The Lost Boys

 

“The desire of gold is not for gold. It is for the means of freedom and benefit”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

******

I can’t remember the beginning. I was too young. But I later learned from my parents about the gold fever in the early 1850s. Now, over seventy years later, the rush is long gone, yet there is still a smaller number of hopefuls, panning the rivers and creeks in the hope of a good find.

After the draining of the Rogue River in South Oregon, and the subsequent flow of humanity of all ages, creeds and trades towards a newly found source of possible wealth, Ma, Pa, brother Jed and me, still too young to take my first steps, bundled into a wagon and headed West. The journey was hard. Jed caught the fever and never got to see Gold Beach, or as it was called in those day, Ellensburg. So there I was, almost one year old, trying to survive in a most inhospitable place, where the only interest of the adults was the gold. Even my parents, who were shopkeepers, trying to cash in on the rich pickings of the rough, mostly redneck miners, thought of little else other than where the latest find was, and who had the pickings. There was little time or interest in bringing up a snotty nosed kid.

When I look back it amazes me that I survived at all. I think it was partly due to my three closest friends, Jimmy Scot, Pete Larkey and Josh Cadam. From my earliest memories, we were always together, up to mischief, sharing our fights but most importantly of all, looking out for each other. I hardly saw my Ma and Pa. They built the local hardware store with their bare hands, worked all the hours that God gave them. Pa said to me one day, “Jesse Laprop, times are hard and you need to grow up quick. No time for fussing about.”

I was helping with the stocking of shelves from the age of five. By eight I was taking out deliveries to the miners. It was hard, dangerous work, but with the help of Jimmy, Pete and Josh we all somehow managed to survive. In fact we are all still alive today, in this year of 1926, seventy one years after that long wagon ride to Ellensburg.

******

There are so many tales that may interest the reader from those early days. Like the day that Pete Larkey told some local Indians that he was a sorcerer and could turn them into turnips at the snap of his fingers. Two of them ran off, but the other two tried to hang him by his feet from the nearest tree. Lucky for him, Jimmy Scot came along in the nick of time and cut him down. In fact, we always seemed to be lucky when Jimmy was with us. We nicknamed him Lucky and still use it to this day. Then there was the time that Josh Cadam disappeared. His skin was as black as the ace of spades, and he was taken as a runaway slave. It took three days for us to find him, again thanks to our mate, Lucky, who tracked him to a camp. With the help of a group of Gold Beach’s miners, we soon got him back and gave the slavers a hiding they would never forget. And so it was. We were like four peas in a pod. Jimmy was our lucky one, Pete was always up to mischief, telling tales. Josh needing the rest of us more than ever due to his black skin. And there was me. I was the strongest of us all, but I had one big problem. People thought that I was rather stupid because I was always getting my words mixed up. Nowadays I know that I have dyslexia, but in those days there was no such thing diagnosed. I was just the stupid one.

So, among all of the antics and tragedies of our tough childhood, in order to maintain this story in a shortened form, I will pick one of the events that happened in 1865, at a time when the gold fever was at its most prominent.

******

It was a day in late March, The snows had passed but the tracks were still wet and difficult. The cart was loaded with supplies for a group of miners and Ma called me with her usual harsh voice, “Jesse, take the cart to the mountain. Jake Stringer will be waiting there for you. Make sure he pays you. Take the boys with you and be quick about it. You might need them on these muddy roads. Tell them there is a dime for each of them.”

“But we won’t have time”, I tried to tell her.

“No buts. Just get the job done. We need to survive in this Godforsaken cesspit”

By, “The boys” of course she meant Jimmy, Pete and Josh. I was worried. The mountain was a good fifteen miles away. We would never make it back in time before dark.  But to argue with Ma was hopeless. I rounded up the three and we took some blankets and candles just in case.

As expected, it was tough. The mud was so deep in places that we had to stop and dig ourselves out. Four ten year old boys, out on their own, with a cargo of coffee, beans and sugar, in a dangerous territory. Even in those days it was not normal.

We struggled through the long morning and well into the afternoon, reaching the foot of the mountain shortly before dark. There was no one waiting for us.

“Perhaps Jake knew we wouldn’t be here until late and will come first thing in the morning to collect the goods,” said Pete Larkey.

“Don’t talk such nonsense Pete,” I retorted. “We can’t stay here all night. We’ll freeze to death.”

“Now we won’t,” said Josh, smiling. “We have lucky Jimmy Scot with us.”

We all were a little nervous but began laughing. After all, it was a great adventure.

So we gathered the blankets, lit our candles and shared what little food we had with us. Jimmy decided that Jake wouldn’t miss a few beans from six sacks and promptly got a fire going.

 ******

Ma was absolutely perplexed. An angry Jake Stringer came barging through the front door of the hardware store at six o’clock. “Where the hell are my vittles? I was at the fountain all afternoon waiting for them to arrive. My men have nothing to eat.”

“It can’t be. I sent Jesse out with the cart just after sunup. He rounded up his friends in case he needed help with the muddy road, but they should have been there in two or three hours. They should have been back ages ago.”

Jake was cross, but also on hearing this a bit concerned. He liked the boys and had known them since they were toddlers.

“Where could they be?” he asked. “It will be dark soon.”

She left Pa to look after the store and spent the next two hours going to Jimmy’s Ma and Pa, and to those of Josh and Pete. Neither parents knew where their children were, and by now it was dark and starting to snow lightly.

“We need to set up a search party. They could be anywhere,” said Josh’s Ma.

Most of the night the four sets of parents and Jake Stringer and a couple of his men searched, all to no avail. At 4am in the morning they finally searched out Flying Eagle, an old Indian scout. Despite his drunken stupor they managed to get him on his feet and explained that the four ten year old boys were missing. He agreed to help them, and set about following their tracks, despite the darkness.

The tracks led away in the opposite direction to the fountain, and up the cattle track towards Top Mountain. It was just breaking daylight when they arrived at the foot of the mountain.

“I see the loaded cart,” shouted Pa Cadam, but with a worried look on his face said, “but I don’t see the boys”.

They all raced to the cart, afraid to see what they might find.

From under the cart peered eight bright eyes.

What on Earth is going on here?” shouted my Ma.

“You told us to deliver the goods to the mountain,” I replied sheepishly.

“I said Fountain, not Mountain,” screamed Ma Laprop.

“What a nonsense,” said Ma Larkey

These damned muddy tracks need a proper surface,” said Ma Cadam

“Well, at least we knew they would be safe with Jimmy,” said Ma Scot

Jake Stringer looked and the group and laughed so loud his hat fell off into the mud.

Triumph Shows

“Every man who holds a sword in his hand, holds murder in his heart.”
― James Islington, The Shadow of What Was Lost

******

Jack Richards was sitting at his home office desk, sweating profusely. He had the plan. He had the accomplice. The time and date were fixed. He was too nervous. “I need to calm down,” he kept telling himself. He took another swig of his favourite Oban 14 year single malt while he was scouring the fine print of his wife’s life insurance policy. He knew that most insurance companies were reluctant to pay for a suspicious death, but some do. He had been sure, somewhere in the back of his mind that this one did, but needed to be certain.

“Yes,” he suddenly exclaimed. “I knew it.”

He read the paragraph out loud, “and usually the beneficiary can claim and receive the policy benefit if they were not involved in the suspicious death. Otherwise, if the police investigation proves they participated in the act, they have no right to the death benefit 

******

Sonia Richards stepped into her knickers. She caught the reflection in the mirror as she straightened up. She smiled. At forty four she still had that same figure. She sat down on the bed to slide the satin touch, 15 denier stockings onto her smooth silky legs. She knew Bob was watching her. She took her time, taunting him, basking in the knowledge that he would do anything for her. She finally stood, stepped into her high heels and picked up her Louis Vuitton black leather shoulder bag. As she slipped it over her left shoulder, she winked at Bob and left the room, leaving him with the confident words, “see you next week, my darling,” trailing behind her.

Sonia lived in the fast lane. Although men were her main passion in life, she was a dedicated private accountant to some of the top firms in the city. She lived hard, played hard and had more than one ‘Bob’ in her life. Her only real problem is that she became bored with them too quickly. She liked the newness of a relationship, the exploring, and the excitement of that first time. Within a few months she was always ready to move on.

She also felt lucky. Her husband, Jack, was twenty years her senior and didn’t hold her back. Their sex life had long since ended. She saw her husband as a man who was more comfortable at the golf club or on the bowling green, than he was in the bedroom. And so, Sonia Richards lived a life of freedom, passion felt no guilt or remorse at her lifestyle and the way it might affect Jack.

