Kismet

As she gazed out across the parched desert in the early morning dawn Katrina smiled knowingly. She knew that she had been one of the most fortunate people in the world, despite all of the hardship and sadness that she had endured during her tumultuous life. She brought the chipped rim of her old tin mug towards her parched lips and smiled inwardly once more, before sipping the hot sweet tea and thinking joyfully, “Here I am truly at home.”

*****

Katrina was born in Cottbus in East Germany in 1957. As a child she spent most of her time playing with small animals and dreaming of the great outdoors and a life of travelling adventures. She occasionally even spent winter evenings sleeping on the small balcony of her parent’s apartment or enduring thirty-six hours without drink in order to test her ability for survival in arctic or desert conditions.  Idle games with friends were a waste of time. She was, either deeply engrossed in a book, or nursing some sick animal. These had been the only things of importance to Katrina for as long as she could remember.

After high school a degree in Biology set her well on course for the life that she had imagined.  She had wanted to follow up with a research project in the Galapagos  or western Australia, however always knew that this was out of the question for a student from the GDR. So after applying for projects in Siberia and Kazakhstan but being rejected without interview or reason, she realised that this large, regulated open prison of East Germany would never allow her to live out her dreams.

One evening after a few glasses of vodka she felt as though her heart would break. Her boyfriend, Uwe, could not console her. She cried until the early hours.

Uwe was a swimmer. He had swum in the GDR finals that year and almost made it to the Moscow Olympics. He lay awake that night, tossing and turning, determined to help Katrina in some way. They had discussed many times about their future life and how they would build a family together, but he knew that her desire for nature and the adventure associated with travelling to other lands would have to be satisfied before she could settle down with him. During that long night he made a plan.

The next morning he could hardly wait for Katrina to wake. Over a cup of tea they sat on their bed and Uwe explained his idea.

“You’re crazy Uwe, I can barely swim,” said Katrina after listening carefully while Uwe eagerly spat out his plot.

“I can teach you. I have all the training techniques necessary and we can practice in the lake Trappe. I can have you fit within a year, I am sure of it,” pleaded Uwe.

Katrina sighed reluctantly, but also with a tinge of excitement, she eventually nodded to the plan. They would begin the following weekend.

As the weeks went by, just as Uwe had predicted, Katrina became stronger and fitter. Her confidence grew. She became more content:  She had a purpose, a target.  Within three months she could manage five lengths of the kilometre long lake, but this was still nothing compared with the distance from Dierhagen, across the Baltic Sea, to the Danish coast. Her determination flourished; Katrina became almost obsessed with their escape to the point where on two occasions she had to interrupt her training due to overtaxing the muscles in her shoulders. She was averse to going to a doctor because she was sure that this would cause suspicion and lead to a visit from the Stasi. She became as resilient as Uwe to the point that they were quite equally matched in their technique and stamina.

Finally the night for escape arrived. They had planned in minute detail and were to go just after midnight. A rubber dinghy would be tied to Uwe’s ankle. This would be inflated when they were a few kilometres from the beach, out of range of the searchlights. They crept down the shingle ensuring that they adhered to the shadows as much as possible. In black neoprene wetsuits they reached the water’s edge, adrenalin pumping through their veins, intoxicated by the excitement.

Suddenly they saw the lights from a patrol boat. They watched quietly for more than half an hour, as the patrol boat went backwards and forwards covering about five kilometres of the coastline, exactly where they had planned to swim from. They looked at each other. How could they be so unlucky? Uwe had watched this coastline every night for the last couple of weeks to ensure a relatively unguarded stretch of water for them. Never had he seen a patrol boat.

“Shit Katrina,” he said, “I am sorry. We have to call it off. They would spot the dinghy for sure.”

Katrina weighed up the situation for a few seconds before she looked at Uwe with a narrowed glare and the beginnings of tears building in the corners of her eyes. “Then we go without the boat,” she countered. “If we time it right we can slip through between the passes. If we wait until they have gone by I reckon we have about twelve minutes to slip through before they come within range again.”

“You’re crazy! We could never make the distance across to Denmark without the dinghy. It is nearly seventy kilometres for goodness sake. Neither of us would stand a chance.”

Katrina looked at him. With a combination of the adrenalin and a poignant feeling of desperation flowing through her body, she just replied, “I am not going back. You must do as you feel.” She was so focussed that Uwe could see nothing more could be said to change her.

They waited until the patrol boat had passed by, hiding behind an old wooden wreck until the time came. With one last lingering glance at each other and a nervous smile, they bravely entered the water, gently gliding through as they had trained a thousand times.

It was much easier than imagined. Within thirty minutes they were safe from observation and heading out into the dark sea. They both knew that forty kilometres would be their absolute limit and were, in effect, swimming out to their death. So much was their desperation that even that outcome was more palatable than remaining penned in East Germany under such a restrictive regime.

*****

The night was long. They swam with the efficient constant rhythm they had practiced, conserving as much energy as possible. They were lucky because as daylight came there remained a low mist over the sea. They were almost invisible and laughed excitedly as they gently glided through the calm rippling water. The conditions were almost perfect. They swam as though it was a fun day out, forgetting temporarily the huge expanse of water that lay before them.

By midday Katrina began to tire. Her strokes were becoming less effective, her mood deteriorated rapidly. Uwe could hear her muttering “must keep going, must keep going,” under her breath. He still felt strong enough but carried the concern that he had overestimated this small, vulnerable but very strong-minded woman.

They continued on towards Denmark, the compass attached to Uwe’s arm showing that they were still going in the right direction. Katrina became more and more fatigued, her disappointment slowly giving way to a sombre knowledge that her time was nearly over. Uwe tried everything he could think of. He cajoled, threatened, cried and screamed:  Anything that might get a reaction from Katrina and push her to a few more strokes.

