaking in English.
He treated himself to a gin and tonic, then added a small bottle of white wine for their forthcoming meal.
His fellow passenger surprised him by speaking in French, which was returned by the stewardess, who then served her some sparkling water and a small bottle of what looked like cognac, plus some peanuts.
His neighbour then crossed her legs and poured about half of her brandy into a small glass. Patrick noted the fine, tanned limbs now exposed beside him, gym-toned with muscle and, it seemed to him, rather proudly displayed.
He poured the pre-mixed gin and tonic from a small tin and waited for the fizz that followed to settle. Beyond the nearby windows there was now a vast bank of fluffy, white cloud below them. It seemed unreal, as though in a film, and the unseen sun shone brightly in a clear, blue sky.
“Cheers!” said his fellow passenger, with her again perfect if rather over-powering smile. Her tan was deep, the skin on her neck and what upper chest was revealed, of naturally dark complexion, clearly foreign, like that amazingly styled hair and her now sparkling eyes - very black, but warm.
“You are English,” she stated, still holding her glass up in the toast.
“Well, yes,” Patrick agreed, laughing and raised his to hers. “And you French, I presume.”
“That is right.” She laughed in return and they clinked their glasses and drank, before settling back.
“You're flying to Hong Kong?” she asked, as they were now handed rather fine, surprisingly bulky menus for the meal. Before Patrick could answer she spoke rapidly to the stewardess again in French, who nodded and took away her menu.
“Hmm,” Patrick half-answered her earlier question, nodding, but also wondered if the stewardess required his order already. He quickly tried to study the embossed, gold-scrolled choices in several languages.
“There is no rush, sir, please take your time,” the stewardess reassured him, before moving on to the passengers behind who were talking in Arabic. To Patrick's other side a Chinese-looking male steward was addressing two oriental businessmen in hissing, sibilant tones he assumed to be Mandarin.
“So many languages,” he said, “amazing!”
The French woman laughed. “You English are lucky, it is the international – the language of flight.”
“Yes, we are – sorry.”
She leaned closer and Patrick saw more flesh revealed from her loosened suit jacket and white blouse beneath, along with a heady rush of perfume.
“Don't apologise, there is no need – though that is very English too!”She leaned back and grinned again.
“Hmm,” Patrick managed to mutter again but felt himself blushing slightly and, hotter now, wished he'd also stowed his suit jacket overhead.
“There is nothing wrong with politeness – and fairness, that is what you English are so good about.”
“Well,” Patrick began, uncertain how to reply to this compliment for his nation which these days, he felt sadly aware, was rarely deserved, “that's kind of you.”
They introduced themselves, though he could not understand her surname – which didn't sound French – and only caught her Christian one – Jean or Jeanne perhaps, which she pronounced with a soft 'j'. Then he had to spell out his own family name F-e-r-m-o-u-r, after simplifying his first to Pat, as he preferred.
“But it sound French,” she protested, adding, rather impolitely he thought, “and is not Pat for girl?”
Patrick laughed lightly. “Yes it's unusual – but definitely English. Etymologically,” he began but saw her frown and explained simply, “it means the collector of land taxes, I'm told. We probably weren't very popular in the old days.”
Jeanne nodded but didn't comment.
“And your name is unusual, too,” Patrick observed, seeing as she'd been so full of comment about his own names.
“My husband is Algerian,” Jeanne explained. “I go to meet him in Doha, where he is engineer.”
“Ah!” said Patrick, who suspected she must have some Algerian blood of her own, judging from her dusky complexion. “You know it well?”
“Ah, oui, of course!” she told him, with what was now a very Gallic shrug of shoulders. “I visit often when not working. I am dancer and choreographer.”
Patrick nodded, just avoiding another muttered 'ah', thinking that her profession explained her rather polished fitness and those impressive legs.
“In Manchester?” he asked, rather amazed.
“Yes, but I tour from there – is cheaper than London.” Jeanne said, then paused as their stewardess brought her a small portion of fruit salad, then inquired after Patrick's dinner order.
He decided on something light and safe – melon to start and then a vegetarian omelette with potatoes. There might be a chance for more adventurous eating once safely established in Hong Kong, but he had a long flight ahead.
“You are vegetarian too?” Jeanne asked, picking at her fruit – which hadn't appeared on the menu.
“No!” he laughed. “Just making sure of a settled stomach. I'm not a great traveller – unlike most of my family before me.”
Jeanne nodded, taking a little more fruit.
“Is good – and must take water, sparkling,” she instructed. “I fly many times. That is how I know that girl, the hostess, she too is Algerian.”
“Really?” Patrick was surprised. “I thought she'd be from Qatar or, at least, the Middle East.”
“She is Berber,” said Jeanne, leaving the rest of her salad. She settled back, pouring out the remainder of her cognac and also some of the water into a separate glass. “The Qataris do not need to work. They are so rich. Only two million and their country has so much oil, gas . . .” she shrugged again. “So they employ foreigners to do all their work.”
Patrick nodded, feeling now rather ignorant of the modern world and suspecting that, since his care-free student years, he'd become too immersed in his books, family and their small business.
Was he, also, so transparently English? He had hoped his lightweight, beige suit lent him a little sophistication for this unexpected overseas venture. His family of travellers and adventurers would have been disappointed in him; as his well-connected in-laws appeared to be. Was Becky too, he wondered. She had seemed somehow so unapproachable of late . . .
Beside him, Jeanne was looking for something in her shiny handbag. To his surprise it was a small, black, eye-mask which she eased on to her face before stretching back in her seat, apparently to sleep.
Patrick stared a little longer than was polite. She was a startling woman, empowered by that unnerving directness and now menacingly masked; a disturbing physical presence. Was he such an innocent abroad?


STAND back please!” instructed the rather arrogant stewardess. She had emerged from behind a curtain and pushed past Patrick as he waited patiently for the engaged toilet to become available.
It was dark outside, the middle of the night – wherever they were. The cabin lights had been dimmed after their meal and most of his fellow passengers seemed to be sleeping. Patrick had been staring down through the emergency door's window at a shadowy, mountainous terrain showing no signs of life – and was apparently blocking this passageway in the process.
He was about to apologise but the woman, wearing a short headdress as well as her uniform, had turned her back to him now and was ushering forward a large man in Arab robes.
She knocked sharply on the door and said in English, “Finish quickly please, this closet is needed.”
The big Arab stared through Patrick, waiting.
Moments later the toilet door opened and a Chinese man emerged looking rather alarmed. The woman moved her arm, gesturing him aside and, ignoring Patrick behind her, ushered in the Arab.
“I've been waiting, too,” Patrick pointed out to the back of her head, as they heard the door lock again.
“Sorry for your inconvenience,” she said, without sounding sorry or bothering to turn. She remained instead, standing between Patrick and the WC door, as though on guard.
Patrick shook his head. Thankfully, he wasn't desperate but did find her attitude deeply offensive. If this Arab was from first class surely they had toilets there! Clearly, whoever the man was - in his white robes with red-chequered adornments – he was considered more important than a regular passenger. He was also taking his time.
Patrick felt a cold chill now. He'd shrugged off his jacket after eating, being careful not to disturb his sleeping neighbour, and tried unsuccessfully to read and then to sleep. However, the slumbering female presence beside him, her powerful scent, disturbed his senses.
He had also – left in dark silence to his own lonely thoughts - felt oddly afraid, flying now in darkness across the world to God knew what; all so far from his little girl, who would miss him dearly; also from Becky who, he hoped, would miss him too and, if he was honest, afraid somehow for himself. Why take this risk? They did have money, it just wasn't Patrick's.
His thoughts now disappeared as the door clicked open and the big Arab came silently bustling out, also without apology. Then the pair moved back, behind that curtain, without further word.
Patrick stepped into the small WC closet and was outraged to see it swimming with water. Yes, they did that, didn't they – Arabs? They washed themselves in a loo, rather than using toilet paper as we did.
With a disgusted sigh, Patrick wiped down the surfaces with some paper towels. He finally got settled, remembering he'd read somewhere that it was the Saudis who wore those red headbands on their robes, when a light flashed and he saw a sign to return to his seat. Was it turbulence, or were they landing already?
Patrick hurried now, quickly redressing, washing his hands and then moving back into the now lit cabin. It was still dark outside but, clearly, for all passengers, time now to wake up.
Jeanne was twisted round in her seat, facing the passageway, her mask off now and looking anxiously for him. She smiled in welcome and relief at his return.
“Could you pass my bag?” she asked him. “We begin descent soon. It is Doha.”
Patrick nodded and eased her bag out of the overhead cabin. Through the window he could indeed see the lights of a city at night – startlingly bright in what had seemed, just a short while ago, endless desert and dark mountains. This could have been Manhattan.
“So, you managed to sleep?” he asked, smiling.
Jeanne was busy examining her make-up in a large, round mirror. She nodded, staring at him distractedly. “Yes. You go on to business?”
Patrick nodded. “Books,” he said. “I buy and sell them.” She smiled at last, as though that explained everything, then studied the city below them.
There were announcements, glasses of fruit juice being served, people busy collecting overhead luggage; some, those flying on, stayed asleep.
Patrick shrugged back on his jacket, which now looked rather creased, then sat down.
They clicked their seatbelts once more and descended through light cloud with a change in engine noise; then came the touch-down, rather heavy, the squealing and back-draw of the air-brakes until, finally, their plane slowed to a taxiing speed once more.
Jeanne put a hand briefly upon Patrick's leg, distracting him from filling in some immigration forms handed around earlier, which he'd so far ignored.
Her polished smile gleamed once more, before she rose up to press past him.
“Good luck with your books,” she said, then turned and was soon out of sight among the several others disembarking at the Qatar capital.
Patrick sat back and looked at his wristwatch but then realised he had no idea of what the time difference was here. Jeanne's scent still lingered.
To his embarrassment, there also lingered a sexual stirring from when she'd passed close by him again. Yet it wasn't a passion, a true attraction, just a physical need recently unfulfilled. It brought with it, too, he realised in surprise, a sense of his own loneliness – now he felt so cast out of what was normal for him in everyday living.
It was the same apprehension which had unsettled his stomach in the dark, with his concerned thoughts of home – how vulnerable they all were – those very people most dear to him but to whom, right now, he felt quite helpless. In that lonely darkness he had felt a prescient shiver of fear.
Oddly, some words of his usually austere father-in-law W.C. Hayes came to mind, kind even beautiful words – about Amy, his grand-daughter. Patrick never thought of Hayes by his first name of Wilbur – which was just too homely for a man so emphatically worldly, so grey and versed in the cares of hard reality.
W.C. must have been admiring the little girl's hair – on her first and only trip to the USA, as he'd observed aloud, in quiet but also rather wondrous terms, “Like russet gold of New England leaves in the Fall.”
It had been, probably, the only moment he had felt genuinely close to Becky's authoritarian father, for once showing his gentler side. But then life, like people too, could change in an instant and everything be so different; all cosy familiarity gone, all safety too . . .
“We'll be in Doha approximately two hours,” a cabin crew member was announcing. “Passengers may remain in their seats or take their boarding cards and passports into the airport, where some food or drinks are available, along with duty-free goods also. Cleaning will be carried out on board while we refuel, but feel free to ask our in-flight team for anything you need.”
One or two more passengers got up and began to head for the opened hatchways. Now the plane's air-conditioning was turned off, or possibly still struggling against the hot air from outside, Patrick could feel the latent heat awaiting. His back and long legs felt stiff again and he, too, decided to stand. Then, checking his boarding ticket was still in his shirt's top pocket, he followed others to the exits.
In the airport he could at least wash and freshen up in peace, without cleaners – or first class hostesses - interrupting; also he might get a drink, or check the duty-free for Christmas gifts. The thought lifted his spirits a little, as he nodded to the departing stewardess he'd been told was Algerian, a Berber, now changed into full uniform and disembarking ahead of him.
Patrick strode out on to the high steps and into the amazing night-time heat. It made him feel slightly dizzy, while also being tired from anxiety and lack of sleep. He paused a moment, then began slowly descending while carefully using the safety handrail.
Patrick was also careful to check his bearings, once down on the tarmacadam. He noted their plane's appearance and position and then quickly followed the other straggling passengers toward the nearby airport buildings.
The heat was appalling, once down on the ground and walking, like opening an oven door during roasting. Yet it was still the middle of the night. Patrick took off his jacket as he strolled and put it over one arm, while unbuttoning his shirt sleeves and rolling them up, loosening his top button and tie.
Several workmen, all Pakistani or Indian by appearance, were digging or refilling a hole in the forecourt – with little enthusiasm. They didn't smile.
No doubt more of those immigrant workers Jeanne had mentioned to him, while the wealthy locals slept at home in air-conditioning. Not many races could have managed physical labour in such heat, Patrick supposed. It was hard work just walking, or breathing the foetid air laced with jet fuel.
At last they approached some double doors where security staff in Arab uniforms lounged, some with automatic weapons. They took little interest as the tired, desultory tourists filed by.
Once through that entrance and up some stairs, the airport departure lounge was startlingly busy, brightly lit and noisy, with the combined voices and relayed announcements of different races, all wedged together while awaiting onward flights.
Patrick stared at overhead signs in Arabic, then saw some others in English, wall-mounted and further away, for toilets. He left the general throng, many of them families apparently camped out for a long stay – more Indians, Filipinos, then diverse groups of Arabs in differing robes, some of the women completely covered like huddled human crows or black-clad, medieval effigies. Others, all men, were in those white, flowing, red-chequered robes similar to the man on the plane, seated more comfortably in exclusive, roped-off areas.
It seemed a strange, unsettling mix of worlds – or a place of transit between them, like some jet-age limbo or a confused, overcrowded purgatory. There was also an unsettling tension in the air, as announcements echoed and crowds rose up and surged; in sharp contrast to a sense of weary dismay among others - resigned to long hours of uncertain waiting.
Patrick corrected his stooped posture and tried to shake off his unease; telling himself that, basically, he was just tired and should pull himself together. Then he walked down a wide but quieter corridor, descended a staircase and found himself alone at last, in a modern Gents' conveniences.
With a grateful sigh, Patrick hung up his jacket and mixed water in the bowl to wash. It was as he was drying his hands and face, in a blast of air from the wall-mounted machines, that a cleaner knocked then entered. She was a short, elderly Arab woman who stared at him, then gestured at her cleaning tools.
Patrick nodded and hurried himself but, by the time he turned again, she'd left him alone once more. There was just a yellow, plastic cone now, warning of wet floors or cleaning in progress, he supposed, though in Arabic. She must be waiting outside for him to leave, Patrick realised and sighed. Even here he couldn't relax.
He glanced in the mirror and saw his tired but, yes, very British features – that tall, slim figure topped with a now slightly awry mop of light-brown, slightly greying hair; his uncertain, grey-blue eyes and those regular, somehow earnest features, with slightly flushed cheeks but otherwise pale, English complexion.
In his travelling clothes, the striped and now creased shirt and tie with light suit trousers, he looked like one of those weary, diplomatic heroes whose place in the world was fading, their purpose or colonial role collapsing around them in the style of Graham Greene novels.
Patrick smiled at the thought, for Becky often chided him that his favourite reading was out of date - often even Victorian and full of what she called boyish adventures, but then he hurried on, aware of the rather down-at-heel cleaner still waiting dutifully outside.
He went over to the clothes pegs nearer the door and slipped on his jacket again. It felt lighter now, in the airport's severe air-conditioning and, as Patrick approached the exit he routinely checked his pockets.
A chill ran through him; a sickening sense of shock as his fingers searched the empty inside pockets where his phone, credit card and tickets had been.
His passport, too, had gone.

* * *

HERE are the first chapters of our latest (sixth) Sam Stone novel, entitled Written In Stone. Turn to our Books page to see the full Kindle and paperback editions now available. We also display below the front and back covers. This is a prequel to the series so far.


IN the beginning there was darkness, Stone thought, stepping out into the cold night air then leaning on his balcony's damp handrail. But then he could see the light of a lamp, glimmering amongst trees beside steps from the waterfront up to his hotel.
As clouds separated, moonlight shone on the slowly moving, dark waters far below him. To his right, when he turned, were looping strings of pearly globes across the black sky. The suspension bridge glittered like fairy lights on a festive tree, bright with hopeful promise. That spectacle, high above the straits, raised his spirits from a mood as dark as this Irish Sea.
He'd awoken in the strange room and for a moment thought himself to be at home, in bed with his wife. Then he had realised he was in the hotel and it was not Emma lying sleeping beside him. He had lain still, so as not to awake the girl whose name Stone at first couldn't recall. Cerys, he remembered. She had told him it meant Love, which made him smile. He had never slept with a Welsh girl before.
But then Stone had thought of the postcard lying on the bedside table, fully dated right down to this year of 2012 and addressed from this hotel in Menai, but still not written. It had been meant to be a brief but hard blow to Emma and her plans, but then he had shrunk from the task. Besides, he'd been fairly drunk and tired, still was in fact . . .
A sudden splintering of glass, somewhere near and to the left below the balcony, made Stone turn. Then the silence returned. He had heard a thud, too, before the breakage – as though something had been thrown. He waited, breathing heavily and wondering if there were intruders or, more likely, some animal had jumped down and trodden on a pane of garden glass.
Just as he was considering going back into the room and getting warm again next to Cerys, a movement near that half-hidden light on the steps to the quayside caught his eye. Two shapes, lithe figures moving stealthily, both men - but slightly built.
Then, as he stood staring, one man turned to look back. Stone could see his jet-black hair but not his features. Whoever it was stared straight at him and some sudden sense of danger made Stone duck down out of sight.
After crouching low for a moment, he edged forward and looked out again, but the men had gone. He heard a car's engine start somewhere below, then heard it driving away along the quayside, but it was out of sight, hidden far below his view.
“What is it?” Cerys murmured sleepily, as Stone stepped back into the large bedroom and closed the French window on to the balcony.
“Nothing,” he muttered, welcoming her embrace as he joined her. “Least, I don't think so.”
Her arms slipped about him but then she prised her body away with a shudder. “You're freezing!”
“Sorry,” he said, “hoped you might warm me.”
Cerys made a short, wry grunt but slowly eased the length of her body back against him, squeezing one leg through his two and stroking his back then down, over his haunches.
Stone gasped and their faces came close once more. He could see her pretty features framed by the black hair – almost as dark as the blue-black of the man outside. Then he saw her teeth shining, felt her tongue and groaned appreciatively at her exploring hands.
The men outside were forgotten as he shifted in the bed and smelled the sweetness of her scent, felt the soft silkiness of her skin, heard her breathing quicken and deepen. Yes, now only Love was on his mind.
It was hours later that he heard a bleeping, then saw there was sunlight filtering through the curtains where he'd left them not quite fully drawn.
Stone groaned again, but this time from a thudding in his head - from all the drinks during the afternoon then evening with his travelling party.
Cerys had moved, turning and reaching to the small table beside her. “My bleeper,” she explained. Then fell back with a sigh after switching off the noise.
“What time is it?” Stone asked, testily.
“Almost seven,” she muttered, eyes closed, but otherwise ignoring him.
She really was very lovely, Stone thought while frowning at her. Cerys had perfect features and her dark hair was gloriously 'big' and lustrous. She was slim but had, he recalled, surprisingly large breasts. In fact, she reminded him of a young Joan Collins; quite the picture of the perfect English girl, except she was Welsh, of course, and from this island of Anglesey.
“Why so early?” he demanded grumpily, wanting to sleep and for her to stay longer in his bed.
“Breakfast,” she explained then, with a regretful stroke of her hand against his face, eased out of bed.
“None of our lot will be down until after nine,” he told her.
“Unfortunately, some others will – and there is the staff to organise.” She was slipping on her clothes. “I'm on probation remember, just temporary manager here.” She turned and smiled at Stone, now propped up in bed on one elbow but still glowering.
Those wonderful breasts disappeared under a loose-fitting, white blouse, then she pulled on her short, black skirt and fluffed her hair with both hands, staring in a wall mirror. “I'll shower later,” she said.
Stone admired her fine figure. How old was she, he wondered; perhaps mid-20s but no more; certainly several years his junior but very confident – and clever, good fun all round, in fact. He'd found a real treasure.
“Must you go?” he asked, his voice pleading.
Cerys turned and smiled beautifully, studying his face then chest amid the rumpled bedsheets. “Yes, my love, sorry.” She shrugged then added, as she turned away, “Sleep on, but don't mention our tryst here.”
“No,” he promised, smiling back and liking her choice of words. She was sharp and full of nice surprises – undoubtedly good management material around here. “My lips are sealed.”
Cerys grinned. “Pity,” she murmured then, partly opening the bedroom door, she glanced each way along the top, third-floor corridor and, with a silent wave, quietly slipped out of his room.
Stone groaned and sank back into the warm sheets. His eye caught the still-blank reverse side of his postcard for Emma, propped up against a lamp. All that was written so far was the address here and date. What he'd planned had hardly been a greeting, or good wishes – quite the opposite and rather mean, he realised.
Stone sighed, knowing now that he wouldn't send it; let her have her new love, her divorce, whatever she wanted – even with that scheming creep, bloody Montaigne the Climber, whom he despised. He would keep the unwritten card as it was now, to always remind him of Cerys and their unexpected night together here.
“Live and let live,” Stone muttered aloud then closed his eyes. But sleep wouldn't come to him again, not with that searing summer sunshine bursting in from outside. Instead he let his mind drift back over the previous day's boozy events, up to an unfortunate stumble in late evening for one of his companions which, nonetheless, had brought the caring and helpful Cerys into Stone's life and, ultimately, to his bed.


GOOD morning!” Stone called out, as he approached a sun-bathed, long table set for breakfast in the hotel's spacious conservatory. Beyond a huddle of quiet men sitting there, he could see the colourful garden which ended at a hillside edge, overlooking the placid, blue sea and green peaks of North Wales across the Straits.
There were muttered greetings in return from his several fellow travellers. At least five of their 'dirty dozen' were still missing, either nursing hangovers or already out on bracing walks after an earlier repast.
Stone dropped his phone on to the white table cloth beside one of the vacant settings and pulled out a chair to reserve his place. He'd chosen to sit alongside 'Wee Willie' who, Stone knew, would not be too hearty or talkative at this time of day - not after a skin-full that would have stunned a man three times his size.
On a side table beyond a partition wall there was a full selection of cereals, cheese, ham, porridge and hot or cold drinks, all watched over by a girl who'd been on the hotel's residents' bar the night before. She gave Stone a knowing smile.
“Good morning, sir!” she said sweetly, but her eyes shone with secret knowledge and, as he poured himself some fresh orange, Stone noticed her dig the boyish waiter standing next to her with her elbow; obviously not such secret knowledge after all.
“Coffee or tea?” she asked him, stepping closer.
“Better be coffee,” Stone told her, then smiled – she seemed harmless after all, “and keep it coming.”
The girl laughed, then told him, “I'll bring it over for you.”
There were a few other patrons breakfasting in this separate part of the conservatory come dining room but, apart from Stone's group of 12 from Manchester, it obviously wasn't busy yet with summer bookings.
“How'y doin'?” Willie raspingly inquired, as Stone sat down beside him with his orange juice. The short, older man's weathered skin was today pale, though seemingly even more lined than usual above his small tuft of peppery-grey goatee beard. Willie's black, arched eyebrows rose expressively, to share the suffering that came from too much merriment, together with an over sufficiency of drink.
When last seen, the retired bricklayer – now raconteur, poet and songwriter/musician - had been relishing the bar's top shelf of arcane whiskies, along with Banker Bill, a fellow veteran of the 'Pals'.
“Not bad,” Stone told him, knowing Willie would appreciate similarly quiet understatement.
The young waitress placed Stone's strong-brown coffee beside him with a small pot of more and another warming smile; her eyes, both curious and cunning, lingered momentarily upon him.
“Oh, personal service I see!” came the resounding voice of the aforesaid Banker Bill, or William Paisley to give him his full proper name. There was, as often, a complaining, officious edge to his stentorian Ulster accent that, no doubt, the Belfast-born tax inspector employed in his work.
It was, however, particularly unsuitable at this time of the morning, especially after such a day as yesterday had been for them all seated here.
“Yes,” Bill's friend Willie responded in clearly irritated tone himself, “Sam gets that because he's not a big, ugly, annoying bastard like you!”
There was appreciative laughter at that, as Stone remained unperturbed and silent. Beside him, while Stone gratefully sank his refreshing, cool juice, Willie's belligerent head was still turned up the table to the other Pals, as though inviting all-comers for comments, if they dared. His short, greying ponytail stuck out gamely too, as though to balance his goatee.
“No, maybe not, but Sam is big though,” was all that a chastened Bill now reasonably observed.
He was partly known as Banker because of his work as a much-feared and zealous tax inspector who enjoyed his work but, also and more pertinently, as he acted as their group's treasurer for the few funds they shared either at monthly meetings or on such travels as this two-day trip into North Wales.
Stone found the big Northern Irishman rather overpowering but knew he was good-hearted to his core. Like the others here, Bill would do anything to help you - once he knew your need was genuine; as Stone would himself, for each and all.
There were a couple more arrivals at their table, again with muted, knowing greetings. However, slowly, the level of conversation was beginning to rise; more toast was brought – and Stone's full 'Welsh breakfast' was served up personally by Cerys.
“And how are we all today, gentlemen?” she asked in her sing-song voice, eliciting more spirited responses from the now well-fed group.
“Time for a smoke,” muttered Willie, rising with some effort and pulling out his pipe and 'baccy'.
“I'll open the conservatory doors for you,” Cerys told him with a warm smile. One or two other smokers stood up to join him in a garden wander.
Then Cerys turned and came back to Stone's side. “No sign of the fallen then?” she asked, nodding towards the one remaining vacant, unused place at the long table set for 12.
“Still recovering, the old goat,” suggested Banker Bill from up the table. Then another Pal, former financial journalist Stan Galsworthy, checked his watch and observed, “Only got 10 minutes, if he wants to make breakfast.”
“I better give him a call,” muttered Cerys.
“I've got his mobile number,” said one of their younger members, Jeremy, producing his smart phone.
They waited with mild curiosity. Timber, as their missing Pal was known, had literally been felled the previous evening as they had struggled up the steep steps from a quayside pub's restaurant.
By then their motley dozen, along with a few more Pals who'd arrived under their own steam from nearby Cheshire and made separate hotel bookings, had become somewhat broken up.
There had been a choice of places for their early supper: the snug of an old inn where they'd been drinking, which offered tempting steak and kidney or steak and ale pies, or a trendy, neighbouring seafood restaurant called Dylan's – with fish pies and more.
The choice had divided both opinion and club members, although Stone had managed to make both destinations – Dylan's for an excellent fish broth that reminded him of the Trafalgar seafood restaurant, back on the northern Fylde coast at the old fishing port of Fleetwood; then the hot meat pie with gravy at the inn.
Tim Wood, a so-called reclamation engineer (or scrap dealer) who specialised in timber and was so nicknamed, had done the same double-hit but by then also taken to the grape rather than the hop, switching from beer to wine, then spirits with unsteady abandon.
Sadly, Timber had paid the price for his overindulgence when stumbling over the last but deeper step up from the quayside to their hotel. The big man sustained a severe gash to his shin, which bled profusely. Banker Bill and Stone, two of the tallest and strongest Pals present, had helped him into reception where Cerys had kindly tended to Tim's wound.
“No answer,” Jeremy informed them. The chubby caterer was a caring man, with a bubbly laugh, but now his boyish face was flushed and worried.
“He's probably lost his way from that grand annexe,” boomed Banker Bill uncharitably, freckled jowls flushed under his mane of sandy hair.
The Ulsterman had vetted this hotel with another leading member of the Pals, Manchester city-centre publican Big Jack Cooper, securing 12 individual rooms. Typically, both bullish men had each fancied the superior ground-floor suite. In the end, however, former policeman Jack had been unable to tour and, after his fall, an injured Timber had demanded the ground-floor annexe rather than struggling up flights of stairs.
“You're probably right,” agreed Jeremy, “I hope so, but I phoned before to see how he was.” He looked at Cerys. “There was no answer then, either.”
Cerys frowned, obviously fearing the worst. Tim Wood was a large man, very drunk at the time and clearly hurt by his fall on the precipitous stone steps. He wasn't the sort to sue over health and safety but, certainly, was a prime candidate for a heart attack.
“I'll come with you,” Stone told her and stood up. He saw Jeremy also standing to join them but appearing fearful. “Don't worry,” Stone told him, “I'll call you – sure he'll be fine. Go and have a smoke.”
The look of relief told Stone he'd done the right thing, if not necessarily for the best of reasons. Jeremy clearly didn't relish finding a good friend in the worst circumstances. While Stone fancied getting Cerys alone once more – to make some arrangement before she was busy checking them out from their one-night stay.
She led him through the back of the conservatory and along a service corridor, from where they could see the kitchen staff clearing up after breakfast and preparing for lunch.
“This is the back way round,” Cerys told him, pushing open a rear fire door. “But he'd have to go through the front garden to come in from his annexe.”
Stone nodded, holding the door for her and seeing her obvious concern and nervousness.
“You okay?”
She nodded and they stepped out into the sunshine and a smaller garden than the one at the rear, though still beautifully maintained and blooming.
“Just worried about how he is,” Cerys admitted. “That was a very bad wound – probably should have gone to hospital.”
Stone smiled and reassured her, “You did a great job, besides he was too drunk, heavy and tired. Even then he wanted to stay in the bar.”
Cerys laughed lightly, relaxing a little, then knocked on the door and waited. “Be regretting that now,” she predicted. “Hmm!” she muttered when there was no response after a couple of minutes.
The birds were singing, the day wonderful.
“Got the key?” asked a concerned Stone.


THERE was no answer from inside the hotel annexe to Stone's calls. He frowned at Cerys then closed the door.
“I'll have a quick look inside, just be a minute,” he told her. Cerys nodded and remained in the hall.
“The bedroom's straight ahead, with an open entrance into the sitting room,” she told him.
Stone opened the bedroom door and felt the fresh air, heard the birds from the back garden. The first thing he saw, as if to confirm his ears, was a shattered window facing on to the grounds at the hotel's rear.
Then he saw Timber's body, massive in silk dressing gown and pyjamas underneath. He was also wearing slippers and was splayed out on his back, arms akimbo, feet towards that broken window, motionless.
There was a large stain of blood by his head and a dreadful stillness to the chilling bedroom scene.
Stone's first thought was that the big man, who'd been decidedly drunk last night as well as limping with injury, may have broken the window himself trying to open it, then tumbled backwards and injured his head.
However, as he walked round beside the body, Stone saw the evident cause of death. Between the thick, black locks of hair falling over his forehead, there was a neat hole right between Tim Wood's eyes.
“God!” Stone muttered, bending down closer, then he turned abruptly - at a gasp from behind him. Cerys had entered the adjoining sitting room from the hallway and was standing, hand to mouth in shock.
“Best stay there,” Stone told her, moving to block her view but still crouching down. He slowly raised Wood's large, heavy head and saw a gaping hole shattering its back and causing that pool of dried blood.
Unless he was mistaken, having no previous experience of them, Stone feared he was staring at the impact of a dumdum bullet, designed to explode upon impact for a certain 'kill': the practice of a professional in execution, a paid-for assassination.
Stone wondered whether he should close Timber's glazed, blue eyes but decided against it. This was now, after all, a crime scene. His friend's fleshy face was stone cold, frozen in an expression of shock.
Stone stood up but kept in front of the bloody head below him, still shielding Cerys' view. There was shattered glass around the body. The window had clearly exploded inward, from the impact of that bullet. He recalled the two men he'd seen last night, that soft thudding noise a fraction before the shattering of glass.
Stone swallowed, remembering how some sense of self-preservation had made him duck down on his balcony, after one man had turned and seen him.
That light thud he'd heard in the darkness, just before the window was broken, must have been the noise from a silenced gun. How close had he come himself to another bullet from that professional? Surely also just a fraction of a second.
Stone swallowed again, his throat suddenly dry. “Better call the police,” he told Cerys.
She nodded dumbly, then muttered, “And an ambulance?” Her voice was quiet and trembled.
“No, just the police – 999,” said Stone, adding, “it looks like he's been shot.”
What remaining colour Cerys still had now drained from her face.
“My God!” she whispered, echoing Stone from earlier. But she didn't move.
Stone walked over to her, gently turning Cerys away from the prone figure.
“You go over to your office and phone,” he told her. “Give them all the details that you know.” He paused uncertainly. “I'll follow you, then try and explain to the others. None of us will be leaving here for quite a while, I suspect.”
Cerys nodded again and almost stumbled as she walked unsteadily away.
“Hold on!” Stone called, glancing round the room. Nothing else looked disturbed. The bed was in disarray, yes, but only as though Wood had been sleeping in it - then had got up, perhaps to investigate some noise, possibly get some water, even use the adjoining bathroom. A bedside light was still on.
However, there was a glass of water also beside the bed, untouched by the look of it, plus a pile of loose change – as well as the timber merchant's usual thick wad of rolled £20 notes.
Well, robbery certainly wasn't the motive. No, Stone reasoned, Wood must have been drawn to that window to look out, perhaps by a noise – even knocking. Probably, it had been some sound deliberately made, by that second man, to draw Wood into the gunman's aim. There would be a clear shot with the lamp's dim light behind him, from the darkness of the garden - most likely just beneath Stone's balcony.
Had it been the same noise which had also woken Stone, drawn him out on to the balcony? At the time, half asleep, he'd just felt an urge to get some air.
Stone shrugged, regretting he hadn't been more sober the previous night. He wanted to investigate the scene further but, then, realised it might be less suspicious to a police mind if he didn't remain in the murder room alone, certainly not for longer than these few seconds taken to discover Wood's body.
Police thinking would make all those closest to the dead man and anyone present at the time or soon afterwards, prime suspects to be eliminated only by questioning and alibi.
Stone and all the Pals would be interviewed meticulously, possibly over hours.
“I'll come with you,” he told Cerys. He put an arm about her shoulder and they went out once more, Stone locking the annexe door.
“Better make sure no one disturbs anything in there,” he told her. “Best let the cleaners know they're not to enter – that there's been a tragic incident.”
Cerys nodded again then, as they walked round to the hotel's front doorway, she muttered, “I can't believe it – shot! But how?”
Stone didn't answer but gently ushered her into the reception area and then her inner office, turning to a male receptionist studying them with some alarm.
“Please warn the cleaners not to go into the annexe, there's been an accident,” Stone told the lad. “We'll be calling the police. Don't tell others, just make sure anyone about to leave stays on for the moment – until police come.”
The young man looked uncertain. “All right?” Stone demanded sharply.
The receptionist nodded, muttered, “Yes sir.”
Stone smiled in reassurance. “The cleaners first,” he reminded him, then added, “thanks.”
Cerys had picked up the phone but so far not dialled. He took the receiver from her and called 999, then asked for police and said there had been a murder, a shooting incident.
“I'm a hotel guest,” he explained, giving his name. “The temporary manager here can give you the full address and details. I only found the body. He was a friend.”
Cerys was now composed enough to provide details about herself and the hotel, then to explain briefly what they had discovered and listen to the emergency officer's instructions.
Finally putting down the phone, she said, “No one's to leave here until after the police arrive and, even then, not until they give permission.”
Stone nodded. “I'll go though and tell the others. Some might be going out the back way. I'll ask your staff to lock the rear doors, okay?”
“Yes.” Cerys still looked badly shaken. Stone smiled, then rubbed his hand gently over her arm and gave her a comforting squeeze.
Her hand in his now seemed tiny - and felt as frozen as Tim Wood's had been.

 * * *

BELOW are the first few chapters of our fifth novel in the Sam Stone Investigates series; following
the adventures and tribulations of our Fylde-coast-based freelance reporter who, as one reviewer put it, is never far from a pint of cask ale or a nubile, young female. But the intrepid and handsome Stone also has his deeper side. As well as carrying authentic settings and characters, the series - like most of our books - has an uplifting, spiritual undertone to accompany the lively action and 'contemporary romance' - as Waterstones put it - as well as including this book in their 'erotica' section! The front and back covers were designed by the author.


HE cut a curious figure among the few other beach users, but appeared just as Stone had been told to expect. The tall, dark-skinned man was more formally dressed than those dog walkers and seashell scavengers roaming the miles of sand and pebbly shore, between incoming Irish Sea tide and St. Annes' many sand-hills.
Stone cut across the older man's path, a few yards ahead of him, pretending to listen on his mobile phone and casually glancing at Ducas, while heading for the water's edge and those lapping waves.
It was a glorious day, early summer and the air fresh with brine and ozone. Gulls wheeled high in an almost cloudless azure sky, crying gleefully overhead.
However, this well-dressed but sad, foreign-looking man kept his eyes down and fixed on the long route ahead.
According to the nursing home sister, Sandra, her weary but lithe resident, Maurice Ducas, marched daily this way, to make inquiries at Clifton Hospital.
Then Ducas (pronounced 'Du-cah', as in the French) tramped slowly back along the beach – or sand hills if the tide was fully in, past the isolated, seafront rest and care home where Sandra worked, then onward, all the way up the coast to bawdy Blackpool.
If distant fishing port Fleetwood had a general hospital, Ducas would have no doubt struggled on there; still wearing his highly polished shoes, dark suit, shirt with tie and blue beret set at rakish angle; all while holding a folded raincoat over one arm and carrying that distinctive, red-felt hat box in his other free hand.
No wonder the poor man looked exhausted! According to the kind-hearted and concerned Sandra, Ducas was probably older than his heavily lined, olive-skinned features suggested. Almost certainly in his 70s, though there was some doubt about his true age. Ducas apparently became agitated if questioned too closely and carefully guarded his personal details.
He was French, she knew, also thought to be of Algerian or other north-African origin. Money seemed no problem, apparently, and Sandra had learned he had come from near Le Havre a couple of years before. There were no surviving relatives noted in his file, only – it seemed – in Ducas' tortured mind.
Stone breathed in the refreshing air, feeling fit after his early morning walk along the seafront from Lytham. How good life felt, the sun warming him and glistening on the sea. But that stooped, determined figure appeared oblivious to the surroundings. Ducas was on a mission, a taxing but ultimately doomed one, as on every day of his lonely life.
“He's now very ill,” Sandra had said, a week or so before. Her ample figure had thrown Stone into the shade, as he tried to watch the match from the terrace of Blackpool Cricket Club. The men around him, also drinking, were no longer listening but muttering about the players' changing fortunes.
She mentioned cancer, making one or two of the older men nearby shift uneasily in their seats. Then Sandra had added frankly, “He probably won't see out the summer.” It was her winning card. “Poor man, he'll be desperate, not to get out on his wanderings.”
One of her younger colleagues, after finishing a night shift at the home, had once followed Ducas and reported his visit to Clifton Hospital down the coast. However, the old man had only remained inside a few minutes. Then, on another occasion, an off-duty staff colleague had spotted the familiar figure – still with that round, red lady's hat box – making inquiries at Blackpool's Victoria Hospital in the early afternoon.
“It's not dementia,” Sandra had reassured Stone. “He's haunted by something real, I'm sure. He must walk bloody miles and, poor soul, he's utterly alone.” Sandra appeared rather exhausted herself. Then she had fallen silent, looking at Stone in faithful expectation.
So he had reluctantly agreed to look into the mysterious case of Monsieur Maurice Ducas, of whom so little seemed known – except that, as well as being mortally sick physically, he was mentally unstable, being both depressed and at times confused, even paranoid.
It was not an inquiry Stone relished and he seriously doubted, despite what Sandra had suggested, that it would yield a news story for the national papers occasionally paying him freelance fees.
But he liked Sandra, who was a good sort.
“Thanks, Sam,” Sandra had said then, looking up at the action on the distant square, added, “Oh, bugger, that's out! Don't think there's another 20 runs in our tail-enders.”
Her comment had brought murmurs of agreement. The big, blonde nurse with a bubbly nature knew her cricket, here and along the Fylde; also at Old Trafford, where she followed Lancashire.
In fact, there was a county game due to be played at Blackpool in a month or so, Stone remembered now as he headed back along the beach towards Lytham and home at Duck Lane. Some distance ahead of him, the lonely figure of Maurice Ducas was now cutting inland, for the hospital.
It would be good to report something back to Sandra at that time, for she would certainly be attending the match, weather permitting. Just what he might manage to learn, however, Stone had no idea.
All Sandra had gleaned from their brief chats, usually in French that she'd polished years before while working at hotels on the Côte d'Azur, was that Ducas claimed to still have a wife and, unlikely though it seemed, a baby daughter he hoped soon to be reunited with. It must be they, Sandra felt, who so haunted the man. However, he always panicked at her suggestion of either police or Press help in finding them.
Stone checked his phone again and studied the photograph he'd taken of Ducas as they had crossed each others' paths. It would suffice, though his dark, lined features had remained downcast. Still, as far as identification went, not many elderly Algerians walked the Lancashire coast in a French-blue beret, carrying an old-fashioned, red-felt hat box.
“Do you know what's in that box he carries – not hats, I suppose?” he'd asked Sandra, when later seeing her again at tea-time in the club bar.
“Well, naturally,” she confessed, “I did take a look when he was out of his room.” Sandra had smiled sadly. “A nightdress, some lovely, ivory-backed hair brushes, assorted make-up, face powders.” Here she'd winced, adding, “All years old.”
Cherchez la femme, Stone thought as he rounded the headland into Granny's Bay at Fairhaven. Across the glimmering sea, Lancashire's hills rose in the distance. Today, beyond Southport and the Wirral, he could also make out the faint outline of the Great Orme in North Wales.
Stone was already perspiring. He was out of condition and wishing now he'd brought the Suzuki and strolled down from Clifton Hospital. But the staff there, he knew, would tell him nothing and rightly so. A Press card didn't over-rule medical protocol.
Fortunately, he knew just the man to help him find out more – a veteran volunteer from Blackpool's larger general hospital, the Victoria.
Also, Stone could guess where 'Welsh Bill' would be soon, between finishing his morning shift on the volunteers' greetings desk, grabbing some lunch at the hospital's highly rated restaurant and then, in late afternoon, going home - a mobile home, just outside the resort, which he shared with his 'Missus'.
At Fairhaven Lake families were feeding geese and taking out hire boats. Across the road, on the inland side of the bay's otherwise quiet promenade, more elderly couples were taking tea on balconies of luxury apartments. There were also a number of grand, private houses still, though others had become nursing homes.
“See Lytham St. Annes and die,” thought Stone grimly, recalling a local comedian's sardonic crack.
This was a sleepy if 'upmarket' part of the coast, south of Blackpool's Lights and Golden-Mile attractions. When growing up, as a teenager, in that bustling resort's South Shore hotel-land, Stone had dismissed neighbouring St. Annes as acres of suburban bungalows with concreted gardens for the elderly.
Nowadays he also liked a bit of peace and quiet for himself, when on offer – although still appreciating the nearness to his home of so many bars and bistros. What a diverse coast the Fylde was, along with Lancashire's verdant, rolling countryside just inland.
However, he still wished he'd driven here today.
An attractive blonde, lazily walking a highly spirited young dog in the opposite direction, gave Stone a warm smile and lingering look. It lifted his flagging spirits. She must have been 10 years his junior.
Stone sometimes even carried a dog chain himself, or displayed a camera or small binoculars. They helped you fit in more, when conducting some surveillance along the coast, in parks or countryside. Of course, the camera and field glasses were doubly useful.
Today he had settled for a casual look and the prop of a mobile phone, doubting a troubled old chap like Ducas would suspect anyone spying upon him.
He glanced back at the girl, just as she turned round herself – catching him and smiling again. Stone grinned sheepishly and nodded in return, but walked on.
Her pooch had been one of those new cross-breeds, a cock-a-poo or labra-poo or some such, which always made Stone feel uneasy over genetic mixing.
Of course, such new breeds were fashionable, especially in increasingly trendy Lytham village – once sleepier than even this retirement area and famed only for shrimping. Now this butt of the coast was said to be one of the most desirable areas of Britain to live, which certainly hadn't helped keep down Stone's rent.
He at last rounded the outcrop before the Ribble estuary's mouth and Lytham's famous Green promenade with windmill.
Stone felt a pang of loss as a familiar house came into view. He was passing the former home of his late friend, the much lamented comedian Ted Roker.
Rocky would have loved the mystery of Maurice Ducas and, no doubt, have been able to proffer some bizarre and hilarious theories to explain it.
However, Stone realised, none of those scenarios would have brought a smile to that tortured, dark face which now so intrigued him, along with those unknown demons who haunted him.


Blue-Note Club,
La Place de Sainte Claire,
Montmartre, Paris.
July 27, 1983.

GARROS was seated at the bar beside a labouring cold-air fan. Despite its faltering breeze his silk shirt was sticking damply to his body. The dark, wiry hair on his chest, at his neck and even on the back of his hands itched with the heat and heavy atmosphere.
He had already loosened a wide 'kipper' tie Céline had bought him for his birthday, while enjoying the special champagne she'd ordered.
George would have liked to also dispense with his suit jacket. However, to do so would have meant removing his shoulder holster and revolver. That might be foolish, perhaps even fatally reckless. His mind drifted to a recent skirmish with the damned Benoir family – and its junior members trying to muscle in.
He was almost 40, a depressing thought – also overweight and unfit these days, but he intended to live much longer. Still, George was wary and superstitious about such occasions as today; it was part of his success. Birthdays attracted attention, made you careless, exposing you to being caught off guard.
Garros nodded to a few familiar faces. The club was at last filling up or, at least, getting as busy as you could expect at this time of year, when this old and now oppressive city all but closed down for the summer holidays. Perhaps that's why the younger Benoirs had got restless and greedy for more – the holiday slump.
Everyone made for the coast, which was where George wanted to be – in shorts or bathing trunks, basking in Mediterranean sunshine, safe on their boat. Upstairs, in the rambling apartment they shared above the club, Céline was still completing their packing.
His wife should be with him here. There was a new singer Céline had told him she'd hired, as another birthday surprise. But Garros didn't much like surprises.
He frowned, turning his head as sweat ran down his neck and back, cursing the humidity which had made these dense, familiar streets suddenly uninhabitable; the usually reassuring, smoky air of his basement club now foetid and heavy. Where was she?
Garros glowered at the dark, low ceiling, plastered with beer and distillery emblems, old vinyl records and LP covers of jazz albums. He could also see condensation forming. They should invest in air-conditioning, but it was expensive.
The place needed work doing; both it and himself were in a time warp. They were throwbacks but, like the limelight of a birthday celebration, George secretly feared emerging too far from their protective shadows.
Here, he was someone who counted; who others deferred to and who, as a result, also had enemies.
On the stage the band was finishing a muted Brubeck number which gave JJ, the sax player, a moody solo spot. The club's so-called Mister Blues was back on song, keeping his drug-taking down – and the whisky. George's last rather vigorous warning to JJ had apparently hit its mark. The whole band seemed keyed up tonight.
“More champagne, boss?” asked the new man behind the bar. Garros couldn't remember his name but nodded, reaching for another Gitanes and lighting it.
Garros drank gratefully, relaxing again. The club would be quiet and could run itself well enough in their absence. Céline did right to pack, get things moving. He raised a glass to the ceiling, a silent toast.
Many people seemed to think his wife ran both the club and him, Garros knew. But he was more than the firm fist inside that elegant lady's glove.
Céline had brains, that was true; good business sense. But she knew her place, too – he'd taught her. For Garros understood these gutters and, more importantly, the vermin they bred. His hard-won local instincts, if not wits, had kept him alive – and on top.
“Ladies and gentlemen, jazz fans - and lovers all,” said Antoine, the floor manager. “Tonight we have a sensational new singer for you, playing with JJ - our very own Mister Blues – and the Blue-Note Band. Welcome the lovely and soulful, Miss Mimi La-Mer!”
Garros gave another quick glance towards the back stairs, but there was still no sign of Céline. He glowered, crushing out the cigarette, then turned his heavy, sweating body upon the bar stool and, as he heard her first sultry tones, stared at the black girl sauntering sensually across the stage.
They'd obviously rehearsed well, the band and her, but this was the first time George had heard their new songstress himself. He sat open-mouthed, liking her moody treatment of the classic love song, Beyond The Sea; admiring, even more, the way this girl moved.
Was it a wig she wore? No, he didn't think so. Also, her body was so sinuous it stunned and intrigued him. That face was lovely, too, girlish but knowing.
However, Miss Mimi La-Mer, or whatever her real name was, also looked somehow lost. Garros liked that, her vulnerability; she'd fit in here. He smiled.
What was more and to his profound delight, on this his birthday night, the girl was smiling back at him. But no, George then realised, for the young singer was looking at someone a little to his left.
Garros turned, frowning, and saw Céline standing there, elegant and collected as usual; silently alongside and now watching him closely.