******

The following day, Sonia had arranged to meet an old girlfriend after work.

“I won’t be back until late tonight Jack, so don’t feel you need to wait up,” she informed him over breakfast.

“Oh right,” he replied, “anyone interesting that you see?”

“Yes, I’m meeting Janet Wenders. You remember, the girl I studied with at Uni. We haven’t seen each other for over ten years. It will be nice to catch up. She has four children now, you know.”

“Have a nice evening. It fits well to my plans as Peter asked me round this evening to discuss the proposal for the new fountain in Blendow. If we can complete the offer in time, it should be a real money-spinner. We will probably go out for a drink afterwards.”

“Good, then see you tomorrow morning for breakfast, same time, same place as they say.”

Sonia looked relaxed and happy, whereas Jack had a hundred knots fighting for space in his stomach. With great effort he gave her a loose smile as she left the house.

******

It was almost eleven o’clock. Sonia walked back along a well-lit road until she came to her turning. It was a cul-de-sac but half a mile long and quite windy. In the car of course one would have to take the road, but in two places there was a pedestrian walkway between the houses, shortening the route considerably. She took the first jitty. It was dark, so dark that she thought about using her smartphone torch, but then decided that she wouldn’t need to after all. As she passed by a side alley into one of the houses she moved more quickly, sensing the first flutter of vulnerable nervousness. She had not taken more than two steps past the alley when oblivion hit her in an instant. She never woke. A loud scream was heard nearly an hour later, coming from a local barmaid, who was returning home after a long evening.

******

Chief Inspector Brad Bishop grunted loudly.

“What is it?” asked his sergeant.

“What is it? What is it? I’ll tell you what it is. It is six bloody weeks of nothing. Six week of the media screaming down our necks. Six weeks of the Super hauling me over the coals for coming up with nothing.”

Bishop was at the crematorium. The coroner had finally had to release the body for cremation. Bishop was cold, stamping his feet to keep warm on this frosty morning. He was hoping to see something, get some remote clue, but his expectations were low.

It all fitted into place. The affairs, the motive and the life insurance policy. He had been sure that it must have been Jack Richards. He would be the beneficiary, and it stopped his wife from embarrassing him at every opportunity. There were two things that protected Jack. First was his iron clad alibi. He had been with a colleague all evening. They had worked until ten o’clock, then gone to the Lion for a couple of beers, and finally back to work at Peter Simpson’s home until the early hours, to finish the proposal for a bloody fountain. Secondly, Bishop thought that no-one in their right mind would kill their own wife in their own street. Anyone could have seen him.

As Bishop watched all of the friends and relatives filing out of the service, he watched each face intently for some expression or clue that might provide him with a lead. His sergeant discreetly had the camera running.

They saw nothing unusual. Jack was clearly very tearful, being consoled as one would expect. The mood was typically sombre. Bishop was drawing a blank.

Jack had arranged a wake at a nearby hotel. Everyone drove off leaving just Bishop and his sergeant alone on the car park.

“Let’s get some lunch and I’ll meet you back at the office at four o’clock sharp. There are a couple of things I need to see to,” Bishop said as he drove off.

He followed the procession of cars to the Dorchester and found a very discreet parking spot. The lunch went on for hours. He was cold and miserable, wondering what the hell he was doing. He watched them leave in dribs and drabs, and waited until the last people were leaving.

There were three men standing outside, the last three from the wake. Bishop was too far away to hear, but their body language was clear. They were laughing and joking. One of them was Jack and the other Peter, his colleague and witness to his alibi. The third person was not known to Bishop. He took a couple of quick pictures, but from too far away. After some minutes, they shook hands and each went to their own cars. Bishop got the number of the unknown car.

 ******

A week later sergeant Faraday was sitting at his desk.

“Anything about our third man yet? “asked Bishop.

“Sorry Boss,” he replied. “Nothing yet except his name and occupation. He is Steven Bird, works in a bar over in Fitton Street. He has no form and seems like a normal run-of-the-mill guy. He enjoys amateur dramatics apparently.”

“What about his relationship to Jack Shepherd?”

The sergeant looked up puzzled. “He said there is none. He only came to the cremation because he knew Sonia Shepherd for many years before. Jack said he hardly knew the guy.”

“Well, it didn’t look like that when they stood outside the Dorchester last week.” Bishop walked off, thumbing his chin in thought, which reminded him to get a shave soon.

Something was running around in Bishop’s brain, but he just couldn’t pin it down. After thirty years on the job, he could sense the feeling of being near to a breakthrough, but needed to grasp it.

Bishop decided to have a relaxing evening with his wife. He had hardly seen her since the brutal killing. He called her. They arranged a nice duck stir fry, a nice bottle of red and a good film. He needed the break.

******

“Hey Rose, you haven’t ever come across a guy called Steven Bird have you? Apparently he is into amateur dramatics and there can’t be many drama companies around Blendow.” Despite the good food and wine, Bishop couldn’t completely switch off from his work.

“No, sorry Luv. I could ask around tomorrow night when I go to the cub if you like. Why? Is it to do with the murder? she replied.

“Probably not. Just a loose end I wanted to close off.”

They settled down to watch Cry Macho and Rose smiled and stroked her husband’s head as she watched with one eye on him and the other on the western. Within ten minutes into the film he was fast asleep and purring like a baby.

******

It was two days later, while they were having breakfast together that Rose remembered about Steven Bird.

“Oh, by the way,” she said, “a couple of people from the club knew this Steven Bird fellow. They said he wasn’t a very popular guy, tends to keep himself to himself most of the time. The only thing of any importance was that he has made a bit of a name for himself.”

Bishop looked up from his paper, “in what way?” he asked.

“Well, they say he has an amazing knack with makeup. His acting leaves a lot to be desired, but he is often called on by stage companies to help them with their makeup. They say he is a master of disguise.”

******

Back in the station the next morning, Bishop called his sergeant into the office.

Bishop began. “Right! It goes like this. Jack Shepherd was tired of living a life as the husband of a tart. People were beginning to talk. He needed it to stop. She also had a huge life insurance policy. Shepherd decided to kill her, but with a solid alibi. He organised it with his colleague and friend Peter Simpson and they hatched a plan together. What better alibi than a pub where they would be seen by a dozen or so other people. They needed a third person. That’s where Steven Bird came in. They needed a look-a-like, a master-of-disguise.

Jack Shepherd never was at Peter Simpson’s house on that evening. Bird was. Shepherd was skulking in a dark alley, waiting to club his wife to death.”

His sergeant didn’t know what to say. He found it all a bit far-fetched but knew better than to suggest that to Bishop. “I dunno Boss, what do you suggest we do now?”

I want all video footage, all CCTV film and the film you took from the cremation. There must be something we are missing.

That afternoon, Bishop was excited. The two of them worked well into the night, checking every bit of footage, frame by frame. They came up with nothing. At ten o’clock they call it a day and decide to have a nightcap in the pub. As they get out of Bishop’s car, his sergeant bends down to re-tie his shoe lace.

“That’s it’ That’s it. Get back in quick,” Bishop orders.

They race back to the office. Within minutes they are looking at the CCTV of Simpson and Shepherd entering the Lion, at 10.36pm. Just as they were leaving Shepherd bent down to tie his shoe lace. The time is clearly seen on the film, 11.52pm.

“There it is. We have him.” Bishop said, looking very self-satisfied with himself.

The sergeant was quiet. He had no idea what his boss was on about. Finally he plucked up the courage to ask. “Have what?” he asked nervously.

“Don’t you see?” Bishop could hardly contain himself. “He is lacing up his shoes. Shepherd always wears slip-ons. When we searched the house almost all of Shepherd’s shoes were slip-ons except for his trainers and some casual walking boots.”

They were able to reuse the previous search warrant and drove immediately to the home of Jack Shepherd. Luckily he was at home.

“Mr. Shepherd, we need to ask you a few more questions regarding the night of your wife’s murder.” Bishop stated firmly but politely.

“Of course. Anything that might help find the murderer is fine with me.” Jack was becoming quite efficient at appearing relaxed on the outside, while he was very anxious on the inside.

Bishop began. “On the night in question you said that you were wearing a fawn overcoat, dark brown scarf and brown cap. You were also wearing a pair of light blue Levis, and brown shoes. These are the items that you showed the sergeant on the day after the murder. We have confirmed the appearance of this attire on a number of CCTV films, which seemed to corroborate your statement. Can you please bring these items to us again?”

