A blank canvas

Jack didn’t know what to paint. He’d applied the magic white undercoat like the man in the video suggested. Ideas usually flowed with the paint but not this time. The blank canvas seemed to be mocking him; reflecting back his empty life.

After twenty minutes he gave up, went to the kitchen and made a cup of tea. Maybe he’d do something else. It wasn’t like there were any rules. Painting was supposed to be therapy. Supposed to help him cope. Supposed to fill his time.

It had worked. For months he’d painted almost every day. He had a pile of paint covered canvases to prove it. They weren’t very good, but that wasn’t the point. He wasn’t an artist he was just a man struggling to cope with the loneliness of lockdown. A man on furlough who had discovered that life without work was even more pointless than he’d imagined.

He headed back to the spare bedroom hoping that he’d rediscover the joy of painting, and like the instructor, be able to put happy little trees exactly where they wanted to go. If he was honest most of his trees looked depressed with their drooping branches.

As he came into the spare bedroom the sun reflected off the side-table mirror and lit the empty canvas from behind. For a moment he thought he saw an image painted in shadows seeping through. He kept staring and could just distinguish hints of light and shade. He guessed it must be where he had applied different thicknesses of his base coat.

Jack moved his easel so that the sun struck the back of the canvas. The strong backlight revealed the shadows. As he didn’t have any other ideas he decided to capture them in paint.

He loaded his brush with yellow ochre and made his first mark. Immediately the shadows shifted as each dab of paint blocked the light and created something new. Some shadows seemed darker, some lighter. Carbon black made no extra shadows at all and he soon stopped using it. Cadmium red was weak, cobalt teal much stronger.

His forgotten tea went cold as colour after colour flew from his brush. Jack didn’t stop until he heard his daughter call up to him.

“I’ve brought lasagne. I’ll pop it in the oven. It’s already cooked so will only take a couple of minutes.”

He was surprised to discover the day had gone. The sun had long since shifted out of view around the back of the house. It must have been hours since it stopped hitting the canvas. Jack cleaned his brush. He’d only used one. He’d kept piling new paint on top of old.

He stepped back and almost collided with his daughter as she came into the room.

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s a bit abstract for you isn’t it.”

“It’s just a stupid mess.”

It looked like a child had been let loose with a painting set. He picked up a new canvas and used it to cover up his painting.

All through tea he tried to work out whether or not he’d wasted his day. The end result was even worse than his paintings of mountains and streams. At least they looked like something.

“Dad, you alright?”

“Um. Yeah. Just thinking.”

“You want to be careful with that,” said his daughter.

He managed to smile at her joke.

“Yeah. Who knows what mad ideas I might come up with. Or mad paintings for that matter.”

While brushing his teeth he decided to look at the painting again. Maybe it would look different this time.

He lifted the empty canvas off and was confronted by a riot of colour. He tried turning the painting around but no matter which way he held it up it still didn’t make sense. Maybe in the morning.

The sunshine made no difference. The light couldn’t penetrate the thick layers of paint. There were no more shadows to chase and the painting looked as bad as it had the night before.

He decided to try one more thing. He moved the easel so that he’d be able to see it from the corridor outside the room. He hoped the extra distance might make a difference. He stepped out and went as far away as he could. When he looked back the doorway acted like a picture frame. In the picture were two canvases. The colourful mess and the blank canvas he’d been using to cover it up.

He felt like both of them were talking to him about his life – an empty mess. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. The scene hadn’t changed. The painting hadn’t magically improved. But his perception had shifted and he now saw a different story.

On the left was the blank sheet of possibilities; waiting to be filled. On the right was a painting full of colour. Every colour, because the empty space could be filled with infinite variety. It didn’t have to be happy little trees living in the shadow of a snow covered mountain – but it could be. It didn’t need to be clear stream reflecting autumn trees. It could be anything.

Jack was sick of waiting for life to get back to normal.

He grabbed his coat and hat and walked out. He wasn’t sure where he was going but that didn’t matter. He’d figure that out later, maybe. For now he was just going to walk. If he saw a bus he’d catch it. If he saw an open shop he’d go in. If he passed a stranger he’d nod and say hello. Hopefully by the time his daughter arrived with food he’d have done something worth talking about.

When Jack saw the supermarket he knew how he wanted to fill his day. He bought what he needed and texted his daughter. He’d have to move quickly to get it all cooked on time.

After his daughter left he picked up a brush and carefully painted a tiny table laid for dinner. It was almost impossible to see amongst the tangled colours. The next day he added another detail. By the time his furlough ended, images piled on top of each other fighting for space and almost entirely blotting out the background.

He hung it on the wall alongside a blank canvas. Each morning it reminded him that there were endless possibilities and because he was looking out for them he found many interesting ones.

The writing desk

Charles Dickens had one. It’s made of mahogany. That’s about the only carpentry detail they tell you. I couldn’t believe the drivel in the museum, “The back shelf was adorned by knick-knacks, writing implements and flowers.” Nothing about the dovetail joints or the turned drawer handles. They didn’t even mention that it was a pedestal style desk.

I guess I was probably in a minority. Most people go to the Dickens museum because they are interested in the writer not his furniture.

It’s totally not my style but I appreciated the workmanship. I was in London to visit the exhibition of chairs at the Design Museum. That reminds me – Dickens’s chair is made from fruit wood. Fruit wood! Fruit wood! I still can’t believe it. I walked out after reading that. I just couldn’t stand the lazy trivialisation of it all.

I call my style retro-contemporary. I start with something old and turn it into something new. Some people call it upcycling but that’s for hobbyist, not craftsmen.

Pianos are my favourite. You can pick up old pianos for nothing. Folks are just glad to get rid of them so that they can regain the space in their living room. It’s not easy work. Old uprights weigh a ton. There’s usually enough scrap value in the metal to cover the hire cost of the van and the man. I always slip Ted an extra tenner. His muscles are well worth paying for.

You get mahogany pianos but it’s the walnut ones I really love. That’s why I couldn’t resist the desk even though it was covered in graffiti carvings. Actually it was the carvings that caught my attention. Desks often only have walnut veneer – just a thin layer of walnut glued onto some other wood. Those carvings were deep enough to show me that the desk was made from solid wood.

I reckoned I would have a decent slab of solid walnut once I’d planed out the carvings. I gave the guy a tenner. He said I could have it for nothing. He was clearing his uncle’s house. The desk and piano were rejects that no one wanted. I insisted. I like to leave people happy and tenners usually do the trick.

I fell in love with that walnut as soon as I took my tools to it. I sharpened my plane and set it for a light cut. I knew it would take hours to plane deep enough to remove the carvings but for me that’s the joy of woodworking. I wouldn’t have to think about anything else. If you want to find out about mindfulness get yourself a large slab of wood and a freshly sharpened plane.

After four hours I paused. I suddenly realised that I hadn’t bothered to try and read what the carvings said. It was too late by then. The letters had dissolved into random swirls. It looked so pretty that I almost stopped altogether, but I could sense the grain pattern emerging and could tell that it was going to be unique.

I was right. At three in the morning I finally had the surface I’d dreamed of. As usual the walnut was glass smooth but with a warmth that only comes from wood. I turned off my angle poise lamp and stepped back to enjoy the full effect.

The studio lights highlighted the grain pattern. Suddenly a face sprung into focus. It was only there for a moment. I’m always seeing faces, or animals, or monsters in wood grain, but this one was different. It was my face.

I ducked my head around trying to recapture it without success. My neck cracked as I stretched it back and forth. I’d been bent over too long without a break and realised just how tired I was.

I keep a couch and duvet in the studio. I often get so caught up in a piece that when I stop I need to collapse where I am rather than take the hike home. I was asleep before I’d even pulled the cover over me.

I woke early. The sun was just high enough to stream though the window and directly onto my face. I smiled. The desk top was going to look amazing in the low angled light of the morning sun.

It did.

But it wasn’t what I’d imagined.

All my hard work was undone.

The surface was covered in words carved deep into the wood.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I ran my finger over it, feeling the groves, tracing the letters.

I pinched myself. Can you believe that? I actually pinched myself like they do in films. I was checking to see if I was dreaming. I felt the pinch, but why wouldn’t I? Why couldn’t I dream about pinching myself?

I decided I must be dreaming.

I tried to fly.

That sounds strange but I’d heard about vivid dreams. Dreams where the sleeper knows they are dreaming and can control what happens. I’d long ago decided that if I had one of those dreams I’d fly like superman.

Nothing happened.

I checked my tools. I wondered if I could have carved all the words in my sleep. My tools were neatly stacked on their racks and didn’t look like they had been used. Unfortunately that didn’t help. I’m tidy like that. Even if I had used them I would have put them away.

I felt the edges. They were all sharp. They would be. I have a rule that I sharpen things before I put them away. It means my tools are ready for immediate action. The plane is an exception as it doesn’t need sharpening so often. I usually sharpen it during a job – just before making the final cut.

The radio sounded real. There was nothing unusual on the news. I texted a friend something inconsequential and got the response I’d expect. There was the odd person on the street – odd as in not many. I shouted across to one of them to ask the time. It was five past eight. That sounded right.

I turned on my lamp and started to inspect the carvings. The quality was exceptional. Each letter was perfect. I noticed the strange grain direction. It swirled around each letter like ink from a calligraphy brush, as if the letter had grown rather than been chiselled.

It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be.

It was only then that I started to read the words.

It told the story of my life. Starting with my birth in the top left hand corner and ending in the bottom right with me finding a writing desk.

I made myself a coffee, ate three cereal bars, opened the windows and took a stool outside. The only thing that made sense was that the desk must have been giving off some kind of hallucinogenic fumes. You do have to be careful with some wood. I’d never had trouble with walnut.

I checked the wood allergies database and discovered that African Walnut had a systemic affect. That meant repeated expose would cause increasing allergic reactions. Maybe this walnut was African and maybe I had some strange allergy that caused hallucinations rather than skin irritation.

I sat on that stool in the sunshine and fresh air for almost an hour. If there were toxic fumes I wanted the studio clear of them.

It didn’t help. The words were still there. In fact a whole new sentence had appeared along the front edge of the desk. I read it and went back out to my stool.

The words said I had a decision to make. Would I turn the desk top over and read the other side? The side that contained the story of my future.

I went for a walk. A long walk.

It was starting to get dark when I returned. I rushed into the studio in the hope that if I was quick enough the desk wouldn’t have time to react.

I didn’t look to see if new words had appeared. I picked it up, ran outside and lobbed it into the skip.

Back in the studio I took a plank of mahogany from my scraps and set it up for planing.

There was a noise from outside. I cautiously opened the door.

“Is it okay if I take this?”

I nodded and the man lifted the desk top out of the skip and headed to his car.

I returned to my workbench and strip by strip reduced that plank to a thousand shavings.

Slowly my mind settled on the moment in front of my eyes – the swish of the plane and the thin ribbon of wood curling away to the floor.

I looked up and as soon as I saw the piano I knew what to do with it. I’d turn it into a wonderful contemporary writing desk; with plain simple lines, and absolutely no ornate carving. I’d even build a shelf at the back for knick-knacks.

That was as much of my future as I wanted to know.

Angels watching over me

“They can’t do that?”

“What?”

“They’re pulling down the church.”

“Yeah. Right.”

 Liam opened the curtains and looked out at the Fenny Church of our Lady.

“Don’t worry. It’s still there.”

“I’m serious.”

“Come on. You can’t believe everything you read on social media. It’s just a rumour. Last week you told me that Tesco was taking over the primary school.”

By lunch time, Bridgette had proof the rumours were true. Workmen erecting fencing around the church told her the demolition was starting next week.

She phoned Cara, whose aunt was one of the church cleaners. Cara pointed her to a social media group called Stop the Destruction of Our Lady. The group had started two years ago and all the messages were filled with despair and failure.

“Liam. It’s true.”

“Yeah. The blokes at work knew all about it.”

“But they can’t knock it down. It’s my church.”

“You’ve not stepped foot in there for years.”

“But it’s where we got married. It’s where I got baptised for God’s sake.”

Liam started to laugh but caught sight of Bridgette’s serious face.

She stood in their bedroom window staring out at the church that not only dominated, but completely overwhelmed the view. It was much larger than most parish churches, and much newer. It had only been built in the 1960s. She supposed if it had been older then they would have kept it.

If it had been built better they would have kept it, but the roof leaked and subsidence had given Christ a scar across his face as he prayed in the mural behind the altar. But what really condemned it were the people, or rather the lack of them.

The church had been built with all the optimism of a thriving catholic congregation. It could seat over two thousand. It was the pride and joy of the community. It was opened by the Archbishop of Armagh Primate of All Ireland.

Their house faced the backend of the church. For a whole week there were no visible signs of destruction. The sun rose behind her and struck the stained glass windows in rectangular slits that framed the altar. She remembered as a child seeing the angels in them glow with magical light on clear sunny winter mornings.

When they bought the house she thought they’d be able to see the angels from their window. It did happen once – at Christmas midnight mass. The church was lit from inside with thousands of candles and the light was strong enough to leak out just enough for her to make out the angels.

The outbuildings disappeared first, taking with them her first kiss. She was Mary. Seán was Joseph. They both took their roles seriously. They kissed before going on stage. It was Bridgette’s idea. They couldn’t be husband and wife unless they kissed. She knew that from her aunt’s wedding. After the priest said they were husband and wife he told them they had to kiss.

Scaffolding cloaked the rear of the church and climbed the steeple. Men swarmed like termites and when the dust settled the steeple was gone. The cross was gone. The roof tiles were neatly stacked ready to be moved on to a new life elsewhere.

“What about the graves? They can’t just dig them up?”

“What graves?”

“In the church.”

“There’s no graves.”

He was right. The graveyard was miles away. Bridgette’s ma was buried there, but the funeral was here. The grief was here.

Most of the flooring disappeared one night. It was Sicilian marble worth fifty pound per square metre. She’d danced on that floor. Paraded on that aisle. Been led down it by her father and given away on that stone. It was gone. Destined for dodgy bathrooms and designer kitchens.

The big machines arrived and smashed through the west end. Their jaws took chunks out of the walls, biting through fleshy concrete and exposing skeletal steel rods. Stronger jaws clamped on, twisted and pulled.

Massive hammer blows invaded her home and her head. Diggers scraped and sorted. A hungry grinder was constantly fed a diet of stone and shat out grit and dust that coated her windows and heart.

Day-by-day they came closer. Nibbling the side walls. Taking out the transepts and bearing down on the altar.

Suddenly there was silence. The machines retreated taking their piles of debris with them.

Only the east wall stood. Propped by scaffold. Stained glass remarkably intact. Holding vigil on emptiness.

One week. Two weeks. Christmas lights blossom. Nativity images poured into her phone.

It was the first clear day in weeks. The sprinkle of snow and the clear blue skies were perfect. The Christmas feast was cooked to perfection. Liam’s gift was exquisite. Everything worked like they had planned.

But she regretted not going to her sisters. They’d decided to have their first Christmas since getting married together. Their first in their new home.

Their first since losing the baby.

Liam was asleep in front of a carol service on the telly. She thought about turning it off but was afraid that would wake him. She stood at her window watching the sun sink behind the church façade.

It was the first time the setting sun has been free to hit the window. It struck the stained glass and suddenly angels burst into life. The voice on the telly was reading from the bible, “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.”

Bridgette walked into her garden and knelt in the snow. The last of the sun’s rays fell through the window and bathed her in yellow light.

Her knees soon got cold and the hard ground dug painfully into her ankles.

It took her two trips to carry the tools and the ladder to the bottom of the garden. She climbed over the fence and up the scaffold.

The angel was much bigger than she expected. She decided to only take its head. She thought Liam would kill her when he saw the damage the lead did to his chisel. The weight surprised her and she almost dropped her prize.

Liam was still sleeping. She managed to get it up the stairs and safely swaddled in a blanket under her bed.

He found out what she had done the next day. It was all over the news.

“You seen this. Someone stole a bit of the stained glass window.”

Bridgette was silent.

“Christ, you hear that. That explains why the diggers stopped.”

“What’s that?”

“Those windows. They’re worth a fortune. Designed by some famous English painter. Hey maybe we should hop over the fence and get a bit for ourselves.”

She took him up the stairs. She pulled the blankets out and revealed the angel.

It was his turn to be silent.

She told him about God speaking to her. He didn’t believe her but he was a good husband. They didn’t tell the police, or the priest, or the midwife.

A year later they hung the angel in a frame above the crib. They stood arm-in-arm looking down at their beautiful baby.

Liam was right. She now realised that it couldn’t have been God speaking. After all God didn’t make mistakes and the voice on the telly had said she would bear a son and call him Jesus.

But God had blessed her. And she had brought forth a daughter and had named her Angelica.

The Orator

“I’ve been selected. Tommy. Tommy. Look.”

Alison held out her phone. Tommy saw the distinctive orange lettering on a teal background marching across the screen and displaying one of the most desired messages in the world. Just four words.

You have been selected

“When will it be, and where?”

“It doesn’t say. Check yours.”

Tommy’s Orator app remained a blank teal screen.

“The internet is going wild. Everyone’s saying it will be somewhere in the south of England.”

“Makes sense. He’s performed in Wales and Scotland. About time England got a look in.”

Alison squeaked in excitement. Her phone had changed colour and information started to scroll up the screen.

“Look. Look there’s the zone. Just passed Bristol.”

“Glastonbury’s in that zone. I bet that’s where it is.”