As the sun went down they had been in the water nineteen hours. Both knew that it was almost over. They had no food and their energy was almost exhausted. Katrina sobbed “I am so sorry. It is my fault. I forced you to come.”

Through all of the heartache and tiredness Uwe managed a grin.  “Huh! I am going to Denmark,” he said. “Aren’t you coming with me? There are nice girls in Denmark, I hear.”

Katrina looked at him, her energy temporarily renewed, but only for a few metres. Uwe watched as her head bobbed below the surface and she took a lung-full of water. He quickly grabbed her in the rescue position as she coughed and spluttered. “It’s no use. Leave me and save yourself, she cried.”

He ignored her pleading and struggled along for some more minutes. It was almost completely dark when he spotted something shadowy above the surface of the water. He slowly moved towards it, praying that it would be a boat or something where they could rest and recover. As they came closer he could see the distinct yellow of a buoy.  Why a buoy was here, so far out to sea, he had no idea.

They managed to cling on. There was a rope around the perimeter of the buoy which they could link their arms through to provide some support while they dozed and recovered. They hung on for the whole night, but instead of recovering they became weaker and weaker. They talked about what life would have been like outside of the GDR. How they would have travelled and seen the world and had two, three or even four children who would be free to live their lives as they wished.  The world they painted with these words looked like a faraway dream now.

*****

As daybreak came Katrina was barely conscious. Uwe could do nothing but watch her slowly die. He considered holding her under water to halt her suffering, but dismissed the thought as quickly as he had it. He knew instantly that he was not strong enough to go through with such a deed.

Katrina was hanging from her tethered arm, dropping in and out of consciousness, in the last hours of her life. Uwe just sobbed with frustration until his eyes caught the sails of a yacht coming towards them. He reacted quickly and yelling and waving, “Over here. Over here.  Hey, help, help!” Katrina heard nothing, she was now too far gone.

The yacht veered towards them. It had surely spotted the two inert bodies hitched to the buoy, and came on with urgent speed. Uwe could not believe their luck. They would survive after all. He began to laugh insanely. “Katrina. Look! Look!” But she just buffeted against the buoy in time with the ripples on the surface. She was no longer there.

The yacht was within a hundred metres when suddenly it swerved again, sailing by without slowing. The crew was looking and waving at them, laughing loudly. They just sailed by, the cacophony of the laughs and jibes dwindling with their increased distance.

Uwe’s mood became dark. His heart filled with hate as he realised that all was now lost. The reason why the yacht had sailed by was lost to him. What kind of bastard would do such a thing?  Within minutes it became clear, when a GDR patrol boat came surging along in their direction. “Of course,” thought Uwe. “Who else would have permission to sail their yachts in these waters, but the ‘Ostzone Schwein’ from the regime?”

*****

On shore they were immediately separated and moved to different prison camps. Katrina was put into the hospital wing of a women’s prison. Uwe was gone from her life.  Katrina was given no information and assumed that he was either locked away in prison or, even worse, tortured for information. One day, after pressing the prison warden hard on this she was told that Uwe had not regained consciousness from his ordeal and had died shortly after.

As she recovered she could only think of Uwe and her failed escape. Why had she insisted? Uwe would still be alive if only she had not been so stubborn. The weeks rolled into months, but the time did not heal the deep throbbing wounds in her breast. She became depressed to the point where she decided that to live was worse than death and began a hunger strike during the second year of her imprisonment, determined to end it all as soon as possible. The two main loves of her life were gone, her man and her vocation.

During the third week of her hunger strike she was roused early one morning and taken to see the prison warden. “Katrina Lenk, I am to tell you that you are to be released. The West German government has paid for your release.” There was a moment of emotion showing on her face before she quickly corrected it and continued, “You have been through much child. I hope that you can find peace where you are going. You will be transported to Dusseldorf in two days’ time. There you will be given West German identity papers and become a citizen of the West. I suggest that you spend those two days wisely trying to build up your strength for the journey.”

Katrina was very lucky indeed. That year the West German government paid for the release of eighteen of the most difficult prisoners. All were women.

*****

Within a year Katrina had her dream. She was awarded a full year research project in the Galapagos as part of her PhD studies from the University of Munich. There she lived completely alone, with a small tent and only her animal friends for company. She had never been happier. After such a manic couple of years the peace and tranquillity of the Galapagos was a medicine sorely needed. Apart from the moments of despair, when she thought of her Uwe, she learned to become at peace with the world.

After completing her thesis Katrina decided to follow her lifelong dream and planned a two-year expedition to Mongolia. Before she could set off there was a year of preparation for her to fulfil. Her financing came easy:  On presenting her case to the faculty a research grant was awarded which would support her for the time. She knew that in order to understand the people and travel alone through Mongolia she would have to learn the language, at least to a basic level. This was the hardest task. She set about it with unrelenting gusto.

A couple of months before she was set to leave for Mongolia she found herself enjoying the warm spring sunshine outside one of the many cafes in the centre of Munich.

As she glanced out across the tables her eyes only glimpsed his profile. She was stupefied and her breathing stopped momentarily.  She instantly knew that it could be no one else but him. There was no doubt: They had lied. He turned his head slowly, until their eyes met.

*****

Uwe had been kept in prison until the reunification in 1990, after which he moved immediately out to the West and was working towards a degree in Journalism from the University of Darmstadt. He would be finished within a month.

They spent the two years in Mongolia together, followed by many more expeditions throughout the world. Uwe is a good cameraman and supports Katrina in her undying search for new lands and experiences, as well as using his journalistic talents to help her write the books of their adventures together. But mainly he is happy each day to simply see Katrina living her life. There will be no children. He knows that now.

As he looks out of the tent, watching Katrina with the early morning desert sun on her face, he thinks to himself, “It is truly remarkable how just a bit of luck, one way or the other, can change lives.”

24 Hours

As I watched her drive away my mind was in a spin.