Jack’s smile disappeared. Yes, of course, but why?”

“Please, just do as we ask.” Bishop replied, maybe a little top eagerly.

Jack Shepherd returned with the said items.

Bishop took one look at the brown slip-on shoes, glanced over at his sergeant, and was already removing the handcuffs from his jacket pocket as he said, “You are under arrest on suspicion of the murder of your wife, Sonia Shepherd. You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defense if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.”

Bishop and his sergeant frog-marched Shepherd to the car. It was clear already that Jack Shepherd would be found guilty. He didn’t try to object to the arrest. He just looked beaten and broken. His two accomplices would be rounded up within the hour.

On the way back to the station, the sergeant was mostly quiet. He was needing to digest the last few hours, understand and learn from his mentor, Brad Bishop. Finally he spoke.

“How did you know Boss? You knew on the day of the funeral that Jack Shepherd had killed his wife, without any evidence pointing you in that direction. How?”

Bishop grinned. He could now relax and bask in the glory of yet another crime solved.

“John,” he answered, using his sergeant’s first name for the first time in their long acquaintance, “it is the small things we need to focus on. Those are the things that give the game away.”

“Do you mean the shoe laces? But that came later. How did you know at the funeral?”

“It was easy. I saw as he walked to his car, after leaving the Dorchester on the day of the funeral, Jack Shepherd had far too much spring in his step”

 

Epilogue.

Jack Shepherd had killed his wife because of the undignified way she had treated him. He knew of all of her lovers and affairs. He also knew of her five hundred thousand pound life insurance policy. Peter Simpson had been one of her lovers. At first, Jack hated him for it, but after some time found some sympathy. She had dumped Peter after a few months, threatening him with harassment charges if he didn’t back off. Peter then hated her as much as he did, therefore agreed to the murder plan, and they would share the insurance pay out, except for fifty grand which would go to Steven Bird for his part.

All three are now serving long prison sentences.

 

Minnie The Poop

“You are all made of real poop.”
― 
Anne Frank

 

It was a lovely calm, sunny October morning. The crystal clear blue sky, and the sharply focussed hills in the background, appearing nearer than usual, as is only possible at this time of year, gave me an energetic feeling. “Time to go out for a jog,” I said to myself.

I changed into my Hoka One One trainers, donned the usual neck buff, which I have become used to wearing since the start of the covid restrictions. It acts as a mask if an area of the promenade becomes too crowded, although now, in October that is unlikely. The tourists have mostly returned to their normal daily lives, back in the cities of Europe.

I was soon down along the promenade, pounding along at a good but gentle rhythm, a well-trained dog at my side, feeling the cool air in my face and very happy with the world. At my age, with the onset of arthritis in most joints, my running has become less pleasurable, with the aches and pains worsening each year. Those wonderful occasions where the body is in sync, pulse regular, and a feeling as though gliding along without actually touching the ground, are becoming rarer. However today was one of those days. I looked down at the smiling face of the golden retriever, keeping pace with me and appearing to be enjoying the moment as much as I was.

Presently, he dropped back and I carried on, pondering whether to step up the pace or to simply continue to enjoy a relaxing run, when a loud voice came from behind.

“Hey, pick up your mess.”

I stopped, looked around and saw the poop, right in the middle of the promenade. A small, rather plump man waddled towards me. He was wearing a blazer and striped light-brown trousers and reminded me of Billy Bunter. I couldn’t help a slight smile showing on my face.

“Oh, find it funny do you? Pick your mess up. This is a public promenade where children play and we don’t want you tourists messing up the place. Clear it up.”

His round face was reddening and I wasn’t sure if it was due to his exertion of walking or due to his apparent anger.

“I am not a tourist,” I replied. “I…”

He cut me off. “I don’t care whether you are a tourist or not. People like you ruin our village. I have a good mind to call the police. There is a four hundred Euro fine for allowing your dog to poop on the promenade you know. Now clean it up.”

I was becoming irritated. Not only because of his obnoxious manner, but also that my feeling of tranquillity, my moment of relaxing pleasure, was being ruined.

“No, I will not pick it up. You pick it up if you are that concerned. In any case…”

I thought he was going to burst a blood vessel. He cut me off for the second time.

“People like you make me sick. Who do you think you are?”

I stood to face him. I put my hands on my hips and stood to my full height. He was almost a foot shorter that I was, and his voice became more of a squeak as he realised that he had maybe gone too far. Then his face lit up. He actually smiled. I turned around to see a policeman coming towards us.

Bunter was immediately brave again. “Right, now we will see you get your just deserts.”

“What seems to be the problem here?” said the policeman, glancing between the two of us.

“This man’s dog has pooped on the promenade and he refuses to pick it up.”

“Is this the dog?” he asked, looking down at the innocent grin of a very cheeky looking retriever.

“Yes, that is the dog and there is his mess,“said the fat man, pointing to a rather large pile, right in the middle of the promenade. He was clearly feeling very pleased with himself.

“People like him should be locked up. I’m sick of them.” He continued.

“Now now, Sir. There is no need for that. I will deal with this,” the policeman said, taking out his little notebook. He turned to me.

“Your name please.”

“Roger Weldon,” I replied.

“Address?”

“Calle Pradip 32, Benicola”, I said, feeling rather exasperated by the whole situation.

The policeman sternly looked me in the eye and said, “Now, can you explain why you refuse to clean up this mess. I must warn you that there is a heavy fine heading your way.”

“Well, the thing is..”

I was cut off again, for the third time, by a very small and very old lady, with a walking stick. She pushed between the policeman and the grinning fat man, without any thought. She looked so happy.

“Oh there you are Minnie. I have been looking everywhere for you. You naughty boy. I hope that you haven’t been bothering these nice men.”

With that, she clipped a lead onto the golden retriever’s collar and off they went. The policeman scowled at Bunter. He tore the page from his notebook and marched off. My accuser gave a large huff, puffed out his chest and strode off in the opposite direction.

After he had gone about fifty yards he stopped and turned around. I will never know his purpose. Was he about to return to apologise? In the end all he saw was me, bending down using a plastic bag, which had just blown along with the breeze, to pick up the poop and deposit in the nearby container.

Fishy Celebration

 

‘Natural’ is a word that has become unmoored by its meanings. If you go into a vitamin shop, things are natural, and people look at that, and they think it’s good. It’s no different than any other thing you swallow. Michael Specter

We were sitting at the breakfast table, just about to start a daily round of Yahtzee while we finished off a pot of Earl Grey. Our routine of a number of years, since we began our retirement, has been to spend a couple of hours in the morning, eating our muesli, diced fruit, usually melon or pineapple, and yoghurt. We then bring out the Yahtzee, with our pre-printed score sheet, made in Excel and play two or three games while we finish our tea and discuss our plans for the day.

The sun was glistening through the window, highlighting the millions of tiny specs of dust, floating in the room. My mind was wandering at the thought of how many of these fly into our bodies with each breath. Is it hundreds or thousands?

“Ha ha, a high straight. Forty points,” I gloated as I marked forty against my name on the score sheet.

“Darling, do you have a suggestion or special wish for lunch today, as it is Christmas Eve?”

“Do we really need a lunch today?” I said. “I mean, we will surely be eating an awful lot tomorrow when the whole family are here.”

“I need something though. I can’t go all day without a proper meal. How about I nip to the fishmonger and get a couple of trout? I can get some spinach and potatoes. That will be a light lunch, which should still leave us with plenty of appetite for the big day tomorrow.”

Belinda was always the sensible one. For me, it wasn’t so important either way, so I just nodded agreement. “It’s on you. You are about to be well and truly beaten,” I said, passing her the dice.

And so we spent the morning wrapping presents for tomorrow, putting up Christmas decorations, which has been our family habit since the children were born. We had the idea that their excitement on Christmas morning was far more acute if Christmas hadn’t been diluted by weeks or months of familiarity with Christmas lights, trees and streamers.

Belinda went to the shops and returned in time to make our lunch as arranged.

She made my favourite horseradish sauce with extra cream and hot horseradish which we get from the farmers market.

While we were eating Belinda frowned at me. “Jeff, do you really need to eat so quickly? Surely you can’t enjoy your food as much when you eat at that speed. You don’t take the time to chew it at all.”

I was a little embarrassed. Belinda was right. She had spent the time, probably well over an hour, to deliver a lovely lunch and I had eaten it in less than five minutes. As I finished she was barely a quarter of the way through hers.

“I’m really sorry,” I whispered. “I had my head in the clouds again and just got carried away. I’ll try to mend my ways before you decided to stop loving me,” I winked and smiled to try to cover my embarrassment.