BY the time he had walked all the way back to Duck Lane, a tiny back-street just off Lytham's West Beach, Stone was ready for the beers he was anticipating that afternoon. By then he would, hopefully, be with volunteer worker Welsh Bill and following up the mystery of Maurice Ducas and his hospital visiting.
But first, Stone and Esperanza had arranged to have lunch together in his home at Number Seven. Her own premises, at least the business ones, were just a few doors further up Duck Lane on the opposite side. They had met, almost three summers before, after she opened her hairdressing salon, called A Cut Above.
Stone checked his watch then opened the front door of his cottage. Espie also rented; a flat hardly big enough for her and young daughter Angelina but only a decent walk – or cycle ride – from the salon. It was poor economics, blowing all their money on rents, but house prices around here were outrageous.
Espie and Angie had money due to them, from the Philippines, but it was taking its time coming. In the meantime her hairdressing paid her bills and Stone's freelance journalism and one published novel, inspired by Ted Roker's death, just covered his own costs.
She was still working up the lane, her distinctive, white bicycle propped up outside – and always locked these days – beside the salon entrance with its two clipped Box bushes in blue bowls.
Stone stepped back over the pile of junk mail delivered since leaving the cottage in early morning. A glance in the mirror showed he'd caught the sun in the morning's light sea breeze. His short-sleeved shirt was stuck to his chest.
Was he a little thicker round the waist these days? His favourite pale-green chino slacks still fitted well enough. At just over six feet one he could carry it, surely? Also, last time he'd checked, Stone was still close to his old rugby fighting-weight of 200-pounds.
A short scar from those days marked his face, just below the left cheekbone. It could be mistaken as an old knife wound but had come, in fact, from an opposite wing-forward's boot studs.
Stone had enjoyed a sweet revenge, after brief patching up at the pitch-side, running through the other man's tackle to score a match-winning try. He smiled briefly, remembering, for – later that afternoon - he'd missed the celebrations at Fylde Rugby Club, while receiving several stitches in hospital. However, the nurse sewing them had also turned out to be a memorable victory.
Stone stared back at the brooding tanned face a moment longer; more weathered now and, of course, reflecting many mis-spent years since. However, his teeth and features still passed inspection. Those green-flecked eyes looked uncertain, troubled; his dark hair, matted down a little today, needed a tidy-up and showed flecks, too, of more grey at the sides. “Hmm,” Stone grunted to himself, he should work out more, look after himself - as Espie always said.
Inside his open-plan sitting and dining room, Stone lay back on the sofa for a few minutes' rest. The whole idea of the long walk had been more exercise, but it had been hotter and further than he had anticipated. He sighed. Who was he kidding? The fearful 40s beckoned; life was spinning by.
Still, there was some decent white wine chilling in the fridge, where he should also now be getting out the salad to accompany sandwiches she was bringing.
Stone groaned, then rolled off the sofa and headed into his galley kitchen. However, the thought of his lovely Espie soon arriving had lifted his spirits.
By the time she had rung his door bell in warning then let herself into the cottage, Stone was putting out a couple of chairs and a small table in the back. It was the first outing for his garden furniture and his widow neighbour's cat came to investigate through a hole in the short hedge above their dividing wall.
“All right, Tara?” he said, as the young tabby paused, staring at him then the food and drink on the new all-weather table. He'd named this inquisitive and surprisingly determined, though affectionate creature after a girlfriend off Metro television news.
“Ah, you here!” said Espie, emerging into the small but sunny patio and nodding appreciatively at the new table and chairs. The back garden area was cobbled and 'easy-maintenance', relieved with a few perennial, flowering bushes in pots and wall boxes for flowers that Stone was yet to plant.
Espie had plated up some takeaway sandwiches and looked about uncertainly. “Thought you were talking to someone,” she explained.
“The cat,” said Stone. “She likes tuna.”
Espie laughed and, putting down the food while running a practised eye over the salad he'd arranged, she bent down and cuddled the appreciative tabby.
“What she call?” Espie looked up inquisitively at Stone, much like an adorable feline herself; dark eyes and teeth sparkling; her long, raven-black hair cascading free from a clasp too casually applied in a vain bid to hold it all up while working.
Her body, crouching down alongside the cat, still looked terrific. Well, she was still young, of course.
“Tara,” Stone muttered, unsure whether he'd shared that girl's name with her before. “At least, that's what I call her, seems to work.”
Espie petted Tara some more but only made the observation, “You funny.” Then she stood up and frowned, lifting her hand to shade her cute, elfin features from the sun. “You should have parasol here too, or hat on – to protect face.”
“Too late,” Stone sighed, sitting and pouring the wine which, he knew, she would only sip at. “My aged lines are there already.”
He watched that lithe, lovely body as she sat down so elegantly, back turned to the sun. Espie did look fresh-faced. What was she, early 30s now? He should know but preferred not to think about age any more. There were a good several years separating them – time for an itch, if not a hitch, as the saying went.
“You look okay to me,” she said, smiling.
They ate the food and she talked about her customers, then he told her about Maurice Ducas.
“So sad!” said Espie. “You help him, though?”
“I'll try.” Stone smiled and sat back. Rather than looking forward to the trip he'd planned into the inner realms of Blackpool to reconnoitre with Welsh Bill, he now felt more like going to sleep. The wine in the sun had taken its toll, along with the morning's long walk.
“What do you make of it?” he asked her. “I mean the things in that hat box, for example.”
“Well, must be for wife,” said Espie.
“But they say he hasn't really got one – or, of course, any baby come to that. He's too old.”
“No, but he think so,” she insisted stubbornly, then shrugged. “I think he love this woman very much, whoever she is.”
Espie frowned, rather beautifully, then her dark, opal eyes lit up.
“Maybe from his past, but he's forgotten now,” she said.
“Old people sometime just live in the past – in their minds. Yes,” she considered sadly, “he must love her very much – to walk so far, ask about for her so.”
Stone nodded, also saddened as he recalled that haunted face and weary gait of the older, smartly dressed man on his endless mission. Perhaps then, he considered, in the end all that was left which mattered to us was – as in the songs - love.
Stone smiled at Espie and resisted more wine.
“So, this weekend, if sunny – can I ask favour?” she said quietly, watching him closely.
When Stone judiciously maintained a silence, Espie shifted a little uncomfortably.
“Only I busy, you know, Saturday,” she continued. “But Angie, she want to ride bike.”
Espie's eyes opened wider, sparkling. “You take her to park again?”
Stone groaned. “There's cricket, you know? It's a big, first-team match this weekend!”
“You can go cricket later – and next Saturday.”
“They're playing away next week,” Stone said.
Espie put her head on one side and smiled sweetly, with a pleading expression worthy of cat Tara – now stretching across the warmest, flattest cobbles.
“Besides,” Stone continued manfully, “it would mean me driving – to take her bike – so I could only have one pint watching the game afterwards.”
“Is enough, no?” Espie frowned.
“Hardly,” Stone muttered.
Espie stood up and came to his side, a cajoling hand further smoothing down his hair - and resistance, then a lingering and warm kiss in the sunshine.
“It'll cost you!” Stone warned, then eased her down on to his lap.
When Espie recovered her breath from his probing kiss and long embrace, she protested, “I have salon, we busy!”
“Linda's there,” insisted Stone, already knowing he'd won her over, as Espie turned in his lap and her blouse at last opened up from his clumsy unbuttoning.
“Not here!” she protested.
“It's all right,” Stone whispered insistently, easing himself into a better position while still holding on to her. “No one can see – only Tara.”


Appartement Cinq,
25, Rue de Richelieu,
August 12, 1984.

“WHAT'S JJ stand for?” she asked suddenly, lying languidly alongside him in the unmade bed.
It was Sunday afternoon and the club was, as usual, closed that night and the next. Through the opened glass doors by the wrought-iron balcony came the whine of a scooter, drowning out for a while the pealing bells of the Sacré-Cœur; then some shouts from youths, three floors below in the cobbled street.
“Joseph Jacara,” he told her, running his hand along her smooth hip and shapely behind. JJ smiled, adding, “Like the jacaranda tree – with blue flowers.”
“That's a funny name.” She returned his smile.
“So is Mimi.”
Mimi laughed. “That's not my real name, Antoine at the club thought of it, like he did La-Mer too.” She cuddled closer again.
JJ nodded. He didn't like the fussy, cocksure floor manager Antoine, who was a known 'ginger' and could be as jealous, moody and vicious as the woman he would have liked to have been born. But JJ had to admit the name was good.
“It suits you.”
Mimi only grinned again, tossing back those long curls of thick, wavy-black hair; her lovely, almost cheeky face shining, like those coal-black eyes, as she returned his petting then pressed hard against him.
“Is that why they call you Mister Blues – because of your name?”
“No,” he said simply, “it's because I play them.”
She laughed happily again, then lowered her head close to him, their noses touching.
“No one's bothered here about my real name,” JJ told her, a little sadly now, adding, “or yours.”
Mimi nodded. It was hot, sultry and they had only just cooled again after their long lovemaking, but she pressed her body closer once more, needing his loving again.
Mimi groaned appreciatively as he shifted beneath her. She was still smiling but now looking searchingly into his eyes.
Mimi needed love, he knew; being glad, like him, to forget how people around here stared at them; those Turkish and other Muslim women, now living in this neighbourhood; the men too, of course – JJ knew they frightened her.
“I love you, JJ Blue,” she said, teeth gleaming, making JJ feel good too.
He was fine now, about himself, when with her. He was, after all, a star jazz-man; also soulful, even intriguing to many, with his quiet pride and new dignity. Before Mimi, he had been unpredictable, even to himself; sometimes moody, then often ill.
At times, JJ knew, his fragility had poisoned the mood of the whole band, even the atmosphere in the club. But now, with Mimi there, the Blue-Note had begun to feel for once like a home, somewhere safe - where he was loved, by some. Yes, he really needed her - like the air that he breathed.
JJ buried his face in her neck, then up – delightfully entangled - in her hair; grunting with his exertion until, at last, she cried out again and they, finally, fell silent.
“I love you, too, Mimi La-Mer,” JJ murmured, then slipped down in the bed and lay his head against her breasts; closing his eyes, ready to sleep some more.
But she stroked his face and asked lazily, “Will they mind – at the club I mean – about me and you?” JJ didn't answer at first, holding on to their mood.
He could hear her heart beating and half opened his eyes, seeing her dark, flat stomach and those long, lovely legs.
Nearby, a discarded, coiled-up, white sheet was a startling contrast against her smooth, ebony skin.
Then he reluctantly glanced beyond their untidy, love-warmed bed, to that distant grey-blue matt canvas of this old city's sky, beyond his rusting balcony.
“Why should they?” he asked, closing his tired eyelids again. “We practically make love on the stage!” JJ rose up on one elbow and grinned encouragingly at Mimi. “All the band know, after all.”
She muttered agreement but sounded unsure.
That little shit Antoine would also know of course, JJ thought uneasily. The floor manager missed nothing, but he also liked Mimi – as though she was his creation or, at least, a close, younger girlfriend to nurture and then gossip with about others.
Antoine would hate her being with him, JJ realised. The bastard might overcharge him - even more than already - for any stuff he used. JJ fought down a passing panic. After all, he knew what Mimi had really meant by her question.
How good it had been, these last few weeks, while the boss was away! As usual at this time, Garros was in the south, on his boat; watched over - as ever - by his all-seeing wife.
The clever Céline chose not to see certain things, JJ knew, such as what George smuggled into Marseilles on that same boat - or how he sometimes behaved when here, with certain girls.
JJ had noticed how Garros stared at Mimi.
He sighed, hearing her breathing deepen, letting sleep reclaim them; forgetting the worrying prospect of George Garros returning – with his jealous pettiness, his violent anger and dangerous moods.
Somehow, JJ feared, this happiness of theirs could not last. For that was how it always was – or had been for him, until now.
That was, JJ realised deep within himself, why he played the blues – and the reason Mimi could sing as she did, so soulfully for one so young.
Those sad lows and wild, searing notes came from deep within their souls; conjured up like the music of those people he'd wandered with as a child, those travellers who never belonged, were never at ease.
The fans, who listened to him when he played - so sweet it made you want to cry or suddenly harsh, like a scream - seemed to sense that too.
The blues were his life - and now Mimi was, too. They needed their club, even with George Garros.
That was why he feared for them both.

* * *

 HERE is the introduction to our Christmas publication, a collection of Roy's newspaper columns - old and new - with cartoon illustrations and updated notes and anecdotes. It's entitled Wish You Were Here and was published at the end of 2018. (Its front and back covers are again included below.)

IT always struck me as a marvellous ruse to be a newspaper columnist, rather than having to do a proper job of work.
The distinguished columnist didn't have to rush out reporting on horrible and sometimes dangerous events in all weathers, or even knock out a feature-length article on something of general interest but not so newsworthy.
He or she just had to sound off a little, as one might at the pub, or during a dinner party. What's more, with a flattering head-and-shoulders picture in the paper, then you became a celebrity – of sorts.
However, the reality was nothing like as cosy. My first column, after deciding that newspaper journalism was my thing, came on a weekly tabloid in East London, the Ilford Recorder.
The highly successful paper's down-market style was more East End than Essex, since it circulated in that densely populated, down-to-earth urban corridor leading through Stratford (decidedly not 'Upon Avon') into the old commercial dock areas of 'Cockney Land' where notorious gangs like the Krays operated.
“You're going to be our Holy Joe!” my boss, news editor Chris Coates – a Cockney himself – informed me one morning, while offering a whelk from a paper-bag full of shellfish, which he kept cool on the outside window ledge by his newsdesk.
He meant, to my horror, that I was to become the red-top paper's church correspondent. This did not match my sought-after 'tough reporter' image at all; nor the alternative persona I sometimes adopted, of caring feature writer waiting to be discovered by The Guardian or Observer newspapers.
I retaliated by making my weekly round-up of church news as controversial as possible, stirring up an unholy row which had vicars phoning up angrily and letters to the editor from indignant parishioners. But, of course, Chris's response was, “Fantastic, you're doing a great job! We've never had so much interest in that column.”
The majority of journalists in the office were from the East End or Essex. I was the only northerner. Whenever I rushed up to the newsdesk with some breaking story, Chris would shout out, “Hey, 'eck 'ee thump! Is there trouble at mill, lad?” But he was an old hand from Fleet Street, as was the rather Jack-the-lad, younger editor. They both taught me a lot.
Learning quick had been the idea of me going all the way down to London for my first newspaper job. I had been a late starter, trying other more respectable professions then doing a correspondence course in journalism and getting a start on textile trade magazines in Old Trafford, Manchester.
I'd also done reporting shifts on national newspapers and news agencies but these didn't get me anywhere. It was really all about who you knew, not what you were capable of – or, at least, that's what I told myself to feel better.
My chequered career shifted from general news reporting through boring editing work, from Essex to the Cambridge Evening News (briefly), then sank suddenly to a rural newspaper group in Shropshire before finally pitching me sideways back into the welcoming North-West. On the Blackpool paper, the West Lancashire Evening Gazette, I enjoyed being a reporter again. They also let me write features and some investigative stuff but, as far as I recall, I never got to the dizzy height of having my own column.
For that, I had to travel to the other side of the world, where British-trained journalists were in demand. After a year or so reporting and 'newsdesking' experience in Hong Kong, winning a few gongs for news stories and feature writing, the South China Morning Post's esteemed editor Robin Hutcheon asked me if I fancied writing a column. I jumped at the opportunity and was asked to do some trial pieces.
“Hey, come and have a look at this!” whispered the late-night reporter one evening, as I was packing up following an afternoon shift in the SCM Post's newsroom, then in wrong-end-of-town Quarry Bay.
The 'late man' was a curious, almost menacing character called Tommy Lee; a chain-smoking, dark glasses-wearing Mecanese (part Portuguese, mostly Chinese from neighbouring Macau), with great gangland and police connections, as well as a sharp nose for a news story.
He was cheerfully leafing through private correspondence and management notes on the desk of the night editor, who still hadn't arrived yet for work.
Before I could rebuke him for his investigative nerve, he held up the typewritten trial columns I'd written a few days before and given to the editor. They were attached to a memo being circulated to all editorial executives, asking for their comments.
To my relief, all remarks were complimentary, although the night editor had already scribbled his own doubts, writing, “Good start but can he keep it up?” Well, I've written a column, on and off, for 36 years now so the answer, I'd reasonably claim, was yes.
When I left the Post, the column was one of the aspects of working there that I missed most. Happily, when I eventually landed up back in Blighty again and, after a telling time trying to freelance in Manchester, I soon got offered another column (in addition to an editing job), back on Blackpool's Gazette.
By this time, the late 80s, I was mainly occupied as a sub-editor, processing others' stories and 'laying out' or designing pages. To most people who read my column, however, I was assumed to only produce its 500 or so words over the week. The reality was that my column was knocked out in spare minutes between proper work, as was reflected in the paltry extra few quid paid for it.
Such is the life of local newspaper columnists. Their picture may appear above their column but is likely to be an old, out-of-date one. Thus, it is a surprise to be recognised by any readers. Those few who might spot us, tend to add that we look much older than our printed photographs.
Then there are other deflating comments such as, “Funny, I thought you did the gardening column,” or, “I always read your column, buying the paper specially every Tuesday,” when, of course, the column happens to appear on a different day.
Still, who wants to read a boastful columnist? Truth, they say, comes from the mouths of babes or, at least, the down-trodden. I humbly hope you'll find these columns entertaining, informative and amusing.
Roughly four columns make up a month and chapter. They were stored electronically, so the most recent come first in this backward journey through time – finishing with some of my earlier efforts. So, turn around your armchair and let's set off! We'll get to know each other better along the way.
A few 'between the columns' anecdotes and notes will enhance events, people and places. The charm of such personal, light-hearted columns about every-day happenings and ironies is, I suppose, that they are a glimpse into another's experience where, to our surprise, we might also see ourselves reflected.
It's reassuring and healthy to discover we're not really all that different from each other. Also, hopefully, that we're not half as big a failure, oddity and chump as we'd always feared!

You can also read the first few pages of most of our books by clicking on the links on our Books page. Latest columns are posted weekly on our Column/Memoir page.

* * *

THE first chapters of the recently published fourth Sam Stone novel. Also included are front and back covers showing images of Conway. Turn to Books page for more details.


THE chapel appeared ancient, weathered by age and sea winds, like himself. Yet this remote place might offer temporary peace and sanctuary, as he had hoped. There had been setbacks, yes, but also goodness shown to him; and he, too, might also be merciful, as he yearned for a final blessing and freedom, for rest.
However, those solid, metalled doors below the chapel bell tower were firmly locked, its stone walls impregnable. He took shelter instead, from that damned invasive rain, in the only place he could: upon a tomb's raised, mossy tombstone under its canopy, topped by a crumbling angel looking blindly out to sea.
He asked forgiveness, from those lying beneath and from God; then closed his eyes to sleep, awaiting that ferryman of mythology, the conveyor of souls.
But there were nightmares awaiting and, waking while still in their grip, he was in darkness, held tight by demons from this cold grave; choked, it seemed, by his own coffin's lining as he struggled to be free.
Unable to breathe, he convulsed, but still they held him; their invading hands searching, degrading him, as he became racked in agony. But then the blessed calmness came upon him; that awful pain mercifully dispersing and, at last, he was released.


THE old man intrigued Thomas the moment he came inside. Although appearing well past the wrong side of 70, he was altogether big, proudly upright and had a lot of presence.
Upon entering he'd swept off his well-worn though rather stylish cloth cap, worn at jaunty angle. His dark Crombie overcoat had also seen better days as had, when revealed, a lovat corduroy suit beneath.
However, there was a colourful, silk handkerchief overflowing the breast pocket, with paisley cravat at the man's bearded throat, tucked into a badly creased, checked, poplin shirt.
A silk handkerchief and cravat, you didn't see many of those these days – not in these parts.
The old fellow also had a good head of thick, silvery hair, swept back neatly but for a few stray locks falling across his deeply lined forehead.
His was an interesting, weathered face, with alert green eyes beneath wild brows; his fleshy, rather puce nose was softened by the full beard's curling moustaches.
The old chap had been gasping a little, tired by the walk and couple of steps up to the restaurant door, but now, with coat taken and settled into a corner table by the fire, his voice had a confident timbre. It also had a Gaelic lilt. He sounded Irish, from the south, but decidedly sophisticated.
“So, what can we get you to drink, sir?” Thomas asked cheerily, pleased by the old fellow's aplomb - especially after a marauding family of six who'd left a mess at the large window table. It was that time of the day, mid-afternoon, when Thomas was unsure whether they should remain open after lunch or, as his wife Sharne repeatedly told him, close up until the evening trade arrived for and from the ferries.
“That'd be a robust claret, on a damp day like this,” said the customer, stretching his legs to reveal thick-soled, polished but elderly brogues.
Thomas showed him the rather thin drinks list, catching a whiff of sweat and musty cloth as he leaned closer. Was it whisky, too, he could detect on the man's still heavy breath?
“Hmm,” the old chap growled, head down and now impatiently studying the couple of laminated pages. From an inside pocket he'd conjured up slightly bent, half-moon spectacles. “Better be your Pinotage, I suppose; large glass please.”
Thomas nodded and made a note, then pointed out the menus beside the new, brass-topped salt and pepper grinders Sharne had insisted upon.
“There's our à la carte and also early-bird or lunch menus, sir.”
The man's grunt at this extra studying duty reflected Thomas's own view about more than one menu. The shorter the better, he always believed – indicating freshness of preparation rather than freezing and microwaves. He didn't bother yet mentioning the daily specials chef had taken an age chalking up on the board after their breakfast rush.
“And today's soup is?”
“Irish Broth,” said Thomas, turning to see a pair of backpackers squeezing through the door, while at the same time loosening their great, wet packs. His spirits sank again, as grey now as the thickening mist of rain outside the windows. Still, his old customer looked pleased by this latest information and was nodding encouragingly.
“That with the lamb cutlets then,” he ordered.

ACROSS the flat, verdant dampness of Anglesey, beyond Snowdonia's now hidden peaks, the Cheshire plain stretched endlessly into rain-filled mist, with a blur of red tail and brake lights ahead. Stone slowed his packed 4x4 to third then second gear and finally halted in the outside lane of the motorway.
He could feel Esperanza's anxiety mounting beside him as, just seconds later, he crawled forward, now in first gear, through the heavy, late-afternoon traffic. Ahead of him was a large BMW with a couple in the front looking equally tense. Behind him, above the sleeping figure of Angelina beside their suitcases, was another but larger four-wheel drive, dwarfing his own Suzuki.
“Is very slow,” observed Espie, glancing again at her watch.
“We're almost there,” Stone reassured her. At this time, the build-up of traffic should have been in the opposite direction, coming from the city. Probably there were many early evening flights. Also, of course, this atrocious weather hadn't helped – typical Manchester.
Oh, for the coming spring, Stone thought, wishing he was back on the Fylde and downing a pint of cask ale at The Taps. Then he felt guilty - and anxious again. Espie and Angie still had hours of flying before them, most of the night and morning ahead; while he, new author Samuel Stone, was about to be interviewed on television. That increasingly imminent prospect sent a wave of nausea through him.
Espie sighed then leaned back, after glancing round at Angie, and closed her eyes too. Stone considered he would later face heavy traffic again, but in reverse – when heading through the city for new studios in neighbouring Salford. He hadn't bothered booking a hotel so it would be a long, arduous evening. That and the dour rain didn't help his already low mood. He still felt cheated, missing out; even an underlying panic at being left behind. It was childish, he knew, but there it was – yet again – him being abandoned by those he loved.
Espie turned up a music track she liked. The traffic speed was picking up a little too. She turned round again, shaking Angie awake now, warning they would soon be at the airport.
'Not for a while yet, my darling,' Stone was thinking. He concentrated on catching up with the BMW, which had suddenly vanished into mist, while also keeping a wary eye on the monster now tailgating them.
The last time he and Espie had been driving on a motorway had been months before in early-winter sunshine, heading north from Lancashire to the Lakes. At the time, Angie had already flown from this same airport for an early autumn holiday in the Algarve, with a school friend's family. How wonderful those few weeks had been! They had been spent in a country house hotel, between Lakeland towns where he'd been fêted by publisher's staff and readers; how memorable, their nights together, alone.
Stone glanced at Espie beside him, feeling the hurt of her departure more sharply, missing her already.
Then he saw little Angie rubbing her eyes, trying to waken, staring uncomprehendingly into the wet mist surrounding them. Tomorrow she would be in the familiar intense sunshine of the Philippines – and the horrendous traffic of its mega-city capital.
Stone sighed, then risked putting his foot down harder. If he was honest, he was glad not to be going with them, especially with so much for them to sort out in Manila following the death of Espie's aunt.
However, still further beneath all that, lingered his illogical but deepest fear; that they wouldn't return.

DID you enjoy that, sir?” Thomas asked uncertainly, noting a considerable amount of food still left of the main-course dish, besides the straightened knife and fork of his elderly customer.
“Well,” the old chap began, looking up rather warily, “the wine and soup were good.” He sighed, then lowered his voice, although the only other customers – the backpacking couple hanging on grimly to their table after just soup and rolls – were a good distance away. “That's no way to cook cutlets.”
Thomas felt his dark eyebrows raise, which always amused Sharne. “Is that so, sir?”
“No. Who's the chef?” the old Irishman asked more firmly.
“He's Nowegian,” said Thomas, realising it sounded like an excuse. Their thick, pink-centred lamb cutlets were a signature dish, with the green salad and potato rosti, plus chef's pickled extras. It was one of those dishes heading their new version of Scandinavian 'hygge' – their 'unique selling point'.
“Well,” said the customer, glancing about them, then smiling at Thomas with a glint of amusement and a certain conspiratorial air, “he's not busy is he?”
“You want me to fetch him?” Thomas was surprised but intrigued.
“Why not? He might learn something.”
With a polite nod and impulsive smile, Thomas obliged and went to the kitchen beyond the new, granite-topped bar. Chef and his local assistant were dutifully tidying up, wiping down surfaces, checking stock. Thomas smiled, raising his eyebrows again, then put his head lower to the hatch.
“Got a customer wants a word.”
Chef looked pleased. He nodded, wiped his hands, took off the cap and followed Thomas back into the restaurant. By the exit door, Thomas noted, the backpackers were heaving on their gear. Their faces fell a little at his return. Had they been planning a 'runner' – where to? Didn't they realise there was nowhere to run, not round here - on a wet afternoon in Holyhead?
“I'll be with you in a minute,” he called over to them, not wanting to miss what the old man had to say.
“A grand broth,” the Irishman began, then coughed and looked down at his abandoned cutlets, “but they are done all wrong.”
Chef's smile had gone. His more usual serious demeanour returned. “In what way?” the Scandinavian stiffly demanded.
“Lamb cutlets need to be cut THIN!” the old man said, emphasising the last word, “Then cooked – preferably grilled – very hot, to crisp up the fat. That way you can enjoy the whole cutlet, golden fat 'n' all - pick it up with your fingers to finish.” He mimicked such indulgence with raised hands and his green eyes shone with enthusiasm.
“Best served with chipped potatoes, well fried and dried too,” the old chap continued, warming to his lecture. “Lamb's greasy enough as it is and NO ONE (he emphasised again) wants a great lump of undercooked fat on their plate, nor, anyone with sense, rare lamb. It's a strong enough meat to keep its flavour when thoroughly cooked.”
Thomas didn't think the chef was going to answer for a moment. The young man stared frostily at the old Irishman for a few seconds, then inclined his head and merely muttered, “Thank you, sir.” He turned to Thomas and added curtly, “I will get back to the kitchen.”
“Aye, get a cleaver sharpened up and the grill on high!” suggested the old man, grinning.
“I'll just see to these,” Thomas told him, turning again towards the back-packers and smothering a smile. Just wait till he told Sharne about this! She didn't much like chef, or even their attempt at hygge – that illusive Danish sense of well-being, pronounced like a posh 'nougat' with an 'h'. Not much hygge in the chef's reaction to criticism, Thomas observed with some pleasure.
Trouble was, the Norwegian was just the sort who might put on his coat and chuck in the job at such criticism, specially with lack of managerial support. The prospect gave Thomas a twist of anxiety but, also, unexpectedly, some underlying glee. He didn't much like the cold Scandinavian either. In fact, no-one did.
The back-packers – both English - paid up to the penny, leaving no tip.
“Enjoy your day,” Thomas told them, bowing with ironic courtesy as they struggled out into the rain. Well, at least his chef hadn't bailed out - yet.
Thomas went back towards the fire and smiled at the old man.
“Can we interest you in a dessert, sir? On the house,” he added impulsively – and loud enough to be heard in the kitchen, “since you were disappointed with your main.”
The Irishman bowed his head appreciatively but looked up at Thomas now with cautious regret. “Unfortunately, the whole meal must be,” he said evenly, then explained, “You see, I've no money.”


STONE followed a signed route to the terminal building, pulled up under cover and brought them a luggage trolley. “I'll park properly then come back, you check in,” he told Espie, as he loaded the many bags and suitcases.
He was wet through by the time he returned and found them, still queueing. Espie fussed with his damp jacket and shirt. “You should have brought coat.” She looked up and smiled unexpectedly, her face brightening at last. “You on TV!” Then she frowned. “Can you record – for us to see?”
Stone promised he would, then felt Angie's soft, small hand slip into his.
“I text my friends, so they see you,” she told him, staring up and offering that gap-toothed smile which touched him deeply.
Stone put his hand on her mass of black curls. “Thank you, angel, I hope I do all right.”
“Of course you will!” said Espie, leaning into him again and patting his chest reassuringly.
They checked in without problem but were warned to go straight through into departures.
Stone guided them to the passport and security checkpoint, helping them carry what seemed far too much in-flight luggage. Then, after taking off items of jewellery and belts, they were through – both looking back at him with sudden concern.
He could see the anxious realisation in Espie's face that they hadn't kissed goodbye. Stone blew her one. She smiled back uncertainly, then lifted up Angie and they waved; then they were hastening towards departure gates, suddenly lost in the diverse, all-encompassing crowd.

I SUPPOSE this is where I offer to wash dishes,” said the Irishman, standing with an effort, then adding, more earnestly, “I'm sorry, you seem a decent fellow.”
Thomas nodded. “Actually, our policy in these circumstances is to call the police.”
“So, I'll get a night in the chokey; perhaps a couple, as it's soon weekend,” said the old man. “Well, I'll get fed again, that's something.” He grinned, apparently unperturbed. “To think, earlier today I was all set to lunch with a lord.”
“I'll take my break, John,” called chef, rather huffily and dressed now for outdoors. He was standing by the end of the bar, between kitchens and conveniences. “Lloyd will stay until I return.”
Thomas silently raised his hand in farewell. There would be little for the old man to do anyway, except his and the back-packers' few dishes, which young Lloyd was coping with easily.
Neither was there much point calling police and seeing this destitute but game old-timer taken away. How would he pay the nominal fines anyway? Probably, only offering a couple of quid a week - and all for a meal he hadn't enjoyed? It might even encourage bad publicity, if in court he criticised the cuisine. Just the sort of offbeat, sympathetic yarn that appealed to the local press.
“Have you eaten, your good self?” inquired the Irishman, unexpectedly.
“Well, no,” Thomas said. He usually managed to grab a sandwich after serving lunch, but had been held up by clearing that large family table.
The old man clapped his hands and grinned wolfishly. “Why don't you let me knock up some cutlets – done the right way this time?”
Thomas laughed, despite the outrageousness. He stared at the distant expanse of window, the continuing mist beyond, then went over and decisively turned the door's sign to 'Closed' .
“Why not?” he said, returning the old man's delighted smile.

JUST a small glass of red wine,” said Stone. There were half a dozen of them in the comfortable lounge; no-one he recognised, though they were all supposedly celebrities, himself included. Then he explained to the production assistant offering drinks, “Driving back to the coast afterwards.”
Her gaze lingered intimately and she offered him a look of regret. “That's a shame.”
At least he was dry now and feeling relaxed in the hospitality suite, or 'green room' as they used to call it when he was at the BBC. He already had on make-up and would, he'd been informed, be first on, which had surprised him.
Usually the compères liked to wheel out their biggest star first, then keep them on the guest sofa - chatting and on occasional view as lesser beings were interviewed. Obviously, tonight's chat show was rather thin on stardust.
“Can I leave straight afterwards?” he asked her now, not wanting to politely stay - offering desperate comments on what other guests discussed. Stone still felt nervous but that was essential, he knew, if you were to look lively on camera. Unfortunately, all his experience was as a reporter and interviewer, occasionally even news reader, but never interviewee - let alone entertainer.
“I'll check,” she said, with a sympathetic smile. “Don't see why not.”
Was that rather a put-down – that they wouldn't need him longer? Stone didn't care. Fame had never interested him, except when starting off as a junior reporter – eager to see his name in print. With experience he preferred, like most seasoned hacks, to observe from the sidelines; valuing a privileged anonymity.
“That's okay,” she called moments later, serving a guest with his second large whisky. The man looked over, appearing nervous and eager to chat. Stone avoided his glance, rising with his glass of wine and going over to the panoramic plate-glass windows, looking down upon the quays.
It looked more like a high-rise Oriental city than Salford, though perhaps during a tropical storm - in this continuing downpour. In his early days around Manchester, this area had been full of neighbourhood boozers and dockland Dorises.
The thought made him feel even more of a media dinosaur; now approaching 40 and out of the rat race; freelancing rather poorly and, most recently, playing at authorship. Stone took a sip of the wine and cheered a little, savouring also his freedom. Then his mind went back to Espie and Angie, already high above these darkening clouds.

CHEF'S privilege!” said Joseph, as the Irishman had now introduced himself. He had brought an additional small plate bearing one well-grilled, thin cutlet and now lifted it to his mouth with his fingers and chewed appreciatively.
“Bon appétit,” muttered Thomas, then sliced into the lamb. Joseph was right. It was far tastier this way. In the hatchway, judging from his enthusiastic eating, young Lloyd – who'd done the cooking under Joseph's tutelage - felt the same. The Irishman had generously insisted on Lloyd having cutlets too.
Thomas even picked up the bones to finish, encouraged by the old devil.
“We'll have to change the menu?” Thomas observed, then joked, “Maybe we should employ you, Joseph.”
The Irishman laughed but shook his head. “Now, you have the further advantage of me,” he said, “with me not knowing your name.”
“John Thomas.”
Joseph raised his bushy eyebrows but didn't comment or make a joke about the name, as so many had over the years.
“Well, John Thomas,” he said, “that's an interesting thought – for I do believe you should have a good-hearted man in a kitchen, that I do.” He sighed. “However, I have a pressing engagement and duty to perform; a date with destiny you might say, on the other side of the water.”
“With no money?”
“That is a setback,” Joseph conceded. “However, we'll see. I'm in no hurry for this particular encounter – but have friends in high places.” His eyes lifted heavenward.


STONE put his foot down on the now quiet motorway. With luck he could be home in Lytham in an hour, plenty of time for a relaxing drink – perhaps watching a recording of his appearance; then a takeaway and full night's sleep.
There was nothing on his itinerary for tomorrow or, for that matter, the following weeks, which suited him fine.
He blew out his breath, easing back in the comfortable driver's seat, glad to relax. As he swept down on to the M6 and his familiar homeward route, he thought over the questions he'd been asked and his answers.
It had been as expected, harking back to his old friend Ted Roker and his tragic death. It was Rocky's name, then, which had supplied the necessary opening celebrity. Had Stone's novel been a testimony to the popular comedian, as suggested in a short tribute in its beginning? Why had his fictional stand-up comic, Joey Shepherd, turned preacher after a double family tragedy? Was it inspired by the tragedies in Stone's own family? Had Roker been a religious man - or was he?
He'd gone through the usual answers, practised at book signings around the country; also trying to stress the optimism of his theme. Yet the interviewers only brought him back round to Ted, showing clips of his final appearances then citing Stone's involvement in unravelling the mystery of his violent death.
There had been nothing said, Stone considered now, that would boost book sales or the enthusiasm of his publisher – now struggling to recoup a generous advance.
He shook his head, concentrating on his driving again; this wasn't something to dwell upon. The novel had done well enough for a first-time author. Now he should find a new project to work on; get back into the newspaper feature columns – though there was no rush, not yet.
The trouble was, Stone realised with a lowering drift of mood after the day's high dramas, he was returning to nothing; just a deserted cottage and cold bed, even an empty diary.
At least, as he now turned on to the M55 heading for the Irish Sea holiday coast, the rain clouds had again passed by the Fylde, where the evening sky was clear.
Tomorrow was a new day, Stone told himself. He just had to find a way to fill it.

YOU look like a Celt, are you from around these parts?” Joseph asked, now heaving on his heavy overcoat assisted by Lloyd.
“Born and bred,” Thomas said, “though I practised on the mainland mostly – before returning here, opening this place up.”
“Practised?” Joseph held his floppy, Irish-style cap in his hand, politely not donning it while still inside the premises.
“Solicitor,” explained Thomas, adding, “but my wife – then our clerk - was always keen on cooking. This was her idea – but fun. My parents died and she fell in love with it here.”
Thomas laughed, seeing Joseph stare doubtfully at the grey mist outside. “It's not always like this. There's a real community here. Also, the coves and countryside are very quiet most of the year, very unspoiled.”
Joseph nodded his head sympathetically. “That's good,” he said. “I have such a place in mind now.” He smiled, adding, “A friendly cove – with a loved one.”
Thomas felt touched, pleased again that he had spared the old man. He would have liked to sit down and share a drink with him, tell Joseph how the Welsh made jokes about those from Anglesey, as the English did about the Irish.
However, that wasn't appropriate – as his former senior partner would have said. Instead he merely walked with Joseph to the door, turning round its sign again to 'Open'.
“It's good you left all that law shenanigans,” commented Joseph, putting on his cap at its jaunty angle. “Dreadful dry business!”
He patted Thomas's shoulder in matey fashion. “You know, you have a cosy place here dear fellow.” He let his hand pause a moment on the smaller, younger man's shoulder. “Keep it local and simple, that's my advice.”
Joseph visibly gathered himself in the now cold open doorway. “Thank you, Mister Thomas. I hope I can repay your kindness sometime.”
The old chap touched his cap and winked. “I have a treasure of my own but keep it under my hat, you might say.” His face set for a moment and his rheumy eyes fixed upon Thomas. “It's a stick of dynamite, so to speak. Treasure's a terrible thing, you see, whoever salvages it usually ends up with blood on their hands.”
With that he patted Thomas's shoulder again then stepped out into the rain.
Thomas watched him go. It reminded him a little of legal aid cases in the past, at busy resort magistrates courts along the coast. Some defendants had been homeless, of 'no fixed abode' as he suspected the old Irishman was now. Thomas had still always done his best for them, despite the ribbing from English-born colleagues who generally avoided criminal work.
A few of those desperate cases ended well, even illuminated the dreary office routine; they made him feel all his studying had been worthwhile, that he had made a difference to others' lives. It had been his common law lecturer, at Bangor, who had inspired a lasting, though much-tried passion in justice for all.
Even the lowliest, most despised of men, must learn that they, too, counted for something. No one could go through life believing otherwise, his mentor had said. We all need to know that we matter to others, even – or especially- those disenfranchised or homeless.
Thomas had never forgotten his home, here on this beautiful island where he would always have a sense of belonging. Not to have that, it had always seemed to him, must be the final loss of all.
He shook his head sadly, watching the old man now turn up his coat collar and hunch down against the cold; walking slowly into the deepening mist.
A large, passing 4x4 vehicle blocked his view for only a moment but, after it had passed, the street was empty and the Irishman gone.

* * *

HERE is the start and first two chapters of the third Sam Stone investigation, our third novel in the series about a freelance reporter, entitled On The Dark Side. Again, it's a light thriller with a romantic flavour and some uplifting spiritual undertones. It is set on the Fylde coast. The front and back covers are shown, left and below, respectively.


IT haunted him for weeks afterwards, sometimes causing Stone to wake, sweating and alarmed in the night. Slowly then, he would realise he was safe – for now – in the dark; though he would strain his ears in case the distant sound was there and they were coming; that tap-tap-tap, a measured, metallic beat getting louder, closing in upon him, relentlessly.
Or, sometimes at dusk, he might hear the restless murmur of a dog and fear it to be a warning, then wait for the step of that same, unseen exterminator emerging from distant shadows.
It was the awful helplessness, as he had lain there, stunned in the park and unable to move; knowing the other one would come, to deliver that fatal coup de grâce, the final cut – though death, even then, would be slow, life drifting away, as the tap-tap receded to a final, sad silence.
Yet it was weakness which lay behind that shadow's approach; an age-old vulnerability, masked in evil; bringing retribution, in Stone's case undeserved.
He would shake his head at the foolishness of such tragedy; the ruthless vigilantes as bad and misled as those they sought to punish and exterminate.
This cruel circle by moonlight was powered by men's damned dreams; their need for more, because of broken hopes, ideals of what they considered deserved.
What was saddest and most disturbing of all was that it had, at least for Stone, started with love and good intentions; a striving for something beyond the tragedies and wasted times he'd known.
It had all begun, he understood now, back on that day in Manchester; a journey that was meant to be one of triumph, but which ended in shame and the usual mixed regrets.
Was this the balance, then, of light and dark in our lives; the endless cycle of our affairs, until we emerge perhaps better for it, or fail?
There was goodness, he knew, and, in those darkest moments, Stone would cling to that and the love and kindness which his faith and hope in life still brought him. It meant that, in the end, he was not alone.


STONE walked under the railway bridge on Oxford Road and was transported back into his past. Across the busy thoroughfare was where BBC's former HQ had been, now superseded by Media City at Salford Quays, on the other side of Greater Manchester.
This was where he had risen to be a TV figure; where his life had begun to change, or was it to fall apart, like the building now demolished?
It had been there, in the former North-West newsroom, he had met Emma. She had led him down the aisle and on to London to greater things, as she would have said, except Stone hadn't wanted them.
For a moment he stood pondering whether to call in at the Lass O' Gowrie, for old time's sake and a pint of their home-brewed bitter. But there would have been too many memories lurking in the alcoves and back rooms like old ghosts or, worse still, living ones. This had been his workplace, but now he was a stranger - just another passing face on the wide pavement.
Stone walked on in the thinning crowds of a weekday afternoon, away from St. Peter's Square and his lunch-time book signing at the Library Theatre, still unsure where or how he was going to spend the night.
He passed the university buildings, seeing hopeful, younger faces now; students carrying shoulder bags or hold-alls like the light one over his shoulder – with a change of clothes for tomorrow and his tablet and other essentials.

His step was lighter now, forgetting the annoying questions of his fellow hacks back at that book signing. Not that many had wanted books, just quotes about Ted Roker whom his novel was dedicated to; any glimmer of new insights, story possibilities, dirt.
There had been some genuine readers, too, whom he'd been glad to chat with and sign books for; but didn't most people now use Kindles?
He would face the same carry-on tomorrow, only at a bijou Cheshire wine bar somewhere near Wilmslow – another place his publisher had earmarked as having potential for sales and publicity.
Being in a city had long since failed to excite him, as it once did. He just felt grimy, from the traffic, litter, density of buildings and accumulated dirt; others' tiredness and anxiety. If there was still a rush, then it was in the opposite direction to where he wanted to go.
At last, he smiled, relishing the slightly fresher air of late summer, early autumn; the nearby openness of Victoria Park with its mature trees and heritage, some space. A passing girl matched his smile and caught his eye. So, he thought, further lifted in spirit, he still had some appeal, even for a youngster almost two decades his junior.
His phone was vibrating. Stone withdrew it from his shirt's chest pocket and went over to the side of the pavement away from traffic.
“Sam?” It was a female voice, shrill but still rather overwhelmed by passing buses and cars. “Heard you were in town, let's meet.”
“You'll have to shout,” he warned, “I'm on Oxford Road.” He'd hoped to have recognised his caller's voice by now but had failed. “Who is it?”
There was a resentful pause. “Tara,” she said flatly, “Tara Sinclair, remember?” This last had a sarcastic ring. You couldn't keep a hooray-Henry Cheshire-girl down for long, not in spirit and confidence anyway; nor penetrate far into such a confirmed news-hound's resilient hide.
“Sorry, Tara. The park's just here, I'll go in away from the noise, then be able to hear you.”
Stone walked briskly between high, ornate gates and headed up the main path towards an enthroned Victoria on a high plinth. The Empress was black with the pollution of past ages and covered in pigeon shit, but still looked disdainfully upon all that lay at her feet.
“Still there?” he asked, deciding to go into a square with benches and flowerbeds, though their displays were now fading or partly cleared for autumn.
“Yes, a colleague was at your press conference, for the novel – well done, by the way.”
“Thanks.” Stone strolled across from the only two other people in the gardens. They appeared to be a couple of down-and-outs, seated like a pair of ruffled pigeons, huddled down miserably together in the old park's bleak sanctuary.
“How did it go? I heard it was well attended.”
“Yes – quite busy.” Stone got settled and slipped off his bag on to the bench. Across the ornamental square, those two layabouts were studying him. Stone looked away.
“Not my scene, public speaking, but the audience seemed interested – polite, anyway. Mind you,” he added, “they haven't read the book yet – just bought copies.”
“And the media?”
“What are you usually like? The reporters only wanted to know how much like poor old Rocky my hero was; whether Ted had also got religion before his tragic end. Then they were harking back to his death, the investigation. You know the sort of stuff.”
“You were a hero,” she said quietly. “I was most impressed and, by the way,” she added more gaily, “I bought a copy of your book – on my Kindle.”
Stone smiled, then his improved mood slid away. One of the two bums was coming over in his direction; more worryingly, his mate had disappeared.”
“Hang on, Tara,” he told her. “I'm about to be touched up for a charity donation – or worse.”
Stone felt in his trouser side pocket and, lowering his phone, fished out some coins.
How old was this skinny hoodie, teens or 30s? Impossible to say, but certainly dirty and unsavoury. He looked shifty, even as he approached.
With a slight turn of his head, Stone caught a glimpse from the corner of his eye of a figure moving more quickly, circling behind him against the cover of hedges and bushes; that classic, pincer movement of muggers.
“Hey, mate,” muttered the approaching hoodie, then treated Stone to an ugly smile of decayed teeth, “got a few coins for a cup of tea?”
Stone stood up holding out the money in his opened palm. Even as he did so, he heard the other man's steps on the gravel behind.
The grim smile widened then froze, as Stone spun round quickly and, sighting his attacker now close behind, flung the fistful of coins into the other man's dark, astonished face.
Stone saw they hit the target, as the shorter heavier of the two staggered and cried out before lifting his hands to his injured head.
Almost in the same instant, Stone spun back quickly, his arm still outstretched and palm now empty but open, then backhanded the skinny hoodie hard across his face, knocking him sideways.
Stone felt those few stained teeth cut into his hand, then the softness of crushed flesh, gristle and fine bone giving way in the man's nose.
Stone closed his left hand into a fist, ready to deliver that surprise weapon of the southpaw – a straight left into the face, before a kick to the shin, or short right jab to the stomach, with the final raised knee to floor an opponent doubling down in pain.
However, no blows were needed. Both would-be assailants staggered, holding their faces and groaning. As muggers they were also failures; too weak even to acquire what their wretched bodies craved.
Stone caught his breath, stepping away and hearing the phone he'd closed his fist around.
“Sammy, you still there?” demanded Tara's concerned, voice muffled between his fingers.
“Fuckin' 'ell,” the hoodie mumbled, his hands still raised to his face and oozing blood from his nose.
His dark-haired pal looked equally helpless, bent forward with one hand rubbing his face where the coins had hit him; but his other hand unable to resist trying to pick them up.
“Yes, hold on,” Stone told Tara, then lowered the phone and dug deeper into his pocket. He felt the slippery plastic of a fiver, beside another larger note, a tenner if he rightly remembered.
Stone hesitated, considering. Well, there were two of these hapless bastards. The spirit of his novel's hero, comedian-turned-preacher Joey Shepherd, was obviously still alive and inspiring him. Stone took out the ten-pound note and pressed it into the shaking hands of the hoodie, still stood hunched before him.
“Don't spend it all at once,” Stone told him, but knew they would.
As he turned to walk away, he saw the look of disbelief on the man's blood-smeared face.
“Sam, are you all right?” He heard Tara's voice again as he walked from the square.
“Yes, fine.” However, he felt unsettled. It was not so much the violence. Perhaps if there had been a knife involved it would have shaken him more but, then, he would still have had the bag to swing.
No, it was the desperation of all this. Was there no retreat around here from such ugliness? The harsh realities of city life dismayed him.
“I heard groans.”
“Not mine.”
“Look, I'm in the car now, leaving the Quays.” There was a pause, then Tara added, “I'll pick you up.”
Stone sighed, then glanced behind him – still alone. “Tara,” he said carefully, “I'm practically an old, married man. There's even a little schoolgirl I have regular care of, to entertain.”
“Lucky girl!”
When he didn't comment, Tara continued, “Where are you, exactly, Oxford Road you said and some park?”
“Victoria, just past the university.” He was wondering about himself, handing over a tenner to someone who'd just tried to hurt him and failed; about the fictional hero Joey Shepherd he'd created; about his and Ted Roker's seedy past in this city, the sort of sights they'd seen on estates just beyond here.
Should he have turned the other cheek? Or was zero tolerance the answer? Would anyone care; did it matter? He marched on, giving up the line of thought.
“So, where will you be?” Tara asked pointedly.
There was weakness and strength in us all, Stone knew. We were all both saints and sinners – even, perhaps, those two misfits behind him.
He sighed, giving in once more against what he knew to be right; conceding to the comfort of temptation.
Stone looked up as he approached the park entrance, other options of old haunts and friends, or a hotel somewhere, all fading with the rush-hour.
“I'll be waiting just outside the pearly gates,” he told her.