Only one day earlier I had been a contented, happily married father of two lovely kids. Now I’m just confused.

*****

All I wanted was a day and night alone in the mountains to be away from the stress and office politics and get some badly needed exercise. “Go on. Enjoy it. We will all be fine for a couple of days,” she said as she kissed me goodbye with one child under each arm.

I drove directly to Cauterets and parked my car in a lay-by near to the footpath I wanted to take for the climb up. The weather was stable and the forecast dry and clear. I even debated with myself whether to take my waterproofs along as my rucksack was already over 35 pounds, but previous experience had taught me a few hard lessons. In the mountains be prepared for anything.

By mid-morning the sun was high and it was already in the mid-twenties. It would be a hard climb up to the ridge in this heat, especially in my condition. I hadn’t done this kind of thing for a few years and apart from the heavy rucksack I was carrying other unwanted extra pounds.  After two hours I sorely needed a break and was thinking that at this rate I would be lucky to reach my bivouac destination.

In the hot afternoon sun I pressed further up towards the ridge, but could thankfully see that some clouds were starting to build near the peak which should soon protect me a little from the direct heat. I made a final stop about two hours before the ridge, watching the swirling clouds building darker and angrier around me. A flicker of concern passed through my mind. I had no tent with me, only a sleeping bag and plastic sheet for emergencies. “No, I will be alright.” I quickly dismissed the concern.

My goal was to cross directly over the ridge and drop down a couple of hundred metres onto the other side, where a small flat bivouac area lying directly below a glacier would offer some protection from the wind and provide tremendous views of the valley mountain lakes. I had read about this place a few years before, in awe at some of the wonderful photographs. I was keen to experience it first-hand for myself.

As I set off into the last climb I noticed the wind picking up and the sky was now very dark and angry. This was not supposed to happen. I decided to push on quickly and to get over the ridge before it became too bad. I expected more protection from the weather on the other side.

Not long before reaching the highest point the storm broke. The lashing rain and ear-splitting thunder which landed just a fraction of a second after blinding lightening, told me that I was getting into trouble. From one second to the next the conditions had deteriorated to the point where I began to fear for my safety.

I stumbled over the rocks, losing my balance a few times due to the top-heavy rucksack. I could not remain where I was; it was far too open. I could feel my body temperature going down by the minute as the freezing rain pelted at my body. My weatherproof gear was for summer use, not intended for such conditions. I yelled at the rain “Come on you bastard, do your best yahhhhh!!!.” This was my peculiar way of coping with my nerves.  However panic began to creep in. I couldn’t go over the ridge without the fear of being blown off, but I couldn’t stay here either.  I became momentarily mildly insane. I screamed even harder at the sky. Random, illogical screams as though the storm was some kind of living creature. “Come on! You can’t hurt me. Yahhh!”.

It was now almost dark due to the thick black cloud. The flashes of lightening opened up the landscape into a series of still photographs. My whole existence became a cocktail of excitement and terror. I had decided to try to push for the ridge, when I suddenly thought that I heard a cry. The storm is full of random unidentifiable noises like shadows in a night forest but something made me stop to concentrate and listen. I heard it again, very muffled but sounding like either an animal or person. I could no longer walk upright due to the strength of the wind, so I crawled in the direction of the sound. There it was again! It was more like someone sobbing.

As I crept and stumbled around a large boulder the sound became clearer. A flash of lightening temporarily illuminated the source. A figure was hunched up against the boulder. From the hooded jacket I could not tell whether it was man or woman. I crawled closer to within 5 metres and shouted “Hello.  I am Jim. Are you hurt?”

A very frightened face looked up startled in my direction. She was shivering. A trembling, crouched form was wearing a very thin jacket which provided no protection from the rain and wind. She didn’t speak but just looked at me with an expression of pleading.  I slid up close to her. She was very cold already. We didn’t speak more. I took the plastic sheet from my rucksack and started to wrap it around us both. One look at her face showed me that she didn’t object to the intimacy of our closeness.

The plastic sheet shook and flapped providing very little protection. This prompted me to release my sleeping bag from the two rubber bungees which held it tightly to my rucksack. I could fix one end of the plastic sheet to the ground with the two bungees which enabled me to pull the sheet over us both and hold the free end down with my body and hands. At least we were secure, and could speak to each other without yelling.

I asked if she had any other useful equipment with her which rather embarrassingly revealed that she only had a daypack, not even a sleeping bag. She had been hoping to get back down to the village before dark. As we spoke I noticed for the first time just how attractive she was. She was about 30, with long blond hair and with very white, even teeth. I saw these as she smiled when I asked her if I should put my arms around her for warmth. Raindrops dripped from the end of a perfectly shaped nose as her warm green eyes studied me curiously.

We decided to sit tight and to ride out the storm exactly where we were. It was cold, but no longer life- threatening now that we were wrapped in the sheet. I also managed to open my sleeping bag to pull over us, which soon gave us enough warmth to feel better. We stayed like this for a few hours. Like me, she was also married. Her husband had gone to his parents for the weekend with their child while she went hiking. She had missed it tremendously since the birth of their son, 3 years before.  We discussed our shared love of the mountains, a passion which our partners didn’t have. Even in this difficult situation we both held an inner feeling of excitement and awe at the power of the nature around us.

As true darkness fell the storm still raged, but it was definitely reducing. We became quite intoxicated with the excitement as we realised that we were now over the worst. We cuddled close and eventually both fell into an exhausted sleep.

