Chapter/Story


 HERE is the introduction to our latest publication, a collection of newspaper columns with cartoon illustrations and updated notes and anecdotes. It's entitled Wish You Were Here and would make an ideal Christmas gift - even for yourself! (The 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 Wish You Were Here by clicking on the links on our Books page. Latest columns are posted weekly on our Column/Memoir page.



* * *



WE will soon be previewing here the first chapters of our fifth Sam Stone novel, due out early next year and now entitled The Mystery of Mister Blues, set on the Fylde and in Paris. BELOW are 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.



Prologue



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.


1



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.”


2



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.


3



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.














Prologue






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.








1






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.










2






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).





1


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.




2




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.”
“Yes?”
“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.”




3




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?”




4



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.



5



“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.



6



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.”



7



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 fredmoor.com 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.





1




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.





2





"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.”





3



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.





4




“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.




5




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.




6




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.








18


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.




25


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!






17


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.
“Yes?”
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?”
“Yes.”
“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.
“Veeraswami?”
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.









Alice


“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?”
“Sure.”
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.






1






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.
"Arthur!"
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."







2





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?"
"Correct."
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."









3





"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.








4






"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.









5





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.





 

1. EMPLOYING SERVANTS






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.”
“Stay?”
“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.
"Joe!"
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.”
“Oh.”
“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.


* * *



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.


* * *




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.”
“Naturally.”
“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.)




1



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 leprechauns.
He pointed the stem of his long pipe.
"Up that lane a-ways, there's Whitegate Farm and 'Mereton' beyond - a mile or two, no longer - or you'll sink in them wooden clogs."
The friendly fellow smirked, then added: "Just follow yon' willows along dykes, to a Saddle Inn."
"I'm grateful, sir," Jack said, finding his manners again. Then he grinned. "I was thinking, there's work in those gardens for a few more."
"Aye, the Raikes, John Hornby's old place - say they're going to play football there, Cap'n Bickerstaffe's team, and have fancy shows fit for a palace." He puffed on his pipe thoughtfully. "You lookin' for work then, at Great Marton?"
Jack caught the glint of appraisal in the shrewd eyes of the chap, now taking a long draught of his ale.
"No, I've a benefactor - Mister Picken Dixon, of The Mount."
"Is that so? Well, there's some work on farms just now round there - but little room at Mount I'd vouch, with all those grand Manchester friends he entertains."
"I'm no farm worker," Jack told him, adding more carefully, "though I'll turn my hand to anything honest." Then he brightened. "I'm good with machinery - and designin' - was in cotton mills." Jack grinned. "Or, maybe I'll try my hand at building - seems plenty of that here.
The stranger nodded in agreement. "Aye, 'progress', that's the motto 'ereabouts."
"Mr Dixon said I'd lodge at cottages, on Preston Road, and he'll arrange work if need be for rent."
The jovial man's smile spread wide at this, while he eyed Jack's thick winter clothes and bundle.
"Walked 'ere, 'ave you - from rail at Poulton, or beyond?
Jack nodded, considering he'd perhaps already told too much to a stranger. His step-father had warned him of bragging, being too big for his boots.
"Why not savour an ale afore goin' on? It's well-tapped here, Burton Ales, though not as hearty as saddler's - up in Great Marton."
"No, but my thanks to you, sir," Jack said, hoisting his bundle once more. "I'll best be on my way."
"Aye, then, be seeing you, young'un."
The lane, now darkened by overhanging crack-willows from marshy fields, wound on in pleasant style. He paused by a deserted building site for another inn, The Albert, then walked on.
Jack was passed by the occasional rider, then workers in a cart, who all nodded agreeably. He stood to the side as cattle were herded by on to a farm with white gates and meadows beyond.
There was a fine villa, called Whitegate, and distant cottages to the westward side of the lane, then more building work for dwellings on the opposite side.
The men were using rounded "plum" beach stones in walls and rubbled hardcore with straw to reinforce cement. It looked like a gentleman's residence in the making, with terraced outbuildings nearby. A sign read: 'Sefton Villa'.
Jack would have stood longer watching in the shade of beech trees, or inquired about work, but needed to reach Lavender Cottage on the Preston Road before too late.
He would still have the landowner to pay, as Mr Dixon had warned. What's more Marton, like Whitegate, was in the Manor of Layton - so there could be another long walk to some local squire.
After almost a mile, Jack passed an imposing, double-bayed home in Georgian style, painted white and set in neat gardens. The name above its arched door was Blaydon House. He admired its fruit trees blossoming pink and white, the gay flowering beds and lawns scattered with daisies.
Then, on a bend ahead, there was more woodsmoke and activity. As he approached, Jack could see stables then a white-washed coaching inn he judged should be The Saddle - backing on to an expansive green and farmland where sheep grazed.
From there, Lavender Cottage was only a stone's throw. Jack's new life was about to begin.