SHE still had the small, blue sports car. It was parked on gravel outside her apartment, a stables conversion.
They were standing on the sweeping lawn of the main manor house, surrounded by mature flowerbeds and trees, somewhere in rural Mobberley.
“It's my Aunt Gloria's,” Tara explained, smiling that perfect smile; her blue eyes sparkling with anticipation, looking stunningly beautiful against this Cheshire-Life backdrop.
“Glorious indeed,” muttered Stone. His hand ached from small cuts off the hoodie's broken teeth.
They'd arrived here, through winding but quaint rustic lanes, some 40 minutes from the city outskirts. Yet it seemed as though they were on a different planet.
“We can get a drink inside,” she said.
Stone looked with equal anticipation toward the beautiful country house, but Tara turned back toward the stables block.
She glanced back over her shoulder, pleased to catch him admiring her rear view, then smiled and said, “Come on, then.”
He followed; through an ancient, oak side-door and up a staircase with bulging, plaster-and-beam walls; then gratefully away from the country smell of fresh hay and not-so-fresh horses, into a modern, pine-panelled apartment that was like a Tardis.
Tara's “bedsit” would have looked chic even in a West-End apartment block, overlooking the Thames.
She threw her jacket and bag on to a wide double-bed beside a smoked-glass partition he assumed marked the bathroom area; then led him round into a still bigger open-plan space with soft seating, a dining table and cooking range beyond.
“Let's have some fresh air,” Tara said, sliding open patio doors on to a balcony that looked out over the garden where they had been standing before.
Stone relished the refreshing breeze up here and noted, from this higher vantage point, a large, open-air swimming pool with further land beyond including a riding paddock. There were no neighbouring houses visible, just the spire of a church among poplars.
“Some place,” he said, stunned again.
“Yes, my aunt's sweet, leaves me to my own devices,” said Tara, “and vices.”
As he had turned back to face her, Tara brushed against him and kissed him briefly on the lips, but long enough for him to taste her light-pink lipstick, to again smell that perfume - so arresting in her car.
He took the drink she'd poured, gin and tonic.
“Cheers,” Tara said, raising her glass, then sat on one of the chairs at the dining table.
It was strong but perfectly balanced. Stone felt himself relax at last then, just realising he still held it, put down his own bag.
“There's a good restaurant down the lane,” she told him, “but I've got some pasta and carbonara left in the fridge – fancy it?”
She'd stretched her legs out with her final question. Stone saw the fabric of her trouser suit tighten and define the lovely shape of those long legs he remembered. Despite the gin, his throat went dry.
“We Shall Not Want,” Tara murmured then smiled wickedly.
Stone nodded, acknowledging the title of his book, and how neatly she had labelled their situation.
They took their second drink on to the balcony. The fading sun was still warm, as that easing breeze from the west had chased away the day's clouds. Soon it would be dark; all too soon, Stone thought sadly, autumn would come, with winter close behind.
As Tara checked the kitchen, he listened to the birds settling about them in those grandly crowned, old trees. He felt tired, soiled by the city, the park incident.
“Want to freshen up?”
She was holding out a towel, a great, white fluffy one as you'd get in a good hotel.
“I was admiring the pool,” he told her, looking across the gardens again. It was a big, inviting rectangle of glittering blue, now turning darker. The lawns came right up alongside and there were simple benches and some all-weather furniture, chairs and a table, a folded umbrella against the late-summer sun.
“Usually swim first thing,” Tara said. Then she smiled, “But we can go in now, if you like.”
“I didn't pack my swimming trunks; thought I might stop with friends, in Didsbury or nearer here, Lymm.” He smiled back at her. “But they don't have pools at their homes.”
“Aunt Gloria won't mind. We usually skinny dip, unless there are lots of guests around.”
“So, who are we?”
“Gloria occasionally, though – to be fair – she's usually properly attired; mainly myself and Flix – Felicity, my young cousin. She lives here, too, with Auntie.” She raised her eyebrows playfully, “Then there's just Louis and Sophie, below us.”
Stone frowned, “Another couple?”
Tara laughed, standing closer and running her hand across his hair, down his neck. He savoured her perfume again, like a heady garden scent at twilight.
“He's a 16-hands German dressage horse; she's Flix's pony, they're inseparable and she's the boss.”
Stone nodded, feeling aroused by her closeness, confused by her scent, feeling unclean.
“And how old is,” he paused, “Felicity?”
“13 coming on 18,” said Tara. She turned and in a neat movement sat on his lap, both hands now about his neck, staring down into his face. “She'll be doing her homework, or in the study anyway. Auntie will be cooking – but won't mind if we take a dip.”
She leaned forward and kissed him lingeringly then, cupping his face in her hands, stared into his eyes. “I'd forgotten how bewitching those haunted, green eyes are.” She smiled, kissed him again, then slowly rose and asked, “Shall we?”
“What?” Stone asked in turn, rising to her.
“Swim, of course,” said Tara, turning in mid-stride as she had on the lawn, catching him watching then smiling, pleased. “Anything else comes later.”
She changed quickly out of her clothes in her bedroom, turning on a large TV mounted on the wall opposite her bed, then wrapping another fluffy bath towel about herself; tying up her expertly cut hair that usually framed those pretty, elfin features.
Stone slipped out of his things in the lounge/dining area, watching a smaller screen in the kitchen; hearing the round-up end of the tea-time news – all bad, from what he could gather.
He noted the few books she had; cooking, horse riding; some chick-lit, copies of Cheshire Life – those made him smile. Had Aunt Gloria been on the cover with this country pile, he wondered.
There were photos of a smart, older couple, probably parents; a younger brother at his graduation; a couple of those girly, soft toys and cute ornaments.
“Ready?” She was stood watching him from the entrance into the bedroom and walk-in wet area. He liked her hair up, the escaping kiss curls making her more girlish and casual, seemingly vulnerable, wrapped in the big, soft towel.
“Sure.” Stone, clad only in his towel now, followed her back down the stairs; hearing the restlessness of the horse and pony nearby in the lower stable, smelling them and the leather from a tack room.
It was dark but still warm and also sensuous as they walked barefoot across the grass; then Tara let her towel fall to the side. He saw her superb, unblemished body, the curves and her smooth, firm behind; then she stretched, bent forward and dived elegantly, with a shriek of delight.
Stone glanced back at the house, seeing lights at open windows upstairs and down, then cast off his own towel and, resisting the temptation of dipping his toe into the dark water, also plunged in.
He gasped at the cold shock but felt the silkiness of the water enveloping him as he swam in a strong crawl, getting his blood flowing again.
Tara was already returning slowly down the pool's length, on her back, lazily circling her legs, arms spread out, letting the water hold her weight.
He swam side-stroke beside her, aware of the big trees nearby, a breeze now sounding through their foliage, the gardens stretching away; such opulence.
“It's marvellous, isn't it?” she asked, stopping and righting herself, then wrapping her legs about him.
“Certainly is,” Stone said, feeling himself rise to her again, despite the cold. He kissed her.
“Later, you said?” he asked, needing her now.
“Yes.” Tara tapped his nose, as to a naughty schoolboy whom she was playfully chiding.
He could feel the silkiness of her legs and skin against him, her soft but pert breasts against his chest.
“It's not pool etiquette,” she told him.
Stone groaned, making her laugh, then followed her, feeling hollow and desperate now, as she pulled away and swam leisurely towards their towels.
Now it felt cold out of the pool, as they quickly towelled themselves down and then, wrapped up again, walked back more hurriedly toward the stables.
“Supper should be ready,” she told him, as he followed her back upstairs. There was a deep whinny – Louis – and Stone knew how the big stallion felt.
It was warm at the table, with the balcony doors now shut, the cooker still on. She poured red wine and lit some candles. They still wore only their towels.
“No boyfriend, then?” Stone asked suddenly.
“No one special,” she told him, not turning round from where she was dishing up their pasta.
“You're still with the Asian girl?” Tara placed the penne and carbonara before him, where it steamed and made his empty stomach lurch, another anticipation of pleasure.
“Espie,” he corrected, wishing now he hadn't begun this line of talk.
“And her daughter?”
Stone nodded, tasted the excellent food then raised his glass to hers. “Cheers.”
Tara had suffused the lights and now it was mostly the gentle candlelight they ate by, appreciatively. He asked her about the job at Metro News. She seemed less ambitious than before. He liked that, too.
Tara, it seemed, had matured, even mellowed.
Then he wondered, suddenly, if he had too. It seemed doubtful. He'd just seen more trouble, that was all and, now, was inviting still more.

* * *

THE first few chapters of novel Voyage of Discovery may give readers a taste for this offbeat adventure and romance that has just been published this month. It was partly inspired by John Masefield's classic Sea Fever (item 40 on our Poetry page). There are illustrations from the book and also its front and back covers (see also Books page).


WHEN Archie Brownsett first arrived at the village of Boot, several years before, it had been as though out of the mists of time. He had driven alone in freezing fog from London, peering desperately at shifting shapes and for faint signs on the motorways, then 'A' roads with only 'cat's eyes' to guide him through Shropshire's blurred landscape.
It had been the lights of its local inn, The Globe, which alerted him to arriving at his destination. It was by then mid-evening and he had felt exhausted and strangely remote, as any lone traveller in a fog.
When he had entered the light and warmth of the old pub's lounge, it had been like stepping back into the past; a bygone era where country folk stared at any stranger's arrival. It felt like a time warp.
He had first checked with the squat landlord if this was indeed Boot, which created some amusement at the bar, then had ordered a pint of bitter, thinking a warming red wine – which he really wanted – would raise too many eyebrows here. Then he had gratefully found a seat at an unoccupied table close to the log fire, whereupon general talking had resumed.
There had been no music though, there still wasn't today, nor much food on offer. A freshly made cheese and onion sandwich, on thickly carved, coarse granary bread, had been his welcoming supper to a new life and role as the district's scribe.
Then, as now, he had demurred from the inn's renowned pickled onions, thereby helping to establish himself as a bit of a 'toff' and fussy; an outsider, who considered himself better but knew little.
While eating, he had also noted a wooden wireless with felt over its speaker on the mantle of the fireplace. Archie had half expected that music and news from the 40s, or even earlier, would have filled the smoky lounge should this prominently displayed antique have been turned on.
The muffled villagers about him would have looked the part too. It had been as though – in his tiredness from hours alone in the old MG - he had stepped unwittingly into a past, parallel world.
Later, as the mist cleared a little, he had driven the short distance to his new home, a flat above the village newsagent's shop – where practicalities, like finding the hidden keys, switching on heating and making up a bed, had taken priority.
Archie was still in that small but cosy flat now, though not for much longer. He stared from its front-bedroom window at familiar farm fields, rolling many miles to a hilly horizon. It was spring, usually a favourite season of his, with gambolling lambs or awkward, wonder-struck calves in those fields; bright daffodils and colourful tulips in cottage gardens, all bringing hope of new beginnings.
However, his life here had crumbled. The past few days were a series of disasters. Had he broken an unspoken pledge, or somehow deeply offended nature? Archie felt as though cast into damnation for ghastly offences of which he had failed even to be aware.
The phone rang, the office's phone – as he had been reminded by Worsley, and Archie feared more bad news, further persecution. He crossed his sitting room to the dining table which doubled as his desk.
It was Marcus, returning his call. Archie sat down with relief – pulling his notebook and pen closer, turning to a fresh page.
“Good to hear from you!” His old friend and occasional colleague boomed with jovial confidence.
Archie had worked with many public-school types during Fleet Street years; even before then, on diverse provincial newspapers, then later at the good, old Press Association. Some of the girls had been endearing in their other-worldly innocence of real life, as Archie knew it from back in northern suburbs.
However, Marcus was the only former colleague from a privileged background who had stayed a friend. Archie suspected that to Marcus he was an amusing oddity, a source of continual amazement at the variety and depth of life.
Their demarcation stretched from how they treated other people – usually condescendingly in Marcus's case – to use of fish knives or a jam spoon (Archie fished out his marmalade with the butter knife).
There were shared experiences though, having worked in the same newsrooms and used the same pubs, if not restaurants. They were each also unmarried or divorced and, although Archie was a few years older, remained kindred rebellious spirits.
“Gather it's all gone pear-shaped up there – your country idyll.”
“That's right,” confirmed Archie briefly, not wishing to elaborate unless necessary.
“Well, I did wonder how long they'd provide both accommodation and a car, just for knocking out columns on the local W.I.”
Archie wondered if this was how Marcus the prefect would have lectured younger 'fags' at his famous public school. As a district editor as well as a correspondent for County Newspapers, Archie had much more to do than village briefs. However, he let that pass. After all, he needed help.
“Hmm,” Archie grunted, non-committal, “I wondered if there might still be shifts available down there – with you, or with others if not.” He'd taken up his pen and twirled it now, his stomach tightening as a silence on the line lengthened.
“Thought you'd got to enjoy the rustic life.”
“Yes, but needs must.”
“Well,” Marcus sighed, rather patronisingly as though to an errant child, but then said bluntly, “I'd have considered retirement might be more appropriate.”
He sounded like that unnerving 'Human Resources' man for County Newspapers, Tom Worsley, the previous day; that awful day which seemed to never end, unless you counted a sleepless night in police cells.
“Can't afford it. Besides, what would I do – especially round here?”
“Nurture geraniums, become a nurseryman or,” Marcus was enjoying himself, “compile a guide to country inns – that would be useful employment, as well as right up your street.”
It was Archie's turn to sigh. “I'm serious Marcus. Can you offer any help at all?”
“Well, I could have a word with the latest, bright-young things; though I'm not optimistic, most appear barely out of school.” He paused, then sounded more sympathetic, “Why don't I phone you back in, say, half an hour?”
Archie put down the phone feeling no less apprehensive. He did not like the sound of those 'bright-young things', no doubt early achievers like Tom Worsley, to whom he would appear a dinosaur.
His hands were shaking. Perhaps it was from yesterday's trauma, or the drinks afterwards though – as he'd told that station sergeant – he'd not had a lot. Most likely it was from a growing terror at his predicament.
Archie stared at the vacant sofa before the fireplace, where Angie used to sit when he was at his work table with the laptop, or phone-interviewing. To his surprise and concern, he felt tears forming.
Pulling himself together, Archie got to his feet and was about to pick up his late-breakfast leftovers, to clear them to the downstairs shared kitchen. However, he couldn't face Mrs Orsini, not yet. Perhaps after Marcus rang with news, when he might also enjoy a coffee. Instead he went to shower and shave, make himself presentable.
The face greeting him in the bathroom mirror for once looked its age, 62. It was those lines, of course, which no longer looked simply the result of humour, or a well-weathered fullness of character. This morning 'wrecked' seemed a truer description, along with a fearful look in the eyes; like a broken man.
His hair appeared wild; brown and shaggy at the back and sides; 'mad-professor-like' – as Angie used to say – on top where, he could see in the overhead light, there were thin areas and grey tufts. Even his eyebrows looked out of control, while his teeth, though mostly all there, needed a thorough clean.
Did his clothes - still yesterday's - have that smell of the cells that people spoke of? The one they had locked him up in at Chester must have been Victorian, with hard-glazed tiles and an equally hard, built-in bench come bed, with a foul bucket, yes, a bloody bucket of all things. It all stank of bleach.
The cell had been cold but brightly lit. Archie had only slept fitfully. There had been occasional shouts from other, unseen miscreants; some incoherent mumbling earlier on, then the occasional rattle of keys, iron doors slamming shut, the tread of boots receding.
Archie shuddered. They had kept him overnight after the sergeant decided against police bail, as Archie lived miles away and did not have sufficient cash or his credit card for a hotel. He had planned to be home.
Now he had a court appearance to look forward to in a few weeks; then his name in the newspapers no doubt, even here at the village, in the Bugle – his paper.
Why had he gone for a drink after seeing Worsley? Well, he had needed one, Archie conceded now. But perhaps a walk beside the river might have been more therapeutic and wise. He had also planned on eating, until put off by the city-pub prices.
Then there was Chester's confusing one-way system. He had known his way to the County Newspaper group headquarters but, from its car park to the nearest pub and then on to the ring road had proved far from straightforward.
Archie closed his eyes as redeeming hot water flowed over him while he stood in the bath under the shower. He was trying not to think about that police car on a narrow one-way street he'd met, while going the wrong way, nor the two hectoring traffic officers.
“Is that alcohol I can smell on your breath, sir?” Then, after he'd blown guiltily into a bag in their squad car: “We'll have to arrange a lift for you – to the local station.” No “sir” then, quite rightly. Dismay had settled upon him like a shroud as he had waited, then been helped into a police van's rear cage before being escorted from a yard up stone passages, to be tested once again, then down again into a cell for the night.
Suddenly, drying off, Archie realised he would need to contact head office and admit that offence in the office car. He groaned at the thought of confession to Worsley. It was an old-series fleet Astra, previously used when new by the group's advertising reps. Archie's claims of needing a 4x4 for farm visits fell on deaf ears.
“The last chap only had a motorbike,” the group editor, now also redundant, had told him at the time. Now they wouldn't give him anything.
“Bugger!” Archie shouted, hanging up the towel. Then he remembered Mrs 'O' downstairs. If in the shop's rear kitchen, shared with him as the upstairs tenant, she would be directly below him and curious.
He went silently and contritely into his bedroom, glancing in a dressing table window as he passed and spotting his naked image.
Archie straightened up. He looked better then, still quite fit for his age. The shower had refreshed him. He even felt a little more hopeful as sunlight streamed into the window.
Then he changed and, seeing the empty half of their wardrobe, felt hurt all over again by Angie's absence.


AS I feared, dear chap, they were less than keen,” said Marcus, phoning again. “Besides, it's all hot-desking nowadays, nowhere to hang your hat and relax.”
“I see,” said Marcus, hearing his own dismay but not caring. He was tired of failing, putting on a false face.
Archie sat and stared into the empty grate opposite him, cold heart of this flat come district office that had been home from home. It had once seemed an historic haven, beamed ceiling and ancient walls, brass fireplace furnishings, their own thoughtful touches. Now it seemed soulless, merely temporary.
“Still, I have an idea. Fear not, old friend.”
“I've had a word with our features editor – not a bad fellow, for a grammar-school lad and red-brick graduate like you.”
Archie could hear voices in the background of the London office, which was high-rise and overlooked the changed skyline of what was now called Docklands but had once been the East End's Isle of Dogs. What a suitable name that was, for Fleet Street's remains!
Marcus must have covered the mouthpiece of his phone with his hand but there were muffled words. Archie, meanwhile, was remembering happier times when they'd go from Fleet Street to one of the old Dogs' pubs, followed by a pie 'n' mash shop supper.
“Still there? Good!” said Marcus, more businesslike now. “He was a fan of that column you used to put out from P.A., about secret London.”
“Hidden Haunts,” Archie recalled, still feeling flattered anyone remembered.
“Quite, anyway he'd like you to do a piece on how town's changed. You have been away for decades, haven't you? They'll pay well and you'll enjoy yourself! You'd rather write than be desk-bound anyhow.”
Archie could barely believe his look but had one immediate concern. “Would they pay an advance, or expenses in the meantime? I'll need some accommodation, you see.”
Marcus blew out his breath. “Fat chance but, look, I could always lend you some. You could stay here at my flat but, well – you've not met Leila yet, have you?”
“No.” Archie had seen Facebook pictures of his old friend's latest partner, a stunning Filipina from a rich Luzon family.
“Don't think she'd appreciate an old pal dossing down here,” said Marcus. “Might cramp her style, likes to walk around naked and so on – we're so high up here, you see, not overlooked.”
Marcus had a penthouse apartment near work.
Archie was imagining the beautiful Leila romping around naked in their open-plan flat in the sky, with the dirty old 'Smoke' and Thames far below.
“There's the Esmeralda, though,” said Marcus. “It's a bit Spartan but you could stay on board.”
“In St. Katherine's Dock?” Archie remembered the boat as an old-fashioned but stylish motor-sailer, with snug sleeping quarters in the bow, as well as two bunks or benches, a galley and head in the main cabin.
“That's right, not used it for years.”
The notion greatly appealed. Archie was remembering the crowded quays below old dock warehouses converted into smart apartments. There was a café he had liked which sold hot croissants and had tables outside; also, the Dickens pub with passable beer and meals, even a boat-owners' cruising club.
“Marcus, you're a genius!”
“I know, just tell this lot, will you?”
Perhaps, after all, this disastrous upheaval in his life had been Heaven sent or, at least, had a plus side, Archie was thinking. The prospect appeared all he could have ever wanted. One good feature might establish him again, put him on a lucrative freelance circuit that Angie could only dream about.
“Will Angie be coming down with you?”
It was as though Marcus had read his mind.
“No,” Archie replied quietly. “That went pear-shaped as well. Gone off with a photographer she's been doing a magazine series with.”
“I see. Pity, you were a great double act – Archie and Angie.”
“Well, the show's over I'm afraid.”
“No chance of a revival?”
“Doesn't look like it.”
Marcus sighed. “Well, in the end, they say, we're all on our own.”
There was an unexpected silence, a pause which Archie felt he should try to fill – sensing regrets, too, in the friend who had just helped him so much.
“Still, you have the lovely Leila.”
There was another sigh then a hurried, “Yes, true. Her English leaves a little to be desired, though, can be wearying at times . . .”
Archie was thinking of her other more obvious attributes rather than conversation, wondering if it was really that which wearied his old friend. Marcus, though tall and stockily built, had never been as healthy, energetic or fit as himself.
“Parents are loaded, though,” Marcus was saying. “You couldn't believe how cheap it is to live in the Philippines, as crazy as it all is. Take all our holidays there now – not quite the Med., however.”
Were there chinks showing in the hereditary aristocratic armour, Archie wondered. However, the arrogance of the Old Carthusian remained beneath; that confident certainty of superiority but, also, a total lack of political correctness – which Archie liked.
“Come down for the weekend.”
That was tomorrow, Archie thought, stunned. Then a wonderful image appeared to his mind, of quickly wrapping up the ragged remains of his once happy life here; dismissing the meagre alternatives offered by County Newspapers or, to be more exact, their new masters – a venture capital company he had never heard of, and catching a train south to London and a new life.
“Okay, I'll try for that. Where should we meet?” Archie took down a home number, confirmed he had the correct mobile number and agreed to phone upon arrival in the capital.
“I'll meet you in a cab and we can drop your bags at the boat – then celebrate.” Marcus sounded as pleased and excited as Archie felt.
Checking his appearance once again, and with less regret, Archie picked up his breakfast tray and trod carefully downstairs into the rear of the shop with its kitchen and separate lavatory.
Mrs Orsini, he saw from the open passageway, was serving a customer. Archie washed his crockery in the sink. He had never minded this arrangement, though Angie did. After all, they had the kitchen to themselves in the evening – and cheerful company during the day.
Sunshine was filling the yard where Mrs O – she'd never given him her first name, though he had heard it was Rosanna – had placed some flowering plants and potted shrubs. Sometimes her teenage daughter, Silver Boots as Archie had nicknamed her after some memorable footwear, sunbathed there - quite spectacularly.
“You're peeking again, you old perv!”

Angie's voice and jocular reprimand came back to him from earlier summers. The memory hurt, still.
“Ah, Archie – you 'ave arisen!”
He turned to see a beaming Mrs Orsini, returned with tea mug to their shared facilities. There was always a frisson of flirtation between them, which Archie enjoyed as much as she appeared to do.
Mrs O, too, wore shiny boots and was a fine figure of a woman, always well dressed with a dash of flamboyance.
She was available, too, some had said, though with supposedly expensive tastes and a liking for the well-heeled county set.
Still, Archie had occasionally entertained fantasies about the 40-something divorcee and, to his shame, ones also involving her daughter.
The knowledge of that, rather than his previous disastrous day, made him suddenly blush.
Mrs O raised her dark eyebrows knowingly. Her mass of dark curls, occasionally worn down around her shoulders, were today businesslike and piled high with much support from silver bands.
“Warm isn't it?” Archie said. “Now that the sun's finally out.”
“Maybe to you, but not to Italian.” She smiled and brought her empty mug to the sink. He could smell her perfume as she remained rather too close.
“I hear your car when bringing in papers earlier,” she told him. “You go out very early, Archie, or come back very late.”
Archie nodded, grinning like a schoolboy caught in a prank. Mrs O was bossy, no mistake, but even a reprimand from her had a sexy edge. Now she had a hand on her hip, watching him expectantly.
“Fancy a coffee?” he offered.
She frowned. “Yes, but I make. Your coffee always too weak.”
Archie sat at the small table where Mrs O tended to eat her packed salad lunch, unless outside at the table she'd placed to catch the sun. He admired her rear view and, not for the first time, wondered what had ever brought her to Boot.
Still, what had brought him? He'd finally realised freelancing would never pay the rent in London and gone on the dole, buying time to think – he thought.
That any newspaper group would hire journalists from the Unemployment Office had never occurred to him, but County Newspapers did. He had arrived thinking only to stay a few months – then met Angie who was then renting the upstairs of a cottage and freelancing for the newspaper group.
“There,” said Mrs Orsini, putting down a mug of deep-brown instant coffee. She pulled up a chair opposite him and put out some biscuits. “So,” she said, resuming her interrogation, “you been out all night?”
Archie nodded, any thoughts of resistance collapsing as Mrs O crossed her legs in that tight black dress and flashed her thighs then shiny, patent-leather, knee-length boots.
He blew out his breath in submission and met her stare frankly. “They've given me the boot,” he said, his mind still obviously partly-occupied by her footwear.
“Never! They lucky to 'ave you!”
“Well, thanks.”
“Is because of Angelina?”
“No.” Archie frowned, not understanding her train of thought but suspecting it reflected badly upon him. Angie was only called Angela by her parents, now retired to North Wales. However, to Mrs O she was always Angelina.
“They're cutting back, with this takeover,” Archie explained. “Even my group boss is going.”
“So they retire you?”
“No, not that either. I could take early retirement, or voluntary redundancy – each carry certain packages but not much money. An H.R. - personnel man – explained it all to me. He's from some bloody recruitment agency, though acted more like a bailiff closing us down and selling off the furniture.”
Mrs O was shaking her head. She pushed more biscuits towards him and Archie accepted.
“They're closing down the office here, putting the shop and flat up for sale.” He saw her lovely eyebrows rise and realised she hadn't been told.
“When they doing that?”
“Over the next few months I think,” Archie said more gently, regretting his thoughtless selfishness. “They'll be in touch, I'm sure. Probably they're keeping you on – it's a good business, the shop.”
Mrs Orsini nodded but still looked concerned.
“They offered me a desk job at Chester, or down in Shrewsbury.”
She nodded again, still looking thoughtful.
“Trouble is I'd have accommodation to pay for, plus no car – and the money's cr- not much, he corrected himself.” Archie shrugged, deciding that, on balance, he would probably be wiser not mentioning his later arrest.
“So, you must decide?”
Archie nodded, wondering whether to go into the Marcus and London option. Perhaps she was, quite rightly, more concerned with her own predicament.
Mrs O drank some coffee and fixed him with an appraising stare. “But why you come home only this morning – you stay in Chester?”
Archie paused. “In a manner of speaking,” he said and drank more coffee to wash down the biscuits. He looked at her and decided to confess all. He was a reporter, after all. He hated keeping secrets to himself.
“There was an incident after my interview. I was a little upset, as you may imagine.”
“Yes, what happen?” Mrs Orsini sat forward in her chair, uncrossing those legs and all attention.
“You attack this bailiff man?” she demanded.
“No.” Archie laughed, feeling greatly relieved. “Though that's not a bad idea.” He sighed, testing his way, but there was no going back now. “I'd had a drink after.” He raised his eyebrows appealing to her understanding. “Then got lost in the one-way system – hauled up by police.”
“You in accident?”
“No, just breathalysed and failed.” Archie frowned. “They kept me in the cells overnight.”
Mrs O's intake of breath was instant, her shock at this revelation clearly evident. But, then, she surprised Archie again. She reached forward and gently put her hand on his arm.
“This never 'appen,” she told him with deep sympathy and concern, “if Angelina not leave you.”


ARCHIE noticed the girl on the train as soon as he boarded. She was sitting on a large suitcase, which was upright and partly blocking the corridor, looking remarkably unconcerned. Also, she had hair that was copper-coloured, rather like Angie's, but shorter – elfin like, to match a decidedly cute face.
Angie! How glad he was that he'd phoned her. She, like Mrs Orsini, had been sympathetic, even outraged on his behalf. The locals too, in The Globe at Boot, had rallied to his side. That was why he felt so rough this morning, carrying his essential belongings in one medium case, trying not to think of the bridges he had burned – or was about to, if staying on in London once he got there.
Archie was just noting the girl's pleasant figure, in jeans and woollen top, when she gave him a welcoming smile. Did she, too, sense his hopelessness?
“Sorry, want to get to your seat?” she asked, her voice quite free of accent, her manner confident.
“Don't have one,” Archie confessed. “Only bought a ticket today – cost an arm and a leg.”
She laughed, a little raucously he thought. “Join the club,” she said, shifting her case and indicating he could sit alongside. Then, seeing his own case was smaller and flimsier, she edged further along her own and patted the remainder. “In fact, join me, if you like.”
Archie did, carefully sitting down to find it held him. With a toilet's outer wall to lean against, it was not uncomfortable and, with such interesting company, the next hour or so on this crowded train was no longer a forbidding prospect. Then, he reminded himself again, he would need to change trains.
They introduced each other, shook hands – her own so small and slight.
“Going far?” he asked Jackie.
“Probably London, not even got a ticket yet.” She looked at him mischievously. “When I see the conductor coming I nip into the loo. I can afford the ticket!” she added, seeing his concern. “Just don't know, yet, where I'll choose to get off.”
Or with whom perhaps, went through Archie's mind unexpectedly. Then he corrected himself guiltily. How old was this girl? Well, not quite as young as he'd first thought, now he was so close. Certainly late 30s, perhaps even in her 40s. In any case, she seemed at ease and didn't mind their bodies touching as the train picked up speed and swayed.
Archie himself felt reborn or, at least, restored from the past few days of horror and dismay. If he cashed in all his chips with County Newspapers there would be a larger sum in his back account than seen for years, though not enough to retire or even live upon for very long. But it offered freedom, for a while, time for him to explore new possibilities – maybe even write.
Angie had never quite believed in his novel, which Archie had now made several attempts at. It involved a principled but muddled journalist who battled against the cynicism and hypocrisy of Fleet Street and his more successful colleagues. He had insisted it was not autobiographical but based upon an amalgam of characters he'd admired over years.
“You'll never get it published,” Angie had warned him, “you can't even decide which era to set it in.” She had a point there, Archie conceded now – staring across England's neat, rural landscape as it flashed by. The past was so much more exciting and full of possibilities. Today everyone had their noses to the grind in their open-plan glass offices, mesmerised by computers. Why, they didn't even drink!
“I fancy a beer, want one?” asked Jackie.

Archie fought a temptation to check the time, not wanting to look shocked, predictable, middle-class and increasingly suburban – as he had become, even in the country setting of Boot.
Well, it might clear his head. “Fine,” he said, shifting awkwardly and about to get to his feet, “but I'll go to the buffet car.”
“No need,” she told him, “got some here.” Jackie reached to her side and produced a four-pack of canned lager from a plastic shopping bag. “Got sandwiches, too, if you want.”
“Not yet, thanks,” said Archie, grinning and accepting a can. It wasn't his usual sort of tipple and he would never normally drink from a can or bottle but, at least, it was premium foreign lager and still chilled.
He snapped open the can and lifted it gratefully to his lips, ignoring a look of disapproval from a middle-aged woman queueing for the loo he and Jackie were leaning against.
“So, Archie,” said Jackie, as the standing woman shifted away then pushed her way into the toilet as a child and mother emerged, “you're off to London – for a holiday?”
“No,” he said, watching her take a drink and admiring her chiselled profile, “for a job, hopefully a new life even.” She returned his smile at this.
“Me, too,” she told him, “though not necessarily there. Any city or resort will do. Won't be exactly a new life either, just a casino somewhere. I'm a croupier.”
“Oh.” Archie had never been in a real casino, just those smaller ones in tatty nightclubs with singing and tasteless comedy acts, supplemented by cheap burger meals with chips. Fortunately, those were all long ago, in his northern past.
He imagined Jackie in a more glamorous world, which she confirmed over the next half hour or so as they drank on, then ate her sandwiches; a world of famous capitals and expensive rivieras, but also – for her – of routine night work and sober, hard-headed financial dealing – literally.
“The house always wins,” she said, “finally.” Then she laughed and patted her suitcase.
“Except when someone – like me – shifts the odds.” She smiled at his polite nod. “Want to see?”
Archie had been thinking how much better a profile Jackie had than Angie, who had a small but decidedly hooked nose. That didn't denigrate Angie to his mind; in fact, he admired her strength of character in accepting it and, well, rather felt sorry for her. However, in truth, Angie had only really impressed him as beautiful when looked at full on – which, for the first years anyway, there relationship had definitely been.
Jackie's unexpected offer had quite driven away all other thoughts. Now she rose and prepared to open her large suitcase, waiting for Archie, too, to move.
As he stood up, an empty can rolled across the train corridor, attracting more disapproving looks from others standing nearby. Jackie eased open her case a few inches and beckoned him closer. Archie was staggered by what it revealed.
Amongst neatly packed clothes and what looked like the top of a toiletries bag, were thick wads in secured cellophane of what could only be £50 notes. There must have been thousands of pounds.
Jackie closed the case again and sat down, patting its top edge for him to follow.
Archie obediently sat, quite speechless.
“Won it in Glasgow,” she told him, then leaned close and confided, “I've a book with a formula for winning. It's quite legal but the casinos don't think so, of course. Got the police looking for me, up there, probably here too – that's why I came this roundabout route.”
Bloody hell, Archie thought. Was she a mad woman or just a dangerous tearaway?
“What is the formula, if you don't mind me asking?” he said, playing for time in order to think.
“Oh, it's in a notebook, quite complicated – depending on which game you choose. In this instance, roulette.” Jackie gave him a quick almost innocent smile, then snuggled closer - which now put Archie rather on edge. He felt like an accomplice.
“Put simply,” Jackie lectured, “if you go against the odds repeatedly then, as in life, those odds change.”
Archie grunted politely.
“You just play the long odds,” she explained quietly, “go for the outside chances – but all the time, then it's not reckless one-off but a known risk you pursue, till you win – and then you win big!”
She'd finished with a look of triumph to accompany her exclamation.
Archie nodded again and swallowed.
“You a winner, Archie?”
“Hardly,” he admitted. “Life on the edge isn't really my style.”
She laughed and cuddled closer. “Tell me, about your life, what you're up to.”
Archie, trying to relax again, told her - about work anyway – though trimming down the latest developments, then skirting around Angie.
“But that's good,” she told him, sitting up and looking at him keenly. “You've been true to yourself, not joined the rat race. You, Archie, are a winner in waiting.”
“A winner in waiting?” He laughed. “I'll drink to that, oh,” he remembered drinking the last can, “but we haven't got any.”
“Not quite true,” Jackie told him, then fluttered her hand, half standing, to indicate he should move too. Then she slid her fingers into the once more partly opened case and, after rummaging a few moments, withdrew a flat, half bottle of vodka.
“No mixers, I'm afraid, but hey!” Jackie unscrewed the cap and offered Archie the bottle, which was three-quarters full. He drank, took another longer gulp at her insistence, then watched her do the same.
Archie felt very relaxed again, his head spinning slightly as they picked up speed after a station stop, buildings running into one dizzying, changing shape. From the corner of his eye he saw sunshine glinting on copper hair and thought again of Angie.
She, too, had supported him when he rang her at last – told her he was moving too.
“That job was killing you,” Angie had told him, to his surprise. “You used to have such a glint, real spark!”
That had been news to him, though flattering. Obviously, however, it had not lit her fire although – now he thought about it – they'd had their good times.
Possibly the job, or his situation, really was killing him too. Past weeks had been riddled with anxiety about the takeover, filled with rumours and warnings. His doctor had warned of higher blood pressure, been concerned at occasional chest pains and lectured him about lifestyle – although, as far as Archie could see, his habits were much the same as most local men in Boot – at least those who were regulars in the infamously late-closing Globe Inn.
“Archie,” said Jackie, in a rather curious and different tone of voice, now hesitant with concern. “Weren't you supposed to get off back there?”


IT seemed a long way to the next stopping station but Archie remained adamant they should not pull the emergency chain, as Jackie suggested, then run away.
I've got a ticket at least,” he told her, rather disgruntled and further unsettled by her dangerous waywardness. He stood, miserably, watching what seemed many miles flashing by and countless lesser stations the train rattled through with blaring horn.
He was not steady on his feet and, as they finally began to slow down, almost toppled over. To his surprise while saying their goodbyes, Jackie got up as well and followed him on to the long station platform.
To Archie's further surprise, the only station signs were in a foreign language which, he gradually realised, was Welsh.
Bloody hell, he'd travelled way too far west! His whole schedule for this important day appeared turned on its head, largely thanks to Jackie.
A whistle blew and doors slammed. They were now alone on the barren platform. “You'd better get back on,” he said, anxious to start making progress.
Jackie shrugged at their predicament with an easy indifference Archie now found maddening.
“One place is as good as another,” she said, looking beyond him and smiling. “Quite fancy a stay at the seaside.”
Archie turned and saw what she meant. Beyond ramshackle sidings and engine sheds, he could now see the sea. In fact, he could smell it in sharp, clean air, the uplifting ozone, that stir of brine.
“Where the hell are we?” he asked, watching as Jackie lifted up the large case on an extending strap in order to pull it along on tiny wheels.
“Don't know, don't care.” She laughed, then began heading away. “Come on, if you want to get back the way we came you'll need to cross over platforms.”
That at least made sense. Archie sauntered rather unsteadily behind her, as her suitcase wheels rattled over the rough surface of this very long platform. There was no one else around here, nor any assistance or luggage trolleys. His own case felt heavy now but he had no wheels.
Climbing up flights of narrow steps on a pedestrian bridge over the rails proved a major challenge. The sun was hot now, with them fully exposed away from roofed sections of the station. Also, as well as his own medium case, he had to help Jackie with her enormous one that she was struggling to drag up the steps.
By the time they were down on ground level again, Archie was sweating heavily and feeling dizzy. His hands, too, were shaking, heart beating wildly and mouth bone dry.
He spotted what appeared to be a kiosk further ahead, near where a couple of solitary passengers sat.
“I might get a drink – some water,” Archie said, nodding in that direction.
“Well, I'm heading in here,” Jackie said, pointing into a deserted hallway that appeared to open into the town's streets.
The only uniformed official around was standing close to that kiosk and what, to Archie, was obviously the proper, main exit. This nearer, unmanned passageway appeared more for goods deliveries. He wondered if Jackie was simply avoiding being asked for the ticket she'd so far failed to buy or, indeed, avoiding any dealings with authorities.
“There are suitcase lockers,” Jackie pointed out. “I'll put this in one, then go and explore out there.” She indicated the distant streets busy now with traffic.
Archie sighed heavily, putting down his case. “Well, I'll have to change here to get back and catch a London train.”
Jackie smiled, then came forward and, to his surprise, went up on her toes and gave him a brief but full and luscious kiss.
“Good luck, then, Archie.”
“And to you.” He stared as she went into the cavernous hall and over to the rows of lockers. Then he felt himself totter slightly again. Was he about to faint, or had he just topped up with booze again - following his farewell evening at the Globe yesterday?
Archie steadied himself and glanced at his watch, then once again - in disbelief. It was already afternoon.
When he looked up for her again there was no sign of Jackie. The goods hall was empty, there was no one even in the streets beyond.
Archie shook his head with mixed regret and disbelief. He walked as steadily as he could manage towards the kiosk but found it shuttered and closed.
He looked around for alternatives but couldn't even see any toilets for running water. Silence pervaded the rambling resort rail station. The railwayman he'd noticed earlier had now gone, typical!
One of the seated passengers, an elderly man, was engrossed in a newspaper; the other, a middle-aged woman in a tweedy suit, appeared to be dozing. Archie felt envious of their carefree ease.
Probably there would be noticeboards in the main entrance nearby, even announcements soon from those dusty overhead speakers. For the moment, he also needed desperately to sit and rest.
Archie sat down on the hard seat of an unoccupied bench, put his case beside him and then gratefully closed his eyes. It felt like shutters slamming down, closing out the largely derelict rail platforms and old tracks leading nowhere.
His tongue was cleaved to the roof of his mouth but he was falling irresistibly into sleep. An image was imprinted on his mind, of Jackie disappearing down a breezy high-street beneath the wild calls of sea birds taunting him, screaming at him to follow.
Jackie's lips had been like succour to a thirsting man. How foolish he'd been, yet again, to let her go out of his life – this startling, new woman! They could have been enjoying a weekend by the seaside, instead of him heading for the dusty, old Smoke – just to go drinking with Mad Marcus, as many used to call his old chum.
Conditions aboard the Esmeralda at St. Katherine's Dock would be as hard as this bench. Marcus had called his motor-sailer after the famous craft from Vasco da Gama's fleet, the earliest ship ever uncovered from Europe's Age of Discovery.
However, as far as Archie was aware, this Esmeralda had only motored sedately up the Thames under the shaky captaincy of Marcus. His urbane pal was happier on dry land than at sea or, at least, within close reach of terra firma and riverside inns.
Archie had all the phone numbers he needed for Marcus. There was no real rush to get to the capital. His rather hazy feature commission could wait awhile.
Faint heart never won fair lady, he was telling himself now - and hadn't Lady Luck herself just smiled upon him, for heaven's sake! Jackie couldn't have gone far, probably down to the seafront and first pub with accommodation.
Besides, Archie realised stupidly, she had to return here for her case – all that money.
Then, suddenly, it happened. A bolt like lightning passed through Archie, searing his insides and galvanising him awake.
It was like a life-changing epiphany; forcing open Archie's eyes in shock to, at last, see clearly - and fully understand – that all was now possible.
There was nothing that he had to do right now; no tasks that he must undertake - except what he wanted to do, whatever venture he wished to follow . . .
He was a free spirit.


“BUGGER it!” Archie exclaimed out loud, rising eagerly from the bench and turning, reaching for his nearby case.
As he did so, he noticed the small cluster of people whose attention he had attracted. The elderly newspaper reader was glowering in his direction; the woman who'd been dozing was now stood and frowning, having been joined by a younger woman with a child, a girl who was giggling at Archie's outburst.
Beside them, returned to his duties, stood the uniformed railway employee, who now took off his peaked cap and scratched thinning locks. He looked rather plump and easy-going, like Mister Perks – that railway porter from the old film The Railway Children.
Archie managed an embarrassed smile then exited quickly left, into the goods hall. He was about to rush out into the distant streets, now busy again with traffic and pedestrians, but decided instead to first get free of his case at one of the lockers Jackie had used.
He pushed in the small suitcase then closed the metal door and fished in his pockets for a one pound coin, but found none.
“Bugger it,” he muttered again, more to himself, cursing this annoying waste of time. Archie sighed, opened and closed the door again a few times, uncertain what to do, then, almost magically, heard it click shut.
Sure enough, when he tried it once more, the door remained locked. He took out the key, wondering if it would ever open again but, eager to press on, didn't test the procedure. He'd just have to ask Mister Perks for help, if necessary.
Outside the station, the sun was mercilessly intense. He halted on the pavement, looking down the busy road in the direction Jackie had gone. However, the heavy traffic prevented him crossing. It was hopeless. Archie made a couple of attempts but had to jump back on to the pavement to avoid lorries and vans which angrily sounded their horns.
This was maddening! Cursing Welsh driving behaviour, he took stock again of his bearings. She was heading to the seafront, he felt sure, and from what he could make out of nearby buildings and wasteland, he might take a short-cut across adjoining station yards that appeared derelict.
Archie struck out with fresh determination but found the going heavy. There were all sorts of brick footings and old concrete bays, assorted debris creating obstacles to his progress. Finally, he arrived at more disused goods sidings and a platform as long as the one he and Jackie had alighted on to. He sighed, feeling tired and now extremely hungry, as well as thirsty.
But ahead, leaning against a boarded up doorway, was a skateboard. Presumably, this industrial wasteland between rail, town and promenade, was a playground for youngsters in holidays.
Archie had never used a skateboard but had been almost knocked down by youngsters who did, whistling past him on high-street pavements. He gingerly put one foot on to it then pushed off with his other foot, gaining speed rapidly.
This was marvellous and easy work, as it seemed the platform was slightly downhill. The passing breeze from his motion also cooled him. But then, as he rounded a bend, there was a steep downward ramp.
Archie rocketed to the bottom and, attempting to avoid a pile of scrap metal, ended in a heap of surprisingly soft rubbish. He was lying, quite uninjured he realised dimly, on old mailbags. Archie got up, dusted himself down and inspected his skateboard.
The damnedest thing he'd ever seen! Instead of proper wheels underneath, there was a only a somewhat damaged meat and potato pie. It was round-shaped but, surely, couldn't have taken his weight. The crust was cracked and its contents visible and rather appealing.
Archie dabbed his finger into the gooey mix and felt, with surprise, that it was still warm – or had it been heated by friction in this relentless sunshine? He could smell the meat and gravy too.
Tentatively, he tried a taste, licking the tip of his finger, and was so hungry he found it delicious – but demurred from eating more. Obviously it would be dirty – but how bizarre!
Where had those wheels gone? Had they sheared off in the collision? Archie felt decidedly ill-at-ease over this peculiar turn of events. Still, he was light-headed, probably dehydrated, possibly still drunk.
He shook his head and walked on, tramping with much effort up the now steep pathway ahead of him. It emerged beyond more abandoned sidings and engine sheds to reveal a further wasteland of old tracks, now almost hidden under weeds and brambles.
Archie's heart sank as he looked into the distance and saw the high barrier blocking his way, a concrete-posted security fence, topped with sloping, barbed wire. It looked impassable.
Seagulls cackled and soared high in the winds overhead. Archie's tired eyes squinted at them, then into the nearer distance. There were masts there of boats, which meant an access track or tow-path of some kind.
Feeling faint but slightly encouraged, he wandered onward along this new route, his back now turned against the far-off ocean and sun.
Anything would be better, even a long way round to that elusive promenade, than going all the way back to where he'd started out.
After what seemed a long time exposed to the sun, he began to see not one but a disused network of canals, almost like sidings off main tracks of rail, where cargo ships and boats must once have been moored ready for loading from railway goods trucks.
As he got closer to these moorings there were aged remains of steam-driven, steel-hulled barges. But these had not been in use for decades. Debris floated alongside. There were also rusting trolleys and tracks, chained-up lifting gear, rotting wooden jetties and skeletal, half-sunken timber hulls. It was like an abandoned outdoor goods-haulage museum, gone to rot and now rather depressing.
Archie walked on rather hopelessly, taking care to avoid broken glass and other dangerous obstacles. How had he arrived at this ridiculous predicament when he should have been riding in comfort to London?
He blamed that reckless girl, then himself for being so easily tempted from his course, so shiftless.
The pathway he was on was becoming even rougher, degenerating into a narrow dirt path bordered by high boarding with peeling advertisements and timetables. He paused at a gap in this fence and saw a main canal close by.
Archie stepped through the gap and found himself on a grassy tow-path. Just yards ahead, the side boarding gave way to scrubby bushes still bearing blackberries and currants. He took a handful, ate them tentatively but found they eased his thirst.
Now he walked on a little more cheerfully beside the deserted but relatively clear waterway, towards a bend in the canal. Or was it a river? There was a gentle flow and more wildlife here, dragonflies and even, he saw from bubbles, some ghostly fish risen from the water's darker depths.
Rounding the bend in this river, Archie stood stock still, amazed at what lay ahead. Nestling incongruously in the shade of huge willow trees, was what appeared to be a Spanish galleon.
There was no sound from seagulls now, in fact no sound at all - excepting a whisper of wind, like an enchantment, rustling through the delicate foliage of those time-grizzled, stooping willows.
The magnificent, ancient ship was real enough and secured by several thick ropes; those great sails high above were tightly furled, while her masts towered even higher into the clear blue sky, with a brightly coloured flag fluttering atop in the light wind.
There appeared to be no movement or presence aboard the ship. Archie drew closer, admiring its polished hardwood and brass plates gleaming in the sunlight. It was, he saw now that he was closer, a recently built ship, though in the original style.
How pleasant it was here, in this shade between willows and galleon. His spirit and interest had arisen again, along with that refreshing breeze; the gentle, slapping lull of water between hull and river bank.
Archie could now see the ship's name, beautifully and clearly carved in relief on an inset wooden plate, the letters painted in gold: Discovery.
He smiled, what a wonder this was, after all. It quite made his day.
Just ahead of him, the embankment rose steeply and Archie realised he should be able to see aboard the galleon's decks – beyond its magnificent, high stern.
Feeling as though he had plunged back in time and, also, was now utterly but not unhappily alone, Archie clambered excitedly up the grassy bank for a closer look at his remarkable find.