****

Something woke me after a couple of hours. The storm had died down and Rebecca was breathing calmly on my shoulder. I suddenly realised, shocked, that the thing that woke me was her hand against my bare tummy. In her sleep she had found a space between my trousers and jacket and had slipped her hand between. My immediate reaction was to jump up and correct the situation, but she was sleeping so nicely and I am certainly no saint. I grinned to myself. I’d better not tell my wife quite the whole story when I get back. I dosed for a while and unconsciously moved away the plastic sheet, leaving us more comfortable under my sleeping bag, beneath the now clear starlit sky. I remember waking at one moment to marvel at the clarity of the night sky. I surely could have reached up and touched the stars. Can anyone avoid the thoughts of a possible Creator when faced with such beauty?

Just before dusk I woke again. Rebecca had snuggled in tighter, my jacket was open and she was still resting her hand on my bare flesh. I became worried that when she woke she would blame me for this intimacy and become angry. I tried to move her hand gently but she just gave a light groan and returned it to my tummy.

After some few minutes she opened her eyes and took a moment to realise where she was. She immediately moved her hand away and came up on one elbow. I pretended to remain asleep as I thought it to be more prudent. She amazed me by putting her head back onto my shoulder and her hand back onto my tummy. I slid my hand onto hers to show that I was now awake. We lay like that for a couple of minutes longer.

Then she looked up at me with those sparkling green eyes and simultaneously as she said “I love my husband very much” she began to slide her hand further down. I just let it happen. I was paralysed.

We made love under the last remaining visible stars. It was gentle but very passionate. My head was in a swirl with guilt, responsibility, desire and pure lust. We didn’t speak; we just simply enjoyed each other because it was the right thing to do at that moment.

The trip down the mountain was quick and without conversation. We soon arrived at the car park where Rebecca had left her car. She thanked me for the help. She said that she owed her life to me, although I thought that this was overstated. I began to say that I would never forget the experience but she stopped me saying “please don’t”, but I could see in her affectionate smile that she didn’t regret one minute of our union.

As I watched her drive away my mind was in a spin.

Only one day earlier I had been a contented, happily married father of two lovely kids.  Now I’m just confused.

Old Sam

It was not yet dusk on a clear Spring morning as he lightly threw the last shovelful onto the small grave.  He had endeavoured to be as quiet as possible, so as not to wake his family or their neighbours, especially old McBill next door, who was well known in the village for being extremely petulant when woken too early.   His mind flicked back over the last seventeen years to the beginning, the time when his furry friend first came into their lives.

***

The newly ordained Rev. Roger Braithwaite could hardly contain his excitement as he packed his neat little family into the crumbling Austin A35 van for the tiring journey from Nuneaton in Warwickshire across the country to his newly appointed post as pastor in the quaint and sleepy rural village of Yaxham in Norfolk.

His wife Lynn, a quiet and supportive woman, small but carrying her head high, displaying an elegance rarely seen at such a young age,  sat next to him in the front of the car. Behind was little Maisie, 2 and Peter, who was 4 and so proud that his dad was to be the Reverend at St. Peters church.  He thought that the church was obviously named after him, despite having been built nearly one thousand years earlier.

As they approached the rectory the children couldn’t contain themselves, immediately springing from the car and shooting off to investigate the many secret hiding places in the large well-maintained gardens. Lynn smiled satisfyingly, enormously proud, happily contented to be finally settling down after 5 difficult long years during which Roger qualified. Now they could finally make a home, and what a home! Roger had been incredibly fortunate to be offered such a post and accommodation for his first ministry.

That evening during dinner Roger asked Peter if he would say grace, which he said was a very special honour as this was their first meal at their new home.

Peter grinned confidently, “ We thank God for the food on our table, and for sending us to this nice big home with lots of secret places where we can hide when we are naug….er hiding. And thank you dear God for letting me have a bedroom all for myself.  Amen”

“Well done Peter”, said Roger encouragingly, “but next time perhaps you might like to think about your family as well. God has provided all of us with a lovely bedroom.”

“Yes Dad, sorry. Can we eat now, I’m starving?”

While they were eating, Roger asked Lynn if it would be a good idea for them to add another member to their family. Lynn was shocked at such a topic being discussed in front of the children, especially by a man of the cloth.

“Roger! Can we discuss this later, now is not the time.”

Seeing the anticipated frown on her face, he smiled lovingly. “No, you misunderstand darling. I meant that maybe we should consider a little dog. It would be great for the children and we have so much space here.”

“A dog! Yes, yes, yes please!” shrieked Peter “I promise to be good for a whole year if we can have a dog.”

They all laughed. “OK it’s a deal.”

The next day Roger made some visits around the local farms in order to become acquainted with his parish and to introduce himself.  At Hurst Farm the most amazing coincidence happened. While chatting with John  Hurst it sprang out in conversation that his lead sheepdog Meg, had  six whelps, four of which would be kept as working dogs, but he was looking for new owners of the other two puppies. They were fourteen weeks old and are ready for their new homes. Roger couldn’t believe his luck.

Two hours later he pulled into the driveway with two cardboard boxes, having stopped at the local pet shop on the way home to purchase all of the necessary paraphernalia required by a new puppy. The pet shop also had some new kittens and on seeing them he just had to buy the pure black one. It looked weaker than the others and he could never resist the runt in the litter.

That evening the two additions were the only source of conversation, while names were selected and sleeping arrangements organised.

“No, they will not sleep in your bedrooms. They will sleep in the utility room as it is next to the garden,” ordered Lynn.

So, they were now a family of six. Sam loved his new owners and played endlessly with the children. Gerry began her life as a playful little kitten, but soon began to see her new owners more as her personal staff and treated them as such. Sam and Gerry each had their separate baskets. They never had any form of contact or showed any affection for each other. It was just as if for each of them, the other didn’t exist.

***

As the children grew it became, quite naturally, the case that Sam “belonged” to Peter, as he was always the one to take him for his daily walk, feed him, brush him etc. whereas Gerry would be found sitting on Maisies lap and received her food and titbits always from her.