2


CLIVE turned off the M55 motorway and on to a large roundabout, then followed signs to Blackpool North. Heavy rain had mired his journey from Manchester but was easing now. Spring sunshine cast a glow across the wide dual-carriageway. He lowered the driver's blind of his Morris Marina.
'We Are Moving Here Soon From The Town Centre!' A big billboard by the first T-junction traffic lights announced. Beneath it was the title of the local newspaper - West Lancashire Evening Gazette.
This was where he was to turn right, by a cemetery. There were still no signs to Marton, let alone Great Marton, but the street name was as promised - Preston Old Road.
So, from here, he was to pass two pubs then stop at the third, The Saddle Inn. Clive wondered at the oddness of arrangements. How bizarre for solicitors to leave a cottage door key with a public house.
Still, this meandering suburban road with mature trees was pleasant after the dual-carriageway.
Clive had also been impressed earlier by the verdant, rolling farmlands once he turned off the busy M6. How amazing that a resort town like Blackpool should have its own motorway. From the M55 he had even seen the distant, famous Tower with the Irish Sea beyond - shimmering now in the sunshine.
Of course, he had visited the holiday resort before - by rail, as a child. How extraordinary, he considered again, that - instead of heading for London and Fleet Street as he'd dreamed - he should now be moving here, however temporarily.
Clive pulled into the Saddle's car park, noting the quaint cottages across from it.
It was only a few minutes before three p.m, when the pubs closed, so he hurried inside - just in time to hear a bell ringing 'last orders'.
There was no music and it was dimly lit, with stained glass windows beneath dark-beamed ceilings. After an hour's travel with radio blaring out latest 80s hits, this was like stepping back through a time warp.
At the small, old-fashioned bar there was a huddle of male drinkers. It was plainly decorated with brown linoleum on the floor and nicotine-stained, plastered walls; but racks of glasses and brasswork shone with care.
Clive could also smell coal fires. Off the bar there were three rooms, where more drinkers could be overheard chatting.
"You're just in time, luv," said a tall, blonde lounging against the bar, amid the group of men. She smiled at Clive with open interest, though she must have been several years older than his 25.
"Come on, boys," she encouraged, "let the young man in, I say."
There was laughter at this but the men did part - to reveal an elderly man in a worn, green cardigan behind the bar, busily scratching the back of his head.
"I'll just have a p-p-p," a small, stocky man stuttered, as he pushed into the gap ahead of Clive.
The agitated landlord glanced at a clock, then his own watch. "I've warned you before, Richard," he announced.
"But I only want a p-p-p," the red-faced chap began again. Nearby drinkers lifted their pints to protect them from his splutters.
"Pint of Bass?" The landlord demanded.
"No, just a p-p-p."
"Pint of Special Bitter?"
"N-n-no," the poor drinker protested, getting more flustered.
"Pint of mild?"
The man shook his head, frustrated.
"You're banned!" The publican cried in exasperation, "For wasting staff time!"
"Ah, Jim, you can't," cooed the blonde, but there were some titters of amusement among the men watching.
As the rejected, stuttering chap finished his drink and turned away, Clive edged into the bar space.
"I only wanted a p-p-packet of crisps," the departing man called from the door, with restored dignity.
"You're too late," said the landlord to Clive.
"I'm not here for a drink - just a house key, left by Mister Samuel G. Lee of John Budd & Co., Solicitors."
The bar fell silent, listening, until 'Jim' the landlord turned and vigorously rang the time-bell again - to widespread groans.
"Wait here!" He said to Clive, then began rooting about bad-temperedly in a back room.
"He's got the key of the door," sang the blonde, "never been 21 before!"
The men cheered.
"No singing!" The landlord warned from the back room. "You'll be banned, too, Rita!"
"Where is it, luv, this place you're movin' in?"
"Well," said Clive, polite though surprised at Rita's forwardness, "just across the road, I think."
Her heavily made-up, blue eyes lit with pleasure.
"I live just round the corner, on Whitegate Drive." Rita pursed her thickly reddened lips, then winked, "We'll be neighbours, luv, or close enough!"




