Paul Purnell

Short stories and other work

Category: Other (page 1 of 2)

SINISTER HIGHWAY

Prising open the stiff fingers of the right hand, Dana showed me the weapon with its pearl handled grip. “Some fancy piece!” She flicked open the chamber. “Three shots fired.” I could smell the faint residue of cordite in the barrel; it must have been fired just a few hours ago. We shipped the body to county morgue in Santa Ana and sat back to figure out what to do.

 I had spent three years in Houston, working with their family unit but when the job in Moran County came up, Chief Mulligan pushed me to apply.

“Look, Kiddo, this is your best shot at promo. Lazy little hick town miles from anywhere. Go for it!”

I said, “I know nothing about Mex/Tex profiles and less about homicide! They’ll laugh me out of office in a fortnight!

“You need to show them what a woman can do! Besides, there’s no serious crime down there.”  So I took the job.

Two weeks later, Diego Lopez was wiped on the high road.

I left the forensics to Dana and the local team and headed out to find where Lopez had lived. Someone had to tell his family. I wore my best outfit with shiny boots and cap to impress. It had to be good; down here they’d never seen a female cop before. Regulations said I should be armed  but I figured I could leave my firearm at the station.This was a sympathy call.

Among the shacks down by the river, everybody knew where his family lived. I was surprised to find it was a substantial brick house set back some way from the hovels around it. A high wire fence kept in a pair of Dobermans and I thanked God. From the gate I could see several figures gathered under the ramada at the front of the house. One of them cut away and approached me. He was a thin man with a face tanned by many years in the sun. His hair was blue black and slicked back from his brow to form a shiny cowl of hair above his narrow face. He stared at me through the gate.

“You come to tell me bad or good news?” He spoke sharply as if to impose himself and intimidate me. “Come! Abuela wants to speak with you!”

I ignored the question and waited while he chained the dogs and unlocked the gate. The walk up to the house took a slice out of my self-confidence. The crowd remained silent as they watched me climb the path, but I took my time and stared ahead. As I reached the steps I saw an old woman in the centre of the group. She sat on an old rattan chair like a queen, her white hair covered by a black mantilla.

The thin man spoke. “She wants to know who you are.”

“You can see on my badge. My name is Kali Kuresh. I’m the new sheriff of this county.”

She looked me up and down and stared for a moment, then she spoke in Spanish to the man.

“She wants to know where the man in charge is.”

I stared back. “I’m in charge.”

“She wants to know where your gun is.”

“I don’t need a gun when I pay my condolences to the family. This time she gave the slightest of nods, as if accepting my statement. Then she spoke directly to me.

“What you do to catch asesino? My blood is in el suelo.”

“Suelo?” I said.

The man spoke. “Her family’s blood is in the ground, she needs to find the culpable.”

“I have a team working on it right now and we are searching the county for a damaged vehicle.” I hoped to God that it might be true.  “Who can tell me about Diego’s movements last night?”

A tall dark skinned girl in a black dress stood up and raised her hand. “I know what he did.” She came towards me but the thin man put his arm out to stop her. She pushed him aside and came on to meet me.

 “I was with him last night-I’ll tell you what you want to know.”

Her eyes were rimmed in red and I could see a mark on her cheek where someone or something had struck her.

“OK, come down to the station and we’ll take a statement.”  It was my first mistake. Two young men stood up and moved towards me giving me the hard stare.

“No! She goes nowhere!” The thin man put his hand inside his jacket; he was carrying a friend. That moment I swore to myself I would never go unarmed again.

“Calle te!”  The matriarch stood up and brandished her stick at the men. She spoke quietly but firmly in Spanish and the men stepped back. The girl looked at me and pointed to the open door of the house. I followed her inside, brushing through the group of sneering men. I kept my head up and looked ahead.

She draped herself on a velvet sofa and took a cigarette from a box on the table. Despite her sad eyes she radiated a certain confidence as if she knew something important but kept schtum.

“Do you know about El Calavera?”

                                  I was about to find out.

THE TANGO LESSON

George sat on the top deck of the bus. His seat was level with the windows of a pub. A woman in a scarlet dress leant out of the window peering down into the street. He could see the room behind her lit by a bright glow, as if a party was in progress – music played and couples flitted past behind her. Before he could make sense of it, the bus moved on and the incident was over. He slumped back in the seat and rubbed his eyes feeling all of his forty-two years at the end of another workday. Next evening, he took the same route at the same time but the bus went past in a second and the pub window was shut.

He put the scene out of his mind.

When he got home, his mother put the tea on the table as usual and sat down opposite him. She wiped her wrinkled hands on a tea towel and looked across at him.

Here we go he thought, another bleeding lecture.

“Why don’t you go out a bit more Georgie? You’re always under my feet and yet you’re earning a good wage. Enjoy yourself!”

Her voice had a piercing tone and it grated on his nerves.

“Do you think a packer gets a good wage? Working from eight a.m. to half past five in a grimy warehouse? It’s a treadmill, I tell you. I’m fagged out by teatime.”

She rumbled on for a few minutes but he didn’t listen anymore. He read the Evening Standard, and switched on the telly. But when he went up to bed, he found himself thinking back to the mysterious window and the lady in the scarlet dress. What was going on that night?

*

The following Tuesday, he decided to find out. He jumped off the bus a few yards down the road from the pub. It was the Wheatsheaf, one of the big Victorian pubs with Assembly Rooms upstairs. Outside the Saloon a notice read: “TANGO CLASSES TUESDAY 6 PM”. He climbed the stairs and heard unfamiliar music coming from the room above. It had a slow beat and an accordion played the melody in an extravagant way. Through the swing door, sound poured out from a loudspeaker. Dazed a little by the noise and the swirling couples, he stood in the doorway wrapped in his old mac and holding his cap in his hand.

The music stopped and a little woman came bustling over to him and took him by the arm. Her black hair, obviously dyed, was pulled back into a bun,.. She wore a tight blue dress and very high heels so she tottered as she led him to a table.

“You’re a little bit late, but Gloria will look after you.”

He could see the lines round her mouth wrinkle up like parchment as she smiled. Her body was as fragile as an old china doll in an antique shop. George had no time to explain that he was just curious. Everything moved so fast he couldn’t keep up.

“Hello, I’m Gloria,” said the lady sitting at a desk, a petty cash tin in front of her. “That will be five pound for the first lesson.”

Her mouth was a cherry but the outline of her lips seemed a bit blurred. Her eyes under their long false lashes were lost in dark pools of mascara.

He was too embarrassed to protest; she expected him to pay, so he got out his purse and selected five coins carefully.

“Just sit down, dear. Take off your coat and Doris will be over presently.”

He wondered what his mother would say when he got home late for his tea.

He pushed the thought out of his mind.

The class was reforming for another dance and the little woman in the tight dress clapped her hands and shouted:

“Now change your partners and let’s try a little harder – just glide – glide.” Her thin voice rose high above the chatter.

The beat of the music began again and George watched as the dancers gathered on the floor. The male dancers clasped their partners tightly and it seemed like the women were trying to keep them away. Some of the men gleamed with sweat as they shuffled about. The women struggled along as if pushing a heavy load.

Several untidy old men sat round the room looking on expectantly, their knees spread out as if claiming a space. It reminded him of musical chairs when he was small and everyone waited for the chance to grab a chair when the music stopped. Eyes scanned the women hoping for the slightest hint of approval.

Then his attention was attracted to a younger woman who came over to him. She was the girl in the red dress he had seen the week before. He remembered her long blond hair tied back in a ponytail and her slim figure.

“Have you been here before?” she asked.

“Well no, not inside,” he said.

He realised it wasn’t the right thing to say because she frowned and cocked her head.

“What do you mean?”

He stood up and muttered the first thing that came into his head but she paid no attention and took his hand. He felt the warmth of her soft touch as she guided him onto the corner of the dance floor.

At close quarters he reckoned she was about his age yet had worn well. He was amazed at the way she propelled him about like a parcel.

“One – Two – Slide. One –Two – Slide.”

He moved awkwardly. His partner scarcely reached his shoulder but she kept up the chant as they ploughed through the other couples.

One or two avoided them with a quick change of direction but most suffered the crunch of his foot against their heels or toes as they moved around.

When the music stopped she dropped his hand and wiped her palm against her dress in a furtive way.

“That’ll be enough for one session,” she said firmly and walked away to the other side of the room.

He called after her, “Doris!” She turned and seemed puzzled. He stuttered, “I just want to say thank you.”

She walked back. “For what?”

“For giving me a dance,” he blurted.

She laughed and he noticed for the first time that she had a nice smile.

“You’re a funny one! I dance with all the newcomers.”

“Well I mean…” but he couldn’t say what he meant. So he stopped. She smiled again and her eyes smiled too.