Any onlooker would be convinced that Sam and Gerry simply didn’t like each other, until one day when Gerry was out crossing the lane, just as a hoodlum on a motor bike came screaming around the corner. The biker saw Gerry apparently, which caused him to drop the bike in order to avoid a collision, but in doing so a piece of the wing mirror spat out as it hit the ground, impaling itself just below the jaw of Gerry. She crawled away into the bushes, bleeding badly.

On hearing the commotion outside Lynn ran to the gate to see the motorcyclist standing up, dusting himself down.  “Are you okay” she called “are you hurt?”

“I think so,” replied the shaken but seemingly unhurt rider. “I think that my pride is the biggest victim today. I swerved to avoid a black cat and couldn’t hold the bike. It slid from under me but the only damage seems to be one broken mirror, but at least the cat was not hurt. Sorry to have bothered you.”

With a smile of embarrassment he picked up the bike, kick started and was on his way, this time a little more carefully.

That evening as they sat in front of their new black and white television, watching Hughie Green and the “Muscle Man” in the new TV series, Opportunity Knocks, Maisie suddenly realised that Gerry had not come home for her dinner. This was most unusual, so she went to the back door to call and whistle for her. This always brought her home. She came back a little distraught as Gerry could not be seen.

“Cats are always like this, Maisie,” said Roger. “She’ll be back when she gets hungry.”

Lynn had the sudden idea that something could be wrong. Until that moment she hadn’t connected the motor bike accident with Gerry, but the more she pondered the more she became suspicious. Shortly afterwards she heard Sam pining at the front door and went to see what was the problem. Sam was uneasy and paddling his paws on the floor as he does when “One Man and His Dog” comes on the television. This raised Lynn’s suspicions even more.

Quietly, without raising concern, she went out to the lane with her torch. Sam followed and immediately went snuffling into the hedge opposite. After some minutes Lynn heard a very faint mmeowwing and slowly moved towards the sound. She had to get down on all fours and crawl into a bramble bush, but soon saw Gerry in the beam of her torchlight. She was in a very bad way, fur slicked down by the loss of blood, and the point of a glistening piece of glass protruding from near her throat.

Quickly she fetched Roger who, using the garden shears, managed to cut away enough foliage to reach in and grasp Gerry. She was too far gone to object. Tom Watson, the local vet, was luckily at home. After an hours’ worth of treatment and thorough clean-up it turned out that Gerry was no longer in danger. The glass had not pierced a major artery and she would be as good as new in a week or so.

They placed Gerry on the hearth in front of the wood burner. She was very cold, and too weak to move. Sam watched intensely the whole time and switching his gaze between Gerry and Roger, pined very quietly as if to ask what was going on.” Why was Gerry so still?” He very slowly crawled on his belly up to her and licked her neck. She stirred gently and purred as if she was actually speaking to Sam. Encouraged by this he moved so close until his whole body was cuddled around her in a semi-circle. Gerry snuggled up to this warmth and so they stayed for the rest of that night. This was the first time they had ever shown any contact or care for each other.

Within a few weeks it was business-as-usual. Gerry was fully recovered and at 7 years old was in her prime, catching mice and birds on a daily, if not hourly basis. She even tried to drag a rabbit through the cat flap one time, until Lynn scolded her severely.

***

Some years later, when Peter was in his final year at university and Maisie was studying for a re-sit of her failed A-Levels, a great Christmas party was organised at the rectory. Roger and Lynn had decided that the family was becoming far too separated and it was time for a reunion. Her parents would travel down from Durham, her sister and children from Leeds. Rogers widowed father would come up with his sister, Aunt Beatie, and the whole family would be reunited for the first time in nearly 20 years.

Old Sam was not so impressed. Usually a quiet household, it had suddenly turned into Bedlam.  He kept out of the way as much as possible, as did Gerry, although both enjoyed the titbits from the Christmas lunch being slipped to them by Maisie and Peter during the meal.

It was a long day.  It was into the early hours on boxing day morning before everyone retired. Roger was just locking up and making sure the two old pets were put out into the utility room when he saw Sam lying awkwardly in the corner of the dining room. “Come on, old boy!” he said, “time for bed.”

Sam didn’t move. On closer inspection it was clear that he was unconscious. He was cold and his breathing could barely be traced.  Roger brought his basket and gently lifted him in. He was a dead weight showing no recognition of being moved. Rogers immediate intention was to call Tom Watson, but after a few moments he decided that he would let things take their course. Sam was a good old age and had probably had a heart attack. Better to let him die peacefully at home rather than to go through more trauma at the vets.

He sat with Sam for more than two hours when he started to feel unwell. He was very tired, so tired that it was making him feel slightly sick. He decided to go to bed for a couple of hours with the certainty that Sam would be dead when he returned. His breathing had almost stopped. Before he went he spent a few more minutes remembering back to the first week when they had all arrived in Yaxham. It seemed so long ago, but so much had happened in those sixteen years. So many memories with the children, but hardly any where Sam wasn’t involved somewhere along the line. He had always been present. He will be sorely missed.

Reluctantly he trudged up the stairs. Lynn was sleeping peacefully and did not stir as he slid into bed. He set the alarm for six as he didn’t want to let anyone else in the family find Sam by being up first. Immediately, or so it seemed, after closing his eyes the alarm went off. He quickly stopped it, before it could disturb the others. Being a light sleeper had its advantages sometimes.

He crept down the stairs very quietly so as not to disturb anyone and went to Sam’s basket. He could hardly believe his eyes. Gerry was lying right on top of Sam. As Roger entered the room she stirred, but did not relinquish her position. He touched Sam’s lank fur and felt carefully around his neck and chest. He was cold. He tried to lift Gerry away but she clung on. She wanted to be with Sam until the last minute. With tears in his eyes, Roger went out to the garden shed to get the spade. In his pyjamas, oblivious to the freezing cold, he quickly dug a hole down at the end of the garden behind the cherry tree.