3



JACK saw Lavender Cottage moments after turning into Preston Road.
It was in a line of garden-terraced homes, their low walls of rubble-stone generously rounded in white-painted cement. They were a pretty sight.
Just across Preston Road, horses were being saddled beside the inn and there was a country smell from stables nearby.
Jack tidied himself and approached the cottage but then halted in alarm.
A fierce outbreak of growling and scuffling, followed by pitiful yelping, emerged from a side lane by more building works.
Men ran, baying excitedly, from another inn up the road. They halted, like Jack, at the edge of the fracas but didn't share his horror. Instead they watched in whooping delight.
A puppy, now a tangled mass of grey fur and blood, was being shaken like a rat in the jaws of a bull terrier. The bullying aggressor was a dirty white, with an orange belly like a spreading birthmark and pig-like pink eyes.
Jack sprang forward and swung his leg with full might, catching the bull terrier on the side of its head with the metal toe of his clog.
The ugly animal looked stunned but still held on to its pathetic prey.
There was a murmur of disapproval from men nearby, as Jack swung his leg quickly once more - catching the attacker a second crushing blow.
The beast dropped its catch and shook its own head, dizzy now on weakened legs.
Jack picked up the whimpering bundle before it could be seized again.
A male puppy, he saw now, still warm and with a black patch of fur across one eye. The rest of its blood-stained, shaking body was grey and wire-haired.
"If my dog's hurt, you'll pay for't," a big man warned as he emerged from the crowd. He was one of the few cleanly dressed. Others were building workers, corduroys thick with clay, shirts smeared by cement.
The towering fellow now stood beside Jack, staring down at his stunned dog. He was twice Jack's bulk; a great, dark-haired man of sallow complexion.
Jack felt acutely aware of his own lightness of colour and build, paling beside this brooding assessor.
The bull terrier sniffed loudly and shook its head then returned unsteadily to its master's side.
"Who a' you?" The man growled malevolently. "What do you want 'er'abouts?"
"I've just arrived," Jack explained, his mouth dry now, "for Lavender Cottage here - and work, from Mister Picken Dixon."
"Mister Picken Dixon is it?" The man repeated, with a look back at his jeering cronies, then spat - barely missing his dog.
"There's no work here for thee, tha' knows, and no dogs allowed - 'cepting mine."
There was laughter at that, from the men still watching.
"We'll see," Jack said, defiant, but noticing the big man wore leather leggings. He would not be deterred by a kick or scrawp off clogs on his shins.
Jack backed away from the other's poisonous stare, turning with his clothes bundle and rescued burden to the gateway of Lavender Cottage.
A short, grey-haired man already stood there at its gateway, warily watching what had occurred. He stepped back into his porch with a slight limp as Jack approached down the short, flagged path. The householder was plainly but tidily attired, and nervously running a hand through his hair.
"You'll be Waddington, I suppose, from Farnworth way," the man said quietly, glancing back to the altercation. Then he seemed to recover himself. "I'm Walter." He smiled briefly. "Wandering Walter, some call me."
His handshake was light and quick, like his actions. But now Walter stood up straight from his former stoop. Then he said: "Owd Tom Lightbown told me Mister Dixon's paying your first board - but you'll need give 'em ground rent."
Walter nodded his head sideways, back to where the dog attack had been, "Best go back, down Green Lane, to the big house."
"Can I leave him here?" Jack asked, lifting the stirring bundle. The puppy had at last opened its glazed, dark eyes upon the world.
Walter looked to where the crowd had been standing, but saw men now returning to the alehouse opposite their site.
"Best ask 'em at Blaydon House," he said, with a sympathetic glance, "or bury poor thing in a shady spot on way."
"Then I'll leave my pack, Mister er?"
"Just Walter," the man said, adding sadly, "there's only me here now."
As Jack walked along Green Lane he saw a tall building, backing on to yet another inn, and shaped like the windmills here but without sails. A heavy malt smell from it assailed the air and Jack noticed the barrels stacked outside - a brewery. That explained the many drinking houses. Then the lane narrowed amid wooded fields.
The puppy stirred from his careful embrace, then gently licked the hand Jack held him in.
Ahead, once more, was the Georgian white house seen from Whitegate Lane, Blaydon House. There was now a girl in a white smock gathering flowers in its side gardens.
She looked up at him imperiously.
"We don't need labourers."
"I've come with ground rent, for Lavender Cottage. Mr Dixon arranged for me to stay there."
"Did he?" She asked, approaching the gate and studying him suspiciously. "Your accent's strange."
She was pretty enough, a roundish face with a straight nose and firm chin. Her thick, brown hair was sun-streaked to blonde, plaited above her smooth forehead then, behind, coiled down to her shoulders. She had a high-horse manner, despite being his junior by a few years.
"Ma'be so," Jack said, unnerved and irritated by her. He mustered his dignity but just then the puppy raised its head from where Jack had hidden it in his coat. "I'm to see Mister Lightbown."
There was a cry of alarm, then delight from the girl, who stepped closer now.
"Let me see her!" She commanded.
Jack hesitated, ignoring her outstretched arms. Her smock was starched clean and the basket of flowers over her arm brimming with fresh colour.
"He's bloody."
"What have you done to him, poor thing?"
"I saved him, from a bull terrier."
The girl looked at Jack with fresh respect.
"I'm Alice Lightbown," she told him.
Then she smiled as Jack put the puppy carefully into her hands and it stirred, lifting its head to hers as she raised it, then licking her chin.
Alice Lightbown giggled in delight, her green eyes dancing now.
Her laughter also gave pause to a figure just entering the porch from Whitegate Lane.
Jack recognised that wide-brimmed hat, seeing to his surprise the same whimsical fellow he'd spoken to outside the No. 3 coach stop, the Didsbury. The older man smiled in recognition but didn't speak.
"He must stay here!" Alice said, lifting the puppy with a gleeful grin at Jack. "I'll nurse him better, you'll see."
She turned her head, tossing her blonde-brown hair, and following Jack's glance as the figure in the porchway continued inside. "My father won't mind.
"You can call again, with your rent," she added, with a knowing air, then smiled - all girl again, "no rush to pay." Her eyes lit playfully once more, quite dazzling Jack. "Then you can see him again," she explained.
In her hands the puppy had swung his tail vigorously into life.
"I shall call him Patch!" Alice said.





4




CLIVE eased open the gate at his late aunt's cottage.
There was a lilac tree in blossom and rather overgrown lavender bushes in its small, front garden. A clematis climbed about the tile-roofed front porch. Ivy spread across white-washed stone walls above a Victorian-style bay window with small panes.
Clive stared, bag in hand and feeling rather enchanted. He had never owned a property before.
Now, thanks to kind Aunty Lily, all this was his!
Once inside, however, Clive's spirits sank at the musty smell and clutter. There was a pile of leaflets and post in the tiny hall from where stairs rose steeply, their side walls darkened with many dusty paintings.
A door opened into a small front room filled by an old-fashioned lounge suite with flowery covers. Shelves and side-tables were cluttered with vases, knick-knacks, books and framed photographs. There were still more amateur-looking paintings around the walls. Dust and ash had blown over the carpet from a coal fire grate with black-tiled surround.
Clive set down his suitcase and sighed. This lot would take ages to sort out! There was also a worrying odour of damp.
Still, it was quaint.
He opened a through-door into an even smaller dining room, its plain, square table covered by old papers, notebooks and sketch pads.
Clive leafed through some of the sketches of flowers and country scenes. Dear Aunt Lily, what a free spirit she'd been! The walls displayed more of her bold oil paintings and delicate watercolours; shelves rising almost to the ceiling were packed with an untidy assortment of books, including a set of Dickens.
It was so stuffy!
Clive opened a small window and looked out on to a cobbled backyard. This was partly given over to a sitting area with a bench and table, beside an overgrown flowerbed. Near the gate was what looked like an old privy and next to that a coal bunker. There was a birdbath and empty bird-feeders beside it. Surrounding whitewashed walls were overgrown with ivy.
The flow of fresh air lifted him, along with birdsong from large maple trees in a back alley beyond his gate.
To the side now, Clive discovered a tiny galley kitchen. It had a stained Belfast sink, a small fridge and old washing machine. Thankfully, the fridge had been emptied.
Clive placed a bag of provisions he'd brought from Manchester on to a draining board. He opened cupboards to find them packed with dusty jars and musty packages then, under the slope of the stairs, a pantry similarly cluttered with old foodstuffs and stacked with brooms, mops, towels, aprons and an ancient upright vacuum cleaner.
Upstairs there was a bathroom with overhead shower, then a large bedroom with a stripped double bed piled up with folded linen and blankets. Thank heavens for his continental quilt still in the car!
Clive opened more windows.
Thankfully, the wardrobes had been cleared of clothes, as agreed over the phone with Mister Lee, the Blackpool solicitor.
A smaller bedroom had been used as a store room and studio for Aunt Lily's painting, before her eyes began to fail. After that her work became more abstract.
"I'm 85," Lily had famously announced at a Hilton family funeral in Manchester, "and have just gone 'modern' - 'cause I can't see any more!"
She had also had to use a magnifying glass for her other passions - reading classic literature and writing her own short stories - mainly from childhood days around Manchester.
Lily had loved the theatre and variety shows too. Perhaps, Clive thought now, that had first brought her to Blackpool. However, his aunt had also said she liked its countryside beside the sea - and the nearby Lakes that she visited regularly on coach trips.
There had been tales of a wartime romance - from the Tower Ballroom - ending tragically, but Lily had never married.
Poor dear! Clive thought fondly about his spinster aunt who had grown so independent and bohemian in old age. She had really been rather special, though also - at times - embarrassingly eccentric.
It was she who had encouraged him into journalism, when others recommended accountancy.
"You may not get rich, Clive," she'd said, in front of the other venerable Hilton elders, "but you'll have much more fun!" Then she had drunk too much of her favourite cherry brandy and dozed off, snoring contentedly.
"Oh, well," Clive said aloud, "thanks for all that, Aunt Lily, and for this!"
Restless now to escape those chores he saw mounting up for him in the cottage, Clive went downstairs. His spirits soared now as, savouring that fresh-sea air, he strode out into the sunshine.