“Maybe I’ll see you next week then.”

It was more a question than a statement. George nodded without speaking. He put on his coat and took his cap and went out into the dark.

*

During the week he wondered if it was worthwhile turning up the following Tuesday. He felt embarrassed by his clumsiness and the way she had to push him round the floor. Besides, the other men in the class depressed him; it was like joining a queue at the Job Centre. They were a sad bunch and he would be just the same if he went back. But as the weekend arrived, he kept thinking about the woman in the scarlet dress and how she smiled at him.

On Saturday he bought a new shirt in the market and came home with it hidden under his overcoat. He told himself one last go would be OK, if he kept himself away from the general group of old losers.

On Tuesday, he left home with the new shirt still in its wrapper. He put it on as he left the factory at the end of the day.

At six p.m. he was there. The room was empty. He sat for minutes before he heard the sound of high heels tapping their way upstairs. Through the door came Doris and she seemed surprised to see him.

“O hello! Wondered if you would come back.”

She went to put her coat away, not expecting any reply. He stood up but couldn’t think of anything to say, so he sat down again.

As she came back he saw she wore a different frock – a bluish colour but it looked good on her. He stood up again.

“You know it costs seven pound for every session after the first?” He nodded as if he knew.

“Well, you can pay Gloria when she gets here.”

One or two other older men arrived soon afterwards and clustered near the door. One of them nodded to George but he pretended not to see.

The music started and Doris took his hand and led him into the middle of the floor. When he recalled what she’d done last time, he wrapped a handkerchief round his hand which held hers and she seemed surprised. She smiled and he felt a confidence he’d never sensed before as they moved off in the dance.

There was no one to run into as they circled the open space in the centre of the room. She guided him as before but slowly the rhythm made sense and he began to enjoy himself.

By this time the room was filling up with the usual assortment of eager older men and apprehensive women. When the music stopped she dropped his hand and turned away.

“You need to practise more. Ask Alice,” she said over her shoulder as she walked away. He saw her take the hand of a tall man with slicked-back hair and a sharp grey suit who smirked as she led him into the middle of the floor. She paid no attention to George as she whirled around. George bit his lip as he saw the odious man could dance a bit.

He worked out Alice was the little woman he met the previous time and she was dancing with somebody, so he sat down at the side of the hall and waited.

Gloria waved to him and pointed to her table. He went over and handed her a ten-pound note. He saw a glass of gin stood half empty at her elbow. She gave him his change she said, “Enjoyed your dance with Doris did you?”

“What d’you mean?”

She smiled thinly and said nothing but he knew there was something in her smile which was hostile. She didn’t look at him again. When he had sat down nearby, he saw she was using a stick as she limped away

The man sitting next to him leaned over and said, “Poor old Gloria – such a queen.” He chuckled and wiped his mouth with a grubby handkerchief.

“What d’you mean?”

“She was the number one teacher till she had her hip done.” George studied the man. He was bald with long wisps of grey hair brushed back along the sides of his head. The tips of the hair just reached each other at the back. He needed a shave.

George said, “How long have you been coming here then?”

“On-and-off about three years.”

“So you got the hang of this tango thing by now.”

The man pursed his lips and cocked his head to the side, his eyes gleamed and he smirked at George.

“More or less,” he said and turned to watch Doris as she twirled, hugging the figure of the tall man as he moved her round the floor.

The music stopped and before the dancers had moved off the floor, the man was up and walking over to Doris to speak to her.

She stood for a moment and glanced at George. She gave a wan smile and George leapt to his feet pushing the older man aside.

“You said I could have the next lesson,” he lied

“Yes, that’s right. Do you mind, Tom?”

The bald man grunted but George grabbed her hand and stood waiting for the music to start. He forgot about the handkerchief. Then they were away, moving together to the beat.

He held her close, feeling her body moving with him to the rhythm of the dance. The soft warmth of her back and her lithe movements sent a surge of excitement through his body. He couldn’t believe it when the music stopped. It seemed unfair.

“That was much better,” she said letting go of his hand. “You are relaxing more now.”

“It’s only because of you,” he blurted out.

She looked away and didn’t smile.

“Maybe you should dance with Alice next time.”

“No! I want to dance with you!”

His outburst startled her and she drew back a pace.

“You can’t,” she said, “it’s the rules, I only teach the new ones.”

For an instant, he wanted to protest. He wanted to tell her that he had never felt so happy in his life when he danced close to her. Then he saw her turn and smile at the old man she had rejected and take his hand for the next number.

He got his mac and walked to the door. Doris whirled by, turning the greasy old man in time with the music.

“See you again next week?” she asked.

He didn’t reply but pushed through the swing door and went out into the dark. Outside, a drenching rain had begun, seeping inside his mac and soaking the collar of his new shirt. He felt for his cap but he couldn’t find it. He waited at the bus stop and when it arrived, he sat upstairs as usual. He saw his reflection in the glass, a damp figure with his scant hair plastered down across his forehead.

But he was smiling.

TEA AND SYMPATHY

Molly put on her green hat, the one she wore to Sheila’s wedding, and locked the front door. It was just a short walk to the tea-shop but she took her time. Had it been a good idea to choose a spot so close to home? Anyway, too late now. He wouldn’t know that and the shop was nice, she felt comfortable there.

What was his name? She wrote it on the back of her hand but she forgot as soon as she did so. Yes, Derek, an author. Quite a surprise, actually. His email looked written by a cultured person, he wrote well and seemed to have a sense of humour.

Mam always said ‘You need a man with a sense of humour.’ The only man Molly had known was the man she married, that Harry Picken, and he was no joker. Twenty four years of drudgery proved that. After he died, she never thought of a male companion again till Betty at the Social Centre talked about it. 

“So easy to join up! Within a minute you can see who’s online! I can show you how.” Betty loved interfering; meant no harm but she did annoy sometimes.

Two days later Molly went to change her library books. She saw the internet machine by the front desk.

“It’s called a P.C.” Said the girl behind the counter. “Do you want me to show you how it works? She fiddled with the keyboard and a picture appeared on the screen.

“Now you can find what you want on Google” The word stared at her in a bold way. Below, a section with a blank space lured her on.

“Go on” said the girl, “type in what you want.”

Molly sat down at the desk and waited till she’d gone. Typing had been her forte; thirty years in Mister Althorp’s office taught her that, but she wondered what to write. The blank space challenged her. Her fingers hovered over the keys, awaiting commands. Before she knew it, the word ‘meeting’ appeared in neat script on the screen. She looked round quickly. Did anyone see? No, so she tapped Enter just like the girl had done.

Up came a list of names, and she clicked on the first one. The screen changed and a title ‘Partners Choice’ took over; all the rest of the items disappeared. From then onward it became simply a matter of following the instructions and picking the name. She clicked on. Such fun! She was on the ‘Internet’ like Betty and by typing she could make things happen! When the name of Derek came up, the description ‘author’ intrigued her and she tapped a message so the meeting was arranged.

Sitting in the tea-shop, she felt it may have been a mistake. She didn’t know Derek. Why had she done it? Perhaps the excitement of trying something new? Or was it a subconscious wish to make contact? Any contact? She fidgeted and crumpled a serviette; it seemed to stick like gum to her fingers.

A voice shattered this reverie. The waitress stood arms akimbo at her side. “Is it tea for one?”

“No I’m waiting for someone. It’s tea for two.”

The girl repeated the order as if she found it unusual, but Molly looked away and ignored her. The café began to fill up with mothers and children, older couples and a few single people. A quick glance at each single man was all she could do. She longed for the tea to arrive, at least then she could busy herself with preparations but she couldn’t catch the waitress’s eye.

Then she noticed the blind man treading carefully through the maze of tables. He wore dark glasses and he held his stick in front of him like a water diviner. He tripped at one point and she saw the need to steady him as he approached.

“Are you alright? It’s very crowded in here isn’t it?” She felt a fool; how could he see ?

He nodded and said “Can you put me near a table with a single lady please? Are you the waitress? I’m looking for a Mrs Molly Picken.” She froze. Her mind went blank. She hesitated while she did her best to make sense of it. How did he write the internet entry? Why didn’t he say he was blind? An author? He waited patiently by the table. He made no complaint but just stood there with his empty eyes fixed on her.

“Mind your back, Love!” The waitress lifted her tray high and put it down between them on the table. Then she looked at him for the first time and took his arm and sat him down in the chair facing Molly.

“There you go! Just make yourself comfortable and the lady will pour for you, won’t you?”.

She looked at Molly in a deliberate way as if to oblige her to speak or do something, then she marched away to deal with someone else.

“Are you Molly?” His voice was low and pleasant. He leant forward but she sat back in surprise.

“Yes. I’m Molly Picken and you are Derek?” How banal her reply sounded! and added quickly, “I wondered what you looked like!” She felt even worse.

