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”.

Split Hearts

 

“It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.”
― 
Friedrich Nietzsche

If I couldn’t understand it, how could I ever expect to be able to explain it to Sandra? Even if I was able, I certainly could never expect her to come to terms with my dilemma or to forgive me for it.

Driving home that evening left me feeling sick to my stomach. Would this be the end of my marriage, the end of life as I knew it?

It all began a year earlier. A new accountant had been appointed in our department, a shy, almost introverted, middle-aged woman. The first thing I noticed about her were her well defined calf muscles, demonstrating a healthy appetite to some kind of sport. As a distance runner and squash player in my spare time, I had a keen eye for other people’s fitness, making a mental note to ask her about her sporting activities, once we were formally introduced at that morning’s team meeting.

Susan was asked to tell us a little about herself, once the initial introduction had been made. She appeared nervous but determined. She kept it short and precise. Her name was Susan Welby, forty-two, single and had worked in two previous accountancy firms since leaving university at the age of twenty-six. It occurred to me that twenty-six was late to be graduating from an accountancy degree. Her main hobbies were hiking and squash.  She exuded an air of sadness, of personal trauma, of having been recently hurt. I sat there pondering over whether someone close to her had recently died, or maybe the break-up of a close relationship, or perhaps she was fired from her last job. Either way, I thought, as I would be spending a significant amount of time with her, through our work, I would invite her to join me for lunch in order to break the ice and get to know her better.

Then, a year later, I had been driving home trying to figure out what had happened. I’d never thought it possible to love two women. Is this what having an affair was all about? I loved Sandra dearly and would never do anything to hurt her or ruin our life together. I also dearly loved our children. Dean and Shannon were everything to me, and yet Susan had found a place in my heart that was as deep and as painfully important as all of them.

It had begun with our regular lunches together, mainly due to our working relationship, and the practicality of discussing clients during the meal. As she was also a keen squash player we soon decided to meet twice a week after work for a game of squash. Sandra had been fully aware and there was never any talk of jealousy or distrust. My marriage was and still is as trusting and secure as ever. In fact, Sandra had been pleased that I had a regular squash partner, to help keep me fit and reduce the spread that had been accumulating around my waist over recent years.

After squash on Tuesday and Thursday, Susan and I would usually drink a beer together and I would arrive home around 9pm, in time to say good night to the children. This had become our routine.

Somewhere during the year our relationship became complicated, for me at least. I didn’t want it to happen. I didn’t see it coming. I had simply made a new friend and became close. If Susan were a man, it would never have become a problem. The fondness had morphed towards a feeling much stronger. I began to think of Susan as much as my children or Sandra. It didn’t mean that I loved them less. Susan had become an important part of my life and I felt a terrible pressure and guilt because of it.

Was I a bastard? Should I had distanced myself from Susan as soon as I realised she was more than a colleague? Is this what affairs are all about? I felt terrible and lost. Sandra had noticed that something was amiss. She had sensed my inner turmoil. She had asked me numerous times not to shut her out, and whatever it was, to confide in her.

Driving home that evening I had decided to tell her my secret. I was in love with two women and I didn’t know what to do.

******

Sandra cried. It was a deep, heart rending cry. I had hurt the woman I loved beyond repair. How could she ever forgive me for sharing my heart with another? Society provides us with rules to follow. We are not able to feel in the way that nature allows us to. Society puts false boundaries on us. Is it my fault that I fall in love? Is it something to be ashamed of?

All of these questions were ripping through my mind as I sat there watching Sandra’s heart break.

“Have you slept with her?” Sandra asked through wet sore eyes.

“No”, I quietly replied.

“Would you want to?”

“Yes, but I never would”, I said, not really knowing if I was being truthful or not.

She looked deep into my eyes. “Can I really believe you? Oh, Roger, what have you done to us.”

I couldn’t reply. I stood, put my coat on and left the house. Twenty minutes later I was standing in front of Susan’s apartment door.

“Roger! What….what are you doing here at this late hour? What’s happened? What is wrong?”

“Can I come in?”

Susan opened the door and I entered her small two roomed apartment. She was dressed in plain flannelette pyjamas, and despite the difficulty of the situation, I found myself thinking that it is clear she doesn’t have a bed partner. I explained everything to her and told her of my growing love for her, how I had told Sandra and how upset she had been. I told her that I would be terminating my job immediately and would never see her again. Tears began bubbling out of the inner corners of my eyes as I bared my soul.

“I’m such a fool”, I said. “I have ruined Sandra’s life. She will never trust me again.”

“But I don’t understand”, Susan pondered. “We have never ….”

I cut her off. “No, I know. But is adultery only physical? By loving you have I not betrayed Sandra? “

We both were quiet for a while.

Susan suddenly sharpened her eyes, spoke with such determination that I was taken completely by surprise.

“No, I will resign. I will leave this place. You are right, we cannot be responsible for our feelings but only for our actions. Roger, I have loved you since the first time you said goodnight on the last day before Christmas. You pecked me on the cheek and wished me a Merry Christmas. The kiss, although innocent, left me feeling flushed and I couldn’t shake the thought of you from my mind. No, I will move away. I love you and your marriage, children and happiness is more important to me than you can know.”

As she spoke, Susan began to shake. By the time her little speech was over, her face was wet with tears. I said no more. In one evening I had hurt terribly the two most important people in my life, the two women I loved more than anything else, even my own life. I didn’t know what to do. I quietly left.

I drove to a small lake. It was a lake where we often took the children for picnics and sometimes a swim in the dark, peaty water. It was 3am, very still, cool and deserted apart from the distant croaking of male frogs, calling out for a mate.

I was numb. The feeling of guilt was too strong. I had intended to hurt no one, but had hurt everyone. I didn’t plan anything or think any further than the next few minutes, but entered the water fully clothed and walked slowly into the lake. I was unaware of the water. I was floating in a cloud of nothingness. I was happy to be free from all of the pain, guilt and responsibility.  As I finally submerged all I could hear was my name being screamed from far away. I imagined being called to a new place.

******

“Roger! Roger!” were the first words I heard. My eyes were blind except for a blurry, swimming set of colour, as though I was looking through the bottom of a glass bottle. Then I was being shaken. I felt the cold, slowly seeping into my bones, my organs and my mind.

Susan was shaking my shoulders, trying to bring me back. Then I was aware of Sandra, running towards us holding a car blanket. I was being wrapped, rubbed, and brought back to a world that I no longer wanted to re-enter.

Susan and Sandra were both embracing me. That couldn’t be. I must be dreaming. Then slowly I took in the situation. With all sense of dignity gone, my eyes flitted from one to the other and all I could muster was, “I’m so so sorry”

Susan had been so worried after I had left, that she called Sandra at home. After an initially heated conversation they had come looking for me, and found my car at the edge of the lake. Susan, a powerful swimmer, had dived in and these two wonderful women were now pawing over me, through concurrent sobs and smiles of relief.

I woke at 10 o’clock. The sun was blasting through the window, and I was hot and clammy against the damp sheets. I donned a dressing gown and went downstairs, hearing low murmurs coming from the kitchen. I could hardly look at them. Susan and Sandra were sitting at the breakfast bar, on high stools. Susan looked nervous and was cuddling a large mug of tea.  My shame was overbearing. I didn’t know what to say, and turned to walk away.