On returning to the house, it was still dark, and he went to collect Sam for delivery to his final resting place. He pulled Gerry away and took a firm grip on Sam’s underbelly to get good leverage, to lift him from the basket. How could he have been such a fool? Sam opened one blurry eye, his vision was clearly not there, but somehow he was still alive. Gerry had known all along!

Roger immediately went into action. He called Tom Watson to come straightaway. The answering machine gave the message that Tom was away for Christmas and would not be back for three days. In an emergency he should call another number. Upon answering the vet said that he would need about two hours to get there as he had another emergency in Norwich, and to keep Sam as warm as possible but peaceful.

Roger put on some gentle music, Beethoven’s 6th Pastoral Symphony. He sat next to Sam and caressed him gently. After some minutes he rose to make a cup of tea. It was now nine o’clock, and still no-one was up. As he returned to the dining room with the tea tray the fifth movement was just beginning. On hearing this Sam staggered to his feet, crawled out of his basket and stood looking bemused at Roger. He was clearly blind, but sensed the direction as though his vision was full. Roger sat looking at him, with tears rolling down his face. The music and the situation were just too much for him to control.

He turned the music up to full volume. The family, immediately roused from their slumber, came down the stairs to find out what all the commotion was about.  They all stood in the doorway looking at Roger as if he was becoming crazy.

Lynn, looking utterly concerned, stammered “ Roger, are you alright? Whatever is going on?”

Roger spoke through his streaming tears, and smiled before he said with quivering lips, “Everything is fine. I was just remembering why I became a pastor.”

 

***

Sam had, indeed, had a severe stroke. He was paralysed in his right shoulder and leg, some eyesight returned but he remained disabled for the remaining 16 months of his life. He would spend that time bumping into furniture and completely ignoring Gerry, as had been the case for 17 years….except on those two occasions.

Supermarket Dash

“Wow, Dad! I’ve won a free trolley run at Sainsbury’s. Five minutes to cram all I can into two trollies,” shouted my Mom through to the kitchen, where Dad was trying to dunk his Ginger Nuts into his tea without messing up his copy of the Daily Telegraph.

***

A week later they were at the entrance to Sainsbury’s, all fired up and ready to go. Three middle-to-old-aged ladies each determined to get to the salmon and caviar first. The local paper was there, as were the family supporters. I cheered, “Come on Mom, you can do it!”

An Olympic-style starting pistol was fired and off they went. Mom reached the salmon first. I had never seen her so pumped up with energy, like an overwound clockwork doll. She cleared ten tins of John West best red salmon in the blink of an eye. Then she was on to the fresh meat and steaks, Dads favourite. After less than a minute the trolley was half full, enough food to last a year at least.

Then came the chicane! A food pallet was parked in the aisle. Mom and a huge woman in big flowery dress which looked as if her massive breasts would fly out of their own accord at any minute collided as they simultaneously went for the narrow opening. My Mom gave a reactionary shove with her left arm, left a flowery mess on the floor behind her shouting and gurgling as though she was breathing her last. Mom didn’t care! On she went towards the frozen foods.

Ice cream, fish, pizzas. You name it, she grabbed it. She was given a second trolley as the first was full, and only two minutes gone. Wow!” Go mum go!”

But racing in from behind her the enemy retaliated, hurtling past the canned soups. The fat one was back on her feet and in fighting mood. As she charged past, her trolley hooked onto Moms dress. It spun her round in surprise with a 2kg pack of frozen cod in her hand. I saw it in slow motion. As she rotated with the forward force of the trolley the fillets flapped widely and connected perfectly onto the jaw of her foe.  The woman went down for a second time; this time out for the count.

Mom was oblivious to this woman’s plight. She surged on grabbing, seizing, snatching, and two-handed as though her life depended on it.

Finally a loud whistle sounded and it was over.

The three women, all bedraggled, arrived at the check-out;  the flowered one trying secretly to reinstate her left breast back into its wayward cup, with disappointment and anger transparent on her blotchy red face. It was never intended to be a competition, all three could win and take whatever they could manage, but the three had turned it into a battle for supremacy which made the Ali-Frazier bout seem tame by comparison.

“Eighty-six pounds thirty six pence worth of goods for Mrs Stevens, thirty-two for ….”

The rest was drowned out by the applause for Mom. She had shown admirable competitive spirit and determination. With a self-satisfied smile she shook the hands of the other women, squeezing especially hard with you-know-who.

Dad had enough salmon and steaks to keep him going for a while. I never underestimated Mom again.

Chyort

This morning began as a perfectly normal autumn working day with, at least from my perspective, no perception that it would become one of the most memorable and sinister days of my life. It was Tuesday, very dark at 6.30am in the morning when we woke to a new catchy French song on the radio. Outside was dank and dismal, with cold wind and some light but biting rain swirling in the air.The sky was grey and angry clouds blustered overhead, almost seeming to touch the treetops with their dark feathered tails.

To the sound of music my wife stirred and gave a little purr that I have become so accustomed to over the years. She snugggled up closely to me and, as always, stroked my tummy while she bathed in the ever present warmth of my body. As is her daily routine she checked my manhood, or at least it always seemed to me as though she  was checking. The feel of her light fingers on the soft down of my lower tummy never fails to cause the early morning reaction fuelled by my temporarily raised testosterone levels. I enjoy the moment. At fifty-six I am always comforted to know that things are still functioning well, a sign of good health I always think. I love Susan more than I ever considered possible. She is my best friend, my lover and my lifelong partner. I am forever fascinated by the joy of  being with her, and of having her as my wife.

With a little wet kiss on my naked tummy, she slid herself reluctantly out of the bed and shuffled towards the bathroom, leaving me with a need for further carresses. Although aroused to my full extent, I had expected no more. It is a weekday and we must arise and meet the days demands full on. Waking at the weekend is another situation, but this narrative is not intended to be an erotic account of the sexual antics of a slightly-more-that-middle-aged couple, but a tale of something far more incredible, which was soon about to enter my life and change me, my beliefs and cause me to reassess life’s priorities forever.