5




JACK reclined, feeling his aching muscles relax again after a hot bath by the fire. His clothes, dirtied by the journey from Bolton and bloodied by poor, little Patch, were now soaking in the same tub moved out back.
"Better now?" Wandering Walter asked, entering from the kitchen. He looked pleased by Jack's beam of thanks. "'Appen you'd like a drop of ale - there's a barrel in't yard. Get us both a gill."
Jack stood in the partly cobbled, partly stone-flagged back-yard and stretched appreciatively, enjoying the day's lingering warmth. Nestling birds were singing and beyond the trees, looking nor'west, was the most dazzling sunset he had ever seen.
"Just pour it from top pin," cried Walter, looking harassed now in his kitchen. The smell from a stew on the wood-burning stove made Jack's stomach rumble in anticipation. His last meal had been his first, back in Piggott Lane at Farnworth - with his mother fussing, bless her, and step-father already gone to work.
There were two new-looking casks in the yard, both marked 'Marton Beers & Ales'. Jack had worked in Bolton with a brewery cooper, who did occasional work at Dixon's mills. He knew about barrelling.
A small pin stood upon a bigger firkin. Used casks had been put to other uses, including a big hogshead as a butt to collect rainwater. Kegs were set on end for sitting, while upright firkins and barrels doubled as tables and working tops for Wally's woodwork.
Jack gently rocked the small top pin to check if it was full.
"Don't do that, lad," warned Walter, "you'll shake up yeast and dregs - just pour!"
Jack turned the cask's wooden tap and obediently filled two half-pint tankards Wally had handed him, then brought the ale inside.
The two men ate beside the log fire where Jack had bathed. There was rabbit, potatoes, carrots and swedes in a heavy stew with dumplings, and fresh bread - all flavoured and washed down with more ale.
"I keep back-alley clean for brewery and they see I get an end cask now and then," Walter said, chewing carefully. The old brews, once dark, are good for cleaning yard and tools too."
He was a fastidious man - a fine worker of wood, it seemed. "Do some carpentry at brewery too, odd times, and at Lightbown Farm."
"There is a farm then, for Blaydon House?"
"Hardly - a shame." Wally muttered. "'Owd Tom Lightbown's sold land or started building on't - easier livin' than farming now-a-days."
"Progress!" Jack said, remembering his talk outside the No.3 with the genial Mister Lightbown. The master of Blaydon House had quoted this growing new town's proud motto.
"Plenty of that 'n all," confirmed Walter, "more than 2,000 folk come 'ere now, they say, and living all about. They all need a roof o'er 'eads."
His host sat forward then added: "You should see the works along Central Beach, on't Grand Promenade - another pier and talk of horseless trams, even them electric light shows."
Walter shook his head. "Huh! What a carry on!" Then his eyes lit up again in wonder. "They're starting on a grand opera 'ouse, too, tha' knows?"
Jack was enthused. "That's what I want to do, Wally, help build the future here!"
"Do you now?" muttered Walter, taking their plates through to the buttery. "But 'ave you time first for cheese and more bread, afore you do all that?"
There was a rattling of plates then he called back: "Pickles too?"
Jack ate appreciatively.
"You won't get fresh or as tasty grub in't city, I'll wager," said Walter, watching the young man he'd taken in. "All veg and game is from 'ereabouts, on yon' Moss - from farms and smallholdin's you and t'others 'r so keen to build on."
Jack smiled. It had been the same when he revealed hopes and plans to older workers at home.
But Mister Dixon had seen what Jack could devise and build with his hands - on new spindles and weaving beams.
John Picken Dixon had vision. That was why he was a great man in the city, at the corn exchange, and had mills through to Blackburn.
Mister Dixon had chosen this fast-growing town by the sea as his family home - and encouraged a restless Jack to follow.
"There's a future there, lad," his mentor had told Jack back in Bolton, "whatever you choose to do."
Now Jack, his enthusiasm undimmed, grinned at Wally. "Is that where you wander then, Wandering Walter," he asked with a grin, "over yonder farms?"
"Not in winter," Walter said quietly, ignoring the cheek, "too wet and marshy! All this place was once called Mereton - town on the Mere.
"But, yes," the older man went on, with dignity, "in summer I do like to escape all that building, dust and gimcrack nonsense at seafront."
Wally pointed his thumb towards the window. "Up road, past your Mister Dixon's Mount, there's Little Marton and its mill on way to Kirkham. South, cross Moss, there's good growing land. I work some wood, here and there, for folk as want it."
He smiled at Jack. "Could get you fresh clogs there, too, young'un. There's a clogger next to smithy at Blowing Sands - though not much else to interest you - only Lytham and shrimping beyond."
Jack listened as darkness drew about them, the fire's embers dying in the gentle hiss of newly installed gaslight, hearing how Great Marton had changed from its farming past.
The coast was being reshaped by those rapid changes Wally had spoke of along its seafront. More visitors were coming from inland towns to bathe in seawater and take the healthy air, or just have fun.
It confirmed all Jack had been promised and dreamed about.
Later, he lay upstairs amid a scatter of cots rented recently by itinerant workmen. Jack was tired but still felt too excited by his arrival to sleep.
Then, as the last drinkers left nearby inns, silence fell - except for an occasional whinny from horses at the back stables, or bleating of sheep disturbed by an owl's hoots or fox on the Green.
Jack was thinking of his dear, clever mother - with that unbending man who'd taken the place of a father he never knew.
Finally, as his eyes closed, it was another loving face that came unexpectedly to mind - with a wondrous sunset spreading beyond her.
She was cuddling a patch-furred puppy - but her dancing green eyes were upon Jack.