“Roger, we need to talk”, called Sandra. “Susan and I have been talking. We need you to listen.”

They proceeded to tell me how they have reached a decision that I should not have to choose between them. They had seen how it had hurt me, hurt me more than they ever wanted to see again. Susan wanted me to remain happily married with Sandra and the children. Sandra wanted me to remain close to Susan, who she now realised was a kind, genuine person who loved me much as she did. I was overpowered by such a feeling of love, pride, and even incredible luck, that these two lovely women were only interested in my welfare and my happiness.

Then came the biggest surprise.

“Roger, I love you with all my heart”, began Sandra. “Therefore I think it right if, on the evenings where you and Susan play squash together, you remain with her for that night. We have discussed it and think it right and proper. We love you equally and never want to put you in the position of last night ever again.”

I was aghast. I couldn’t speak. We stood together in the kitchen, hugging each other through a cloud of pure emotion.

Sandra then continued, “Our society doesn’t condone such relationships. Society tells us that we are allowed to love only one person, remain monogamous for our whole lives. Why is it that we are expected to love our children equally, but society frowns on the same for love of two women, or two men? If I love you, which I do, then I must embrace and respect the love you have for Susan. The children though, are another matter. We should keep this from them, at least while they are young.

And so began twelve years of a triangular relationship. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I would stay with Susan. The children assumed I was away on business. After the first year, when Sandra asked me if Susan would be going to family for Christmas, and I explained that she would be alone because she only has one aunt, who lives in Scotland, she suggested that Susan shouldn’t be left alone and should come to us, at least on Christmas Day.

The children grew and came to know Susan as a close friend of the family. They also became close to her and bought her presents for birthday and Christmas, as though she were a part of our family. Most importantly, my love for Sandra became stronger. Her devotion to me and this way of life was a compromise that she had wanted to make, for the sake of all of us. My love for Susan remained unchanged. We would work, play squash, spend two evenings a week together and hug in front of the TV until it was time to turn in.

******

It was a Monday morning. We all sat around the table at breakfast. Dean asked if Susan would be coming this year, as usual. I nodded as Shannon blurted out, “Why doesn’t Susan just move in with us? We have a large house, with a spare bedroom.”

I was completely taken aback. “Why on Earth should she move in here?” I responded.

Dean looked at Shannon and both were grinning and shaking their heads in disbelief.

“Aw, come on Dad. You must think we are still little kids or something. We know that you spend two nights a week with her. We’ve known for years, and it’s fine. We like her, don’t we Shannon?”

Shannon burst out laughing. “Finally it’s out in the open. Yeah Dad of course we like her. She is like an Auntie that we never had.”

“Well, I have to go to work. Really, you kids have some crazy ideas.” I left and for me, the subject was closed.

In the evening Sandra broached the subject again. She had thought about Susan moving in and had not been averse to the idea.

“She still lives alone, probably looking forward to the nights that you are there. We are coming up for sixty years old and, in any case,  it would also be nice for me to have another woman around. I really like Susan and she has proven her love and loyalty to you a thousand times over. If you would like, you have my blessing to ask her if she would like to move here.”

I didn’t know what to say. Yet again Sandra had amazed me with her open compassion.

******

Two months later, after all arrangements had been made, I hired a large van and moved all of Susan’s belongings into our home. Susan kept the lease on her apartment for a year, just in case things didn’t work out.

After a couple of months Sandra had become increasingly aware that Susan and I never slept together. This confused her. She assumed that I or Susan didn’t want to sleep together under the same roof as the rest of my family. Sandra, being Sandra, felt uneasy at this arrangement. Susan had not been invited to live with us in order to become celibate. One day, as the three of us were at breakfast, Sandra raised the subject.

“I don’t quite know how to say this to you both, so I’m just going to blurt it out. I have noticed that you both never sleep together, as you did before Susan moved in here. This is not what I expected,” she continued, and rather hesitantly said,” and not what I want. You both love each other and should spend intimate time together.”

I was just about to speak, as Susan began to explain. At that same moment Dean and Shannon came bowling down the stairs, and set themselves between us at the breakfast table. I assumed that was the end of the discussion until the children were out of the room.

Then Susan took a deep breath and said, “There is something I need to tell you all.”

It was clear from here expression that it was serious. We all became quiet and listened to Susan telling us a story about her earlier life, a story that only I knew and had promised not to tell a soul, not even my family.

Susan explained how she had been brutally attacked on the way home at the age of nineteen. She had been beaten, cut and raped by two men. The men were never caught and she spent six weeks in hospital recovering from the wounds. By this point of her story she was shaking, remembering the whole event. She continued to tell us all how she had become pregnant and carried the baby to full term, only to be cruelly hurt again by a still birth. Sandra was looking at Susan with so much empathy it made my heart sting.

“Since that day I have never been able to sleep with a man,” and then looking at me continued, “no matter how much I loved him or wanted to.”

Sandra whispered, “I didn’t know…..I thought….oh”

“It was so important to me that you didn’t know,” replied Susan. “I could never face not knowing whether your friendship and care had been born out of sympathy or not. I only explained to Roger after he began staying with me after squash.”

******

The years have rolled by. Dean now has twin boys. Shannon has two girls. The grandchildren all have three grandmas. Until they are old enough to understand we will be gone to our graves.

My heart was split in two many years ago, but the two halves have learned to live with each other and make me the happiest man alive.

Barbara

“Though lovers be lost, love shall not; And death shall have no dominion.”
― Dylan Thomas

 

“Peter, what are you staring at? For goodness sake, pay attention lad, otherwise you will have no chance in the upcoming mock exams. Now, continue the line….’The fair breeze blew,…..”

I felt that horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. You know, the one that makes you feel as though you must dash to the toilet. I hadn’t been listening to ‘Granny Smith’, as we nicknamed her. She was our English Literature teacher. She was small, and wrinkled like a walnut. I don’t know how old she was, but certainly over a hundred, or so it seemed at the time. She was very strict, humourless and seemed to enjoy embarrassing pupils during lesson. I hated her. But no, on second thoughts, I didn’t hate her. She was too much like my own Gran for me to hate her. Secretly, I had a soft spot for Granny Smith, but would never let on to my mates of course.

I hadn’t been listening. On the same row, three desks across, was Barbara. I had not been paying attention, just looking at Barbara. Her long blonde hair, tied into a ponytail that she pulled over her right shoulder, twiddling with the ends when she was concentrating hard. I loved the little freckles on her smooth cheeks, the way she pouted at difficult questions, with full moist lips.

It was the early 1970s. The girls wore short skirts, showing off their milk white legs up to their thighs. Barbara’s were muscular but shapely, betraying her athletic ability. Her small breasts were forming and I was lost in a dream, longing to be able to see them, caress them and, kiss her beautiful red lips.

But these imaginary pleasures were shattered by Granny Smith. She wore the black schoolteacher’s gown, that many of our more senior teachers did in those days, which made her appear even more fearful.

“Well, I’m waiting”, she cried in frustration.

What was all of this “fair breeze” stuff about? I had no idea.

I just dropped my head and replied, “sorry Miss”.

With a heavy sigh, she turned to the class and continued with the explanation of the work. The ironic part of this anecdote from my schooldays is that all my life I have never forgotten the meaning of alliteration, nor those lines from the Rime of The Ancient Mariner. Probably, even without realising it, Granny Smith had taught me what she had wanted to.