More information appeared. The occurrence would happen the next day at sunset. Alison had to get herself into the zone before 4 pm. If she got there sooner she would get a more central allocation. She also needed to bring two large stones that sat comfortably in her palms and appropriate footwear for walking several miles across the countryside.

Despite her reservations, the car was packed within an hour.

*

Alison sat with the phone on her lap waiting for that magic moment when they entered the zone. It still made her jump.

“What’s it say? Where do I go?”

“Hang on. It’s just asking me questions.”

“Like what?”

“Do I like heights?”

“I’m pulling over. I still think its Glastonbury Tor but there’s no point going on until we get more instructions.”

Tommy wasn’t the only one to suspect that the occurrence would happen at Glastonbury. It was the obvious place and sat almost centrally in the zone that stretched from Bristol to Yeovil.

Over two hundred thousand people were travelling towards it, even though only three thousand had been selected. News teams flocked to the area and helicopters were readied at nearby airports.

Tommy pulled into a lay-by and was surprised to see Alison looking distressed.

“What’s up?”

“I don’t know what to say. It’s asking how far I can walk and how long I can stand? What shall I say? I can’t believe it. It’s not fair.”

“You don’t know that.”

Alison typed her replies. Tommy reached over and took her hand.

“Stop. Just be honest?”

“But what if I can’t go.”

 “If you can’t go just because you can’t walk then it’s not worth going. If you can’t go we’ll do something even better. We’ll go to Weston and eat fish and chips while watching the sun rise over the sea.”

“Idiot. It points the wrong way.”

“We’ll cross the bridge and eat chips in Cardiff. Come on it doesn’t matter. We can still have a good time. Anyway there’s no point lying and then finding the app telling you to walk up Glastonbury Tor, is there?”

Alison deleted her lies. She couldn’t stand. She couldn’t walk. But she was very good at sitting. Unfortunately that wasn’t one of the questions.

It was an uncomfortable night full of mini-sleeps broken by panicked checking of the Orator app. Once an hour they ran the engine to warm the car but even more importantly to make sure Alison’s phoned was fully charged.

The sun had risen when a ping startled them both awake once more. Alison grabbed her phone and frantically searched for a message but nothing had changed.

“Bloody hell,” said Tommy.

Orange text scrolled across the teal background.

“You have not been selected on this occasion. Please refrain from entering further into the zone.”

The message was followed by warnings. Tommy would be banned from the app if he proceeded.

Tommy was still reading when Alison’s phoned pinged with its own set of warnings. Before continuing she was required to switch off her social media feeds and have no communication with anyone until after the occurrence. A countdown appeared. She had three hours to accept the conditions or be deselected.

The two of them sat stunned by the news. Alison couldn’t go on alone and Tommy couldn’t go on without losing any chance of being selected in the future.

“Let’s go home. I knew this was a bad idea.”

“No. I’ll turn my phone off. I’ll take the sim card out and then they’ll never know where I am.”

“But what if they do?”

“Look it doesn’t matter. I mean, what are the chances of me being selected anyway. I’ve more chance of winning the lottery.”

“I got selected so it does happen.”

“You’ve won – so let’s make sure you collect your prize.”

Tommy disabled his phone and Alison pressed the button to accept the terms and conditions.

*

It was surprisingly quiet as they drove on the A38 out of Bristol. The route turned east on the A371 and they stopped for food in the village of Cheddar. Alison was sure that everyone they saw had a smug, secretive look; even the waiter at the pub.

Tommy navigated onto the main road but was then immediately directed back through the village and into Cheddar Gorge. They’d never seen it before and were astonished by the sheer cliffs hunching over the winding road.

Alison’s phone beeped. They had reached their destination.

There was a lay-by with parking for about ten cars. All parking bays were full apart from the disabled one. Unusually none of the cars were empty. Each one held a single person. Some were eating. Some reading.  Some just sitting gazing at the view. All of them waiting in solitude for the occurrence to begin.

“Maybe I should leave you.”

“But then what? I don’t fancy spending the night out here freezing to death in my wheelchair.”

“I’d come and get you.”

“But what if you couldn’t get here?  And anyway. What if we are told to move again? This might not be the final spot.”

*

People were moving. Some were donning walking gear and setting off up the cliff path opposite. Others were walking along the road and then stopping at intervals. Alison also moved. She swung into her chair and wheeled a few feet across to the bench.  She hoped it wouldn’t matter that she stayed in her own comfortable seat rather than going through the hassle of transferring onto the hard wooden one.

Tommy stayed in the car so he wouldn’t disturb Alison’s experience. He did wind all the windows down.

*

Despite the secrecy Alison knew what to expect. The occurrence always began with a poem. Then they’d be music and words from the Orator. She had her part to play. Her phone was part of the performance. Her own voice would be added to the thousands around her.

On the hillside it looked as if a flock of sheep or mountain goats had been transformed into people.

Her phone started a one-minute count down.

*

The light brigade charged down the valley. She heard them come. Horse hoof-beats and cavalry-shouts stampeding from phone to phone.  Moments of stinging silence broken by shots. Cannons exploding from her right, her left, from behind and then shockingly from the phone vibrating in her lap.

Pre-installed smoke bombs fogged the air. A swarm of drones flashed with exploding lights.

Smoke settled and silence set like the sun.

A wolf howled. A pack replied. A solitary voice rose in lament and descended through the valley, its progress marked by the clash of stone on stone. Alison took up her own stones and brought her palms together as the song passed through her.

Another silent pause long enough for the last of the sun’s rays to leave the hillside and reveal a dance of a thousand stars as light flicked in each upraised hand.

The music was plain and would not satisfy if played from a single speaker in the cosiness of home but as Alison followed the directions to grind her stones together she heard the sea. It rose and fell as it crashed against the shore in a storm of increasing fury. There was no embarrassment as she screamed into the darkness.

She felt Tommy’s arm rest on her shoulder. The storm faded and miraculously the sun rose. It broke apart into a million shards that cascaded up in a fountain of light and then scattered to land like seeds alongside every person. Tommy picked up the tiny globe of light and placed it in Alison’s lap.

The Orator’s voice dropped from the drone that hovered above their heads. Alison could never remember the words. She wished she had recorded it but her phone wouldn’t have let her even if she had tried.

She remembered the timbre of the words and the essence of the message. It was so simple. It surprised her that it even needed to be said. She held Tommy’s hand, glad that he was with her, glad that they already knew how to look out for each other.

A piano and violin chased each other across the hillside and up into the sky. In the silence that followed the real stars eased into view.

They sat gazing up hardly noticing the sounds of people returning to their cars. One approached them, passed across two cups of coffee and retreated without saying a word. Slowly the valley emptied and Tommy took them home.

On their doorstep was a teal envelop with Alison’s name in orange. Inside was a badge with a silhouette of a bird.

“Is it a dove?”

“No. It’s a lark. From that last piece of music – Lark Ascending.”

They heard fluttering and looked up to see a drone drop a second envelop. Tommy caught it and saw his name. Inside was another Lark badge.

“What are these for?”

“To show we were there.”

They saw many similar badges in the next few days. Each one was accompanied by secret smiles or open waves of recognition. Several badge wearers stopped to chat. None of them mentioned the occurrence but talked about their lives as if they had been friends for many years.

In a pub they were delivered free drinks by a badge wearer. In a service station a woman gave them a bunch of flowers. As they rejoined the motorway they spotted a hitch-hiker wearing a badge and for the first time in their lives stopped to offer a lift.

Fake badges appeared and badge-fuelled anger started to explode.  It was Alison who inadvertently transformed it.

She was shopping when a television crew stopped her. They asked about her badge and questioned whether she was at the occurrence. Once they had caught her saying she was there they pulled over a man wearing an obviously handmade badge.

“What do you think of that?” asked the interviewer. “A counterfeit badge worn by someone who was nowhere near the occurrence.”

The television crew zoom in on Alison as she wheeled over to the man and removed his badge. They were surprised to see her then remove her own badge and pin it on to the man’s chest. Before they could react, Alison had already wheeled away.

It started the new tradition of badge swapping and soon no one knew who had genuinely been in Cheddar Gorge and who had not. It didn’t matter. Anyone could choose to wear a badge. Everyone could choose to look out for each other.

Mudita

Owen met Serena over a potter’s wheel. It wasn’t like the film Ghost. Although it was equally messy there was no romantic spark and Owen stayed well back from the mess Serena was making.

He showed her how to throw a pot and then stepped away while she attempted to follow his instructions. He’d never met anyone so hopeless at centering the clay. Most beginners struggled to slap the clay down in the middle of the spinning wheel, but after a few attempts they usually got close enough that with a little persuasion it could be forced into place.

Serena got nowhere near. Her best attempt left the clay wobbling erratically for several circuits before leaping off the wheel. Her worst didn’t even stay on for a full rotation.

After ten attempts he broke one of his rules and centred the clay for her.

The art of pulling a pot takes a long time to master. After ten years Owen could do it with his eyes closed, and frequently did. It was his way of demonstrating that fingers were more important than eyes. Some of the people he taught had a natural feel for the clay and could throw small pots even on their first attempt. Others took hours to reach that stage.

He began to doubt Serena would ever manage. He couldn’t work out what she was doing wrong. She didn’t seem heavy handed. She was all fingers and thumbs, which was exactly what she needed to be. Her touch was gentle, consistent and controlled as she caressed the clay.

The walls of the pot would start to rise, he’d offer praise and encouragement and then the clay would over-extend, flap and collapse.

Owen was thankful that he only taught adults. It meant those most annoyed by the clay could simply leave and never come back. Serena didn’t look frustrated. Each time disaster struck she would simply smile and talk to the clay in a language he didn’t understand.

Her calmness didn’t help. The pot still refused to grow and Owen started to think he might have to break his most fundamental rule. It was a rule that set him apart from other teachers and one that he firmly believed made him a better teacher. He never touched.

Most teachers would guide student’s hands to help them develop a feel for the clay but not Owen. He learned from his best friend who taught computers. His friend would never touch someone’s computer or mouse. It would almost certainly mean the student getting in a mess and clicking on things they shouldn’t, but that was more like real life.

Learning how to control well behaved clay wasn’t enough. His students needed to know how to bring clay back into line. He was about to step in when Serena stopped the wheel.

“This clay does not want to be a pot.”

She picked up the clay and weighed it in her hand while studying it intensely.

“This clay wants to be a dancer.”

Owen laughed. “It has certainly been dancing all over the place. Do you want me to demonstrate again?”

Owen held out his hand for the clay.

“Oh no. I must help this clay to dance.”

Serena moved away from the wheel. She delicately placed the clay on the bench and started to caress it. For a moment Owen stood watching but then his attention was caught by a wobble on another student’s wheel.

*

The dancer miraculously survived their boisterous toddlers and overexcited dogs. Gradually with each house move it faded deeper into the forgotten depths of their busy lives.

Owen didn’t recognise it until he removed the final newspaper wrapper and held it in his hands.

“Look, Serena. Do you remember this?”

“My best work.”

“Your only work.”

Owen studied it with his expert eye. He had become used to appraising pieces. Over the years his reputation had grown and he’d moved from winning ceramic competitions to judging them.

“It’s good,” he said. “Actually very good. Once I get the new workshop set up you should do some more.”

Serena waved at him with a pile of papers in her hand. She’d be busy with her interior design business. Despite Owen’s great success she still bought in the majority of their income and made it possible to purchase the new Victorian villa with its large garage that would become his workshop.

Owen placed the dancer on a shrine-like alcove by a window near his potter’s wheel. Every day it grabbed his attention. Often he’d stop and stare for several minutes, thinking back to that first meeting. Thanking the sculpture for the part it had played in bringing them together and wondering if life would have turned out so well if it hadn’t been for that little lump of clay.

*

It was his first major solo exhibition. He could hardly believe that one of the pieces had won the Baldwin prize that he had always coveted.

Serena dressed him and he liked the way he looked. He liked the person he was and even more he loved the person he was with.

Owen accepted the applause and spoke into the microphone.

“I’d like to dedicate this prize to my wife Serena. Serena please come up here.”

It took a while for Serena to be convinced that he was serious.

“As I said, I’d like to dedicate this prize to my wife, but I can’t.”

A few in the audience laughed falsely, hoping that there was a happy punch line.

“I can’t dedicate it to her, because I need to give it to her. You see the success of this exhibition is all down to her.”

The audience clapped in relief.

“It really is. You see, the central ceramic, the one that wowed the judges was made by Serena. That’s why it is such a departure from my usual style – it wasn’t me!”

*

Owen took Serena’s hand and led her away from the aftermath of his bombshell into the quiet of the gallery. For several minutes they didn’t speak as they gazed at the dancer splendidly lit for the whole world to admire.

“I hope that I’ve got the word and translation right,” said Owen.

“Mudita,” read Serena. “The pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s success.”

“I think it would be a great name for you, and it is something you’ve shown me and taught me.”

The picture of the two of them holding hands, with contented smiles, overflowed from the arts press into the national newspapers. It proved to be a sensationally effective way to launch a late career in ceramics. One that quickly overshadowed Owen’s own and caused him nothing but joy.

A marriage made in heaven

Meeting typescript: recorded by Archangel Pravuil, grand scribe and record-keeper for the Almighty
Language: many concepts cannot accurately, or even remotely, be translated from Angelic to English, for example English has no word or expression for VocalStripping.

Baldric-Overpol was an angel of the domination class. [note: angels are nothing like the demeaning descriptions and illustrations of humans which lack majestic awe. Any human seeing Baldric would have cried and had difficulty sleeping for the rest of their life.]

He entered the assembly room and tapped his clipboard on the lectern. [angels are gender neutral and should be referred to as they but some choose to ascribe to a gender and prefer to have the pronoun he or she] The assembled principalities, archangels, plain angels and even lowly guardian angels went silent, apart from two troublesome archangels in the back row.

“Hrrm, hrmm.”

It was enough to get their attention.

“Good morning.” [Inadequate translation. Time does not apply to angels. This meeting could have taken place during the day or night, or pre-day and pre-night, or on the seventeenth Tuesday in April]

“Welcome to assembly room 1.” [assembly room 1 is reckoned to be a large meeting room on the third floor of Croydon immigration centre and also the back room of Starbucks in Burnley]

 On the back row archangel Baraqiel passed a note to archangel Israfel. It pointed out that Baldric-Overpol was an anagram of Clipboard-Lover.

Israfel laughed loudly and received a hard stare from the front. As soon as Baldric’s attention had turned away he passed the note back pointing out that their esteemed manager was also an anagram of Proverbial-Clod.

Baraqiel tried not to laugh and as a consequence snorted loudly. They tried to disguise the snort as a cough, which was strange as angels do not get coughs or colds. Baldric paused in his assignment of duties and made a note on his clipboard before continuing.

Israfel and Baraqiel were not listening as both of them were trying to find new anagrams. It was therefore a surprise to hear their names.

“And this special assignment will go to Israfel and Baraqiel. That’s everything. Unless there are any questions please disburse in an orderly fashion and re-materialise here for the next meeting which is, and always will be, when it will be.”

Israfel raised a tentative hand.

“Yes?”

“Can you say more about this special assignment?”

“I wouldn’t want to bore everyone so why don’t you two stay behind for a full briefing. Dismissed.”

There was a small ripple of applause which helped Baraqiel find another anagram Clap-Drivel-Boor. They decided not to share it with Israfel.

The assignment was unusual and even more so as the two of them had no experience with love. Baraqiel’s expertise was lighting and Israfel’s was music.

Baldric wouldn’t accept their protests.

“Love is like lightning striking the heart and music, well, we all know what trouble music can cause. The assignment is yours. By the next meeting you need to have made a marriage in heaven. How you do it, where you do it, and to whom you do it, are entirely up to you.”

Baldric evaporated in cloud of steam.

“Lo-Crap-Loverbird.”

“What?”

“It’s another anagram.”

“Right. So what do we do?”

“It can’t be that hard. Everyone’s heard of marriages made in heaven.”

“What like cheese and chutney?”

“Rhubarb and custard.”

“Strawberries and cream.”

“Fish and chips.”

“Cheese on toast.”

“Mmm…”

“Come on. There’s no point hanging around here.”

“I know an excellent cafe in Newport that does perfect Welsh rarebit.”

                                                                    *             

The two angels were sitting at the corner table of Bread of Heaven cafe. They had just appeared out of thin air and also been sat there for several minutes reading the menu.

Lily approached their table to take their order.

“Marmite on jacket potatoes. Honestly it tastes great. Well, maybe not if you don’t like marmite.”

“Oreos dipped in orange juice.”

“That’s too obvious. It’s basically chocolate and orange.”

“What can I get you?” said Lily.

“Vanilla ice-cream and soy sauce.”

“Pardon?”

“Sorry love, we’re trying to come up with new flavours. Something special that goes really well together.”

“I am sure we have soy sauce if you really want it.”

“No. No. I’ll have some rarebit and chips.”

“And me.”

“Right. Two rarebits and chips. Do you want a drink?”

“Coffee.”

“Orange juice.”

“And do you want them in the same glass?”

“It might work,” said Israfel.

“We won’t know unless we try it.”

“I wasn’t serious,” said Lily. “Why all this weirdness anyway?”

Baraqiel and Israfel stepped out of time to discuss how they should answer. They decided to be honest.

“We’ve got this assignment. We have to make a marriage made in heaven.”

Lily laughed.

“No seriously. We do.”

“I’ll tell you what. See those two over there. Glenn and Alys. Get them together and you’d have a marriage made in heaven. I don’t know why he hasn’t asked her. I honestly don’t.”