He grinned. “I can’t help you with that. Maybe you can tell me!” He put one hand out gently to feel for the tray. “Would you like a cup of tea?” His hand touched the cups and traced the outline of the teapot and jug.

“Oh, Please let me!” Like a spell, she woke her from inertia and eagerly set about making tea and arranging plates for them both. He smiled and put his hands back on his lap.

“You’re wondering why I didn’t say I was blind aren’t you? And how did I manage the internet?”

“Yes” She said and was surprised how easy it seemed to chat with him.

“Well, I knew if I said so, no one would reply, so I got the Warden to write it for me and see what happened. Maybe I did wrong?

“Yes I think you did wrong! But never mind now, here’s your tea.”

He took the cup and they sat for a while without saying a word. Molly examined her mixed feelings of surprise and recrimination . He was here and real. What was the point in brooding over what had passed?

She looked at his clothes, the grubby jacket had buttons missing; his trousers were frayed old cords; he was a mess. It didn’t matter. She felt glad she’d come. They talked about the town and the way things had changed; he told her he had been a sailor and a deep sea diver. How he spent years in the Far East and lost a fortune in India. She wondered at the contrast between her life and his, the wealth of excitement he had found and her quiet homespun history. He never told her how he’d become blind and she was too embarrassed to ask. It seemed unimportant as they chatted together.  The tea grew cold as they talked on and when the waitress came back, clearing the table, she looked at Derek.

 “Nice cup of tea, my Love?”

She ignored Molly. Molly took out her purse and paid the bill. No tip.

There was some activity at the door of the Café and two men moved purposely towards their table. They stood next to Derek and one of them said,

“Come on Derek, you can’t keep running off like this. You’re causing grief at the ward. You’ll lose you Leave-outs after this.”

 They pulled him up by his armpits and began to move to the door. He turned towards Molly. His face was bright as a happy schoolboy.

“See you Molly, thanks for the tea!” She watched as they led him to a van outside and carefully guided his head into the back seat. He sat quietly as the vehicle moved and never turned his head.

The key made that familiar rusty noise as she unlocked the front door. The hall was dark and cold. She hung her coat and went into the kitchen to finish the washing up. Everything was as she had left it. She dried the dishes and for a moment, just one moment, she pictured his worn smile and frayed clothes that needed repair. Her eyes softened as she recalled the stories he told. Could they be true? It didn’t matter.

Then she sighed and put away the crockery.

PLAYING THE GAME

Monte Carlo? Listen! I’ll tell you about Monte Carlo.

I’d set it up good. Everything seemed just right; the timing, the punters; the setting. How could it fail? The casino was full and the croupiers on duty. The Cote d’Azur never looked brighter.

I planned this for over a year. Finding the right player is always the difficult part. I need glamour and skill; star quality and good knowledge of casino games. After months searching the gaming houses of South America, I found Mario in a flophouse in Buenos Aires. He was thin and dirty but I could see his style had not deserted him. He still possessed that spark he had as a first class gigolo. He smiled when I outlined the game to him and I’d found the man.

Alexia was never a problem. Her auburn hair and full breasted figure had been a feature of six or seven magazine covers before she fell out with Harvey Weinstein and lost her contract in Hollywood. When I rang her she was ‘resting’ in a motel in downtown San Diego, a long way from the bright lights.She had been ‘resting ‘for quite a few years.

“You sweet man! Of course I can make it to Monte! I’m having a break from filming and would be happy to help. What’s the gig?”

I outlined the plot and she jumped at the idea; two days later she was in Nice looking at dress shops at my expense.

As they sauntered along the boulevard leading to the Grand Casino, I knew they looked the part. Mario wore his tuxedo with elan, his long black hair pulled back into a shiny knot like a bull-fighting torero and his slim figure completed the image. He smoked a cheroot in a jade holder and strolled with the studied ease of a rich sportsman. Alexia took his arm and they made the picture of a celebrity couple as they walked up the long flight of steps to the main entrance. I was their chauffeur in black cap and dark suit, carrying an aluminium briefcase.

“Good evening,” The major domo bowed and presented an orchid to the beautiful Alexia, “May I ask you to sign in and I will take you to a table.”

His smile was warm but his eyes were like flints. I warned Mario that the staff would check on them and I provided him with the name of a Spanish bull fighter who was fighting in Mexico at that time.

A dark suited clerk took me aside and examined the briefcase; it contained one hundred thousand US dollars. His fingers flickered over the notes like the touch of a butterfly, then he nodded to me and I closed the lid. We were in.

The money belonged to me. If you think I have a hundred thousand dollars -think again! It was made for me by Luigi Macron in Lille. Of course it would not fool a Treasury Official but good enough for a quick show at the guichet of a casino and it worked perfectly. The clerk issued a chitty for chips to that figure and I drew them from the counter and handed them ostentatiously to ‘my Boss.’ They made a pretty pile as he sat at the big roulette table. I positioned Alexia at the far end of the same table with a few chips so that when she leant forward to play, she accidentally showed her cleavage . When she did, no man could watch Mario and no woman would take her steely eyes off her.

My role was to spend time in the basement like a good servant, chatting and gossiping with the others. I held the briefcase tightly since the Company would not accept responsibility for punter’s assets. I sat apart and no one watched me as I pinpointed the fusebox for the lighting system. The plan was to switch off the interior lighting and ‘top hat’ the winning numbers at the best table.

Give me a moment and I’ll explain.

If you can quickly add extra chips to the winning counters, then you can make thirty five times the stake on each coup. It takes quick hands and good timing but two working together make it easy. How do you make the switch? Kill the lights for a second and it’s done.

We had set it up for midnight plus five minutes and I watched the clock.

Just before I moved to the switch I felt something was wrong.

The staff around me began to gather round the screens showing the gaming tables. Then one screen zoomed in on the table where Mario sat. His hands filled the screen; in his fingers you could see three 100 dollars chips ready to flick onto winning numbers as soon as the lights went out.

What could I do? What would anyone do? I pulled the switch.

There was uproar in the basement and I slipped upstairs to the Gaming Salon. Within a a few seconds, the emergency lighting came on and I confronted bedlam.What had been the sophisticated social scene , was a madhouse. At every table glamorous women old and young were grappling with each other or stretched across the green baize to reach any chips still lying on the table. A man in a wheelchair barged through the crowd to reach one of the Baccarat tables, scooping up chips on his way.

Alexia? I found her under the gaming table, half naked, struggling with an ancient crone who managed to snatch the chips Alexia had pinched from the croupier.

There was no sign of Mario. His chair was empty and his pile of chips had disappeared. The Casino staff were struggling through the swarming mass to reach the tables and rushing to close the doors to the Gaming rooms. I squeezed out just before they closed and ran downstairs to get my briefcase. It had gone.

Before I got my head together, a burly Gendarme grabbed me by the arm and shoved me out into the street.

“What’s up Monsewer?” Says I,

He gave me a sickly smile, “About five years, I reckon.” He pointed to the briefcase and the fake dollars.

“But I can explain,” I said. He shoved me into a van and we drove off.

As we passed through the square, I peered out of the window. There, at a café, sat Mario with a large plastic bag; it bulged with what I knew to be casino chips. He looked content.

It all depends on the staff you pick. I struck out this time but in a few years I’ll be out and give it another go. You’ve got to keep playing the game, haven’t you?

WEST BAY – A dark story

Past midnight a storm hammered and rocked the walls of Jack Brad’s’s hovel on West Bay. Then a sudden noise brought him awake. The sound of a fist on the door. There it was again. No cry or shout, just the pounding again and again. He’d lived alone since Jane left him.

“What’s your business?”

“Open Jack!”

He ran to the kitchen for the twelve bore and quickly thumbed in two cartridges.

“Mind, I got me gun and stand back from the door!” The shadow moved.

Easing the bolt back, he jarred open the door pushing against the wind. In the whirlwind outside stood a tall figure wrapped in oilskin with a hat jammed down on his forehead.

“Let me in Jack, I’ve got summat for you and I need a place to hide it.”

The man was Crask, a scavenger, who lived under the high cliffs which hunched around the Bay. He cradled a parcel in his arms and laid it down on the work table and turned up the wick in the lamp.

“Put down the gun, Jack and I’ll let you into a bargain.”

Crask leant forward, put the object on the table and twisted his lips into a half smile.

“Just you and me, mind, and down the middle!”

Jack breached the gun and stood it in the corner.

“Show us what you found an’ I’ll think on it.”

The scavenger bent over and began to untie the cloth which wrapped the prize. It was a fine cotton material, with some dark stains. Crask had some difficulty in untying it and ripped at the bundle.

At last, the object rolled onto the table. It was a woman’s hand torn off at the wrist, the fingers curled as if in a spasm of agony.