NOW he stood higher, Archie could see a complex but orderly array of rigging, then coils of mooring and sail ropes, or 'sheets' as he remembered they were named.
The main deck was spacious, clean and well-shaded but not, as he had expected, deserted. An imposing figure stood just in front of a hatch doorway beneath the high quarterdeck.
The man was tall and broad-shouldered; dark-bearded and with thick curls of hair to his collar. He looked preoccupied; his strong facial features intent on a manuscript he was reading in the sunlight. The light breeze ruffled a loose-fitting shirt above tight cord trousers tucked into knee-high boots.
He could have been an Elizabethan buccaneer, a Raleigh or Drake, in casual seaboard dress. The fellow, although of strong, straight stature, looked ageless.
Archie stared, fascinated, then noted a second figure, seated in the shade of a corner, sketching.
He, too, appeared long-haired and equally striking but in a different way. Although casually seated and also preoccupied, he was clearly shorter and of slighter build.
As the artist looked up at willows he was sketching, he revealed deeply tanned Oriental features; a Gaucho moustache as thick and grey as his shaggy, shoulder-length hair, and gleaming teeth in an engaging smile – for he had now noticed Archie.
However, the sketcher didn't speak. Perhaps it was because at that moment another figure emerged from the hatchway behind the standing man; someone also decidedly not to be ignored.
Archie watched as the beautiful girl sidled by her much taller shipmate with a delightful smile and flick of long, black hair. She, too, was tanned, almost native Indian in colouring but with delicate European facial features.
His eyes followed the lithe, bewitching movement of her body in tight jeans and a black-lace smock that left her waist bare. Her feet, too, were bare except for dark-red varnish on her toes to match her hands, occupied now with a tray.
Both men on deck took a mug from her then, with an easy wave and another welcoming smile, the seated Oriental called in a light, playful voice, “Hey there, my friend, you want one?”
The girl turned from where she was standing beside the recumbent artist and also smiled, then offered the tray which still bore one mug – presumably her own.
“Well, thank you,” Archie called back gratefully, uncertainly surveying the nearside of the galleon for means of boarding.
It was only then that the bearded man by the hatch turned from his reading and saw Archie. He, too, smiled, though more briefly, beckoning to a side ladder.
Archie climbed aboard, to be met almost immediately by the girl, who handed him the remaining drink. He stared at her delightful face, those dark eyes, and felt his stomach lurch at such loveliness.
“Thanks,” he croaked, throat still dry, “I am very thirsty, sorry.” If it was her drink, she didn't mind.
“Is hot day,” she said, then demurred as the bearded man approached. He was taller and broader than Archie, who was generally considered a good specimen himself - if rather gone to seed.
“Welcome!” the man said and grinned more openly. There was a foreign accent to his speech but again the warmth of friendship, an easy confidence.
Now so close, Archie could see that the other man's face was heavily lined and weathered above the beard. However, he still exuded power and virility.
“You've come far.”
Archie wasn't sure how to answer, for it seemed more of a statement – perhaps prompted by his now rather dishevelled and inappropriate casual clothing in this wasteland backwater.
“From the rail station,” Archie spluttered. The drink was warming, coffee or chocolate – he wasn't quite sure, for it was also spiced with alcohol, rum.
He regained his composure and explained, “The wrong station – got rather lost, I'm afraid.”
The bearded one nodded and offered a sympathetic smile before turning to the watching girl and speaking in a language Archie didn't understand.
She gave Archie a generous smile, then went back to the hatch and down below.
Archie took another drink, rather enjoying now what he was tasting. He could feel his blood warming and confidence returning. The sketcher, he noticed, had now turned his position, flipped over a sheet of his drawing pad and was concentrating on Archie.
“You'd like food?” asked his bearded host then, as Archie hesitated, added pleasantly, “Please!” He waved invitingly towards the hatchway and placed an encouraging hand upon Archie's shoulder.
“That would be good!” Archie admitted and, at last, smiled in return. He was rewarded by a toss of the head from the taller man, who laughed heartily into a now gathering wind.
Below decks, after a flight of wooden steps, Archie entered a spacious main cabin area more like the sitting room of a cosy cottage or lounge of an old inn.
Beneath the beamed ceiling, walls were lined with bookshelves, framed paintings of seascapes and exotic ports; alongside high cabinets and dressers stacked with crockery; alcove shelves with glassware and bottles, brass-railed to stop items falling in a swell.
There was even a wood burner with cast- iron, fire-glazed doors like an old range, and crookedly rising chimney and flue. Deep-seated, leather armchairs and stools were spaced about the area, all lit in sunlight glowing through stained-glass, brass-rimmed portholes. At the centre of the cabin was an oval, polished table that would have seated a dozen.
“Ah, this is wonderful!” said Archie, taking in the smell of wood-smoke and cooking, a rich aroma which made his empty stomach lurch once more.
“Our saloon!” said his host, with an easy wave of the arm. “Please, sir, sit!” He indicated one of the expansive armchairs.
Archie sank deeply into the well-worn warmth and comfort. He felt immediately at home.
The girl reappeared, this time with a wooden railed storm-tray bearing bowls of steaming stew as well as mugs. She left Archie the tray, with cutlery, while the bearded man reached over from a squat, square stool he was seated upon and took a bowl and spoon, then placed one mug on a small table to his side.
“This is very good of you.” Archie noted his host's dismissive wave and tasted the stew, rich with beef and diced vegetables in a thick broth. It was excellent, with the same heady brew of grog in the mug.
“So, you are lost - but on journey,” said his host.
Archie nodded, savouring the meal and a thick slice of buttered bread the girl had now added, with a smile, before retreating once more to her galley.
“Yes. Funnily enough, I was on my way to a boat, too, in London.”
The host's dark eyebrows raised, then he shrugged his shoulders, “Or sail with us, if you wish.”
He called out to the girl again, in that strange language and waited for a response, spooning up stew.
Archie was considering this surprising invitation. He had also caught the name Stella in the stream of otherwise unintelligible words. He again admired the girl as she reappeared between them now; knowing suddenly he would accept that kind offer.
Everything felt right here, there was nowhere else he needed or wanted to be.
“There's a cabin for you,” the man was saying, as Archie drank more of the spiked brew. “Perhaps you need rest.” He spoke rapidly again, words Archie didn't understand but the girl smiled as the host finally explained, “Stella will make up your bunk for you.”
Archie nodded as a deep sense of satisfaction settled through his body. He watched the alluring figure depart once more and felt a thrill of excitement.
“My name is Archie,” he said, as the big man nodded in return, then added rather lamely, “from Shropshire – a journalist, lately retired.”
“Ah, a scribe!” His host's eyes glimmered as he grinned, then thrust forward a hand and shook Archie's firmly. How warm and powerful was that hand! “I am Vasco,” the man said, then bowed.
“Not da Gama?” Archie quipped, feeling light-headed now he'd stood, with effort, from his low seat.
“H'Avasco Chuevas D'Elgado Almiraz,” his host corrected, then added, smiling, “but, you are right, I am from Porto – and captain here.”


ARCHIE awoke slowly to darkness and a strange rolling sensation. Had that awoken him? It was pitch black with only a gentle, steady creaking to be heard.
The roll continued, in reverse, then he became aware of being in what felt like a cot rather than a bed, with sides close against his shoulders. No, one side was solid and curved, arching upwards to a round light and beyond. Except the light was barely lit at all.
As his eyes became more accustomed to the dark, Archie realised it was moonlight gleaming above him in that round light. Then he smelt the sea. With a shock he realised they were sailing. He was aboard the Discovery and must have been sleeping for hours.
Archie raised himself on one elbow and could now see through the porthole just above his bunk. A calm sea stretched out to a curved horizon, all lit in shifting moonlight. It was magical, with the steady, comforting roll of the ship; like being back in the womb, with such adventures to come.
He lay back, rather taken with that thought.
Archie marvelled at how clear his head felt, how rested his body. Thinking back, he had no right to feel so good but he did, lying here lulled by that stirring, moonstruck sea, on top of the world.
He closed his eyes, breathing in the clean air from his partly opened porthole. Then he heard a man's shout, or rather a call, a deep bass voice from high above – just loud enough to be heard, before being born away again in the wind. It carried no hint of alarm, just a signal of the passing time.
A short while later, Archie rolled gently from his bunk; splashed water on to his face from a jug by the sink, ran his fingers through his hair and located his shoes. He slipped them on then went out into the narrow corridor, heading toward the lighted hatch up above and the ship's deck.
The warm, briny air embraced him fully as he emerged from the hatch, then watched the skeletal frame of the ship's masts and great, unfurled sails against that distant horizon and moonlight.
“Olà, Archie,” called a deep voice, but different, more mellow, than the wind-caught shout he'd heard from below before.
Archie could make out the figure of someone sitting near the foredeck, who now raised an arm with a lantern in greeting. He saw the smile of Captain Almirez and went forward to join him.
Vasco was writing in the manuscript he'd been studying earlier, a leather-bound log.
“You sleep well?”
Archie sat down beside him and nodded.
“Look,” said Vasco with a wave towards the horizon, now gleaming red like a running fire in a distant black forest, “the new day coming.”
Archie grinned in return, enjoying the gentle roll of the ship, a whispering of wind high above them that made the canvas crackle as though also wakening, stretching and relishing this fresh day.
“Your name is Archie-bold?” the captain asked, mispronouncing the English.
“No, just Archie,” he corrected with amusement, then patted his rather wild but thinning hair on top, “not bald, not yet.”
Vasco nodded uncertainly but then nodded his head behind them and up towards the quarterdeck where another figure stood at the wheel.
Archie caught his breath a moment, for this ghostly but clearly burly helmsman appeared to have no head on his broad shoulders, then white teeth grinned in what was a pitch-black face with now gleaming eyes.
“Solo!” the captain introduced, with a wave that was returned from the bridge.
As the dawn began to spread, Archie saw the huge man's domed head shaved to the skin.
“Solomon is bald,” said Vasco, then opened and began writing in his book in a neat hand.
“Just Archie, then?” the captain asked, pen poised over the flow of his elegant notes.
“Oh, Brownsett,” said Archie then, seeing Vasco frown at this, added, “Archie Brownsett – my name.”
“What is,” the captain hesitated, obviously intending to make a note but uncertain, “this brown seat?”
“Brownsett,” Archie repeated, then spelled it out as Vasco wrote. “Apparently back in the depths of Manchester, where I was born, it meant setts or like cobbles of earth – for rough roads, years ago.”
The captain looked interested, then smiled, “But now no more roads, you move across the seas – and with the winds.”
Archie smiled, too, rather enchanted by that thought. Was he being added to the ship's small crew, then? If so, he wondered at his possible duties. Or was he being entered as a note of interest in the ship's log margins, like some rare bird or animal sighting?
As Vasco was still writing, Archie stared at the now glowing sky as the sunrise spread. He admired the big negro, Solo, at the helm – a mighty figure that inspired confidence and respect. Then he looked up and was surprised to see someone waving at him, from high above, next to the swaying mainmast.
Whoever it was had been drawn up to this uppermost point on what looked like a board between ropes. Was it called a bosun's chair? Uncertainly, Archie waved back.
“Estella,” observed Vasco, seeing his stare.
The captain rose and issued orders to his helmsman then turned, patted Archie's shoulder amiably and told him, “We breakfast in one hour.”
He watched Vasco walk across the deck then duck down below. Then Archie looked up in wonder for some moments at the high, swinging figure far above. Finally, he went to the ship's edge and stared over towards the bow, where waves streamed down the side of the gently tacking galleon, gleaming white in the rising sun that now warmed Archie's head.
God, this was wonderful! Yet so amazing, he thought, scanning the horizons about them. Archie could see no land, just that endless sea curving to infinity. He was hungry, too, ready for this promised meal. With a nod to the grinning helmsman above, Archie followed in the captain's footsteps, descending those steep stairs carefully as the Discovery swayed and seemed to quicken its headway.
In the dimly lit but snug cabin, Archie hesitated after taking off the shirt he'd slept in. He had been going to shave but then remembered his toilet bag was in the case, back in those station lockers.
He felt in his back pocket and was reassured by a wad of notes, the hardness of his credit cards. Then he picked up the shirt again and checked its buttoned top pocket. His passport was still there. Why he'd even taken it, he wasn't sure. Except there was a hint, a hope even, that he would not be returning to Boot.
Archie also had a bankbook that was in his other buttoned breast pocket. All was safe, then – although any spare clothes, underwear, even socks, were in that case and left behind.
Did it matter? Not right now, he decided.
Archie stripped off his remaining clothes and stood on a wooden slatted area beside his sink. This, he'd noticed when washing briefly before, was open to the outdoors and slanted slightly to drain.
He picked up a large vase-like vessel full of water, from beside the jug used earlier, then tipped its contents over his head.
This deluge of cold water sent scintillating shock-waves through his body but fully refreshed him.
Archie took a deep breath of the sea air, ran his fingers through his soaking curls of hair and sighed loudly and contentedly. He had rarely felt so alive.
He used a large towel hanging close by then looked in a wall closet. There was a mix of clothing there, including some loose-fitting shirts and thick cord trousers similar to those Vasco wore.
Archie slipped them on and they fitted well enough, with aid from a belt. Then he pulled on some warm, woollen socks and tried the calf-length leather boots. These, too, were comfortable, well-worn.
Outside his door there were footsteps, passing voices, some laughter. Archie paused uncertainly.
There was even toothpaste by the sink, he saw now, plus a small, folding travel toothbrush. He used them, gargled with some more cold water from the jug then went out to meet the crew and eat breakfast.
The saloon table was full of people and food. Archie nodded to the others as Vasco drew out a chair and gestured he should join him.
“Our scribe,” Vasco announced to his crew, “name of Archie.”
Opposite Archie, to the other, right-hand side of the captain, sat the Oriental artist of earlier – or yesterday – who had been sketching. He grinned again in welcome.
A large plate of fried eggs and bacon was put before Archie by a dumpy, smiling Filipina.
“This is Pippa,” said Vasco, introducing her and – with a wave to the swarthy Filipino man beside that shaggy-haired Chinaman opposite – he added, “and Panno her husband, our musician!”
There was some laughter at this but Vasco hadn't finished his jovial introductions.
“Yap,” he said, pointing at the cheerful, grey-haired Chinese, “our artist, you've met. Then,” he finished, pointing at an imposing, very dark Indian man with a startling white beard and hair swept back in a neat pigtail, “Monty – our learned teacher.”
The Indian smiled and stood, leaning over to shake Archie's hand enthusiastically. He looked in his 60s but well preserved and clearly fit, that dark skin glowing now in the swaying gaslight above the table, his black eyes glistening with amusement.
“No teacher – just educated,” he told Archie, inspiring more laughter amongst the din of crockery and Pippa's goading and rebukes to the hungry men helping themselves from salvers of hot food.
Archie accepted some mushrooms, tomatoes, baked beans, then what appeared to be sliced black puddings mixed with chunks of crisp-skinned, pork sausage meat.
Like this lively crew, it was a hearty meal, washed down, Archie noticed, with what appeared to be flagons of beer poured into pewter tankards. He drank some, finding it weak but refreshing, after Pippa had put a tankard before him, then lowered it to find the others watching and grinning.
“To you, my friend,” Vasco said, raising his drink in salute, “welcome aboard Discovery, Archie.”
They all drank, repeating the 'Welcome' toast, except for the standing Pippa who instead patted Archie's shoulder and laughed, muttering in Tagalog to her husband who was quickly finishing his meal.
The reason for his rush appeared in the saloon, the great frame of Solomon from above, his big, black face grinning happily in anticipation of this feast – and a change in shifts at the wheel.
As Panno departed the saloon, with a comradely slap on his shoulder from Solo, Stella also entered looking windswept.
Solo sat down and was introduced, before enveloping Archie's hand in a surprisingly gentle shake.
“So, you awake,” said Stella beside Archie now, “you sleep long – and well?”
“Thank you,” Archie told her, admiring that beautiful face framed in tousled, dark locks, “yes.” He paused, searching for more to say. “When did we sail?”
Stella shrugged, glancing over at the food now, “With the high tide.”
Quite so, Archie thought, pleased she stood so close. Time no longer mattered – only the shifting tides of their shared fortunes.

* * *

HERE is the first chapter of the second Sam Stone Investigates novel, entitled A Stone's Throw. The front and back covers ((see below, left and right) were designed by the author. It was published in paperback in late March and is available on Kindle.

“THAT was close!” complained Stone, shifting quickly in his chair as the hard ball bounced high just behind him on the timber balcony, then out over the rear wall of Blackpool Cricket Club.
Stone's quarter-full pint of Corby Blonde had slopped on to his best summer shirt and fawn slacks.
“What a drive!” responded groundsman Chris Mackay, sitting beside him, with a wild-eyed grin further creasing his weathered features.
On the pitch of play just below them, against the panorama of Stanley Park with its mature poplars, willows and distant lake, club professional Christi Viljeon was having a field day.
Even a Spitfire passing overhead, from the Lancashire resort's Promenade air show, tipped its wings in salute before looping the loop during an impromptu flypast.
It was a wonderful Sunday with sunshine and cup match to enjoy. Stone felt fit despite a double shift the previous day, editing features for national papers published at Broughton Printers, just outside Preston.
In fact, he had not felt in such good spirits for weeks, consumed as he had been by work on his first novel, along with continuing blues over Esperanza's sudden disappearance from his life.
Beside him, Chris took a deep drink of cask ale and removed a battered cricket cap to scratch his thatch of blond hair, then sighed and shook his head.
“He can't keep this up much longer. I better get ready to tidy the wicket. They'll break for tea as soon as he's out.”
The groundsman left his cap, near-empty glass, Zippo lighter and sunglasses on the table then waved to alert assistant Alan Cross.
“I'll see you later, Sam – if you're staying on for your dinner.”
Stone nodded silently, prompting Chris to pat his shoulder with friendly sympathy before standing and leaving the clubhouse terrace.
It had become Stone's habit since the cricket season began, a few weekends before, to depart early on Sunday mornings from his cottage in rural Fylde near Woodplumpton, then treat himself to a one-night stay-over at Blackpool's 'De Vere' Village Hotel.
This four-star 'resort hotel' was in rolling countryside off nearby East Park Drive, with an 18-hole golf course, health spa, gym and both indoor and heated outdoor swimming pools. As many guests were leaving on Sundays, Stone got a generous discount.
th hole”, where smart, young bar manager Danny had an eye for the best beers and looked after Stone.
Earlier that day he had arrived and checked into his room then enjoyed a swim in the outside pool. Later he had read the free papers and taken brunch overlooking the last green on the terrace of the “19
From there it had been a gentle stroll across Stanley Park to this impressive cricket club oval. Stone had been a member here since his early teens, when growing up in a small hotel just off the Promenade along Blackpool's busy South Shore.
Today, after a few pints watching the match in convivial company, he would relish one of chef Andy's roast dinners in the clubhouse, served by attentive barman Dave, then return to his hotel.
On Monday mornings Stone sweated it all out in the hotel's state-of-the-art gym and steam room, before a light lunch on the terrace, again with newspapers.
Afterwards, he returned to his country retreat to work until Friday on his first novel. He had already interested an agent in it, then later been paid a substantial advance by a publisher.
That unexpected encouragement, Stone suspected, stemmed not so much from his writing talent as from the fame of his recent newspaper exclusives. These had caused a further sensation after the violent death of his famous comedian friend Ted Roker, the mystery of which Stone had helped solve.
“Every cloud . . .” Stone thought grimly now, as the late-spring sun darkened momentarily, behind a clump of cumulus. He would have much preferred to still be broke but have his exceptional pal alive again.
The only good that had come from the whole Ted Roker tragedy had been his meeting and friendship with Esperanza.
Espie had opened a hairdressing salon down the coast at Lytham, in Duck Lane where Stone had lived back then. Destiny had drawn them together as events unfolded, finally opening a promising new world for both. Or so it had seemed for a while.
Just as quickly as she had come into his life, the beautiful Filipina had now gone from it. Her inexplicable departure had left Stone even lower than before, when still floundering after his divorce from Emma – along with his abandonment of a well-paid but unloved career in the London media.
His freelance reporting back in the north for national papers had barely paid the bills, before Ted Roker's sudden and shocking demise. Stone had seen his BMW repossessed and then struggled to find rent for his home near the Lytham Green seafront.
“Well,” he muttered to himself while standing, “what I need now is another of these superb ales.” Speaking to himself was becoming a habit, alone in his country cottage.
With one eye on the rampaging Namibian batsman, Stone began leaving the terrace for the pavilion bar.
Below, close to the outfield, was also a large marquee left over from a recent hockey tournament - and now housing the club's popular annual beer festival, largely run by assistant groundsman Alan and his astute wife Christine.
Stone waved to familiar characters sat outside: 'Simmo', the poetic retired bricklayer; Tony, the talkative painter and decorator, along with more of the 'usual culprits'. They were a friendly bunch.
Then, just before entering the clubhouse patio doors, he halted in surprise. A startlingly exotic figure was emerging below him near the marquee, causing almost as much sensation as Christi Viljeon's double century on the pitch.
The girl moved elegantly, keeping aloof despite a chorus of whistles and calls from nearby drinkers; her sinuous poise was accentuated by a long, tight dress of glistening gold silk, a traditional Thai costume.
To Stone's further surprise, this vision of oriental charm then stared up directly at him, waved and smiled broadly in recognition.
There was something familiar about her high-cheekboned features and wavy, shoulder-length hair, but Stone – now being cheered by those watching outside the marquee – still couldn't place her.
He nodded politely in return to her and indicated that she should come up side-steps to join him, inspiring more jealous jeers from onlookers.
She ascended the steep steps with difficulty in her tight, ankle-length dress. Closer now, her jewellery also glistened in the sunshine and she raised a languid hand to shade her face from its rays.
At a tap upon the window behind him, Stone turned to see club secretary Steven Kennedy and other seated committee members - complaining he was blocking their match view. However, the men's grins suggested they, too, were intrigued by this other diversion he was helping to provide.
Stone raised a hand in apology and moved slightly, to find the foreign beauty close beside him.
“Hello Sam,” she said softly with a warm timbre to her voice, “do you remember me?”
Her eyes searched his for a moment. She seemed about to tell him her name when Stone remembered, though he had never before seen Espie's friend in her working costume.
“Beth!” he recalled, then leaned forward and – watched by almost as many spectators as Viljeon out on the square – politely kissed her cool cheek.
He and Esperanza had once visited Maribeth at her home in a Fylde village, near where she worked at a Thai restaurant. Despite her traditional robes Beth, like Espie, was a Filipina. That happy time, soon after last Christmas, seemed an age ago.
Now Beth's eyes glanced uncertainly about the crowded terrace and clubhouse.
“Sorry to disturb,” she said haltingly, in a mellow, rather low-pitched tone he remembered from their only previous meeting. Then she fixed her dark eyes levelly upon his. “But I need talk to you, Sam.”
“Yes, don't worry.” Stone felt a nervous lurch in his stomach at coming bad news. He ushered Maribeth inside and, aware of blocking more members' views, led her to the long bar.
“Yes, Sammy?” called amiable former steward Peter Campbell, who was helping out because of extra crowds from cup match and beer festival.
Stone bought Beth a diet cola then another Corby Blonde for himself, noting an admiring beam from Peter at his unexpected companion.
Aware of curiosity from others about them, Stone looked for a free table. However, now in mid-afternoon, they were all occupied by family diners.
“Perhaps we should go upstairs,” Stone suggested, then led the winding way up to the President's Suite, carrying both their drinks.
The upstairs function rooms were often occupied by sponsors of league and county matches. Today there were just a couple of club stalwarts, old Roy and Gordon, watching the game in quiet isolation, along with electronic scorer Martin Lamb who looked up curiously as Maribeth stepped delicately inside.
“Hello, Sammy,” muttered 'Lamby' in wondrous admiration, staring at Stone's stunning companion. There was another roar from the crowd and he returned hurriedly to his controls for the distant score box.
Stone placed their drinks at a table above the main upstairs balcony, from where he could see the match. The crowd was applauding yet another spectacular 'six' soaring clear of the far park boundary.
“Sorry to take you from game,” murmured Beth, with a bewildered glance at the men in whites below them. What a fine scene it made from this high viewpoint, with mature trees stretching away through Stanley Park and the distant Pennines in a haze.
Beth also presented a breathtaking if contrary spectacle, wearing her elaborately embossed costume and staring intently now at Stone.
“Is about Espie,” she told him, as he had feared. Her eyes examined his cautiously, then she added: “I think she need your help – over husband and daughter.”
Stone remained silent though his mouth had fallen open at this unexpected news, since he had no previous inkling that Esperanza possessed either a husband or a child.
Outside, the crowd roared again – sporting records were being shattered but that no longer interested him.
Yet Beth still hadn't finished her surprises for, leaning forward, she then added: “In the Philippines.”

* * *

AT Christmas former colleagues and I used to meet Lancashire country writer Jack Benson, who lived at Little Eccleston in Rural Fylde but was born on Blackpool's Marton Moss, so entitled to call himself a Mossag. Sadly Jack is now only with us in spirit at our annual get-together in The Thatched House pub at Poulton-le-Fylde. This chapter from  Bright Lights & Pig Rustling (see Books), is a tribute you might enjoy sharing.

Nature's Gent

MOST newspapers try to alleviate the 'bad news', that helps sell them, with a few more uplifting titbits. My own supposedly humorous columns, latterly entitled 'A Seasoned Look At Life', have attempted to offer such a contrast. Another, which I greatly enjoyed reading in the Gazette, were rural notes.
“Fancy a run out for a beer – at a country pub?” assistant editor David Upton had offered one evening over the phone.
Dave was a production man, one of those who quietly (or otherwise) shaped the paper in the background of the office. The tall, bearded fellow-Mancunian was a good listener, a thoughtful and artistic man of gentle manner. He remains a good friend, along with his bright, out-going ex-teacher wife Jane.
“I'm going over to Little Eccleston, to meet Jack Benson,” he explained, adding, “we get together every few months or so for a couple of pints.”
Jack (pictured) was the current, freelance country writer for the Gazette, as well as for Lancashire Life and a few other publications. He also published and sold his own books and CDs full of country wit and wisdom. I was a fan but had never met him, or his predecessor at the Gazette, R.G. Shepherd.
“R.G.S. was rather different,” Dave Upton told me as he drove us out past the growing town of Poulton, where he and Jane lived, towards the undulating countryside known as Rural Fylde.
Mister Shepherd, as R.G.S. was always known, had been a senior editor on the staff. He was very knowledgeable and widely followed, Dave recalled in his own authoritative, deep tones. “The Gazette even published books of them.”
“But, from what I remember,” I said, “Jack is more amusing.”
“Yes,” confirmed my bearded companion with a grin, “that's why I recommended he took over the column after R.G.S. died – and why you'll enjoy meeting him. The Cartford Inn, at Little Eccleston, is his local. Jack lives just up the road.”
I did enjoy meeting the also bearded and unpretentious countryman, who rather shrank from his local celebrity but was cheerful and engaging with all. Jack seemed to see and bring out the best in others, while appearing amazed at his own popularity.
He admitted to having been stunned and apprehensive when asked by Dave a few years earlier to follow in the Gazette footsteps of legend R.G.S.
“Of course,” he said halfway into our first round in the cosy Cartford, “I'm not a proper journalist like you chaps. I listen in awe to your advice.”
I wondered if he was taking the rural 'mick', but Jack wasn't like that. He was straight with all.
His origins had been humble, born on the Moss at Marton and growing up to become a rustic window cleaner – which he'd thoroughly enjoyed. That experience, as well as being a gardener and greengrocer, had also provided many entertaining anecdotes about farmhouses and odd goings on.
However, Jack knew about nature – as well as country people – and loved words. His columns sparkled not only with humorous tales about farmers but also beautifully described sunsets and scenes.
He had even risen, through part-time studies, to teach creative writing - and bravely did so in prisons. His writing-class pupils included rapists and murderers, who all hung on his every word.
Map courtesy of of St. Annes
The Cartford Inn at Little Eccleston was picturesque with good ales. It was at the bottom of a steep, wooded hill, beside an old toll bridge leading into the rural depths of Over Wyre (so called as it is beyond the river Wyre from the rest of the Fylde).
The pub's recent history also provided an insight into Jack's own. There was a proudly displayed plaque on its bar, saying that very spot was where local writer Jack had proposed – and been accepted – by wife Patty.
The loving couple now had an extended family stretching to Wales, while all folk – local and passing – received a warm greeting in their charming cottage.
She Who Knows and I were to be shown, on another occasion, into their fireside comfort and 'music room'; then taken on a tour of Jack's rambling and diverse garden, which included a pond, overgrown hideaways and his notorious compost tip.
Jack became a valued friend, although we only met a few times a year – invariably on licensed premises. Occasionally, he led me over the main road to nearby Great Eccleston.
This larger sister village boasted a market square, an excellent chip shop, popular Italian restaurant and, most importantly, three good pubs – in which Jack was welcomed like local royalty.
After our 'session' I'd be invited back for a bite of supper or drop of home brew, then kindly driven home by Jack's musical daughter Lindsay (usually with himself coming along for the ride).
At other times, such as at Christmas, Jack would be dropped off by daughter and wife at Poulton's Thatched House pub, or even at my local, the Saddle Inn at Great Marton.
Wherever we went he encountered fans and the conversation, along with real ale, flowed cheerily. It was one of those friendships, however occasional, in which we were never lost for words.
Jack also encouraged me to write books and publish them, after I had retired from the Gazette.
However, those few public readings I attempted to promote the books never came close to his own impressive following of admirers; nor did readers of my continuing columns ever show quite the fervent loyalty felt for his country-spun muses.
As the huge funeral turnout clearly demonstrated, when Jack died a couple of years ago aged 77, this kindly and entertaining character was one of nature's true gentlemen.
Something of his charm and lasting wonder at the natural world is glimpsed in 'A Homage to Jack Benson's Cartford Country Talk', to be found on his old local pub's internet website.
His poetic talent is reflected in his final post – poignantly called The Last Songbird. Of course, Jack would have known all about pig rustling too!

 * * *

HERE are a couple of extracted chapters from a memoir, Bright Lights & Pig Rustling, about living on the Fylde, Lancashire's Irish Sea coast 'famous for fresh air and fun'. These feature bachelor years in the late 80s and 90s living in Blackpool, Europe's most raucous resort. The book, which spans up to the present day and includes side trips into Vietnam, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka, is published this month - watch our Home and Book pages for news.

On The Razzle

“COME on in, lads, you're all locals aren't you?” So, Ken, the dinner-jacketed, middle-aged bouncer at The Galleon bar and club would ask us, on busy weekend evenings in the shady side of town.
There would be a patient queue of visitors to Blackpool, waiting for admittance to the late-night drinking and music club, where Ken put locals first.
“Just bring me up a pint when you get chance,” Ken would add, waving away your entrance fee. There seemed to be grateful club-goers bringing him up pints throughout the night.
On the ground floor, mostly used by hoteliers and taxi drivers enjoying a night off, there were garish lights and a keyboard/vocalist.
We went downstairs to the basement labyrinth of rooms, with a couple of bars, a café-type serving hatch for occasional pies and gravy, and small dance floor below the tiny stage.
On the stage there was a regular duo, pianist Terry Corvo, then later Dave Waggett and, most famously, 'Shultz' - the short, one-eyed drummer who smoked incessantly with a cigarette holder.
You could only tell which was Shultz's good eye when he winked at one of the girls dancing, or smiled in thanks to one of the many punters who kept the duo lubricated.
An amazing number of visiting musicians, playing at prestigious locations like the Opera House and Grand Theatre, would come in to 'jam', including even Jools Holland.
(“What the f*** have you brought me to this dump for?” I heard him ask pals at the bar – before he, too, succumbed to the Galleon's seedy charms.)
Your feet stuck to the carpets and there was a cheerful if often bustling air to the motley clientèle, with never any trouble from the many regulars - who were as likely to be off-duty detectives as villains, rich and famous, as well as poor and obscure.
The basement bar interior was done out like the inside of an old Spanish Galleon (a spoof on the proper Galleon Bar in the Winter Gardens).
One bizarre touch was plastic fish in the so-called portholes, floating in a pretend sea that over years had yellowed to look more like formaldehyde.
The joke was that you knew it was time to go home, when the fish started to move. Another, was that you never went down into the Galleon sober, as the beer was so bad then. Thankfully, it has now been reborn – in a more central area of town with better facilities but the same, friendly atmosphere.
Some other clubs, even in the town-centre, took their preference for locals to extremes. Such was the popular 'Jenk's', then later Rumours disco bar - complete with go-go girls. These were in a prime Talbot-Square site opposite Yates's Wine Bar (of draught champagne fame but, sadly, now burned down). At Rumours you needed proof of a local address, with public utility bills, to become a member.
Blackpool locals like to party and would often make up the majority in its many nightclubs and late-night variety and music bars. Most big, Promenade hotels also had popular clubs which, thanks to a Press card, colleagues and myself regularly visited.
Even in mid-week evenings of winter, such places attracted a lively following from all ages, particularly the 'ladies-free' ones – known better as 'grab a granny' nights.
Perhaps the most generally loved location, however, was rather out of the way at Starr Gate – the southerly end of Blackpool Promenade.
Here was the Lemon Tree, a landmark building on a major corner site near the airport and sea. It had lively bars, a popular dance floor, good dining and a casino. There was something there for all and everyone was seen there at some time, dressed from Tuxedo and evening gown to smart casual. Other casinos have prospered and diversified along the Prom, particularly attracting a growing Chinese population.
Dancing has returned, thanks to its “Strictly” TV popularity, but the Lemon Tree and many other live entertainment venues have struggled against cheaper karaoke nights, dodgy lap dancing and, of course, stay-at-home entertainment.
The resort always had a previously hidden 'gay' culture, which has now blossomed into the Pink Pound – thanks largely to entrepreneur Basil Newby.
The genial Basil's Flamingo nightclub, opposite Blackpool North rail station, was always a huge draw – even with girls merely trying to avoid 'cattle-market' atmospheres – and, therefore, with 'straight' boys following them.
His celebrated Funny Girls club, which took transvestite entertainment to a new level from the popular Danny La Rue, has now grown big enough to take over the former Odeon Cinema.
Popular old pubs changed name and character, like the King's Arms, by Blackpool North Station, that became The Flying Handbag – need I say more.
It was possible – and still is – to head into town (probably only in shirt and trousers, or skimpy dress) and, via quick strolls and cheap taxi rides, take in half a dozen crowded pubs and clubs for a 'night on the town'.
I even know pensioners who still do that – but not this one.

The Inner Man

THERE are a great many places to eat out around the Fylde coast of Lancashire, in and around the towns of Blackpool, St. Annes, Lytham and Fleetwood.
From sleepy Knott End in the north, to friendly Freckleton (or Debtors' Retreat, as locals called it) in the south; or into the labyrinth vales of Rural Fylde and rustic plains of Over Wyre, there was a huge variety of restaurants, grand or humble, and of tastes to savour.
Fortunately, there still are many fine dining places and more appear yearly as country pubs turn increasingly to food for survival.
Sadly, some of our old favourites have now gone, or trailed decidedly down-market to continue in business. But they all have a well-deserved place in the local annals of gastronomy.
I missed one of the locals' earliest favourites, the Talk of the Town in Queen's Square, at the heart of Blackpool beside the Promenade and a draw for visiting stars.
Its food was English-Indian, as eclectic as its clientèle and the owner was reputed to keep a shotgun handy, whether because of its more colourful regulars or as he feared raids drawn by his success I don't know.
At the other end of the scale, up Church Road, was the equally popular Shahi Grill Indian diner and takeaway which stayed open until 4am. There was a system of rails to stop drunks running out without paying and often a large Alsation dog present – as a guard, not like those rumoured to be in dodgy Chinese takeaway fridges.
I had the dubious notoriety of being refused service there after a very late night, probably at the Galleon, when I accidentally stood on the poor animal's tail causing a considerable ruckus.
In the old days, my unsteady route on such Friday or Saturday nights might be a few pints at the Saddle, followed by the Raikes, then into town by taxi to the Galleon bar, followed by a search for more fun.
This foolish notion usually led me up the quiet side roads behind the Winter Gardens and past the 'theatricals' hotel', back then the Leopold in the Grove of that name. Most of the Gazette reporting staff knew the late-night barman there, who also ran the dress circle bar at the Grand Theatre. He was a vibrant, if highly camp, character of Irish descent.
Gary, as he was called, would tap on the hotel window if he saw you passing outside its front-room bar, where artistes playing at the Winter Gardens would wind down after performances.
I remember showing a London friend, Dave Part, this colourful example of Blackpool's seedier underside. We tentatively knocked on the Leopold Hotel's locked front door at around 2am and it was opened by famous entertainer Bobby Davro, just then with a summer season show in the resort.
“What's the password?” the actor and comedian demanded cheerfully, drink in hand.
What's he like?” I mimicked in return, imitating the popular Gary's own camp catchphrase, which duly opened the doors to another hour or two of carousing among showbiz stalwarts and showgirls.
If all was quiet on the hotel front, a taxi to Central Drive (or the flatland and cheap hotel area now nicknamed 'the Bronx') deposited you at an old favourite, the Taj Mahal Indian restaurant.
This filled me with nostalgia for old Indian restaurants from younger Manchester days, including the almost-all-night Taj Mahal in All Saints' Square – the only place I know whose curries were red coloured, probably for danger.
At the Central Drive Taj, with its flock wallpaper, silver service and avuncular waiters, the curry colour was more green. At least it was when I had my usual beef madras with boiled rice, prefaced by a couple of onion and mango chutney-laden poppadoms.
Should the Taj be closed, the Bengal Curry House takeaway nearby provided a suitably strong- flavoured alternative. There my preference was for an oily chicken dupiaza, with strong onion base, consumed not with rice but with a thick, pan-fried paratha bread.
This routine was to change since She Who Knows' conservative but firmly held view was that curry sauce was solely a way of covering up and flavouring old or bad meat. Also, she could smell (and abhor) garlic, as from a Thai curry, on my breath from across the road – even before opening our front door.

* * *

THESE are the first few chapters of our latest light thriller and mystery-romance, entitled A Cut Above. It is set on the Fylde coast and revolves around the suspicious death of a famous comedian. The novel also introduces freelance reporter Sam Stone, whom we hope will be appearing in future stories. Front and back covers were designed by the author.


OUTSIDE the small, triangular building in Duck Lane, almost opposite Stone's home, was a lady's bicycle. It looked sturdy and new, was traditional in design but a stylish white. It was leaning against a wall by the door, which was open.
Either side the entrance were fashionable clipped Box bushes, green balls on bare upright trunks - planted in blue bowls.
Stone stared in surprise. The business premises had also been painted a light bluish-grey; well, more purple really. What did they call it, that trendy colour? His brain couldn't find the word.
But when had this all changed? The last time he'd noticed, the odd, little place had been a takeaway, serving hot snacks and sandwiches during the day through a hatch. He had even used it himself, when out of food or just feeling lazy – like today.
Stone was supposed to be a professional observer; a trained eye and sharp mind, who noticed what others failed to see. This oversight almost upon his doorstep unnerved him.
By edging sideways in his living-room window, he saw that on the distant wall to the side of that open door was a new business name in black, lower-case lettering. This read, 'cut above'. It sounded like an instruction on a packet, for opening the seal.
Then a young woman emerged from its dark interior into the morning sunshine. She had a small watering can and was Asian. Her glistening, black hair was shoulder-length, spilling on to a smock tied about her shapely figure, above jeans.
A magenta smock; yes, that was the colour.
At the same moment as Stone smiled in relief, for retrieving that word from his soggy brain, the girl looked up from watering the plants and stared directly at him across Duck Lane.
She smiled in return. Her teeth startling white against coffee-coloured skin, enjoying the bright sunlight and including him in her pleasure.
Stone stood stock still, now realising he was as visible to her as she to him - despite the cottage's bow window before him. Then she tossed her hair to the side in an easy, feminine gesture and returned inside.
His phone was ringing, where he'd left it beside the sofa in the dark, early hours of this morning.
Stone picked it up and hesitated, for a moment he'd foolishly expected the girl he'd just seen to be calling him.
"Hello?" His voice sounded croaky, having come down minutes ago for a drink, but then first opening the window blinds. It was still only 8.30.
"Is that Mister Samuel Stone?" a young man's voice asked.
The formality made Stone immediately defensive. However, there was no money to pay on the car. In fact, he reminded himself sullenly, it had just been reclaimed - a couple of days before. Neither was his rent overdue. What's more, there was now no-one left close to him who might have died.
"Who's that?" he asked in turn.
"Marcus Murphy, I'm a researcher on the Metro Breakfast Show."
"Oh, right," said Stone, thinking it might mean some work, then hoping he'd have time for coffee and breakfast first.
He walked through the open lounge and dining area into the cottage's galley kitchen, carrying his mobile and eager for a drink.
Outside, the neighbour's cat was in his patio yard again. As Stone became visible in his kitchen door's large window, the young tabby looked up accusingly at him - for not yet providing a saucer of milk, as had recently become their shared habit.
Me first, cat, thought Stone, eyeing the coffee pot and wondering if he had any bread in the cupboard for toast or, come to that, any milk in the fridge for either of them.
"The comedian, Ted Roker is dead."
Stone left the fridge door half open, halted in mid-motion. His gasp of shock was audible.
"Sorry," said the caller, "you knew him well, I'm told. I thought you would probably have heard."
Always check first, Stone thought - silently reproaching the young TV journalist for carelessness.
"When and how?" he curtly asked Murphy instead of complaining over his bluntness.
"His body was found early this morning, in his lounge at home." The younger man paused, "By a cleaner, police said."
"And what else did they tell you?"
Stone had an image of Ted Roker's large detached house by the sand hills, his spacious sitting room with bar - and sea view beyond. 'Rocky', of course, was a front-runner in the heart-attack stakes.
"Fatal gun wound," said young Marcus Murphy.
The fridge door had swung open wider as Stone stood rigid as though frozen. The only thing inside, he noticed now, was its light.
"How?" Stone managed to ask, his voice wavering again and throat dry.
"Suicide, they think, no sign of forced entry - and a handgun's been recovered at the site."
Murphy was back at the top of his form.
"Could you give us a few words now, for the studio round-up, then do an interview to camera if possible?"
"Where, Manchester?" Stone had gone back into his lounge and sank into the sofa, where he'd awoken four hours earlier feeling cold and hungover.
"No, we've an O.B. news team there at the scene - on the coast. You're in Lytham, too, I believe."
"That's right," muttered Stone, "very nearby."
He never knew Rocky possessed a gun. Surely the comedian would have mentioned it, even used it as a prop in some lark at his bar - between friends.
"Who's been talking with you, Lancashire Crime Squad?"
"Think so," said Murphy, "before I arrived. What is your reaction?"
Stone's mind was working at last, grudgingly. "When will your crew be here with me?"
"15 minutes or so?" The researcher had one of those upward tones young people employed, making statements sound like questions.
"It'll cost," Stone told him. The disapproval of his polite, young caller was palpable in the silence between them.
"A couple of hundred," Stone added brutally, thinking old Ted would have been proud of him - then trying not to consider poor Rocky at all, not yet, only when recovered from the shock and alone.
"I'll have to check," Murphy said, going off the line but only momentarily. "Yes, that's okay."
"He was a good friend and great man," said Stone. "That's all I can say, until hearing more."
Minutes later, after a glass of water and black coffee, Stone evaded the tabby's reproachful stare from his rear garden and went back upstairs.
He shaved and showered then dressed, smart but casual, with pale-green shirt and olive, moleskin slacks, then found matching socks and leather loafers.
Stone was considering the camera, publicity.
The shirt's colour suited him, or so he'd been told - matching his eyes, offsetting the dark hair in need of trimming and now showing grey at the sides.
Only then did Stone open his bedroom blinds, thinking of the girl who'd smiled at him earlier. He stared down at 'cut above', making out some activity inside from this higher vantage point.
Two figures were close together in the shadows inside, one standing the other sitting. He saw the caressing motions of a girl's arm. Duck Lane now boasted a hairdresser's.
Stone frowned as his stomach growled in complaint. The takeaway would have been handier.
Back in the bathroom, Stone brushed his teeth. He noted signs of age and tiredness in his face then, bleakly, he thought of Rocky's untimely and tragic end.
Why now? It just didn't make any sense.


"My mother-in-law says she's going to dance on my grave," Rocky had joked. "That's why I want to be buried at sea."
Stone was recalling the joke as he awaited the TV news crew. Ted had loved the sea, too. After his wife and child had left, Rocky was like a pea in a barrel at that great house by the estuary's sand hills, but wouldn't leave.
When they were at his bar in the back sitting room, the comedian would stare thoughtfully out to the Irish Sea beyond his expansive garden.
"That view is never the same, Sammy," Ted would say. "The sea, the light, even the clouds are forever changing. Sometimes I can see the Great Orme at Llandudno, even - I fancy, at times - Ireland.
"Mind you," the great man would then add in a gravelly aside, followed by characteristic sniff before quipping, "that's after a stunning belt of Black Bush - and I don't mean Jennifer Lopez."
The big, secure house reared up in Stone's mind. Ted Roker could afford staff: a full-time driver - a reformed alcoholic, Rocky had claimed ("He tries to keep me on a straight road."); housekeeper, come cook and cleaner; also a gardener. However, none of them lived in behind those tall, electronic gates.
Perhaps that was why Ted drank himself to sleep most evenings and weekend afternoons if not working - and not Irish whiskey either, or Scotch.
"Plays havoc with my stomach," Rocky, a short but stout, almost square man, had confessed, then - with that sniff again and a pat of his hand to said stomach - added, "and this is my biggest friend - never leaves me - and complains when I go wrong."
Stone sighed. The notion of sad clowns was a well-worn cliché but true enough from those comedians he'd met in Ted's company. Not Rocky though or, so he had always thought.
“I see something funny and new every day,” he'd once said, “only got to look at life.”
No, Ted Roker wasn't a quitter. Perhaps it had been an accident.
Outside, in narrow Duck Lane, a black MPV had pulled up in front of his terraced home. A girl reporter, cameraman and sound man were assembling their equipment - now watched by women emerging from the hairdresser's, including the Asian girl.
"Inside or out?" Stone asked the TV crew, standing in his doorway. The sun made him squint but he noticed the female reporter's interest in him.
"Hi, I'm Tara Sinclair," she said, blonde hair loose at her shoulders and blue eyes full on. "I'd like you outside please, Sam." Her lips smiled but her eyes still shone with deadly intent.
Stone stepped out in front of the cottage's best feature, its pretty bow window, feeling self-conscious. This all reminded him of why he'd hated television. In newspapers there had been no limelight to seize.
"That's great, just lovely," said Tara. "Can you say something, for the sound man?"
“What's the latest about Ted Roker's death?” Stone asked in return. He'd learned from police friends to always respond to questions with your own, when seeking information.
“Fatal gunshot wound, believed self-inflicted,” Tara Sinclair told him. “When did you see him last?”
“What sort of firearm?” demanded Stone.
The TV reporter's smile faded and a frown marred her features but then, seeing Stone's stubborn manner, she consulted a notebook.
“A Webley semi-automatic pistol,” she read, then added, “previously unused but not registered.”
Stone knew that on Manchester estates such weapons could be illegally obtained for as little as £150. He'd written a Sunday newspaper feature on drug gangs there after a local gang war hit headlines.
“Found at the scene?” he asked her.
Tara nodded, then asked her team if they were happy. They were, as well as obviously eager to get rolling and return to studio, editing room and canteen.
There was now a throng of ladies outside 'cut above' across Duck Lane, Stone saw. When his glance met the Asian girl's she smiled again, enjoying the spectacle and break from work.
“How can I help you?” Stone asked Tara Sinclair, his mind working quickly over alternatives.
“Just give us your reactions, please Sam.”
He nodded, listening to her introduction to camera, then taking care to look serious and earnest as the cameraman now turned to him. The sound man squatted down just out of view in front of Stone.
“Well-known freelance journalist Sam Stone was a close friend and near neighbour of the comic,” Tara was saying.
'Comedian', Stone mentally corrected her. It was the situations Rocky described, wrote or enacted that were 'comic'.
“What's your reaction today, on hearing this tragic news?” Ms Sinclair asked him at last.
“Complete shock,” Stone said honestly, “there was no warning of it.”
“You saw him regularly, was there any indication he might be depressed?”
“No, Ted faced life squarely and spread a lot of happiness around.”
“Police have said there are no suspicious circumstances,” Tara stated. “They are treating the death as a possible suicide.”
She pointed the microphone at him and Stone frowned, thinking, 'Was that a question then?' How did these people get their jobs? But he knew that answer.
Stone sighed, hiding his irritation at the poor interview technique and composing himself solemnly.
“That, of course, will be for an inquest to determine,” he reminded her. “Ted's many friends haven't had time to take all this in – but it's a sad and tragic end.”
Then Stone looked intently at the camera, even turning from Tara Sinclair, stealing her limelight. With practised finality, he concluded: “Whether an accidental death or not, we can only wait now for the police investigation to tell us more.”
There was an awkward pause as the TV reporter considered other questions she'd had in mind but, though clearly disconcerted, she instinctively took back the interview focus.
Her face set as she said: “Yes, this tragic and violent death of such a famous, much loved figure has shocked the quiet, leafy resort of Lytham, where Ted Roker lived alone on Lancashire's coast.”
The cameraman had returned his attention to Sinclair while the sound man edged back to a cramped position below and by her side.
“As this shocking story unfolds we'll bring you more but, for now, this is Tara Sinclair in the Fylde for Metro Breakfast Show returning you to the studio.”
As her crew began to pack, Tara handed Stone her card. “Get in touch,” she told him with a frank stare, “I'd like to do more.”
Stone nodded but kept silent, relieved the crowd opposite were dispersing too.
“Was there a note?” he asked, as Sinclair turned to leave, now more concerned with her microphone.
She frowned again, preoccupied.
“From Roker, I mean.”
Tara shook her head. “None found, anyway.”
Rocky had loved to write almost as much as he liked to entertain. It only confirmed what Stone had felt and feared almost from the first.
Another of Rocky's quips sprang to Stone's mind, as though prompting him: “It's like deja-vu, all over again.”