As soon as the bell went, I trudged out of the classroom, feeling a bit sorry for myself. I guess it was due to looking down in the dumps that a friendly voice said, “don’t let her get to you Peter. She is like that with everyone, but has a good heart. She just wants us to take something away from these lessons and learn something, rather than end up serving in a supermarket.”

“I suppose you’re right”, I replied, looking up to see it was Barbara who was speaking to me.

“In any case, what were you staring at?”, she asked.

“Nothing”, I said. “Well that’s not strictly true, but if I tell you, you will only laugh at me.”

“Of course I won’t. I have three brothers and, believe me, there is nothing that would surprise me.” She looked so open and friendly that I decided to open up and tell her.

We went over to the edge of the playground and sat on the wall, well away from the hordes of other kids. I looked at her directly into those blue eyes, and blurted it out.

“I love you, Barbara”

She almost laughed, and even I thought it sounded totally corny. She checked herself in time, puckered her lips slightly, and said that we hardly knew each other.

“I know. It sounds ridiculous to me too, but I love you more than anything or anyone I have ever met. You are so…..so….so….perfect”

Now she did laugh, but I wasn’t offended. She laughed in a humble way, at my suggestion that she was perfect.

She passed it off by saying that she wished her Mum and Dad thought she was perfect. I noticed a slight squint in her eyes and a turn of her mouth that betrayed an unspoken sadness. She noticed my observation and without being asked the question, told me that she has to go away. Her parents think that she is not doing well enough at a mixed grammar school and will be sending her to boarding school after the summer holidays.

We saw each other every day through the holidays. I was besotted. We played tennis, held hands as we took long walks along the canal, lay in the long grass and talked, sometimes kissed. A kiss was as far as Barbara was prepared to go. I would have gone further. I wanted to hold her, devour her, have every piece of her, but my love for her meant that I respected her hesitation. We were fifteen years old.

One day I was walking down the stairs at home, when I heard my mother and father talking.

“He’ll soon get over it. Didn’t we get over our first crush soon enough?”

“I’m not so sure. This is not like Peter. He has always been so carefree. He seems to really care for her. It’ll break his heart when she disappears from his life”

I ran into the room. “Barbara will never disappear from me,” I screamed. “I will marry her and always be with her, and you will never be able to stop me.”

I was so upset that I called to see Barbara. Her father answered the door.

“Barbara is in her room, preparing for the new school curriculum. She has a lot of work to do to catch up. She will not be out today.” Her father looked very serious and almost aggressive. It was clear that he didn’t like me, or me being with his daughter.

It was to be 19 years before I saw Barbara again.

******

I tried everything I could to contact Barbara, all to no avail. I even broke into the school secretary’s office late one evening after everyone had gone home, to see if I could find some information about which boarding school she had been sent to. Her parents sent me away with a flea in my ear whenever I approached them. My parents just gave me love and sympathy, but no help to find her. They assumed I would just, “get over it”.

My school grades deteriorated. I failed all but one of my O levels. My relationship with my parents also became strained. My feeling had been that when I really needed their help, it wasn’t forthcoming. I could not trust them again. I needed to look after myself.

I took a job at 16, labouring for a plumber. The pay was small, but it kept me occupied. Dave, the plumber, was a big gentle Teddy Bear of a guy. He liked me and gradually gave me small plumbing jobs, especially in situations where his big hairy hands were too clumsy to work in confined spaces. One day he said to me, “Peter, you have a natural way about you for this work. How would you like to sign on as my apprentice? The pay won’t be much, but you can go to college and learn the trade properly. Once your City and Guilds is completed, I will set you on as a plumber. By then I will be ready to slowly wind down and retire.”

I did the apprenticeship, took the job and by the time I was twnty-five Dave retired, leaving me to run his little plumbing business. I worked hard, built the business, and within five years had a company of thirty people. By then, most of my friends were married and bringing up children. My parents had been wrong. I never did get over Barbara. There were girls, some even lasted a month or two, but every time I ended up feeling that they could never compare with the schoolgirl with the blonde ponytail. I may have been only fourteen, but my love was as real and as strong as it had been all those years ago.

I knew that I would never marry, never have children and never feel that beautiful pain of pure love ever again. I had been unlucky in life. I had met my true love far too soon.

Call it an obsession. Call it indulgence. Even call it perversion. Either way, I could never stop going over those six short weeks with Barbara. Six! Only six. I learned to break the six weeks down into 42 days, trying to remember each day as a separate memory. After all, 42 is far more than six. I found that I could break this down further, 1008 hours, although every hour was not spent with my beloved, it was as if that was the case. The nights would be spent dreaming and were as real as the daytime, when we had been together. But even a thousand was not enough for me. Each hour broke down into thousands of individual moments. The way she tied her ponytail, her squint when she was sad, her beautiful smile, which parted her lips slightly, just wide enough to show her even white teeth. I learned, over the years, to cherish every one of those millions of moments, like a bowl of sugar, where I could pick up a few crystals between the fingers of my mind, and cherish every one of them.

I knew there could never be a replacement for my lost love.

 

******

I needed to be at the bank early, as soon as they opened, in order to make a nine thirty appointment with my accountant. I parked in the multi storey, just a few minutes’ walk from the bank. It was drizzling of rain, one of those dark November mornings that sap your energy and prepare you for the long months of winter. I was looking at the floor as I hurried towards the bank, careful not to step into one of the many dirty puddles. A car came by too close, splashing water onto my trouser leg. I looked up and waved my fist in frustration.

In an instant, the car was forgotten, the rain was forgotten, and the bank was forgotten. Walking towards me was a shape, a form, a figure, an unmistakable figure. For a split second I thought I must be hallucinating. Then she looked up. It was Barbara.

I tried to control myself.

“Barbara”, I said. “Is it really you?”

“Peter, how nice to bump into you. How are you?”

“I’m fine. Busy as usual. I have a plumbing business. And you?”

“Yes, thanks. I have just dropped my boys off at school.”

It hit me like a sledge hammer. She was married with children. Within seconds I had to process this in order not to start spluttering nonsense. Of course she would be married. What else could I have expected? In order to get over my shock, I quickly switched to small talk.

“So, you are living here in Nuneaton?”, I asked.

“Yes, I have been here for four months.”

There came an awkward silence between us. There was so much to say, at least from my side. I suddenly became aware of our surroundings and realised that we were slowly getting wet.

Barbara must have had similar thoughts. “Do you have time for a coffee?” she asked. “I have nothing planned until I pick Ted and Arthur up at three o’clock”

“Er..yes. I’m free all morning too”, I lied, immediately dismissing all thoughts of banks or accountants.

We sat for two hours in a nearby cafe. Barbara told of her life at boarding school, her two horses, which took up most of her spare time. She told me about her two twin boys, Ted and Arthur. They were both six years old and identical in all ways except personality. I listened to it all with envy, jealousy. I couldn’t help thinking, they should have been my children too, but I was very careful, even afraid, not to say something that would spoil the moment.

“What does your husband do?” I asked, still trying to appear normal.

“He was an architect. He had his own company. He was very successful.”

“You must be very happy, Barbara. I am so pleased for you.”