I leaped out of bed, threw on some clothes from the day before, and started breakfast. I normally rise, dress quickly and make breakfast while Susan showers and dresses. It saves time, and after she is off to work I can see to such things at my leisure. It is now three weeks since we moved here to the little village of Tournefeuille in the south-west of  France and I am gently sliding into my long planned early retirement. I work only part-time, mostly from my office at home.

When Sue entered the dining kitchen, our dog Senga, a young golden retriever, jumped up wagging her tail in exitement. We breakfasted quickly, as is usual during the week, after which I walked with Susan and Senga down to the nearby bustop. Taking the bus dispenses with the need of a second car and is much less stressful during the morning rush hour , so Susan prefers it. However on such a cold and rainy morning as this, I think she would have rather used a car.

 While ambling slowly back towards the house, feeling very relaxed and comfortable with the world, from a hundred metres or so away, I could hear my phone ringing. I sprinted up the driveway, unlocked the door and grabbed the nearby telephone from its base.

“Bonjour, James Bleckett,” I uttered, mildly out of breath.

“Hello Mr Bleckett. My name is Mioslav Nanovic. I hope that you can remember me.

“Sorry. No! Should I? What are you wanting to sell?” I said displaying a little irritation, quite common in my response to cold callers.

“You misunderstand,” he said. “ I am not selling or canvassing, but I want to give you some important information. You should have remembered me because we worked together for 18 years from 1972 until 1990.”

“Well, Siemens is a huge company Mr. Nanovic. There are more than a hundred thousand people working there. I am sorry, but I cannot remember your name. What is it that I can do for you?”

“It is more a question of what I can do for you,” he said in a rather mysterious husky voice. “I wish to tell you who you really are. You never actually worked at Siemens;  You worked with me in the Balashikha laboratories. Your real name is Boris Stark.”

“What nonsense! Look, I don’t know what your game is, or how you came by my number, but I don’t like it; Please get off the ….”

“Just give me five minutes to explain,” he cut in.

I placed the phone down somewhat angrily, even though I thought that I had become accustomed to the persistant calls from sales people or canvassers.

Senga was dripping on the floor from the rain and I fetched her doggy towel to rub her down. I loved her like a child, especially as we were never lucky enough to have been able to have children of our own. I guess she was my best substitute. We went everywhere together. The telephone rang again. “Please don’t hang up, just a few minutes; that is all I ask.” This time he sounded almost frightened, or at least he spoke with enough conviction to persuade me to listen more.

“Ok,” I said, rather gruffly “but quickly.”

“As I said, my name is Nanovic; I worked in the Balashikha laboratories developing a new supervirus which can target specific gene types and, at that time, was considered to be the ultimate weapon. It could be targeted to attack specific illnesses and wipe them out, along with their carriers. More ominously, it could be focussed against such genetic characteristics as race or criminality. We would have been able to create a world of people who would comply only with the regimes current wishes.”

“But that is preposterous,” I countered. “This would be the end of mankind as we know it, and in any case, what has that got to do with me?”

“You, Mr Stark…..er Mr Bleckett, worked with me on the final XT virus strain, which was to be the last test before going into final production of the genetic selection process. There were 6 of us;  Me, you, the american Walt Turver, a portugese Andre..”

“You are crazy! Either you are making all of this up, or you have the wrong person. My name is James Bleckett. I worked at Siemens during the period you mention, in southern Germany. I have a wife since 1978 and we certainly have never been to Moscow!”

“Ah! So at least you do know where Balashikha is. It is a small town near Moscow, but how did you know that Mr. Stark if you were never there?”

“Er, I I don’t know. I just assumed,” I said, suddenly very nervous. Where did I know that from? Maybe it had been in some quiz or other that I had heard, but since forgotten.

“I would suggest Mr Stark….”

“Stop calling me Stark! My name is Bleckett.”

“Ok, Mr Bleckett. The name is not important. I would suggest that you know where Balashikha is because it is deep in your episodic memory. They were not able to completely re-program this part of your brain, as this is the most complex.”

“What garbage. You really seem to be from another planet Mr. er… “

“Nanovic”

“Mr. Nanovic. And in any case, who is “they”?”

“They are the Shiro Ishii Institute for Biological warfare. This was set up in a bizarre secret collaboration between Russia and Japan during the 1950s. During the final tests of the XT strain it was found that the genetic specificity was too difficult to control and also with the end of the cold war it was decided to close the laboratories. In order not to risk the key scientists coming into the wrong hands, they have used the latest hippocampus re-programming techniques to reset your minds;  give you a new memory, identity and indeed, a new life. They have even arranged to place you with a new wife, who was previously on their staff. I know that it it incredibly hard for you to believe this Mr. Stark, but it is all true. I managed to escape from the institute before re-programming. The other five all met your fate.”

“Okay, okay, this is now enough! I have listened to your fantastic story and, I must admit, it has had some entertainment value, however far fetched and ludicrous. But enough is enough; I am now going to hang up. Goodbye Mr Nanovic. I hope you find whatever it is you are looking for, but I am certainly not it.”

“But Mr. Stark, Boris…please, you must help me, plea…”

At that moment I heard a huge noise in the earpiece; a little like a gunshot, but more like a small explosion. The phone went dead.

*****

The weeks went by. I rarely thought about the phone call. I told Sue that evening, but she was hardly listening.

“Just some krank, I guess,” she said. “ I wouldn’t think any more about it. There are some very strange people in this world. He probably would have tried to sell you a book eventually. The History of Germ Warfare or something like that I don’t doubt.”

“I guess you’re right.”  But I couldn’t stop myself thinking about it that night. How did I know where Balshikha was? And his pleading voice at the end of the call….”please, please!” It seemed too genuine to be faked; The guy was really frightened.