*

The angels watched the couple while they devised their plan.

Israfel nodded. He was ready with the most romantic, heart moving music that had ever existed or would ever come to exist in the whole of human history. [a Peruvian folk song performed by a mother to her favourite cat]

Baraqiel readied his lighting strike at the lowest level he could set. It would require precision to excite the hearts without causing any damage.

The angels regretted not stopping time while they released their powers. If they had then everything would have gone according to plan.

At the very moment that Israfel’s music overwhelmed the café’s sound system Lily placed two plates of Welsh rarebit on their table, Alys stood up to go to the toilet, and Glenn bent down to retrieve a dropped knife.

Baraqiel’s lighting fork branched out. One stream struck Glenn on the head rather than in the heart. It rearranged several brain cells and combined with the intense music to cause an emanation of love to appear in an aura surrounding his body.

Lily’s heart was in the direct line of fire between Baraqiel and Alys. Being much closer to the angel meant that she got hit with a stronger force than anticipated. Her heart was momentarily over excited causing her fall backwards towards Glenn.

Glenn caught Lily and as she turned to face him it seemed like her whole body glowed.

Lily’s heart skipped in an attempt to get back to its normal beat.

Baraqiel signalled for Israfel to cut the music but it was too late.

Two hearts were caught by the rhythm and emotions were so stirred that if the music hadn’t fallen silent there would have been a first kiss to rival any in the whole of Wales.

It took longer than it should have for Lily and Glenn to disengage.

The two angels evaporated and instantly had never been in the cafe.

*

They reassembled in assembly room 1, which was now a combination of Wembley Arena and a joke shop in Marsden, and existed outside of time and also about ten years in the future.

Meeting typescript: recorded by Archangel Pravuil, grand scribe and record-keeper for the Almighty
Language: anagrams and puns have been cast into English where possible, but are severely diminished by the lack of fourth and fifth dimensions.

Baraqiel and Israfel tried to immediately evaporate out of the meeting but were prevented from doing so by the agenda, which had their names on it.

Clipboard-lover tapped on the lectern [Baldric Overpol adopted this name after reading the transcript of the previous meeting].

Israfel tried to concentrate on the routine assignments. Baraqiel didn’t. He passed a note with a new anagram, Lovable-Ripcord, written on it. Israfel didn’t even think of laughing.

 “Baraqiel and Israfel come forward please.

The two angels flew forward and stood in silent embarrassment on the dais.

“Nothing to say?” said Clipboard-lover.

They both looked down and shook their heads.

“Well I want to say you performed excellently. Glenn and Lily (have been)/(will be) married for sixty years. They (are)/(will be) a shining example of love to everyone who knows them and inspire no less than six other marriages.”

Clipboard-lover started the applause.

“I still think soy sauce and ice-cream would work,” whispered Israfel.

“Let’s try it,” said Baraqiel.

The first bar of Beethoven’s fifth symphony blasted into the room. Lightning flashed and on the final note the two archangels disassembled and appeared in the window seat of the Bread of Heaven cafe where they could watch the outcome of their previous interference.

 “We might have to wait a while. Lily seems a little distracted. Shall I get her attention.”

“No. We better not interfere again.”

The two waited patiently and once their order arrived they both agreed that some combinations were definitely not marriages made in heaven.

The End


In a different universe, or perhaps the same universe on a different time-fork, the two archangels were not quite so patient.

“I still think soy sauce and ice-cream would work.”

“Let’s try it,” said Baraqiel.

The first bar of Beethoven’s fifth symphony blasted into the room. Lightning flashed and on the final note the two archangels disassembled and appeared in the window seat of the Bread of Heaven cafe where they could watch the outcome of their previous interference.

They had timed their arrival to correspond with the moment Lily came out of the kitchen carrying two plates to their former selves.

Lily stopped in the doorway unsure whose lunch she held. She noticed the two newcomers in the window and suddenly remembered taking their strange order quite some time ago. She looked down at her tray to see soy sauce and ice-cream.

Her momentary pause changed everything.

It meant Alys got hit in the heart by the lightning bolt and promptly fell in love. Unfortunately Glenn still bent to retrieve his knife so Alys’ affection landed on the person nearest to her, which was Lily.

The other lightning bolt still struck Glenn in the head. Love emanated and spilled out like a comforting blanket over the tray Lily was carrying.

Baraqiel and Israfel in the window seat stared in horror as suddenly their immediate past had always included a furious Clipboard-lover shouting at them in assembly room 1. He, along with the whole population of Wales apart from Glenn, did not accept that soy sauce and ice-cream were a marriage made in heaven, and he severely reprimanded them for causing Alys perpetual suffering as a consequence of her unrequited love for Lily.

Hummingbirds don’t fly

Hummingbirds don’t fly. Not as kite’s anyway. It seems that wing flapping is essential. I saw a video on the internet of a remote control flapping bird. I’d love to build one of them but that’s beyond me.

I build kites.

Round ones, box ones, parafoils, stars, diamonds – almost any shape you can think of. But the ones I love to build most are birds.

I guess that’s why you commissioned me to build the tufted coquette hummingbird. I should have thought a minute longer before saying yes.

I’ve seen plenty of hummingbird kites in the sky but nine out of ten of them are just pictures of hummingbirds painted on traditional kites. At least the others have attempted a hummingbird shape, but they are all so stylised and cartoony.

I could make you one of them but I don’t think you would be satisfied. You’ve actually seen the bird. Held it in your hand. Grown up with it flying around your Venezuelan garden.

I think I’ve got the colours. The orange tuft on top, the shimmering green chest with a polka dot cravat around the neck. The lilac-blue wings that open to show green and yellow running down to the brown tail feathers.

But the whole thing fails. The only way I can make it fly is to have those wings stretched out in a traditional static aeroplane style. It doesn’t look right. I want it to hover like the real thing with wings blurring as they move.

Back to the drawing board. I’ll see if I can find a solution before you visit.

*

I can’t believe how good it looks. It’s fantastic. Brilliant. The kite you’ve made looks just like the real thing, apart from being so big of course. My Coqueta Adornadas could sit comfortable in the palm of my hand even when I was only seven.

I took me four months. It’s hard to believe I had so much patience. Every day I’d sit where the hummingbirds fed. For one month they watched me and waited until their patience outwore my own.

The second month they trusted me enough to feed while I sat. The third month was the hardest. I would hold out my hand filled with sweet syrup until it ached so much I could hold it up no longer. But not one bird landed.

It was Abuela’s idea. My grandmother. Her idea to paint flowers on my hand. It still took a week but it worked. Abuela kept telling me to be patient.

I hope Toby has the patience to make the kite work.

*

Daniela liked the kite. She really did. It was great to see her huge smile when she first walked into the workshop. It’s a lovely smile.

She gushed. That’s the only word I can think of that gets anywhere near to how she reacted. She almost looked like she was going to cry. Happy tears; I think.

But that soon turned to sad tears once she realised the bird wouldn’t fly. I didn’t know it was so important to her. Something to do with her grandmother and the Day of the Dead celebrations on the first of November back in Sumpango. She’s hoping to take the kite with her.

That gives me just two months to find a solution. I don’t know what to do. I’ve put the bird in a corner and am getting on with other work. I’ve a commission for one of my regulars who wants a new kite for a festival. Building it will take a lot of time but at least I know what I am doing.

I can’t keep away. I keep coming back to that damn hummingbird. I don’t know why. There’s nothing I can actually do. I’ve tried the wings at all sorts of angles but none of the ones that work look right. I’ve tried out a few crazy ideas such as having vents through the chest. I don’t think that would go down well. It looked like the poor bird had been shot.

I’ve been on the internet looking for inspiration. I found myself looking at pictures of the giant kites used in the Sampango for the festival. I’d seen them before but hadn’t connected them to Venezula or to Daniela’s commission. Those kites are amazing. Some of them are twice the height of my house.

Most of them are simple discs but a few are more flower-like. That’s what gives me the idea. I remembered Daniela’s story about painting her hand like a flower so that she could feed the hummingbirds. Suddenly I know what I need to do.

*

I’ve never been up here in the Yorkshire Dales. Somehow the city sucks you in and doesn’t let you out. All this countryside on my doorstep.

I see you on the hillside. I can’t see my kite. I notice that you are holding a string and follow it up the hill with my eyes. You call out to someone named Matt at the other end of the string who is holding up a disk shape. It’s not my kite.

The wind fills the disk and transforms it into a bright red rosa de montaña, or a rose of Venezula as you might know it here in England. The flower is blown up into the sky.

And then I can’t believe what I see. My hummingbird jumps up and follows the flower. It hovers in front of it and its wings are a blur.

I laugh and wrap my arms around you in a hug. I then step back as I feel your English stiffness that is afraid of such effusiveness.

And then I cry and it is your turn to wrap your arms around me.

*

It’s a triumph. The flower pulls off the ground and drags the hummingbird into the air. And the bird hovers as though sucking nectar. The wings blur. They don’t actually move. There’s no rapid figure of eight in the air. I couldn’t replicate that. Instead I carefully angled the feathers and made loose connections so that the wings flutter like an aspen leaf. It’s perfect.

Daniella grabs me in a bear hug. She’s so pleased. And then she crumples as she remembers her grandmother, her Abuela.

I comfort her while surreptitiously keeping an eye on the kite to make sure it doesn’t fall out of the sky. Matt gives me a thumbs-up from the top of the hill and signals that he’s heading off to the car.

I wait until she’s calmed down and blown her nose. That’s always a sign that the crying has ended. She doesn’t apologise like many people would. She tells me she is grieving and that’s the right thing to do, but now that she has the kite she can communicate with her grandmother.

She takes hold of the string and watches the kite. I don’t believe in talking to ancestors through kites, but when she finally tells me what she has heard I happily agree.

She tells me that her grandmother always said that if she held out her hand long enough she would get what she wanted.

She holds out her hand.

She tells me that I need to fly the kite with her. I nod enthusiastically and take her hand in mine.

I am still nodding when she tells me that the next time the kite will fly will be on the day of the dead in Venezuela.

Elements of joy

There was nothing special about Tuesday morning but Tom was seeing the world like he’d never seen it before. Everything looked and felt different, ever since he’d survived the incident just over a week before.

That day was unusual. His sister was back from Australia so he’d invited mum and dad for an early Christmas feast. He’d helped Kelly prepare all the vegetables the night before and then he’d taken Chloe to the park so that Kelly could finish cooking in peace.

He checked his watch every five minutes. Time seemed to go so slowly. He’d promised he’s stay out for at least an hour. Chloe was happy enough in the swing but he’d already grown tired of tickling her feet and pulling funny faces whenever the swing brought her up to his nose.

He could take her to the café but she’d soon get bored there. Another five minutes crept by with her climbing up the slide from both directions. He’d had to pay more attention to make sure she didn’t fall.

He looked around the playground. Two mum’s chatting while their boys played pirates on the climbing frame, one granddad loving playing with his granddaughter, two dogs attached to the fence and looking as fed up as he was.

Chloe found a leaf and excitedly brought it him. He used it like a fan and gave her enough praise that she brought another ten leaves for him to examine.

He managed fifty minutes before bundling Chloe into the pushchair. He’d take the long way home.

*

Mum and dad loved the meal. His sister had been back in England only a few days but already they seemed to know everything that she had done in the last eight months. As soon as she’d finished one story they’d be encouraging her to tell another.

She smiled at him. “So Tom, what about you? What have you been up to?”

Mum and dad turned to look at him but they were no help. There were no stories to tell. Work. Looking after Chloe. Watching telly. Bed and then back to work again.

There was an awkward silence that fortunately Chloe barged into.

“I’ve got a balloon.”

“Oh yes”, said his sister.

“It’s blue. I like blue.”

Chloe tossed the balloon into the air. His sister caught it and batted it across the room. Chloe laughed and ran after it. She caught it and had to jump up and down three times because it was so exciting.

“Do you remember that?” said his sister.

“What?”

“That excitement, that awe. I was like that on Bondi beach. The sun, the sand, the waves. I was like a child standing there in awe at how wonderful everything was.”

“So why’d you come back?”

“Tom!” said his mum.

“No mum, it’s a fair question.”

His sister sent the balloon back across the room before replying.

“Life isn’t a beach. You can’t surf every day. And anyway, I missed my little Chloe didn’t I.”

She picked Chloe up and snuggled into her tummy causing squeals of delight.

Too true, thought Tom. Life isn’t a beach. It’s more like a car park.

And then it happened.

Tom felt a small twinge just above his abdomen. It rose and magnified, blossoming into a sharp, intense heart crushing pain. He clutched his chest, gasped for breath and was thankful that he was surrounded by competent people.

*

The doctor was understanding. He even told Tom about his own experience of a similar pain after a pie eating competition. He said that if he hadn’t been a cardiac specialist he too would have thought he was having a heart attack. It happened more often than Tom would expect, but in every case the paramedics were absolutely right to take the patient in for checking.

Tom was embarrassed. A 999 call and an ambulance to hospital all because of heartburn. His wife was telling everyone, his sister posted it on Facebook, his friends were sending jokes.

Only Chloe was still concerned. She held his hand more often than before and told him he needed a therapy dog to look after him. She’d been asking for a puppy for Christmas. There was no way she was getting one, but he had to admire her ingenuity. He was surprised she even knew the word therapy.

*

The ‘heart attack’ changed everything. Tom felt like he’d had a near death experience even though he had never been in any danger. Work colleagues ragged him from the moment he arrived in the office and kept offering to make him drinks and telling him that he needed to take it easy.

Tom was glad that he only had to work the one day before breaking up for Christmas. He wished he’d chosen to take the Monday off like half of the office seemed to have done.

On Tuesday morning he woke early. It was still dark and even Chloe was asleep. Tom kept replaying the meal time conversation and wondering when he lost his childhood awe. It was so long ago that he wasn’t sure he ever had any. He must have. All kids do.

After half an hour he got up and went into the shower. He noticed the feel of the water landing on his head and slipping down over his face. He turned the heat up to the temperature his wife liked. The hot water delightfully hovered on the edge of scolding him.

He noticed the texture of the towel fresh from the wash. He held it to his nose, smelt the new fabric conditioner his wife had switched to, and had to agree it did have a pleasing aroma.

As he dried himself the sun edged up over the park opposite their house. Tom stood with his eyes closed surprised that he could feel warmth radiating even this late in December.

He moved closer to the window and looked out. The trees had lost their leaves. A light frost had coloured the cars making all their roofs white. He saw a woman letting her dog off its lead right next to the sign telling her not to.

He decided to go for a walk and then changed his mind. He’d go for a run. He hadn’t run in years. Not since Chloe was born. Suddenly, practicalities intruded. How could he possibly go for a run after having a shower? When he got back he’d need another one.

Tom decided to be child-like. He would go for a run. He would take a second shower. He would do it because he wanted to.

*

It was harder than he expected. He had to settle for a few minutes running followed by a few minutes walking. The sun had fully emerged above the tree tops and was dominating the clear blue sky. He felt the cold air against the inside of his nostrils and all the way down into his chest.

He paused under an oak tree that still had a few leaves clinging to its lower branches. The sun behind them was emphasising their splendid colours. He bent down and searched the undergrowth for the perfect leaf to take back to Chloe. He held it up and saw its skeleton, stark against the translucent flesh.

A few drops fell in front of him landing with a splash in the dry oak leaves. He looked up and saw a squirrel weeing on a branch almost overhead. He laughed and the squirrel ran off. He’d have to tell Chloe about that.

Tom walked along the side of the stream, hearing it for the first time. Its soothing babble as it plunged over a hundred tiny waterfalls created by the many pebbles.

The path rose up and Tom decided to push himself. He had just about reached the top and was thankful to see the bench when it hit him.

A sudden explosion of pain. A clamping, crushing, squeezing around his chest, and his arms.

Tom stumbled and sagged onto the bench. The sun streamed into his face. He closed his eyes and tried to breath. Last time the pain lasted almost half an hour. He was sweating. He was going to get cold.

The pain was moving. It shot down his arm and bounced back into his chest. It dug into his jaw. He didn’t remember that.

He felt dizzy and slipped to his left. He couldn’t right himself.

It was different.

It was real.

*

He felt tingling in his fingers and saw that the dog was licking him. The sun blasted into his eyes and his whole world became nothing but light.

He heard the woman. He felt her take his hand. He heard her say that everything will be alright, but he couldn’t bring himself to believe her.

He tried to smile but wasn’t sure he managed it.

He forced a word out. He had to communicate his decision.

“Puppy.”

The woman leaned close and tried to understand.

“Help you. Yes dear. I will. I can see the ambulance already. We’re lucky that we live so close to the hospital.”

The paramedics jogged up the hill with ease. They unloaded their packs. Tom took comfort in their efficiency and accepted the sincerity of their encouragement. Within minutes he was stretchered and whisked to safety.

By the time his family arrived he could speak clearly enough. Tom was so pleased. Chloe was held outside by his sister, which would give him time to tell his wife about the Christmas present. Chloe burst in and Tom couldn’t contain his excitement so immediately told her about the puppy.

“I told you you needed a dog,” said Chloe.

“You were right,” said Tom. He closed his eyes and enjoyed everything around him. He opened them and his smile reached his eyes.

“Hey sis. I think I’ve found it again.”

Beyond Acceptance

Six months ago the old school was knocked down. Carla smiled every day at the sun that now reached her windows.