“Jesu! What have you done?” Jack shrank back, eyes wide and stood against the wall.

“Calm yerself,” Crask held up his hands, “I found her on the strand. In the dark, no one saw her jump.”

West Bay folk knew how the great cliffs drew unhappy souls to the brink and certain death.

“But the hand!” Jack stared at the blanched fingers and the delicate wrist.

“She fell on the rocks, it was natural. But see,”

He pointed to the fingers; two rings glittered, even in the lamplight they glowed brightly.   “Must be worth a good amount.”

Jack stood back as Crask pulled at the rings. He held the palm with one hand and twisted the finger. The grey skin swelled up as he tugged; a little circle of resistant flesh formed around the finger as he twisted and pulled. Eventually, he freed them and put them on the table.

The hand curled again and lay palm up with one finger outstretched. Jack covered it with the bloodstained sleeve.

“Look at that!” Crask hugged himself, looking down at the treasure with a fixed gaze.

“Get it out of here!” Jack looked him in the face and pointed to the hand, “Just take it, in the name of Christ! It belongs to the poor creature on the shore.”

Crask stirred from his reverie and nodded. He took his hat and without a further glance, pushed the grey bundle into his coat pocket.

“What about the rings?”

“Hold ’em till the morning and I’ll collect them when it’s safe.”

He swept out into the wind before Jack had time to speak, leaving the door wide open and the wind swirled in like a witch, howling and tumbling the furniture about the room.

 He struggled to the door, put his back to it and bolted quickly. The silence seemed strange after the tumult. In that quiet moment, he looked for the rings. The table was empty. The chairs were tumbled over and he scrabbled on the floor where they had been. The rings had gone. The floorboards beneath the table were bare. He pushed aside the table and chairs to scour the floor.No sign of them. His eyes darted into every dark corner of the room.

 He covered his eyes with one hand and sat hunched against the wall. In his mind’s eye, the hand with its curled fingers was still there, beckoning to him with one outstretched finger. He cursed Crask and his greed. Then, with a moment of clarity, he saw the truth. Crask had pocketed the rings after he stuffed the hand into his coat.

He clenched his fists and scrambled to the door, pulling his greatcoat from its peg. Outside the darkness covered him instantly. As he ran he shouted but the wind whipped his voice away from his lips. Above him, the faint outline of the cliffs hung over him; he stumbled along the shingle making for the steepest bank of the Bay where he expected to find Crask. A dim shape was moving among the stones below the crest. As he ran, thunder rolled around the sky and a flash of lightning, gave an instant of clarity to the scene ahead. The figure of a man stooped over a bundle on the ground. Another roar of thunder filled the sky and he sprang at the man gathering him in an embrace to choke him. They struggled shifting from side to side as they fought, tripping on the lifeless corpse that lay under their feet.

Again, a crack of thunder burst out of the heavens and without a sound, the cliff began to move. Silently, swiftly the face of red clay dropped to the beach and covered the struggling men. It spread out into the shingle in a rolling carpet of stones and earth covering everything in its path.

The next morning, curious folk came out to see the damage. Jack Brad’s hovel stood open. Inside, in a crevice by the door, they found the two rings.

“Them’s mine,” said Jane Brad, “I lost ’em years ago.”

 

No More Heroes

He stood on his own next to the Dean who showed him the Polygalla Bursista in full flower.

“You see, Matthew, cross pollination can produce extraordinary blooms despite Fawcett’s Theory of Genetic Isolation.”

“Yes, Dean.”

Was this the life he’d made for himself? Chatting to the college principal while she stood surrounded by a crowd in the middle of the Second Quad? The noise of their excited chatter echoed off the warm stone walls and penetrated the shadowy corners of the old building. A shaft of evening sunlight caught the bright sheen of her hair and her joyful laughter radiated happiness he longed to share. It filled him with envy and a strange, powerful impulse.

The day he won a scholarship to Jesus College had seemed the highlight of his young life. His Headmaster paraded him before the school like a prince.

“An outstanding scholar and worthy champion of our academic trophies…etc ..etc”

She had laughed with the others, tossing her beautiful dark hair as she clapped his success. Was it sincere or did she join in with the rest who labelled him ‘Mister Dork?’

She never showed it, but there again, she seemed too busy with her own set to bother with him. His adoration was his problem not hers. She lived in a world of admiration. Like a pretty goldfish and she swam elegantly through life with a lazy flick of her tail.

There was a moment of surprise when she passed the university entrance exam, but it was not a scholarship or bursary.

“Congratulations,” he said “We’ll meet at college next year!”

“Yes,” she said, and turned away as one of her girlfriends came rushing to hug her success; the two girls sharing the embrace that drove his imagination to a whirlwind of jealousy.

As the term approached, he worked at a local garden centre to earn enough to buy an old car and with some difficulty managed to pass his driving test. His father teased him.

“Now you’ll fetch the girls, me lad!” He smiled and made no reply. He didn’t want to ‘fetch the girls’ -he just wanted one girl to notice.

Then one afternoon, she stopped and chatted to him. She was on her way to some tennis game and passed his house. She glowed with health, her tanned legs set off by her white skirt and neat trainers; he thought she looked wonderful and she knew it.

“Going up in your new car?” She said.

He noticed how she had learnt the lingo already. He nodded mute with shyness.

“Maybe you can give me a lift and we can arrive together,”

She pushed a strand of dark hair out of her eyes and gazed directly at him. His heart jumped and he wanted to say he would do anything she wanted, but all he could manage was “Ok.” She grinned and waved. He wanted to say something, but she ran on and the moment was gone.

He got his gear together for the trip to Oxford. It was the first time he had ever been away from home for more than a few days and he loaded his car with books and clothes as if leaving for a year. He waited to see if she remembered her idea and to his surprise she came round the day before they were due ‘to go up.’

“Will you keep your promise?” her head tilted back and her lips parted slightly showing the tips of her white teeth. She raised her eyebrows in mute enquiry as if she was unsure.

He managed a nod and then clearing his throat said. “I can always find a bit of room, if you want.”

She grinned. “Great! Dad will be round this evening. Thanks a million!”

Late that night, her father arrived and brought three suitcases and a trunk to their front door. Matthew could hardly miss the fact that the car he drove was a Volvo estate car with twice the space of his little Renault.

“You’ll manage I’m sure,”

He set the heavy cases down on the pavement.

Would she call? All evening he waited, but nothing came. Next morning among his farewells, he watched for her and met Sally her best friend at the street door.

“Jennie says hi, and see you at college.”

“She’s gone already?”

“Yes, Derek Fawkes gave her a lift in his Mini Cooper.”

That first term was a confusion of new experiences. Sharing rooms with some public schoolboy; finding out the geography of this strange academic world; struggling with concepts and social behaviour; but she was never out of his mind. He saw her at a distance in the High street; she waved across the road but didn’t stop. He tried to catch up with her but she turned into a college doorway before he could reach her. He fancied he could still sense the hint of a fragrance she used as he stopped at the big wooden door.

Another time he waited outside the gate of St Hilda’s to catch her as she went out. He stood there for more than half an hour in the drizzle waiting for her,with a little speech to appear cool and confident but she never appeared. As he walked back to his lecture, he passed a coffee shop and she was perched on a stool inside laughing with some toffee nosed undergraduate who smiled and teased her. She saw him and waved for him to come in. His damp tweed jacket clung to his body, and its woody wet smell steamed in the warmth of the café. The other young man examined him as he stood, bedraggled in front of her.

Brushing back a stray blond curl, the boy said “Been swimming this morning?”

Matthew shook his head, he tried to think of something to say but words never came.

“Oh don’t tease him!” She said, “He’s a friend from home! How are you Matt?”

“Ok, have started research on Plant Genetics.” As soon as the words left his mouth he knew they were the stupidest thing he had ever said.

She pretended to pay attention but he knew her too well; her blue eyes soon flicked away from his and looked past him into the view beyond his head.

“Well, we’ll see each other in vac won’t we?”

He hated the stupid word. Why not say vacation? or holidays?

“Yes, maybe sooner!” He gritted his teeth. At last he had found a spark of determination. Tomorrow, in the second Quad, while the summer party was in full swing, he’d leave the stuffy old Dean to his shrubs and tell her how he felt, whatever the consequences.

Who said there were no more heroes?

Out of Exile

A spanking breeze was enough to bring ‘The Renown’ into harbour with a dash of old navy spirit.

As she settled to the wharf all hands were busy making good and ‘showing the flag’ to the amazed audience on the quay. They were dressed in best rig and when the admiral stepped ashore, a flurry of officials hurriedly made their way down to the quay to pay respects to such a distinguished visitor.