After lunch, having had a couple of glasses of wine with our food, we decided to take a nap, so that we would be bright and fit for a long day tomorrow. Belinda was purring smoothly within minutes, but I was restless and couldn’t drop off to sleep. I listened to her gently breathing and gradually felt a slight tickle in my throat, imagining that it might turn into a cold or something. “Please don’t let me be ill until after Christmas,” I thought to myself.

Maybe I did, at some point, fall asleep, because I looked at the clock and it was five o’clock. We had been in bed for nearly three hours. Belinda murmured, yawned, stretched and opened her eyes.

“Wow, I must have needed that,” she said through unfocussed eyes. “What time is it?”

“It is just after five,” I replied. “I think I may be coming down with something as I have a permanent tickle in my throat. It feels like one of your long blond hairs.”

I felt something under my tongue and tried to catch it between my thumb and forefinger. Sure enough, it was a hair, but not one of Belinda’s blonde ones. It was wiry and curly, and very strong, as if it came from a wild animal. I pulled it and felt a strange sensation as it slid up the back of my throat.

By now, Belinda was wide awake and looking at me.

“How weird,” she giggled. “I wonder where that could have come from. Surely I would have seen it, if it was in the meal.”

I slowly pulled and it kept coming. Eventually I had nearly a foot of hair hanging out of my mouth and could still feel it at the back of my throat. I started to feel a little concerned. For nearly an hour I continued to extract the  – whatever it was – from my throat. I pulled slowly because I was worried that I might do some damage if I yanked hard enough. Maybe the thread (I had ceased to think of it as a hair because of its unending length) could be caught around an organ and I might hurt myself if I pulled too hard.

At seven o’clock we were still on the bed. Belinda was holding the ball of thread that had been extracted. She looked very concerned at such an unexplainable situation. By now I was feeling quite shaky. My throat was becoming a little sore, and I was having repeated bouts of choking due to the feeling of this thread down my throat. I had a terrible feeling of fear at the thought of needing to swallow, maybe dragging the thread back down inside of me.

Eventually Belinda demanded that we call the NHS hotline. By eight o’clock there was a clod of thread, enough to fill a carrier bag, all over the bed cover. Belinda went to the phone and dialled 111.

I was still pulling the thread out as I listened to one half of Belinda’s conversation.

“We need some advice………A ball of thread has been coming out of my husband’s mouth for over three hours…..no it is not a joke….”

All of a sudden the thread stopped. I had finally reached the end or, as I had feared, perhaps it had caught around something internally. Belinda dropped the phone, immediately forgetting about the call, and joined me back on the bed.

I stared into her eyes as I gently pulled on the thread, trying to feel if anything untoward was happening inside of me. It had become much thicker and stronger and was offering a lot of resistance, but no pain. Belinda was almost crying in anticipation. I watched little wet tears pop out of her eyes, as I braced myself for one last tug. I had decided that if this didn’t work she must drive me to the hospital. I was sweating and trembling terribly by now, quite exhausted after such a long time.

I squinted my eyes and saw Belinda’s eyes squinting in a mimicry of sympathy as I gave one final hard yank at the thread. I felt something move deep down in my stomach. There was no pain. Something in my brain told me that it was safe to continue. I pulled hard and felt a large object slowly slide up through my chest, into my throat and gradually into my mouth. Belinda gasped, with her mouth wide open as she saw what it was.

“It’s a fish. It’s a blinking massive fish. My God, how can that be?”

I wasn’t out of the woods yet. The head of the fish was now out of my mouth, but I could still feel the fins and trunk down my throat. I couldn’t breathe and had no choice but to give one final last yank. Out it came, a fully formed trout. I lay it down on the bed. It was as though, with its ugly head, was looking at me. Neither I nor Belinda spoke for some minutes. I felt the bile rising in me as I stared down at a three or four pound trout, far bigger than any that I had ever caught on my fishing trips, with my two brothers over many years.

We didn’t know what to do. It made no sense to call a doctor. I wasn’t ill. The Guinness Book Of Records would have been more appropriate. Belinda took a photograph and we packed the whole mess into a large carrier bag and put it in the wheelie bin.

I felt so exhausted that all I wanted to do was sleep. Belinda made me some warm lemon and honey for my throat and by the time I had finished it my eyes were closing. I fell into a very deep sleep.

******

“They are here,” Belinda shouted, looking through the front curtains. “Oh, both of them at the same time. How lovely.”

Cheryl, Matt and their three children, along with David, Ruth and the twins all came up the garden path, all carrying presents, wine, and all sorts of wonderful goodies.

We soon proceeded to give out all of the presents. The children whooped when they saw their gifts. We all hugged and kissed, thanking each other for such well thought out items. Belinda received a new yoga mat, a Samsung tablet and from me some new gold earrings. I received some new gardening wellies and a lovely pair of silk pyjamas from Belinda.

Finally Cheryl and David came with two packages. They said that they wanted to buy me something particular, but due to the cost had decided to buy jointly.

My excitement grew as I saw the anticipation of both of their faces. This was obviously something quite special.

It was a Daiwa trout fishing rod and the book that I had always wanted, but could never afford, an original new copy of Robert Roosevelt’s ‘Superior Fishing’.

I looked at Belinda. She was nervously smiling, trying to reassure me with her lovely caring eyes. The tears began to roll down my cheeks. I couldn’t speak.

Cheryl and David stared at me in amazement. The whole family was looking at me. No one had ever seen me cry before.

“Dad! What’s up? Don’t you like it? We just wanted to buy you something special this year, especially as you will have time on your hands now that you have retired.”

I tried to speak, but the words would not form. The horror of yesterday came flooding back into my mind. Eventually I stammered, “No, really. It is lovely, just what I always wanted”

“Then what on Earth is the matter Dad?”

I just managed to get the words out before I finally broke down completely, blubbering like a baby.

“I never want to see another trout as long as I live.”

******

Of course I calmed down eventually. Our Christmas lunch was wonderful. Crackers, paper hats, turkey and all of our usual traditional celebrations were as perfect as ever.

After lunch, while the children occupied themselves with their presents and played games, Belinda and I told the story of yesterday’s drama with the miles of tread and the extra-large trout. Everyone was quiet, listening intently until we had finished. After I had explained how a four pound trout came out of my body, at the end of hundreds of yards of line, David was first to break the silence.

“Brilliant Dad. Absolutely brilliant.”

Everyone burst out laughing, totally impressed with the joke tears, the whole crazy story.

“You must have spent the whole day preparing that one. And the tears. You really had us all fooled.”

I leant over to Belinda and whispered, “should we go to the rubbish bin and show them?”

“I think not,” she quietly replied. “better to leave it as it is.”

Two Wrongs Make a Life

“There are few reasons for telling the truth, but for lying the number is infinite.”
― Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Emma Richards was in love. It was a long time coming, but at twenty-eight and after numerous short term relationships, she had finally found the man of her dreams. John was different, quietly confident, thoughtful, caring. He wasn’t particularly attractive, well not physically, but that didn’t matter at all. To Emma, John was the loveliest man she had ever shared her time with.

They had known each other for nearly six months and the last couple of those had seen each other two or three times a week. He was one of those rare men she had known who didn’t see sex as the top priority in their relationship. Most men only wanted one thing, or at least that had been her experience. Of course they had kissed and petted, on occasions quite intensely, but John was content to wait until they were more committed together before he took that final step. They had not yet discussed marriage, but John had often intimated that he would like a more secure partnership with Emma. She imagined that he was short before making a proposal. Knowing John as she did, it would probably be a formal affair, down on one knee and a very expensive ring. She could hardly wait.

Tonight was a big night out. Her best friend was having her hen party. Emma would be looking after her, to make sure she didn’t do anything she would regret. The drinks would be flowing for sure.

By nine o’clock twenty-four fun loving young ladies were dancing away to a live rock band. They were having a wonderful time, all except one, Emma’s friend Jody. Jody was having serious second thoughts. She was not sure if she wanted to commit to one man for the rest of her life. Emma tried to reassure her, telling her about John and how she would love to make such a step. Jody was drinking far too much, far too early.

The evening had started with so much promise, yet was descending fast.  The other girls didn’t recognise Jody dashing out to be sick. By eleven o’clock it was clear that Emma needed to get her friend home. As she had also drank far too much to drive, they staggered outside together to try to find a taxi.