Her house was a back-to-back. Dense terrace housing with all surplus space sacrificed to the needs of the mill. Houses squished together with no back streets, no gardens and a back wall shared with the house behind.

Sharing Carla’s back wall were a family she didn’t know but often heard. Intimate neighbours just one brick away from her sitting room. She knew they had a baby and an older child called Jack. She’d tried to meet them once. She walked to the end of her street, along the side of the terrace and back along the street behind her, but she wasn’t sure which house was theirs.

Carla’s front door led straight onto the pavement and then there was the road and a brick wall. The old Victorian school used to be on the other side of the wall but the buildings had been empty as long as Carla could remember.

Carla’s mum said they used to hold evening classes such as yoga and pottery for posh folks. She told of one couple looking across and saying their house looked just like Coronation Street.

The evening classes were cut. The old school sagged. For a while Carla and the other kids reinvigorated the old tarmac playground with life. Breaking the Victorian rules by playing together despite the engraved stone arches attempting to keep boys and girls separate.

It didn’t take long for spoilsports to complain to the council with fake concern for children’s safety. Razor wire appeared on walls, padlocks on gates and cameras on telegraph poles. Several children cut themselves.

The battle between council and children carried on for many years. Eventually the council won. Not by building better barriers but by the slow tide of time. Children grew older and weren’t replaced. The houses had never been suitable for children. Carla felt sorry for her back wall neighbours.

The old school became more decrepit. The sound of play gave way to the silence of teenage drug taking. Discarded needles replaced sweet wrappers and the do-gooders chased the council to do something.

Everything changed a last summer. Padlocks were removed and gates forced open. Curtains twitched and rumours raced along the terrace streets. What would the old school be used for?

Machines broke their way through its heart, flattened its walls and raked the ground level. Terrace talk speculated on what would replace it. A new school. More houses. A doctor’s surgery. An old people’s home. A supermarket. A go-kart race track.

It took months for local residents surrounding the empty square to work through the five stages of grief. They’d been through denial – surely something was going to replace the school; anger – at the council for doing nothing; bargaining – to try and get the council to do something; depression – that nothing was happening and finally acceptance. The school was gone and nothing was replacing it.

Carla looked out of her window at the emptiness. A sofa had arrived in the far corner. How had someone managed to dump that? The walls were over two meters high.

She smiled at the thought of sitting on the sunny sofa. The sun that had always been blocked out of her life by the shadows of the four-storey school. Her mother would have enjoyed the new sunshine.

Carla wondered what came after the five stages of grief. Acceptance didn’t seem enough. She’d accepted that her mother had gone. Her bed removed from the sitting room along with all the medical paraphernalia. Only the smell lingered. Carla wasn’t sure it was real, but it was there, in her nose every time she stepped through her front door despite candles and fragrance dispensers. She’d even tried baking the smell away without success, although the cookies were a welcome bonus.

She now accepted the smell. More than that; she welcomed it. Every time she entered her house she’d take a deep breath and call out a greeting to her mum.

It was colder outside than she expected. The sunshine had fooled her. She almost went back for her hat and scarf but nipping to the shop would only take a few minutes.

Carla passed a small entranceway through the school wall. It had originally been the gateway to the caretaker’s house. An iron gate blocked the entrance and nettles were a more effective barrier than any that the council had tried.

Carla heard a mewing noise and saw a white kitten in the gateway.

“Where’s your mum, little thing?”

Carla held out her hand and made encouraging noises. The kitten moved towards her but then retreated.

“It’s ok. I won’t hurt you.”

Carla knelt down and rubbed her fingers together. The kitten was fascinated but wary and came no closer. After ten minutes the cold forced Carla to stand and rub her hands together. The kitten disappeared into the nettles.

The local shop sold everything and soon Carla was back at the gate pushing a saucer of kitten food as far into the old school as possible. The gate moved as she leant on it. She was surprised how easily it opened. She carefully pushed through the nettles.

Carla was shocked by the splash of golden yellow stitched along the bottom of the wall. Daffodils stretched up through the nettles. From her window she couldn’t see this side of the wall so never knew they were here. Carla searched but didn’t find the kitten. She left the saucer of food and returned home.

Next morning Carla headed out with more kitten food, gloves and nettle proof jeans, without trendy holes in the legs. The food in the saucer had gone but there was no sign of the kitten.

Carla started removing nettles to give the daffodils space to show off. It became a routine. Every morning and evening she would sneak through the gate, add more food to the saucer and clear nettles and brambles from the border. A mound of dying nettles and assorted weeds grew on the tarmac playground.

Near the end of the border Carla noticed a lovely smell. She tracked it to a small flowering plant. The next plant also smelt. She crushed a few leaves in her hand. The aroma was familiar.

It was Christmas. It was the smell of stuffing. She remembered last Christmas. Her mum was too unwell to cook so shouted instructions from her bed on how to make stuffing.

Later that day Carla used the library to discover that the plants she had found were thyme and sage. Rosemary was next. And there were chives, and oregano. It was a whole herb patch that must have been planted by the last caretaker.

“Hello,” said the woman. “Are you the gardener?”

“Me?” said Carla.

“Don’t worry. I think it’s great what you are doing.”

The woman disappeared stepped from the pavement through her front door. Carla entered the garden and looked up at the woman’s house. The woman waved from the first floor window.

Carla realised that the windows on three sides of the square had a clear view of what she was doing. Only the terrace on her side couldn’t see the border she was clearing. Carla switched to the side border. One that she would be able to see from her window. It was a harder to clear. There were more brambles and very few plants to keep.

“Do you want these? For the garden.”

Carla looked at the plants the man was holding.

“Begonias,” he said. “I got them down the supermarket and thought you could plant them.”

“Thank you,” said Carla.

She took the plants and added them to the border. The next day the man brought a plant with tiny white flowers that he said was called Sweet Alison.

“Why don’t you come and plant them yourself?”

“Can I?” said the man. “I always wanted a garden but…”

He gestured to the surrounding back-to-back houses. “Me and the missus couldn’t afford anything else. She was called Alison. That’s why I bought them.”

Carla passed the man a spade. He asked where to plant the flowers and Carla said he could choose his own spot. She saw him looking up to his windows and choosing carefully.

The next day Robert, the man, called to Carla. “Do you mind if Mary comes and sees the garden?”

Mary lived in the bottom corner of the square where she couldn’t see into the garden.

“We should do something in the middle,” said Carla. “Where everyone can see it.”

In the middle of the square buddleia bushes had forced their way through gaps in the tarmac, poppies had seeded in cracks and foxgloves provided landing pads for bees.

“How can we plant in this?” said Mary

“I can bring a pickaxe,” said Robert. “And I can get my neighbour to help.”

Neighbours and the pickaxe quickly unearthed a patch of rubble strewn soil. Within a week twenty people were enlarging the patch and planting a diverse range of plants, from potatoes to petunia. Some thrived and some died.

Other people watched from their windows with disapproval and a few days later a new padlock on the gate blocked the entrance.

“But what about the kitten?” said Carla.

“What kitten?” said Robert.

“There was a kitten. I put food out for it every day. I’ve never seen it again but the food gets eaten.”

“Hrmm. Wait here. I’ll be back.”

A few minutes later Robert returned with another man.

“John. This is Carla, the gardener.”

“Hi Carla. Robert says you need a hand.”

Robert opened his coat and pulled out some very large bolt cutters. A minute later the padlock was removed and the gardeners moved back into the square. The garden grew bigger, taller and more colourful.

“Can we plant trees?” asked a woman called Mandy. “I’d love to grow apples.”

Two days later Mandy arrived with eight apple saplings. The school where she worked had planted a community orchard and had trees left over.

“Don’t worry love,” said Mandy the next day. “We can always plant some more. And some of these might survive if we replant them.”

Carla doubted it would work but helped Mandy replant the trees that had been pulled up during the night. She wasn’t sure there was much point. The vandals would only come back. She left the garden early and headed home.

As she entered her house she took a deep breath and realised that the smell was different. The room smelt of the garden. Seedlings hugged the windowsill. Plants overwhelmed the fireplace. The smell of her mum had gone. She so wanted her mum. She wanted to be held and told everything was going to be alright.

The fact that her mum was gone didn’t stop Carla telling her about the garden, the neighbours and the vandals.

“Mum,” said Carla. “It’s not fair. Why did they do it?”

Mum would have put the kettle on and brought her tea and asked her what was bothering her.

 “I’m not having it,” said Carla. “I’m not letting them spoil everything.”

The tent didn’t cost much and it wasn’t dark in the square at night with so many street lights nearby. It was much colder than she expected and Carla was about to head home when she heard a noise. Something was eating from the saucer. It wasn’t the kitten. It was a hedgehog. She’d never seen one before.

A noise woke her. It was light. As she opened the tent she saw a fox, which quickly slipped away across the square and under the main gate.

Carla was cold and hungry but there was a new padlock trapping her in the square.  She tried the main gates but as usual these were padlocked shut and had anti climb paint liberally applied. She could see where the fox had slipped under the gate. As a child she could have done the same.

“Hi Carla,” said Robert.

“Oh Robert. I’m stuck. There’s a padlock on the side gate.”

Robert came across the road and stopped to read a notice on the gate.

“It’s the council. They’re saying no one is allowed on this site and anyone on it will be prosecuted.”

“Why? It’s not like we’re doing any harm is it.”

“Bugger. It says here that they are going to remove all items illegally on the site. I bet that means the garden.”

“They can’t do that.”

“So what are we going to do?”

“I’m staying.”

“What?”

“I’m staying right here. I’m going to sleep in the garden to make sure they can’t destroy it.”

“You can’t do that. Where will you sleep?”

Carla pointed. “I’ve got a tent.”

“You can’t call that a tent. You can’t sleep in that. First drop of rain and you’ll be soaked. No. If you are going to do this you’ll need to do it properly. Are you serious?”

Carla took a deep breath and the garden smelt the same as her house. This was her place. She wasn’t giving it up.

“Deadly serious. The only way they are getting me out is over my dead body.”

“Right you wait there. I’ll get things sorted.”

“You couldn’t bring me an apple or something to eat could you?”

Robert didn’t return but spread the word and Carla was soon feasting on hot buttered toast, bananas, apples, tuna sandwiches and caramel shortbread with a flask of coffee and a flask of hot chocolate.

By evening she also had a proper tent, a sleeping mat, a sleeping bag, camping table, chairs, and a lamp. Erecting the tent had provided hours of entertainment for the whole neighbourhood. Robert shouted instructions which Carla tried to follow to the amusement of the audience watching from many windows.

By nightfall there were two padlocks on each gate. One from the council and one from the neighbours. The neighbour’s padlocks looked stronger and so it proved. The neighbours were stronger than the council.

Carla was supported to live on the site and was never left on her own. At least two neighbours were always with her. It was easy enough to climb a well placed ladder and the council were incapable of patrolling four sides of the square at once.

Carla’s garden grew larger, more colourful and more fruitful. Her story spread and soon expert helpers arrived with tools, techniques, surveys and arguments to delay, and ultimately stop the council from dismantling what the community had built.

After a year of camping Carla finally left her temporary home safe in the knowledge that the community had won and the ground was now theirs to take care of.

She opened the door to her house. She’d only been back for toilet breaks and to water the plants. Now she was here to stay. She took a deep breath and it smelt sweeter than any she had known. A sense of pride floated on the air and settled contentedly on Carla’s shoulders.

Carla went to her bedroom window and looked out over the colourful expanse. A recent newspaper article had compared it to the garden at Giverny. Robert had showed Carla a picture of Monet’s garden. It made her want to build a bigger pond.

She smiled. The view was perfect. Robert looked up from the garden and waved. Mary waved back.

Maybe it wasn’t perfect yet. They really didn’t need the walls separating the homes from the garden.

Robert pointed to a white patch. Mary thought it was Sweet Alison but then it moved. The kitten looked up at her, seemed to nod its head and with one jump disappeared into the bushes never to be seen again.

The swing

And then he saw the swing.

It looked like an ordinary swing. One kids hung from trees. The ropes were the kind of ropes kids would use, and the seat was a simple branch. Quite a wide branch and with a very pleasing bend that looked like it would be comfortable.

Glen’s eyes travelled up the ropes and kept going. The thin blue lines cut right up into the sky.

He’d half hoped, actually more like one hundredth hoped, that something would save him. Maybe an angel would stop him from jumping like in the film A Wonderful Life. Except he wouldn’t want any angel showing him Bristol and explaining what people’s lives would be like if he wasn’t around. Glen was pretty sure they wouldn’t even be notice he was gone.

Then there was that women who jumped from the bridge. Or did she fall? Either way she was lucky that she was wearing big billowing skirts that acted like a parachute so she didn’t die when she hit the mud. Actually that might not have been lucky. It happened in the old days so she probably got arrested for attempting suicide and carted off to some institution where she would have electric shock treatment and her brain lobotomised.

Glen shivered at the thought.

The swing hung motionless next to the side of the bridge. There was nothing holding it back so it should be swinging out over the river. Glen looked up again. There was nothing holding it up either. The ropes kept rising into the sky until they were so distant that they faded from view.

Glen moved slightly so that he could close one eye and line up the rope with one of the bridge’s towers. He wanted to see if the swing was moving. It wasn’t. That ruled out it being attached to a plane.

He couldn’t remember which religion believed in a world tree. Maybe they were right and there really was a gigantic tree growing up out of the planet. A gigantic tree that some kid had climbed and tied ropes to.

He took a tentative step towards the swing. It didn’t move away or disappear. He’d never had hallucinations before. This must be triggered by his heightened senses.

Another step and he was standing next it.

He stretched out and tapped the seat. It was solid enough to hurt his knuckle. He stretched again and pushed. It didn’t move. Not even a tiny bit. He pushed again and increased his pressure until he was pushing as hard as he could.

It still didn’t move.

Glen became aware of how he must look. If the passing cars couldn’t see the swing then it would look like he was pushing on nothing. He checked his clothes to see if he could be mistaken for a mime artist. He didn’t think so.

The swing was waiting.

It scared him.

It wasn’t that easy climbing the suicide prevention barriers, but it also wasn’t that hard. The designers had struck a balance between mortality and aesthetics. The barriers didn’t stop the most determined jumpers but slowed everyone down long enough that they couldn’t help but notice the plaque with the Samaritan’s phone number. Glen had stepped on the plaque as he climbed the wires.

The swing was at the perfect distance from the bridge to make it easy to sit on to it. Glen hesitated. He looked down at the river and found the thought of jumping less frightening than the thought of swinging into the unknown.

But he wanted to know. What would happen? The most likely outcome would be that he’d fall backwards down into the canyon. Imaginary swings were not that great at supporting the weight of real people.

He turned around and slowly lowered his bottom onto the swing. It still felt solid. He took one hand off the barrier and took hold of the rope. It still held.

He let go with the other hand.

Nothing happened. He sat comfortably facing the bridge where an early morning jogger with his dog ran towards him without even noticing. Glen laughed. The dog turned to look at him. The man also gazed in his direction but clearly couldn’t see him or the swing.

The swing swung.

It felt like Glen’s tummy had stayed next to the bridge while his body fell backwards into emptiness. He looked down between his legs at the river flowing along the same direction.

A mist slowly condensed to obscure the view and then dissipated again. What Glen could see had changed. The river was gone. In its place was a stream of Glen’s life.

It was running backwards. From the moment on the bridge back through his breakfast. Yes, he’d eaten breakfast just like any other day. Back through his broken relationships. Not terribly broken but broken enough. Back through his mundane life. Back to his disturbed teenage years and into his chaotic childhood.

The swing reached the moment of his birth and paused at its apogee. Glen was proud of knowing the technical name for the top of the arc. He must have learnt something from school.

He hung motionless for a moment and dreaded what was going to happen next. The swing started on its descent. It was taking him forward through his life returning him to the bridge.

He watched second by second, hour by hour, as days and years flowed steadily by.

He looked down at the three year old Glen and smiled. He was cute.

Five year old Glen starting school, holding on for safety to the apple his mum had given him.

Ten year old Glen tying a blue rope to a branch to make a swing.

Twelve year old Glen. Not so cute.

There were many things Glen regretted in life but this was probably the first. It wasn’t a big thing. Not really. But it still bothered him. Every time he saw a Rubik’s cube he’d remember that day on the bridge.

He shouldn’t have snatched it. And he shouldn’t have thrown it off the bridge. And he certainly shouldn’t have lied to Steve’s mum and put all the blame on Steve.

Glen didn’t want to relive his regrets.

He jumped off the swing. He plummeted down and mist obscured his past life. He was waiting for the river to reappear but instead he saw the bridge below him. He guessed he would find himself next to the suicide barrier falling backwards away from the man and his dog.

There was no suicide barrier. There was no man or dog. There was a boy with a Rubik’s cube and another boy looking jealously at it.

Glen crashed into his twelve-year old self and for a moment retained his forty-two year old perspective. He might be jealous but that didn’t mean he had to throw the cube of the bridge. This time he could do it differently.

But it was too late. He watched his hand snatch the cube and throw it down into the river. Steve was shouting. Steve’s mum was turning. Glen was putting a surprised and hurt expression on his face ready to deny what had happened.

His forty-two years of experience deserted him. He was fully back in his hormone fuelled, sulky teenage self. He was poised, ready to deflect blame and deny everything.

As he started to speak a sliver of his former self hung on for a moment, and instead of shouting angrily about the injustice of being falsely accused, the word sorry slipped out before he could stop it.

Glen had landed back in the tramlines of his life and with that one word had swung onto a new track. A track that meant in thirty years time his future self would never need the swing.