AS Stone returned inside Number Seven Duck Lane, he heard his mobile ringing again. Picking it up, he recognised the local paper's phone number. After a moment's hesitation Stone let it move to his mail box, then switched off his phone.
The call would be the first of many. Next would be the Manchester and London news agencies, led by the Press Association, then the other papers, the national dailies and Sundays.
He must be on a list somewhere, of Ted Roker's close associates; as well as most newsdesks having his number as a freelance.
Let them leave messages.
Stone shrugged on a jacket he'd worn last evening during a lonely tour of the town's nearby wine bars, most of them near empty owing to mid-week rain.
Stepping out the cottage once more into sunshine his spirits lifted a little. At least there would be a cheque in the post, eventually.
Right now he wanted to feel closer to Rocky, the dear and departed; try to make sense of what could have happened – with the help of fresh, sea-front air.
Stone saw the white lady's bicycle against his new commercial neighbour's shop wall and paused, thinking of the camera crew just left, others who might be arriving – and rubberneckers gathering to watch.
First breakfast, he decided, and instead of turning west towards The Green's shore-front and estuary, Stone now went up Duck Lane towards Lytham's busy market-town centre.
His home and its neighbouring huddle of mixed dwellings in the narrow back lane was between the expensive residences of West Beach, that overlooked the river Ribble and distant Irish Sea, and former fishermen's cottages and other quaint, semi-detached houses in Henry Street.
The ladies of 'cut above' were now inside, busy about their hairstyling for the coming weekend. Stone decided against buying a paper up at the newsagent's – the death would have been too recent for them.
He walked down Henry Street beside The Taps pub; with restaurants and takeaways still closed from their disappointingly quiet last evening. At the corner of the Piazza pedestrianised square he slipped into a warm window seat at Java café bar/restaurant.
“Large Americano,” Stone told the smiling Italian girl in her black serving smock.
“Anything to eat?” Her lovely smile, on both lips and eyes, was as warming as the sunshine.
“Eggs Benedict,” Stone said, on a whim, hoping the richer brunch might lift what remained of his hangover after the morning's shock news.
“Ted Roker's dead, he shot himself,” one of the male waiters was telling a table of young mums further inside. “Just been on the news.”
Stone felt suddenly relieved there was no television screen in Java, then realised his street interview would still be being processed.
“How sad!” a young mum said then, as though prompted, her baby began to cry.
“What a waste of a life,” another said, “all that money and alone – in his big house.”
“Was like a pea in barrel,” the waiter suggested.
“He was like a barrel,” a woman said. “Drank too much – his wife and daughter left because of it.”
“What a waste!” the other girl repeated.
Stone felt his anger mounting at this tawdry epitaph for his late friend. But, as a baby's cries again bewailed the morning news, his breakfast appeared.
Twenty minutes later, Stone was stood towards the rear of Ted Roker's home.
'You can observe a lot from watching' had been another favourite quote of Rocky's, borrowed from baseball legend Yogi Berra – who had also recently died, but in bed and at the age of 90.
Before Stone now were sand hills, then the garden's high walls with a small, oval locked door set into them. Beyond the wall was Rocky's folly, a circular, brick-built tower at the foot of the garden, where the comedian liked to prepare his material and write scripts in the morning and late afternoon – alone.
All the windows at the rear of his large house were now curtained or draped, even the big window of the back sitting room where Ted had been found.
In the short cul-de-sac at the mansion's front gate were police cars and other parked vehicles. Amongst them was a throng of officials and some news teams. Onlookers stood close by, behind incident tapes guarded by uniformed police.
A couple of other big, detached houses and a corner block of luxury flats had a prime view of activity at their former neighbour's home.
Just a few dog walkers stood momentarily near where Stone was breathing in the estuary air. They were silent, as though paying their respects to the local celebrity and late funnyman.
It was more uplifting to look out to sea, where sunshine glittered on the horizon. However, as Stone turned to admire Rocky's favourite vista, he glimpsed a dark, stooped figure he immediately recognised in the distant gathering.
The tall, stooped frame and mournful, life-weary manner were unmistakeable, even at this distance. Former Detective Superintendent Bert Lark had emerged from another small doorway, set in Roker's front security gates, then crossed the crowded paving to his dark saloon.
As Stone watched, the car edged forward, avoiding people and cameras, towards the main Clifton Drive. He conjectured on the interest here of his old adversary and then mentor; not just paying respects to a mutual friend, nor here for the Force - that was sure.
Lark, though semi-retired and appearing older than his 50-odd years, was still active now as a security consultant and occasional insurance investigator.
His appearance here was interesting and added a sudden ray of hope.
At last, Stone felt, his legendary reporter's luck was returning. Now he had somewhere to start, a natural beginning to inquiries.
As he turned back towards the sea, mobile in hand, Stone noted the numerous messages – then frowned further at one that always set him on edge.
Lark would probably be heading home to nearby Poulton-le-Fylde and, besides, wouldn't answer his own mobile while driving - ever the copper.
In the meantime, there was no doubting where to start with his messages – if only to be able to relax and get whatever business she wanted over with.
Within moments Stone was put through and, while watching that dancing light on the distant horizon, heard his ex-wife's unusually warm greeting.
“Hi, thanks for getting back. How are you?”
“Good, I guess,” Stone said unhelpfully, mimicking her. 'Good' was not an expression of well-being he normally used or welcomed from others.
“So sorry to hear the news. How shocking!” Emma sighed. “He was a good friend, wasn't he? How terrible, for you too.”
Stone waited, then muttered. “Yes, it's a shock.”
“Listen,” Emma said, more urgently now, “can you talk okay? I mean, are you alone?”
“I'm near The Green, at Lytham, quite alone.” Stone started walking north away from Lytham, heading for Granny's Bay at Fairhaven – another favourite view of Rocky's.
“It's just that I've got an exclusive angle on all this,” Emma told him, unable to withhold excitement from her voice.
“What 'angle'?”
Emma seemed oblivious to his distaste at her unseemly glee. “Strictly in confidence,” she said carefully, but then couldn't wait before blurting on, “Rocky was being lined up as M.C. for the coming Royal Variety Performance in Blackpool.”
When Stone didn't comment, she continued: “It's the first royal show for decades outside of London, with the Queen herself attending.” She paused pointedly. “Perhaps he couldn't handle the pressure.”
Stone exhaled impatiently. “Rocky loved entertaining, the bigger the show the better – you know that, surely?”
“Perhaps his confidence was low – alone now and drinking heavily.” She must have at last sensed his adverse reaction to the piece she was preparing for television. “Either way, his death causes a shake-up – the Queen was a fan, you know?”
“Yes, I know.” Stone waited, knowing what would come next.
“Can you give me some more recent colour? I could organise an interview with you – might be good for business, Sammy.”
“Already been done, by Metro.” There was a silence. Stone smiled, relishing her disappointment.
“They were quick off the mark. Still, they're only regional – we could still offer something.”
“I've got to go,” Stone said, hastening his steps and not wanting the view of Granny's Bay spoiled by this unsavoury conversation. “I'll ring.”
“Make it soon, bye.”
Stone sighed. She would be at her desk, hoping to firm up her plans before the morning news conference – steal the impetus from others.
He shook his head, then let memories of both Emma and the London media arena drop from his mind. He walked on then sat on a bench and stared out to sea; at the sunlight dancing there, on the edge of the flat horizon, infinite, peaceful.
This sense of the universal was what he had needed. Rocky's death had not just been a shock, the sudden loss of a dear friend. It had also felt like a doom-laden harbinger, casting a shadow over his own dysfunctional life and existence.
This terrible end had stirred, Stone realised now, an inner fear; one of those shadowy demons barely acknowledged, except sometimes in the middle of the night - when feeling most wretched and vulnerable.
His sudden bleakness wasn't just for poor Rocky. What had Samuel Stone, too, to live for?
He smiled wryly, the sun and twinkling sea buoying his spirits again. Well, a decent beer - or three - with the lugubrious Mister Lark would be a start. It would be a perk of Stone's current status. He might be lonely but he was also independent – a free agent.
Stone rose with more energy than he had sat.
On a decisive impulse, he deleted all his messages then turned off his phone, now walking inland towards Ansdell railway station.
Some things mattered more than mere money. Besides, he wasn't flat broke yet and, what was more, he was intrigued.
A train into Blackpool would take about 10 minutes, then another to Poulton about the same – and a short walk to the Thatched House pub and micro brewery, where a decent cask ale would await.


“YOU turkey!” muttered Lark, shaking his head with derision. “Journalists don't recognise the truth when it hits them on the head.”
The big, former chief detective now looked at his own head, with a sly glance towards a bar mirror – checking on the neat toupee, gently greyed now to match silvery tints in his natural dark hair.
“But no note,” repeated Stone. He nodded at the landlord for another couple of pints of his latest brew, then continued to the ex-policeman, “you knew Rocky and how keen he was on writing. His folly office and house are full of manuscripts.”
“Perhaps he'd just had too much, of everything,” suggested Lark with a shrug. He glanced around at the few men having an early drink, an habitual copper's stare seeking out anything suspicious.
Most were punters reading the racing pages and ignoring others in the many cosy alcoves and rooms of the Thatched House pub. The place still stuck to its policy of no music, no food, no children.
“I could prove it to you, Bert,” Stone now said, “if you could get me inside the house.”
Lark gazed at him in some wonder. Stone, too, barely believed his own words. It was the beer talking, already topping up last night's session. However, it was also true that he would never fathom his doubts without seeing the scene of Rocky's demise.
Stone returned the stare and tried to look more confident than he felt. He knew Lark had a soft spot for him, developed first through rugby after their initial professional sparring over crime stories.
“You always said I'd make a good detective,” Stone added, as Bert swept some beer from his moustache with the back of his hand.
“Yea, and have some story splashed about the tabloids? What sort of a turkey do you take me for?”
Stone smiled, wondering what sort of joke or riposte Rocky would have met Lark's 'turkey' habit with – probably something about 'fowl play'.
Lark stood up and checked his wristwatch, squaring his shoulders in the dark overcoat that still made him look like a detective super.
“I've got two irons in that particular fire,” Bert continued, picking up the fresh pint that looked tiny in his huge hand.
“Rocky asked me to check it out for security, when his family first moved in. Also, Standard Life asked me to check out cause of death – suicide, as I've said. So, why would I want to ruin my own findings?”
“To know the truth,” Stone said simply.
Lark looked out the distant pub window, from the opposite snug where a log fire flickered, even in late summer. His wife was due to pick him up before they went shopping in the market town then had lunch.
Stone was enjoying himself. They didn't make policemen like Lark any more. You could be straight with him and, providing you weren't a 'turkey' and talking gobbledegook, he didn't worry too much about bending the rules.
However, Stone also felt a little disappointed the historic pub was so quiet. What had happened to the old regulars he'd once known when frequenting here? Pubs were changing, like everywhere else. The dark, old days were gone and he felt exposed out of their shade.
“Here she is,” Bert said solemnly, looking again towards the road outside, then drained his near-full pint. He eyed Stone, then smiled. “Well, I suppose there's still a few things that myself and an old friend of the deceased might check.”
Stone grinned gratefully as the big man turned towards the door, glancing again at the mirror. Lark took a couple of steps, until halfway to the exit, then turned back and promised, “I'll call you.”
Later Stone sat in a café beside a Thai restaurant in an ancient cobbled alleyway overlooking nearby St. Chad's quaint graveyard.
His second brunch of the day, this time a bacon butty, again hit the mark. However, the nearby graves were depressing him.
A chirpy waitress fussed about Stone rather unnecessarily as he prepared to leave.
He smiled at her, determined to lift his own spirits again. As Rocky would have said, old troopers never die, they just march on to the end of their road for, if you don't know where you're going, you might end up some place else
“What sort of a key won't open the doors?” he suddenly asked the girl, as he stood and headed towards the exit.
She shrugged, but looked pleased he was responding to her. “Beats me!” she beamed.
“A turkey.”
He left her looking more doubtful about him.
By the colourful flower-beds of Poulton-le-Fylde's railway platform, Stone sat under a huge, Victorian clock awaiting his train to Blackpool.
From the resort's Blackpool North station it would be a 10-minute walk, then a slow tram along the Promenade to South Shore, followed by a further wait for the train to Lytham.
He was now wondering if he could make the journey with so few public conveniences, after the quick beers and large coffee he'd drank.
Then he bleakly considered, too, what on earth he now hoped to find or prove at Ted Roker's former home – even with Bert Lark's help.


ONE of the attractions of living on the Fylde was its closeness to rolling, verdant countryside. Stone stared from the train's carriage window across well-kept fields to distant hillsides, then a far shoreline.
He thought suddenly, from some unknown inspiration, of Rocky's living room and bar.
Stone got out his phone and switched it on, his mind working more clearly now – seeing a possible sequence of events. Keep the faith, he told himself.
There was a new prompt from Emma. 'Dont take 2 long', read her text.
That wasn't what she used to say when they were together, Stone thought, returning the innocent smile of a woman sat opposite him.
He ignored the fresh messages from other media and a few friends, calling Bert Lark's number again.
“Yes, Sam, what now?” came the lugubrious voice, lifted a little more than usual by irritation. It was noisy where Lark and his wife were dining.
“Just a hunch, Bert, but tell them not to clear the incident tapes 'till after our visit – particularly bar and lounge area, where he was found.”
“A hunch, heh, you turkey.”
Stone smiled. “Yes, and we need to keep that cleaner of his at bay – could be evidence.”
There was a long sigh.
“Not now Bert, please,” Stone heard Lark's wife say plaintively.
“That all?” asked the ex-policeman.
“Yes – but I'll let you know what the media are conjuring up,” Stone promised in return. “A lot have been after me.”
“See you, then.” Lark muttered and ended their conversation.
At Blackpool North station a local Gazette news vendor was shouting: “Fylde comic's death in shooting – read all about it!”
There was a bill, too, on his sales pitch: “Ted Roker Dies in Gun Drama'.
Stone was impressed how quickly the local Press had turned round the story for their late edition. He bought a paper and glanced over a front-page news report that told him nothing new.
This was only the beginning, he realised.
Despite the remaining pain at his friend's death, Stone felt that old, familiar thrill of anticipation when beginning a big news story.
He even forgot to visit the station's Gents and was regretting it once through busy Talbot Road and waiting for his tram opposite Blackpool Town Hall.
There used to be underground toilets built in Victorian days at Talbot Square. Now there were only locked 'super-loos' somewhere on the lower Promenade.
To distract himself from his bladder, Stone stared at the brash display of theatre shows and coming attractions at the entrance of North Pier. The resort boasted a record three piers, one further down by Central beach and the other at South Shore.
One of the resort's new trams came as Stone was thinking of Rocky's early days playing the pier theatres. Lately, he was strictly Opera House, or perhaps Grand Theatre, when appearing in his adopted area – but no more. Now there would just be tributes.
Staring out at a blustery, incoming tide alongside the tramway, Stone passed under the shadow of Blackpool Tower then along the bustling Golden Mile with its lively mix of amusement arcades, pubs, cafés and bizarre rides and shows.
Some people were muffled up against the breezy, unpredictable weather; others braved it in colourful T-shirts and zany style.
Few were glamorous, most obese; just ordinary people in search of fun – the sort which entertainers like Ted Roker inspired and were loved for providing.
All of life was here, boosted by millions of day-trippers and holidaymakers – as well as a truly motley collection of local characters.
“Who needs a joke writer?” Rocky had said to him once. “All you have to do is sit on a bench by a Promenade pub and listen. Just try not to laugh out loud, or you might get thumped!”
The comedian had first learned his craft round the North of England's working men's and social clubs; where the biggest attraction was the bingo, closely followed by hot pies - between 'turns' like himself.
Stone had followed a similar route on local papers, first here in his home town of Blackpool, then on bigger dailies and also radio and television in Manchester, where Rocky had by then started his rise to national fame.
The tram was passing Central Pier. Stone winced and again regretted not taking a comfort break back at the railway station.
Rocky had played here, too, in the early success years – entertaining those seasoned hotel and guest-house owners who got in free to first nights of resort cabaret shows. These they would then recommend to their paying guests. Or, at least, that was the theory.
Stone had been invited along to the pier's rather chilly theatre on such an opening night, when the rising star he had first met in Manchester was topping the bill.
By then, Stone had moved from Manchester to London with wife Emma, then back alone to the Fylde coast after their unhappy break-up in the capital.
He had needed cheering up and pal Rocky's patter, as well as free bottle of champagne, had done so.
Knowing his local audience could laugh at itself, Ted had gone through his B&B and boarding house jokes.
“What's that crack on my plate?” asked the guest at breakfast.
“That's your bacon,” said his landlady, adding, “but I'll give you a crack for your cheek!”
Then there was the Golden Mile restaurant dinner to poke fun at.
Waiter: “How did you find your steak, sir?”
Diner's answer: “I moved a couple of chips.”
Finally, the café trade too: 'Don't worry about Mad Cow Disease – there's no beef in our burgers.'
It all worked back then and still did today, Stone found, getting off the tram with a smile and crossing the Promenade towards South Shore rail station.
On the way he popped into a heaving corner pub and, pretending to wave to someone in another room, ignored a watching barman and headed to the loo.
He emerged feeling deeply relieved and walked up the station bridge, then boarded a two-carriage diesel for the 10-minute ride up to Lytham.
As they passed the Pleasure Beach and screaming youngsters on its white-knuckle rides, Stone considered that he must return soon to the resort's hidden heart – those locals' pubs just inland which the tourist hordes never saw.
As those screams died behind him and the links of the Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club stretched out inland, Stone relaxed.
It might only be minutes but this short coastal journey was like travelling to another planet.


STONE hopped off the train at the grand Victorian station in Lytham that was now a pub. He always enjoyed the leafy quiet and heritage of Hastings Place just beyond it, especially after travelling from raucous and rather run-down South Shore.
He was striding out towards Hastings Place when he noted a small group drinking outside the Station Tavern. Although only late afternoon, they all sounded well on the way with drink. One man had a mass of now-greying but once light-brown hair worn long to his shoulders. He gave Stone a curious look.
Probably it was another television viewer who vaguely recognised him from years ago, when Stone appeared on North-West news broadcasts from Manchester. Still, there had also been something familiar about the wiry fellow's rather ravaged features.
He emerged into Hastings Place, enjoying its peaceful space and period architecture, then crossed Market Square to head home – or, possibly, look in at the Taps. However, the talk in there would all be about poor Rocky and he'd had enough of that.
His friend's lonely death depressed Stone, along with the prospect of an empty home awaiting himself. With a strengthening of resolve, he strode over Henry Street – now coming alive with wine bars and restaurants – then approached Duck Lane, with The Green and seafront beyond.
Stone stayed on the left-hand side of the road, opposite his cottage, with a view to glancing in the new business premises, 'cut above', as he passed.
The salon was now closed for the day. He just had time to notice stylish, new equipment and potted plants inside - with not one old-fashioned hair-dryer to be seen, before almost falling over a bicycle's front wheel pushed out into the pavement and into his way.
“Sorry, so sorry!” cried a distraught but still distinctly foreign, female voice as Stone and the white cycle collided. Fortunately, it was only being pushed away from the wall and, glancing down at the tyre against his leg, Stone saw why. It was flat.
“That's okay,” he said, registering the same pretty Asian girl he'd seen that morning. Her face was creased in distress at their collision, but then spread into a relieved smile of such sheer joy, at his easy attitude, that it made Stone catch his breath.
How beautiful she looked, how refreshing and charming. Words, for once, eluded him.
“Oh, your trouser!” she declared with renewed concern, pointing to a dirty mark on his inside leg.
Stone raised his hand to placate her. “In need of a wash and repairs, anyway – like your bike.”
The girl (or was she older now he looked more closely?), shrugged in a helpless but charming gesture.
“Is puncture, I think.” Her voice, even when stating this sad predicament, had a sing-song ring like playful laughter.
“Maybe,” muttered Stone, less convinced. “Let me have a look.” He took hold of the impressively solid frame and leaned her bike back against the wall.
The girl stood by as he squatted down and examined the front tyre more carefully. Then he looked around the paving flags near where it had been propped most of that day.
“I see signs of mischief,” he told her, looking up with some admiration. Her figure in the jeans, with a tight-fitting, colourful top beneath an unbuttoned outer shirt, stirred disquieting desires.
Seeing her frown again, Stone stood and showed his evidence – the small, screw-top off her bicycle tyre valve, which he'd found on the ground.
“This cap was taken off the wheel furthest from the door, then the tyre let down.” Stone smiled. “There were some kids playing around earlier.”
“I see,” she said, her face setting. “Little devils! They deserve spank, I think.” She was staring doubtfully at the pump on her bike's frame.
“That would be treating them,” he said, then grinned.
The girl laughed, her face colouring slightly at his remark, then she added her thanks as he unclipped the pump and attended to the tyre.
“I see you on TV, from earlier,” she said, when he stood again. How short she looked and vulnerable.
“Yes – a friend of mine died.”
“I am sorry,” she told him, seeing his sadness and looking concerned at reminding him. “He was good man, made me laugh many time. I enjoy on show.”
Stone nodded. “Yes. Well,” he continued, swinging round the bike for her, “now you can go home on two wheels.”
Her face shone as she smiled; her dark, almond eyes glittering in delight.
“I thank you.”
Stone held the cycle steady as she self-consciously mounted and prepared to ride.
“Maybe you bring in trousers and I clean.”
Stone still had one hand on the saddle, supporting her but also gently touching her own seat, feeling her body's warmth and shape.
“That's the best offer I've had all day.”
“My name Esperanza – they call me Espie,” she told him, turning on the bike slightly to offer her hand.
Stone took the small hand in his own large, dirt-smeared one, still holding her saddle with his other and noting her lack of concern at their closeness.
“Sam Stone.”
“Ah, Sam – Samuel, like in Bible.”
“If you say so,” he said, making her laugh again.
“You very funny.” She smiled. “Handsome too!” Espie gave a little cry of delight, as though shocked at her own boldness.
“So,” she said by way of farewell, now pushing gently into her pedals, “you bring in pants, okay?”
Her laughter trailed after her, as she bumped down on to the lane from the pavement on her white bicycle and, waving one hand without turning round, wobbled dangerously before righting the cycle again.
Stone entered No.7 after she'd turned from view; his spirits high once more, and with the memory, too, of that warmth he'd held so closely.

To read more of A Cut Above or order a copy turn to our Books page.

* * *

HERE are three random, stand-alone chapters from our latest publication, 'Only The Good News' - The Humorous Memoir of a Worldly Local Reporter. Left is a copy of the autobiography's front cover and (below) of the paperback edition's back cover and blurb. To find out more about the book or order a copy on Kindle or in paperback, turn to our Books page.


The White Mini

I AM not having a boyfriend who is an ice-cream man!” Barbara told me adamantly.
We were sat in my parent's first and only car, an original mini, and on our first date. What was more, it was the start of a new era - the 1970s and I was 21.
Our family car had been a 'demo' model and was almost brand new. I had driven it from the Manchester showrooms. It was creamy white and the black upholstery had that new-leather smell.
My parents, who had bought it after an unexpected bequest, never did learn how to drive - though we went on 'learner' outings with me in charge, after my own first-time driving-test pass a couple of years before.
My experience had come from driving an office Morris Traveller for surveying sites; occasionally borrowing a friendly girl neighbour's car, and a Wolseley 1,500c.c. that I bought foolishly for £50 from a fly-by-night character in notorious Cheetham Hill.
(He did cheat me too! Although the old Wolseley appeared great to an inexperienced eye, its classic body was stuffed with newspaper and fibreglass. My first car literally 'melted' outside our gates in heavy, overnight rain.)
Now, my father sacrificed his hen cote and put up a garage that arrived in sections on a lorry. But the cute mini became more or less mine as both he and Mum lost interest in their 'lessons'.
Brother Mike had by now left university, married his school-hood girlfriend Jenny and happily set up home to start their own family. They soon had a delightful son, Iain, and bright daughter, Heather, and moved a number of times as his work as a structural engineer gathered pace, culminating in a responsible chief's role at Nottingham City Council.
(Dad, however, used to joke that Mike moved house whenever it needed decorating.)
By contrast, I had given up surveying and was studying part-time at St John's College, Manchester, for 'A' Levels. Ultimately, this was intended to take me to an English course at university and from there, perhaps, to a job on a "proper newspaper" - a 'quality' national. Unless, as dreams went, I wrote a bestseller in the meantime.
Just as contemporaries were progressing in chosen careers, I was messing about in part-time jobs to pay expenses and earn "beer money".
"You'll be driving around in one of those silly white vans with music playing, that children rush out to," Barbara complained, as I outlined my latest idea.
"You could enjoy free '99's," I promised - but she remained unimpressed.
In fact, after years studying towards professional goals that didn't excite me, it was wonderful to be ambling into dead-end jobs and mixing with all sorts of people. Everyone knew I was headed in a different direction eventually. We just didn’t know where.
I waived the enticing prospect of driving an ice-cream van through summer. Instead I took a gardening job at a public park in Old Trafford. Rather than mowing lawns and chatting up passing girls as hoped, I found myself shovelling fish manure and digging trenches.
It was a lesson and so were some of the boring other jobs – canning oil, stocktaking nuts and bolts in a factory, being a boilerman’s assistant.
I learned to respect other people from all walks of life, while appreciating the crushing nature of mindless toil.
There were some enjoyable jobs too. My favourite was assistant barman at nearby Davyhulme Golf Club. I had wanted to be an assistant greens man there but this turned out even better.

I stocked up from the cellar, then helped out serving in the bar at lunchtime - while learning the tricks of the trade. I also ironed snooker tables, where rather stuck-up members mistook me as an expert and would ask for advice on their deep screw or other shots (which I cheekily obliged).
My best memory was serving Manchester United superstars with drinks after their regular pre-match steak lunches. Bobby Charlton and Dennis Law were perfect gents as I poured them a favourite kick-start drink: sherry with raw egg yoke. Afterwards they would play nine holes and I would marvel at how bandy-legged both men were - though that didn't stop them scoring.
I also worked at CWS Transport depot, helping out wherever assistance was needed. The works, situated where the giant Trafford Centre retail park is today, made trucks for the Co-operative Society.
My best time there was as assistant to the eccentric group personnel manager. While teaching me rudimentary industrial relations, he also showed me how to mix powerful cocktails and had me ghost write an outspoken autobiography. There was also a lot of flirting with the office secretaries.
That book never was finished, as one evening I crashed the white mini into a stone wall after too many cocktails. Although it was practically a write-off, my parents had the car repaired and forgave me - knowing that I , too, could so easily have been written off.
It was a long, lazy summer and winter . . . and there was my first 'real girlfriend' Babs (though I never admitted my lack of experience to her at the time).
She had appeared one evening at Urmston Cricket & Lawn Tennis Club with her sister Jean, whom I'd known for a short while. More girls close to my age were joining; I'd improved my tennis (thanks to Buster Mottram's book 'Tiger Tennis'), and made new friends who were, in many cases, to last for life.
Barbara looked stunning in a pink mini dress she filled provocatively, complete with shoulder-length blonde hair and a ready smile. What's more, when I asked later - in faltering voice - if she'd 'come out' with me one evening, she readily agreed.
After our date, Barbara invited me in for coffee then, with parents and sister safely upstairs, stacked L.P.s on a hi-fi and settled next to me on the sofa.
But then, as over happy months to come, our kisses and fumblings invariably ended with a sharp knock on the door soon after midnight - and a parental warning: "Barbara, you should be in bed!" (Much my thoughts, at the time - but I lacked nerve!)
Barbara, although younger, soon outgrew me. When we parted ("We can still be friends,' she said) it seemed to me a betrayal, though I tried not to show it. There was also, if I'm truthful, some glee at being free once more. However, I suspected and feared it was the talk of our friends. Of course, when young, such matters pass.
Other minor conquests followed for me at “the club” and local pubs that our group favoured. It was the heady years of hot-pants; while I posed in flared jeans and waisted, wide-collared shirts.
There were other influences. Stuart, a boozy hairdresser, and his wild Railway Tavern pals, led me astray on strong drink. They knew how to party but I was a little out of my depth, earning the nickname 'Horizontal Edmonds' (which I'm told persists to this day in certain quarters).
Thankfully, there were also the Olley brothers, wily Bill Philipson and other sports club pals - on slightly more sober and fulfilling paths.
I even stumbled into a proper job I enjoyed.
It all culminated in my early 20s, when Dave Bailey and me (then later Paul Olley) moved into a huge Victorian flat on Wilbraham Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy; while our ex-girlfriends Linda Middleton and Barbara, respectively, occupied a flat below.
What laughs we had! I sometimes helped Dave on crack-of-dawn milk rounds after clubbing it in town. Paul, on the other hand, supplemented an unsuccessful sales business by playing honky-tonk piano in bars. We would all go along, sitting separately about the pub and calling out requests before anyone else could - as Paul's repertoire was limited.
We had our own party set - rent-a-crowd, as we called ourselves. What could possibly spoil it all?
But nothing lasts forever. Couples paired off and engagements followed; mortgages were signed and weddings arranged. Time was catching up.
My romantic dream of worldly adventure, fame and fortune was just that - a distant dream.
It was time to give up such notions and settle down - or, of course, to muster my courage . . . and move on.


Swinging London

"'BYE LOVE, you will be careful - won't you?" my mother asked tearfully, as I drove from Greenfield Avenue in our white mini.
I saw her and Dad, along with our solid semi-detached home, disappearing in my wing mirror - down the tree-lined avenue of my youth.
But I wasn't upset. My spirit was soaring!
On a sunny, four-hour journey down the motorway, I reflected on what had been and might be.
Ahead was a B&B booked in Ilford, Essex. Then, on Monday, a reporter's job on a weekly paper covering that stretch by East London.
Behind was the unlikely road that had brought me this far: a couple of years on a trade magazine, joined after leaving surveying.
The real newspaper industry was retreating from Manchester with daily papers running down their northern offices.
"Get on a weekly paper nearer Fleet Street," my magazine editor Derek Ward had advised, "you'll learn quicker and get further that way."
Neither of us could know that road would eventually take me out to the Far East and as far as the Australian Outback. But first there was the Big Smoke.
"Eee, trouble at mill!"
That was how my Cockney news editor Chris Coates greeted me as I rushed to his side with urgent news. I was the only northerner in our plain editorial office of the Ilford Recorder.
"Have a whelk," he offered, handing me a paper bag cooling on the window ledge. "Got your jam-jar with you?"
This was rhyming slang and moments later I'd be despatched in my car to chase some item of news gleaned over the phone.
Office discipline on newspapers was slack, compared with Manchester Town Hall's housing surveyors or other jobs I'd done. But the hours were unpredictable. Long sessions at The Cauliflower, a nearby gin-palace, made up for that.
On Press days, when the busy tabloid paper was "put to bed", our editor would take all 20 or so of us out drinking. This might be to a 'country' inn in, say, Wanstead or Chigwell. Alternatively, we might all head to an East End pub and pie 'n' mash shop in what was then the old, quiet haven of the Isle of Dogs (now today's high-rise 'Fleet Street').
The paper's patch, or circulation area, stretched from the edge of Epping Forest, through Essex suburbia into the grimy East End which heaved with human interest stories and crime.
As a respite, I searched for a flat-share in leafier, well-to-do Wanstead and Woodford. This I found in a small accommodation-to-let advert.
"Young lady seeks fellow professional to share spacious Woodford Green flat," it read.
The reasonably priced, first-floor, two-bedroom "apartment" was in a run-down semi-detached on otherwise upmarket Broomhill Road, overlooking the quaint Green and the Cricketer's pub beyond.
The 'young lady's' voice on the phone was posh but friendly. No, she had not ruled out sharing with a man. Her name was Tricia Connor and, when I attended later for informal interview, she was a stunner!
"So," I muttered, barely believing my luck at being accepted, "there's just the two of us here?"
Tricia was also in her early 20s but appeared infinitely more sophisticated. Copper-coloured hair waved to her shoulders and her shapely figure was casually but well dressed. Dark eyes shone and glossed lips pouted momentarily before a dazzlingly smile.
"Unless you have a girlfriend," she said.
So, this was Swinging London and I had finally arrived!


Going Remote

TO me, when young, it seemed only natural to want to travel and see more of the world. I doubt I would have got round so far, however, without encouragement from interesting characters met along the way.
Too often, though, travel can disappoint.
Once, when freelancing in Asia, I found myself alone on a sandy, palm-lined bay on the East Coast of West Malaysia. There was a flea-pit hostel nearby to stay overnight but no other diversions.
I had journeyed there, an adventurous, young bachelor, simply because of its name– The Beach of the Long Night of Passionate Love.
In fact it was, back then in the 80s, a deserted, mosquito-infested spot in Kelantan, a profoundly Islamic state where westerners were viewed with much suspicion and often hostility. Still, you learn!
Another remote place I visited was chosen simply - and rather rashly - because it was the furthest dot on the map from home in Manchester.
This was Cooktown, Norther Queensland – then a timber-built, one-street hamlet in the Australian Outback. It was just inland, on the Endeavour River, named after his ship, where in the 18th Century Captain Cook put in for repairs.
There was an annual festival of some sort there, I was told, but when I went in the early 1980s as part of a journalistic swing through Australia, it was quiet – except at night.
Warning bells should have rung when I asked about a ticket to Cooktown in Cairns, to where I had travelled up the Queensland coast during a break after working in Sydney.
“You’ve missed the bus, mate!” said the chirpy travel agent. “Next one’s in two weeks.”
This was longer than I had left of my holidays from Sydney, so I had taken the only other option and flown. They weighed you before issuing the ticket. When you got on the six-seater plane, a pilot looked at your details and told you wear to sit for even balance.
Thanks to every Aussie home having a beer fridge and regular steak barbecues, just then I was at my heftiest (about 15 and a half stones).
“You better sit centre – for ballast,” the pilot of the Fokker Friendship told me.
In flight we had to wear headphones because of the noise. It took an hour or so over thick bush before we finally dropped on to a thin, dusty runway near the clearing of Cooktown. Other passengers were met cheerfully by relatives outside the small hut that was Cooktown Airport.
I got a lift in a pick-up truck taxi operated by a man with a German accent. It disappointed me that my driver, who wore an Alpine felt hat with a feather, took little interest in his passenger. I was ready for a chat and excited by this far-flung leg of exploration.
However, the driver was a man of few words. He had merely hummed to himself, waved to the occasional group of Aboriginal land workers and watched the otherwise empty highway. Like the runway, the roads were made of flattened dirt.
Cooktown was a one-street place with a dozen or so timber buildings spaced leisurely along its length. I was dropped at the Cooktown Hotel, a two-storey pub with a wide balcony terrace off the upstairs rooms. I pushed open the swing fly-doors and found the bar full at 10am.
The drinkers were all men, dressed in shorts, flip-flops and open shirts. They were either bearded or just unshaven. Everyone stopped talking as I stood in the entrance, like a gun-slinger in a cowboy film, and let my eyes adjust to the dim light.
At least it was cool, thanks to slowly revolving ceiling fans.
“Yes?” the barmaid demanded, though it was pronounced “yiss”.
“I’m after a room,” I said, aware of everyone listening.
“We’ve 20,” the middle-aged lady said with half a smile, “you can have your choice.”
Some of the men sniggered at this and their wary almost hostile mood seemed broken. They went back to nursing their beers or cigarette rolling.
She came out from the bar and led me towards the next room. My hostess was trim, her grooming suggesting better places and times but there was also a toughness. To my surprise, a printed sign by some steps advertised Smorgasbord, though someone had hurriedly scrawled below it ‘Also - Meat Pies!’
My hostess, like the taxi driver, had a foreign accent beneath her local twang. Like him, she appeared guarded against casual chat. Was this remote region a retreat for worldwide runaways? Or perhaps the heat and humidity simply made people here too tired to talk.
Through a bead curtain, the next room made me falter. It was an immaculate restaurant with around 20 tables. The tablecloths were deep blue with furled red napkins. There was full silver service. Apparently in the evening here life became more formal.
I followed her upstairs and settled on a single room off the balcony. It was clean, airy and there was a Bible beside the bed.
“Ten dollars,” she said, “in advance.” As I gave her the note she added in apology, "We get all types, you understand.”
In view of this remark I was surprised there was no key.
“If anyone stole anything, we’d soon find them,” my landlady explained then, with a nod across the balcony to mangrove swamps, added, “You see, there’s nowhere to run.”
After a wash and rest I went back downstairs. The same motley group was at the bar. Some, I noticed now, didn’t even have shoes, their dirty, hard-skinned feet resting on the bar rails. Runaway Lord Lucan himself could have been among these bearded ones.
“A beer?” my hostess offered.
“Thought I’d have a look round town,” I told her.
The drinkers laughed and she eyed me wryly from the bar, before responding:
“See you in 10 minutes then.”
I emerged into blinding sunlight and walked down Cooktown’s dusty high street. The only other people were Aborigines, sat under trees for shade. They didn’t look friendly, unfriendly or even aware of the town’s stranger – just stupefied.
The other stores, usually bearing the owners’ names (Bill’s Joint, Pete’s Repairs, Bailey’s Plumbing), appeared closed. Perhaps their proprietors were back at my hotel. As its hostess had predicted, I rejoined them in 10 minutes.

To read more of Only The Good News, or order a copy on Kindle or in paperback go to our Books page.

* * *

THE following excerpt marks a turning point in the novel I'm most proud of, writes Roy. Hero Edward Brown is in Sri Lanka with wife Elizabeth. Although facing a terrible challenge from illness, they must first get their marital and business lives in order. While his wife rests at the upmarket Palm Beach, Edward has wandered to an older, colonial hotel, White's. There he has assisted manager Petunia Fereira with a gardening task, then stayed on resting. (Book cover, left, is from the Kindle edition.)

AFTERWARDS, Edward would regard those wonderful first moments in the garden – and what followed later in his evening at White’s – as the real beginning of the rest of his life; the start of his revelation.
When you put what matters most in its right place, he found, then everything else follows in turn. It was that simple and yet, it seemed, such a hard and time-consuming lesson for us to learn.
Miss Fereira had been called to oversee final arrangements for a private party in one of White’s function suites.
“Stay as long as you like,” she invited, adding, “I have enjoyed our talk.”
Edward got out his phone to call the Palm Beach and check on Elizabeth, then shrank from the task – telling himself he would only be disturbing her rest. Instead he closed his eyes and listened to the calming sounds of surf and wildlife. There was that faint breeze, carrying the scent of flowers and an underlying, enervating freshness from the sea: yes, the sea, it was the ocean air that now cleansed his mind of any remaining fears or regrets, of even any sense of duty or responsibility. He had only to relax, be himself and float onwards . . .
It was the most wonderful feeling of spiritual freedom that now flooded through him. Far below, as if by magic, there were the beach and rolling ocean. By turning he could see the land and, with the least inclination of effort, be beyond it and elsewhere, or hover quite still, slowly descending to walk on water, fade into air.
The delight Edward felt at this discovery of freedom and power was overwhelming. An incomparable joy seeped through him, lifted now by strains of music. There were musicians on the beach below him and he floated effortlessly and unnoticed to be amongst them. His presence and sense of wonder seemed without horizons, limitless and fathomless; all was delight.
Edward awoke with a shudder to find the garden strange and dark, lit only now by lamps on the bungalow terrace. He looked at his watch in that dim light: approaching 7pm. Now he could hear music, the string orchestra that had been playing when he and Liz had dined the other evening.
He stared into the empty darkness of the distant beach and sea beyond. Only a security flare broke the blackness on the edge of this comfort. He had been trying to hold on to that feeling of spiritual freedom and delight in his dream, if dream it had been. How extraordinary: the vividness of flight and weightlessness; that happy omnipotence which had been his. But it was gone. He was alone, alive and, once more, uncertain.
“Hello.” He had flicked through the Palm Beach’s reception number and now responded to their greeting, his voice out of place in this restful, dark place and startling some nearby small creature in the garden.
Edward gave his room number and heard the phone ringing.
Liz sounded irritated and confused, as though just disturbed from sleep.
“I’m sorry if I awoke you. How are you feeling?”
“Oh,” she paused, as though considering a difficult question, “you know, a little better I think.”
“Not eaten then? I’m at White’s still and wondered . . .” What did he wonder or want? Edward wasn’t sure. He felt quite happy here but was now hungry.
“It’s all right. You stay and eat there if you like.” Liz sighed. “I might send down for something later, something light. I’ll see. I’m all right, really.”
“Yes, well, okay then. Glad you’re feeling improved.”
They said goodnight rather formerly, an awkwardness now between them – even over the phone; each talking in the darkened seclusion of their own comfort and space. How odd it seemed to Edward, as he rose with relief now, that after so many years together he would find it such a relief to be alone.
He ate at a table set for one at the end of the terrace, enjoying the fish his waiter recommended but wanting nothing more to drink and no dessert. Edward did not want to sully that freshness he had savoured in the garden, or the extraordinary sense of freedom which had followed. The palm court music was pleasant and the terrace warm and friendly but he soon felt restless. Also, he did not want Miss Fereira to see him here again, alone. Instead he had risen and quietly skirted the far side of the hotel towards the tennis courts.
Edward was pleased to see the rusting floodlights were successfully in operation and both courts occupied with players. Here he could be distracted and not feel self-conscious, a passer-by enjoying watching sport: no questions asked. There was time to return much later to that darkened room where his wife lay waiting for him, and the many questions they still faced.
White’s tennis coach, dark and wiry, was playing and appeared to recognise Edward. The young man waved cheerily when changing ends in a doubles match, then said something to another player Edward also recognised: the older, heavier-built man with silvery hair who had been having a lesson a few days earlier. He, too, nodded in acknowledgement to where Edward stood in near-darkness.
The other doubles in play also involved middle-aged, local men. Their game was skilful if not athletic and there was much jovial banter.
A tall man with military bearing but a rather solemn air came to retrieve a ball close to Edward. As he did so, silver-hair shouted over in Sinhala. The tall man looked with curiosity at Edward in the shadows then approached him directly.
“Our honorary secretary invites you to join us – we are resting for a while now and having drinks, in the clubhouse.” He spoke with a meticulous care and only the slightest of accents; in a polite but chummy cordiality that was of a different age and, Edward sensed, an effort for this sombre personality.
“Thank you,” he said, about to demur but then not wanting to offend their hospitality.
There were several older men sat about the terrace when he arrived. The ebony-skinned coach, undoubtedly of Tamil extraction, brought out a rattan chair for Edward and positioned it carefully between the corpulent club secretary and the contrastingly slim, sombre man who, now he had taken off his tennis cap, showed a full head of gently greying, dark hair.
The young woman in the sari Edward had seen before at the pavilion, the coach’s wife, served them tea and soft drinks. Was this their family home he now sat outside and, if so, where were the children? Or was it the Golimbo Tennis Clubhouse? Alternatively, perhaps, the small pavilion simply belonged to the hotel. Edward was unsure but felt privileged to be so readily included.
“You’re here on holiday – for how long?” asked silver hair.
“Well, it’s a working holiday.” Edward saw the men’s interest increase. “My company is developing further up the coast, at Serendib Surf.”
“Ah,” said sombre player, “that Kingfisher Construction place?”
“You are hotelier?” asked the club secretary, taking a samosa from the coach wife’s tray.
“I’ve just eaten,” Edward told her. “No, we were the developer. I’m in charge of the contract, a surveyor by profession.”
Silver hair nodded, apparently pleased by this information. “Then you may well be here for some time.” The other men listening now laughed, which pleased the Hon. Sec. further, though he did not choose to let Edward in on their joke. “So, you will be able to join us for tennis. You play, you said?”
“No, not for years, I’m afraid.”
“Gupta can give you a lesson,” suggested the sombre man who had also waved away the food, “a refresher course. New players, you see Mister, ah,” he waited, “Mister Brown, make our games more interesting. My son plays occasionally, when he is not too occupied with business, but usually it’s just we older ones - we retired, old men.”
“Well, you all play well. So, this is your clubhouse?”
“Yes, for many years.”
“Show our guest inside,” suggested the club secretary, breaking from a discussion in Sinhala with the other players to take another samosa and intervene.
“Please!” said the coach’s wife as the two men rose and approached the doorway. She bowed and waved them inside, elegant in her billowing sari. As they stepped into the dimly lit interior she fussed about tidying, removing children’s toys.
“Oh,” Edward said, smiling at their hostess, “are we disturbing you?”
“No, no, sir.” She bowed again but smiled broadly at his inquiry.
“The coach and his family are accommodated here – since the last tsunami destroyed their home,” explained the tall, sombre man. “But, as you see from this board, it has been our club for a long time.”
Edward examined the embossed, wooden board with its scroll of honour: the past presidents of Golimbo Tennis Club. All the first names in gold were British, headed by Colonel T.L. Whitehouse in 1816.
“As you will observe, it was started by you British. They used to blackball we local fellows. But now it is ours – or, at least, that of the hotel where Colonel Whitehouse used to live – and we welcome you among us.”
“Thank you.” Edward noted it was not until the 1950s that Sri Lankan names appeared in the list, ending with the current president, a Colonel Perez.”
Seeing him looking at it, sombre player added, with a casual wave of his elegant hand: “That is my name there.”
“I see.” Edward was duly impressed.
“And up here,” his host now pointed to some framed, sepia pictures near a trophy cabinet, “you see myself and Veeraswami in our young-Turk days.”
Edward easily picked out the tall, slim colonel in the team picture.
The Colonel pointed to a stocky, good-looking, young man with flowing hair and a self-important air. “Our current hon. sec. He has put on some weight over the years – the good life of local magistrate.”
“Really?” Edward smiled. He was beginning to appreciate the Colonel’s dry sense of humour. “Well, I’m honoured sir.”
“Just Colonel, or Perez,” corrected the older man. “Tell me, Mister Brown, you said your company had been the developer – using past tense. Are you no longer involved?”
Edward sighed, wondering how much he could explain. Overhead now a ceiling fan had begun to turn for their comfort and he noted the scatter of nearby tables and chairs where members could take drinks or snacks inside, the flicker of insects by the dim lights, a sudden movement by an old photograph - a tiny gecko lizard on the wall. This old room must have heard many hushed conversations; confidences about business, military or political dealings; quiet boasts of sporting or other successes, and, of course, rumours of social disgrace. Its implacable history seemed to reach out to him, as had the elegance of that old rest house nearby, in the Esplanade.
“The work’s been slow, so I’ve proposed some changes.” He saw the Colonel nod, reading through his discreet description of the shoddiness there. “Now I’m hoping for a very different sort of development, stretching inland – perhaps even linking to the Esplanade and Lagoon near here.”
It was the Colonel’s turn to look impressed. “That sounds most interesting, Mister Brown. If I can help, with any local knowledge or with advice, please let me know.”
From a leather wallet he carried with him, he now proffered a card: Colonel Eduardo J. L. Perez, Commander of Police. “Of course, I am now retired but I still have some influence. And,” he added with a smile, “if I cannot help then I’m sure that our Hon. Gen. Sec., Mister Veeraswami, could instead. There is little that Veeraswami isn’t knowing about around here – or, indeed, is having an interest in.”