Admiral Lord Cochrane, sixty-five years old and plump as a turkey cock wore his full uniform and every medal he‘d received in fifty years’ service. A naval man might have wondered at some of the ribbons and insignia he wore; there were purple sashes and jeweled stars which never came from England. Upon his fore-and-aft cocked hat, sat a jewel glistening in the blazing sun.

“Our joy is as great as our surprise M’Lord.” The mayor bowed and doffed his hat. “Had we notice of your arrival, we would have shown our respect!”

“No need of ceremony,” was the reply, as if the ship’s crew always wore their best on landing at every port. The large man heaved himself down the gangplank and waved a vague salute to the Union Jack at the flagpole on the dock. He doffed his hat and wiped his face with a cloth revealing his bright red hair undiminished by age and his greying mutton chop whiskers.

The island harbour was Jamestown, St Helena; the most isolated of His Majesties Dominions in the South Ocean. It had no claim to distinction save for the outstanding fact that the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte was held here in exile. The garrison providing the guards and sentries were no more than two hundred man and officers and the total amounted to less than the crew of the warship which had moored so neatly.

“I’d be obliged if you would make my arrival known to His Imperial Highness and, of course, to the Govenor.” Cochrane was tall and looked down on the official with a kindly patronage. “Is it possible to find some shade, I find this sun a little too much for an old man!” He waved his hat like a fan and followed a servant to the veranda of the Custom House to await a formal welcome.

The Admiral was a remarkable man. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, he found himself ‘on the beach’, with no fleet to command and heavily in debt. He enlisted in the Navy of the New Republic of Chile, taking command of the hastily formed navy to fight the old Regime of Spain which still held power in South America. His panache and experience had achieved wonderful results and the strange medals and jewels were awarded by the grateful new Nations he helped to create.

Hurrying down from Longwood House, Sir Hudson Lowe presented himself. “A very good welcome My Lord! May I ask what brings you to this godforsaken place?”

It took very little intuition to guess he hated the posting. Cochrane scrutinised the Governor with a shrewd eye and hesitated before replying.

“There is a matter of confidential nature I must put before the Emperor.”

“We do not address him with that title in this place.” Lowe replied, “but if you wish I can arrange a meeting. Of course, it will be my duty to attend.”

“Nonsense! This matter of personal and confidential nature and I have sworn to deal directly with,”– he hesitated–“Napoleon, and in secrecy.”

The governor stiffened as he considered this suggestion.

Clearly, such a confidence was out of line in the strictest sense, but what harm would be done?

A friendly word in Whitehall might be valuable.

“Let me consider it with the prisoner’s advisors, if they agree it may be possible.”

A warm smile crinkled the corners of the admiral’s eyes. “Then do me the honour of dining this evening aboard! It is time I had some civilised company instead of rough seadogs.”

His laugh set a flock of parakeets in flight and Lowe bowed with just sufficient nod to express his consent.

The evening went well. The officers of the Renown, kitted out in their various dress uniforms were presented to The Governor. Among the group, he was surprised to find most of them were ex officers of the British Navy, cast aside at the end of the war and had found employment in the New States; Uruguay, Chile and Argentina. By the time he had been dined, Lowe had consented to permit the audience with his prisoner on the following day.

When Cochrane landed the following morning, he found a guard of honour formed around the ancient carriage which served as the Governor’s coach. An aide de camp waited on him and they set off at a snail’s pace up the long hill to Longwood. The house sat among trees at the top of the hill and apart from a verandah which stretched the width of the house, it was a gloomy brick building with little favour. A slight mist hung in the air and Cochrane began to see why Lowe described the place in the way he did.

A French officer stood ready to greet them and showed them into a drab drawing room to await the prisoner. Knowing he would find it difficult to rise when the Emperor came in, the admiral stood leaning a little on his dress sword for support. He noticed a curtain covering the opening to an adjacent room, twitch very slightly and sensing he was observed, took up a pose to impress his observer.

Suddenly, the curtain was drawn and Napoleon stood before him. “ Mon Cher Amiral, un grand merci pour votre visite.”

The man who stood before him seemed puny to Cochrane. He was smaller than he had imagined and was dressed in field grey with no decoration. His figure was familiar to every soldier and sailor in Europe. The contrast between the large corpulent Englishman and the Emperor of All France could not have been greater.

Cochrane bowed and spoke in English. “I have come round the Cape to present the respects of the Liberated Nations to you, your Highness.”

Napoleon shrugged and held out his hand. “What am I? A Emperor of this rugged island of –“he looked for the word –“Brumes?…fogs?”

He nodded to the aide de camp and the young man withdrew, leaving the two great men alone. Napoleon took a seat and motioned Cochrane to be seated.

“You may know,” Cochrane began,” I have commanded the fleets of the Liberated Nations to drive the Spanish from the new World.”

The Emperor nodded with a slight smile. Perhaps he was comparing such a feat with the victory at Austerlitz or Jena.

“I am authorised to seek your agreement to join with the Nations and forge another great Empire here in the southern Hemisphere.” He leant forward as he spoke resting each large hand on his knees. “I bring the request of President Bolivar to offer you this golden crown which has been snatched from your head by Fate.”

Bonaparte sat motionless for a time and then cupped his face in his hand. His large domed head with the wisps of dark hair still plastered across his forehead bent to the floor. Cochrane gazed at him; wondering at the figure of the man who had held all Europe to ransom. When he lifted his head, Napoleon’s eyes had transformed his face. The light of ambition glowed with a startling intensity once more. The tired weary figure was banished and confidence lit up his countenance with new life.

“This is the Will of the Nations?”

“I have travelled a thousand miles to bring this message.”

“Then let God’s will be done!”

He rose and approached the Admiral as if to embrace him. Cochrane tried to rise but his weight defeated him and he struggled to get out of his seat.

“Stay as you are. I embrace your hands with joy and gratitude.” He took Cochranes’s hand in his and held them for a moment. In his turn, the admiral blessed his luck he had avoided a Gallic embrace.

They remained in conference for an hour. Cochrane explained that the plan was to return after the Council of Nations had ratified the plan.

“But how long will that be?” Bonaparte looked concerned,“I intend to return within three months. I will send a courier before we arrive and we will follow at the date he will specify. Be sure Monsieur L’Empereur, we will bring you in triumph to Santiago.”

“But the troops?”

“I have no doubt we can complete this exercise without bloodshed. My men are, after all, Englishmen too.”

With due ceremony the Admiral withdrew and after attending on the Governor, set sail again for Chile.

Three months to the day, a frigate of the Chilean navy appeared in the offing outside
Jamestown harbour. The Captain came ashore with a sealed order for the Emperor’s eyes only. It was never delivered. The Emperor had died three weeks before of an unknown gastric illness.

FOOTNOTE; The basis of this story is true. Cochrane devised a scheme to create a new Empire in South America and offer it to Napoleon (who was just fifty one.) The officer bringing the plan arrived three weeks after Napoleon died. The cause of death has never been finally established.

Live The Dream

The shop bell rang as he pushed open the door. Mister Shah put down his cup and smiled across the counter.

“Usual bets Charlie?”

“Give us a fiver’s worth, I feel lucky!”

This had become a custom on pay day and gave a bright spot to the end of the week. What If? Like every other punter, Charlie Spence shared the dream to win a piece of the jackpot. It didn’t matter that he had tried for the last three years and won sod all–it was the dream.

Tucking the slips into his back pocket, he went out into the grey evening light, heading for the Cross Keys. He spent half an hour in the pub sipping a pint and watching the bar maid; she was gorgeous and she called him by his name as if she was a girlfriend. He liked that. He’s never had a real girlfriend in all his twenty-eight years, but sometimes he visited the ‘house’ in Palmer Street.

Back home, his Mam bustled at the kitchen stove and laid his dinner on the table. Charlie chewed through the meal, half his mind on Dorothy the barmaid and half on the prospect of another dull week-end. Then he subsided into his usual state and turned on the telly.

The man on the screen was young and tanned and his smile got on Charlie’s wick but when he began to deal with the National Lottery results, Charlie straightened up and pulled the slips out of his pocket and added them to the pile on the sideboard. This was the weekly ritual and he felt for the pencil they kept next to the slips. He wrote down the numbers as they tumbled out of the canister. The smiling face of the star loomed large as he approached the screen and wished everyone good luck. He announced the total of prize money with a wide gesture as if taken by surprise. The tv audience screamed with simulated joy; then the commercials came on and Charlie switched off.

He took up the note of the numbers and began to check the top slip. He checked again. Yes, there were seven out of eight numbers right!

“Bloody Hell!” He sat still for a moment, and checked again–still seven numbers.

Like a greyhound, he was off to the corner shop.