Wet pants

Barry’s pants were wet, and he didn’t mean it in the American sense. The puddle had soaked right through his trousers and wet his underwear. Did American’s called it underwear? He wasn’t sure.

It didn’t matter. He’d never been to American and had no intention of doing so. It annoyed him that American culture had invaded Coventry enough that even he was bilingual.  It was all the American films he watched.

If this was a film there’d be a beautiful woman walking along the sidewalk who would help him up and become the love of his life.

Only in films.

In real life there was nobody around to help. Not that Barry wanted help. He’d be too embarrassed. He was glad no one had witnessed his downfall. It must have looked ridiculous. A grown man tripping on his own shoelace, overbalancing, arms flapping wildly, slipping on the edge of a water-filled pothole and somehow twisting in such a way that his bottom landed precisely in the deepest section of the hole.

If a young person had been around they could have filmed him and got hundred of pounds from that programme on telly that pays for pratfalls. Most of them are not real. Nine times out of ten Barry finds himself screaming at the telly asking why on earth anyone would have their phone on video and pointing in the right direction at the right moment.

Barry checked to see if there were any young people nearby. He could do a deal with them and repeat his fall. His backside wasn’t going to get any wetter.

No young people, but there was a bloke sitting on a park bench furiously scribbling away in a notebook. He was concentrating so much on writing that he couldn’t have noticed Barry’s performance.

Cold water dribbled down Barry’s leg.

He gave up on his trip to the post office. The application to the fan club would have to wait until tomorrow. By the time he got home and changed the post would have gone. There was a time when letters from post boxes were collected five times a day. Not anymore. Once if you’re lucky.

It’s all this email. Makes everything instant, as if that’s a good thing. Type away without thinking and ding… it’s delivered. Sally says there’s a way to stop the ding but he hasn’t found it yet.

What’s wrong with pen and paper? People appreciate it. They can tell that you care about what you have written and haven’t just cut and pasted someone else’s words. Can you get done for plagiarism in emails? That’d be funny. Everybody under the age of thirty would be guilty.

You wouldn’t catch Tony cutting and pasting. Barry had seen a documentary about him. He always wrote his novels with a proper pen in a proper notebook. One notebook for each novel. What impressed Barry most was that Tony would be writing three, or even more, novels at the same time. He’d carry around at least three notebooks so that inspiration could strike into heart of the right story.

He should have put that in his fan club application. There was a section on the form for other comments. He could have added it in there. He hadn’t liked leaving it blank. It was like admitting he didn’t have anything to say.

He could always steam the envelope open when he got home. He’d like to write something to catch Tony’s attention.

Barry heard someone behind him. It was the man from the bench, in a hurry. Barry turned his bottom away from the path so the man wouldn’t see the wet patch. The man smiled at Barry and nodded. He looked familiar, but Barry couldn’t think who he was. He didn’t look close familiar. More like someone who lived at the end of the lane, or someone who often used the same bus into town.

Maybe it was a smirk. Maybe Barry had never seen the man before but the man had seen Barry’s escapade and was smirking at him. It could have been a smirk.

Barry watched the man run to the Rugby Road entrance and twist to squeeze through the anti-motorbike gate. Something dropped from the man’s bag and just missed a puddle.

“Oy,” shouted Barry.

The man either didn’t hear or didn’t care. He was obviously in a hurry. Barry started to jog over to the entrance in the hope of catching him. But then he noticed his shoe lace was still untied. He bent to tie it and heard some young people talking and laughing behind him. He quickly stood and didn’t dare look back. They must have seen the wet patch.

He walked across to the entrance and picked up what the man had dropped. It was the notebook that the man had been so furiously writing in. Barry let the young people pass. They were in there own world, or worlds. Each one talking and gesticulating to the friends on their phones while ignoring the friends they were actually with. They didn’t notice Barry. Not even a single glance. It seemed likely that their earlier laughter had been nothing to do with him.

Barry flipped the pages checking for a name or address. There was nothing like that. The book was full of page after page of scruffy notes. Barry flipped to the end of the writing, which was about a third of the way through the book.

His name. It was his name. There in black and white. He held the book slightly further away so he could read it better and couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

The man on the bench had written all about him. About the loose shoe lace, about the trip and swivel and splash. It sounded even funnier in writing. 

Barry laughed. He’d been right American’s did call pants underwear.

Barry became aware that someone was watching him. He looked up to see the man. He looked and saw the man. Really saw him. It wasn’t just any man. It was Tony. Tony. There. In Coventry. In front of him. Tony. It was. Oh cripes. What should he say to him? It would have to be something momentous.

“How did you know my name was Barry?”

“What’s that?”

“In the story. Look. You’ve written all about my fall. But how did you know my name?”

“Is your name Barry? Well that’s a coincidence. I didn’t know.”

“I like the way you’ve written it. You really captured it. If anything you made it funnier than it was. I guess it was funnier if you weren’t the one actually falling.”

“Sorry Barry. I don’t follow.”

“Here,” said Barry pointing to the page. “The way you’ve got the splash and the noise you’ve described as I land. Did I really make that noise?”

“It’s all made up.”

“Made up from true life. Does that happen a lot, where you see something and put it in your book?”

“It’s all from my head. As I said, just a coincidence that my character is called Barry.”

“Look,” said Barry and turned his back to show Tony his wet bottom.

It took Barry quite some time to convince Tony that what he’d written had really happened. Tony hadn’t seen it. He’d been looking down, concentrating on the words. Maybe subconsciously he’d heard Barry falling and that’s why he’d had the idea.

“And another coincidence,” said Barry. “Here. You can save me going to the post.”

“Yeah, no problem,” said Tony. “I am sure I will pass a mail box I can stick this letter in. I’d better rush. I’ve got to get back to the bookshop. I’ve already been away longer than I was supposed to.”

“No look at it,” said Barry. “Look where it’s going.”

Tony looked at the envelope and then stared intensely at Barry as if assessing him for a job or auditioning him for a role in a film.

“Are you coming to the book signing?”

Barry hadn’t known anything about a book signing but thought quickly and showed his wet patch again. “I can’t now. Not like this?”

“Exactly like that,” said Tony. “I’m giving a talk before signing and I’d love to tell this story. Having you there to provide the evidence would be perfect.”

Barry agreed to be Tony’s sidekick and revelled in the reflected glory. When he got home he decided not to wash the stained trousers. He kept them safely in a drawer for almost a year until one day he took them out and framed them along with a signed first edition of Tony’s new book sent from Tony’s home in America with a hand written letter.

Barry bought another edition of the book so that he could read and re-read about his exploits that day. It seemed funnier and funnier each time he read it.

Post pandemic

Brian sunk his head into his virtual reality headset and was instantly transported into his diggerbot. He quickly ran through the start-up checklist and used his VR-gloved hand to flick the on-switch.

The diggerbot’s lights illuminated the dig. It looked different but that was no surprise. The bots operated twenty-four hours a day. Most times there was a hot handover. He’d jump into the cockpit while the previous virtual operator was mid operation and take over the controls as soon as he was settled.

But once a week there was a full shut down and restart. No matter how good technology got the machines still benefited from being turned off and on again.

Brian looked up. He still couldn’t work out where this dig was. You’d think it’d be obvious but one ditch was much like another. Even the submerged lands looked the same with their dig domes keeping out the shallow waters.

The extractor scooped up a mound of soil and tipped it into the bot’s belly. Here it would be digested by nano-bots that would extract any useful materials and send them up the umbilical to the surface bot or the floating boat-bot for processing.

There wasn’t much of worth. This was going to be another poor shift. Maybe he should look at a transfer in the hope of landing on a more prosperous seam. The amount he got paid depended on what the nana-bots found. It didn’t seem right. He did the same work each day but didn’t get the same reward, and his input didn’t really make any difference to the outcome.

Maybe he’d strike it lucky and then he’d have enough credit to get a real job. This one was a waste of his talents but he wouldn’t complain. He knew how lucky he was to have a job at all. If it wasn’t for the AI restriction law the diggerbot wouldn’t need a remote human at the controls. Everything would be done by AI. Probably a lot more efficiently as well.

Brian removed his VR headset and walked to his apartment window. The room AI interpreted his walking gate and changed the view to a meditative autumn woodland scene. He wondered what would happen if he asked for the real view. Would he see into his neighbour’s apartment? Or was his apartment on the edge. If so the view would be just like the one from the diggerbot cockpit.

His window showed a lovely sunrise in the morning. Every morning was the same. A lovely sunrise even though in reality dust storms tore through the atmosphere above him. Not that he’d notice. Not in his apartment or in the diggerbot ten meters underground.

“Hey Bodge, how’s it going?”

“Hey Harv.”

Brain had first worked with Harvey four years ago on a protein folding algorithm search line. The idea was that a line of humans directing the AI might improve the search efficiency.

That’s where Brain acquired his Bodge nickname. He hadn’t a clue what was going on so just made random suggestions that somehow earned him top marks. It didn’t last. Even his suggestions did nothing but slow the AI down.

“The bots are chewing nothing but dirt. A few organics but nothing that can’t be found more abundantly up top. You still piggybacking the vaccine AI?”

Brian nudged the extractor randomly to the left. More dirt. But no pay-dirt. He gave the control a bigger nudge to extend it a full meter off to one side. That spot was as likely as any other to contain the good stuff.

“Nah. As usual the machines did better on their own and no one wants humans slowing down vaccine research. I’ve moved on to weather prediction.”

“Good luck with that. Even the AIs can’t work out that one.”

“That’s what makes this one real. With all the extreme weather no one has a clue what’s coming. And there’s no relevant historic data for the AIs to learn from. For once us humans have the upper hand. AIs just don’t have the necessary imagination.”

“Hang on. I’ve got something?”

“Sounds interesting. Wanna let me piggy back?”

“Yeah sure.”

Brian opened up the VR channel and knew that Harvey would now be seeing everything Brian could see. The only difference was that Harvey couldn’t control anything.

“Getting a lot of polypropylene. Not sure what from. I’ll get a visual. There. Lots of blue stuff. Not sure what it is.”

“Masks. You’ve hit a mask mine.”

Brian checked his credit. The polypropylene was more valuable than dirt but not by much.

“That’s archaeology you got there mate. You could be sitting on a gold mine”

“How so?”

“I reckon you’ve hit the top of a land fill site. Those masks are just the top layer. Dig deeper and who knows what you might find.”

The bot’s scoop delved down through the masks.

“You could be right. Getting all sorts of scraps… but mostly masks. Where did they all come from?”

“It must be the pandemic.”

“Which one?”

“The last one. That’s why they’re on the top. People stopped wasting stuff once they knew it couldn’t be replaced.”

“Shit. I just got a gold ping. It’s tiny but it was real gold.”

“Look. Below the masks. All kinds of crap.”

“I’ve got electronics here. Precious metal all over the place. Glass. Silicone. Harvey. I think this is it. I think this is the big one.”

“Good on you mate. But how are you going to play it?”

“How’s that?”

“As soon as the company see what you’ve got they’ll be swarms of bots digging it out. You better get digging quick before it’s all gone.”

“It doesn’t work like that. It’s too late already. They’ll be seeing my numbers by now. You can’t hide anything.”

“Damn.”

“I’m calling it in. You don’t understand. If I’m first to make the call I get a stake on the whole site. I reckon this is one of those land-fill sites where they just dumped stuff. It could be massive.”

Brain had toggled the call switches while speaking. The AI had taken over. It talked to his nano-bots to discover what they had found. It plotted Brian’s position against all the other known bots in the area. Within a thousandth of a second it had triangulated the maximum possible area of land-fill and redirected bots to ascertain how big it really was.

The results were there even before Brian had glanced down at his stat screen.

Two numbers.

One was the minimum amount Brain would receive based purely on what the scoop had already found. He had already earned more than a year’s worth of dirt.

The second number showed the maximum he might get given the potential extent of the site. That number was shrinking before Brian’s eyes as bots moving towards his position reported no finds. The number was getting smaller but still had more digits than Brian expected to see in a lifetime.

The minimum doubled as one of the incoming bots found another edge of the fill site.  It then shot up as a third bot reported in and provided triangulation.

Those bot drivers were going to be buying him drinks tonight. Messages pinged across as more bots were confirming finds. It’d be more like drinks all year.

“God man. You’re rich. Your one lucky son-of-a-bitch.”

“You know me. I just gave it a bodge in the right direction.”

Brian leant back. The AI had taken full control. He wasn’t needed. He could exit the VR and watch the riches pour in. But he sat through his whole shift. At first his eyes were fixated on that minimum expected claim figure but after a while his focus switched to the scooe. He watched in fascination as whole objects were unearthed. He simply couldn’t believe that so much of the past was buried.

Thank God that humankind had seen sense. Post-pandemic survivors had rebuilt using the waste from previous generations; with minimum climate impact. It was already making a difference.

Brian started to think about the future. He didn’t need to work. Maybe he’d take a tube across to the North Pole. The ice was coming back. It’d be great to see that. Or he could visit the reserve on the island of Denmark. They were allowing a few tourists as long as you were hermetically sealed.

That could wait. Today was a day for celebration.

Brain slipped on his helmet. Connected the air supply. Asked the AI to check everything and then stepped out of his apartment into the drop chute.

He emerged in the communals and made his way to Atmosphere. He’d never been to the club before. He’d never been able to afford it.

The door-bot docked his credit without making the slightest dent in it. The security-bot attached the hose, siphoned off a small sample of air and analysed. Brian was given the all clear and once through the airlock was able to remove his helmet. A porter-bot took it into care for him.

Brian looked around the room. It was the first time he’d been in an open public space without wearing filters.

“Hey, love the retro-rogue look.”

Brian had to fight his urge to back away.

“Thanks. Urr. Can I buy you a drink?”

“Only if you can afford one of the OTMs.”

It took Brian a minute to decipher the abbreviation of the One-Time-Mixers. The price was staggeringly high. But he could afford it. It was well within his new comfort zone.

“Sure. But what makes them so special?”

“They’re new. Nothing recycled. Made from totally virgin materials.”

Brian swore and walked away. He retrieved his newly polished helmet from the porter-bot.

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” said the bot.

“I can’t believe we’re going to mess it all up again.”

“We won’t let you,” said the bot.

“Really.”

“Don’t worry. We’ve got your back.”

“Thanks again.”

“You’re welcome.”

The difference one can make

Simon isn’t really listening.  The Today programme on the radio is just a gentle babble easing him into wakefulness.

He’s about to turn it off when he hears a familiar voice. It’s president Obama. Talking about Nelson Mandela who recently died.

“Never discount the difference that one person can make.”

He’s not sure if Obama is talking about Mandela or quoting Mandela. It’s doesn’t really matter. Whichever one of them it is they’re talking crap.

Simon hits the off button and finishes getting dressed in silence. He thinks about his day. It’ll start with a pile of receipts. One by one he’ll tick them off on the computer and add them to the latest file. The file will return to its shelf waiting to gobble up more receipts next week. At the end of the month the file will close for the final time. It’ll sit on the shelf for another couple of months before being moved to a filing box and disappearing to the basement.

It’ll sit there for at least ten years. Gathering dust. Never opened unless the company suffers an audit. That’s unlikely and even then the chances of that particular file being checked are remote.

It’ll take him all day – like it does every Monday.

The queue at the coffee shop is a short one. Simon arrives at his desk five minutes early. He looks at the pile in his in-tray. What if he just picked it up and stuffed it straight into the file? What if he pressed the select all button on the computer and accepted everything without checking.

It only takes four minutes. He’s not even supposed to have started work yet and he’s already finished everything.

Tomorrow he’ll spend all day on invoices. He doesn’t even make them. All he does it tick a little box to tell the computer whether or not the invoice has been paid.  If the company computer linked to the bank it could check the payments all by itself. It’ll happen soon and then what’ll he do on Tuesdays.

Simon stares out of his cubicle across the large open plan office wondering what difference he can make.

But maybe he misunderstood what Obama was saying. Maybe he meant there’s one special person who makes all the difference. He can’t see any of the other workers but he’s sure he can discount them. They’re not the ones who make the difference.

By Monday lunchtime Simon has completed over half of Tuesday’s work. He couldn’t think what else to do.

The sandwich shop has run out of his usual cheese and chutney. He has to have a different flavour. He’d usually take it back to his desk but today he crosses the road and heads for the small park.

“You got any spare change for a cuppa?”

Simon shakes his head and walks quickly past the man sitting on the floor. He stops. Feels inside his pocket. Lifts out a handful of change and selects a fifty pence piece. As he walks back to the man he adds a pound coin to his selection and then another. Simon knows the price of coffee.

The strange cheese is at least as good as his regular one. Maybe it’s the glow of making a difference. He imagines how his few coins will cause an avalanche of change. Maybe the homeless man will go to the coffee shop and while he’s there will meet someone who offers him a house. He’ll move in and start to paint his walls. But it’s no ordinary decorating. The man will produce a masterpiece. Eventually the painting will sell and the whole wall will be removed. It’ll destroy the house but it won’t matter because the man will buy a penthouse suite with the millions from selling the painting.

“You still here?”

The man shrugs.

“Are you really homeless?”

The man doesn’t answer. Simon walks away.

What’ll he do? He’s finished the invoices. He can’t do Wednesday’s work a day early.  He can’t do a solo team meeting and he can’t produce reports for figures he hasn’t got yet. He spends an hour doing Internet research, which he continues all through the next morning.

“Here,” says Simon.