I followed Sue’s advice however, and the following day I let it go from my mind. After all, I had enough to do. As well as the housework and my daily fitness routine, I was also trying to learn French and begin my writing career. I had found a new creative writing group, which I had joined instantly and was eager to get my first entry into their monthly competition. There was little time to think about crazy phone calls.

It was about 4 weeks after the call that I was working quietly in the garden. The sun was shimmering through the light haze, providing the first real warmth of the year. The spring had come into full bloom, but alas, so had the weeds! While I was tugging and swearing at a particularly strong root, my hand slipped and a sharp strand cut the skin on my little finger as it dragged through my palm. “Chyort voz’mi!” I said under my breath.

I went into the bathroom to wash the small wound and put on a sticking plaster, when suddenly I froze. Chyort voz’mi ! Where did that come from? I quickly went to my computer and typed the words into the google tanslator. I had no idea how to spell it so typed “chyort” and clicked to automatically detect the language. The translator asked “do you mean черт”. I clicked again and stared at the screen in amazement. The translation into english is “Damn”. I had spoken Russian.

My mind was racing; My thoughts were replaying the phone call. “Boris Stark” he said. I googled Boris Stark. Too many options; Too many Boris Starks. I tried to remember my old Siemens colleagues. None would come to mind. I googled Balashikha; Just outside Moscow. Was I ever there? No, of course not. Chyort, damn, Balashikha, Boris Stark, “you must help me..please, please.….” my mind was spinning. Am I going crazy?

I knew that it could not be true. Susan has been faithfully with me for over 20 years. We were in love; we are in love. We met at a Siemens business dinner, but who were the other dinner guests? I can’t remember any of their names. What is wrong with me?

I decided to confront Susan when she arrived from work that evening. No, not confront, ask!  I would ask Susan if she is really who she says she is and am I an ex-germ warfare scientist. What a joke! She would think that I had totally flipped; perhaps I have. Clearly it would be impossible to ask her straight out, but what could I do? After some thought I planned to write a letter addressed to a Mr. Boris Stark at our address.

*****

I watch her every move, looking for some indication, some small clue that I could be right. She is as always. She is loving, beautiful, even serene. How could I ever doubt her? She is everything to me. I feel ashamed. My eyes water with the emotion of deepest love for this woman. Nothing could come between us.

She notices that something is wrong and asks me if everything is all right. “No issues?” she asks. This is our lovers way of asking each other if all is well. “No issues”, I reply.

After dinner we sit together discussing our day. We open a bottle of Fronton and enjoy the moment. Well, she enjoys the wine. I am far too preoccupied by the Stark affair. Maybe I should simply throw the letter away when it arrives and forget the whole thing. At this moment it all seems so ridiculous. I feel more than ashamed. I feel thoroughly embarrassed over my stupidity. ‘Chyort’ goes through my mind over and over again. Surely…..

That night I can’t sleep. I lay awake the whole night thinking, wondering, replaying the call with Nanovic. It all seems so pointless, so ridiculous. I switch to watching Susans face. We never close the curtains because we are not overlooked. There is enough light peeping through the windows from outside that I can see her smooth, silky skin, her lightly flickering eyelashes, her gentle breathing. A small snuffle nudges her in her sleep. She opens her eyes and sees me. She smiles comforted by my presence. She hasn’t woken, even in her sleep she loves me and knows that she is protected by my love for her. This just cannot be a fake!

The next day it is business as usual. After she goes off to work I try to occupy myself with the daily routine. Writing is out of the question. Mid-morning I hear the hum of the postgirl’s little motor scooter. I walk out to the postbox to check that it is there. One Time magazine, two advertising letters and one marked Boris Stark. I leave all there, and close the box. I am suddenly very determined.

The day is awful. I go for a long walk with Senga along the river bank. While she is happy to find every opportunity to roll in the mud, I can only think of one thing.

At 7pm Sue arrives from work. I didn’t go to meet her at the busstop with Senga, as I would normaly do. I pretend that I am behind with the dinner as I have spent the whole day writing and apologise for the delay. I try, as casually as possible, to say “ Oh! I haven’t checked for post today. Would you mind having a look in the postbox while I finish stirring the sauce?  Then we can sit for dinner. Today is your favourite. Sarsuela.”

I watch nervously from the window as she opens the box. She takes out the letters and looks through them. Oh my God! Her face shows it all! I see the horror on her face as she reads the name Boris Stark. She is clearly well aware of my forgotten past. She quickly stuffs the letter marked Boris Stark into her coat pocket.

When she enters the kitchen I can hardly breathe. In a trance I ask “ Well, was there anything important?”

“No,” she replies, already fully composed again, “only a couple of advertisments and your Time magazine.”

I take the sarsuela through to the dining room. We sit at the large oval table and our eyes meet. She hesitates before she says with what appears to be total sincerity “My darling, when we first met I was a little unsure how our relationship would last. We had such different backgrounds. Even after we were married I had some reservations, although I always kept them to myself. I just want you to know that since we have been together my feelings for you have constantly grown and never faltered. I will be yours for as long as you want me and will cherish every day that we are together. I know that now. Whatever happens please promise me that you will always believe that.”

I smile. After swallowing the first morsel of monkfish with a sip of the cool white beaujolais, I quietly answer. “My love, I know and I promise. I will never leave you either. We are so lucky to have found each other. Whatever differences we have from our past, they are well and truly buried. Only the future and our happiness count”.

And you know what? I meant every word!

Introduction

Hi,

welcome to my new site. You will have to excuse me for a while as I am new to blogging and WordPress. Hopefully it will improve over time.

The purpose of this site is to be able to present my writing to a wider audience, and hopefully receive constructive comments from the readers.

Let’s see how it goes!

Gazoopi