Then I saw that squint in her eyes and the tell-tale turn of her mouth that betrayed some hidden sorrow, just as it had all those years earlier. Then a tear spontaneously sprang out of her eye, coursing down her cheek and before she could catch it, dropping onto her white blouse. My heart leapt.

At the same moment I realised what she had said. How could I be so lacking in basic empathy. She had said “was”, past tense. I wanted to crawl away and hide.

“I moved here, back to my parents, as I am now alone,” she stammered. “Roger died in a water skiing accident last June. He hit a log floating just below the surface, and broke his neck. He died on the way to the hospital.”

“Oh God, how awful, and for the boys, without a father. I’m so sorry for not realising….”, I stammered.

She cut me off, between sobs. “It’s OK, you didn’t realise. I’m OK, really. Roger and I weren’t very close if the truth be known. I never did love him like I loved….well it doesn’t matter.”

“Would you like to meet for coffee some other time?”, I tentatively asked, after plucking up courage.

“Yes, I would like that, but don’t you have a family or girlfriend?”

“No, I never did find the right person. I married my work instead.”

******

We were each thirty-four years old on that day when we met in the rain. After meeting for coffee a few more times, we began to date. We went to the cinema, on long walks along the canal. We even lay in the long grass and kissed. Nearly twenty years, a husband, two children, had changed nothing for me. This second time around I was more prepared. I savoured every minute, every second, adding more grains of sugar to my mental sugar bowl.

It was almost a year before Barbara asked me to meet her with the boys. She had to be sure about me, and was not prepared to let her boys have a string of uncles as they grew up. We met for a walk in early October. Her relief when she saw how I interacted with Ted and Arthur was plain for all to see. They liked me and I quickly grew to love them.

The evening that I was invited to Barbara’s parents’ home for dinner saw me in a state of panic for the whole day. All I remembered was that they hated me, and I had certainly harboured my fair share of hate for them. They had stolen a piece of my life. They had banished me to a life without the person I loved. But how could I be angry at them? They had also created the very person that I loved. They had made my wonderful torment possible.

I pressed the same doorbell that I had pressed in anger 20 years earlier. The same person came to answer the door. But it wasn’t the same person. It was a stooped, grey haired old gentleman, with sad eyes and shaky hands.

“Hello Peter”, he said. “It’s been a long time”.

I could see in his manner that I was very welcome. The aggression was all gone. There was only kindness and frailty in his eyes.

“Can I ask a favour of you, before we have dinner?”

“Yes, of course”, I replied, wondering what was coming.

“I would like to talk to you privately in my study, before we call Barbara and the children down.”

We entered a large dark, bookcase decorated room, with a heavy leather desk at one end and three small armchairs and a coffee table at the other. This had clearly been used for business meetings during his working life. In one of the chairs sat a beautiful old lady, with blue eyes and blonde hair. Without introduction, I knew this was Barbara’s mother, and momentarily marveled at how Barbara would appear in thirty or so years’ time.

It was in this room that I learned how these two elderly people had done what they thought was the best for their daughter, now only to realise that it was the biggest mistake of their lives. Barbara had suffered at boarding school, had cried, screamed,  played truancy, everything she could in order to get back to me. In order to control her, they had informed her that a few weeks after she went to boarding school, I had hooked up with another girl from school. They had attempted to show her how fickle teenage love really was.

Mrs Aintree began to cry. “How can you ever forgive us?”, she said. “We only wanted the best for our daughter. Then she ended up marrying Roger, just to spite us. She never loved him. She only ever loved you, and now you are here we must tell you. I….we are so very sorry. We should never have taken away your love”

I held her hand and told her that everything was ok.

“You didn’t ever take away my love”, I whispered. “My love was always in me. You couldn’t have ever damaged it.”

“The person of my love was lost to me, but now she is found.  All is well, and trying to do what you think best for your children is nothing to apologise for.”

******

We were to marry. Emma came along soon after, as a little sister for Ted and Arthur.

We love to sit watching their mother riding across the field, with her long blonde ponytail blowing in the wind.

The End

A Cold Shoulder

“One of the greatest regrets in life is being what others would want you to be, rather than being yourself.”
― Shannon L. Alder