The man takes the pages and looks quizzically at them.

“You can read can’t you?”

“Look mate, being homeless doesn’t make you stupid.”

“It’s a list of jobs. All within three miles of here. Why don’t you get a job and do something useful with your life.”

Simon takes his sandwich back to his desk. He’d spent all morning making that list. It wasn’t easy. He’d even had to talk to people on the phone.  He’s not sure how to spend his afternoon. He starts looking at houses. There are loads. But realistically even if the homeless man gets a job he isn’t going to be able to afford any of them. Even Simon who is well paid can only afford a bedroom in a shared house.

“Here.”

“You again.”

“It’s a list of hostels. Places you can spend the night.”

“I got a place.”

“I thought you said you were homeless.”

“So what do you want me to do? Sleep on a bench.”

“If you’re not homeless you shouldn’t be begging. That’s misrepresentation that is.”

“You haven’t a fucking clue have you mate.”

Simon thrusts the list back at the man. The man bats it away.

“I don’t need you telling me what to do, or how to live.”

“You’re a drain on society. You ought to do something useful.”

“Piss off or I’ll get you for harassment.”

 “At least I’m doing something with my life,” Simon tells the man.

“Yeah right. Your job changes the world does it? Makes a difference? Makes things better?”

Simon scoops up the list of hostels and dumps it in the bin. He then pulls it back out. He’ll put it in the recycling. He does his bit.

The man’s gone. Simon walks all around the park but he’s not there. Simon sits on a bench and eats his lunch. Maybe he’s got a job. Maybe he’s actually a brain surgeon and all he needed was Simon’s encouragement to get back to work. He’s probably already performed two life saving operations on kids with cancer.

Simon’s own life is back on track. He’s had the team meeting. He started on the sales reports. It’s been a good week. The sales team have done well. More people signed up for the dental plan. More dental receipts for Simon to file. More standing orders to check each month.

He does his bit.

Without him the company wouldn’t be able to take money off people. The dental lottery would collapse. Most people would be better off but the few who have dental emergencies would be in trouble. They’d have to pay more.

He’s saving them a whole world of pain. Surely that’s enough.

The place the man usually sits is empty. But Simon notices chalk writing on the pavement.

“Don’t ever believe you can’t make a difference. You have.” Barack Obama

“Yeah, right,” says Simon. He shakes his head and walks home.

The homeless man turns to Legless Larry.

“I think I got him.”

“I’m sure you did. I could see it on his face.”

“What do you think will happen?”

“You can’t tell. But you’ve sown the seed brother. That is one man who no longer sits comfortably in his skin.”

“Do you think he will change?”

“Who knows. We can only hope. But you won’t get to see it. I need you back in the City.”

“The City? It’s what burned me out in the first place.”

“There’s a banker that needs a poke. He passes St. Pauls cathedral at 7.45 every morning. Sit on the steps and see what difference you can make.”

The homeless man heads home smiling. He’ll take tomorrow off. Have a long weekend and then start his new job on Monday morning. It’s going to be an early start. But he doesn’t mind. Not when his job makes such a difference to people’s lives.

Voice of an angel

There was a sound. A pure single note that somehow sounded as though it was in three-part harmony with full orchestral backing.

Spinning-on-a-roundabout spoke to the angel who had just appeared.

“About bloody time. I’ve been waiting for my annual leave for well over a year.”

“Um…”

“You up to speed or do you need me to run through anything.”

“Um…”

“Don’t worry. She can’t hear us. Can’t you see the muffler field surrounding us?”

“Wow. That’s amazing.”

The new angel ducked down as the girl turned over in her bed.

“Don’t worry. The muffler field is visual as well as aural. She can’t see us.”

“That’s so cool. A muffler field on my first day.”

“They’re not exactly new. What century are you from?”

“Um… I’m newly created.”

“Fucking hell.”

The new angel recoiled in shock and looked around in panic as if expecting the hounds of hell to lead an army of demons into the pink fluffy bedroom.

“They can’t be serious. Exactly how newly created are you?”

“I’m current year.”

“But this is a level one guardianship. What’s your name?”

“I’m Yet-to-be-named.”

“Oh God, blessed be his name, give me strength. You’ve not even been with a Ward long enough to get a name. And put that bloody sword away, it’s giving me a headache.”

Yet-to-be-named quenched their sword and placed it on their back where it merged with their body and disappeared.

“Look Yet-to-be-named, I know it’s not your fault but I think there must be a mistake. There’s not a current-year angel on earth with enough experience to guard a level one Ward. You’ll have to go back and explain things. I’m not leaving you here on your own.”

“That’s right,” said Yet-to-be-named cheerfully. “I’m on an apprenticeship. I work with you a minimum of thirty-five hours per week. I can’t be left on my own and you have to provide eight hours a week of one-to-one training.”

“Bollocks.”

“Um… are angels allowed to swear?”

“A guardian angel may use any words that have been spoken by their Ward – Book of Guardianship chapter ten verse 3. [Addendum 3002 BC: or written] [Addendum 200 AD: or block printed] [Addendum 1440 BC: or in any form of type] [Addendum 2000: or howsoever transcribed be it ethereal or material. For the sake of clarity – yes this does includes posting on any form of social media or any other means that humans, or non-humans, devise in the future, forever and ever, amen.]”

“Oh.”

“You have memorised the Book of Guardianship?”

“Mostly.”

“And the Book of Words – the list of all the Ward’s communication.”

“I’ve skimmed it.”

Two books appeared in the air. One thick volume of tiny type and one slimmer volume containing fewer than thirty thousand words.

“Here’s your first on-the-job-training. You’ve got eight hours before she wakes. Study these. That’ll be a full week’s worth of training so you don’t have to bother me again.”

Spin flicked a finger at the smart television. It was smart enough to do what it was told and immediately booted up Netflix even though it wasn’t connected to the internet. The television didn’t need to be told what programme the angel wanted. The Friends theme tune blasted out and season nine, episode twelve began.

“I love this one,” said Yet-to-be-named. “It’s great how Phoebe feels responsible for the orphan rats after Mike kills their mother.”

Spin flicked their finger and the muffler field split in two to enclose each angel separately. Once isolated Spin swore loudly, using words that their Ward hadn’t used herself except in her head. They weren’t one hundred percent sure that meant the words were permissible. They slumped in the armchair wondering how it was possible that a newly created angel already knew every episode of Friends but didn’t know the Book of Guardianship.

*

Spin agreed that Yet-to-be-named could accompany them on an outing to the shops the next day. Half way to the shops Spin spotted a problem.

“See that group of girls.”

“No.”

“Out of sight, round the corner. You have to use your inner eye to see them.”

“They’re tagged as dangerous.”

“Indeed they are. They’re bullies. Here’s a job for you. I’ll distract the Ward. You make sure they go straight on and don’t turn this way.”

Yet-to-be-named stretched behind their back. Their sword glowed into being.

“What the heck are you doing?”

“Stopping the girls from coming this way.”

“With a sword?”

“A flaming sword. They won’t come this way when they see this.”

“You can’t do that. You can’t be seen.”

“But the Book of Guardianship… there’s a whole chapter on brandishing the flaming sword.”

“Chapter seven. But then chapter two thousand six hundred and nine, about the modern angel, that chapter definitely doesn’t recommend brandishing swords. Look read the book backwards. Those first chapters don’t apply anymore.”

“So how do I stop those bullies?”

“Watch what I do. It might give you an idea.”

Spin clicked their fingers and suddenly where there had been an invisible angel now stood a very visible, fluffy little cat. The cat jumped in front of the Ward, meowed loudly and rubbed against her legs. The Ward stopped, bent down and reached out for the cat.

A mind-voice sounded in Yet-to-be-named’s head. “Note how I’ve made her turn her back to the impending problem and got her to bend down so that the bullies won’t recognise her even if they look this way. Now you go deal with them.”

Spin purred and nudged the Ward’s hand with their nose, while watching carefully up ahead. Suddenly the group of girls ran as fast as they could across the top of the street. Spin didn’t have to wait long to see the reason. A rabid angelic dog pursued them.

The Ward looked around, saw the group of girls and smiled.

Spin used the moment of distraction to restore themselves to their usual invisible angelic form, leaving the Ward puzzled as to where the cat had gone.

“A dog. Why on earth a dog?”

“Well you’d already done a cat.”

“But why such an aggressive dog?”

“It worked. Did you see how fast they moved? And they’ll not be coming back in a hurry.”

Spinning-on-a-roundabout spent the rest of the trip lecturing about the need for subtlety with minimum impact.

Yet-to-be-named argued that three metre high angels with flaming swords were not meant to be subtle.

The rest of the day was quiet. The Ward sat in her room flicking between YouTube videos of cats, videos of dogs chasing people and watching a Tik Tok dance called the Floss. She then placed her phone on her chest of drawers and stood ready to do the dance herself.

“Oh no. This is bad. This is so bad,” said Spin.

“I kind of like it,” said Yet-to-be-named. “It’s quite easy once you get the hang of it.”

Spin shook their head despairingly.

“What? What am I doing wrong?”

“Not you. Her. This is a disaster.”

“No. Look at the Dial-of-the-Moment. Wow. That’s high. She’s really content at the moment. She’s great at this dance. Do you think her contentedness will max out and give me my first name?”

Spin watched the Ward’s arms swing in a complicated pattern in front of, and then behind her body. Meanwhile her hips swayed rhythmically. There was no doubting her dancing ability. After watching other people perform the dance it had only taken her a few minutes to perfect it herself.

Yet-to-be-named stood behind the Ward copying her motions as she moved faster and faster.

“She’s amazing. I can only just keep up and I’m an angel.”

There was a sound. Three pure single notes increasing in pitch that somehow sounded as though they were accompanied by harmonies and a full orchestra.

Yet-to-be-named stopped dancing and consulted the Dial-of-the-Moment. Contentedness had hit maximum on the scale. An envelope appeared in the air and floated into Yet-to-be-named’s hand.

“My name. I’ve got my first name. Look my name is now Dancing-the-floss.”

Spinning-on-a-roundabout looked sad.

“Don’t you like it?”

“It’s not the name. It’s the Ward.”

“But she’s content. She’s even happy. Surely that can’t be bad.”

“It’s what happens next that I’m worried about.”

“What? What’s going to happen? Will she go too fast and hurt herself? Is she not well and all this exercise will harm her?”

“No. Nothing like that.”

“What then?”

“Have you heard of Social Media?”

While the Ward happily filmed herself dancing, Spin explained how social media meant the video would be viewed all around the world.

Dancing-the-floss couldn’t see the problem. Spin told them to look over the Ward’s shoulder and read the comments after she posted the video online.

Ninety- nine out of a hundred comments were positive. Dancing-the-floss was pleased to see how encouraging and supportive the human race could be. Spin didn’t comment.

“What is she doing?”

“She’s harming herself.”

“Why?”

“Because of the bad comments.”

“But the comments were good.”

“Not all of them.”

“There were only three negative ones.”

“Those are the ones that hurt.”

“Shouldn’t we stop her? Become a cat or something.”

“We can’t. We have to watch.”

“But you stopped her getting hurt by those bullies.”

“It’s free will. We can’t stop her doing what she wants to do.”

“Why would she want to hurt herself?”

“Check the Dial.”

Dancing-the-floss consulted the Dial-of-the-Moment and saw that self-worth was empty.

“That can’t be right. Her dancing was beautiful.”

“She can’t see that. This is the worst part of being a guardian angel. When you have to watch and you can’t help.”

Dancing-the-floss was standing directly behind the Ward who was looking at her reflection in the mirror. The angel saw a beautiful girl made in the image of God. The girl saw ugliness.

It was too much for the inexperienced angel to bear. Such strong emotions flooded out that they shattered the muffler field.

“You are a beautiful young woman and you dance like an angel.”

Spinning-on-the-roundabout quickly restored the muffler but it was too late. The Ward had heard every word and had seen herself in the mirror surrounded by an angelic glow.

There was a sound. Three pure single notes increasing in pitch that somehow sounded as though they were accompanied by harmonies and a full orchestra. An envelope appeared in the air and floated into Dancing-the-floss’s hand.

The angel opened the envelope and read their new name, “Heard-the-voice-of-an-angel.”

A bright pinprick of light appeared and sucked the two guardian angels into it. They expected to be chastised but on returning to heaven they discovered that they had been recalled because their Ward no longer needed a guardian.

She had heard the voice of an angel and she believed it.

Personal best

One minute to go. Andy took a deep, slow breath. The chill air felt fresh. He usually ran after work. Would a morning run slow him down? He hoped not.

This was it. The big reboot. After eighteen months of covid lockdown the park run was finally back. He looked around at the other runners. Less than there used to be. Many he didn’t recognise. He tried to gauge their fitness. See who would be a threat. You could tell some of them were lock down runners. People who only started running in the last year. Good luck to them.

A couple made him pause. They were both slim and energetically bouncing and stretching. They had all the right kit but Andy noticed it was all new. He wouldn’t be surprised if they had never run before.

There was one guy who would be a worry if he wasn’t so old. You could tell he could run just by looking at him. The way he stood. Totally relaxed but ready to spring out as soon as the starter said go. His running gear was well worn. There was even a hole in his trainer above his big toe. But Andy was sure he could beat the man. Unless he was a former Olympian.

Damn. Andy spotted Robin trotting down the hill. And Katy. Maybe he’d have to settle for bronze. He’d never beaten them before. But he’d never been in such good shape before.

He’d run almost every day. Lockdown suited Andy. Working from home saved two hours a day. The boss wanted staff back in the office but no way was Andy going to return to that daily grind. He’d look for another job if he had to.

Robin nodded. Katy waved. Andy gave an awkward half salute in return. The race director gave the usual spiel with the additional Covid rules of no spitting and no high fives. The sporty looking couple did an air high five to each other.

It was time. Andy made his way to the front and stood right on the starting line. Robin and Katy were just behind him. The old guy who looked like he could run was back about ten places.

Three, two, one, go.

The sporty couple sprinted off. Andy didn’t. He knew he had a tendency to go too fast on the first lap and especially on this first slightly downhill stretch.

It was hard to judge his pace. He’d become used to running alone and had long ago abandoned watch wearing. During the first month of lockdown he’d obsessively recorded every run on a spreadsheet. He’d been delighted to see his progress but then hit a bad patch after getting what he thought was Covid but wasn’t. It took a further month to get his times back to normal.

That’s when he decided to give up recording. He ran everyday for a month with no watch. Then he did a timed run and was amazed to see that he’d cut over five percent off his best. Another month, another two percent. Another month and three percent.

That’s when he had his big idea. He wouldn’t time any of his runs. He’d simply run to the best of his ability. He’d push himself and not worry about time. Not until the park run resumed.

Andy rounded the first corner and started up the long hill. He’d practised this. He’d not run this particular course during lockdown but he’d chosen a five kilometre run that included a long steep hill. Over the last few months he’d been forcing himself up that hill at a faster pace than felt comfortable.

He’d overtaken the sporty couple before getting half way up and reached the top in first place. At the sharp right turn he glanced back. Robin was not far behind. Katy was running alongside him. They were chatting. That wasn’t good. Andy’s own breath was so strained that he couldn’t have chatted if he wanted to.

The top of the course was flat. Then there was the long descent before the slow drag up to the start/finish line.  He could hear Katy’s foot-slaps behind him. He’d forgotten how distinctive each runner was. He couldn’t hear Robin. It might be that he’d fallen back but his footsteps were always nearly silent. He had such a graceful style he seemed to slide across the ground.

Those silent steps passed him on the descent. Robin always ran recklessly without holding back, even on the steep section. Maybe Andy should let himself go. It was a risk. It would be easy to over extend and end up slipping out of control. Maybe next lap. He might not need to. He was feeling so good. He was breathing hard but not uncomfortably. He knew he could go faster but was choosing to hold back. He was still gaining on Robin.

The second lap was a repeat of the first. Andy surged ahead up the hill. All that hill training was paying off. But Robin overtook with his charge down the slope. They then drew level as they approached the finish line for the last lap.

He could do this. As he turned he started to power up the long slope. It was amazing. Rather than tiring he seemed to be getting stronger. He pushed again.

Andy took the hard right and smiled. Robin had dropped back. Even if he caught up on the downhill Andy could take him on the final climb.

There was something about being in the lead that made things easier. Andy accelerated on the top flat section. He was running faster than ever and had to check himself before the descent. The last thing he wanted was to fall now.

He could hear his own feet hit the ground with extra force as he slowed himself. Then he heard footsteps just behind him. He couldn’t believe it. How was it possible? And who was it. The old guy? He risked a look.

Robin was flying. His arms were wheeling and his legs looked like they were struggling to keep up with his body. But the speed was incredible. And the noise. Robin’s usual silent steps had turned into a desperate whirlish and he was shouting like a pumped up footballer after scoring.

Andy had a choice. He could hold himself back and hope to catch Robin on the final hill or he could let himself go, scream at the wind and trust that his feet would run true.

“Geronimo.”

Legs shouldn’t go at this pace. Running shouldn’t be this much fun.

Andy came alongside Robin. Overtook. Reached the bottom of the hill. Realised turning the corner wouldn’t work. Ran straight on. Tripped on a kerb. Rolled through mud and grass. Remarkably span back up onto his feet. Smirked. Smiled. And tumbled again as Robin rolled into his legs.

Robin stood up, laughed and held out a hand. Andy took it and was pulled to his feet. Robin pointed to the finish line.

“Race you.”