6




CLIVE had plenty of time and chose to walk to the Church Street offices of solicitor Mister Lee.
On his way, Clive admired the large detached residences along Whitegate Drive from a pavement shaded by mature willows, sycamores and horse-chestnuts.
Some of the old properties had names, Blaydon House, Sefton Villa; others had become offices, one with a curving gravel driveway was a 'home for retired gentlefolk'.
Passing a large pub, the Belle Vue (which, oddly, had no view that Clive could see), he approached the end of Whitegate Drive at Devonshire Square. It was busy with traffic and shoppers.
A few men sat reading late editions of the local Gazette on benches outside another, older inn, waiting for it to open.
Then Clive turned into Church Street which, according to a street map his aunt's solicitors had sent him, headed into the resort centre. He began looking for a sign for John Budd & Co.
"Got your key then, excellent!" Sammy Lee said with a winning grin.
He was a small but smart and likeable man, with a yellow rose in his suit buttonhole. He had Clive's light, sandy-haired colouring but was several years his senior, though full of vigour and easy charm.
How relaxed and friendly people seemed here. Why, Clive had even heard passengers alighting from buses and thanking the driver. That wouldn't happen in the city!
"Yes, from the Saddle landlord - Jim," said Clive, "though he seemed rather disgruntled."
Sammy, as Mister Lee liked to be called, laughed.
"Jim's no longer the licensee, just helping out while the new man, John Moore, brings his family from Manchester. John's a former policeman who had a city-centre pub where you're from. I knew the keys would be safe with them."
"I saw another place that reminded me of home, just now," Clive said, "the Old Didsbury."
"Well," said Sammy, "it's better known as the Number Three - after the old coaching stops to Preston. It's a lively place with a wine bar." He winked. "The girls get in there before clubbing in town at weekends."
"I see." Clive began to realise his working holiday here might be livelier than anticipated.
"The Saddle's more my cup of tea," continued Sammy. "Perhaps see you in there - feel I know you already. Your aunt talked of you a lot - wonderful, old lady, Miss Hilton. We'll miss her."
Clive agreed, glancing apprehensively at all the paperwork the lawyer had handed him - a pile of deeds dating back to the 1800s, conveyances, an alarmingly bulky surveyor's report and other official documents.
"Will you be staying in the area?"
"Only to do up the place and sell."
"You're on the newspapers in Manchester, your aunt said."
"Yes, but just freelancing as yet - on shifts at the Daily Mail and the Express. But I hope to get a staff job on one, even perhaps in London."
Clive sighed. "But it seems I've a lot to do here first."
"Well, that surveyor's report might seem depressing, but they always err on the cautionary side. Still," counselled Sammy, "you'll get a better sale if its conditions are met - might take some time."
Clive nodded. "I'm all right for that. The newspapers know I'll be here awhile. That's the joy of being freelance. Also, I've just vacated my rented house in Didsbury - so this fits in fine."
"Excellent! Give me a ring if you need help."
The solicitor reached again into a box file and found more paperwork.
"Your aunt left what little monies that were in her estate to charities. However, she was very fond of you, Clive, and - besides the cottage property - left you this letter."
He handed across a sealed, light-blue Basildon Bond envelope thick with concealed pages. It was addressed for Clive's attention in green ink and her flowery handwriting.
"Good luck then," Sammy said, rising and delivering a final, firm handshake.
Outside the late afternoon sun was blinding after the book-lined legal offices of John Budd & Co.
Clive was dismayed now that he had left the car parked back in Great Marton, as the area around the Saddle Inn was known. Aunt Lily had always been most insistent that she lived in that former village, rather than simply the borough of Blackpool.
Up a sideroad he now saw an impressive hall-like building and, through its wrought iron gates, observed men stood with pints in hand watching crown green bowling in a pleasant wooded setting.
Putting the file of house documents under his arm, Clive picked up his feet and spirits once more - heading for the Raikes Hall Hotel.
Inside the pub, its comfortable lounge was busy with early-doors drinkers, some office types but mostly tradesmen judging by their clothes.
Clive put the pile of documents on a tall, round table and ordered a pint of Draught Bass from the bar. When he turned back with the drink, a lean man in overalls standing on the far side of the table was glancing across at the top document, the survey.
"Oh dear!" the man mocked, drawing on a cigarette and shaking his head, "lots of bad news no doubt, my friend. Just moved in?"
"Yes, an aunt left this old place for me - up the road." Clive drank gratefully. It was the same beer that Pressmen favoured in those backstreet pubs they preferred in Manchester. "Plenty of work, I suspect."
"No problem," the man chortled, easing a business card from an inside shirt pocket. "At your service!"
The card showed him to be a roofer and general building contractor.
A small, plump and dapper man in a pinstripe suit had joined them now, accompanied by a tall, glowering fellow with a broken nose.
"Whatever you need," said Tony, as the roofer now introduced himself with a handshake, "you'll get it cheapest and quickest round this table - our office."
"I'm John," said the pin-striped chap, offering a less calloused hand. He also proffered a card, which described him as a 'special consultant to the legal profession'.
"And this is Kevin," added little John, pointing to his big companion. The greying, wiry-haired fellow with a broken nose narrowed his eyes suspiciously then nodded mutely from across the table, half hidden by an overhanging plant in a brass jardinière.
"He's Mister Fix-it," explained John, prompting a fit of laughter and then coughing from the lanky roofer.
"Mister Five-Per-Cent, more like," said Tony.
"Well, thanks," muttered Clive, with big-city caution, pocketing the cards. "Anyway, I'll just take this lot outside, as the sun's shining - got something I need to read."
Clive noted a free taxi phone on the wall by a corridor to toilets. That would get him home comfortably, where he could unpack and finally rest after his drive and adventures. But there was no rush and time now to relax.
Sunshine greeted him, along with that incomparable, ozoned air from the nearby sea. Clive admired flowerbeds coloured with daffodils and tulips.
His spirits rose like the swallows darting above him in overhanging maples.
What was more, there were no newspaper shifts for him to rush to - nor, even, the demanding Stefania for him to pander to and please.
He was on his own, still young and free!
It was the dynamic 1980s and a world of opportunity lay before him, as Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher would have claimed.
At last, Clive reminded himself, he had property and means - thanks to dear, old Lily. She had always seen something special in him. How magical life could be - and your fortunes so unexpected.
Settled finally at a trestle table, overlooking a well-kept bowling green played on by men in flat caps, Clive opened the letter from his aunt.