The mortars whistled down. It was 3am, still dark but for the random glow of explosions and flares, shining their dull orange beacons through the thick, stifling smoke. The barrage lasted only minutes, which seemed like hours. Then there was the familiar silence, broken only by the screams, as members of my platoon crawled through the wet mud, limbs parted, blood pulsing, draining their lives in the most grotesque conceivable manner.
Joe Sheridan was shaking uncontrollably. He was the only one with me in the small, muddy hollow. Even in this hellhole he managed to show some decency by pretending not to notice that I had crapped myself, the stench only adding to the horror.
“I can’t take any more”, he screamed at me. “Just shoot me Ray. Please. Just put me out of my misery. I don’t want to go in agony, like the others. Make it clean. Do it, Ray.”
I looked at him, not knowing what to say. He was losing his mind, and any sense of reasoning. I knew, because I was near the same point. To die quickly seemed like a good way out of this horror.
“We are going to die anyway, Ray”, Joe tried to convince me.
Then he put the muzzle of his rifle under his own chin. “Sorry, Ray. I shouldn’t have asked. It wasn’t right. Goodbye Ray.”
“Noooooo”, I roared. As I yelled, his face changed. I immediately knew what he was thinking. In a flash I realised that he was thinking about me, being left here all alone with the headless corpse of my closest friend. Of course, he couldn’t do that to his best friend. I began to relax, and squeezed my eyes against the tears that were now forcing their way out. As I opened them, I saw the watery blur of Joe, now pointing his rifle directly at me. In an instant I knew he would kill me. His reasoning was to put me out of my misery so that he could do the same for himself. I knew that this was the end. The end of all sanity. The end of me.
The following few minutes were to haunt me for the rest of my life. As the loud crack of a Lee Enfield rang above the silence of the early dawn, my life was about to change forever.
******
They looked so proud. I had picked my family out in the crowd long before it was my turn to step forward. It was a long ceremony, especially for me, being the last to be awarded my medal. There was only one Victoria Cross recipient, and I stood firmly to attention as Brigadier Richard Blaithewaite gave a small speech, describing my heroic act, before I would move forward to have my medal presented by Bertie himself. I was lost in my own fame and sense of importance.
I was the hero of our small town. Was it really only three months since I was in Germany? My wounds were now barely visible, especially as my beret covered the main one. A slight limp from where the shrapnel had cut into my kneecap was hardly discernible, even though the pain was still severe. In any case, what are a few scratches and bruises to a war hero who is being awarded The Victoria Cross?
Back in our local pub the following day, I didn’t need to put my hand into my pocket. Nor would I ever need to again, it seemed.
“Come on Ray. Tell us again. Tell us about how Ray Bothwell took on Gerry single handed and showed them what the British Bulldog can do.”
Two local lads hoisted me up onto the bar and I looked down at thirty or forty eager faces, waiting to hear all about my exploits. I had told the story many times, each one sucking out more tension and of course, building me up as the greatest war hero of our time.
But today I could see my mother and Aunt Phil sitting at the back of the snug. They had heard it so many times. I decided that now was not the time to go into the full length version.
“Well, it was early in the morning, the first glimmer of dawn. We had just had another barrage of mortars arrive into our position. Our numbers were dwindling by each one. I knew that something had to be done, and quick. I was trying to figure out how to reach the Gerry machine gun post when Joe, that was my mate, took a bullet straight through the heart.”
At this point I let my lip quiver slightly and looked down. The room became quiet. I wanted to create the greatest effect, and it worked every time. I continued.
“I knew that time was running out. Joe was dead. I jumped up out of the hollow we were in, dodging bullets flying everywhere, thinking not with Ray Bothwell you don’t. I’m going to save my comrades if it’s the last thing I do.”
Another cheer ran out.
“I zigzagged between trees and mounds of earth, until I was within 50 yards of their position. Now it was open ground. I took out two grenades and threw them in quick succession. In all of the noise and smoke, I was able to reach the gunner. I put a bullet into him and slashed my bayonet across the face of another. While he was screaming I fired at the third, but my rifle jammed. He was trying to raise his rifle, when I lunged forward and got him full in the chest with my bayonet. He must have fired at me because something hit me in the knee and I went down. As he dropped from my bayonet thrust, he swung his rifle round like a club as he groped for survival. It hit me on the side of my head. The next thing I knew was waking up in the hospital.”
There were cries of appreciation from the crowd, roars of “Bravo”, “Our own hero”, even “Ray Bothwell for PM”. These came above the murmur of people chatting, comparing notes and making sure that they hadn’t missed something important. By the time a few more beers had gone down, there were stories being passed around of a dozen German soldiers being slayed by the indefatigable Ray. I was loving every minute of it. After a lifetime of being a nobody, I was finally someone to be respected, held in awe. I was one of the few holders of the Victoria Cross.
Still standing on the pub bar, soaking up all of the adoration and signing beermats for the locals, I looked up to see my mother and Aunt Phil. They had their heads down in deep discussion. Mum didn’t look happy. She looked worried and almost nervous. She looked up and our eyes met for a fleeting second. She then looked away quickly. They had obviously been talking about me. I realised that something was not quite right, but surely they couldn’t know, could they? I dismissed the thought as quickly as it came.
******
The following weeks turned into months and finally VE day arrived. After Germany had surrendered and it was announced that the war in Europe was over, contrary to my expectations, my fame grew enormously. By the end of 1945, as soldiers began returning in large numbers back to their homeland, I was constantly being asked to appear at working men’s clubs, veteran gatherings, hospitals and clinics, where I could motivate the wounded.
One bright Monday morning in the autumn of 1946 my mother handed me a letter with an official looking postmark. I opened it carefully. It was an invitation to speak at a major reunion event, being held by the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, the home of the Chelsea Pensioners. There would be two other VC holders present and I was required to prepare a 30 minute talk, covering the action that resulted in my award. All of my expenses would, of course, be reimbursed, as well as a remuneration of 80 pounds, to cover my time. The event was planned for October 23rd. I looked up at the calendar on my bedroom wall. It was on a Wednesday, two weeks from now.
I had only ever been to London once before, to collect my VC from Buckingham Palace. It had all happened so quickly and, due to injuries at that time, I wasn’t able to enjoy the trip as much as I had hoped. This time would be different. My leg had fully recovered and the scar on my scalp had virtually disappeared. I had time to plan a full day in the capital, before heading off to the Royal hospital for the evening event. I was being put up in the Draycott Hotel in Kensington for two nights. As the time grew near I became increasingly excited. My mother seemed dismayed at my invitation.
“What’s wrong Mum? Are you not pleased for me? Does a war hero not deserve to be well appreciated?”
“Just tell it how it was, Ray. Nothing more, nothing less”, she replied in a low sombre tone.
I threw my jacket over my shoulders and stormed out for the pub. “I’m going down to the Nag’s Head. At least there are people who appreciate me down there, always ready to buy me a drink.”
It was as if Mum had known what happened in Germany on that fateful night, but how could she. Apart from a few dead Germans there was only Joe and me, and I was the only person left alive.
******
The evening of the 23rd finally arrived. I had travelled down on the train the day before. On the 22nd I met up with the other two VC recipients, who were staying in the same hotel. It was a strained meeting. Captain Harald Andrews was extremely respectful of my VC, but we were hardly from the same mould. Me, a miner’s son, leaving school at fourteen and him, a banker’s son with private schooling. The other, Philip Gardner, who asked us to call him ‘Pip’ was also a Captain from the Tank Regiment and just returned to the UK after a long stretch as a prisoner of war in Libya. He had far more in common with Captain Andrews, ‘common’ being the operative word to best describe me. Out of courtesy they invited me to join them tomorrow for a sight-seeing tour round London, but I declined, by lying that I was meeting old friends for the day.
We agreed to meet back up in the hotel reception and travel together in a cab to the Chelsea Hospital.
The reception was awesome. We were seated on a huge stage, to the cheers of over a thousand war veterans. I thought the noise would never stop. Our host tried numerous times to quieten the crowd, to no avail. They banged the floor with their heels, whooped and whistled. It was a full fifteen minutes before, finally, we could hear the voice of our host above the diminishing murmur of the audience. The three of us were grinning like Cheshire cats. We were momentarily of equal status, three heroes of war, and all nervousness of speaking before such a crowd forgotten.
The two captains went before me. They were both very articulate and clearly well educated. My nerves slowly began to return. How would I sound after them? This was very different to speaking in my local pub. I began –
“I think you will now see that I am far better at fighting Germans than speaking on a stage”
The roar was unbelievable. I had begun well, and could feel my confidence growing.
“Well, it was early in the morning, the first glimmer of dawn. We had just had another barrage of mortars arrive into our position. Our numbers were dwindling by each one. I knew that something had to be done, and quick. I was trying to figure out how to reach the Gerry machine gun post when Joe, that was my mate, took a bullet straight through the heart.”
I looked at the floor, gulped and quivered my lip, just like always. The room became predictably quiet.
“You’re a bloody liar”, came an angry voice out of the crowd. “You shot your best mate and left him for dead. You bloody liar.”
I couldn’t initially see where the voice was coming from, but I then noticed the faces of the audience looking towards someone, with shouts of “shut it”, “be quiet you fool”.
I peered into the face of the culprit. He was a poor sight, one sleeve empty and a short stubbly beard, which only half covered the horrendous burn on the side of his face.
“He’s just a stinking liar”, came the voice again, this time quieter and more distraught, through sobs of sorrow.
Then I saw his eyes.
“Joe. Is it you?” I had subconsciously stepped down from the stage and was walking towards the pathetic figure. Instantly I knew that it was all over. No more bravery. No more hero. No more lies.
I took Joe by the arm and lifted him to his feet. The room became silent. Two old comrades had been to hell and back, each assuming that the other was dead. Now, in this room full of the nation’s heroes, I knew there was only one thing I could do.
I helped Joe up onto the stage and asked him to sit in my chair. I faced the audience, took a deep breath and began again.
“This is Joe Sheridan”, I announced. I told the story of how terrified we had been, how the screams of our comrades night after night had sent us almost to the point of madness. I told of Joe’s fear of being maimed and left dying in the mud. I told of the way he aimed his rifle at me, to kill me, before he would then kill himself. I was choking on the words, but they flowed. There was nothing left to do but say it how it was. Mum had known, as only a Mum can.
I continued.
“I closed my eyes and fired my rifle at point blank range at Joe, before he could end my misery. I was so afraid and yet I was prepared to kill my closest friend rather than see him left alone in that chaos.”
Joe and I stared at each other for long seconds, finally understanding that neither of us had wanted to leave the other alone.
“I staggered from our hole, not seeing whether Joe was dead or alive. I had shot him and could not bear it. I stumbled through the bushes, not knowing where I was or what I was doing. I had killed my best friend. I was insane and my heart was breaking. I found myself in a derelict building and decided to end it. I took two grenades from my pouch, released the pins and waited for oblivion. The last thing I remember was three German soldiers appearing in the doorway. I closed my eyes and let the grenades go. That was the last thing I knew until I woke up three days later in a field hospital. I’m so sorry Joe.”
The room was deadly silent. I slowly unpinned my Victoria Cross, an award that I had never deserved, and laid it down on the table.
“Let me take you home Joe”, I pleaded.
He took my hand, came to his feet and we shuffled together down the centre aisle, through the rows of expectant veterans. I felt the shame of it all, the deceit, the cowardice, but most of all the disappointment of those thousands of war veterans, who needed heroes to worship. They were desperate for glorious stories of bravery and honour, to help them forget the horror, the stench, the death that they had survived. I had let them all down and would carry that guilt with me forever.
******
Nowadays, Joe and I often sit and talk together. We reminisce of the good times. We remember our schooldays together, the fights and the girls. There were never any more fights or girls after we came home from London. Only Joe and I could ever understand what really happened on that day. We have never discussed it since, everything else but not that day.
Joe had been captured, his arm hanging only by sinew and flesh. He was taken to the German field hospital, the arm was amputated and he spent the rest of the war as a POW. The burns on his face came from the close range of my rifle. As I had fired in blind madness I had given him the one thing he had dreaded the most, to be left dying and screaming in agony.
The last forty years have been spent trying to repair the damage that I did, in the knowledge that the only brave thing I ever did in my life was to do what my dear old mother had told me to. Tell the truth. Say it how it was.
The End