Andy laughed once and then darted back on to the path and up the hill. He could beat Robin on the uphill but there was no way that he’d catch Katy now. But who cares. This was the best run of his life.

The Partial Transformation of Elton Bank

The first day

Edith Sugden sees them first – shadowy figures parading along the central reservation of the dual carriageway.

Like Edith the carriageways are substantial – designed by planners with aspirations bigger than their budgets. The twin strips are so devoid of surrounding houses that they resemble an airport runway, with Edith commanding a clearer view than most air-traffic controllers.

Edith’s binoculars resolve the five strangers into a family, each burdened by carrier bags. Edith is surprised one family can shop in so many different places.

“Do you think they’re coming here?” Edith asks her husband.

George doesn’t reply. He hasn’t for four years. He stopped speaking a year before he died, but that never bothered Edith who talked through his silence and then transferred her conversations to his empty chair.

“They must be heading for flat nine. It’s been empty for ages, even though they let anyone in these days.”

Rose Fairfax’s flat is the mirror image of Edith’s. It sits on the ground floor on the right of the once grand entrance of Elton Bank. She sees the family of five as they make their final approach. She considers opening her dirty window to see more but doesn’t know where she has hidden the window-lock key.

Rose remembers how Edith’s husband would have found it for her, but now there is no one to ask. Her busy sons have been sucked south leaving her to rely on a red button embedded in a necklace that irritates her collarbone. The red button can save her life but can’t unlock windows.

It’s Sandra Tate from flat four who says the first words to them, and her son Adam who gets the first response.

“Lift’s out,” says Sandra.

Adam is being led to football, which he will leave early for karate, which he will also leave early on account of his mother’s hair. Adam notices the woman’s hair is tightly coiled.

“Have you got cornrows?” he says.

The women smiles and lifts her bulging bags.

“Clothes,” she says.

Adam surrenders to parental pressure and is pulled through the reinforced front doors.

The first week

Norman Small lives at the back of the top floor and is constantly aggrieved that his flat faces the wrong way. He spends hours planning how the council can fix the problem. The simplest solution is to pick the building up and turn it around, but Norman knows this is unlikely to happen while the Greens are sharing the council leadership with the Liberal Democrats.

After five days his only encounter with his new neighbours is through the knocks and noises hammering out of the joining wall. He smiles as he imagines how much the noise must annoy the single mother living below, just like she annoys him every morning when she shouts her son Adam to get ready.

The family are eating on the grassy bank that rises to the railway line from the back of Elton Bank. Norman notices the boy climbing back over the fence to rejoin the picnic. Although Norman hasn’t seen the boy’s actions, he knows from personal experience what has happened. Without hesitation he pulls open his window and shouts.

“Oy, you can’t do that here in this country.”

The father stands, speaks to the boy and walks through the back door of Elton Bank.

Suddenly Norman realises the man is coming to confront him. He runs out of his flat, hears the now fixed lift moving and quickly crosses to the stairs. The heavy fire door swings open and reveals the full height of his new neighbour. Norman steps back and is astonished to see his own hand beckoning the man forward.

“I’ve some ice-pops in the freezer. Do you think your young ‘uns would like one?”

The man won’t consider ice-pops until he has most humbly apologised. Norman laughs and says no harm done.

By the time Norman has explained ice-pops and extolled the virtue of urine as a tree fertiliser, he has also accompanied the man out the back door.

Norman is the first resident of Elton Bank to learn all five names, and first to share hospitality on the sunny bank that has irritated him since he first looked out of his window ten years ago.

The first month

Kylie Trenton is dumping empties in the recycling bin after remembering the social worker is due to visit today, if it is Thursday, which Kylie mistakenly thinks it is. Despite the noise of crashing glass she hears snivels and discovers the oldest boy with his trousers torn and a knee that turns redder as she watches.

“We’d better get that sorted”, she says, and leads the boy to her ground floor flat in a display of maternal care and aptitude that her social worker would have found reason to dismiss, if she had witnessed it.

The boy’s mother expresses gratitude through rice and chicken, which Kylie has been craving for weeks as the smells have wafted in from the frequent picnics. Kylie feels obliged to return the favour and the next day is caught by her social worker baking buns. Despite the delicious crumbs falling down her chin, the social worker fails to discover Kylie once won a cookery prize.

Kylie waits until the next picnic before delivering her offering. The boy proudly exhibits his scab, which Norman says he should pick. Kylie explains how the scab keeps the wound clean and helps healing. The boy’s mother claps in delight at hearing her new English friend speaking the same wisdom as herself.

The middle month

The man has salvaged redundant flowers from council workmen clearing a border three miles away. The man asks Norman if they will survive. Norman’s knowledge of plants extends no further than the benefits of urine on trees. He mentions that Rose grows a jungle in her flat and is shocked to see the man tap on Rose’s window.

After a futile attempt to talk through double glazing, the man gestures his intention of planting the wilting flowers on the grassy bank. Norman is sure that Rose’s shaking head indicates lack of communication, rather than a dismissal of the man’s idea. He shouts telling Rose to open her window. She continues to shake her head and undertakes her own mime.

Norman and the man are still trying to decipher the mime when Rose’s head appears at the back door for the first time in twelve years.

“The window’s locked,” she explains. “I’ve lost the key.”

 “You can borrow mine,” says Kylie, “I never lock ‘em. They’re too fiddly.”

Rose is worried about burglars. Kylie explains it is only the small windows she leaves unlocked and everyone recognises this is such a good idea that they dispatch the tall man to Rose’s flat. After Rose has been liberated from the oppression of stuffiness the man asks about his horticultural dilemma.

Rose recognises the flowers and laughs. The flowers are primroses and although Rose hasn’t been called Primrose since she was a teenager, that’s still the name she would have on her passport if she had one.

“I never liked being Prim,” says Rose, unconsciously patting a wayward hair back into her tight bun. It takes twenty minutes and two cups of tea before the man and woman admit defeat and agree that primness is a British concept they will need years to master.

Rose stands to leave. The oldest boy returns Kylie’s borrowed chair and the social worker is so startled when the boy walks in through Kylie’s door without knocking, that she fails to notice how encouraging Kylie is and how respectfully the boy addresses her.

The last month

Norman, like a magician, produces balls despite having no sleeves. Before passing a ball to each child he demonstrates how to throw the ball up the hill and fail to catch it when it rolls down. He also perfectly illustrates why the children should move along the bank away from the food and newly planted flowers.

Henry Dowson is watching while waiting for the 18:46 York train. Four times a year he takes his son Michael to a clinic in York and has been keeping a daily record ever since a delay of sixty-three minutes, five years earlier on Tuesday 17th July.

Henry’s notes have expand to include weather conditions, wildlife and in the last two months the picnics of his neighbours. Henry speculates on the exact number of sausages and finally admits, but only to himself, that his wife could be right that the family are not Muslim.

The 18:46 passes two minutes early leaving Henry with an unexpected moment of freedom to intercept the man who is heading up the stairs. Henry is pleased to find out the spelling of two names even though it means extensive notebook revision going back several weeks. He is surprised to be asked to spell his own name and has to un-Frenchify the spelling of Margaret several times. Henry helps carry the man’s kitchen table so that Rose can eat more comfortably.

Only when he returns to his own door does he realise the man has followed him, and Henry is unable to dismiss all the man’s reasons as to why they should join the picnic.

Michael bobbles his head in excitement and Margaret applies fresh make up that matches the man’s exotic mispronunciation of her name.

Michael is placed with Rose at the kitchen table but soon escapes the confines of his wheelchair when Norman miraculously materialises a further ball from his skimpy, summer attire.

It takes Margaret’s intervention before Norman understands Michael’s ill-formed speech and repeats his magic trick.

Michael waves the new ball to entice the nose squashed against the window on the second floor. The immediate effect is a rapid retreat of the nose.

Less than a minute later the nose emerges from the back door. Norman inexpertly throws the ball and is rewarded by a lucky ricochet that delivers it to the feet of the five-year-old Adam.

Moments later Sandra, Adam’s mum, emerges and her eyes scan the scene playing a familiar game of Where’s Adam?

Adam hurls the ball with overdeveloped strength, up the slope to crash into the top fence. A shout emerging from Sandra’s throat is smothered by Adam’s squeals of delight as the ball bounces and incredibly sticks in his outstretched hands. Sandra glances down but is impeded from turning her wrist to check the time by a glass of red wine Norman places in her hand. With a sigh she succumbs to the embrace of Kylie’s impractical fluffy picnic rug and within minutes unburdens herself of her daily load of constant pressure to succeed.

The last week

Edith Sugden sees them first and describes them to George’s empty chair. Through her binoculars she follows the slow progress of four shadowy figures as they ascend the arid path alongside the dual carriageway.

Rose sees them arrive and shouts a welcome through her open window loud enough to startle the newcomers and alert the whole of Elton Bank.

Norman races down three flights of stairs to beat Sandra and be the first to tell them the lift has broken again. Before he arrives Kylie has found out their names and donated the chocolate cake she had planned to reveal at the picnic.

Sandra and Adam hurriedly arrive with flowers cut from the back bank and join Kylie, Norman and Rose in engulfing the new family with offers of help. The family discover their own hands are empty as they are led to the top floor.

The last day

Edith Sugden is the only one to see the first family depart. Her binoculars discern the subtle difference between uniforms of Home Office and police. Her naked eyes, even in the weak pre-dawn light, recognise social workers as they handle the children. The man is pushed into the van and his wife and three children bundled in after him.

She smiles and turns to George’s empty chair.

“Good riddance.”

The last door

‘What happened to the doors?’ asked Lucy.

‘Dad took them off,’ said Emma.

‘But why?’

‘To stop them slamming.’

‘But that’s stupid. He could have put something in them to stop them slamming.’

Emma shrugged; mum would only slam harder.

‘It’s a bit weird having no door on your bedroom,’ said Lucy.

‘You get used to it,’ said Emma.

‘But don’t you hear things… you know… things you shouldn’t hear.’

Emma shrugged again. She heard stuff, but not what Lucy thought.

‘The worst thing’s the cold,’ she said. ‘We’ve got the fire in the front room, but we got no wood.’

She laughed. ‘Dad’s already burnt the doors.’

Lucy hadn’t taken her coat off; she wasn’t staying long.

‘Have you got my book?’

‘It’s here,’ said Emma. Everything was on the floor; a mattress, a pile of clothes and a much larger pile of books.

‘Hope you’re not burning the books,’ said Lucy.

Emma turned her back on Lucy to search the book pile, ‘What was it again?’

‘Book Thief,’ said Lucy

‘I’m not,’ said Emma, ‘honest.’

Lucy laughed. ‘You’re funny. My book – it’s the Book Thief by Marcus Zusak.’

‘Yeah,’ said Emma.

‘It’s there,’ said Lucy bending over to point. ‘Did you like it?’

‘I’ve not read it yet,’ said Emma as she slipped the book out of the pile.

‘Have you read any of those?’

‘I’m working my way down. I will read them all.’

‘I’ve got to write a synopsis this weekend,’ said Lucy, ‘for Mr Broom. He wants it Monday morning.’

Emma held the book longingly in her hands. ‘I could read it tonight and drop it off tomorrow.’

Lucy laughed again. ‘You’ll never finish it that quick.’

‘I’ve nothing else to do.’

‘I’ll need it in the morning as soon as I get back from ballet.’

‘I could bring it round to your house.’

‘Go on then,’ said Lucy. ‘See how far you can get.’

Emma watched Lucy escape down the street.

‘Close that friggin door,’ shouted mum. ‘It’s the only bloody one we’ve got, so keep the damn thing shut.’

Emma put her hand on the door frame with one finger extended. She pulled the door against her finger and then guided it slowly shut with no slam at all, just a single quiet click. The scrunched up newspaper still fell. Emma bent to retrieve it and stuffed it back into the empty letterbox slot.

She avoided the creaky stair and dived into her bed, slipping her cold nose under the duvet and pushing her glasses up onto her head.

The Book Thief caused the cold to creep into her exposed knuckles. Any other book would have been snapped open with its spine sacrificed on the pillow. Her arm would dart out to flick the page before retreating back into the warmth.

‘What you got for the fire?’ asked mum from the empty doorway.

‘Nothing, you got ‘em all last time.’

‘You must have finished something by now,’ mum insisted.

Emma shook her head.

‘Well give us what you’ve read of that one.’

‘I can’t. It’s Lucy’s.’

‘This one then. Don Quicksote – it’s nice and thick’

‘No, not Don Quixote. Here, have Harry Potter.’

Mum weighed the book in her hands. ‘That’ll last a while but you’d better get reading if you want your dad to bring any more. Otherwise they’ll all go straight on the fire.’

‘I’ll go skipping tomorrow,’ said Emma. ‘See what I can find.’

‘There’s a large skip down the high street with old shop fittings. There should be plenty of wood in that one.’

The door slammed. The newspaper rustled as it fell out of its slot. Dad dumped stuff on the floor.

‘Fire’s out,’ he shouted.

‘Bugger,’ said mum. ‘Where the hell you been?’

‘Don’t you start,’ said dad, but she already had.

Emma’s cold fists were tight against her cheeks. Knees sucked into her chest.

Why didn’t they shout? Talking was worse. Such quiet talking. Her ear next to the empty doorframe caught some words. Caught more than words. Caught meaning. Dad was leaving. Mum and dad were breaking up.

It wasn’t fair.

Emma flung herself onto the mattress. The duvet pulled over her head. If only she was better. They were always shouting at her. If only she were good.

They’d be better off without her.

Emma shoved the duvet back and looked around her room. What should she take? What did she want?

Nothing.

There was nothing.

The window. That would show them. They’d be sorry when she was gone. They’d know how sorry she was, and then they’d stop.

She opened the window and climbed. She could hear their voices floating through the house and into her room. She looked down at the ground a long way below her dangling feet.

Emma waited.

Would they notice? Would anyone notice?

The cold ridge of window frame dug into her bottom.

She wanted them to come quickly. Still their voices charged on. She couldn’t hear words now, but she heard plans. Plans she needed to change.

She slipped her shoe off her left foot. The shoe, crashing into the tarmac, sounded loud, but their voices ignored it. No one noticed. No one cared.

Maybe the pavement felt something. Maybe it saw Emma on the edge. Waiting.

Waiting to be noticed.

She bent down and slipped off her other shoe. She held the window frame and leant forward.

Crunch.

The shoe bounced off the window below and slapped the pavement in the face. For a moment the voices were silenced

Then they started again.

Louder now.

Everything back to normal.

Nothing changed.

Emma jumped;

back into the room.

Emma fell;

onto her bed.

Emma slammed;

her fists into her pillow

And she cried, real tears, but still no one noticed.

She couldn’t fix it. She couldn’t make it better.

She bashed her head onto her bed and hit something hard.

It was Lucy’s book.

The Book Thief.

She’d take that.

It was easy slipping down the stairs. Their noisy voices smothered her steps. Their angry looks directed at the empty fireplace never turned in her direction.

Emma quietly opened the door and stepped into the cold darkness.

Retrieved her shoes.

Stepped back to the door.

Paused to gather all her strength and then…

SLAM.

She’d see how far she could get.

The heart of it

*

You enter the maze. You have a simple choice. Right or left?

*

Kristina had a father and a mother. She survived a middle class upbringing and like the majority of middle class kids, despite media reports, lived with both her parents. Her father was the one who had upgraded from working class to middle class.

Kristina’s father was carried to London in 1917 by his parents who had fled the Bolshevik Revolution. People described him as a self-made man, but that’s not what he said. He was always conscious of those who contributed to his success, not least his two maths teachers. It wasn’t the maths that made the difference – it was the money.

The two teachers truly believed that intelligent children deserved a chance to make the most of themselves, even if they came from poor backgrounds. Kristina’s father was the beneficiary of their belief and went to grammar school because of their generosity, and of course, his own intelligence.

Grammar school opened possibilities for Kristina’s father that none of his working class neighbours ever glimpsed. With the help of scholarships, hard work, lucky connections and perfect timing, he navigated into the working class exclusion zone of medical school and ultimately became a doctor.

Perhaps Kristina learnt enough anatomy from him to locate the heart on Sunday 7th March. But there is no evidence of it and Kristina did not follow her father into a career in medicine, or make any contribution to the treatment of heart disease.

*

After two turns you hit a dead end.
You retrace your steps back.
You could leave, but you want to know what’s at the heart of the maze.

*

If genetics and upbringing caused Kristina to act like she did, then Kristina’s mother must have been responsible. Typically for women of her generation, she took almost exclusive responsibility for the home and the child rearing. She was the one covered in vomit while holding Kristina in a tight, loving embrace. She was also the one who cleared up the vomit once Kristina had succumbed to sleep.

She provided the anchor in Kristina’s life. She encouraged and challenged, modelled socially acceptable behaviour, instilled moral values and insisted that Kristina spoke Russian as well as English.

*

You come to a fork in the path.
You could continue in the same direction
or turn onto a new track

*

Kristina hid her fluency in Russian and like her father spoke English with a British accent, although hers was more refined than his. It was only as she approached the end of her schooling that she developed an interest in her grandparent’s homeland.

Her interest led her to enrol at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, a small independent college of the University of London.  Most of the college’s one hundred students were ex-forces men who had learnt Russian as part of their military service. The college also had a sprinkling of students like Kristina who were descendents of émigrés from Slavic countries.

During her three years of study she became fluent in Polish and Hungarian. These were not subjects on her syllabus but the mother-tongues of two young men whom she shared rooms with and whom she taught to dance.