* * *



A short festive story, specially written by Roy Edmonds:





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.
"Joe!"
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.


* * *




 An extract from:


'Romp & Circumstance'

by Ed Black


New local government officer in Hong Kong, Neil Beddows, has employed a maid, Virginia, but who in the end will be in control?


AFTER two days Virgie seemed settled. The apartment had been swept and cleaned throughout. In the mornings Neil saw no sign of her before he left for work, but he returned in the evening to find his bed made and laundry laid out neatly in his room. 
Virgie even made him meals: a delicate, king-prawn salad the first night; a powerful “chicken adobo” the next. Virgie ate her own meal before his return and spent much of her spare time phoning her cousin and friends who were maids elsewhere. There appeared to be a wide network of them linked, as far as Neil could tell, by the territory’s free local phone system and their mutual Sundays off for worship and park picnics. But she was bored.

“There is only market in Stanley, no shops here,” she pointed out.
“I thought you were going to swim,” Neil reminded her positively.
Virgie looked sulky then muttered: “I cannot swim.”
“You never learned? With all those beaches in the Philippines?”
She looked offended. “My village is in the country, then I went to the city. In Manila the bay is full of ships.”
“Then I’ll teach you.”
Virgie’s face brightened. “When?”
Neil was about to suggest Saturday afternoon, when he’d be off, but realised she would be back then with the Taylors in Kowloon.
“Tonight?”
“Well,” he paused, the sun was already setting - but so was that beautiful face. “All right, it is a warm evening.”
There was nobody on the beach. Its white sand was blushed peach in the early sunset. Neil laid out bamboo mats then slipped off his casual top and light slacks. Virgie went into nearby oleander bushes and emerged wrapped in a towel. She had put one of the pink flowers in her tied-up hair, which looked most fetching. Darkness was falling as he led her towards gently lapping waves.
“Close your eyes!” Virgie insisted. “No peep!”
He resisted the temptation as her towel was pressed into his hands. The reality of her being so close and wearing only a scant costume sank into Neil for the first time. It sent a hot spasm through him and he felt a little weak at the knees.
Now!” Virgie shouted and squealed as she submerged herself in the calm water’s depth. She was a few yards ahead of him and crouched down. Neil laid her towel carefully on the beach and waded in. Virgie shrieked again as he approached.
“We’ll need to go out further, so you can float,” he said. Such was the speed of sunsets here, moonlight was now reflecting on her face, then along ripples as they moved deeper into the silky sea.
“If you lean forward in my arms and relax, your legs should float,” Neil said.
As Virgie leaned against him his throat went dry and his stomach tensed. His arms were caressing soft flesh. He gasped as, in the moonlight, he saw she was naked.
“I can feel them rising,” Virgie said.
Not the only thing, thought Neil, pulling her forward and telling her to kick her feet. After several minutes they rested and Virgie stood up in the water which almost reached her neck. She leaned into him, overbalanced by a light current. Virgie fitted perfectly against his body’s shape. She smiled bashfully.
“Sorry, sir.”
“I think you can call me Neil, in the circumstances,” he muttered.
Virgie gave another little yelp as a wave gently buffeted her, then put her arms about him for support. As she rested against him, his pleasure was so intense it hurt.
Not Mee-ster Bed-ohs?”
Neil gulped as she dragged out his surname, often the source of jokes but till now unremarked upon by Virginia. His arms longed to encircle and pull her closer but he felt frozen in embarrassment and stood rigid as she bounced, enjoying her weightlessness in the water.
You teach me more?” Virgie suggested.
They emerged some 15 minutes later as the sea was turning cool. He was ordered out first and changed as best he could in the dark. Virgie scuttled into the bushes and thrashed around, clouds now blurring the moonlight and impeding her search.
My clothes, they are gone!” she hissed.
They must be there.”
Don’t come near!” cried Virgie.
Neil saw bushes swaying as she moved through their dense mass muttering in Tagalog.
Finally, she emerged still in the towel, her hair straggling over her shoulder where it had been torn loose from a clasp. The flower had looped accidentally over one ear but still looked charming.
Maybe I find in the morning,” Virgie said.
They crossed the beach path and entered the elegant, reception hall of the Mansion House, where the night watchman stared open-mouthed at Virgie’s dishevelled appearance.
Neither Neil nor Virgie spoke much Cantonese, but he did an impression of breast-stroke and added, by way of explanation, “Clothes lost on beach.”
The old man frowned then grinned boyishly. Behind him a camp-bed was set up in the office, a flask of tea beside it. Neil waved goodnight as they left a trail of sand across the marble floor. He liked the old boy and always felt sorry to disturb him when returning to the Mansion House any later than eight or nine.
In the lift, Virgie snuggled against him complaining of feeling cold. Neil felt a hollow yearning overwhelm him as they rose. But she pushed away from him as the lift halted. In his apartment they went to their respective bathrooms. Neil emerged first, in a tracksuit, and sat awaiting her in the lounge. Diverse thoughts confused his mind as his body bristled with awakened senses. So far in Hong Kong he had occupied himself by settling in, learning his job and playing sports at clubs where his government position gave him free membership. He hadn’t realised until now how lonely he was.