“Whoa! Careful!”, came a loud voice as they turned the corner towards the taxi rank, bumping into a tall attractive man in blue jeans and black crewneck pullover, which emphasised his regular gym work.. “My, you two look a bit worse for wear”.

“Hello Dean”, Emma replied. “Sorry, but I really need to get Jody home straightaway. She is really not well.”

Emma had known Dean for years. They had gone to school together and lived only two streets apart. They had been together for a short time a few years ago, so the familiarity between them was not unusual, particularly when he offered to take them both to Jody’s in his car.

He dropped them off. Emma delivered Jody home and her parents, who she still lived with, took it from there. Dean waited outside in order to take Emma home. As she walked back to his car, she realised that she had also had far too much to drink.

Dean suggested that they get a bite to eat. “You need something other than alcohol in your stomach”, he convinced her. The local Chinese was nearby.

Emma relaxed in the company of an old friend, good food and the gentle atmospheric music of the restaurant. As they left to walk back to the car, Dean put his arm around Emma and she felt warm and comfortable with it.

*****

John could hardly sleep, he was so excited. Today he bought the ring. At the weekend he had booked a table in a Three Star Michelin restaurant and would propose to Emma. He was not nervous of the reply, but very confident that their relationship had moved to the right point.

That night, as he lay in bed, imagining, anticipating and planning their future life together, Emma was in the arms of an old flame.

She woke in the early hours, the dry thickness in her throat, from the alcohol, making her feel very thirsty. She stepped out of bed, barely opening her eyes, as she stumbled into a cupboard that shouldn’t have been there. This brought her quickly to her senses. There was enough light seeping through the curtains for her to see a little. The horror struck her as she looked down at Dean’s naked body. He looked wonderful, tanned, handsome, and breathing peacefully as she stared at him. It was as if she was looking at her own life from above, with the knowledge that she had ruined it completely, thrown away her one chance at true happiness. John would never forgive her. She could never forgive herself.

She dressed quietly and left. Dean didn’t stir.

*****

Normally Emma didn’t appreciate such high end cuisine. She was a person who enjoyed good quality, healthy food but couldn’t help thinking that much of the very expensive price in such a restaurant was spent on unnecessary fancy trimmings. However, tonight was different. She was well aware that John wanted the perfect setting for what he was about to propose. She had understood immediately after he invited her to this meal. She has sensed his anticipation and excitement. Tonight would be the day he asked her to marry him, and she would say, “yes”, despite the nagging guilt that she felt from her drunken night with Dean, only three days earlier.

For three days she switched between convincing herself to tell him about it, knowing that it would probably end their relationship, and keeping quiet and trying to forget her stupid action. In the end she simply couldn’t bring herself to put her whole future at risk, knowing at the same time it was wrong of her. She promised herself that she would make John a good wife and from now on remain loyal to him until they died. She would prove that she was worth it, even if it took her a lifetime to do so.

John had really gone over the top. Another table was brought next to theirs, followed by a huge vase containing sixty red roses, John explained one rose to represent each year of their life together. On one knee, he handed her the most exquisite diamond ring with the marriage proposal she had been expecting. A tear ran down her face as she accepted. Even she did not know the true reason for that tear. Was it happiness or guilt?

*****

“Come on, hurry up or you will be late for school”, Emma shouted up the stairs, to the loud rumbling of footsteps from her three boys. Johnny, now fourteen and showing the first hints of chin fluff was the first one down.

“Bye Mum, have a nice day.” He was out of the door in a flash.

Peter, nine and Jason, seven soon followed down. Emma would drive them to their middle school. Even at that age their likeness to their father was uncanny. Both had the same wide nose, deep-set eyes and quiet manner. Young Johnny was far more like her, blonde, blue eyes and more openly fun-loving. There was never a day went by that Emma didn’t feel a pang of pleasure in her heart for her four boys, as she called them.

As she was helping Jason with his coat buttons, there was a loud screech outside, followed by a similarly loud crash which stopped her in her tracks. She ran outside to see a smoking Passat estate smashed up against a large beech tree. Horrified, at the possibility of what she would find in the car, she quickly rushed towards it. Then she saw something else, what looked like a pile of John’s clothes lying in the middle of the road, his school satchel open, with papers blowing out into the cool breeze. She didn’t hear her own scream as she tore down on the limp body of her firstborn. His eyes were open, but he couldn’t speak. Shock was holding him in a trance-like state. Blood was gushing from his right leg, flowing to the beat of his young heart.

Emma trembled and felt the panic rise in her body. A neighbour shouted that she had called the emergency. Emma went into overdrive, knowing that she must move fast or her son would bleed to death. She took off his tie, wrapped it twice around his leg, but couldn’t find a stick or something to twist a tourniquet. Afterwards she would know that it hadn’t been a good idea, but the only thing she could imagine to use to tighten the tourniquet was her own arm. She quickly fastened the loop, and crawled round and round her son’s still body, as she felt the tourniquet slowly tightening. The pain was excruciating, but the blood flow slowed. She made two more rotations around him, watching as the blood finally stopped. She was soaked in her own son’s blood. The sound of the ambulance siren rang through her ears, and was the last thing she heard as she lost consciousness. The pain in her arm had sent her into oblivion.

*****

John sat next to his son’s bed. He was breathing quietly, and according to the doctor would have no lasting damage apart from a nasty scar down his right leg. Their main concern was the amount of blood that he had lost and therefore would be in hospital for a while until it was stabilised. The doctor had said that it was only due to his wife’s quick thinking that his son was alive, although he couldn’t agree with her exact method. Emma was in another ward with a nasty injury to her arm. She had torn the delicate flesh and broken her radius bone, in her desperation to stop the bleeding. John was overwhelmed with the love and respect he felt for Emma, who would clearly have destroyed herself willingly to save her son.

As he stood up to leave and go to see Emma, he looked up at the red bag of blood, slowly seeping into his boy. O+ was his son’s blood group. He had never thought much about it before. He didn’t know any of his family’s blood type, not even his own.

Emma was sitting up in bed, feeling quite chirpy. The knowledge that her son was safe was all she had wanted.

They held hands for a long time, not needing to speak, simply be together.

“Do you know what? I feel a bit of a fool”, said John suddenly. “Our son almost died through loss of blood and I didn’t even know what blood type he has. Is that normal?”

Emma laughed, “You men are all the same. You have AB positive, which is quite rare I think. I’m A positive, Johnny is O positive and the two little ones are both A positive, the same as me. See, now you know.”

John shook his head in disbelief at how she could remember all of this. For him, it had never seemed important. He thought that perhaps it should, and promised himself that he would take more notice in future

*****

They were all happy to be back home and safe. Johnny was lying on the couch, with his leg up. Emma was sitting in her armchair with her arm in a sling. Peter and Jason were lying on the rug in front of the fire. They were watching a film on the TV. John looked at them all one by one, wondering how he could have coped had he ever lost one. It had been a close thing with Johnny. A few inches further and he would have taken the full force of that Volkswagen Passat, the driver of which sadly hadn’t survived the collision with the tree. John pondered and marvelled at the same time as to how fragile life is, something that we so often take for granted.

While everyone was quiet and engrossed in the film, John began messing with his smartphone, checking Whatsapp messages, latest Facebook posts and finally ended up Googling in a search for next year’s holiday accommodation. While he was at it, the thoughts came into his mind about the discussion over his family’s blood group. He googled blood types and their meanings. Soon, there it was, plain and clear on his phone.

‘ A man who has type AB blood could not father a child with type O blood, because he would pass on either the A or the B allele to all of his offspring. Despite their usefulness in this regard, ABO blood groups cannot be used to confirm whether a man is indeed a child’s father.’

“What’s the matter?” asked Emma, noticing the look of shock on his face.

John checked himself quickly. “Oh, I just saw on Facebook an old school friend of mine has been sent to prison for theft,” he lied. “He always was a bit untrustworthy at school”.

His mind raced back to the day he had proposed to Emma, the tears in her eyes. He thought of his ideas of a long engagement, with a properly planned wedding, which were cut short by the pregnancy. They had made love the week after they had become engaged, and it had been no surprise to him that Emma had conceived so quickly. He knew now that Johnny was not his own flesh and blood. He looked at him closely. All he could see was his son, a son that he loved as before.

John realised that no-one knew except him. Emma had clearly never pieced it together, otherwise she would not have been so open with explaining all of their blood types. It would break Johnny’s heart to learn the truth. He decided there and then that no-one must know. It would be a secret that he would take with him to the grave for the sake of his family. He knew Emma. Whatever had happened was before he proposed to her. She had been the love of his life and a wonderful mother ever since. Despite the shocking discovery, he realised that he still trusted her as always.