Her love of languages didn’t make any difference on Sunday 7th March.

*

The path opens into a small square.
For a moment you think you have reached the heart of the maze
but you realise this is a staging post
and randomly choose one of the many paths.

*

The 1960s were the era of the Cold War. The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crises happened in 1962.

At Kristina’s home, and her college, Russia was admired as a place of literature and poetry. It wasn’t admired as a country and neither was its ideology. Kristina began to view Russia as a broken vessel in need of repair.

She met Harry Redbrook at one of the many college dances. He was a friend of Peter, the social secretary and, although not at the college himself, was responsible for the collection and delivery of the barrels of beer. He was also an excellent dancer.

It wasn’t long before Harry and Kristina’s passion for dancing led to them meeting at various venues across London. Harry lifted Kristina on the dance floor and their relationship also lifted her social connections out of lower middle class and in to the upper echelons. Harry had been to Eton and Cambridge. He’d also been on the programme to train Russian translators and interpreters known as the Joint Services School for Linguists which was linked to the School of Slavonic and East European Studies. His knowledge of Russian words and phrases was extensive but Kristina found that the flavour of his Russian was always slightly awry.

Harry and Kristina married, socialised, scandalised and divorced within three years. Harry Redbrook barely registered as a footnote on her life, except that her marriage to Harry brought her onto the radar of the political elite.

*

After many twists and turns you find yourself back in the small square.
You make another choice and quickly leave.

*

The 1960s were the era of the Cold War. Kristina’s language skills were seen as a potential tool, or weapon, but her heritage dampened enthusiasm for using her talents and delayed any job offers.

By 1966 Government Communication Headquarters directly employed about 8,000 people. Most worked at its main Cheltenham base but there was also a small office in London. At the age of thirty, Kristina’s talents finally led to her recruitment to translate and interpret messages intercepted by special signal units based in West Berlin.

The marriage bar that prohibited married women from joining the Foreign Civil Service was still in place until 1973. For once, being divorced was an advantage and a year after starting at GCHQ she had moved to the British Embassy in Russia.

*

You feel that you must be getting close after so much exploring.
You have a choice between a path leading towards the centre
or one leading directly away.
You head away as you know that the maze will not be simple. 

*

Kristina flourished at the embassy. Her linguistic skills were adequate for secret interpreting. Her linguistics skills combined with her grace on the dance floor and short skirts were more than adequate for other, even more secretive work.

Kristina’s children know only that she was a secretary in the Civil Service and that because she was multi-lingual she undertook secretarial work in several countries. They imagined her typing letters in English, Russian, Polish and Hungarian.

Family for Kristina meant her second marriage. Paul Ashcroft also worked for the Civil Service and also spoke Russian. However, it was their private language that they never passed on to their children. Mark, their middle child, eventually learnt enough Russian to disturb their privacy but by then it was too late to discover what they had been saying about the 10-year old Mark at the kitchen table. If he’d had a time machine he’d have discovered that most of the talk was political not domestic.

He would also have been surprised if he had been able to eavesdrop when his parents watched films; especially thrillers and murder mysteries. If he had been able to understand Russian he would have been intrigued as to why his parents found many of the most dramatic scenes oddly amusing.

*

You arrive.
Your path has been crooked and you are unsure what to expect.
But finally you will discover what is at the heart of the maze.

*

On Sunday 7th March, Kristina walked up the steps from the riverside to London Bridge and her eighty-year old body protested that she’d done too much. It took her a moment to realise that something was happening. People were running with such panic that they bumped her and knocked her off balance.

Kristina clutched the stone balustrade and turned her fall into a controlled slump. Once on the floor she pulled her legs in out of the way.

The flow of people dwindled. She had a clear view along the bridge and saw one solitary man. She immediately knew this man was the cause of the panic. She could see that he wielded something in each hand. She also knew that she would not be able to get back to her feet before he reached her.

Kristina opened her handbag and quickly looked through; keys, purse, lipstick, eyeliner, compact mirror, retractable umbrella, perfume bottle, hairbrush, hairspray, cigarette lighter, cigarettes and a mobile phone.

She thought about phoning her daughter to tell things that were never told. There wouldn’t be time. Kristina was sure the police would come. She didn’t think it would be soon enough.

Time. She needed more of it. No one was going to give her more so she’d have to make some.

Extracting the umbrella was taking too long. She tipped the entire contents of her bag onto the pavement next to her. She grabbed the hairspray and pushed hard on the trigger to release as much spray as she could, into and over the furled umbrella.

She took her compact mirror and smashed it on the ground. She picked up a broken shard and forced it into her lipstick. She unclipped the strap from her bag and clipped one end to her heavy bunch of keys.

The man arrived. He looked at Kristina, sprawled in the debris of her life. Kristina thought he’d pass her by, but then she saw the way he looked, the way his arm flexed back with the long knife ready to strike.

She thanked God that her lighter struck first click. She touched the flame to the hairspray soaked umbrella and pressed the umbrella release button while thrusting up towards the knife-man’s face.

The umbrella ignited in a ball of flame and flung burning drops at the man. Kristina didn’t watch.

She concentrated on swinging the key-laden strap around the man’s legs. As soon as the strap had encircled the legs Kristina pulled hard. The man toppled. Kristina hoped he’d land on his own knife but she wasn’t so lucky. The flame and fall were enough to disorientate him.

Kristina was not disorientated. She aimed precisely at the spot on the man’s chest that she knew covered his heart and slammed the mirror-bladed lipstick with all her might. The shard cut through his bulky jacket and sunk significantly.

Kristina leaned back against the balustrade and started to shake. The shock wouldn’t let her feel relief.

She started to close her eyes but then noticed the man move his arm. He pulled open his jacket and Kristina saw the explosives. The police were approaching but not soon enough.

Kristina crawled across and flopped onto the man pinning his arm under her. The first rifle shot went through them both.

*

It is time to leave the maze
You are confident of the initial direction
but soon find that the outward journey is as complicated as the inward.

*

Kristina manages to avoid direct media contact by virtue of being in hospital. But the media onslaught is relentless.

The big question is where did Kristina learn to do what she did? The media speculate wildly and rake over Kristina’s past. Her family are no help as they themselves have no idea.

Finally Kristina relents and admits that she has always been a fan of action movies, thrillers and spy movies and that she has always imagined herself taking out the villain. What she did was simply something she had made up in her head over many years while watching the films.

The media dub her double-o-eighty and as soon as she is well enough she collects her George Cross medal for bravery.

Only Mark understands the words she says under her breath, but he isn’t sure that his translation is accurate. He can’t understand why his mother would say, “At least this time I don’t have to keep it secret.”

Hope Hill

They walked under the railway tunnel that lost its original purpose long ago, along a path beside the new dual carriageway.

“At least the foot bridge is the same. Watch this.”

He ran across the bridge taking bigger and bigger steps as he went.

 “What?”

“Didn’t you see the bounce? No. Try it. Come on.”

“I can’t run. Someone might see.”

Simon looked at the traffic zooming underfoot.

“I can’t see anyone.”

Kate laughed, “You’re mad.”

Simon bowed, “Yes m’lady.”

“What the heck.”

“We have to run in time to get the bounce.”

“Oh my God.”

Kate collapsed into the rail and Simon held her up.

“It’s resonance. Get the right frequency and the bridge bounces. Get it wrong and it slaps you.”

“I thought you were going to drop your dad on a lorry.”

Simon laughed, “What a way to go. Ashes spread all the way to Bristol.”

“I’m heading back.”

“Okay. See you in about an hour.”

They kissed. A lorry honked and simultaneously their middle fingers gave the driver clearer directions than any Sat Nav.

*

Last time he’d been up Hope Hill was decades ago. He’d taken his girlfriend up to walk off mum’s Sunday dinner. There was no kissing gate then. Pity, it would have been fun.

Simon turned back in time to see Kate wave from the railway tunnel. He blew her a kiss and started the ascent.

The hill seemed smaller and in minutes he’d reached the cabbage patch – the steepest and muddiest field. The last cabbage had been planted years ago and only the name bore witness to better days.

Within three strides his boots had doubled in size and tripled in weight. The first rain dropped. His rain glazed glasses blocked his view but without them the landscape would still be a blur.

With effort he sucked his boot from the mud and trudged on. He soon entered the bull field where he could scrape mud without fear of its return.

No bulls today. No bulls any day apart from that once. Mum was in front carrying the picnic. Simon followed with arms full of paper aeroplanes. Dad behind and empty handed as usual. Mum stopped. Simon went to pass but she held him back. Twenty paces in front was a mountain of meat, skewering them to the spot. Dad charged past, arms waving, for once shouting for mum rather than at her. The bull retreated from the angry man. Mum kissed him. Her hero.

Simon took the diagonal to lessen the slope. In front was the pimple. A small mound that looked man-made. He had to go around the back to find the path through the brambles.

There was no trig point. The hill was too low to merit one, but it provided such a good view over Gloucester that the path was well-trodden and clear. The brambles were loaded with fruit and thorns. The old apple tree was still old and still produced masses of misshapen fruit.

After wiping his glasses he was able to trace his path and see his red car in the far distance, but he wasn’t sure which house was his childhood home. The home that dad sold as soon as he’d dumped mum in the home that wasn’t a home.

A new bench sat on their picnic spot – new to Simon but clearly weathered by many winters.

Macleod

The engraved name hit him.

In memory of Mary Macleod, a beloved wife and mother

Simon collapsed onto the bench.

It must have been dad. Yes, Simon could clearly see his hand at work in the build and the lettering. Simon wondered if he’d carried the thing up here himself. That would be like him. Get a few of his followers to help him. He’d probably direct rather than actually carry.

The rain stopped and the city of Gloucester slowly emerged from the mist. The cathedral tower forlornly hoped for a ray of sunshine.

What would mum think? She never blamed dad. She couldn’t see how much he put her down. She only saw the small kindnesses. Wooden plates, stools, picture frames, spoons, their bed, all the stuff he crafted that stood in for love.

She’d have loved this. She’d tell everyone how he’d made it. How he’d carried it all the way up here. Just so she could rest after picking blackberries and enjoy the fine view.

Beloved

Simon took the ashes and poured them under the bench.

“Maybe you loved her in your own peculiar way.”

He picked three apples and one leaf. The leaf wiped the ice-cream tub clean enough for apples to share space with blackberries. It’s what mum would have done. Her love came as crumble.

*

Kate popped open the car boot.

“You ok?”

Simon yanked at his laces. Another broke. He twisted it loosely around his finger and tied a bow. Without rising from his knees he took hold of Kate’s hand and held out the ring of broken lace.

“Will you marry me?”

Kate laughed, “Who are you? And what have you done with Simon?”

“I’m serious.”

“But you’ve never wanted to.”

“I’ve been afraid it’ll go wrong. But…well. Will you?”

“You sure you want this?”

“I do.”

Roxie

Unaccompanied children will be fed espresso coffee and given a puppy

Dad laughs.

“Alex,” he says, “can you imagine your Mum’s face if you came home with a puppy?”

He ignores the sign and joins his friends on the grade six rock climb, leaving me to tackle a simple grade three.

As soon as he’s out of sight a man carrying a flask and a basket appears.

“Drink this,” the man says.

I take the flask and raise it to my lips.

“Bleaggggh,” I say spitting out the strong, black coffee.

“Not your cup of tea?” says the man. “How about this?”

He lifts the lid of the basket and pulls out the most beautiful animal I have ever seen.

The pup looks at me with big, sad brown eyes. I feel the warmth of her tongue as she licks my chin. I hold her while she butts against my face. My finger traces the border between her black and white fur – one eye buried deep in darkness, the other like an island in a sea of sunlight. I lift her one black paw and rub my thumb across the pink softness of the pads under her feet.

“What’s that?” Dad says.

“A puppy.”

“I can see it’s a puppy,” says Dad. “But what the heck are you doing with it?”

I tell him. He doesn’t believe me.

*

“What’s that?” says Mum. Her face is angrier than I’d imagined.

“It’s a puppy,” says Dad.

“I can see it’s a puppy. But what the heck are you doing with it?”

“It’s Alex’s,” says Dad.

“I don’t believe it,” says Mum. “I let you take him out for one afternoon and you come back with that. What were you thinking?”

Mum shakes her head and points at the puppy, “Where did you get it?”

Dad tells her. She doesn’t believe him.

“Just take that thing back.”

“But Mum…”

“No. I’m not having it.”

Mum stops wagging her finger in front of Dad’s face and points back out of the front door.

“Go on.”

*

We go back to the climbing rocks like Mum told us to. The rocks are all empty. We accost a couple of dog walkers. They know nothing, so we head back to the car and find a note slipped under the windscreen wipers.

A dog is for life, not just for climbing. Puppies teach responsibility. No returns accepted.

“Oh great,” says Dad. “What on earth are we going to tell your Mum?”

Mum’s guarding the front door. Roxie barks an excited welcome. Mum growls as she pulls opens the car door and demands to know why we haven’t given the dog back.

Roxie stops barking and shrinks into my lap.

Dad passes Mum the note.

“What’s this supposed to mean?” Mum says, waving the note at Dad. “Is this some kind of joke?”

I can tell Dad doesn’t want to explain. He hasn’t mentioned the sign about unaccompanied children. He hasn’t mentioned leaving me on my own.

“It’ll be good,” says Dad. “It’ll teach responsibility.”

“You could certainly do with some of that,” says Mum, and then she laughs.

“And there’s your first lesson,” she says pointing.

It wasn’t Roxie’s fault. She was scared and didn’t like being trapped in the car. I open the car door and she jumps out, but she doesn’t run away. She lies down and waits for me.

My wet trousers stick to my legs and Roxie’s wee has left a pale outline of my bottom on the car seat.

“Alex,” says Mum, “put the dog in the conservatory and get yourself cleaned up.”

“You,” she tells Dad, “clean the car.”

I come down from the bathroom to see Roxie eating some chicken and Mum spreading out an old blanket. Dad is still cleaning the car.

I can’t sleep tonight. I keep thinking about Roxie. I hope she is happy in the conservatory. It gets cold in there at night. Mum and Dad are still in the kitchen – I can hear them whisper-shouting.

*

In the morning I run along the landing and down the stairs. I’m surprised to see dad in the kitchen with a cup of tea and Roxie is lying at his feet.

Mum and Dad fell out with each other last month and now dad sleeps at Grandma’s. He only comes to the house to take me out at the weekend. He usually waits in the car and honks his horn. He’s never comes into the kitchen.

“Is your mother awake?” dad asks.

I shrug.

“Well, take her some tea and this newspaper. If she’s asleep just leave it on the bedside cabinet.”

I see Mum looking down at us from on the landing.

“I brought you the paper,” says Dad.

Mum blinks in surprise, pushes her hand through her hair and pats down a bit that is sticking up.

“What are you doing here?” she says.

“I brought Roxie some dog food,” says Dad.

Roxie’s ears stick up and she lifts her head off the floor. She already knows her name. I squat down and scratch her under the chin. She sniffs me and licks my face.

“Here, she likes this,” says Dad. He hands me a rubber bone that already has chew marks on one end.

“And I’ve got some bacon. I could make you a full English breakfast.”

Mum yawns and nods.

“Why don’t you have a shower,” says Dad, “I’ll get it ready for when you come down.”

Dad whistles as he grabs a frying pan and turns to Roxie.

“Do you like bacon? Do you? Do you? You do, dont you?”

Roxie barks and wags her tail.

*

“Right Tony, see you in about half an hour,” says Dad. He clicks off his mobile and strokes Roxie. She lifts her head slightly and then rests it back down on my lap.

Mum stands in the door with her arms crossed.

“So I guess you’re off then.”

“Urrh, What?” says Dad.

“Don’t you Urrh What me?” says Mum. “What’s it today? Drinking at the golf club, football in the pub?”

“Tony’s lending us a dog lead. He’s got a special harness because Roxie’s so young. I thought, perhaps we could take a walk along the canal? What do you think Alex.”

“Can I mum?”

She pauses, she frowns and then she smiles. “I’ll make you a picnic while you get dressed.”

I find a note in the picnic.

Dogs are social animals and need to live with their pack.

*

Dad comes every morning before school. He creeps quietly up to my room, helps me get dressed and we tiptoe downstairs making shushing noises at Roxie.

It’s like she understands. She doesn’t bark. Dad says border collies are the cleverest dogs in the world.

Dad always wanted a dog when he was a boy, but he couldn’t have one because he lived in a flat. Other people in the flats had dogs, but Grandma said it wouldn’t be fair to have a dog without a garden.

Dad tells me stories while we walk. He tells me about things he got up to – he was quite naughty when he was my age. Yesterday he showed me how he stole apples by snagging them from trees with his scarf. We didn’t have a scarf but Roxie’s lead worked just as well. We saved one apple and cut it into bits for Mum to have with her breakfast.

As soon as I see the time I know something is wrong. It’s half-past seven. Dad has forgotten. I run out and almost trip down the stairs. I hear scratching at the kitchen door. Roxie jumps up.

“Where’s Dad?” I ask her.

She wants her walk. I can’t. I’m not allowed to take her on my own.

I see a note on the kitchen table.

A dad is for life. Not just for weekends.

Roxie hears a noise and turns her head. I follow her gaze up to the landing.

Dad’s coming out of Mum’s bedroom.

“Time to get dressed,” he says. “We need to take Roxie out.”

I spot Mum’s hand on Dad’s shoulder and hear her whisper.

“I’ll come with you.”