Reconnection

This story begins on Day 16 NWO 310 or January 28th 2525 if converted to pre NWO dateline. It was 3am in the morning and I was tired, my watery eyes were barely able to see the screen. I knew that I must soon call it a day and turn in for the rest of the night. I was working on my thesis, and wishing at that moment that I had never started the bloody thing. What use is a masters in history these days anyway?

I was trying to locate the origin of bitcoin as part of my thesis on “The Emergence Of Digital Currency In The 21st Century”. My research had taken me from the well-known originator, Satoshi Nakamoto, to the far less known and controversial Brandon Silk. Silk had worked under cover, rarely ever being photographed and certainly working under many aliases. The book that I was trying to locate was never published in the true sense, but had been used in Dark Web circles as a guide to the new cryptocurrency, that is what I surmised from many spurious references that I had come across.

I was just about to give up for the night, when bingo, I found it. “A Guide To The Silk Road”, written by Paul Weaver. Silk had typically used a pseudonym, but I had no doubts that he had been the true author. I tried to download the book but was immediately met by a block. “Source no longer available”, was the only response I could achieve. I looked at my watch. It was 3.15am. I knew that it would take me at least an hour to go deep through the Dark Web archives to find the original, something I didn’t like doing too often for security reasons. I hesitated and then thought, “What the hell?” and told my computer to enter the sub proxy constellation, and get me into the archive.

It was just breaking daylight as “A Guide To The Silk Road” hit my screen. This was enough for tonight I decided. I could look at the book tomorrow. Then I remembered just one more thing before I left the Dark Web. Maybe I could find a picture of Brandon Silk, something that I felt would be impossible on the front web. Soon I had found a picture taken with Satoshi Nakamoto and six other men. Using the facial recognition system I could easily identify five of them, but one face remained unknown.

I clipped the unknown face into my rendering program and fired the full screen view onto my wall monitor. I stared for what seemed like hours, tiredness completely forgotten as I looked deep into the eyes of the metre sized face on my wall. I don’t know why I knew, but I knew, as certain as I was of anything, that I was staring at the hard, ruthless face of Brandon Silk. My hands began to shake, adrenalin racing through my whole body as I tried to take in the fact that this was my own face that was staring back at me. I was Brandon Silk.

I was frantic to understand more. How could a pre NWO face be appearing in a post NWO world? It was as though I had existed five hundred years before, yet we all knew that mankind was kick-started again a couple of hundred years after the great plague. The COVID-23 world plague, which followed the earlier COVID-19 less deadly virus, had wiped out the whole of mankind over the following two hundred years, barely allowing the time to establish a solution for the re-emergence of a virus immune successor. Before the last humans died out artificial intelligence was established, along with banks of human eggs, which could be automatically fertilised once the COVID-23 virus had died out. These new embryos would form the basis of the future of mankind. This was who we are. This, I had been taught since primary school. Eventually the tiredness began to get the better of me and I had to crawl into my bed. My last thoughts before I fell asleep were that Brandon Silk just happened to be my Doppelganger, and it must all simply be a strange coincidence.

******

I slept until late afternoon, a fitful sleep hounded by strange visions of a world dying slowly, while the elite forces panicked to come up with a solution which might protect them from a certain death. I saw the Earth, no longer blue, but a dark dead object spinning through nothingness, with just me trying to hang on to it, desperately wanting to understand. Brandon Silk, or was it really me, was laughing hysterically at my dilemma. I jumped awake with a start, the bed soaked in sweat. As I came to my senses I decided to put Brandon Silk out of my mind and concentrate to my thesis. I would read “A Guide To The Silk Road”
My first attention was drawn to the dedication, which seemed very uncharacteristic of Silk.

It read:                                      To my dearest wife, Barbara
                                   Without whom life would have little meaning

I began to read, with the intention of a long session, but found after some minutes my mind was wandering and constantly coming back to the face. It was uncanny. I brought it back up on the large screen. I studied the ear lobes. Since childhood I had been made fun of by my school friends because one of my ear lobes was slightly out of shape. There it was. The same slight deformity. I tried to continue reading, but it was useless. I needed to find out more.
I had a good friend from university, who, although also studying history, was far more into computer technology, virus software to be more precise. Dean Batch2394 had been our saviour many times when we enlisted his help with computer problems, especially virus infected hard drives. He had often said that he could hack into anything.
I called him. “Well, if it isn’t my old friend Ryan Batch2394. How are you? Still swotting I suppose?”
“Well, actually yes. I’m fighting my way through a masters. Listen, you couldn’t meet me later could you? Say about 2.30 in the Laser Bar? I need to discuss something with you.”
“Sure”, he replied. “Is your computer playing up again?” he asked, with a tiresome sigh.
“No, not at all. This is far more interesting.”
“Ok, but you’re paying.”
He was there when I arrived. We ordered two Laser Specials and relaxed back, studying each other’s faces for the first signs of age. We both still looked young and unblemished.
I explained the situation. I showed him the picture of Brandon Silk, not explaining who he was or what he had been involved in, only that he had cropped up in my research and the incredible likeness. I told Dean that I wanted to trace back to his circumstances of death and especially what happened to his mother.
“Why his mother”, Dean asked.
“Well, can’t you see? If we are all originating from female human eggs, and I am so genetically similar to this guy, I probably have arrived here from his mother’s eggs.”
Dean looked worried. “I see, but do you understand what you are asking me? You expect me to hack into pre NWO government archives. This is incredibly difficult to do, way outside my knowledge and expertise.”
Then he looked suddenly very thoughtful, almost frightened.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Well, there is a guy. I have never met him, only heard the name. It is all very hush hush. Apparently he is trying to prove some conspiracy theory about the post NWO human regeneration planning. He doesn’t believe that we came from human eggs.”
He promptly became very business-like. “Look, I’ve said too much already. Leave it with me. I’ll be in touch if I can help.”
With that he downed his cocktail in one and left. I sat alone, sipping my drink, wandering what had just happened.
The following morning I came across a piece of paper pushed under my door.