His mind began racing. “But what if she ever finds out?” he asked himself. “Surely one day she will come across the same information. It must only be a matter of time.”

He came up with an elaborate plan of deception in order to save his family.

*****

A few weeks later, when everyone was sitting at the breakfast table, John casually mentioned that he had an appointment on Tuesday to give blood.

“Really, what has brought this on again suddenly?” asked Emma. “You haven’t given blood since we have been married. It was only by seeing your old donor card that I knew you were AB positive. Do you know kids, your special Dad also has special blood. It is quite rare.”

“Well, you know. With what happened to Johnny it just made me realise that I have a responsibility to give something back”, he replied.

John thought that his plan was going to be a little more difficult that he had imagined.

On the following Tuesday afternoon, at the time he had announced his blood donor appointment, he sat in the local park. He had neither eaten or drank anything the whole day, in order to make himself as weak as possible. He called Emma.

“Emma, can you come to the park to pick me up. I’m not able to drive my car. I feel awful.”

“Oh my goodness. What’s wrong?” she gasped.

“Can you just come?”

“Of course. I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

John waited, trying to make himself look as weak and awful as possible by the time she arrived.

“John! What is the matter?” a very nervous looking Emma asked, after spotting him drooped on a park bench.

“I went for my blood donor appointment, which was fine, but I felt a bit giddy afterwards, so came here to get some air and settle down a bit. When I tried to get back up I almost fainted, so here I am.”

“Well let’s get you home. Perhaps giving blood is not for you, if it is going to make you feel like this.”

While they were in the car on the way home, John delivered the second part of his plan.

“Oh, by the way,” he said as casually as he could muster, “a strange thing happened while I was giving blood. They told me that there had been a mistake on my donor card. Apparently, I’m not the rare man that you thought I was. I’m just a bog standard O like Johnny. They will send me a new card with the correction on. They said sometimes it happens, especially many years ago.”

Emma smiled and winked at him. “I guess I can still love you, even if you are run-of-the-mill.”

John smiled back. He knew that his plan had worked and his family would remain intact as it had always been. The only thing he must never allow is that he comes into a situation where he will need to have a blood transfusion.

He sat back in his seat and told himself that lying is easy, as long as the motive is honourable.

The End

The Train Journey

 “Life is a train ride, and at the many stations along the route, people important to us debark, never to get aboard again, until by the end of the journey, we sit in a passenger car where most of the seats are empty.” Dean Koontz

I didn’t hear the alarm at all. I guess it was due to too much whisky last night, as it was my birthday. Luckily Sandra was more alert and I woke to her soft voice, gently cajoling me towards consciousness. As I began to open my eyes, and glanced into her sleepy face, she read my mind and briefly looked cheekily under the bedclothes. With a wry smile she threw the covers back, “not now, Mr Wiggly will have to wait. You will miss your train.” She rolled over and turned her back to me, mumbling something about wanting to sleep further.

I glanced at the clock, 5am. My train was due to leave at 6.45 and I just had time to take the S-Bahn to Hauptbahnhof, grabbing a couple of ‘Belegte Brötchen’  at the station, and boarding the early train from Berlin to Budapest, changing only once in Vienna. I hated early business trips. I am rarely able to sleep on the train, which normally leaves me tired and irritable at the other end. Especially today, it would be impossible to sleep, as I was travelling with a colleague and we had to prepare the presentation together. This was the main reason that we decided to make the eleven hour train journey, to give us time to work out the details.

At 6.40 precisely, I was sitting in our pre-booked compartment, waiting for Jürgen to arrive. “He is leaving it very tight,” I thought, as I looked nervously at my watch. The whistle sounded. The doors closed and we began to move away from the platform. I felt the panic rise in my stomach. There was no way that I would be able to prepare the presentation on my own. Jürgen had most of the statistics and recommendations to hand. All I had was my presentation technique and selling abilities. He was the brain and I the salesman. I began to feel nauseous. I called his number immediately to find out what the hell was going on.

“Jürgen, where are you? What is going on? You have missed the train.”

A groan came back. A voice, barely audible said that he was very sorry, but had been up all night with terrible stomach cramps. Only an hour earlier he had finally fallen asleep. I had woken him with my call.

“What am I going to do now?” I hissed.

“Bob, don’t worry. I will get a couple of the guys to come round and we will prepare everything for you. I promise, we will have the presentation ready to email to you as soon as you arrive in your hotel tonight. We can discuss it this evening, ready for tomorrow’s meeting.”

This is how I came to be sitting alone in a six seater compartment for eleven hours, without any prospect of sleeping. I hadn’t even a good book to read, as I had expected to be working the whole time. The trees and fields began to roll by as we left the city, and I braced myself for a long and monotonous journey.

*****

One day, just a few years ago, when my parents were in their late eighties, I called them for a chat. I always had a good conversation with my father, who came to the phone as soon as I called. After some time he called my mother to come to the phone to speak with me. I had been badgering them for years to buy a new cordless one, so that they didn’t have to stand in the hall every time the phone rang, but they weren’t interested in new-fangled gadgets. I even bought them one as a Christmas present, but they politely said that they would use it but only when the old one gave up the ghost. This was ten years earlier. My mother eventually arrived in the hall.

“Hello Robert. How are you? Is Sandra well?”

“Fine thanks. We are both fine. How is the weather?”

“What? I can’t hear you? What did you say?” She then handed the phone back to my Dad because she couldn’t hear me.

“I’m sorry son,” my Dad said. “Your Mum can’t hear very well and hates to use the phone. You know how it is.”

So I had decided to write her a long letter. I knew that she would prefer this, as she could show it to her friends and read it over again if she wished. I could also put some photographs in to show her where we live and what we were up to. Naturally, I preferred to use a handwritten format, rather than the computer, as it is more personal, especially for my mother. I started to write, only to find that my handwriting was almost illegible and my fingers cramped after every couple of sentences. I realised that I hadn’t written anything more than a couple of scribbled notes for many years. I’d lost the ability to write nicely, something I had used to pride myself on. After fighting my way through the letter I resolved to write more often in future, and try to recover my writing ability. I decided to start by writing a daily diary, and have been doing so for a few years.

Now, the reader may well be forgiven for wondering what on Earth this has to do with my train journey to Budapest. It is simply that I did have my diary in my briefcase and a new gold Waterman ballpoint pen that Sandra had given me last night for my birthday. I began to use the time to write a few entries from the previous days, when a knock came on the compartment door and a thickset middle aged man poked his head around.

“Excuse me, would you mind if I shared this compartment with you? Mine is full and to be honest two of the young men sharing it are both rather drunk. I would prefer to sit quietly and get some sleep during this long journey,” he said.

“No, no of course. Make yourself comfortable. I am alone here.”

He was a strange man. He spoke with a very polite English manner, but was clearly eastern European. I assumed Hungarian from his accent and appearance. I settled down to my diary and he sat opposite, closed his eyes and gradually relaxed his breathing as he dozed off.

*****

Armand Kardos boarded the train in Berlin, with three policemen hot on his tail. He had managed to lose them somewhere around Friedrichstrasse and had made it to the Hauptbahnhof. He had jumped into the train at the last second and had no ticket. He needed funds and fast.

Two days earlier Kardos arrived in Berlin to visit his brother. He had asked, demanded and finally begged him to lend him 5000Euros. He had explained that if he didn’t pay the debt by the end of the week his life wouldn’t be worth living.

“I don’t have that kind of money, Armand. I can’t help you. If it is so dangerous for you to return without the money, why not stay here a while until it blows over?” said Eric, his brother.

“I can’t. They will visit our mother, if I’m not there. You don’t know these people. She will not be safe.”

After he left, Armand, in his desperation tried to rob a café. It was an amateurish attempt and he was thrown out by two German guys and the police were called.

He now sat in the compartment, closing his eyes enough to appear to be asleep, but in reality he was observing the well dressed, wealthy looking businessman opposite, wondering if he could be the answer to his financial problems.

*****

I put my diary down to rest my eyes for a few moments and looked at the engraving on the pen in my hand. ‘To Bob, with all my love, your Sandra’.

I watched the natural beauty of the fields, the trees and the various animals grazing. The sky was blue and I could pick out a bird of prey, possibly a buzzard, circling above, with its eyes firmly fixed on something. I was fascinated by the way it then remained absolutely stationary in the air, balancing the wind and gravitational forces perfectly, before swooping down in a flash. My eyes gradually closed and, despite my earlier doubts,  I drifted off into a deep unconscious sleep.