On the other hand, he’d been warned by older “China Hands” that many girls here would regard him as a passport to comparative riches and travel; a catch worthy of entrapment. At the ripe age of 25 he teetered, Neil knew, on the edge of the oldest trap in the world. But then, he had never met anyone as beautiful as Virgie. Admittedly, her conversation was limited to clothes, Hollywood films and what she used to do back in her village, but she was only 19 and had other qualities. He gulped again at the physical memory of them and began to pace the room.
You not go bed?”
Virgie wore a short, silk robe and her hair fell about her shoulders in an ebony cascade.
It’s early yet,” he pointed out.
I’m tired. Would you like hot-milk drink?”
It seemed he had no need to fear for his independence. As he sat pretending to read Ram’s Oriental Companion at the dining table, Virginia brought a malt drink and said goodnight. She reminded him she would go to Kowloon in the morning and stay there until the following week, then smiled uncertainly and closed her bedroom door. His borrowed guide to colonial life had firm directives about house staff and other aspects of expatriate life at the turn of the century. It warned against miscegenation, which he had to look up in a dictionary. As soon as he understood it, he thought of Virginia standing naked against him in the sea. It made his hand shake and created a hollow need inside.
Restless again, Neil sipped his drink out on the balcony, trying to calm down. He leaned into darkness at the balcony edge, hearing the gentle fall of waves, breathing a mix of exotic scents from the gardens and surrounding undergrowth. Finally, he sat on one of the bamboo chairs, staring at the stars and dreaming.
His life had been fairly innocent to date, spent entirely in the once industrial north of England recently made fashionable by The Beatles and other pop groups. Neil had been too young for the Swinging Sixties. He had sampled none of the free love, thought to be rife at university. There had been no signs of it within the Town Planning and Civil Administration Faculty.
Neil picked out stars emerging from the clouds; just like night skies at home: ever changing, ever there. So many of Neil’s friends were getting married by their mid-twenties. Neil felt he had barely lived. When his sister, two years younger, took a music post at an American college, he felt left behind. Until, that is, he came to Hong Kong.
Neil breathed in the night scents and smiled. What would they think of him here, in this exotic luxury; the cicadas playing their serenade; a gorgeous girl from the Philippines in the bedroom next door? He really should write home, take some photographs, perhaps when Virgie returned to Mansion House. Feeling composed now, Neil went to bed. His sheets had been newly laid by Virginia, which made it still sweeter to settle down. But despite their coolness and the lull of the sea outside his window, he couldn’t sleep. He was again remembering her naked in the water.
A knock at his door startled Neil into alertness. Virgie’s head appeared.
May I speak to you, Neil?” She pronounced his name as “knee-al”.
Yes,” he croaked, half rising.
Virgie entered eagerly and pushed on to the side of his bed. She was wearing a duvet bought from Stanley Market like an enormous, padded robe.
I’m cold.” It was true, he could feel her shivering through the weight of bedclothes between them. “I catch chill, I think.”
I see,” Neil said, unsure what to suggest.
Her hand touched his face and shocked him, it was so cold.
You are very hot, like radiator,” said Virgie. “May I just lie on top a minute?”
Of course,” Neil said but within moments he was feeling very hot indeed. He shifted then suggested: “Look, you get inside, I can lie on top beside you.”
Virgie snuggled into the bed as he got out.
“So warm,” she said delightedly. “Just leave sheet between us, then it safe.” She giggled as he got back on to the bed, then spread her duvet over him so only the sheet separated them. She turned to face him and he could feel her body along his own.
“I feel better now.” She rewarded him with a dazzling smile in the near-darkness. As she lifted her hair from about her neck, a rush of perfume made Neil light-headed. Her body felt cool and soft alongside his. Virgie moved her leg then giggled into the sheets.
Oh, Neil, I don’t think you sleep with me here.”
No,” he gasped, “probably not.” Then he grinned back stupidly. “Mind you, I’m not complaining.”
Virgie wriggled closer and he felt her hand breaching a gap in the separating sheet. His skin leaped at her touch.
“I like you very much Neil. Maybe you like me a little?”
As Neil lay rigid and barely breathing, her hand travelled over his pelvis and downwards. She giggled again and Neil gasped. Her face moved closer to his as he groaned.
It nice, isn’t it?”


We hope you enjoyed this extract. To read more of  Romp & Circumstance by Ed Black, please turn to its books page entry. 







- a second sample chapter from:






SADDLE UP!








A MEMORABLE character from the room known as the Commons in Blackpool's oldest pub, the Saddle Inn, was Derek the Window Cleaner. He could be found by the coal fire in there, genially supping Draught Bass, most weekday afternoons come early evenings.
Derek was a tall, rangy man with dark hair, poor teeth and a winning way about him. His window cleaning round took in many shops and offices round South Shore and also here in Great Marton where he ended at the beloved Saddle. He even claimed to have keys to the Oxford Square NatWest bank, so he could spruce up the windows before customers and staff arrived. I don't know the truth of this, but the bank has now closed down and Derek hasn't been seen in these parts for years. . .
He lived during the week in a caravan by the Marton mushroom farm, shared with a couple of mongrel sheepdogs from home.  'Home' was Appleby in Cumbria where his wife and he lived above a wool and knick-knack shop she ran.
"She can't stand me being around for more than a weekend," he explained.
 