“Look Ali! I got seven numbers!” Within a half hour the Lottery confirmed it and Charlie knew he was a winner. Shocked and unsure of himself, he sat in a corner of the pub and pondered what to do. Nothing seemed real, the win, the voices of the Lottery Team as they burbled on, the unspecified amount of his prize.

He looked at Dorothy, and wondered about her. She looked unreachable. She smiled as she pulled pints; her eyelashes fluttered, her breasts strained against her blouse and her glossy black hair swept to and fro He shook the image from his mind; she was too hot for him. He got up and went home. The wind blasted him along the dim street and into the house.

Next morning was Saturday and he slept in. The wonderful news cossetted him in a warm glow. It was his secret which he longed to keep hidden while he absorbed the news. How much was it? When did he get paid? How would he handle it? Gradually these thoughts began to whirl inside his head and he got up and dressed.
The morning air was keen and he walked briskly up to the papershop. Missus Ali was filling the paper racks.

“Quick! See how much you’ve won!”

She handed him The Sun and his hand trembled as he turned the pages. There had been eleven tickets with seven winning numbers and the payout was £120.000. His first reaction was disappointment. His imagination had fixed on millions not thousands and the figure seemed puny against his expectation.

When he went home, he said nothing to his mother. His secret was so special that he wanted to keep it to himself as long as possible. He felt that once his parents found out, everything would be different.

The phone rang and he jumped to it.

“Is that Mister Spence?” said a posh London voice, “Mister Charles Spence?”

“Yes.”

“We’ve arranged a presentation at the London Hilton for the winners.” And he gave a date.

“Will I get my money then and there?” Charlie’s voice rose a little as he spoke.

“Yes indeed!” Said the suave voice, “you can be sure of that. Of course, bring the ticket with you!” Charlie didn’t like the tone of the laugh at the other end of the line. He put the phone down.

The date was early next week, the Tuesday, and his mind whirled with what to do. For the first time, he had to make choices. Should he take someone with him? What should he wear? Would he have to stay down there? Life had been simple and orderly up to now as he had no need to make decisions, even if life flowed on disagreeably.

At Sunday lunchtime, his father came in from the Legion with a look on his face. He stabbed a finger at Charlie.

“What’s all this about the Lottery?” Veins stood out on his neck and he looked flushed.

“Happens I won some cash on the Lottery. What’s it to you?” Charlie could hear his voice as if someone else was talking yet he could not help it; years of frustration were bubbling up inside his head and he was incapable of stifling it.

Monday morning he stayed home. The tyre-fitters could manage without him. Instead, he walked to the Cross Keys as soon as it opened. Dorothy was there.

“My My!” she said, “tell us all about it? What you goin’ to do?”

He looked down and away for a moment, unable to meet her gaze.

“Got to go down to London tomorrow to find out.”

He didn’t want to tell her how much because she might be disappointed.

“That’s nice. Fancy a trip myself!”

He looked up to see if she was teasing him but her blue eyes gazed at him with interest. She leant forward across the bar and he had to look up into her face to avoid gazing at her bosom. It was difficult and she knew it.

There was no one else in the bar and he bit his lip.

“Do you want to come with me?” His words were out of his mouth before he realized it.

“What to London?” her eyes sparkled and she tilted her head back, “What would your Mam say?”

“What’s that got to do with it?”  He felt a surge of defiance rising inside.

“Just asking! If you want me to, I’ll come.”

He could hardly believe it. Dorothy! Who never chatted to him. Dorothy! Who every bloke in the pub fancied!

“What you got to do then?” Her eyes grew serious and she looked at him in a different way.

“Well, they give out the prizes in a fancy hotel, so I suppose they want photos and things.”

“Listen!” She gripped his arm, “You got to spruce up. I’ll sort it out, shall I?”

“Like what?”

“We’ll get you a new suit and shoes —the works.”

His confidence began to grow; things he had not considered were being dealt with

and the prospect of the London trip seemed less daunting.

That afternoon, they bought the new suit and a pair of smart trainers. He felt taller and took sidelong glances at Dorothy as they left the shop. She tucked her arm in his as they walked along.

Next day, they met up at the station and arrived in London at mid day. She found the way to the big Hotel and he was grateful; the bustle and excitement was almost too much to take. She looked ace, with her hair done up and the high heel shoes. He knew people were looking at them and felt like a new man. When they arrived, they were put into a group of other winners and herded into a large plush room.

A plump man in a dinner jacket stood on a platform and held up his hand.

“Welcome ladies and Gentlemen and congratulations to everybody! When your name is called, please come up to the platform and show us your slip and we’ll take it from there.”

A steady line of people formed. Nobody wanted to push forward, so it took several minutes for Charlie and Dorothy to reach the stage. The beaming man leant down and held out his hand for the slip. Charlie passed it over. Dorothy smiled at him and smoothed her glossy locks languidly.

A puzzzled smile passed over the gentleman’s face and he looked again at Charlie’s slip.

“This is no good,” he said, pointing to the slip. “Do you know what this is?”

Charlie looked up at the little man. Was he trying to take the piss?

“What d’you mean?” Dorothy frowned and moved forward.

“This is last week’s ticket. You’ve got no prize with this!”

He waved the piece of paper in Charlie’s face.

It couldn’t be true! It was on the top of the pile in the kitchen where they were always kept!

“See? Look at the date!”  The horrible man pushed the scrap under his nose.

Dorothy grabbed it and peered at the date, then she turned and slapped Charlie so hard that the people at the back thought the stage had collapsed. He hardly felt the sting. His mind was numb and he stepped back from the crowd and sat on one of the little gilded chair which stood against the wall.

His new suit was tight under the arms and he felt sick and hot. The show went on as he sat there, mouth agape till a hand touched his shoulder and he looked up. It was Dorothy.

“You daft Pillock!” She said, “I should have guessed you’d fuck it up somehow!”

She looked down at him and a corner of her mouth lifted. “Come on we better get out of here.” She hoisted him to his feet and they left. No one noticed them.

Outside, the bright lights of Piccadilly glowed in a friendly way. He rubbed his eyes and looked sideways at her.

“If I say sorry, does it make a difference?”

She grinned: “No, you’re still a noggin, but we’re in this together aren’t we? Till we get home, I want to enjoy myself–let’s get a room!”

That night Charlie lived the dream.

Harlequin

It was 2017 and Harlequin was bored. He put aside his mask and carnival clothing and changed shape for fun.

Sitting in a Knightsbridge Costa, he checked over the girls chattering around him. Two blondes in Pashminas, long boots and flicking hair; No. A brunette; hair dye too dark, faux fur coat; constantly on her I-phone; No. The girl with red hair? She arrived carrying her Latte and searched for a seat. He looked up and smiled, moving along the bench seat to make room. At first, she glanced elsewhere but he had chosen carefully and kept space on his table. With a diffident smile, she sat down carefully placing her china mug on the table. He glanced at his Times and then caught her eye.

“Busy time–have you enough room?”

She murmured something in reply which he didn’t catch. He noticed her hands were long and thin and the way she held the drink, as if a precious thing, so delicate that it might break if she put it down.

“Much better in a china cup, don’t you think? I hate those plastic beakers!”

She looked at him for a second and nodded but she said nothing.

He lent forward, not too far but, just enough to engage her attention and try his best smile–the one he used to show his sincerity. His blue eyes gazed straight into her eyes.

“Can I ask you a question?” He spoke gently and he waited for her reply.

“What is it?” She looked back, curious.

“I have the feeling you are a musician,” he said, he held up his hand and smiled again–“don’t tell me yet! I want to know if you find that too intrusive.”

“I don’t mind,” she said and put the mug down on the table. “I’m just working in the Art Gallery in Montpellier Street, I’m no musician.”

He put on a grimace, showing his even white teeth as he bit his lip. “Oh Dear! I know you are artistic but certain you were musical!”

“How would you know that?”

“Because I’m a natural!” he laughed and ran his hand through his wavy blond hair. “I’m never totally wrong. You must have some connection with music.”

“Well, I sing in a choir at home but not down here.”

“I knew it, will you allow me to boast, if I say I was part right at least?”

She laughed and he noticed how the corners of her mouth lifted as she smiled exposing her neat white teeth and heart shaped lips.

He moved to leave. It was time to go; first step done. He folded his Times and stood up. She didn’t see him slip a paperback book onto the floor near her feet. He smiled again, said goodbye with a wave and made his way out into the Brompton Road. He moved away swiftly once he left the coffee bar, to make sure she could not catch him and return the book on the spot. That would be annoying. He had left his mobile number and assumed name on the fly leaf to set up the next move.

The afternoon went by slowly. He sauntered through Harrods, noting the glitzy displays and vulgarity which he deplored. Once or twice he marked an admiring glance from the glossy women as he wandered from one department to another but his mind strayed to the girl in the coffee bar. It would be more fun to corrupt her than spend time with some rich socialite accustomed to the vices he habitually abused. Sometimes he longed for the bawdy life of the Medici Popes and their rowdy catamites and licentious cardinals. These modern times were tame, but interesting.