  To read more of this book, or others, go to our Books page.

* * *

HERE is an abridged extract from novel A Brush With Murder. Its idyllic village setting was inspired by Wrea Green on Lancashire's Fylde coast, while tennis coach Liam was based upon my late friend Howard Sunderland (see Memoir page). It is an uplifting story involving suspicious deaths, greed and good faith - but also humour and romance. In Chapter Three, heroine Rebecca meets a handsome newcomer at the tennis club - but is the young man as good as he seems . . .

THE club's small car park was full when Rebecca arrived. It was mostly parents collecting children from coach Liam's junior class. A space would be free soon but she would have to wait and was already late. Her friend Natasha's gold-coloured Mazda sports was already there.
What made it worse was these parents drove such huge vehicles: mothers with great, unnecessary four-wheel drives; fathers in powerful German limousines.
Rebecca got out of her small hatchback and picked the racquet she wanted from the boot, then the new balls they would need. Liam, though coach here, could not be relied upon for the quality of his tennis balls.
She had one eye on a parking space as she checked her wrist sweatband and water bottle were all in her racquet bag.
Quickly, as a family drove away all talking at once in a seven-seater 'people mover', she got back into the driver's seat and properly parked.
Finally, Rebecca checked herself in the mirror, touching up her lipstick and straightening her dark fringe where it continually rebelled and curled. Her wavy hair was for once behaving itself and her complexion without blemish yet from any summer sun.
Only Rebecca's stomach was awry, upset by her rush and fluttering with anticipation. She was delighted the evening had turned out so sunny and enthralled by Natasha's description of the club's latest eligible man.
The clubhouse was a small, wooden pavilion. Rebecca walked through, greeting a couple of players by the noticeboard and making a mental note to study forthcoming team matches after playing.
She emerged on to the small terrace where people sat in the shade to watch games. It was a pretty setting, with Virginia creeper, clematis and climbing roses in flower at different times of the season.
Liam and Natasha were already on court and hitting 'short tennis' from the service box lines, as coaches encouraged to warm up muscles and 'groove' shots. But, irritatingly, there was no sign of their fourth player.
Rebecca felt her elation die a little as it would on those summer days when, just as work finished, there were mocking tear drops of rain at her window.
Probably Liam had been too casual again about the arrangements.
She headed for their court, noting how a new and rather tight, black top showed off Natasha's flowing blonde hair. Her friend was looking good after workouts at a nearby hotel's health spa. Pale lemon shorts rounded off an outfit rather too young for someone turned 30.
Rebecca felt relatively stocky whenever with Natasha, though their heights almost matched and she was quicker and fitter than Natasha.
Rebecca put down her bag and got out the balls in preparation, then stood and, straightening her tennis dress, stared at the vision of manhood fast approaching her with a wide, perfect grin of recognition as though in a dream.
"Hi, Gareth!" Liam called lazily, as their fourth palyer stepped on to court.
This Gareth raised a hand in greeting. "Liam, Natasha," he acknowledged in a smooth, accent-free voice.
Rebecca felt her stomach lurch as the newcomer offered a large, surprisingly gentle hand for her to shake.
"This is Becky," Liam called.
"Rebecca," she corrected, reluctantly releasing his hand. "I think these balls are harder," she added and, to her embarrassment, began to blush.
"Right, you guys," Liam said, checking Rebecca's tennis balls and putting his own back in a hopper by the court, "a few drives and serves then we'll start, okay?"
He spun his racquet and checked which side strings were knotted. "Rough or smooth, Natasha?"
"Oh, rough!" she said with a look at Gareth that was an open invitation.
"So," said Liam, "let the match begin."

To read more of A Brush With Murder, or obtain a copy on Kindle or in paperback, see Books.

* * *

OUR latest extract is from novel Born Again Sinner (see Books) in which tough newsman George Reed has a fresh outlook to life after being frozen for 25 years, in a medical experiment sponsored by his newspaper. His old campaigning spirit will later bring clashes with gangster developers and city triads. However, his ex-wife is George's first visitor and she has a reminder that time and tide await no man.


“YOU must have many questions but first I want to recap over your time here.” Dr Mace managed a smile. “You know, Mr Reed, you have spent more years in this hospital than me.”
I nodded. Behind him the sky was an uncertain blue with occasional puffs of grey cloud, some dark clouds seemed lit by an inner light like a candle. It amazed me no one stared at these skies. With an effort I trained my attention on the preoccupied doctor. I wanted to know my future yet still hadn’t settled my past in my mind. I wasn’t even sure if I should be alive at all.
“You were admitted as part of a private contract between your employer at the time, the former Sunday paper The Correspondent, and the management here then.” Mace looked up from his notes, as though preparing a defence in court and addressing judge and jury. “Of course, it was a different management back in 1980. The hospital was being encouraged to privatise and try new money earning ventures. Cryonics was not seriously considered over in this country as one such course, but management at the time was persuaded by your employer.”
I nodded. Outside the sky was becoming greyer, occasional birds – crows I thought – blew by as though out of control.
“There were three cases in all: with what were seen then as poor prognoses. All were voluntary admissions, with an undertaking from your employer as to expenses. When The Correspondent went into liquidation some years later, each case was reassessed with the receivers and under a contractual agreement existing with the newpaper’s pension and benefits trustees.”
Mace looked at me then smiled. “Thanks to our advances in diagnostic scanning, your tumour was established as benign and controllable without recourse to surgery. There had also been some retreat in its condition, which we were able to accelerate with laser treatment. I’ve waited for any re-emergence over your past conscious months but, thankfully, without result.”
He waited, as though expecting a response to this studied address, then declared simply: “What I’m saying in short, Mr Reed, is that you’re fine – ready to leave if you feel up to that.”
“Thank you.”
Did I feel ready? I wasn’t sure.
There were fat dots of rain flattening against the window behind Dr Mace. They made a squishing noise and greyness now filled the sky in a dull wash.
“What happened to the boy and old man? I’ve not seen them?”
Mace glanced down. “In their cases, conditions remained critically advanced. They did not survive.”
After that interview I returned to my room and sat facing the downpour. Rivulets cascaded down the plate-glass window, beyond them the world was a blur.
I was thinking of the boy – Oliver, as I recalled. His family had been devoted. The old man Bernard, on the other hand, had only been assisted by a harassed looking daughter, or was it daughter in law? There was never anyone else. Bernie, as he liked to be called, had complained a lot. He had only looked cheerful when discussing his fly-fishing and rolling thin cigarettes to smoke outside. He had a stub for a thumb after some lathe injury. Bernie had been a master craftsman, he said, and valued peace and quiet. The boy, Oliver, on the other hand had been grateful for my friendship and any diversion. His school friends had called him Olly, he’d said. He had loved animals; a gentle boy who wanted to be a vet when he grew up. Now he never would.
Why me, I wondered; why did I survive?
Apparently there had been much discussion about my suspended animation and when it was to end. This uncertainty had not just been on medical grounds as planned. Mace said the legalities and financial details had taken some years to unravel. Originally the “sleeping period” had been anticipated as a decade. In the end, as the doctor said with unease, this had been indefinitely extended. Now the trust which ran the hospital wanted to make a study of my case. The benefits, he told me, would hopefully offset some of the “considerable expense” of past care.
I had agreed to medical inspection and supervision but not to wider publication of the case. I would be known in such reports as Patient Y (not Z, I was determined - after hearing we were nicknamed the 'Zombie' Ward). But I didn’t want a free-for-all, whatever the cash offers. I would put off any personal publicity as long as possible. The experience in the hospital café was still haunting me. However, I knew my profession. Sooner or later they might chase my case but when I stepped outside these walls I wanted to be anonymous. I began to prepare for that day, making practical arrangements like banking and insurance, asking about rented accommodation and public transport. I even considered changing my name and appearance.
A psychiatrist and a young vicar joined my band of counsellors. In between tests from the medics these others warned me I might feel alone, unique, but each said in their own way help would always be at hand. They never imagined my guilt and I didn’t share it. My job had taught me to be resourceful and I preferred to operate as a loner. Also, I had not been religious since the first war I covered. But I knew there were issues here I must face alone and in time understand. The fate of the others, young and old, lingered in my mind. That and the good and bad in my past life, to which I could never return. All the rest was mere detail, like my food when it came, like newspapers and forms to complete. I had been reborn but why and what for?
It was only Alice’s appearance which finally shook me free of such questions. Nurse Wilson had told me of her arrival then escorted her from Dr Mace’s office.
Her appearance shocked me - how much she had aged, just as she was shocked that I hadn’t. Beside Nurse Wilson, Alice looked just what she had become: a small, middle-aged woman with cosy curves. Care lines crossed her face while her hair was lightened from blonde to mask its grey. At the foot of my bed she stared.
“My God, George!” she said. “You’re still young.”
“I don’t always feel it.”
“Why don’t you take Mrs Lawrence to the patio, George?”
I nodded, grateful to Nurse Wilson for this excuse to avoid Alice’s stare. Swinging out of bed I stood and was aware of dwarfing my former wife. Had she shrunk? She wasn’t that old. As she backed away I saw she was wearing low-heeled shoes now.
“It’s down this way.” I turned to Nurse Wilson.
“I’ll arrange some coffee and biscuits,” she said, her intuition perfect as always.
At Our Corner, Alice took one of the chairs but did not even give the view a glance. It was a stunning mackerel sky, wide-bodied, shimmering silver with strips of scarlet in waves of white cloud. A blackbird’s song was sheer joy. I could smell grass freshly mown in the gardens below.
“You look great,” she said with an edge of complaint.
“And you, you’ve hardly changed.”
“Liar!” Alice glared. “It’s not been easy George.”
“But you’re okay?” I asked in hurried concern.
She nodded and looked around like a restless bird. “Is it all right to smoke?”
When she blew out the smoke her lips reminded me of the Alice of old. Her hair was still styled short, showing off her elfin features. I rather liked her extra pounds, even those new lines on her face – they showed she cared.
“Thanks for coming.” I smiled but her eyes were unsure, afraid. “I’ve been looking for bylines I recognise in the papers but fear my old pals are all retired, or dead. It’s funny, there’s never anyone in the news I’ve met or even heard of before.”
“It must be.” Her face looked thoughtful, kinder, but still guarded. Why, I wondered. It was not as though I had beaten her or been aggressive, apart from the odd shouting match. Besides, all that was so long ago. Perhaps she was afraid of me leaning upon her, invading the new life she had built.
“You still with -,” I began and paused.
“Toby, yes. We had a daughter you know. She’s,” now Alice halted then added, “quite grown up now. Toby’s doing well.”
“He was an accountant, wasn’t he?”
“Developer.” Her lips formed a tight line of disapproval I remembered from late returns from work or the pub, or more often both.
“And you live, where?”
“In Bowdon.”
“You have done well.” A picture came to mind of tree-lined avenues in that well-to-do residential enclave of Cheshire, not far from where we had both grown up and the busier parts of south-west Manchester where we first lived when married. I could have asked her if she still worked but guessed she wouldn’t. Dental surgeries were places of tension, though Alice had enjoyed it. She had been able to take charge there, even of the dentists she assisted as receptionist. I was still surprised she hadn’t married one. But there was something else I could tell she was avoiding.
“What’s your daughter’s name, do you have a picture?”
“Alex – Alexandra and no, I don’t, sorry.”
Just then the coffee and biscuits arrived. I could see her relief. The sky was clearing into a shimmering Mediterranean blue like a deep, inviting pool. A gentle breeze from the west freshened my senses.
“How old is she?”
“Twenty-five.” Alice looked down into her coffee then steeled a glance at me. “What are you going to do,” she asked, “when you leave here?”
“Perhaps I could visit you.” I saw her eyes flare as she shifted in the chair. “Have you told her about me?”
“What about you?”
It was too defensive and I knew my gut feeling had been right. I’d always been a lucky reporter. I just happened along at the right time, met the right person, knew the questions to ask. It was a sort of gift. Then I had a way of getting at things and getting along. There were a few tricks, too, of course: like staring at the middle of the forehead, making it look like good eye contact while staying relaxed, unlike the interviewee. Sometimes it was better to ask abrupt questions.
“Twenty-five,” I said and kept my eyes on hers. “After my mother died we had that night, didn’t we?”
“For God’s sake, George! You don’t think you’ve any connection to Alex, surely?” She reached for another cigarette. “You don’t change do you? Still think you’re the centre of the universe.” Alice glared. “Other people’s feelings just don’t matter to you, do they?”
“She’s mine isn’t she? That’s why you’ve not had any more. There are tests now, I understand.”
Her silence gave me my answer. Finally, Alice looked at me with an expression I found unsettling in its judgement.
“I should never have agreed to this. It was that doctor who asked me.”
“They want me to have a link with the past.” I smiled mirthlessly. “It’s supposed to anchor and reassure me.”
Alice blew out a cloud of smoke in disgust. “You - it’s all about you, isn’t it?”
“I am pleased to see you.” I told her quietly. “I want to know about the missed years, what you’ve done – and Alex.” She turned sharply at my using the girl’s name. “Alice, I know I don’t have any rights there, not in my book. She’s yours and Toby’s.”
“You bet your life.”
I drank some more coffee then took a biscuit, staring out over the gardens and, for once, not noticing the sky. I hadn’t expected this.
“She’s got a child,” Alice said suddenly, then watched my face with a hint of malice. “You’re a grandfather, George.”

* * *

HERE'S a birthday extract from an early chapter in Only The Good News, a humorous memoir still being written and due to be published later this year. (For memoir already published, both semi-fictional and real, see Life of Bliss and The Last Resort, respectively, on our Books page.)

Romantic Tracks

MY journey through life began, like everyone else's, with parents. They found love on the railway line between Manchester and Liverpool. To be exact, it was at the suburban platform of Urmston, then in Lancashire, North-West England.
"Your father was a porter there," Mum recalled, her eyes moistening at the memory.
"I left a ball gown in the carriage, it had been cleaned for a dance on Saturday night."
"And Dad found it?" I knew the story but enjoyed hearing it again.
"He brought it round to our house later." She smiled like a young girl, this comfortably proportioned, middle-aged woman looking at the youngest of two sons. "Then he asked for a dance in return."
"So he was going too?"
"Yes, he went - and looked very handsome."
Mum had told me of other boyfriends, including an Argentinian cattle rancher who exported beef to Manchester (but was "too hairy").
There had also been a band leader who played "I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen" whenever she entered the dance hall.
Then, perhaps most famously within family annals, there had been a reckless motorcyclist who had almost killed her.
His side-car, containing my mother-to-be, detached itself one evening and ran down the embankment of the Manchester Ship Canal, near Barton swing-bridge at Eccles. Fortunately, it crashed into railings and was halted just short of the murky depths.
But in the end Mum married a railway worker who had been plucky enough to ask out the daughter of a once wealthy mill owner.
And they lived happily ever after. Or so it seemed to me. I had only seen Mum angry with him once.
It was at a Sunday family 'tea'. Without warning she threw a piece of sponge cake and it struck the side of Dad's face, cream dropping slowly off his glasses.
My shocked brother Mike and I had just stared. Dad, who was of the strong, silent sort (just how strong and silent I found out later), didn't say anything - which no doubt annoyed my outgoing mother even more.
But that was the only sign of a 'row', at least that I saw. They were motivated by love, as were her parents before.
My maternal grandparents had once been wealthy but did not complain at losing their prosperity. Instead, I recall a brass fender by the fireplace in their last and most humble home. Its inscription read: "North, South, East or West, Home's the Place I Love Best".
"Never go to sleep or say goodbye upon an argument," they always said.
My life, too, seemed blessed. After Mike, who was six years older, there had been another brother, Clive, who died soon after birth.
My mother still cried when she recalled Clive and once took me to see his grave, at Urmston and shared with Dad's father.
Clive's epitaph read sadly: "Aged One Day".
They were delighted when I came along, though my remaining grandparent on my father's side, was typically blunt.
"He looks just like a little pig," 'Grandma Eddie', a farmer's daughter, commented - but, then, even she was mollified by my big smile and blond curls. "Still," she added, "they all do at that age."
My first contact with a local newspaper was when winning a Beautiful Baby Competition. We still have the rather over-exposed black and white cutting - though my blond locks are long gone.
"Even the nurses adored you," said Mum. Of course they made a fuss - as her previous child had died in the same Cottage Hospital.
Afterwards, they used to send over anxious, young fathers-to-be to our house across the road - to get them "out from under our feet".
Mum gave these young men tea and biscuits but they mostly paced our hall, watched by me as a kid peeping down from our stairs.
There was a stained glass window on the landing and, when squinting through it, I could make out a nearby street lamp.
Its golden glow was like a star that I believed was my guiding light, protecting us at home and also my father on his travels.

* * *

HERE are the first few chapters of our latest published novel Coming Up Roses, a mystery/romance set in leafy Lytham, on the Fylde coast. There's down-to-earth humour but also an uplifting theme of faith and honesty. For more details go to our Books page.


ARTHUR was in shade at last, sitting comfortably on a bar stool overlooking the quiet fishing harbour. He savoured his chilled beer while watching a yacht berth. The big man in its bow must have been Arthur's height or more and well built, with a tough and easy air of character - or "thrasos", as the Greeks called it.
The tanned figure leapt athletically to the jetty, securing a rope in the same movement while already looking up, ignoring his busy companions and staring directly towards Arthur and the taverna.
Arthur recognised that face, illuminated now in harsh sunlight, but could barely believe his eyes. It was the Hollywood film star Ronando, walking directly towards him and now smiling as he strode inside.
"Yasso Yanni, whisky!" the star called to the bar owner in a gravelled voice.
Paul Ronando nodded, standing close beside Arthur, and grinned at him as though he was an an old friend, rather than an awestruck fan and tourist.
An opened bottle of imported malt whisky was placed beside them on the bar counter, then a large measure slopped into a glass.
Ronando drained it at a gulp then coughed, clapped Arthur on the shoulder and laughed. The star spoke to him in Greek but Arthur didn't understand.
"English? On sailing holiday?" Ronando asked.
In fact, Arthur explained, he had been doing a little business in the Plaka at Athens, buying antiques to import back home.
These were actually just risqué playing cards and drink coasters, to sell on in England. But Arthur hadn't mentioned that, only that his go-between in the capital had recommended this tiny island as a retreat.
"Join me!" offered Ronando, as Arthur drained his beer and accepted a cigarette. A glass was placed in front of Arthur and the Scotch generously poured.
Soon other people were gathering about them.
"Arthur, Arthur!"
Was it the blonde calling after him? The striking beauty walking up the harbour paving, which glittered in the sun like marble. More probably she was in pursuit of Ronando. But Arthur knew her, this girl, and what they would mean to each other - over time. Yes, Yola was coming to him too.
He opened his eyes expectantly.
The eyes that hovered with concern just above his own were female, like the soft voice he had heard calling him. But these eyes were dark, not sky blue. The face around them settled into a familiar and attractive one, but framed by long, dark hair rather than blonde.
"Oh," Arthur croaked, his throat dry and his voice betraying disappointment.
"You must have dozed off," Debbie said, smiling.
Arthur realised what she had really feared.
"Going to give me the kiss of life?" he rasped.
Across the communal lounge, card players were sat at a dining table - some of the Court's 'damsels', as Arthur had playfully nicknamed them; or 'ladies in waiting', as he also less charitably called them, since these days they only waited for the end. The women had been watching but now turned back to their game.
"You all right, then?" Debbie the house manager asked, straightening.
What a fine looking woman she was, but how old? That had been the subject of conjecture among male residents at Rose Court. Probably she wouldn't see 50 again, but looked younger.
Arthur wondered again at the claims of the Major upstairs, to 'entertaining' Debbie once a week. 'Tuesdays on Parade', as the cantankerous and arrogant gent called it - lucky old sod! They said money talked but it also turned a girl's head. In all other circumstances, it was Arthur himself whom she obviously preferred.
"Parched!" Arthur told her, easing himself upright in the armchair. Had he already been to The Taps, or was that pleasure still to come? If he had been, how much had he drunk?
Arthur instinctively flexed his lips, discreetly avoiding Debbie's gaze, to check his teeth were in place. It wasn't a full denture, just a short, upper-front bridge he took out before sleeping. Relieved that it was there, he started to stand. As ever, the knees creaked and resisted. Both hips hurt, too, but Arthur overcame an urge to put a hand on the chair's arm for support, like some old dodderer.
The wall clock across the lounge revealed it was only 12.30 in the afternoon, plenty of time.
"Must have been the sunshine, made me nod off," he told the manager, with a flick of his head at the nearby picture window overlooking rose gardens.
There was still a small sign planted among the bushes there; one that he'd nicked from nearby Lowther Gardens. It read: "You are politely requested not to scatter ashes on the roses."
The macabre message had amused Arthur. There were a lot of elderly folk in Lytham. He had placed the sign in their garden here as a joke. However, other residents had taken it as a serious warning from Rose Court's management. As if relatives would scatter your remains just outside the doors!
"Still," he told Debbie now with a gallant smile, "it was worth dropping off just to awake beneath you."
Her smile broadened and there was a rewarding sparkle in those dark eyes. Arthur felt his stride lighten as he filled out his chest and crossed the room towards his corridor.
One or two of the bridge players looked up and smiled in greeting.
"Hope the tricks are going well for you, ladies," he called.
Old Bessie, the most infirm resident of the flats, chuckled indulgently. She always laughed at Arthur's jokes, the nearer the bone the better. Miss Bickerstaffe, as the poorly spinster was named, came from one of the Fylde coast's oldest families and was said to be wealthy, but had no edge to her.
"No trumping now!" he added with a grin, delighting Bessie.
"Thank you, Mister Knight," said their organiser, Mrs Isabelle Johnstone, a large and formidable Glaswegian widow.
Her words had been spoken curtly but not without tolerance. She would have enjoyed one of Arthur's infamous evening visits round the Court's upper two storeys, he knew. However, the mere thought of such a challenging encounter made Arthur shudder.
Isabelle's short but amazingly stout figure filled the wide chair she occupied and pressed up tight against the table. Her fingers were adorned with heavy jewels. Another merry and well-heeled widow, Arthur thought.
His corridor went down the side of the three-storey block of private retirement apartments. He passed the communal laundry room - now quiet; then apartment doors, where he heard bursts from residents' televisions. There were also whiffs of whatever people were cooking for lunch, thanks to fan outlets in the corridor.
The walls were lined with period prints of gracious domestic interiors or English landscapes that Arthur admired; proper art, that was.
His flat was halfway to the rear car park exit, all quite handy. Not that Arthur had a motor any more, but he liked to hear people passing and their chatter. Arthur also loved looking out on to the quiet, landscaped side gardens which, thankfully, he did not have to maintain.
Inside Flat 13 it was stifling from the mid-day sunshine. His one-bedroom apartment had been cheap to rent because of its 'unlucky' number. People grew superstitious as they aged and felt vulnerable.
Some long-established flowering bushes outside were wilting. Also, the bird bath water now looked shallow. Arthur opened the patio doors then sank into an armchair in the shade. A blackbird was singing.
He'd snooze on for an hour or so. Hopefully, it would be to dream again of Paul Ronando on that fateful day they met by chance, got drinking together for the first time; then of sweet, darling Yola. But, if it came to erotic dreams, Debbie would do nicely too.
Instead, he kept seeing the humiliated face of a foreign waiter he'd spoken to rather harshly earlier. The restaurant, a short walk from Rose Court, had a shaded garden overlooking elegant Hastings Place. Arthur liked to sit there sometimes over a morning coffee, opposite a crescent of Victorian homes and gardens.
When the premises had previously been a social club he had also read its free newspapers. Now he had to catch up from paper racks at the Clifton Arms Hotel or Taps, over in Henry Street and the seafront Green.
"Morning, Arthur," the waiter had chanted cheekily at him with a smirk earlier that morning; addressing Knight just as the restaurant's manager did.
By then, as it happened, Arthur was already annoyed over his earlier shopping. The usually excellent Strongs greengrocer's, then Lannigans fishmonger's, had jointly failed to provide the green beans and fresh mackerel he fancied for lunch.
"Mister Knight to you!" he had corrected the young waiter, giving him a glare. His rebuke had noticeably wounded the young foreigner.
Arthur shifted restlessly in his armchair, with an unsettling sense of guilt - eased a little by another serenade of the blackbird's joyful song. What power that little creature had, sheer 'thrasos' again!
Another annoyance earlier today had occurred when passing the home of sporting hero Hector Powell. It was partly to go past Hector's Edwardian house on Church Street that Arthur walked all the way down Cecil Street from Rose Court in St Peter's Close.
He also liked to see the busy young residents rushing to work, or taking their children to school, from the expensive terraces of Cecil Street. Many were so new to the area they didn't even know it should be pronounced Siss-ill, as in thistle but with an 'S'. For that, Hector Powell himself had once told Arthur, was how the historic family of Cecil was pronounced.
Then there were the lovely, traditional gardens on the main thoroughfare into the village - or town as Lytham had become; on Church Street where Hector famously lived. It all drew top awards for floral display.
Usually the former Lancashire and England batsman greeted Arthur with a cheerful morning discussion of the weather. Arthur admired Hector's easy and unassuming manner, his natural style as a Rugby school and Cambridge-educated gent. It was flattering to be accepted readily by so great a man, reflecting credit in turn upon Arthur himself.
Today, however, Hector had been bent over the gardening, assisted by his wife, and apparently neither of them heard Arthur's passing call. Or had they pretended not to hear? It had felt like a slight, the old 'cold shoulder'. But why? Had they been talking to someone about him; if so, whom?
Arthur shifted once more in his armchair, drifting restlessly in the flickering shade - far from that idyllic island in the Aegean where he had first met the famous, then somehow found himself - and love.
Shouts outside his door awoke him with a start. There was a commotion in the corridor, close to his flat.
"Keep a look out for the ambulance!" he heard Debbie, the house manager, instructing.
Then someone called: "The doctor's here!"
Previously, when such an alarm had been raised, it had been in the middle of the night, like a bad dream. These concerned cries, followed by hushed conversation, sent a shiver down Arthur's spine - despite bright sunshine through his patio windows.
He stood up and closed the doors on to the garden. His mouth was dry again; a tremor ran through his stomach making him queasy. Arthur thought of old Bessie, whom he had joked with earlier, and felt a sudden sense of loss.
He also noticed the time of the clock on his mantelpiece: three pm. He should be heading out to The Taps; saving his golfing friends' usual alcove for their early-doors session after a round at Royal Lytham.
Arthur opened the front door of his flat and looked fearfully at a group of women stood talking by the laundry door. Down the corridor, by the rear exit, came the crackle of a walkie-talkie held by a tall, bulky police constable who blocked the doorway.
"It's Mrs Johnstone - Isabelle," whispered one of the women to Arthur, then nodded back at the laundry.
"She's in there."
Her eyes held his with an awed glint of terror. The other women beside her also stared, as though expecting help or some explanation.
"Been attacked, they say."


ROSE Court retirement block was the only building in a tiny cul-de-sac called St. Peter's Close. This was off Cecil Street, near its end by Serpentine Walk alongside the railway line in Lytham.
"Park at the back, it's signposted," Detective Sergeant Angela Sayers told the new detective constable driving. "We'll block the way for the ambulance if you park here."
The driver, several years younger than herself, looked embarrassed by her correction but obeyed - again starting up their unmarked Vauxhall.
At the back was a spacious, block-paved area marked out with residents' apartment numbers. There was lighting for night-time, Angie noticed, but also easy access from the narrow and dark Serpentine Walk, with its canopy of high Scots Pines. It would be easy for an intruder to slip away unseen.
They got out and approached a reinforced-glass rear door into the three-storey block. There were saplings about the lawns shading well-kept flower beds. Many still held their blossom, while birdsong came from more mature trees bordering the site's perimeter.
It was a pleasant spot, Angie thought, ideal for her mother - if they could afford it. Then she remembered why they were here and continued noting security arrangements, or the lack of them.
A uniformed officer opened the door and nodded at Angie. He was the local patrol officer, who had been quick to the scene.
"One or two residents wanted to leave, Serge," he informed her.
"No one's to go out yet." Angie could see the small crowd ahead of them, halfway along the corridor. "Get them to go back to their rooms, we'll interview everyone in time."
A tall, attractive brunette was approaching; an assured woman in her late 40s or early 50s.
"This the manager, Constable?"
He nodded, also transmitting an instruction to a uniformed colleague about manning the front entry doors in St. Peter's Close.
The detectives showed their I.D.s to the house manager and followed her down the corridor behind the uniformed constable. The trio waited while he shepherded away the women and an anxious, smartly dressed, elderly man.
"Does that security camera outside work?" Angie asked.
"No," the house manager admitted, "just for show - to keep kids and prowlers out."
Angie nodded, making a note. "And the door - can anyone walk in?"
The manager looked on edge at the tone of her question. "With a key, yes." She frowned. "We tell them not to let strangers in but, well, older people are polite - if someone follows them from the car park, presumably a relative, visitor or new resident, many hold the door for them."
"What about tradesmen, milkmen, paper boys?"
"They're supposed to ring me first, unless it's a private arrangement."
"So, in other words," Angie said, "strangers often pass through and wouldn't be questioned."
"Unless acting suspiciously."
They had reached a partly glazed laundry door.
The house manager went to push open the door but Angie stopped her. She nodded to her Detective Constable, who put on gloves and eased open the door.
They all stared at the prone woman on the quarry-tiled floor.
Static from the P.C.'s walkie-talkie behind them interrupted the silence.
"C.S.O. team's here, Sergeant," said the officer, adding, "doctor's in the lounge, ambulance has arrived too."
"Tell them to wait, but tape the corridor so they can start working there," she instructed, then squatted down by the body, checking its ripped clothes near the neck, seeing the bruising about the throat.
The woman, a middle-aged widow named Isabelle Johnstone, was Angie's mother's age - shorter but stouter. There was heavy jewellery on her chubby hands, the remains of a torn necklace about her bruised neck. The shock and pain on the corpse's face made Angie inwardly wince.
The unfortunate, late Mrs Johnstone was already as cold as the tiled floor.
They spoke first to the distressed resident upstairs who had happened to find the body; then the victim's neighbours on the top, second floor. Next, they questioned other residents who had seen Mrs Johnstone earlier, including some who had played cards with her.
A few apartments on the first floor were vacant; one or two other residents absent in hospital, away on holidays or with relatives.
It was late afternoon when Angie knocked on the door of Number 13 on the ground floor. Its buzzer hadn't worked. She checked her list and saw Arthur Knight's name. After speaking to some of the female residents, she was looking forward to meeting the notorious Mister Knight.
Its door opened quickly and revealed the same elderly man she had observed earlier upon her first arrival in the corridor. Mr. Knight was well dressed in a navy blue blazer with club badge, striped shirt and tie. But he looked irritable and the wavy, grey hair above his craggy face was askew and rather wild.
"At last!" Knight muttered.
"D.S. Sayers," said Angela, not liking his attitude. "Mister Arthur Knight, is it?"
"Yes." He didn't move to let her in.
"Well, I need to come in and ask a few questions, Mr. Knight."
"Don't know why, didn't see anything - just heard the commotion later. That P.C. wouldn't let me leave. I've a meeting with friends to attend."
"Well," said Angie, with slow deliberation, "some inconvenience has to be expected - in a murder investigation."
She saw the old boy was shocked. A little more softly, she added: "Perhaps if you let me in first? It shouldn't take long."
He led her in through a narrow hallway, with bathroom to one side and a bedroom looking on to the garden. They entered a cosy, rectangular lounge with closed patio doors. It was tidily furnished but stuffy. Fortunately, unlike the other flats where she'd done interviews, there was no smell of cooking from the small kitchen through an oval entrance off the lounge.
Mister Knight stood in front of a wall-mounted electric fire and surround. There were a couple of silver-framed photographs on its mantelpiece, both black and white, rather dusty and and fading with age. One showed a handsome, dark-tanned man with a slightly older man close beside him, their faces grinning above cocktail glasses. The other showed a blonde's pouting face. She was heavily made up and with locks of hair carefully posed but, nonetheless, glamorous.
Angie sat down on the sofa facing him, putting her files and handbag beside her.
"Perhaps you'd open the window, Mister Knight? It's rather warm in here."
The old chap grunted then strode over and opened a patio door, then an adjoining window. Fresh air blew in a floor-to-ceiling lace curtain, that billowed into the lounge like a yacht's sail, bringing a gust of cooling air in its wake. Birds were singing and there was a distant sound of a truck reversing, then silence.
Yes, Angie thought, in different circumstances her mother would love it here.
Arthur Knight had at last settled in an armchair opposite her. Angie caught him glance at her lower figure as she crossed her legs - then at her unadorned ring hand. Perhaps the rumours of his cavorting along the retirement flats' upper corridors were true. Certainly, he had moved easily to those patio doors, for a man of his age. With a little careful grooming, and in a better disposition, Mister Knight could even be seen as rather dashing - for an older man.
Fighting an unexpected and lonely sense of loss, Angie took up her notes. It wasn't only her singular lifestyle, the opportunities lost, that had suddenly grieved her. Her long-deceased father had also swum into her mind.
Most of the women here in Rose Court were now alone. But didn't everyone, Angie thought, end up so; in a place like this, or worse.
However, for one, it had been an untimely end.
"You knew the victim, Mrs Isabelle Johnstone?"
Knight answered her questions simply, with occasional glances at a clock between the two framed photographs. The only other decorations about the plainly decorated lounge were what looked like a John Constable landscape print and an oil painting of somewhere in Greece, like a holiday memento. There were no family snaps.
"So," Angie said carefully, "from leaving the communal lounge, where you had been resting around mid-day, you returned and remained here all afternoon - without seeing anyone?"
Angie stared at him for a moment, taking in the once athletic build, his large hands bearing a single signet ring.
"You didn't hear anything suspicious?"
"I was asleep - until all that ruckus, when someone found her."
Angie nodded again, made a further note, then glanced at entries she had made earlier from the house manager's report.
"You've lived here five years, Mister Knight, alone?"
"That's not a crime, is it? You know, I really am very late." He moved forward, to sit on the edge of the chair, ready to stand.
"And before that?" Angie waited but Knight looked temporarily confused. "Before coming to Rose Court, Mister Knight, where did you live and what did you do."
"Well," the old chap said, bristling now, "is any of that relevant?" He looked at her with exasperation.
Angie sat back, enjoying the breeze from off the gardens, the quiet here. There was a sweet scent, perhaps of petunias or honeysuckle.
It was as though the man opposite her really didn't understand her concern. But he must do.
"You see, Mister Knight, no one passed the manager's ground-floor office after yourself - except Mrs Johnstone and, later, the woman who found her. The residents she'd earlier played cards with all returned to their upstairs flats, apart from a Miss Bickerstaffe."
"Yes, Bessie - she's always in the lounge, except when retiring upstairs." He was shifting about in his armchair restlessly now. "Not very mobile," he added.
"But observant," said Angie. "She, too, confirmed the only callers to Rose Court's front door were a paper boy, who went upstairs in the lift, and a delivery man, whom the house manager went out to."
"Right, well, what's that got to do with me?" Knight had now got up and was standing in front of her again, arms by his side - ready to go.
"Two residents on this floor are on holiday," Angie recounted from her notes, then looked up at him. "The other two, both elderly women, had lunch indoors and stayed in their rooms."
Still he remained obstinate, stood uncomfortably close. So much so that Angie wondered where her Detective Constable was now, if she should need him. But then she heard the P.C.'s voice in the corridor, talking to the crime inspection team.
"So, no one during that period came in or out along the ground-floor corridor, Mister Knight; just the victim, Mrs Johnstone, with some light laundry."
She looked at him intently, then added pointedly: "And you."


"OH, Lord!" said Father Graham Reid. He fell silent, receiver in hand, as he took in the news. Then he looked with concern at his wife Sheila still in bed.
"Of course, Debbie," he said, adding softly, "I'll come over as soon as I can."
He put down the receiver then crossed their bedroom and sat on the bed. She should open a window, it was so stuffy, but then the noise of traffic would add to her unrest - poor love.
"That was Rose Court," he began, then chose his words more cautiously, "someone's been hurt, in the laundry. It sounds serious."
Sheila nodded. "You go, dear. I'll be fine." She gave him a wan smile, just a hint of that light-spirited cheer he remembered from years before. How brave she was, his courageous darling.
He gave her a kiss, light on the lips.
"Try to sleep, then. I'll be back in an hour, or so, and bring up some supper." His voice lifted encouragingly. "I could stop by Seniors' chip shop, if you like?"
His wife shook her head. "No, just something light, thanks - with tea."
"And you're all right for now - got enough water?"
"Fine, really." She closed her eyes.
The Reverend Reid stood at the top of their long flight of stairs and felt his deep shock return at Rose Court manager's news. He muttered a silent prayer for the soul of Isabelle Johnstone and for support to her family. She had been a good parishioner and benefactor to his church Saint Peter's.
As he slowly descended, considering which residents he should counsel and how else he might bring reassurance, Reid also tried to summon courage himself. Faith felt so vulnerable at times, when events brought no answers, only doubts.
He crossed his small garden in the shade of the church, deciding to drive instead of walk the mile or so down Westby Street. This was an emergency, after all. Also, Sheila would welcome his prompt return, unless she could, mercifully, sleep awhile.
In late afternoon, come early evening, it was quiet in Lytham; with stores and cafés closed; children collected from schools, office and shop workers home. He lowered the driver's blind to shield his eyes from the low but intense sun.
Old fishermen's cottages lined much of this back road, newly refurbished to match their soaring prices. How affluent and pretty the small town now was, with its sunlit café-bar life beside the sea. It had even recently been voted the most sought-after place to live in the country.
Yet there was still evil in the shadows. So much emphasis on wealth - with all the greed and envy that encouraged, especially among the young or those his age, in early middle life, so often driven by ambition.
Graham drove carefully across Hastings Place, shaded by great trees with its expanse of bowling green behind club hedges.
As he approached the elegant terraces of Cecil Street he turned off into tiny St. Peter's Close. All seemed quiet and normal at Rose Court, except for a single police officer standing at the front.
The vicar went round to the car park at the back, as usual, but then found a note on the rear door warning it was bolted and directing him to the front.
He gave his details to the constable then, instead of using his key, rang the manager's flat number and waited, while the policeman jotted down his name, address and purpose of visit.
"Hello Father Graham," said Debbie, opening the main front door. She held it open wider for him to enter, checking if the P.C. wanted another tea. He did.
"I'll make us drinks, too, in the office," she said and the Reverend Reid accompanied her across the deserted lounge. He paused to look along the ground-floor corridor running down to the car park.
"They've only just taken up the incident tape and gone," Debbie told him, following his look. They entered her small office between the corridor and communal lounge. "The laundry, where it happened, is still off-limits."
She switched on an electric kettle. "We'll have to send out washing, then there's the local Press - they've been on. I'm still trying to contact relatives."
Debbie sat down, looking tired and rather defeated. Then she smiled. "I'm glad you could come."
Graham nodded. "I'll take that out," he offered, and crossed the deserted lounge once more with the police officer's mug of tea.
On the way back he paused, staring at the vacant chairs about him, wondering if there should be a meeting, or ceremony, perhaps both. Then there was the Parish Office to consider, even the apartments' management company.
Father Reid was in his late-30s, supposedly at the height of his powers, yet - though he had faith in his calling - he still felt at times uncertain, untried.
"So," he said, more businesslike but still gently, as he re-entered the manager's office, "tell me all about it again, Debbie, just as things happened."
A short while later he made his first call, after looking warily through the glass partition into the closed laundry room. It looked undisturbed.
Outside the door to Flat 13 he could hear an old ballad, Bobby Darren if he wasn't mistaken, "Somewhere Beyond The Sea". He and Sheila had once done the slow foxtrot to it, leading a church hall dance.
Arthur wasn't that upset then, from the police interest. Or was he? Perhaps this was how the old rogue relaxed if stressed. Debbie had related how Knight had been prevented from attending his usual late afternoon gathering at The Taps pub.
Father Reid tried the bell-push buzzer but its battery was dead. He made a mental note to get Arthur a replacement when he next visited. Then he knocked gently on the door, waited, then rapped again more firmly.
A woman resident two doors away put her head outside to see who was knocking.
"Hello, Vicar," she called and was about to add more when the door to Number 13 opened. She quickly ducked back into her flat as Arthur Knight appeared in his doorway. He glared at Graham.
"Not you as well!" he growled.


"JUST wondered how you were," Father Graham said and smiled at Arthur, who grimaced. "Perhaps you could spare me a few minutes?" Graham moderated his smile and nodded, "Inside?"
"Well, not much point going out now," muttered Arthur, letting the Reverend Reid in, then leading him into the lounge.
A side window was open and a blackbird was now competing with Bobby Darren.
Arthur switched off his small CD player then went to some bottles and a decanter on a sideboard.
"Want a drink, Vicar?"
"No, I'm fine," Reid told him, then watched as Arthur poured out a good measure of Jameson whiskey for himself.
"Prefer the Irish stuff, smoother," said the old chap, then settled into an armchair.
Father Graham followed his lead and sat on the sofa before an unlit electric fire. "Is that you, Arthur?"
Graham stared at the framed black and white photograph of two men with drinks. They both looked tanned and joyful.
One was definitely a little like Arthur, though leaner and younger with an unlined face and dark hair. The other, raffishly handsome, had more exotic features - like a Greek, or South American.
In fact, now Graham looked more carefully, he realised the face was known to him.
"Good heavens, with Paul Ronando, the film star!" Seeing this pleased Arthur, Reid looked at the other displayed photograph, of a blonde who was posturing rather absurdly like an actress for a glamour shot. It all looked very 1950s.
"Yes, got to know him well - while doing business abroad," said Arthur, adding with his voice catching dryly, "and that's Yola Zavor."
"Also in films?"
Arthur nodded. "Died young though."
"And Ronando," Graham continued, "he's gone too, now, I think."
"That's right." Arthur stared into his glass.
The Reverend Reid sat up straighter. "Debbie told me the police held you up a while with questions."
"They want to take my fingerprints and DNA as well. Think I've done it! Can you believe that?"
Graham had never seen the usually combative and confident Arthur Knight so unsettled. He was dressed differently, too - not so smart. However, this was the first time Graham had seen Arthur informally 'at home', relaxing alone in his flat.
"Well," he gently reassured Arthur, "that's just routine, I'm sure."
"I'm the only man who was around at the time," said Arthur sullenly, "that's all that nosy woman detective cares about."
Knight muttered something else about her under his breath, then looked up at Graham with an outraged expression.
"Of course," said Reid hurriedly, to placate the old chap, "it must have been some intruder."
"Wouldn't even tell me what had happened," complained Arthur, "only that Isabelle had died - apparently after being attacked by someone." He looked up, questioningly.
"Perhaps a heart attack, brought on by being accosted," suggested Father Graham speculatively. "There were signs of a struggle or assault of some kind, so I'm told."
The Reverend Reid paused, feeling inadequate again. "They'll know more soon, Arthur, but Mrs Johnstone had a heart condition and took pills, I know."
Knight nodded. "Thought she was pretty tough, myself." He sipped reflectively at his whiskey.
"You've got nothing to worry about, Arthur, if your conscience is clear."
Arthur frowned, then got up rather impatiently and refilled his glass.
"Of course it's not clear, Vicar! But I had nothing to do with that, with whatever happened. I was dozing in here."
Father Graham thought for a moment of Sheila at home; wondering if she was resting at last. There were still many residents here he should visit.
"Well, if you want to talk any more - or I can help in any way."
"What, pray, you mean?" Arthur looked at the younger man with contempt.
"Sometimes it helps," said the Reverend Reid, holding his gaze. Why was the old man always so resistant - and prickly? "Anyway," Father Graham added, now standing, "I've a few more residents to see."
Knight stood with some effort from the low chair, but then pushed his shoulders back - looking rather disparagingly from his greater height.
"To bring them comfort, too?" Arthur asked.
Graham wasn't sure if the old chap was being ironic. "I hope so. This has been very upsetting. We might have a simple ceremony, perhaps in the lounge, when things settle."
Arthur's face crumpled into an expression of reproof. "That'll do a lot of good!"
Graham followed into the flat's hallway, feeling once more a sense of failure; of just missing, yet again, what he sought and sensed was near: the right words or action, a turn of phrase or gesture; God's inspiration.
He stopped in the doorway, one foot into the corridor, then turned back to the bigger, brooding man.
"I meant what I said about helping, Arthur. Just give me a ring, or pop in at the Vicarage."
The old chap grunted, then looked down at the open-necked shirt and cardigan he wore. "Even took my clothes, searched the flat - can you believe that?"
They both became aware of another resident, one of the ladies along the corridor, now stood at its end next to the lounge, listening to their conversation. She met their eyes without comment but continued to stare.
"It will all simply prove that you're not involved," Father Graham reassured him. "Try to get some rest. Tomorrow will be better, Arthur, you'll see."
Knight grunted dismissively, gave the watching woman a hard stare in return, then closed his door without farewell.


THE flats' rear door was still locked and bolted. Arthur could see dark shapes of saplings, moving in a wind and casting dancing shadows amongst the lights of the otherwise still car park.
He would normally have opened the door and enjoyed that night breeze, perhaps sat on a nearby bench and observed the sky - as he'd learned to do in Greece, so long before.
The night sky above the islands was magical. Ronando had known the stars and pointed them out. The fishermen used them for navigation. But Paul had hated sailing. Only his screen image made him join in, along with the thought of a stiff drink afterwards.
Behind him now, Arthur heard another door lock being turned - double bolted. The ladies were afraid. Had whoever it was who turned that key seen him through a keyhole, or heard him passing as usual along the corridor?
Climbing the stairwells, while doing an evening round of the upstairs corridors, was part of Arthur's daily exercise. Some single lady residents said they felt comforted by it - knowing that there was 'a man about' to guard them, check all was well.
Of course the Major, once spotting Arthur by chance on this circumlocution, had jumped to the wrong conclusion. A typical Army man, he had assumed it was all inspired by base motives.
Arthur turned from the rear door and went up the fire escape stairs. He smiled grimly, recalling that he had - with certain hints and winks - encouraged the Major's assumption of night-time trysts.
Unusually, Arthur paused with a beating heart on the first-floor corridor. He was out of condition, or the whiskey and day's events had taken their toll. His head felt light and dizzy after another uneasy doze. He'd also eaten little that day, he realised. But there was something else, too, unsettling him.
After her brief admonition to him at cards, Arthur had thought of Isabelle before he dozed in the afternoon.
Now she was dead; attacked, they said.
His mind these days was in a dream half the time; sometimes even back in Greece, with Yola and Paul.
What if there really had been no one else involved on this fateful afternoon at Rose Court? Or, as the woman detective had said so emphatically, only Arthur himself had been there - with Isabelle?
Arthur looked now at his big hands and felt his mouth go dry.
The lights ahead shone brightly along an empty corridor similar to his below. Yet their illumination was misty at the edges. He'd developed floaters in his eyes of late, seeing spots or changing shadows where before there were none.
He was alone and not sure what was real.
Arthur's head swam momentarily. He steadied himself against the wall, then walked slowly on. He would give the remaining upper floor a miss tonight.
"That you, Arthur?"
The door alongside him was half open; Bessie's door. He had told her off before about doing that.
"Yes, it's me," he said, looking in and seeing her propped up in an armchair. "You should be in bed."
He hadn't the energy this evening to add a joke, as he would normally have done, or perhaps join her for tea as he sometimes did.
"And this door should be kept locked!" he remonstrated with her.
"I'm waiting for a pizza," the game old girl declared with ruffled dignity. Then she admitted: "Couldn't sleep, Arthur, after all the upset this afternoon - poor Isabelle."
Arthur grunted.
There came a sudden, insistent ringing on the bell in her hallway, where all residents had an intercom with buzzer - to admit guests from the front entrance.
"Will you press it, to let him in?" asked Bessie.
"And have him wandering about - after what happened?" Arthur shook his head, then the bell sounded again. "I'll collect it."
He switched down the intercom control and instructed: "Coming, wait there!"
"There's some money on the hall table for him," added Bessie.
"Right," Arthur muttered, shaking his head at Bessie's disregard of security. He took the cash and closed her door, walking with more purpose now along the corridor.
For once he took the lift down. During the few moments inside it, alone, his thoughts of Bessie turned more kindly, even envying her easy trust for mankind. But then, of course, Bessie was so dependent she didn't have much choice.
The shady figure outside their entrance doorway looked menacing, but turned out to be only a short, young man in a motorbike helmet with dark anorak.
He looked oddly familiar, too, though out of place. Arthur stared, trying to recall.
Recognition, then something else, shone suddenly in the boy's eyes. Was it apprehension, unease? Probably it was just a reaction to Arthur's appraising glare. The lad remained mute, simply offering his package.
"How much?" Arthur demanded, taking the cardboard container glowing warm from its pizza.
The lad told him, in a foreign accent.
"Robbery!" Arthur muttered, carefully counting Bessie's change.
"Is for lady," the deliverer said in turn, his words muffled in the helmet. The boy's eyes darted beyond Arthur, trying to search the reception lounge or beyond. Was he looking for Bessie, at this hour?
"Yes, well, I'll take it to her, won't I?" Arthur said firmly, closing the door.
For a moment, as he did so, it seemed the young man would push forward - determined to make his delivery in person. Then the lad stood back and lowered his head, checking his shoulder bag for more deliveries elsewhere, though still lingering by the entrance.
Arthur stubbornly watched through the locked doors until the helmeted figure finally retreated to a scooter out front.
Arthur heard its small engine's high-pitched whine, echoing through St. Peter's Close and then on down Cecil Street, as he turned to deliver Bessie's late supper.
At last, Arthur's spirits rose a little with the lift. It was good to feel useful, and now he wasn't alone.
The old dear would ask him to share her food. They would have tea and then a chat, before he left for downstairs once again.
It was the least that a gentleman could do.