                                This afternoon same time same place.
                                      Tell no-one. Burn this paper.
                                                         D

******

I spent the next few hours trying to make some sense of the note. All I had asked, what I thought at the time, was a bit of naughty hacking to try to find out if I was related to Brandon Silk. Why the intrigue?
There were two men sitting together when I arrived. Dean was sitting with his back to me. The other guy I didn’t know. He was scruffy, unshaven and looked more like a street bum than any friend of Dean’s.
I walked right up to them, shook Dean’s hand and then held out my hand to the new guy. He didn’t take up the offer. Instead he told me very abruptly to show him the picture. I did as I was told. He said, “Good, print it off and leave it in the rubbish bin at the end of your street at 6 o’clock tonight. On the back I want you to write everything you know about this guy, birth date, death date, mother, sister, anything you know.”
“I don’t know much, but I can send you the picture now if you give me your nu….”
He cut me off. “No number”. He stood up and walked out.
I looked aghast at Dean. “What the f…”
Again, I was cut off. “He has already had two assassination attempts against him that failed. He is frightened and careful.”
We sat quietly while we finished our drinks. I was beginning to wish I had never heard the name Brandon Silk.
Back in my flat I did exactly as I was told. I printed the picture and wrote the name and birth date, which I had managed to find out. His date of death was a mystery. I was just about to fold it into an envelope when another thought came to me. I added ‘Barbara, probably Barbara Silk, probably wife.’
I went out, casually throwing the envelope into the bin as directed, trying very hard not to feel like some ridiculous amateur spy.

******

After a week had gone by I had almost forgotten about the subject. It all seemed a bit childish to me, talking about conspiracies, rubbish bins and burning notes. I had pretty much decided that the whole thing was just a silly joke, when one morning another paper appeared under my door. It was a repeat of a week ago.

                                         This afternoon same time same place.
                                                   Tell no-one. Burn this paper.
                                                                        D

There was no-one there when I arrived in the Laser Bar. In fact the place was almost deserted. I ordered a drink and waited, not knowing who would come, Dean or the strange guy. After half an hour I was about to leave when the waitress came up to me. “Your friend sends his apologies and asked me to give you this. He said to open it at home.”
I left and went straight to my flat. The curiosity, which had slowly petered out during the last week, was back in full force. I couldn’t wait to see what the envelope contained.
Inside was another paper.
                                                You were right. Brandon Silk
                                                         Born 17.06.1978
                                                         Died 16.06.2023
                                                 Cause of death unknown
                                                      Wife Barbara Silk
                                                       Born 15.03.1976
                                                       Died 16.06.2023
                                                Cause of death unknown
                                        Enclosed are DNA records of both
                                                   Destroy this paper.

Along with the paper, which I immediately burned after digesting the information, was a chip the size of a grain of rice. I scanned it immediately, double encrypted the data and put the chip in the microwave until it exploded. There were two files, one for each person. It was their DNA sequence.
I did the check with my DNA database. It was exact. I was an identical match to Brandon Silk. I sat back, trying to take in what this meant. The only explanation could be that I am a clone, created from a sample of Silk’s DNA. This meant that everything we had been told was a lie. I was not from a stored female egg, frozen during the plague. I was created directly from stored DNA and cloned. Did that mean that the whole of humanity today is also cloned from stored DNA? Do we now all exist in a world of people who are identical to that of 500 years ago?
Any thoughts of my thesis were forgotten, as I realised the implications of this, not least being the danger I was in for carrying such knowledge.
For three days I didn’t sleep. It took that long for me to digest the idea. My conclusions, after much analysis of everything I had learned was that it didn’t really matter. Why should I care about how or why I was created? I can’t change it. I can only make the best of it.
The one piece of information that I couldn’t stop from nagging at me was whether Barbara Silk was also cloned. If she had been, I felt compelled to find her. The problem was that I only had access to my own DNA. Government controls didn’t allow investigation of others, without the necessary clearance. I would never get that, so I called Dean once more.
“Now you are asking me something I can do. The current databases are a piece of cake.” He proudly told me.
After passing him the DNA of Barbara Silk, he came back to me within the hour. “Ryan, you were right, exact match. She is Emily Batch2382, just 12 batches earlier than us, which would make her about three months older. I’m sure I can leave the rest up to you.”
It didn’t take me long to locate her. There is only be one Emily Batch 2382, because that was the way we were constructed in NWO. She was born exactly three months before me and is studying microbiology at Wington University.

******

Wington is a day’s drive from where I live, and so I had to wait a few days until I could plan the trip. I decided to drive through the night, arriving early the following day. Wington is the world’s top university, hosting only the finest scientists. I thought it typical that any wife of Brandon Silk would be associating at such esteemed levels.
I found the university and went immediately to the reception. On asking for the whereabouts of Emily Batch 2382, I expected to be asked why I was looking for her, but they seemed to be very relaxed about giving out such information. They probably assumed I was a friend or lover, as we are of similar age.
“Yes, you will find her in House B4 room 32, if she is not somewhere on campus.”
I spent the rest of the day around the university campus. I had no idea what Barbara Silk had looked like, so had no way of spotting Emily. I waited until early evening and made my way to House B4.
It was a beautiful sunny evening. May people were outside on the lawns, chatting or playing games. I broke into a group of four girls,” Excuse me. I am looking for Emily 2382. Does anyone know her?”
“Sure. There she is,” said one of them, pointing towards a large oak tree. “That’s her, sitting by that big tree.”
I walked across the lawn, suddenly becoming very nervous. Of all the things I had planned to say to her, my head was completely blocked. I started to turn away but she had already seen me. I was too close.
“Hello, can I help you?” she asked.
I turned back and looked her in the eyes. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. I blurted out some story about coming to look for my friend but somehow stumbled into the wrong house. We talked and I asked her what she was reading.
She said it is called ‘1984’ a rather silly book written before the plague, but it passes the time.”
“Ah, George Orwell”, I replied. “A man before his time.”
“You’ve heard of him?”
“Yes, I am studying history and old George was quite a famous author in his time.”
She invited me to sit down by her and we chatted for a while, until the moment was destroyed by one of the four girls from the group earlier.
“You found her then?” she asked as she waltzed past us.
“But you said you were looking for your friend”, Emily quizzed.
I was stunned and tongue-tied. “Er ..well”
She started laughing. “Well, I’ve had worse come-ons I suppose”.
We both laughed and ended up having dinner together.
On my way back home the next day, for the first time in my life, decided that I do believe in love at first sight, especially when aided by a genetic code.