On Friday of that week he spent the morning in the Art Galleries of New Bond Street, away from Knightsbridge, but full of the latest trends in expensive art. He bought catalogues for several upcoming exhibitions and studied them. At the Albemarle, he gave one of his cards to the receptionist.

“Yes Mr Harlekan, we will be open for you on Friday, of course.” He nodded and left.

On Monday, he scanned the Costa to see if she had returned. She had not rung him to return his book and he wondered if she might have missed it. He went in and sat at his usual place. The clientele seemed identical. He wondered if there was some time warp at work; the blondes and the covens of smart ladies chattering appeared to be the same. Then she walked in. Her auburn hair pinned up on top of her head and her long neck accentuated by pearl earrings. She looked round and saw him and smiled shyly. He waved to her to join him and she hesitated but gathered up her cup and came over.

“I wanted to catch you,” she said,” I found this book under the table last week. Is it yours?”

“Thank God! I am reviewing it for the Guardian,” he lied “I have a deadline!”

He asked her whether she had read it and she shook her head. She blushed and lowered her eyes in confusion. His eyes glinted with malicious delight as he saw the effect he created.

“No, I didn’t forget,” she said “I hoped to find you here again, so here it is.” She handed over the book without another word.

“Does this mean you forgive me for my intrusive questions?” He laughed and grinned easily to relieve her embarrassment. “Look, I am thrilled you thought of me and so kind of you to return the book yourself. You don’t know how much it means.”

She sipped her coffee and looked up at him for the first time. He liked her large green eyes and how the light from the room caught the deep red tints in her hair. She really was a prize.

When she got up to leave, he offered to walk with her the few hundred yards as far as Montpellier Street. They spoke about her work in the gallery and the exhibition on show there.

Look” he said “Can we meet some time this week? I’d like to show you a Paul Klee I’ve seen on the Albemarle Gallery, which I like. Would you come?”

“To buy?” She said.

“Yes, I have a small collection and enjoy adding to it.” He spoke as if it was a matter of minor interest and noted the effect when she opened her eyes with surprise

“Do come” he said “can you make Friday afternoon?”

“Well, yes I suppose. I could get away at about four.”

“It’s a date.” he said. “I’ll come round to the gallery and collect you. I’m James Harlekan, by the way”

“Jane Seymour.”

They exchanged mobile numbers and he took her hand as he left, just a moment’s contact, but enough to signal his interest. She gave a brief wave and he walked away. The smile on his face was not one he wanted her to see.

Friday morning he chose some expensive jeans and a cashmere polo neck for the occasion. He spent the late morning and lunch at his club and decided to walk through Green Park to Montpellier Street. It was a warm day and the silky air reminded him of other times. Like the day he seduced the Duchess of Alba in 1576-or was it 1578?–and killed the Duke in a duel the following morning. The summer days with Nero at his palace with the Nubian Princesses; what fun there had been and such fearful consequences! Modern times were much quieter but still, there were pleasures to be had.

She was waiting outside the gallery when he arrived. He hurried forward.

“I walked through the park and forgot the time, I’m so sorry!” “Well, we close early on Friday. Most people have gone away for the week end.” People, meant the wealthy Knightsbridge crowd.

They took a taxi to Piccadilly and chatted on the way about favourite painters. She adored Hockney and disagreed about Francis Bacon and they arrived at Albemarle Street in a few minutes. A young man was waiting for them. “I hope we haven’t kept you. Most people want to get away on Friday afternoon.”

Harlequin offered his hand and the smart-suited fresh faced young man semi-bowed.

“We always have time for an enthusiastic client.” He said and showed the way into the gallery. It was carpeted with fine rugs and the room breathed a mellow atmosphere of luxury. Fine French empire furniture mixed with a few modern pieces decorated the floor and they were conducted through into the gallery itself where an elderly man with a goatee beard awaited them. He wore a grey suit and a Hurlingham Club Tie with its purple garish colours. As if he had known him for years, he greeted Harlequin, pressing his arm in a familiar way.

Champagne and canapes were laid out on a Pembroke table and they were helped to them by the younger man. It was amusing to see the antics of these mortals with their minor cupidity, prostrating themselves for money. Under soft spot light, two paintings, mounted on easels, caught the eye with dazzling colours splashed across the canvas.

“So fine,” said the elegant older man, “he took several years to recover from the war, you know.”

“But his output was prodigious,” said Harlekan, “I prefer his later work and I’m looking for smaller late pieces for my collection.”

The old man nodded sagely, “Yes, I understand, so much more sophisticated, would you say?”

“Agreed.” He turned to Jane “What do you feel from these two? Do they resonate with you?”

She said “They are museum pieces, not for a small private collection, if I am allowed to say so.”

“Of course you can, dear lady, you show a very wise judgement, if I may say so.” The old man smiled at her with gritted teeth.

“Anything later?” Harlekan dismissed the two masterpieces with a wave of his hand.

“Well, we are sure to have something to intrigue you within the next few weeks.”

Harlequin smiled at this. He recalled the old men in the souks on Casablanca used the same phrase when they had nothing appealing to sell.

“By all means let me know while I am in London.” He offered his hand and wished them both good day.

“What conceit!” he said as he escorted Jane across Piccadilly. “Let’s wash the taste away with tea in Fortnum’s”

She laughed and was relieved that he had valued her opinion and agreed with it. Soon they were chatting freely and time passed quickly.

“I suppose you have plans to go down to the country this week end?” he dangled the prospect of further meetings with a smile which quickened her heart.

She blushed and Harlequin noted the charming colour that came to her cheeks. For a single second he felt a twinge of compassion for this immaculate young woman, but the impulse to torment and win was too strong to resist. He took her hand and held it gently. ”

I can’t imagine what is happening to me” he said “I feel as if we’ve known each other for a long time, yet there are so many things I want to learn about you.”

She looked into his wide blue eyes and left her hand in his while he spoke.

“Could we meet again soon?”

“I don’t know what to say” she said, “we are strangers; I suppose yes,” -here she looked down–I would like that too.”

He held her hand for a second then released it.. He busied himself with the tea things, making sure he was inept so she would take over. Predictably, she enjoyed the simple task and he smiled appreciatively.

“Well, am I too pressing if I ask, would like to go to see the new film at the Academy tomorrow night?”

She smiled, “I’d love to. I wanted to catch it and haven’t had a chance.”

“That’s wonderful,” he said and dropped the subject for the moment.

They talked about her family in Wiltshire; Daddy at the stud farm and mother as a JP in the local magistrate court. Then he told her lies about his foreign background and banking interests which kept him travelling most of the year. She accepted all of it and he enjoyed the fantasy as she gazed at him with innocent credulous eyes. When the time came to leave, he hailed a taxi and she gave her address in South Ken. On the way, he made arrangements to pick her up at seven for the show at nine p.m. He gave her a peck on the cheek as she left the cab and she waved as he pulled away.

He was comfortable. Pleased with progress, he gave the cabbie instructions to drop him at Shepherd’s Market off Park Lane. This was an area he had known since Georgian Times. Of course it had changed! But the gambling houses and high class brothels still flourished. Just the clientele was different. Instead of dandies in silken hose and blowsy tarts, there were Arabs with limitless cash and their entourages. The girls were different too; cleaner and more luxurious.

He knocked at the door of number *** and a black man opened the door carefully, then he smiled broadly.

“Welcome back Mr Harlekan. Good to see you! Your usual table?”

“Thank you Bob, can you get me some company?” He spent the rest of the night with two beautiful Russian girls and plenty of white powder to sustain him. Strangely, in the still moments of the highs, he felt it was all too familiar, too repetitive and stale. He left at three o’clock and made his way back to Albany off Piccadilly to sleep a dreamless sleep. He awoke at four in the afternoon and ruminated on what to wear and how to arrange his evening entertainment. His flat had been furnished to his taste. He had always enjoyed the voluptuous silks and colourful drapes from the Ottoman palaces of Persia. They brought back memories of exotic nights, wild escapades and perfumed women, captives for pleasure. He ordered new sheets of silk and chilled champagne for the evening. Then he bathed and chose his clothes with care.

At seven precisely, he arrived at her door, a single rose in his hand. She stood in the doorway and held it like a precious jewel marvelling at its glowing colour.

“It’s a summer rose from Provence,” he said “I sent specially for you.”

She smiled and offered her cheek shyly as gesture of thanks.

“So lovely!”

His heart gave a strange skip. What was wrong? He ignored it.