But it was playing the trumpet for Eartha Kitt and surviving on Reichstag rice pudding from the Second World War which made Derek really unique.
"I just play when some big star's in town and they need more musicians at Opera House," he told me modestly one wet, wintry afternoon. "I've played with 'em all, but Eartha Kitt was best - really looked after us. She'd lay on a party at end of week - and get a crate of whisky in 'specially for band'. 

"Grand lass . . ." (here Derek's buckled teeth almost glittered) . . . and right sexy too!"
Derek dined mainly in the caravan on war-surplus rice pudding. "Beautiful stuff - all you need. Not ours but the Nazis' - the tins have a Reichstag stamp on. Can't remember where I got 'em now, but dogs love it too."
However, Derek truly became a Saddle legend when he accepted a challenge to leave his old estate car by the caravan one weekend - and cycle home to Appleby. Being no spring chicken, he took his time over this marathon task and set off from Great Marton in early morning.
"I couldn't resist stopping at a few pubs on't way, though," he confessed.
However, by late afternoon come early evening he had wound his wobbly way as far as his local at Appleby, which by good luck was just opening.
"No one there believed I'd cycled it," he recalled with a grin, "till my lad came by and said, 'By 'eck dad! Thought it were your bike outside - where's car then, still at Blackpool?"
Derek so enjoyed his day's cycling - without the ladder and buckets he usually carried - he repeated the feat just weeks later with similar results. He wasn't a lad to do things by half!

 



 To read more of Saddle Up! go to our Books page.




(This is the first chapter of 'Saddle Up!' The humorous 'local' history gives a taste of Blackpool's oldest inn through its colourful regulars and landlords.)



1



GREETINGS from the Saddle - my local hostelry and an escape from the daily demands of this hectic world.
Computers have made us all global communicators; holidays have long been international; our work, scattered families and distant friends make motorway journeys routine . . . but our feet and hearts are still neighbourhood bound.
This is never more true than after retiring, which has given me time to concoct this ‘local’ history.
Just a couple of miles inland from blowsy Blackpool (noted for fresh air and fun), Marton has stood much longer astride the rural Fylde coastline of the Irish Sea. Its historic heart is Great Marton.
Stand on one of the main residential thoroughfares of Blackpool, Whitegate Drive, by its oldest pub, the Saddle Inn, and you can still discern the original village of Great Marton.
Beside the Saddle, which dates back to the Civil War and provided stabling for roundhead troops, is St Paul's old churchyard. To the pub's other side, on Preston Old Road, are tiny cottages which have stood for more than two centuries on a winding route stagecoaches took to Preston.
Edmonds Towers stands a discreet distance from the Saddle, whose more recent history and characters I hope to explore in this appreciation. However, it's a family story of wealth and woe on its doorstep which is my starting point.
In the 19th Century there were only a few artisan cottages on Preston Old Road while Wren Grove, the present small cul-de-sac near Whitegate Drive (then Whitegate Lane), was called Green Lane. This ran down to what is now the White House, on the corner of Lightbown Avenue, but was previously the landowner's home Blaydon House.
My own house deeds list the tenancy dues to be paid at Blaydon House. A chap christened Lynsey I met at Blackpool Cricket Club was born in my home many years before I acquired it. He could remember open fields and carthorses grazing where now other houses stand.
What was until recently the Far East takeaway was back then the Lord Nelson Alehouse and a tall building stood behind the area's third pub, the old Boar's Head, which was Marton Brewery. Further down Whitegate Lane was The Mill Inn, beside Marton Windmill, now renamed the Oxford.
Completing the nest of buildings in Great Marton was a church school and infants' classrooms where new houses now stand facing the Boars Head.
Inland from its Whitegate Drive end, Preston Old Road crosses South Park Drive and a large house still stands on a promontory, called The Mount. This was the home of Marton benefactor John Picken Dixon. It was previously a farmhouse, surrounded by fields as far as the eye could see and good shooting territory. Mr Dixon, a wealthy cotton mill owner, turned The Mount into a grand house in the country style and entertained visitors in squirely fashion. He had the first Silver Cloud Rolls Royce in the area but was also generous with his wealth, making widespread donations every Christmas to local people and the poor.
It was J.P. Dixon who had the crumbling, old St Paul's Church by the Saddle rebuilt in its present grandeur. Perhaps he had hoped to see his youngest son Edward married there. . . but instead Edward was killed and buried in France towards the end of the Great War. Afterwards J.P.Dixon bided much of his time nurturing famed rose gardens about The Mount.
Edward and other local men killed in the First World War are commemorated on the cenotaph his family erected. There are stories of a gun carriage to commemorate them being drawn down from The Mount to the churchyard, where the Dixon family vault still stands prominently. Near the cenotaph there are also flat gravestones illustrating the darker days of Great Marton when so many children died.
In communal mindedness typical of the time, J.P. Dixon also established Marton Institute for the recreation of local working men. Meanwhile, at the Saddle itself, the Leigh family had a history of providing free fruit and honey to children from a hatch where the current gents toilets block stands.
Now the local kids get their sweets from a 24-hour Tesco Express just round the corner. Amenities for older locals include the nearby chippy, pie shop, barber's and, last but not least, the bookies. Pull up any afternoon at the pelican crossing on Whitegate Drive, outside the Saddle Inn, and you will see some of its many characters crossing on their ritual route from bar to betting counter.
We can only wonder what good, old J.P. would have said!

To read more of Saddle Up! go to our Books page.
Post a Comment