******

Emily and I were to remain together and after our studies, we joined together to raise a family. Couples were no longer able to have children since NWO and children must be applied for from the next batch. The lucky parents would be awarded a new ready born baby of their own, however genetic resemblance was impossible. We decided to wait a few years.
One day in NWO318 Dean called me to say that his friend had been about to go public. He apparently had enough information and evidence regarding the way that the human race has been created that it would blow the government wide apart. A deal had been struck on the condition that he handed over all the evidence, the government would pass a new law, allowing couples to use their own DNA for production of any future offspring, and would be able to name them as they wished.
Two years later we collected our new baby twin boys, Ted and Arthur from the Reproduction clinic. We gave them the surname of Mileyrany, an anagram of our two names. Never again would our decedents be known by a batch number.
Thank you Brandon Silk.

The Ramblings Of A Conspiracy Theorist.

The purpose of writing this is to record my thoughts and concerns at a time while I am still healthy, and hopefully of sound mind. My readers will probably doubt the latter after reading this.

I am retired and living in Spain, just South of Tarragona, 800 metres from the sea, which I have not seen for over a week, and unlikely to any time soon. I am more-or-less confined to house, due to the COVID-19 virus pandemic. Life is not so bad. I have my lovely wife here with me and our cat, Marie, who I often wonder if she instinctively knows that something is afoot. We also have a garden, which is small enough to not cause too much maintenance but large enough for a few fruit trees and a relaxing area for sunbathing or paella parties with friends and neighbours. Of course, the parties are no longer allowed for the foreseeable future, as groups are prohibited.

The Spanish authorities put us in lockdown a week ago. This means that we are only allowed to go out into public areas for the purposes of food shopping, medical attention, work reasons (where homeworking is not possible) and to walk the dog. For each case, care must be taken not to become too close to any other person, in order to avoid cross contagion. The lockdown is initially planned for 15 days, but I suspect it will go into many weeks or even months.

After a week of confinement, we are adjusting rather well. Plans were made on how to occupy ourselves, some interior decorating until the paint runs out, a jogging circuit around the garden (100 laps is approximately 5km), finish the online Spanish course and to finally learn to Waltz properly. This, apart from much reading and blogging, is enough to keep us quiet for a few weeks.

Apart from all of these activities, there is also much time available to reflect. I began wondering how we know that this virus is so dangerous. Why do we think that it is necessary to destroy our economies, our way of life and award our governments draconian powers? Would we have taken these measures if China hadn’t shown the world a panic reaction to a previously unknown virus?

On researching the Spanish Flu, which killed up to 100 million people, I learned that the virus had nothing to do with Spain at all. In fact, the major powers at the time, of Germany, France, UK and USA censored the early reports about the disease, for the purposes of maintaining moral in the trenches during WW1. Spain was neutral at the time, with a relatively free press. They reported openly about the spread of the virus, and particularly the terrible illness of their King Alfonso XIII. This gave the impression to the world that Spain was particularly infected, which led to the name “Spanish Flu”.  This demonstrates two things, firstly how governments are quite prepared to lock down their media or give false information, if it is deemed to be for the benefit of the population and secondly how easily people around the world can be misled.

Now, armed with doubts about the new COVID-19 virus, and an instinctive feeling that we are taking measures which are disproportional to the threat, I have been researching where the information came from, which is causing this widespread panic.

Every year there are new viruses, which try to make us ill. This is what viruses do. If they didn’t change regularly, we would all build an immunity, which would protect us for the rest of our lives. There are about a hundred virus types and they are permanently changing. Up to now we didn’t really worry about it too much. There were good years and bad years for flu epidemics, but nothing was thought much about it. In the past we haven’t even bothered to test which virus caused which flu symptoms. From all of these different acute respiratory virus types, we know, thanks to much research carried out in Glasgow, that Corona viruses make up around 10% of the total.

Wuhan contains a large number of some of the best virologists in the world. It also contains 11 million inhabitants, providing many illnesses and opportunities to study such viruses and people needing to be ventilated. They did approximately only 50 tests from these patients and found a new virus. The virologist then put these findings into a huge database, which can be accessed worldwide. The virologist has no idea how dangerous, or contagious such a virus might be. That is not his job. He can only record and report his findings. Against normal practices, and partly because of the panic that was being raised by China, a test was released before it had gone through normal testing procedure.

Now, a virus can only be assessed for its mortality rate by observing people and calculating from the number of people tested positive, how many die. If one goes out into the wider population, naturally a larger number of people will test positive, that those for example, who are tested in their doctor’s surgery. Similarly, the number of people testing positive in their doctor’s surgery, will be far higher than those admitted to hospital for respiratory problems.

If we take the Italian example. They have a very high mortality rate, but if tests are mainly carried out in the hospitals, on people who are already seriously ill, it is rather obvious that the mortality rate (number of deaths as a proportion of people testing positive) will be disproportionately high.

So it seems that currently the virologists have created a storm of panic. They have convinced the Chinese government that this is serious. Measures have been taken in China, which has sent a panic around the world. In reality, we might be dealing with a perfectly normal flu virus. The virologists around the world have joined the band wagon, people have panicked. Political pressure has built, such that all around the world we are now in ever increasing lockdown, for something where the evidence is thin at best.

This has generated a network of opinions around the world amongst the scientific community. Thousands are trying to join the search for vaccine or other medical solutions etc. There is a rush for recognition or funding at a time when governments are pouring huge sums of money in, without boundaries. Consequently the politicians are referring to this scientific community more and more, in order to be seen to act.

As with the climate change debate, we have reached a point very quickly where critics are not allowed a voice. Anyone who questions this virus danger is quickly vilified, ridiculed as a denier.

Quoting from Dr. Wolfgang Wodarg, a German physician and politician, of whom some of this blog is taken, “It reminds me of the tale of the king with no clothes”.

Known in England as “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, the lesson is that the fear of consequences will often lead people to publicly agree to things they don’t believe in for a variety of reasons. Furthermore, the “emperor” will always proudly continue the lie despite his own knowledge of the truth and being publicly outed. It is easier and less painless to tell a few more lies and look foolish than to admit being foolish. We see ridiculous art like a picture of a soup can and hail it as genius because 4 snooty art critics said it was and we don’t want to seem uncultured. Evidence proves a politician innocent of something and yet the opposition continues to press the disproven narrative.

Of course, we have here a similar situation, where politicians and scientists, who have no real idea of what is happening with this virus, are afraid to say anything against for fear of ridicule.

Now, I am also one of those who has no idea. I can only fall back on my knowledge as an educated scientist (albeit not in a related field) from what I have read, my instincts and my common sense.

Do I believe that this virus is a deliberate attack on mankind? I don’t know, but I guess not.

Do I believe that governments around the world are using the virus as an excuse to take actions that otherwise would never be accepted? Yes I do.

Is this virus as dangerous as some people wish to paint it? I suspect not.

There are currently so many conspiracy theories written on the internet, which none of us ordinary mortals have a clue, whether they be right or wrong. There is one thing I am certain about, however. We will be surprised by the end result, when this is over.

The purpose of this blog, I guess is simply to try to get the message across that we must be sceptical and thoughtful, not believe everything we hear, whether it be from scientists or politicians, but to try to find our own opinions amongst the mass of information which is out there.

I wish everyone who is currently ill, whether it be from COVID-19 or any other of the hundreds of illnesses and viruses out there, a speedy recovery. Those of you who are locked down, stay strong, call your loved ones, take care as best as you can, and let’s see what the future holds for us all.