She wore a simple dress of plain blue with a belt of black leather around her slim waist. Her hair was loose and as she moved it flowed around her pale face in a glossy wave. He handed her into the cab and he watched her graceful figure as she sat besides him. Something was wrong. His fingers tremored as he sat alongside her; he gripped the door handle of the cab to steady himself. She chatted excitedly about the film and never noticed how silent he was. When they reached The Curzon, he got out first. He felt better as he touched the ground. Nothing to worry about, then.

The film was a black comedy created by some avant-garde Italian director. She laughed in all the right places and he enjoyed the fact that they both saw the crux of the film in unison. At I one point, she rested her head against his shoulder and her soft scented hair brushed against his cheek. It was a gesture he had never felt before–a natural touch, not a deliberate move as he had done a thousand times before. Something strange and yet exciting. Again, the little throb made his heart beat out of time. He became a little dizzy and sweat gathered on his forehead. He wiped it away and sat upright. She touched his hand, concerned,

“Are you alright?” she said, “you seem uneasy?”

“No. I’m fine. It’s just a little hot in here.”

It soon passed and they enjoyed the rest of the film. As they left, she took his arm naturally and he sensed the warmth of her body next to his as they strolled towards Piccadilly. It felt good and he returned her smile as they made their way among the Saturday night crowds enjoying the late summer evening. “Where are we going?” She asked “I thought you might like a bite to eat at Albany, it should be fun on a warm evening.”

“Where’s that? I haven’t heard of it. Is it a restaurant?”

“Well not exactly, just the most special place that few people in London know about.”

He smiled his special dazzling smile and tucked in her arm protectively.

“Wait and see.”

The Albany is set back from Piccadilly in a courtyard with elaborate gates away from the bustling street. Built as apartments in the early nineteenth century, it remains, perhaps, the most exclusive address in London. A uniformed porter saluted as they came in to the oval courtyard and Jane wondered how she had missed the elegant building which she must have passed a hundred times. Lights gleamed from behind doors of mahogany and glass; beyond were Persian carpets and gleaming brass fittings.

Jane stiffened a little as she wondered at the luxury of the scene. She had imagined some dining Club with a noisy society crowd but this was all in exquisite taste but so silent and dignified, a little daunting.

“Come and see where I live.” He said and threw open the door to his apartment. They walked in and she gazed at the opulent drapes and bright colours of the room with some surprise. It was exotic and luxurious at the same time; as if she had passed out of modern London into a world of Arabian Nights.

“It’s fascinating,” she said and he took her arm and guided her to one of the sofas arranged around the fireplace.

“I can be lonely here,” he said, “but it suits me, I have to write, you know.”

He spoke as if it was a burden that weighed him down, “Deadlines can be a curse!

” He took up a phone on a side table and rang for room service. Without consulting her, he ordered cold salmon with mayonnaise and thin white bread.

“Are you hungry?” he smiled and kissed her hair as he passed by on the way to the kitchen. She felt nervous but excited.

“Yes, I’m famished!”

He returned with a bottle of dry sherry, cold from the fridge and poured two tall glasses of the pale yellow wine. They drank and discussed the film while waiting for the meal. Gradually, she relaxed and began to enjoy the ambience of luxury and isolation which the apartment provided. When the meal arrived, they both ate with appetite and laughed a lot.

Harlequin joined her on the sofa as he filled her glass a second time and helped her to more food. She sat close to him and afterwards, he played a little on the piano in the alcove of the room. She told him how much she enjoyed it and asked him to play something romantic.

“Will you come and sit beside me, to inspire me?” He said and he recalled a night when he had seduced one of Edward the Seventh’s mistresses in this very apartment with the same ploy. He had to leave London for a season as a result, but the scandal had been worth it.

She did sit next to the piano stool and he had the chance to see her in the warm lamplight. Her hair was soft and waved in a natural way unlike the sophisticated styles of the women he was used to. Her skin was radiant, but with a glow of good health and her green eyes reflected the light in such a way that he saw his own reflection clearly in them.

He began to play something he recalled but could not remember its name; she got up and danced, moving gently to the rhythm. “I know this,” she said “It’s Ivor Novello.”

He watched her as he played, her feet tracing a delicate pattern across the carpeted floor; she was enchanting. She had the grace and a lightness of spirit which only existed in an innocent soul and was spellbinding. He played on with some difficulty but his mind began to falter. He gasped for breath and his fingers would not follow his commands.

She stopped dancing immediately and ran to him. He stumbled from the piano and she helped him to the sofa. His face was ash grey and he sat back against her arm as she cradled him. “What happened?” She cried “Is there something I can do?”

He shook his head, although his mind was in turmoil. He knew what the trouble was affecting him. “You must go,” he said, “Forgive me, I have to be alone tonight. Can you ask the porter for a cab?”

“But I must stay; I can’t leave you like this!”

He moaned, with every word she said. He writhed with pain and she trembled as she held him in her arms, feeling desperate to do something to help. He knew that every minute she stayed would be like a torment. Her innocence and untouched beauty was like a caustic poison scorching his soul. He turned his face away and felt the transformation begin.

“Go! I said go!”

He looked down and the shame of deceit welled up inside him. She hesitated, uncertain how to deal with this stern unexpected order. Gathering all his strength, he stood and turned towards her.

“Now GO! The Comedy is over!”

She shrank at the sight of his face. A mask covered his eyes and his face was a pallid narrow shape with painted lips and pointed teeth. His head was covered in a black skull cap and he stared with a luminous glare. Then he crouched down on the floor and sobbed.

He knew that whatever pain he inflicted, he suffered eternally; knowing pure innocence was sublime and unobtainable.

Star Fire

She pushed her things into a bag and slammed out of the door. I ran after her down the path leading to the jetty and grabbed her arm.

‘You can’t go like this.’

‘Let go of my arm,’ she said and she looked out to sea where the boat was approaching.

Two months ago we arrived on Flanna, as excited as children. At last, our dream of life together began. I gave up my job in London and she came from New Zealand to be with me. The island seemed perfect: remote, beautiful and just the place for us to work. Jo was a writer and I was an observer for the Astrophysics Society, plotting the movement of the planets.

The boat called every two months and neither of us looked for company. We had each other – and the stars.

Yes, the stars. People tell of the brightness of starlight seen from the Atlas Mountains, but they cannot imagine the commanding sight of the Borealis as it swoops and dances over Flanna. Your skin tingles, your eyes are filled with light. Every nerve is on fire and your breath is stifled.

When we first arrived, I tried to show Jo how strong the attraction was.

She laughed and said, ‘You’re becoming hypnotised. It’s only the Northern Lights.’

It was an absurd remark. Surely, anyone can appreciate the power of the starlight?

Two weeks later, I stayed out all night to record the movements. She complained.

‘You can set up the cameras to record, you don’t have to be there.’

I didn’t reply. How was I to tell her that the starlight radiated its power on me, demanding I should be there? When I returned at dawn, my skin purple with the freezing night air, I noticed her expression of disdain. I went silently to bed, alone.

She spoke to me the next day.

‘James, let’s try to do something together. Can you look at my script and tell me what you think?’

I smiled to humour her and pretended to scan her writing. It was hopeless. The words meant nothing to me, just scribbles on the page. I made some anodyne comment to appease her but I saw the disappointment in her eyes.

I wanted to grip her and shout, ‘Jo, the stars are the energy of the universe, can’t you see? We must absorb their power to survive!’

But I felt her psyche resisting me. I said nothing.

The Society began to be troublesome; they demanded regular reports. I logged the movements of various nebulae but they wanted more. They had no understanding of real cosmic influence; they only recorded data not the power of the universe.

I stopped sending in reports. What was the point? The real work had to be harnessing the energy of the Borealis to increase one’s own significance.

I found a way to do this. Each night, leaving the croft, I stood on the highest point on the island. Above me the whole of the northern sky poured its radiance down on me. The core of my being absorbed the mighty power of the stars. I shouted and screamed with delight. At last I had true union with the universe.

I begged Jo to come out and feel the transfiguration on the mountaintop. She shook her head and kept to the house as if it was some shell or carapace to protect her. I left her to it.

Now, the weeks pass and I find my life becoming focussed. I need more time to intensify the energy. You need to concentrate and trivial matters like food and sleep, drop away. She never understood this; I tried to explain but she looked away and spent her time writing in her stupid journal.

Then the next boat was due. I watched on the mountain as usual during the night, while she lay wrapped in a blanket indoors. At one point, she came out into the night air and called to me. I heard her voice but the radiance of the stars possessed my spirit once again. I shouted for her to join me in the ecstasy of true light but she never came.

The next day, she left. I tried to talk to her but it was useless.

I miss her presence here on the island. It is lonely during the day. I am fading slowly into the atmosphere, like a jet of flame burning lower each day. Soon I will be a spirit at one with the stars. I am waiting, I am ready.

 

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