To obtain a copy of Coming Up Roses, turn to our Books page.

* * *

THE last excerpt on this page, from Ed Black's novel 'Harry's Hand', a Kindle book, proved popular with readers. Now we bring you the first chapter of his second novel, 'Romp & Circumstance', also on Kindle. This offers a taste of colonial Hong Kong. It's a racy, humorous thriller that you can find further details about on our Books page.



WHEN Neil Beddows arrived in Hong Kong he soon became aware of his privileges. It was the mid-1970s and an Englishman in the crown colony was still one of the elite. To his embarrassment he was paid treble the salary of local Chinese working alongside him in the office, given superior rights of citizenship and served ahead of non-westerners wherever he went. What was more, being a senior civil servant he was part of government and allocated a large, furnished apartment free of rent. Even the universal income tax of 10 per cent was easily covered by his annual bonus of three months salary, while every couple of years he could look forward to a free trip home. He was also encouraged to have a maid.
Picking a servant was not as easy as he would have thought. It did not come naturally to a young, ex-grammar school boy from a lower-middle-class, suburban home. While Chinese “amahs” were efficient and best for local shopping, few spoke English. Also they would be wary of living in with a young bachelor, as lewd gossip might cause them loss of face and British expatriates had a reputation for boozing and loose morals. To the outwardly fawning but secretly snobbish Chinese, he was an overpaid, over-privileged barbarian capable of grossly embarrassing breaches of local decorum.
Filipinas, on the other hand, came cheaper since their nearby Philippines homeland was impoverished. Some Filipina maids even had college degrees and most spoke English owing to their occupation by the Americans after the war. However, such young girls, lonely away from home and generally romantic and innocent, had a reputation for getting pregnant. Also they were mostly Roman Catholics and old-fashioned about the marital responsibilities of lovers and fathers. In the end a well-meaning wife of one of Neil’s senior expatriate bosses recommended Virginia.
“Virgie”, as she was called by her friends, was the cousin of his boss’s second maid and from just outside Manila in Luzon. He was shown a picture of her, which displayed an overly plump girl with frizzy hair and a big smile. But it was a different Virginia who came to his door on the weekend of her interview. Neil had suggested meeting her somewhere public, like the Mandarin Hotel’s coffee lounge, but Virgie had wanted to see the apartment. It was understood she would work for him part-time, while also helping her cousin serve his boss’s family. The job, should he give it her, would enable Virgie to stay on in Hong Kong where she was at present only on holiday. It was a shock to first set eyes upon her.
“Hello, sir,” said the stunning girl in his doorway.
Neil stared. This was not the chubby country girl of the cousin’s old photo. Little wonder that Mrs Ding, the rather strict Chinese woman who ran Mansion House from her reception office in the lobby, had sounded so cold on the phone announcing her arrival. She would suspect the worst of this visit from such an apparition. Although Virgie had her hair neatly pinned up, wore a simple, dark dress and medium high heels, there was no disguising the beauty of her facial features or that body at which he was staring.
Come in,” Neil croaked. He quickly checked himself in the mirror: still a little under-weight for his height, but his usually unruly blond hair had been trimmed by the Hilton Hotel barber. His face shone with a clean-living youthfulness he feared made him appear immature, though his blue eyes appealed to women in general and Asian ladies in particular.
Virgie stepped into the entrance hall. She took in the untidy clutter of his umbrellas, riding boots, sports rackets and office attaché case before following Neil into his pride and joy, the large lounge with balcony looking on to Queen’s Bay. The green-fringed beach was on the quiet, south side of Hong Kong Island, beyond the more famous Repulse Bay though not as far from town as Stanley with its market and British garrison. At Queen’s Bay there were no beach restaurants, bars or hotels, just a few traditional houses, small stores and this old, three-storey, colonial-style block of apartments aptly called Mansion House. Neil was not sufficiently senior to have qualified for residency at Mansion House in past years but it was no longer popular with staff of the Hong Kong Government, which owned half of its six large flats. Outcoming British wives wanted modern amenities, like air-conditioning rather than ceiling fans, and a location closer to those supermarkets with imported British goods and had large refrigerated stocks of food. Expatriate males preferred to be closer to the fleshpots of the urban areas on the busy north side of Hong Kong, such as Wanchai. They took flats in Mid-Levels or residences on The Peak, depending on their status.
“Is a very big room,” said Virgie, without enthusiasm.
“Yes,” Neil said proudly, “and a big balcony too.”
He walked out expecting her to follow and admire the view, but the goddess who was – as in some schoolboy fantasy – applying to be his maid, hovered in the sliding glass doorway.
“Good for drying clothes,” she observed.
Neil followed her back into the lounge and showed her the kitchen, off it was a scullery and a tiny room with a metal cot – the maid’s quarters. It had no ceiling fans or other comforts.
“For servant,” Virgie said flatly.
Neil showed her the two large bedrooms off the hallway, embarrassed now by their spacious coolness. His own master bedroom was en suite and there was a second bathroom and third, single bedroom at the corridor’s end. The latter he had already converted into a study.
“Many rooms,” said Virgie gloomily. She was the first visitor who hadn’t swooned at the old apartment’s rambling if faded grandeur.
“Would you like some tea?” he asked when they were back in the lounge, the sea drawing gently on the beach one floor below.
“Coffee, please,” said Virgie.
Neil brought their cups and almost dropped one in the doorway. Virgie was lounging back in an armchair and, with legs elegantly crossed, showing a lot of flesh. She uncrossed then crossed them again as he put the coffee on a table beside her. To his embarrassment, Neil’s hand was shaking. He felt his face flush and temperature rise.
“You’re very different to your photo,” he said huskily, trying not to stare at the long legs across from him.
Virgie’s face dissolved into a glowing smile of startlingly white teeth and pink gums. There were dimples in her cheeks. She was quite lovely and Neil felt his heart lurch.
I lost four stones,” she told him.
Suddenly she was on her feet before Neil – who was still blinking from a flash of thighs as she rose. Virgie breathed in deeply, expanding her chest, planted her shapely legs apart, put her hands on her hips and pivoted coquettishly from side to side. Neil’s mouth dropped open.
“You like better than photo?” she asked.
“Rather,” Neil said, though the word barely emerged, his throat was so constricted.
“My boyfriend, too,” Virgie told him proudly. “He is American officer.”
Neil nodded, suddenly downhearted, then tried to recover as she sat down again.
“Is he here in Hong Kong too?”
Virgie’s eyes opened in wonder at his stupidity. “No,” she said then, her face setting with a surprisingly stern expression, added, “he sailed away from Manila.”
Neil nodded, silently pleased.
“So you want me to come part-time?”
“Yes, please,” he said but saw she looked uncertain. “If you want to,” he added lamely.
“It’s a long way from Kowloon,” she told him, as though he might move house to that great urban conurbation across Victoria Harbour just to accommodate her. But it was where his boss, her other employer, lived. “How many days I come?”
Neil had thought all this was arranged. He shrugged. “Two, three days?”
Virgie crossed her legs slowly. When he glanced up guiltily from them she returned his stare knowingly. “And pay how much?” Before he could answer, she added quickly, “I need to earn at least 2,000 to stay in Hong Kong. My other employer, she pay 15 hundred.”
She looked at him with open concern, hanging on his response.
Neil’s own job paid about 20,000 HK dollars a month, most of which he was able to save. But he kept his good fortune to himself, not wanting to offend anyone. The exchange rate was around 10 dollars to a pound sterling.
Would 1,000 be okay?” he asked.
Virgie’s wide grin showed it was. She surprised him again by standing, then going impetuously across to the open balcony. “Is a nice beach,” she observed now, “maybe better if I stay here, then I could swim sometimes.”
“Yes,” Virgie said, turning and smiling, “to save bus fares.”
The prospect was not unappealing, or that of Virgie in a bathing costume on the beach. An image popped into his head of them lying on the soft, white sand, he rubbing sun-cream on to her back. He felt his face flush again and stammered slightly as he asked: “What about your other employer?” He tried to think of his boss’s name but his mind was a blank.
“Mrs Taylor?” she helped him, though pronouncing it Tay-law. “I can sleep with my cousin there on other days.” She stood in the middle of the lounge and looked down at him thoughtfully. “You have car?”
“Yes.” He was about to tell her of the old Mercedes convertible he’d bought for weekend drives. By day he travelled to the office by bus, reading the South China Morning Post on the way. It was more relaxing in the traffic jams approaching Central.
“Good. Maybe you could bring over my things?”
“Right.” Neil stood up and shook her offered hand. It felt limp and tiny, the opposite to her overwhelming physical impact in the flat. He followed her back to its door.
“I meet my cousin in Stanley,” Virgie said, glancing at her expensive looking gold watch. “For the market,” she explained and flashed that wonderful smile once more. “Maybe I take taxi?”
Neil suddenly realised she expected him to pay. He found the only bill in his pocket was for 20 Hong Kong dollars, far too much. As he proffered the note, expecting her to look for change, Virgie eased it from his hand.
“Thank you, sir,” she said then gracefully descended the winding stone stairs.
It was a few days later when he picked her up as promised outside the high security walls of his boss Nigel Taylor’s house in Kowloon Tong. There were two handsome suitcases and three hat boxes beside Virgie and her cousin Esperanza, all grouped under the shade of a banyan tree. Neil was introduced and “Espie” bowed before admiring his 1950s convertible.
“Very old,” Virgie commented as he showed her to the front passenger seat. “Maybe I sit in the back with my things,” she said, still annoyed that his boot was full of riding and tennis gear.
The older Espie looked embarrassed by her cousin’s boldness but giggled as he drove away, looking like a chauffeur with Virgie giving directions from the rear. After the long drag through Kowloon’s congested shopping streets on the edge of the Chinese peninsular, they dipped into the Cross-Harbour Tunnel and emerged into the sunlight of Causeway Bay with its glittering seafront hotels and apartment blocks on Hong Kong Island. Finally, they rose up Wongneichung Gap, past the new public tennis centre and Hong Kong Cricket Club, and headed down to the lush green coastline on the south of the island. Along the coast road, as they sped by Repulse Bay, tiny islands dotted the sea and a gentle mist shrouded the horizon. Neil’s spirits soared at the panorama and he marvelled yet again at living in Queen’s Bay and the Mansion House.
“It’s a long way out,” complained Virgie as he heaved her cases from the back seat. She took one hat box and left him to struggle in her wake with the rest. Neil followed, transfixed by the sight of her in tight jeans and tiny T-shirt, swaying on high-heeled sandals. His face only fell as Mrs Ding stared with disapproval from her office in reception.
“This is Virginia,” Neil said proudly, his voice trailing off as he added, “my new maid.” It sounded unlikely even to him.
Part-time,” Virgie added, her smile also fading as Mrs Ding surveyed her grimly.
It was not that the Chinese was old and without humour. Neil had seen her laughing sometimes with her young son. She was probably only late 30s and could look fetching when smiling. She had a well-proportioned body and regular features, her hair usually tied neatly in a bun. But her manner could be forbidding and he had seen her change alarmingly, loudly scolding her son over his sloppy homework. She even kept a cane in her office to chastise him. Her husband worked elsewhere, as a mechanic. When Mrs Ding first saw Neil’s old Mercedes she’d mentioned Mr Ding was available for any servicing problems. He had indeed fixed him a new, stainless steel exhaust. Generally, it seemed to Neil, the husband gave his tough wife a wide berth. She, in any case, worked long hours at the Mansion House, supervising the cleaning, maintenance and gardening staff while also keeping a close eye on the residents.
These latter were a mixed bunch. The only other westerners were a retired civil servant and his wife on the top floor above Neil, who kept a large roof garden. The Campbells seemed slightly eccentric to Neil, probably from a mixture of age, sun and drink. They had invited him for cocktails when he first moved in and he had stayed to a traditional roast dinner. Since then he had only bumped into them in the lobby when collecting mail. Of the Chinese, the only resident Neil had spoken to was a fit, middle-aged businessman who used part of the communal flat-roof space for martial arts. Neil had wandered up to the roof a couple of times and seen him wielding a sword and ceremonial spear. It had unnerved him but the chap had turned out to be cheerful and chatty. The only other resident he had spoken to was an elderly Indian publisher with a striking white beard, whose rather aloof wife played their grand piano in the afternoons. Neil knew it was a grand as Mr Ram invited him into their apartment to loan him an introductory book to Hong Kong, a rather dated guide by an early district commissioner entitled The Oriental Companion. The Rams’ apartment was lined with bookshelves and artwork. Mr Ram talked wistfully of returning to India but his family had fallen out with the Gandhis who still held great influence there. The Rams lived in some style, with three uniformed maids, and shocked Neil’s egalitarian views by being dismissive of the Chinese. In her turn, Mrs Ding appeared prejudiced against non-Chinese residents. Only Mr Campbell, a tall, stooped man with soft Scottish accent, seemed to be held in her respect. He had once had a big job at Government House; Neil had never found out quite what.
I didn’t like that woman,” said Virgie as they squeezed into the lift with her luggage, “who does she think she is anyway?”
Mrs Ding had taken notes of Virgie’s passport and warned she would need a work and resident visa.
Mrs Tay-law is my real employer,” she said, “she will get papers.”
Well, they are very strict here,” Neil began to explain, feeling snubbed by her remarks. He was going to outline the colony’s tight immigration policy to prevent illegal immigrants from China and other parts of Asia. The territory was bursting at the seams with people after Mao’s Cultural Revolution. But at that moment the lift jerked to a stop and Virgie strode out to wait by his door. Once inside she made straight for the spare double bedroom next to his master suite and opposite the corridor bathroom.
Can I stay here,” she said, smiling meekly, “or do you want me to sleep by that kitchen?”
Of course,” Neil said, putting down her bags. He was sweating heavily. The Mansion House had no air-conditioning and the ceiling fans had been switched off while he was out. The humidity of his first Hong Kong summer was a trial.
Virgie sat provocatively on the double bed and bounced a little, further disconcerting Neil. She rummaged in her handbag and for a moment he thought she was going to tip him, or perhaps offer to pay for petrol. But it was a mirror and compact she wanted.
I’ll freshen up in the bathroom,” she said, standing.
Neil bowed slightly and backed out of the room.
Let me know if there’s anything you want,” he muttered.

 * * *

HERE's the first chapter of 'Harry's Hand', an atmospheric thriller about destiny by Ed Black (see Books page). It features a young Greek immigrant in New York. Yannis (or John) has an inherited gift for palmistry which to him seems a curse rather than a blessing. However, it helps him save the most important in the land, if not those he loves . . .

THE water here was cool, mottled green and shadowy black like the pines rising above our cove. It reached my neck but after the stones there was now soft sand beneath my feet when I stood and looked back to the beach. Nicki was treading carefully into the first waves, the shifting stones making her falter. My shout of encouragement made her straighten for a moment and her body, so timid before, was now splendid in the sun for that instant before she dived. I felt my own body stir in the cool depth of water as her joyful shriek died on the heavy, musk air. The darkening water closed about me. The distant, brilliant white of the small church was shadowed. My last sight before submerging was the top of the pine-clad ridge against a cloudless blue. Then suddenly a crash of engines and machinery whined about me and I struggled upward, through many feet of marble green water, cold and heavy as the dead.
I start, then sit up in the bed, still gulping. My sweatshirt is wet but the air cool. Outside there is still the nightmare grinding from the garbage collectors. That means it is 5am. I lean back, closing my eyes and waiting for them to move to the next block. I still have a lingering yearning. It shames me as an image comes back of Nicki’s nakedness. I lie surprised at my own body, then heavy with guilt. Finally, my shirt and chest cooling, I turn in the bed and fight to recapture our island again, but this time with the innocence and comfort of a child.
There was a small playground above our town square and harbour. The trunks of the lemon and fig trees were painted white and swings were strung between them. Playing there was an early memory: swinging wildly to cool the air in that oppressive, sun-baked yard; the coarse, knotted rope seats cutting into my young thighs, zestful like the sharp scent of lemons. Sometimes my mother was there, smiling or with that laughter like cool, tumbling water. But her image would disappear just as ephemerally, perhaps when I sought to see her hair and fix in my mind whether it was piled high or its golden length falling loose around her shoulders. Then it was my grandmother’s calls of Yanni I heard. The old woman could be kind but her clothes were dark and rough against my skin. Unlike my mother her face could also be forbidding, as fierce as Bouboulina whose statue stood on our quay. The pirate heroine faced out to sea and the distant mountains of the Peloponnese coastline, as a warning to Turkish invaders not to return. It was said any departing islander who touched her stone body was guaranteed to come home. But even Bouboulina had no sway on those the seas claimed.
In these dreams, or recollections in the half dawn, my grandmother’s face would become as cold as Bouboulina’s own. That chilled me and I could not think of my mother then. Other times I might also see my father. Never at the town but always approaching from the harbour jetty. His shirt would be opened at the neck but still bearing its gold naval epaulettes. He would be greeting many people along the quayside where the stone flags were worn smooth and shone like marble in the sunlight. And then he would see me. The joy of that expression on his face warmed me, like the strength I sensed as he lifted me and the smell of him, of sharp sweat and salt-wind, of sun and tobacco. His memory would fade but awe me, with a dawning sense of mortality. I could have cried when that happened; not for myself but for losing him.
The mild, May air of New York fills the room as it lightens and I listen to the increasing noise of reality: the faint but steady drum of downtown traffic on Seventh Avenue; a siren just north, towards Sheridan Square; a reversing van, here in Dale. There is plenty of time but the bed now seems to cloy with a boy’s morbid fears. I swing out my legs and stand. I have started jogging early mornings along the waterfront. It is safe as long as you keep going, though Harry disagrees. But it is mainly to avoid Harry first thing that I jog.
Downstairs the grill is empty, the narrow, table-lined room more like a corridor, with the hanging, soured after-smell of charcoal and grilled fat. Nadine is in the bar. She has piled the ashtrays on the counter and is mopping the timber floor. Disinfectant cuts through the stale smell of tobacco and drink, though she smokes as she works. I have stopped trying to warn Harry and his friends about the smoking in our restaurant. Our staff are no better; no one takes me seriously.
They just laugh, thinking it okay to break the law after our customers have left. “Some day this place may burn down,” the gangster Orros likes to warn, making a joke only his two henchmen find funny.
Nadine is not at her best in the mornings but nods and manages a “Hey, John”. She likes me, I always sense. Nadine has a lot of inner calm, though she’s had problems, with drugs, then hustling. Now she isn’t all with us, as Harry would say, and no spring chicken, as he also says. But she does her work. Nadine has strong, clear hands with good lines, like many blacks. Hers are very dark above the split of oyster palm, dry like dust and cool to touch. She had me read them once. Their power shocked me. I unlatch the main door to the bar and step out into the sidewalk and morning sun.
This is the time each day I feel most free. But today one or two calls break in on my mood as I limber into the jog. There are the Koreans, then the kosher deli, taking early deliveries: like us, all ethnic, non-black; all storekeepers, wary of their safety. I don’t loosen up till I am clear of the block, till I could be anyone to those I pass. I feel free then. There are one or two joggers, some street skaters but no girls yet. You get more uptown in Central Park or even Riverside, where they say you should still carry mugger money.
My beard in the morning is thick enough to pass as designer stubble. Harry insists I shave by opening at 11. My hair lies flat and fair first thing and doesn’t seem so thick and coarse as after showering. I keep my mouth and breathing tight, wishing my features were more regular: a neat, small nose, not one showing strength as my mother had said; a squared, American chin, not big and jutting, mid-European. My eyes are too dark but, tightened now against the sun as the west side clears, they could be blue. I keep my poise, looking, but there are still no girls. Later, after opening, it will all be work. Harry’s is not the sort of place which attracts young girls.
Over by the west-side waterfront a few people are warming up in trainers and ski pants. I cross to the far sidewalk, easing into the rhythm which gives me best poise, raising the steps to a gentle bounce, showing I have plenty more in reserve. A Caucasian guy, well muscled, slows as he approaches. I know the signs and feel him eyeing me behind his reflective shades. My jaw tenses, annoyed that he dares do that. He senses it and slides on by, wary of my size, too, I suppose, and that heavy-featured peasant’s head I would change so gladly.
Two girls run by, blondes, chatting. I glance but they don’t acknowledge it. Looking away, I envy the gay his reflective glasses. Along this stretch there are warehouse conversions, Porsches, BMWs. Jogging you can be anyone, just working out in your neighbourhood. I feel good, the exercise lifting me. A girl on the corner sees it and watches me approach. She has been stretching, not warming up but cooling down. There are perspiration marks on her vest, a shine on her sheer black forehead. I am almost up to her and the tall, white guy talking to her, when I half recognise her. An actress, from television, different with her hair up and no make-up, but beautiful. She sees my recognition, rewards it with a smile. I am smiling too, showing the strong, white teeth I know people like, my best feature. The guy with her doesn’t smile. He is American, you can tell from those perfect looks, pure Wasp – western, anglo-saxon and protestant. The way he looks at me spoils my mood.
Sometimes it happens at the bar, that look which says ‘serve me and be polite but don’t watch or talk’. I work the bar most evenings, usually I only help on tables at Harry’s Greek Party Nights. Tonight I’ll be sat at one though. The recollection makes me falter in my rhythm. Funny that I haven’t thought of it till now. Twenty three is not a big birthday, just another year older, and still alone - a stranger in this new country. 

To read more of Harry's Hand or to buy a copy turn to the Books page.

* * *

IN Las Vegas this month they will be rolling out the red carpet again . . . but, as Roy writes in this short story,  fame and fortune aren't everything.

The Oscars Garden

MY name is Jack Day and I am at the Oscars Presentation Ceremony in Hollywood. I still can't believe it. My hands are shaking so much I dare not lift my champagne. To calm myself I went to the men's room, as they call it here. However, that visit had the opposite effect.
As I stood, anxious and uncomfortable in rented tuxedo, a stylish, older man entered. My mouth fell open when I recognised his profile, so close to me. It was Clint Eastwood. He noticed me watching. I saw his jaw tighten - as in his 'Spaghetti Westerns' - so I looked away.
"How're you doin'?" Clint asked, as he stepped down again. Just as easily as that; quite kind and friendly. He is tall and big-shouldered, with a tanned face and skin that's lined like stretched leather.
My response was a strangled whine.
Clint chatted on to the attendant, who pours warm water into a bowl and brushes down your jacket. The screen legend's greeting had not been directed towards me after all.
In my embarrassment, I remained still until he went out. Then I fumbled for change, left too large a tip and felt more foolish.
My God, I hope Paul comes!
I stare at his vacant seat. There are nine of us around his table but no sign of the great man. Everyone else is famous: 'A-list celebrities', 'L.A. aristocracy'.
I am a gardener from Eccles, in Manchester. That's in England, Europe; not New England, as everyone here assumes. The outside world is a mystery to Americans.
In this Hollywood theatre I am an unworthy intruder, ignorant of these stars as they are of me. I've hardly been to the pictures since being a child and am now turned 40.
Only my personal invitation from Paul Ronando opened doors. Everyone knows tonight he will receive that ultimate award: an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement.
I was delighted to come. Yet now this evening and his absence have for me a different and terrifying significance. An irrational dread has become a growing certainty.
Paul wants me to receive his Oscar for him.
I shall have to ascend the stage and make a speech before a TV audience of millions, when I couldn't even mutter a greeting in the wash-room.
"It's Jack Day's night!" Paul had declared, when first arranging this. We had laughed, cheered by his bourbon and Tricia's meal at home in Worsley, where I now live. Tricia and I are to be married. At least, that was our plan.
If Paul isn't here in L.A. then could he be in Manchester, with her? He complained of no meaningful role in life but it never occurred to me he might steal mine.
Across the table, Paul's long-term screen buddy Jake Houplin stares mercilessly - as in one of his action films. He can read my fear and is drawn by it. Is he in on this monstrous role reversal?
Tonight might be Paul's greatest accolade; but he also dreaded it - as the eve of his 60th birthday. "From then on," he'd said, "I'm a has-been."
I am distracted by the girl beside me. Her name is Yola, a blonde with sharp cheekbones. She points out a nearby table where a director she admires is sitting.
"He also is from Kosovo," Yola adds, with a wistful stare. Her sky-blue eyes are amazing - like Paul's.
How far away this is from Eccles. It's a small town between motorways, by the Manchester Ship Canal and Trafford Park industrial estate. Eccles' only claim to fame is a cake of butter and currents named after it. Nowadays the ship canal and even Trafford Park are forgotten. I tell anyone who asks that we are near the Trafford Centre, Europe's biggest retail mall, where Tricia now works.

I met Paul Ronando by chance. At least, I thought it chance back then. Now I'm not sure. He and I got talking outside a reception in the Trafford Centre where I was working part-time. My park work had gone, owing to council cutbacks.
I was helping on a rooftop garden for a new Italian restaurant, part of an American chain called Oscars. They have giant, hollow-clay replicas of Oscars, draped in ivy like Roman laurels. Paul was opening it although, ironically, he had never won one of the awards.
"They're oleanders, am I right?" He'd said while outside smoking, watching as I arranged plants and hosed down pots.
"I used to garden," he said, "also clean limousines, any work I could get."
We got along easily, despite him being so famous.
Now I'm in Hollywood but don't feel part of it. Today's stars are so exclusive, Paul says, they never meet anyone normal. This theatre can't even serve a meal because their diets are all peculiar.
Yola has left to chat with the director from Kosovo. Probably I bored her. The older actress on my other side has ignored me. Again, I avoid the knowing stare of Jake Houplin. Paul's vacant seat shames me. I feel guilty for his absence and a crisis in his life, as though my ordinariness has infected him.
Now I feel humble my hand is steadier. The champagne tastes good and lifts my spirits a little.
Before meeting Paul Ronando, the most exciting thing that happened to me was talking to Tricia in my park. She worked in offices nearby and, one sunny day, wandered in to eat her lunch.
Tricia has done well and saved money. Buying our house in upmarket Worsley was her dream. It's a short drive but a lifetime from Eccles. Living there feels like "settling down", being hemmed in. Yet, to hear Paul, our quiet life is a blessing.
What can I say under the spotlights, receiving his Oscar?
But it's hopeless. Instead, my mind settles again on Tricia. She thought the Trafford Centre job handy for Worsley. She works in its management office. However, the hours are long and uncertain.
Tricia met Paul the same day as me, but officially - at the Centre's reception for him. Paul was in Manchester for the premier of his latest film, at Old Trafford football ground. He's a fan of Manchester United. At least, he's been back there a lot since - before calling in on us. He stays at the Midland Hotel.
I blush under Houplin's gaze. Is he trying to make me uncomfortable or just figure out, as he'd rudely asked, "Why the hell are you here?"
This situation begins to anger me. I should walk out and fly home. Instead, I accept another drink. Running away would be typical. Still, Tricia believes in me - or she used to.
I've never wanted responsibility. Gardening's dirty but natural, fulfilling. People appreciate what you do. You see them in gardens, escaping problems; nature helps, if you feel part of it. In the park I would chat to the elderly as they rested. They were polite and glad of company. Some were genteel, but poor. Younger people also came, especially immigrants - wanting open space and natural beauty.
Think! What do I say for those cameras?
I could tell people what Paul revealed to me; about his upbringing and fears.
Or should I say: "I'm here so Paul Ronando can screw my wife-to-be." That's how they talk here, harsh - or 'streetwise'. I smile at the thought. That might even shake Jake Houplin.
I put down my glass, realising the champagne has gone to my head. Instead I drink water.
Why am I here? Because of meeting Paul; because Tricia, too, had met Paul. It all seemed meant to happen. In a film that would seem far fetched but, then, real life is unpredictable.
Was there more to it or, at least, to Paul and Tricia's friendship? He has visited us and Britain a lot recently. Yet he spent more time talking with me. In summer he liked sitting in the new nursery I've started for plants.
Tricia grew cooler towards him. She declined to come here, blaming work. Did something happen between them?
"It's all about him, isn't it?" She said once, when annoyed at Paul and me staying up late.
Tricia's in her mid-30s and now wants what she calls an ordinary life, motherhood.
"I should never have lost that baby," she once told me, tearfully.
Tricia got pregnant from a colleague at her last place, in public relations. She had an abortion but taking away that life devastated her. Then we met that day in the park.
When she told me about her loss, it made my own aimlessness feel selfish.
I fancied Tricia right away but wondered why she liked me. She was from a glamorous world. Then one Sunday she took me to her parents' home in Cheshire for lunch. I hadn't wanted to go but, as it happened, enjoyed myself. They called her Pat and I realised she had manufactured an image. Her parents were down to earth and it was wonderful to eat home-cooked food again. I helped with their garden.
Afterwards Tricia and I were much closer.
Paul had been most at ease in my garden. I pointed out plants being nurtured. He had never heard that poem: 'You are nearer God's heart in a garden, than anywhere else on earth.'
People say I have good looks yet Paul is the star and ugly when close up, but fascinating and intimidating too. He has striking features.
Paul reminds me of exotic flowers, brilliant in sun but rough stemmed and used to arid ground. They wither in our wet autumn, roots rotting away; then die in winter.
We swapped life stories. Paul was born in El Paso, Texas, a border town. "By the Rio Grande," he'd said, with a smile, "John Wayne country - westerns!"
I asked about great names of the past but realised he did not want to talk about other stars. Texas sounded more interesting than Eccles but wasn't, according to Paul.
"Trouble is," he added, moody with drink and recollections, "we were wrong side of those Am-tracks. Apart from mom, we were Mexicans - though we pretended to be Italian."
His father ran a garbage recycling business while his mother did cleaning. Then one day she left them. He never spoke more of her.
"My older brother branched out into automobiles," Paul said then grinned, adding, "stolen ones."
When Paul was 17 he and his brother had to flee the law, though only Paul successfully. That was how he arrived in Los Angeles. Within 10 years his name was known across the world as a villain - on screen.
If sober Paul did not talk about his past. He had never gone back and most of his family had died. But it was an earlier moment he told me about, when hitching a free ride to California in a rail wagon, that caught my imagination.
"It was an empty cattle train out of Texas, box cars smelling of steers," Paul recalled. "From its open doorway I stared at prairie, then the stars - so big you could disappear in 'em and feel tiny. Made me realise I could be anyone I wanted."
In Los Angeles he did manual jobs. Then he was picked up by his first wife, an actress, who kept him - until Paul grew too big for that role.
While I was landscaping at the Trafford Centre Paul returned. However, the Press found out he was eating at Oscars.
It was mayhem. I would have gone home but needed my pay and cards. Door staff weren't letting anyone inside. Then I saw Paul at a window and he waved. Minutes later they hauled me in to where he was waiting. I felt honoured.
"Jeez! Let's get out-ta here," he'd said. "Where's that place you live?"
Paul was shocked at the smallness of our home but liked new places - a fresh audience. Although a big star, he was unsettled about himself and unhappy alone.
"You people have tradition," he told us, "you have grace; you're content."
I'm not sure if he meant the British or Trish and me but his visits to us seemed important to him. He just enjoyed sitting with us, didn't even discuss the match he'd been to see. Then he gave us invitations and flight tickets here, to join him.
Paul had been drunk that last evening with us. "The more glamorous your life, the more false." He had declared, staring at my garden where I was digging in plants and covering seedlings: new beginnings.
"I'm tired of roles; run out of shows," he told Tricia, laughing then putting a hand on her knee - until seeing her discomfort. "I'll soon be gone," he told me later, "and still don't know who I am."
Then as he was leaving, his taxi waiting, Paul put his hand on my shoulder and said: "I truly envy you, Jack Day." He seemed sad, almost desperate.
That's why I came to L.A., even alone. I haven't liked the city; it doesn't have a centre, also everything is either exclusive or seedy.
On the stage the awards proceed while, at our table, Paul's place remains vacant.
They announce a final and special presentation. My mind is empty, except for dread.
Lights are dimmed. There are clips from Paul's early films. Now Jake Houplin leans across our table, towards me. Is this my cue? My throat is dry. I feel sick.
"Don't worry, Jack," the actor rasps. "Don't expect any limelight either."
He grins, reading my mind.
"We old-stagers keep glory all to ourselves!"
With perfect timing, the lights are lifted. Paul's name is announced.
The spotlight is at the rear of the theatre, upon Paul. His big frame looks immaculate in a dinner suit. He smiles at admiring calls.
Paul's triumphant procession approaches us. His eyes meet mine for a moment and he looks uncertain, as though unsure why I'm here. Then Paul gives his table of guests an ironic bow.
On stage he accepts his award without a word and stands alone. As the theatre falls silent, Paul says: "I've waited all my life for tonight - for 60 years."
The love for him wells up from us in applause. He accepts it, this great star.
Relief also seeps through me. Tomorrow I shall be home in my garden, with Tricia and no role but my own.
"This will be my last performance," Paul adds quietly. "They told me in Great Britain, at Christie's - a hospital I've been attending."
There is a muffled sob and cry in the audience then silence.
"My thanks to a friend there, who cheered me after visits - without realising. Thanks to you all, who over years helped bring me here - to this night."
Paul composes himself and raises his Oscar.
"This may be tiny," he jokes sadly, "but it sure is heavy to hold."

The End

* * *

HERE is an extract from novel A Punt Into Eden, set mainly in Sri Lanka. This is chapter six, when Edward Brown and wife Elizabeth arrive on a working holiday there at Golimbo. His mission, as partner in a development company, is to save their troubled resort site of Serendib Surf further up the coast - so vital to finances it over-rode even news of his terminal heart condition. Yet it will be here Edward finds a new passion for life.

THE airport doors opened on a crowded scene of anxiety, noise and heat. Within seconds, four separate local men were tugging at their luggage, two of them already lifting cases and shouting encouragement, urging them in opposite directions. The sun was so intense it took their breath away.
Edward stared at a jumble of taxis beyond the pressing crowd. More shouts were directed at them.
“Sir, sir!”
“Madam, this way!”
Eager calls from drivers and porters and the jubilant greetings of other passengers surrounded by welcoming families, enveloped them.
After a further moment’s thought, Edward waved back one of the departing drivers who was carrying a small case, then urged Elizabeth in the opposite direction - where their main luggage was being manhandled.
“God, it’s chaos!” Liz muttered, seated at last in the rear of their taxi. “I suppose it must be rush hour.”
“No madam,” said the driver, half turning round in his seat to address them, “the rush hour is from four and lasts three hours.” He turned back just in time to avoid a man on a bicycle balancing a fridge on his cross bar. A three-wheeled taxi sounded its horn in a long blare as they cut across its path.
“Couldn’t you have ordered a car and driver?”
“Sorry, the hotel said there was no need.” Edward stared at the passing crowds, pedestrians weaving cautiously between a free-for-all of cycles, lorries, cars and darting three-wheeler taxi cabs. On the pavement beyond, people sat dining or conducting trade with enthusiastic gestures. Their clothes were colourful and the locals appeared mostly slim and cheerful, in contrast to those neglected, tumbledown buildings all about them.
Edward now felt overdressed in his lightweight suit; hot and very tired now the easy comfort of their business class cabin was gone - like an improbable other world, or fantasy of faraway lands and different times.
“I didn’t want anyone at Serendib to know of our arrival either.”
Liz sighed heavily. “I’m just dreaming of a long, hot bath.”
“Sure,” he found her hand, just as she winced at a cyclist and his female passenger who had swayed dangerously close, “then a stiff drink and dinner.”
“Sleep,” Liz muttered dreamily and closed her eyes to the chaos outside.
The Palm Beach was Golimbo’s premier hotel - a large, modern edifice just out of the shabby centre of town. Security was evident around its fortified, concrete exterior. There was an armed guard and two uniformed commissionaires. About half a dozen staff, some wearing colonial whites and others in loose-fitting, black tunics, fussed about Edward and Elizabeth throughout their arrival. They were escorted from their taxi to the cathedral-like reception hall, then into a stylish, glass-fronted lift and finally to their suite overlooking the beach.
Once they were at last alone, Liz turned to the luxuriously large bathroom. Edward, looking from their closed window across the balcony, noted another armed guard in a sentry box beyond the infinity pool with its closely attended sun-loungers. He wondered, not for the first time, how dangerous the area still was after the recent civil war, and what reception awaited him at Serendib Surf’s nearby construction site.
They had left unpacking until later. As Liz still occupied the bathroom, Edward lay on the emperor-sized bed and tried to doze. His eyes stung with tiredness but a hum and chill from air-conditioning kept him conscious. He wished now he had not stopped smoking some years before – for health reasons. It would have been pleasant to take a cigarette and drink to the balcony.
Looking around the luxury room from where he lay, Edward noted fine cracks in plasterwork near the load-bearing walls; poorly finished arrises to the hardwood joinery, then a gap where fitted wardrobes finished too short and revealed the shadowy grey of an undressed concrete skin. Probably the plumbing and electrical work would be dangerously shoddy too. If this was five-star, what horrors awaited him at Serendib Surf further out of town? The prospect depressed him.
Sliding open the balcony doors Edward felt a fresh, warm breeze against his face. He could hear the sea, its surf pounding on the beach just a short distance from the rectangular pool below him. His torpor of depression and tiredness was lifted. Bright colours, glittering in lingering sunshine, stung at his eyes.
He blinked, his vision adjusting and body freshening in the late afternoon warmth.
Beyond this perfect turquoise sea there were just two feather-light puffs of cumulus to indicate sky; surrounding the impossibly bright, yellow sands were verdant borders of palms and jungle vegetation - like a child’s garish watercolour, magical in its simple purity.
“Oh, that’s so much better,” Liz called from within. “The bathroom’s vacant. I’ve finally finished – sorry.”
“It’s wonderful out here,” he called back, not wanting to leave his chair. A vividly coloured bird, like a giant kingfisher, landed on a flat-roofed extension just below him. It seemed to return Edward’s stare of wonderment. Then music sounded, too loud, with some shouts and laughter, the volume receding a little. But the bird was startled and gone.
“You should shower – or try the circular bath, there are bubbles and salts. I feel restored.”
As he came in from the balcony, Edward’s skin was chilled by air-conditioning. Liz was in a white bathrobe that enveloped her down to the ankles. Her hair was tied up in a thick, white towel which hung about her shoulders like an unravelling turban. She was smiling, sat on the bed looking through a partly unpacked case.
Edward’s spirits, lifted by the beauty outside, were stirred again. Liz’s face did look fresher and she appeared eager – a woman at ease with herself and at the start of a long holiday.
Edward kissed her impulsively, saw her surprise and smiled.
“You know, I can’t wait to get out of this damn suit, shower and change, then relax.” He stroked the soft skin of her cheek, seeing a sparkle of intrigue in her eyes. “Let’s enjoy this holiday.”
His wife returned the smile and nodded, her eyes never wavering.
In the shower - a walk-in wet room where water pressure drove away aches from travel - Edward willed his mind away from what he sensed of her thoughts; what she had not said, but left understood: that this holiday would be their last.

To read more of A Punt Into Eden turn to our Books page

* * *

Back by popular demand, this short festive story, written by Roy last year.

Pizza Christmas

JOE stared out at his unkempt back-yard. Staffie was chasing Tom with murderous intent. But on the rare occasions Joe's bull terrier cornered their tabby cat, he was nonplussed and backed off.
In their pen, chickens were stalking the frost-hard ground for any remaining grains of food. Joe knew how they felt, his stomach felt as empty as the lounge hearth.
What was the point of collecting logs and lighting a fire if May wouldn't come down? He might just as well go to the pub and stand by their fireplace with a pint in hand.
He felt in his pocket as darkness closed in early again, leaving the skeletal trees etched against a grey, star-less sky. There was a fiver and some loose change. Just enough, provided the landlord didn't want Joe's slate paying up.
God, what a Christmas Eve!
Joe's heart lifted a little as he heard post dropped through his letter-box. Surely, even at Christmas, the mail didn't come this late. But still . . .
He went to the end of the cottage's dark hallway. They were just circulars: an appeal for help to refugees, which he screwed up and placed by an unopened fuel bill, and a flier from a pizza delivery firm - two for one Christmas pizzas, whatever they were, for £5.
Joe glanced pensively at his coat on a hook. He could walk briskly down to the Welcome Inn and be there in 10 minutes. Then he heard May shift upstairs in their bedroom, moaning and muttering to herself, preparing to visit the loo.
What had happened to them? They were like a pair of destitute pensioners but, in reality, only middle-aged. Of course, the lack of work didn't help, or young David's death - but that was now years ago. Would she never recover? Heaven knew, May had seen enough tragedy in the past - as a nurse.
A drunken driver . . . Joe shook his head. It was more a reason to reject alcohol rather than turning him to drink.
"Ready for tea?" He shouted up, as her bedroom door opened. Joe looked away from his coat and ideas of escape outdoors. "Fancy a pizza, love?"
"Whatever you like."
It was said, as usual, without enthusiasm. He doubted she'd be coming down. Little point in the fire then.
Their land-line had been cut off weeks ago. Joe phoned the pizza number on his mobile and asked for two Christmas specials - turkey, pork and ham, as it turned out, with 'seasonal flavouring'.
Then he opened the back door, shooed in Staffie and gave him a warning boot on his backside, then ushered in Tom the cat when all was clear. Finally, he decided to bring in a few logs anyway. He was damned if he was eating pizza in bed on Christmas Eve.
The fire was just getting going when the doorbell rang.
"Food's here!" He bellowed up, from the hall. "Fire's going - come down."
There was no answer. He struggled then opened the door and stared in shock.
Instead of a pizza boy, a young, dark-haired girl stared up at him. She was slumped in the cottage porch, looking distressed and fearful.
"Who are you?"
"So sorry, sir," she muttered, drawing a shawl about her neck. Her clothes were dark but also mired, he saw in the hall light. "Have you food please, water?"
"Christ!" Joe muttered. "Where did you come from?" It was almost a mile to the nearest nest of new homes and twice that to a major road.
"Far away," she replied, closing her eyes as though about to doze off in his porch.
Then a frown crossed her brow and she winced, putting a hand to her stomach, beneath the dark shroud.
"Who is it, Joe?" May called from the upstairs landing.
"One of those immigrants, Romanians or gypsies, come from back of a lorry I suppose - a girl."
There was the whine of a low-powered scooter, then another figure appeared in the hallway. The girl opened her eyes and shrank back into the shadows of the doorway, frightened by the arrival's helmet and black-leather tunic.
"Double Christmas Pizza?" The boy inquired.
"Yea," Joe said, collecting himself and taking out his last fiver.
As the delivery boy handed over the two boxed pizzas their smell - of turkey, stuffing and seasoning - filled the cold night air.
The girl groaned and shifted her position, trying to stand but wincing again.
"Keep the change," Joe muttered, giving the lad all he had in coins - though it was still barely a tip.
Then he realised, regretfully, it would have been more needed by the girl.
"Well," he said, uncertain, "water, you say?"
She nodded, standing at last, and smiled in thanks.
How old was she? Twenty, perhaps?
But then she grimaced and her hands flew again to her abdomen, as she slumped against the half-opened door.
Joe stepped back uncertainly, then glanced upstairs. Still no sign of May. He'd have to take her food upstairs once more.
He sighed. "Well, you might as well come in - there's a fire in there."
Although a stranger, it was wonderful to see her young, troubled countenance clear at his words and the girl's pretty smile return, lighting up dark, exotic eyes.
"Thank you, sir - you are very kind."
She passed him warily nonetheless, turning to where the logs now crackled and flames threw their silhouette shadows across the sparsely lit lounge.
"Stupid, more like!" Muttered Joe, taking the pizzas into the kitchen.
As he did, Staffie shot past his legs barking viciously and scuttling towards the lounge. There were strangled cries of alarm from Tom, who'd taken refuge on the cold cooker, then from the frightened girl in the lounge's shadows.
Joe dropped the pizza boxes on the cooker's top and flicked Tom out of the way. The cat twisted athletically to land on all fours on the kitchen floor. Meanwhile, Joe collared Staffie in the lounge doorway and dragged him away.
"Sorry about that!"
Joe booted the dog out into the cold as punishment but almost immediately regretted it. Poor creature was only following his instincts, protecting their home.
Joe opened one pizza as Tom curled, wailing pleadingly about his legs. It was generously garnished and the roasted meats and grilled cheese oozed with fresh appeal. Its crisp, bread base was hot enough to burn his fingers.
Joe tutted. He should have warmed some plates - though that would mean putting on the cooker. Well, the girl looked well beyond such niceties.
Gently kicking Tom out of his way, Joe poured a glass of water then put on the kettle. He also tore the pizza cardboard in two, to make a couple of makeshift plates.
The girl was bent forward in an armchair in front of the fire. She looked in pain but accepted the food eagerly, first draining the glass of water.
"Some tea coming," he told her, kindly.
Then he took the remainder of the first pizza upstairs.
May was tucked up in bed, well wrapped up in bedclothes in the cold room. At least she had brushed her hair and applied some make-up. She even raised a smile which gave Joe a passing, poignant lift of joy, before both fizzled away again.
"I'm making some tea," he told her. "That girl's downstairs - almost collapsed in our doorway. I think she's hurt, we better call an ambulance."
"You'll have a long wait, on Christmas Eve," the ex-nurse May warned him. "How old is she?"
Joe shrugged. "Twenty or so, maybe younger. She's pretty though."
"Typical!" May frowned. "Is she clean, though? You shouldn't have left her alone down there - in our lounge."
"Well," Joe muttered, going to the door, "we've nothing left worth pinching."
He attended to the tea and, letting it brew a few minutes, fed Tom. Then Joe opened the second pizza and tore off a generous piece. It seared his mouth but tasted good.
Heavens, they gave you such a lot! No wonder youngsters were getting obese.
There were some creaks from the stairs, descending. Obviously, curiosity had got the better of May's depression and lethargy. He was about to take in the women's tea, then paused. Better to give them a little time, don't interrupt. May, at long last, had shown interest in something.
Instead, Joe went to the back door and let in a recalcitrant, very cold Staffie.
"Here you are then, monster!" Joe said, putting down some pizza on a strip of cardboard. Then he packaged up the remainder for whoever needed it most. He'd take it in now, with the tea.
"Behave!" He told the pets, then switched out the kitchen light.
In the lounge, Joe faltered, shocked for the second time that evening.
May, when she turned towards him, was white-faced. Beyond her, the girl was groaning and crouched in a foetal position on the armchair.
"Boil more hot water, Joe! Get clean sheets and towels," May told him. "She's only pregnant, ain't she - and her water's burst."
He stool stupidly a moment, staring at this huddled scene picked out by the flickering fire in surrounding darkness.
"God Almighty!" Joe muttered - then hurriedly left to do as told.
By the time he had boiled half a large pan of water and another kettleful, screams rent the still, cold air.
Joe paused, expecting May to come rushing with new instructions. Surely, they should call an ambulance! But the lounge door remained closed. He heard more screams and a deep moaning from the girl who, at one point, called out pleadingly in a strange language.
How desperate she must be, Joe thought with sharp pity, to be here alone, afraid and suffering so.
It was as though the animals sensed that too. Tom and Staffie were now crouched close to each other in the dark hall, staring silently at the closed door.
Joe felt a deep admiration and appreciation for the women within.
"Where's that water?" May demanded angrily, suddenly appearing in the doorway and startling both Joe and the pets.
She took it from him with surprising strength and a purpose that made him feel useless.
Inside the lounge, Joe could see the bare legs of the girl and looked away instinctively.
"Fresh towels and sheets, Joe!" May reminded him.
The pets scattered again as Joe obediently rushed upstairs.
When he returned, the items were snatched from him by May at the door.
"Shouldn't we phone . . . ?" He began.
"No time!" May snapped and closed the door.
Joe stood by the watching pets in the hall's kitchen doorway, hearing a cold wind outside scatter hail against the dark windows.
Then another cry pierced the silence, this time a baby's wail. Their little watchful group waiting in the hall stirred with new hope.
It seemed an age had passed before that door to the lounge opened, then May stood there once more, looking tired but transformed. She cradled a bundle in her arms: the newborn child.
"It's a boy," she announced quietly, then smiled.
Joe looked at a crumpled, rosy face with tightly closed eyes. There were a few damp curls of black hair above the furrowed brow. Joe gently put out his fingers and touched a tiny, waving hand then, to his delight, the boy's eyes opened. They were a startling blue.
"Is she okay too?" His voice came out as a dry rasp.
May nodded. "She's sleeping. But then she'll be hungry - and so am I." May smiled again, looking straight at Joe now. "Isn't he lovely?"
The mother and child stayed downstairs, where Joe had built up the fire. They fashioned a comfortable bed for them.
Upstairs and, at last, alone again, Joe and May lay quietly in bed, holding hands in the dark. Outside there was now absolute silence.
"Tomorrow," May told him gently, "we'll all need a big, proper meal."
"But everywhere will be closed. It's Christmas Day"
She squeezed his hand.
"There's stuff in pantry from the allotment," she reminded him, then added, "and your chickens in yard."
Joe took this in without speaking. However, it was a relief to hear May planning and arranging again.
"Of course," he said, at last. Then they slept.
May was still asleep when Joe roused himself. However, he had heard her twice get up in the night and go downstairs - following the baby's cries.
The cottage was silent now, their lounge door shut. Only Staffie and Tom greeted him as he entered the kitchen, eager for petting and food but still, for them, restrained.
He put on the kettle and saw to the pets' food, then stared outside - suddenly noticing the thick bed of snow that lay everywhere.
As he sipped his tea a robin appeared on a fence stump in the yard. It was a brave, little soul and heart-warming to see, with its fluffed-up red-breast against the white. Joe made a mental note to put out some crumbs and leftovers for it and the other birds.
He smiled. It all looked so magical.
Then he thought grimly of the hens still in their shed. Steeling himself, Joe went outside.
The icy air enveloped him as his boots crunched into untrodden snow. How silent it was! This was a harsh but cleansing time, it struck him now - as the old died, so the new could grow.
After killing and plucking a hen, Joe had been despatched with May's loose change for more milk from a nearby farm, where he'd also been kindly given some 'spare' bacon and sausages.
When the food was ready, May had taken a meal and hot drink in to the young mother.
Joe and May had their meal together, on a small table in the kitchen. He even found an old bottle of sherry, that was passable, and they shared it over their feast.
"Well, what a turn-up this has been!" Joe muttered, feeling replete and thankful that the washing machine had finally stopped. May had been washing and cleaning all morning, while their food cooked.
"Her clothes are all expensive," May said, thoughtfully.
"Well, she had nothing with her. She was desperate for food and drink."
"And rest," May agreed.
The whole cottage was cosy and warm from the cooking and activity. Tom and Staffie were sleeping in a corner upon some old sheets that had not been used in the drama of the evening before.
The snow still lay deep and even. There were no sounds outside apart from the occasional report of a shot from nearby fields.
When the girl and her baby were sleeping once more, May and Joe had returned upstairs to their bed.
In the morning of Boxing Day the snow was gone, except for some hard-packed corners of ice. He swept up remaining slush until a light rain fell.
They would need more food and he was once again casting a baleful eye over the hens - now emerging from their cote. But, for the time being, he contented himself with collecting eggs.
"Joe!" May cried from their upstairs window, "there's someone at door."
The gentleman stood in their porchway was dark-skinned and bearded, wearing an Astrakhan hat and coat. Beyond him on the road was a large black 4x4 vehicle, shining with newness.
"Good morning," the stranger said warily, his black eyes searching beyond Joe into the recesses of the hall. "I am sorry to disturb you, but understand my daughter," he paused and swallowed, momentarily losing his composure, "and her child, are here."
Joe's mouth had fallen open.
"Ah!" The man gasped, a smile softening his anxious features. He was looking behind Joe once more.
The girl was there, stood in the lounge doorway, her infant swathed against the cold and bundled in her arms.
"Father," she acknowledged quietly.
"Let him in, Joe," May said, appearing on the stairs.
As Joe stepped back silently, the man entered then paused, as though uncertain what to do as he neared his daughter and her child.
"You are well, Christina?" He asked anxiously.
She smiled in answer and offered the baby towards him.
"Your grandson," she told him, then added with a glance towards the door, "Joseph."
Her father took the bundle and cradled the child silently.
There were tears in his eyes when he turned towards Joe and May, where they now stood together.
"I cannot thank you enough for your kindness."
Joe didn't speak for a moment, then a thought occurred to him.
"But how did you know?"
"My daughter called me on her mobile - at last." The father looked down for a moment, hanging his head, as he passed back baby Joseph. Then he looked earnestly at Joe.
"I must take her home but please, first," he paused, reaching inside his coat, and offered a thick fold of £50 notes, "for your trouble."
"There's no need," Joe began, shocked, but May took the offered money.
"I'll collect her things," May said.
"My name is Khan," the man added to Joe. "I will send more. We owe you a great deal."
Joe began to speak but stopped as Khan politely raised his hand.
"I am considered a wealthy man," he said, "but lately realised myself impoverished - until coming here to your home."
They left, the girl barely speaking or lifting her head - except for a brief smile to Joe and a touch of hands with May.
"Well," Joe said at last, as they quietly drank tea in the kitchen, "we can get more food now - the big stores over the Moss are open. Will you come?"
"No, you go," said May, but then smiled at his look of concern. "I want to tidy up here a bit." Then she began to give him a list of items he should buy, finally adding, "Why not stop by the Welcome, too, have yourself a drink."
He took their old estate car, which miraculously started first time.
There was £100 of Khan's money in his pocket, with another £400 safe at home.
Joe took his time, enjoying for once the lively bustle of the superstore - and the excited families, picking among early sales.
It was already going dark when he left, fully laden, then stopping uncertainly at the pub nearest their home.
He felt restless and uneasy, but a pint had never tasted as good - or well deserved.
He nodded to a fellow tiler, not seen for months in the building slump.
"Just the man!" The boisterous chap said, leaving his group of friends to shake hands. "There's another supermarket to be built on't Moss - 'n' they need tilers. Been lookin' out for you."
They agreed the terms and dates.
"Another drink, Joe?
But he declined, still concerned about the goods-laden car outside, and made his farewells.
Stepping out into the cold, Joe saw it was snowing once more. Beyond him, their packed estate car looked festive with its colourful bags and goods.
Joe's spirit lifted as he strode out into the lightly falling snow and eagerly pressed his mobile phone into life.
He heard the note of concern in May's answering voice and was touched and hurt by it as always. But now it also gave him fresh purpose.
"I'm on my way home," he said.