At some point I began to dream. I dreamt of being chased by an eagle. An eagle with talons the size of carving knives. Its beak was made of razor edged steel. It swooped down towards me. I panicked and thrust the only thing I had available, my ballpoint pen, directly at it. The sharp end of the pen caught the eagle on the side of his head. It shrieked and turned away. Even though I was asleep, I was somehow aware that it was only a dream, and I felt calm again. I slept on.

After a while, which may have been only seconds or some hours, I began to dream again. Have you ever had a dream, whereby you knew all of the time that you were only dreaming? I had often had this experience and imagined I could encourage myself to remain in the dream if it was pleasant, but force myself to wake up if it turned into a nightmare.

In this particular case, I found myself trying to wake up, before it went too far. I dreamt that I was fast asleep in the train compartment but suddenly became aware of a shadow of something towering over me. I felt a rustle under my jacket, as though a hand was reaching for my wallet. In my dream I opened my eyes to see the Hungarian standing over me, trying to get at my wallet while I was sleeping. In my terror I could see that he had a knife in his left hand. I tried and tried to force myself to wake up before he stabbed me, but this time I could not.

My dream continued. We struggled and I felt the pain of his knife driving into my left shoulder, as if it was really happening. I was shouting to myself, “wake up, wake up you fool”, but the pain felt real and the blood was quickly soaking my shirt. I thrust and fought as hard as I could and finally, at the crucial moment before the Hungarian could stab me again, my dream stopped and I felt comfortable and safe again. I slept on, in a deep tranquil sleep. My breathing settled down, and I lay down on the bench seat in the steadily rolling train, heading for Vienna, where I would change trains for Budapest.

*****

I gradually woke, expecting to hear the screeching of metal wheels on metal tracks, or the continuous chugga chugga sound, but all I could make out was a regular beep…beep…beep. I slowly opened my eyes. I saw a white unmarked ceiling. I could sense other people in the room, bustling to and fro. I turned my head slowly. With a very blurred vision I thought that I saw Sandra, sitting by me, reading a book. I realised that I must still be asleep and dreaming again. I squeezed my eyes together to clear my vision and looked again.

“Sandra?” I whispered.

She looked up and smiled. “Ah, you are awake.”

“Where am I,” I stuttered, confused and a little frightened.

“Darling, you were found in your compartment yesterday, when the train arrived in Vienna. You were unconscious and had lost a lot of blood. You have been asleep for over 24 hours.”

My mind was racing. It had only been a dream. What was happening?

“Where is the Hungarian guy, who was with me”, I asked. “He can explain everything.”

“No-one else was with you Bob. You were the only person in the compartment when the police arrived on the scene. They are waiting outside, wanting to speak with you.”

I was left alone for another hour to recover slightly before signalling that I was now ready to speak with the police. I wanted to understand what had happened just as much as they did.

I explained everything that I could remember. The description of the Hungarian man, how he asked to share my compartment. I explained about my dream, which was unhelpful, because it made no sense. I even told them about the Eagle and me fending it off with my gold pen, at which they just looked at the floor, as though I was crazy. Perhaps I was crazy.

“Just a moment sir,” one of the police said. “Did you say you had a gold pen? None was found at the scene.”

They both signalled for me to remain there in my bed, jumped up and called one of the nurses. I could hear loud murmurs outside the door, but not make out what they were saying. Then they dashed off down the corridor.

They returned only minutes later. One of them had his phone in his hand, and turned it towards me.

“Do you recognise this man?”

I looked. His eyes were closed as though he was sleeping. “Yes, that is the guy I was telling you about. He can explain everything for sure.”

They looked at each other for a moment. “I’m afraid he will not be explaining anything. He died this afternoon. They tried to remove the weapon from his chest, but too much damage had been done to his heart. He died on the operating table.”

My mind was racing again. How could this be?

One of the policemen then looked at me, took a deep breath and said,” Mr Johnson, we will be needing you to make a full statement tomorrow, but for now, take a rest and don’t worry about anything. You have no need to worry.”

“What are you saying,” I blurted out angrily. “No need to worry! I have a stab wound in my shoulder, am barely conscious and have no idea what on Earth is going on, and you tell me not to worry.”

“Sir, the man in the picture was Armand Kardos. He is a known petty criminal. In his pocket we found your wallet. It was him that robbed you. It was not a dream.”

“But, then what happened? Who killed him?”

The policeman hesitated before he spoke. He fired a questioning glance at his colleague, who nodded solemnly. “The weapon which was removed from his chest was a Waterman gold ballpoint pen, with an engraving which read ‘To Bob, with all my love, your Sandra’. I assume this is your pen, and that it was you who killed Armand Kardos in self-defence while he was trying to rob you. It was no dream.”

They left. Sandra returned, took my hand and I fell into another deep sleep.

*****

The following morning I felt much better. The knife had missed anything vital, and I was quickly recovering from the blood loss with the help of various drips. I could even sit up in bed to eat my breakfast, when a familiar bearded smiling face appeared around the door. It was Jürgen.

“Hey, what are you doing here?” I asked.

“Bob, I couldn’t go to Budapest without stopping here in Vienna to check up on you. I do feel partly responsible for what has happened, as I left you alone on the train. This morning I took the early flight and will go to Budapest by train in a couple of hours. The meeting was postponed and is set for this afternoon. Don’t worry, all is well prepared.”

“Well, thanks for stopping by. Good luck for this afternoon. We really do need that contract.”

“In two days I will return here to help Sandra take you home. The doctor says you should be ready.”

After he left I finished my breakfast and settled down to another long deep sleep, but this time without any dreams or nightmares.

The End

 

Sisters

Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method…is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community…Yes , love-which means understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill, even for one’s enemies-is the solution

Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

I have just reached ninety years of age. As I sit here on the cold hardwood ipe bench, pondering over those years, wondering if I could have lived my life in a better way – maybe a better education, more personal successes, or a more loving husband, the melancholy begins to overwhelm me.  Then I think of my three boys and can’t for the life of me imagine how it could have ever been different. To have wished for a better life would have seemed a betrayal of the three lives I created and all of the subsequent grandchildren and great grandchildren. No, I can’t wish for having had a better life, but maybe just a more loving and considerate husband.

In my hand I hold a little scrap of paper. On it, many years ago, I wrote a little poem, during a time of particular despair. It had been one of those numerous times when Basil had ridiculed me in front of the boys. He was loud, the boys laughed, and I cried inwardly.

 

I am just a verbal punch bag,

So use me if you can,

Because I am a woman

That is picked on by a man

 

Kicks and blows won’t hurt me,

But words, they do bite deep.

When they hurt my feelings,

I cry myself to sleep

 

 

I’m just a verbal punch bag,

Of that, there is no doubt.

And as I’m getting older

My time is running out

 

I’m just a verbal punch bag,

The butt of husband and sons.

So when the Good Lord calls me

They can pick another one

 

They have sapped my spirit.

Of Courage I’m bereft.

So I just sit and suffer,

For I now have no fight left

 

I stood to leave, holding back the tears of regret, trying to focus on the good times. Oh, where did those years go? Suddenly my thoughts were interrupted.

“Madge! Is it really you? What are you doing here? I thought….”

It was Win, my sister. I certainly didn’t expect to see her here, especially on such a cold damp day. She had always hated the wet weather. At first, we looked cautiously at each other, judging how the reaction would be. I saw purely love and affection, the kind that only sisters can share. Within seconds we were hugging, laughing and making little sense as we spoke over each other, asking questions faster than could be answered. Eventually we sat down on the bench and became calm, almost morose, as we began to recount those awful days which resulted in our permanent estrangement thirty years earlier.

******

Win’s husband, Les, was a generous man. He had always been kind to me, too kind in retrospect.

After Les and Basil were demobbed in 1948 money was scarce. The young men and women had been at war almost as long as they could remember and there was a deep longing for normality to return. Simple pastimes, such as a walk along the canal bank, watching a film on a Saturday afternoon, or enjoying a relaxed meal without the threat of sirens, warning of incoming destruction, were sought by everyone. To settle down, get married, buy a house and have children became the only dreams of thousands of young people, tired of the horrors of war. As money was so tight, Win and I agreed to a double wedding at the local church. New houses were being built in the same street as my home, and we persuaded Les and Basil to buy two joined semi-detached houses. We were very happy…..but not for long.