* * *

THIS is a short extract from the novel At Heaven's Gate, set on the Fylde coast of Lancashire and in the Lake District. It concerns a retired writer and his wife who are drawn into solving a friend's mysterious death, at some risk to themselves. Our hero Bill Winters uses the principles of contract bridge to help solve the mystery. However here, at the start of Chapter 12, Bill and his Italian wife Bella are celebrating after encouraging tests in Lancaster on her health.

12. Heaven’s Gate

IN Garstang, the first market town approaching the Fylde coast, a weekly market was in full swing and we parked for half an hour and bought cheese, marmalade, pickles and bread. The hot beef sandwiches offered by a local farmer’s wife were also tempting but I wanted to celebrate our deliverance in more style. Still, the ancient high street with its friendly stall-holders was comforting after the elegant but congested city.
How suddenly different the world about us and our day had become. We were still the same people who had toiled out from the coast that morning. Only our outlook had changed. While before we had been afraid and shrouded in dread; now our hope was restored and a sense of joy pervaded everything. Our good mood appeared to transmit itself to others about us, as kindness or confidence will to animals.
It was wonderful to stroll in sunshine without passing traffic, then pause at a humped back bridge to look down at gaudily painted narrow boats on the Lancaster Canal. The scene must have altered little for three centuries. For some precious minutes we sat hand in hand on the tow path, our lives as still and tranquil as the water. There was just the song of a skylark above nearby fields. We looked up above the huddle of the Pennines on the horizon until we saw that tiny, jubilant bird in its constant but motionless flight.
        “Lo, heights of night ringing with unseen larks,” I quoted. “Music showering our upturned list’ning faces.” I smiled at Bella, squeezed her hand, then added: “The lark at heaven’s gate sings.”
          “That’s beautiful.”
         “Yes.” I wasn’t sure if she meant the poetry, that touching Great War classic from Isaac Rosenberg and my remembered snatch from a Shakespeare sonnet, or the bird. But it didn’t matter. We stood, walked down the towpath pursued by a noisy gaggle of geese and ducks in the water, then emerged at the next bridge close to where we had parked.
        Now fully loaded with shopping, we drove on to the quiet village of Churchtown, named after its fine church St Helen’s once known as the Cathedral of the Fylde. Yew trees offered shade in its graveyard that looked on to extensive vicarage gardens and massive oaks. Beyond were open fields that we had often rambled over before such a meal as we planned now.
In the oldest part of the village the pavement and road were cobbled, cottages displayed window boxes of flowers with climbing roses and clematis round their doorways. There was a notceboard with parish meetings listed beside a market cross mounted on time-worn stones. At this hour of late mid-afternoon there seemed no one about, as though we had the unchanging scene to ourselves. We entered the Sixteenth Century Punchbowl Inn and found we had the main bar room – our favourite - to ourselves also.
There was a log fire in the open grate, as the low-beamed room was cool and shaded except for its stained glass windows letting in shafts of sunlight. I got Bella a glass of zinfandel and myself a pint of Marstons’ Pedigree.
          “Good health!” I toasted with feeling.
         We clinked our glasses and drank gratefully, the warmth of the fire playing on our faces. From the small games room on the other side of the bar came laughter and we smiled at our good fortune.

To read more of this novel or to order a copy on Kindle or in paperback, see our Books page.

* * *

HERE is an hilarious chase excerpt from Ed Black's racy novel Romp & Circumstance, set in 1970s Hong Kong. Neil Beddows is a young town planner new to colonial service. He has already messed up a big land contract, involving the mysterious tycoon Sheba Ong, and displaced homeless squatters; Neil's unscrupulous maid Virginia, at his Mansion House apartment, is also taking advantage of him (in every way imaginable), and now the local Press are after his head. Will his boss support him, or will a stunning dance girl, Lulu Wu, come to his rescue?
(See also Ed's personal recollections on our Memoir page.)

ONE of the rather prim secretaries, Agnes Wong, brought him a cup of tea when he emerged from the canteen. She put some Chinese newspapers on his desk.
“What are these for?” Neil asked in surprise. His spoken Cantonese was coming along but he could only write an attempt at his name in Chinese.
Agnes opened one of the papers and there, in the middle of a column of script was his picture, a small photograph but his all the same. The Chinese letters in the column were broken in places with the Anglicised letters spelling out Neil Beddows.
Neil put down his tea and felt nausea seep through him. “What does it say?”
“That you make ‘blunder’ and move homeless people, sir.” Agnes translated dutifully. Warming to her subject, she carried on: “Also, you maybe paid by Ong woman and, though very young and with no experience, now live in luxury by Repulse Bay, sir.”
“God, what a nerve!” Neil stood up and paced.
“Yes, sir” agreed Agnes but looked quite excited by it all. She picked up some of the other down-market Chinese tabloids. “The rest are similar.”
Behind her, Neil could see the other clerical and junior staff watching them through the glass screen of his office. He sat down.
“Has Mr Taylor seen these?”
“Maybe you ring him, sir,” Agnes suggested.
“Yes,” Neil agreed without enthusiasm. “Thank you, Agnes.”
When he was alone, Neil rang Nigel Taylor’s direct number and announced himself with a sense of foreboding.
“Seen the Yellow Press, I suppose,” Taylor said cheerfully. “At least they got your home address wrong. Don’t want the buggers invading you there. Bloody nerve!”
“Yes,” Neil agreed meekly, feeling glad but rather surprised by his boss’s sympathy. “It’s bad publicity for the department, too.”
“Well,” said Taylor bluffly, “nothing in the English press. Anything this Ong woman does the tabloids go overboard on. They even suggested she murdered her banker husband the other year.”
“Really,” muttered Neil, “who is she exactly?”
“Madame Ong, Indonesian Chinese – not much known about her background but loaded now she’s a widow. Her husband had trebled his fortune in the past couple of years building property here, then died in a nasty break-in at their mansion in Jakarta, stabbed to death.”
“Yes, moved her HQ here now, huge bloody tower in Central.”
“Really?” Neil waited, then asked, “So, about these reports. . .?”
“Leave them to our press service, they’ll sort these buggers out, nothing short of libelous. Besides, they know their publication licences are up for renewal soon.”
“I see,” said Neil with growing relief, then looked at his staff watching from the main office. He felt like a goldfish. “It’s just so embarrassing.”
“Goes with the territory, young man. Everything all right back at home? How’s Virginia?”
“Fine, thank you.” Neil’s sense of relief was ebbing away again. Taylor always seemed to make such innocuous inquiries sound loaded, or was it just Neil’s sense of guilt? He thanked the Secretary for Urban Development again and tried to return with fresh concentration to his work. At lunch time he avoided the canteen, having Agnes bring him a sandwich. He barely left the goldfish bowl until almost six, when most of the staff had departed. Then he checked for any Press hanging about Bowen Road and walked smartly away from Central along the wide path which led to Wongneichung Gap and his bus stop.
At last Neil felt free. A jungle of vegetation rose up the hillside and formed a shady canopy over the path. To the open side was the stunning panorama of urban Hong Kong and its harbour, busy with shipping. There was a breeze off the South China Sea which lifted the spirits of all who walked. The path was a simple pleasure for all, away from the traffic and congestion. Neil returned the nods of locals passing by or sat smoking and enjoying the view. Joggers passed in droves so he didn’t turn at the hurried shuffling behind him from the direction of Central and the barracks.
“Mister Beddows!” came a cry from his side. Neil saw a young Chinese man with a microphone. Ahead of him, now he’d slowed, was another - turning to point a television camera in Neil’s direction. Within seconds there was a pack of a dozen or more journalists, taking pictures and demanding answers on Ong Pacific.
“Speak to the Government Information Service,” Neil shouted above the hubbub, “I’ve nothing to say.” He was getting jostled now and other walkers on the path had halted to watch the melee.
Neil began to jog, almost knocking a TV cameraman to the ground as he broke free of his persecutors. The mob followed and an ironic cheer rose from the halted crowds on the path, enjoying this unexpected entertainment.
After 50 yards or so, Neil spotted a path descending sharply down the hillside and veered on to it. His switch caused some chaos behind and there were shouts of distress as reporters and photographers were trampled or pushed aside by colleagues. The new path was extremely steep and he was gathering speed. At a bend he collided with a trader selling lychees and scattered his child customers. Neil ran on, the sounds of his pursuers declining now. There seemed to be just one camera crew still on his heels. The path dropped precipitously towards Wanchai’s markets and huddled tenements. His pace was now so reckless Neil doubted he could stop without assistance. Seeing a thicket of bamboo he hurled himself into it and, while slowing, felt his safari suit being savagely ripped by the undergrowth. He fought through a jungle of vegetation then stumbled out into the light of a narrow street where startled women were hanging washing.
Sweat coursed down his face and chest, now exposed by a large rip in his safari jacket. He smiled at the women and politely asked: “Have you eaten rice yet?” the traditional Cantonese greeting. They didn’t reply but watched his progress open-mouthed.
He emerged into a wider sidestreet where market traders were packing their wares. Vegetable leaves, bruised fruit and chicken feathers were scattered about the highway. The men gave Neil wary looks as he marched through their midst trying to look at ease. There were live chicken and geese tied close together in bamboo cages. Seeing the birds’ desperate, haunted expressions he felt a rising empathy. They were slaughtered matter-of-factly to housewives’ order by the curbside, where their blood washed into drains. The Cantonese liked their meat fresh. Neil, too, felt like a sacrifice to local taste; one who had only for the moment escaped his fate.
He pressed on through depressing tenement streets. Mercifully, it would soon be dark. Families gathered noisily for dinner on balconies crammed with potted plants and televisions. Water dripped down on him from plants and air-conditioning outlets. He was nearing one of the main roads through Wanchai district, just outside Central, and people eating at cooked food stalls turned to watch his progress. Even here you could go for days without seeing another western face, as in most of the densely populated areas of Hong Kong. Of the estimated six million residents, 99 per cent were Chinese. The majority of the remaining one per cent were of other Asian races, then there were Americans, French and other westerners. Yet the English ran the place. Most of the government secretaries in charge of departments were English, as was the Commissioner of Police and the Chief Justice. The chairman of the colony’s biggest bank was English and the directors of its biggest trading houses and, most telling of all, the garrison was British – with the notable exception of the Gurkhas, whose officers were all English.
Neil’s plan was to find a taxi but as soon as he emerged on to a major highway he saw the pursuing camera crew just a block away, looking about in agitation. As their prey was spotted, an excited call rang out in Cantonese. It reminded him of the baying calls at hunts back home in Cheshire. Neil ran across a floodlit playground area where crowds had gathered to watch a basketball match. Wiry locals were competing against Americans, presumably from a visiting American war ship. The visitors were all black and stripped to the waist, displaying impressive torsos. They stopped and gazed in the sudden silence then laughter as Neil sprinted across the pitch, pursued by a cameraman and sound engineer. Ahead of Neil at the edge of the playground, a dense crowd began to open before him. His rugby experience showed as he neatly sidestepped and jinked between the gawping Chinese. Behind him he could hear shouted complaints and turned to see the sound man had dropped his equipment after colliding with a bystander. The cameraman, too, was embedded in an argumentative crowd. Neil crossed the busy highway and rounded a corner into Lockhart Road, where a blind, old man with a white goatee beard shook a begging bowl at him.
This district was a “rest and recreation” area for servicemen. There were all manner of bars and eating places. Girls here had entertained soldiers, sailors and airmen during many wars, and longer peacetimes. They were inured to all sorts of misbehaviour but those stood in curtained doorways now shrank back from the passing Englishman who looked anxiously about him. Neil was just considering crossing two lanes of traffic and vaulting a safety barrier to a waiting taxi, when he saw the TV reporter emerge from a sidestreet ahead of him. At the same time a voice called nearby.
“You want to dance?”
The reporter still hadn’t seen him. Without hesitation Neil accepted the girl’s invitation and stepped quickly past her into the Pink Pussycat Club. Apart from a few drinkers at the bar, and a Filipino band just setting up, the place was empty. It was dimly lit and there were a dozen or so alcove tables round a dance-floor. Off to one side, through a separate velvet curtain, was a topless bar but his companion was fully dressed in a fetching, black dress.
“I’m Lulu Wu,” she said, rather formally, after Neil led her to a dark alcove where they ordered drinks from a waitress. She followed his glance back to the doorway but was too discreet to question him outright. Lulu was a big girl for a Chinese, only a couple of inches shorter than Neil and generously shaped. He couldn’t help thinking she would have been a large draw in the establishment’s other bar. But Lulu liked to dance. She was disappointed at his insistence on staying in the shadows.
“So you frighten be seen here?” she surmised.
Neil had recovered after two cold beers and Lulu had also dabbed his brow and chest with a hot towel. The torn safari jacket would take more time to fix, she told him and offered to send it out to a late-night seamstress.
 Just as he was beginning to relax, there were voices and some excitement at the door. Neil saw the boom of a soundman’s microphone poking through the velvet curtain and shrank into his booth seat.
Close beside him, Lulu squeezed his hand then stood and, with stunning poise, stepped out into the limelight and crossed the dance floor . . . 
Would Lulu save or betray him? 

To read more of Romp & Circumstance on Kindle, see our Books page.

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HERE'S our latest reading sample. It's the first chapter from a novel celebrating the 'autumn of life' or, at least, its simple pleasures - before misfortune, or bad neighbours, threaten them. The novel is entitled Life of Bliss and is available on Kindle or in paperback (see our Books page).

Before My Slippers

I PARKED the MG in Cocker Court, round the corner from our home, and held the future under my arm. It was a laptop computer. In my other hand I carried the bagged remains of too many years at the Bugle. There was a leaving card, a silver tankard and a carriage clock. Pity their whip-round hadn’t raised enough for the laptop I had thought, long after the speeches and handshakes, when paying for it at Comet. Oh, and there was the front page. I raised the boot of the old sports car and took out the framed spoof of a front page. Its banner headline read TIMES OF BLISS. Soon, I thought, for she had it all planned: the Algarve, tennis and riding; not bad for a pair of pensioners.
         Not that I was really retiring, of course. I had plans and promises. Both of these in my experience rarely worked out. It was in such cautionary frame of mind that I’d had my leaving do in the middle of the week, so I could recover in work’s time. Tonight was to be a normal Friday evening so I’d wake in sunny mood tomorrow: the first day of the rest of my life.
         Our house was in Cocker Parade, named after one of the town’s founding fathers. I had lived in more exotic places than Blackpool, but none where I had enjoyed everyday life as much. So I had settled. Our narrow roadway had once been along the main route from inland Lancashire to the coast. Many of its buildings were more than 200 years old and the pubs at each end were once stagecoach stations, number five and number six. Old locals still referred to them as such. It was now one-way, with parking on one side only, and little used by traffic except for the pubs and takeaway. The millions of visitors who still came each year to the resort now used motorway, rail and air links.
Number Nine Cocker Parade was, as the estate agents would say, a terraced cottage in a busy but desirable residential area close to all amenities. The houses weren’t as quaint as in Cocker Court. There they had mini front gardens and window boxes which, sadly, would have been vandalised on the main drag where we were. However, theirs was a quiet cul-de-sac and they also got kids playing ball games. We were straight on to the pavement with only a slated canopy above the front door to break the line of the old terrace, along with the satellite dish of course.
Bliss Towers, as I jokingly called us, was opposite The Orient, a Chinese takeaway. This always struck me as ironic and a reminder God had a sense of humour. After all my travelling before settling down, I could still claim to have the Orient on my doorstop. Its owners, the Chow family, reminded me in their bursts of sing-song Cantonese of my alienation in the Far East; of unsettling memories and dangers. But Mr and Mrs Chow and their son Wayne were good neighbours. 
Young Wayne gave me a wave now as he opened for the evening. He was born in Britain but spoke their native dialect at home. He also held true to the capitalist culture still prevalent in Hong Kong, despite the Communist takeover. Consequently, Wayne could not resist a glance from me to his pride and joy outside the shop - a shiny, almost new Mercedes. We would hear him drive off to the casino most nights after closing, sometimes with his father, then return in the early hours. I suppose they kept the burglars at bay.
Juggling my laptop and farewell gifts, I opened the double-glazed, Ascot-model door. Normally I would have had my briefcase, a present from Becky, in which I daily carried a flask of enervating green tea and fruit. At least I had never succumbed to taking in sandwiches and becoming one of the Tupperware journalists. I would also stuff intothe briefcase any bills which arrived as I was leaving in the morning. Those and offers of credit were about all I seemed to receive these days, rather than letters from friends round the world. 
It was like the phone calls, now only received from first-name strangers insisting they weren’t selling me anything. The only interesting ones came from call centres in India, whereupon I’d always chat about the weather. At first I thought Becky must be wiping off my messages, just as I suspected her of slipping something into my tea to slow me down, but then old mates began admitting they didn’t get up to much these days either.
She was not back yet. I could tell because her shoes weren’t in the small hallway. I slipped off mine and put on my slippers. We didn’t walk on the new carpets, you see. Bliss Towers might be too small to be an Englishman’s castle, but it was our little palace. Inside the high-ceilinged lounge with pastel and terracotta tones, my first job was to check the cuckoo clock. Her mother had bought it us and the 15-minute calls had become an integral part of our life. The Towers seemed dull and eerily quiet when it last broke down. Unfortunately, it kept very bad time and stopped altogether if the chain weight got so low it rested on the power points we now had for satellite and digital broadcasting. I wound it up and adjusted the time: 5.30pm.
Next, I instinctively checked the parrot for messages. It was just beyond the living-flame fireplace, stuck with adhesive against the archway into the through dining area. The parrot’s one red eye flashed. I pressed a button and steeled myself for unexpected duties. The beak moved but it was the soft voice of She Who Knows which came from a crackling tape.
Hello, darling,” the parrot said, “hope you had a good last day. See you after Pampers.”
I smiled. It was a nice thought but also a reminder to keep me on the straight and narrow, namely to my upmarket health club with the soppy name. Still, there was a bottle of wine ready on the round, mahogany table and cheeses left airing for after supper: not a bad prospect. I left my presents and laptop where Rebecca could see them when she came in. Too late, I realised I should have brought her flowers but left a note to do so tomorrow in my planner by the cordless phone and liqueurs.
There was a time on a Friday evening, before my slippers so to speak, that my idea of a responsible routine was to come home and change before going to the pub. That was before I took up with Becky, some 10 years ago, and she more recently consented to be Mrs Bliss and moved in. We have not actually got round to the ceremony yet but we’re both late starters in that department, having each led busy single lives. Sometimes on those bachelor Friday evenings I would even take a shower and have a sandwich, though more food than that would inhibit drinking. By six pm the quaint, old pub on the corner of Cocker Parade, just minutes from the Towers, would be full of people from The Blackpool Bugle office, friends who knew my movements and, of course, the regulars. 
As well as being the “number five” - the fifth coach station from town, where a seafront hotel had been the first - it was called The Seagull Inn. It boasted hand-pumped ales, rooms with real fires and genuine, old pictures with a sheltered bowling green surrounded by trees. In the past office girls would sit in the sun there after work but nowadays feared damaging their skin. Sadly it had now become the haunt of builders who congregated at the Gull early evenings, particularly on Fridays when they got paid out. They stripped down to jeans and tattoos round the bowling green then left plaster and dirt on the seats when they went inside. Their language also steadily deteriorated. On the other hand, the pub had been a convenient source of tradesmen for our recent home renovation (before which I confess to doing the bare minimum of maintenance at the Towers).
Anyway, back to Friday bachelor nights. After the office girls had departed and The Seagull quietened around 7.30pm, my inner circle would come in from the green and linger a while by the bar or on benchseats in the rooms, considering plans for later. All too soon, it seemed, revellers would emerge in partying clothes for “a few liveners” before clubbing it up town. On a sensible evening I would leave the Gull around 10, in time to get a special curry with chips from Wayne to eat watching the late-night horror film. On wilder Fridays, we would be swept into town with the others heading there, for me to return home in the early hours unfed or full of an Indian curry, with a sway and oncoming hangover to ruin my Saturday.
          It was a foolish routine like a trap which, though falling into it many times, I never had the sense to avoid. She Who Knows, of course, saw the dangers straight away and guided me on to safer paths, which was partly why I called Becky that in my column Bliss At Home for the Bugle, our local paper. Danny Hardman, its editor and an old squash adversary, was keeping the column on after my early retirement. Another former Bugler, Miles Bartlett, was now features editor of The Correspondent, a “quality” national paper, and had commissioned a series of nostalgic features to be called World of Bliss. My other string, as we freelances called them, was Just Desserts, a restaurant review for the Squire, a monthly magazine run by Becky’s old riding friend Humphrey Rowbottom (pronounced roe-both-ham), or Buttocks as he’d apparently been known to school chums. Those and any other articles I could sell, my reduced pension and Becky’s part-time book-keeping were to get us through our Fifties and beyond.
       It was time for Pampering. Now the only person I saw before heading off on a Friday was Francoise, our French maid. Her eyes were extraordinarily large and slightly cowed, like her general bearing. Her head tended to be bowed slightly, her shoulders slumped in submission. But she was like a reminder or homely routines and domestic rewards to come. Also, Francoise never answered back as I banged around the newly fitted kitchen, complaining at cups being left from breakfast, an unpacked dishwasher and not being able to find anything in the over-stocked wall units and fridge-freezer. Needless to say, like the parrot our French maid wasn’t real but a purchase by Becky. She was a saucy cover draped over the Dyson. But now I couldn’t imagine living without her and would hate coming down each morning to find a naked vacuum cleaner in the kitchen recess.
          Finally finding the bottled water to rehydrate myself during the forthcoming workout, I went upstairs to pack the rest of my kit. Our sports clothes, plus much else unsuitable for the bedroom, were stored in what was laughingly known as my study. This was once the spare bedroom where I put up old mates who’d come to stay for a weekend’s carousing. She Who Knows saw better uses for it and, besides, there was nowhere else for my old computer after we cleared it from the dining table. This clearance was necessary so we could have dinner parties or “civilised” meals, rather than my TV suppers. It’s the study where I shall be working at my new laptop. The room has been like a Tardis on recent Sunday mornings, as I roughed out the first of my freelance articles. The stipulated ingredients by my commissioners have been humour, human interest and nostalgia. Hardman of the Bugle had tried to cajole me into a hard-hitting investigative series. Later we both agreed over a pint at the Gull before my leaving “do” that it wouldn’t be my style. 
         While Becky read the Mail on Sunday with breakfast in bed, I have been transported back years to the real Orient and beyond. Looking back, there were what seemed hilarious misadventures and mistakes, lucky brushes with danger and famous names and then, of course, romantic entanglements (though nothing too explicit, She Who Knows requested, in case articles were read by her mother). Ignoring the ironing board, tennis shoes and riding jackets, the study-come-Tardis could also whirl me back to an era before my birth, when grandfather cut a dash across Lancashire in his Buick convertible and my father, a young railway station porter, was pursuing a cotton mill owner’s daughter. But there was no time travel on a Friday evening, I had too much on before dinner at eight.
          As I left the Towers, Wayne was still staring from behind the big plate-glass window of the Orient. The poor lad was bored, waiting for the post-pub rush. He had been checking the Merc for keylining but looked up with another wave as I emerged in tracksuit, designer zip-up top and matching baseball cap. The cap, I had been told, took years off me, unlike the flat cap I once favoured on cold or rainy nights. It even intimidated other drivers. 
         Parking was always at a premium on a Friday evening and, as I pulled out of Cocker Court, another car promptly took my place - probably a customer for The Seagull, or the Bull’s Head up the road with its large sports screen. Others parked near us to use the late supermarket round the corner, the chip shop, off-licence or bookies. Yes, we were close to all amenities. Most of the cars would have gone by the time I returned, their patrons relaxing over dinner or changing for somewhere special.
        Pampers was a short drive away, under the canopy of trees by the park. It was in a posh hotel with a golf course in its grounds and was a comfortable place to chill out on a mid-week day off. I hoped to be spending more time there soon. However, some of the fast-track types there annoyed me. One did now, overtaking me over the sleeping policemen along the hotel’s long, landscaped drive – obviously oblivious to my baseball cap’s unspoken threat and, in fact, wearing one themself. I was still wound up about this as I entered the basement health club, wondering if I should tell the receptionist the impatient driver had also parked in a disabled place. They were gone by the time I arrived after having to park some distance from the club entrance, but it was the same four-wheel vehicle which had overtaken me and they’d moved too sharply to have a disability.
         “Good evening, Mr Bliss,” said the young receptionist with a glance at my card. She was dressed in a smart gym outfit and looked too young to be reading the Bugle let alone my column, but she could have recognised me, I told myself.
“’Fraid there’s only small lockers left,” she said.
         “I suppose the last man in got a proper locker, though,” I grumbled, thinking of the four-wheeler who overtook me. My regret deepened that, from the low level of an MGB roadster, I could only glimpse the cap of that errant driver.
           She just frowned then added distractedly: “Enjoy your swim.”
         In the locker room I glared at a chap I suspected of being in the vehicle which raced past me then parked in a disabled bay, till I noticed a cyclist’s helmet on the bench beside him. By then it was too late to switch my suspicions upon others getting changed. Thwarted in my detective work, I strode down the thick carpeted corridors to the cardio-vascular suite. There was one treadmill vacant besides a stunning blonde. I stepped on it and pressed quick-start. I knew better than to stare at the girls here, even in the wall mirror we all looked at while working out. 
         Instead I checked over my appearance while walking. I looked in good enough shape, though the baggy tracksuit helped. My height, just under six feet, balanced the stocky frame well enough. My face was pleasantly full without being jowly anymore (thanks to She Who and Pampers). I was clean shaven, with a firm chin and, according to Becky, “noble”, straight nose. My eyes were blue with, I felt, a touch still of sparkle, and my blond hair looked thick enough if kept fairly short, grey flecks barely showing except in the short sideburns. But my eyes had a will of their own, drawn by the sighs of the blonde beside me. To my amazement she was smiling at me, or so it appeared in that mirror. I looked away then glanced back. She was still smiling.
           “Hello, Alfie. Didn’t know you came here,” she said.
         We had a conversation about how often I came and how she had just joined but it was halfway through my 20 minutes of power-walking before it dawned on me that she was Penny, the ex-barmaid from The Seagull. She had changed her hair, lost some weight and totally transformed, as girls did. As we both moved to the exercise cycles I couldn’t help thinking of the stories about her when she dated some of the younger regulars. They said she had a whole wardrobe of different uniforms and used to offer to change into them when consorts were flagging.
            I was taken aback that she could afford this place but then she surprised me again by saying, “Sorry I cut you up on the drive outside, but I was rushing for a parking place.”
         Penny told me she was modelling now but, later, when she introduced me to her boyfriend in the weights room he turned out to be a character known at the Bugle for running escort agencies. After a suitable time I made my excuses and left.
        By the club’s pool I liked to lie on the sun-loungers after swimming and sweating in steam room and sauna. It was my favourite part of the visit. I lay back feeling clean, fit and proud of myself. I was grateful to be unexceptional here and able to relax. To think, I had once envied celebrities. That was before I worked in foreign cultures and found everyone staring at me. At home Becky would be starting the dinner and putting out wine glasses while here my eyes closed as I unwound from the week’s stress.
It was here, where the swishing of spa pools drowned other Pamperers’ conversations, that I could reflect over incidents and events which came to mind like an ever changing kaleidoscope. They were all fuel for the Tardis and meat for Bliss At Home, as well now as World of Bliss. The first freelance effort for the Bugle could be a modest one, about fame. I purred, feeling truly Pampered. There was just a stirring of loins at the prospect of Friday evening with She Who Knows followed by what appeared an endless series of unbroken weekends. The old gang from The Seagull and even Penny, in whatever uniform, hadn’t entered my thoughts once. What a pleasure it was to be a mature man in a permanent relationship, now resting on his laurels.
To read more of this novel, or to buy a copy, see our Books page.

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HERE'S a sample from a novel by Roy set in Lytham on the Fylde coast of Lancashire (see Books page for more details of this and other publications). 
In this chapter hero Bill Winters, a retired writer, is at Lytham Cricket Club watching a match with old friends. During a stroll round the outfield, his pal Harry - a troubled rough diamond - suddenly asks him: "Have you ever killed anyone?"

3. Confessional

HARRY’S harshly featured face was set, staring at the summer scene so out of stride with his words.
“No, have you?” I asked in turn.
He nodded his big head. “Nearly killed some on the rugby field, too.”
I smiled. “Like the priest?”
“Oh, yes,” he laughed with some relief. It was a favourite story, telling on his own manner of rugby playing as well as his Catholic upbringing. After the team talk before each match at Fylde, who played at a high level back then, the captain would call Harry aside and give him the number of an opposition member he wanted nailed early on. On this famous occasion, the visiting danger man had been a stocky centre-half whom Harry had shoulder-checked, punched, gouged and head-butted whenever occasion allowed. However, the battered man had still scored one try and made two others. Afterwards he had greeted Harry with a wary handshake in the bar and Harry, brought up in a Catholic, part Irish family, had been appalled to see he was in priest’s garb. Harry had duly asked for forgiveness just as, when a teenager, he had once – for a dare – entered the confessional and pretended to be a priest so he might hear some of the women’s sins.
“No,” Harry persisted now, “I thought you might help with a worry I have. You know about newspapers, after all, and you’ve written books.”
“Not that it got me far.”
“But you know how their minds work.”
“Perhaps,” I agreed. How long was it since I’d been in a newsroom or met a working journalist? Nowadays I didn’t even write my fiction, just read some and tried to make the most of each day.
“I wanted to know if I could be in trouble, now, for something that happened half a century ago.”
“Was it so bad?”
“Yes, it was.”
We watched as a well-struck ball climbed upward and began to fall. A fielder covering the boundary ran into position below it, then dropped the catch. There were ironic cheers from the changing room where our players waited to bat.
“You know I was in the military police?”
I nodded.
“The main attraction, for me, in the Services was the sports. But I did some special missions too – nothing like some I knew, but you got extra pay and consideration.” He grunted to himself, as though remembering a good deal brokered. “Ever met any SAS, or Special Boat Squad types?”
“I don’t think so.”
“They’re a different breed.” He tapped the side of his big, gnarled head with a thick, arthritic finger. “Not all there, some of them. There was one used to come in my local years ago. He’d act camp and take off a queer comic on TV back then. Yet he could tell you how close anyone was who stood behind him, their approximate weight and when they were moving. He was a handful, he was. Then he’d get drunk, beat up some policeman and have to be drummed out of nick by his unit for a new mission. He used to brag about them, like one in the Middle East – tell me, ‘You’ll be reading about what I do.’ Then I saw in the papers a few days later some Arab princes, who’d been upsetting our government, had been abducted and beheaded and there were rumours of British mercenaries.” Harry half grunted, half laughed at the memory. “Blew himself up in the end – dived on a grenade to save his mates, it ripped his insides out. He was crazy, never any fear for himself.”
I waited, thinking him rather callous in his recollection and reactions, letting my silent patience speak for itself.
“Anyway, to make a long story short, after I’d gone back to Civvy Street my old colonel got in touch.” He turned to me. “Imagine, my colonel – for me. Well, we went to the pictures of all places, some film about British forces in the war – all gung-ho glory stuff. Then he said he had a special mission needed doing and had thought of me. Well, I’d do anything for that man – I’d escorted him often enough, like a guard - in charge of his security when he had parties or went to do’s, a bodyguard if you like. He’d sometimes say, towards the end of an evening, ‘You get off Harry, have a smoke and get a beer, I’ll be all right now.’ A proper gentleman - pukka he was.”
“So, you agreed.” We had missed a wicket, I realised, seeing the new batsman coming out, passing his fallen team-mate without any exchange of words. I wanted to get walking again, the sun was intense and we were exposed on this small bench. Bella always cautioned me about strong sun on my skin and how I rarely used any cream to protect it.
“Yes – course, there was some money in it too.”
“And what was it?”
Harry grimaced, I supposed at the memory but his irritated glance told me it was my prompting he resented.
“There’s a place called Ishmail – it was in Palestine back then, God knows where now – not a place you’d value or want to return to, run down, full of Arabs. There were three of us, a sergeant who was in charge – some sort of instructor by then in civilian life, a young ex-squaddie and me. They told us we’d be instructed what to do when the time came, but disowned if caught. That ex-sergeant knew, though. I did it for the money – I’d take on anything in those days – and because my colonel had asked me.”
Harry sat up with some pride, flattening his back against the bench, glowering at our batsmen who were struggling against a new fast bowler.
“Well, we were armed, of course, but the weapons weren’t regular issue. The other two had small arms and grenades, I carried a Sten gun – you remember them?”
I nodded.
“We went by sea, merchant navy, landing at night. They even had us dressed local style. Well,” he nodded, as though remembering some point of pride, “as soon as we went in this place, some sort of restaurant with a counter like a bar, I knew what we were there for. ‘That’s them,’ the sergeant told me and I recognised the man’s face from newspapers. Someone in the elections there, causing us trouble. I set up the Sten double fast, on a table. They just sat and watched us, imagine that. I don’t think they knew what we were doing until it was too late.” Harry nodded again. “I shot that bloke clear through the head, clean as a whistle. ‘And the rest,’ that sergeant said, so I shot the others, a whole alcove of them – women, too, and some kids. There was shooting behind me, I think – the Sten was so noisy, but no-one was left standing or sitting when I turned.”
Harry looked at me a moment then away. “Then the sergeant pointed to that counter. ‘And them,’ he said, ‘we can’t have witnesses.’ I looked over and saw all the staff lying there, face down, hiding. I told him they’d seen nothing but he insisted, even raised his pistol at me, the bastard. So I leaned over and did for them too.” He grimaced as he added, “That’s when that young ex-squaddie fainted.” Harry gave a short, dismissive laugh. “And that bastard sergeant told me to shoot him, too.” He glared at me and his eyes were wildly intense for an instant. “There was shouting outside, all hell breaking loose. He said we couldn’t take the lad with us but I’d had enough by then. I told that bastard sergeant I’d sooner shoot him first and carry the lad. So, that’s what we did – just hustled him out, till he came round.”
I didn’t say anything for a while, shaken by this confession but also in case there was more to add.
“And you got away?”
“Obviously,” he grunted, then turned, his face aggressive again, “I suppose you’re shocked. It gave me nightmares, I can tell you, for years. Still does sometimes. Never heard from the colonel again. Just got my money – it felt dirty, too – ended up giving most of it away.”
Abruptly he stood up and we slowly walked on, looking ahead at the recumbent figures with picnics, others in chairs beside their cars, dozing or reading papers, some watching the game with binoculars beside them. My mind barely took them in now. It was as though all the veneer of decency had been stripped from them, and from the man beside me.
There were houses ahead on this boundary, the rest of the ground was surrounded by trees. The houses were mostly detached or bungalows, a small, white gate had been put in the perimeter fence so nearby residents could stroll through to the club. I had always fancied living there but it was too expensive around here for us – unless you rented, as Harry and his wife did, claiming benefits as he had for years. Old Jack didn’t approve but Fat Frank just laughed and mocked Harry gently on his roguish abuse of the system. This was the Harry I had known, not that efficient, younger killer. I tried to be mature and professional.
“So why are you telling me this now?”
Harry was pacing on briskly now, a Lakeland walking hat pulled low to keep off the sun. I think he wanted to get back to the clubhouse for a drink.
“The colonel died the other week. I would have shown you the cuttings, half a page in the Telegraph, but I hadn’t seen you. ‘Course, there was no mention of any of this.” He stopped suddenly, just before the club’s discreet, gravel driveway, and I pulled up too, thinking a car must be coming. “Then someone came round to our house. I wasn’t in. As you know, I like to get out early and from under Her Indoor’s feet.”
I nodded, there had been no car and Harry had started to walk again – through the crowded car park with its array of expensive vehicles. I stared up at the lofty Scots pines, leaning in towards the ground from sea-borne winds. Ahead I could make out the outline of St Cuthbert’s tower through the trees, its old, extensive graveyard beyond. Death, violence and barbarism, I thought, lay just beneath this noble church and haunted its long history.
“Then he called a second time and Peggy got some details out of him, like I’d told her to.” Harry glanced sideways at me, slowing now as we neared the clubhouse. “I wanted to know who was nosing around, if you understand.”
“Well, then he told her he wanted to discuss the old days – said he’d known me but seemed a bit shifty, she said. I didn’t recognise her description.”
“Which was?”
“Then,” Harry said with irritated emphasis at my interruption, “he mentioned Ishmail – told her to tell me that.”
“Bloody hell.”
“Exactly,” Harry agreed. We both stood still, a few yards from our terrace seats where Frank and Jack waited, still engrossed in the game. “Well, I wondered, could be some journalist digging things up, or someone doing a book.”
“Yes, maybe with the colonel’s death – you can’t libel the dead, you see.”
Harry grunted. “Might be some money in it, I suppose. We only rent you know and I’ve just a small pension. We’ve not much else – no car even.”
I nodded.
“But could it get me into trouble?”
I stared at him. “Well, let’s say, I think you did right keeping quiet all these years – unless perhaps your conscience led you to confess.”
Harry gave me an impatient look.
“Yes, mass murder doesn’t go down well, Harry. It wasn’t even an act of war, was it?”
He grunted, looking longingly towards the comfort of the terrace but not moving.
“Besides, if the truth came out it wouldn’t make you popular with those countries involved, or any relatives of those killed.”
He nodded. “Keep silent then.”
We walked on, him leading, and I wondered if his last words had been a conclusion or an instruction to me. I sat while Harry went in for the drinks. Was he a different man now in my eyes for what he had done 50 years before? Yes but, in truth, I still felt too stunned to judge. The horror of his act was in my mind as I saw the euphoria of our visitors on the pitch, then the bails being removed as the players came in for an early tea.
Harry placed a welcome pint of Landlord in front of me.
“Well, thanks for that,” he muttered. His face looked crumpled in a defeat far greater than that suffered by our batting side as their spikes sounded on nearby paving like a marching army. Harry, indeed, bore terrible scars.
Frank beside him gave the elderly umpires a friendly wave as he raised a pint of “cold” and puffed on his fifth Benson and Hedges of the afternoon.
The two men in white coats, one with a pronounced limp, nodded cheerfully in our direction but then their smiles fell and they exchanged knowing glances at Old Jack’s call.
“You were rubbish,” he told them.

* * *

Introductory chapters from:

50 Shades of Bass

Young city reporter Clive Hilton inherits an old, terraced cottage near Blackpool. He aims to modernise then sell it. However, Clive becomes intrigued by the  mysterious death of former householder Jack Waddington a century before. Aided by an attractive local librarian, he is drawn into the world of Waddington's family in old Great Marton. Could  the grave of their pet terrier Patch hold the key? Other answers may await him in an old coaching inn, The Saddle, where Clive falls for its traditional brew – as well as a former beauty who locks him in her charms.

(Our Victorian chapters are illustrated with two rough period maps of Blackpool and Great Marton, drawn by hero Jack Waddington. The novel of about 280 pages is due to be published this summer.)


JACK could smell the distant sea from where he stood on Layton bridge. He breathed in its briney freshness appreciatively. There was a forest of poplars ahead, to one side of the coach road, then wetlands full of willows to the other.
Back home in Bolton the hills were barren, scoured by harsh winds, and the brambled fields dry except in rain.
This Fylde coast was so different and yet uplifting, with hardly a trail of factory smoke. He had savoured its invigorating air at the end of the railway track at Poulton-le-Fylde, then as he walked along undulating lanes where the only mills were those driven by wind.
Behind Jack, a coachman was bugling departure and there were hailed farewells from Bailey's Inn and the Freemason's Arms or Number Four coaching stop.
Jack strode on cheerfully. The next coach stop should be Number Three out of the growing seashore town many called the 'Brighton of the North', though others likened it to Sodom and Gomorrah. At the No. 3 he would turn south for Whitegate.
Jack laughed, waving back to merrymakers almost falling from the open top of a coach as its horses clattered by on the fast descending road. There seemed a lively bustle and cheeriness about folk here.
How good it felt to be alive in this spring sunshine, to be young and free with a new world stretched out at his feet.
A couple of furlongs later Jack was standing uncertainly outside the whitewashed cobble and thatched Didsbury Inn.
Ahead of him, on the coach route, the wide Church Street was busy with horse-drawn carts throwing up dust. Crowds gathered to watch hawkers and were being plied by pedlars.
Further westward, over a rise, Jack could see the spire of a great church. Then his attention was drawn to an expanse of rhododendrons, terrace flowering bushes and ornamental gardens across from him. They were overgrown but being tendered by a team of gardeners in the grounds of a stately hall.
"You lost, young feller?"
Jack turned to a grey-bearded man seated on a bench in the shade of fruit trees outside the inn, pipe and tankard in hand, wide-brimmed hat pulled low against the sun.
"I'm heading for Whitegate, then Great Marton."
The older man appeared amused. He was of solid build, shorter than Jack but decidedly well fed, and dressed like a farm worker. His complexion, too, suggested the outdoor life - and a liking for drink. However, soft leather boots also spoke of means.
Jack felt embarrassed by his own cumbersome clogs from Piggott Lane, his travel-worn clothes and bundle. But he pushed that discomfort aside.
"You know the way?" He demanded of the grinning local.
"Oh, yes," the lazing man replied easily, a twinkle still in his eye. With his pointed beard he reminded Jack of a gnome, or what those Irish navvies who worked on the new railway lines called le