Les’ kindness towards me was soon to be misinterpreted by Basil. He was jealous of everything and everybody. I soon became pregnant with my first and my short working life was over for good. Win and I were close. We were next door neighbours and our children grew up together as if they were all siblings. I was too busy to think about myself or my life. I cooked, washed, shopped and cleaned. Soon, by the time I was thirty, with three growing boys and a hardworking husband, it was all I could do to keep them fed and healthy. If any of this was appreciated, I never saw a sign of it. I only saw complaints or ridicule.

Les observed all of this, of course. Gradually, as the years went by, he would sometimes come for a chat and bring some cider to cheer me up. One day when Basil came in from work his first words were, “Evening Mother, what’s cooking for me and the lads?” He must have had a rare pang of conscience, turning back to peck me on the cheek.

“Have you been drinking?” he blurted out.

“Les came round with a bottle of cider and we sat outside in the garden. It was really lovely.”

I watched as he raged instantly. His face was red with jealousy.

“I’m going to put a stop to this right now,” he shouted as he left the house.

I could hear the shouting through the walls of our joined houses. Les had added fuel to the fire, by suggesting that if Basil treated me better, he wouldn’t see any need to try to cheer me up. Basil hit him, and told him never to set foot in our house ever again. I still saw Win during the day, but something was broken. She no longer wanted to be in the house any more than was necessary. Her first loyalty was to Les, and rightly so.

There were many other similar rages over the years, many to do with the possessive nature of Basil towards me. I sometimes wondered if he saw me as his personal property, rather than an separate human being, with emotions and feelings. Eventually, after the children had grown, Win and Les moved away. I never saw them again, except for weddings and funerals. Even there, contact was kept to a polite minimum.

Not wishing to bore the reader with all of the details, but in order to give some understanding to the situation, I will provide one more anecdote. After the boys had all left home, I wanted to return to work. I was forty-five and naturally needed something to occupy myself. I arranged and went for an interview at the local Mothercare shop. A few days later a letter arrived to tell me that I had been offered the job and to start next Monday. I was so excited to be able to start something fresh.

When Basil came home, I was pleased to be able to tell him that I had the job and he no longer needed to do so much overtime. I couldn’t even get as far as explaining the salary or working hours before I saw that familiar redness rising from his throat.

“I am the bread winner in this house,” he screamed at me. “I earn the money. You clean and cook. That’s the deal. There will be no job. I’m not having you meeting all kinds of people, who will put big ideas into your head.”

“But…” The slap cut me off. I flopped into the armchair stunned and cried.

And so it was to be. I should have left, but with both of my sisters gone from my life, I was too afraid and alone to start a new life. From then on, the domination grew and I succumbed to becoming the sole personal possession of my once dashing husband.

So, after thirty years of being apart here was Win, sitting next to me. We discussed it over and over again, but the past can’t be altered. We hugged as though we were afraid to let each other go.

“Did you ever hear from Dolly?” Win asked.

“No,” I replied. “I think John tried to keep her away from us after Mum died.

******

My eyes caught sight of a person coming towards us. At the last minute she did an about turn in the other direction. I was sure it was Dolly, but surely such coincidences can’t happen. We had only just been discussing her. I didn’t even hear myself shout, “Dolly”.

She turned around, looked at us nervously and when I was sure she was going to run away, she turned back and came towards us.

“I…I…I thought it might be you,” she stammered. “I see you are both together, just like always”.

We explained that we hadn’t seen each other for nearly thirty years, that we were three sisters kept apart from each other by stubborn men. We told Dolly everything, about the cruelty, the possessive jealousy, and the fights.

Dolly listened quietly. “Our men have certainly a lot to answer for. After all, the reason we lost contact was also due to the men fighting over Mum’s will, an inheritance that none of them had any rights to, as it was none of their business. But still, they had to put their ore in as always, resulting is a massive family row.”

“Where is John,” I asked, realising that I hadn’t yet asked Win about Les either.

“He is very ill with cancer, but the doctors said that it is a very slow form, and he should live quite few years with the illness. He is on a special medication. He even asked for my forgiveness for keeping us three apart all those years. I guess his own mortality has forced him to think about his life and try to atone for his mistakes. I forgave him of course. How about Les and Basil?”

I explained that Basil was as strong as a lion and would be around for quite a while yet. Win told us that Les had passed ten years earlier.

******

“Where the hell is she?”

Basil sat all alone. Madge seems to have been gone for ages. He wanted his dinner. The doorbell rang. “It must be her,” he thought. “No,” he thinks again, “she doesn’t ring the bell.” He hears the key turn in the lock.

“Hello Dad. How are you feeling today?” Jim said, as he threw his coat on the back of the chair.

“Where is she? I want my dinner.”

Jim sat gently down by his father’s side, preparing himself for yet another hour of sobs and tears, as he explained that his Mum had passed away two weeks before. Basil was a religious man. He believed in an afterlife, a place in heaven. Although he never attended church, suggesting that it was only for people who wanted to wear their beliefs on their sleeves, he always prayed and spoke to his God.

“You mean….she’s gone?”

“Yes Dad.”

Jim had explained to his father every day since his mother died, but Basil couldn’t store the memory. Whether it was due to his lack of acceptance or his worsening dementia was never clear.

“That means that she is up there, without me. She could be with anyone!”

His throat started to become crimson, and his lips trembled with anger. It was the same ritual every day.

The following day Jim arrived expecting a repeat occurance.

“Hi Dad, How are you feeling today?”

Basil’s eyes were almost closed, his head drooped, and shoulders slumped.

“Dad? What’s wrong?”

Basil raised his head slightly and just muttered, barely audible, “she’s gone”.

Jim sat quietly, placed his arm around his father’s shoulders and tried to console him. He was relieved that they no longer needed to go through the daily ritual, but this feeling was mixed with sorrow for his Dad, who finally accepted that his wife of 68 years was gone for good.

Two weeks later Basil died. As soon as he had understood and accepted that Madge was not coming back, he stopped eating or drinking and set his mind to following his Madge to wherever she was. Only Jim knew the real truth, a truth so mind-blowingly perverse, that he dare not tell a soul for fear of being ridiculed, or even worse vilified. His father wanted to reclaim his position as sole owner of his wife. Jim could hear it now. “Who knows what she will be getting up to up there, filling her head with all sorts of nonsense?”

******

I sat with Win and Dolly for a long time. The years fell away and it was just like when we were children again. We laughed, hugged and cried with happiness. After so many years, to reconcile all of those differences, seemed like a dream come true. We decided to meet again at the same time tomorrow.

The next day Win and Dolly were already on the bench chatting, as I came along. They were giggling mischievously, reminding me of the naughty tricks they would play on us when they were young. I watched them for some time, before they had seen me. I revelled in their joy and thought about how easily it had been to wash away the past. We were like children again. If only we weren’t so old. And then, astonishingly, I realised that we were not so old. We were all young again. Win was the beauty she had always been. Dolly had that crooked tooth that had marred her teenage years until she’d had a crown. I looked down at my slim body and legs, free of the ugly blue veins. How could this be?

I joined them on the bench. This was the reason that they had been so jolly, revelling in their appearance and happiness.

We met every day for the next two weeks, always the same time, although time seemed to be of no real importance any longer. The hours, days, weeks and years, all were blending into the now.

One day, as we were laughing and recounting our stories of our awful husbands and their ruinous jealousies, I was suddenly aware of a look of complete horror on Win’s face. She was staring as though she had seen a ghost. We all looked in the same direction to see a young, smart, handsome Chief Petty Officer striding towards us. We knew who it was. How could we mistake his appearance?

“I’m back. You are coming with me,” he ordered.

“I…er…I’m here with my sisters Basil. Isn’t it great? We have found each other again after all these years.”

“Enough of this nonsense. They are probably filling your head with all sorts of rubbish. You are coming with me.”

The girls looked at me, waiting to see what I would do. They knew only too well, that I had never had the courage to stand up to him.

“I’m staying here,” I said, “Now that I have found Dolly and Win again, I will never give them up”

“I said you are coming with me.” He grabbed for my arm and I prepared myself for the familiar pain and the bruises that would follow. However, there was no pain. There would be no bruises. His fingers passed through my arm, as though it wasn’t there.

We all took a while to understand. He could no longer hurt me. He no longer had any power over me. I looked at my sisters and began to chuckle. They joined in the fun, and soon all three of us were laughing hysterically. Basil was no longer in control.

His throat became crimson, rising slowly up into the cheeks and his lips began to tremble in time with the clenching of his fists.

Two men appeared from nowhere, dressed in pure white suits. They each looped an arm through Basil’s and in a very quiet but controlled tone, whispered “this way sir, if you please”.