The man they called Squirrel crawled from his leaky tent into the pouring rain. He took all his clothes from his backpack and spread them on the bushes near his tent, letting them soak in the rain. He stripped the clothes he was wearing and did the same. Shivering, he took the soap dispenser he had boosted from the church bathroom and slathered himself and all his clothes with soap. The rain washed away the grime and stench. He pulled a set of clothes into his tent, crawled back into his sleeping bag, and wrapped himself in the surplus wool blanket.
When the rain finally stopped two days later, Squirrel put on the damp clothes he’d stowed in the tent. He walked to the liquor store and picked up a quart of beer and loaf of bread. That afternoon, the warm sun had dried his belongings, and he stored his clothes in his pack. He sniffed himself; he smelled reasonably clean. Jack will let me into the bar again.
On his way to The Elbow Club, he passed through the vacant lot, climbed the old oak tree, and hung his pack. He climbed down and counted his money. He had $17.38. His disability check came in two days.
As he walked the last block to The Elbow Room, the local sheriff, J.J. Cranston, pulled up in front of Squirrel and put on his flashers. Squirrel’s heart jumped—he’d know J.J. since high school. Not tonight. Fucking bully…
“Come on over here Squirrel. You know I do believe it’s squirrel season right now. I don’t eat rats, but maybe I should shoot you for the good of the town.”
Squirrel forced a smile and looked at his feet.
The cruiser’s radio crackled: “Sherriff Cranston, non-injury hit and run in front of the high school. It was the Milner boy in that lifted truck.”
“Your lucky day, I’ll catch up with you later buddy,” Cranston said, before speeding off.
Jack glared at Squirrel when he walked in. “You look clean Squirrel but if I smell you, I’m 86’ing your broke ass,” Jack snarled. Squirrel took the barstool stool furthest from everyone. Jack nodded to Roland, his bartender.
“What will it be Squirrel?” Roland asked.
“Pitcher of Natty and a shot,” Squirrel replied.
He plunked down a rumpled ten and two ones. Roland took the cash and returned with the pitcher and shot. Squirrel savored the shot, sipping it slowly. Then he started in on the pitcher. He liked to drink the first glass fast, then nurse each glass after that. He got the best buzz that way, plus it allowed him more time inside, out of the elements.
With little in his stomach, he felt drunk after the shot and first glass of beer. Despite being in the warm bar, he shivered. He buttoned his surplus field coat. Please God, don’t let me be sick again, he prayed as his refilled his glass.
The bar regulars sat in their usual places. They knew Squirrel well enough; he’d been kicked out of the bar dozens of times over the years. They ignored him as they always did. When Squirrel finished his pitcher, Jack came over and sat next to him.
“You gonna buy another round, sport?” Jack asked.
Squirrel didn’t want trouble, so he stood up to leave. Jack grabbed his arm.
“Hold on now. It’s cold out there tonight. How ‘bout you do me a little favor and I’ll buy you another round and get you some food from across the street,” Jack said.
Squirrel remembered the last “favor” involved sparring with Jack’s girlfriend, a mixed martial arts fighter, in the back parking lot for the entertainment of the regulars. She was about thirty pounds smaller than Squirrel. As he got his ass beat by the young woman, the regulars cheered. She refused to knock him out, despite the crowd's cheering encouragement, cheers of the regulars, so Jack put on the gloves and spent the next ten minutes giving Squirrel the beating of his life.
“Sorry Jack, I’m not feeling too good. I can’t take no beatin’ tonight.”
Jack laughed and patted him on the back.
“No. No. All I need you to do is to bring an envelope to a guy who will be here around closing. He’ll give you a bag to bring back to me. Trust me, nothing will happen to you. If you do good, you can do this for me once a week.”
As much as he wanted to say no, it was cold out, beer was beer, and he needed food.
Squirrel enjoyed another pitcher of beer and wolfed down a burger from the diner down the street.
“Ok buddy. He’s parked around the corner street. Here’s the envelope. Bring the bag right back and I’ll give you one last shot for the road.”
Squirrel took the envelope from him. He made his way to the door and looked back, half expecting a bottle to bounce off his head.
As Squirrel turned the block, a car approached from down the street. Squirrel stopped ready for whatever was next when J.J. hit the flashers on the cruiser. Squirrel slid the envelope down his waistband. As he did, a car further down the road made a U-turn with its headlights off.
“Squirrel, get your dirty ass over here and kneel on the sidewalk,” J.J. said.
Squirrel said nothing and knelt on the sidewalk facing away from the sheriff. Hoping to avoid a beating, he put his hands behind his head, doing his best not to fall on his face.
“Now that is a well-trained rat. Good boy,” J.J. said as he cuffed him.
Squirrel sat in the backseat of the cruiser and fought panic as his tormentor drove past the town’s last neighborhood.
“J.J., I’ll die if you leave me out in the woods like last time.”
“Come on now Squirrel, that was summer, and I thought you would enjoy a camping trip. Tonight, we are going to Cleveland. And I need a promotion so you are staying in Cleveland. If I catch you back in Millersburg, I will take you into the woods and tie your ass to a tree so you can die with your own kind. Understand?”
Squirrel sat silent.
“Understand, Rat Boy? Say it,” J.J. snarled.
“Yes, sir. I live in Cleveland now.”
J.J. left Squirrel atop of the first northbound exit for Cleveland in the old industrial district. Squirrel walked the empty streets, thankful the rain had become dry snow. He headed for the large buildings lit up on the skyline toward the lake. I hope there is enough in this envelope for food and some new gear…
Around five a.m., completely spent Squirrel found an open diner. He fished the envelope from his pants, pulled out a bill and stuffed it in his pocket. He returned the envelope to his waistband and went in.
Squirrel sat at the counter and slyly slipped the bill from his pocket to take a look—A Benjamin. Thank Christ. His stomach flipped. How much is in that envelope?
The third-shift waitress came over. She was a beautiful younger Black woman who looked ready to go home.
“Honey, if you can’t pay you can’t stay.”
She is the prettiest thing I’ve seen in a while, he thought, realizing he hadn’t had a woman in years. Squirrel smiled at her and flipped the $100 bill on the counter.
“Hot coffee and the big breakfast please. I’m a big tipper too,” he said with a real smile.
As the prison door slammed behind him he inhaled deeply. He peered up at the steely grey sky and turned up his collar against the drizzle. He didn’t feel any elation, just a dull empty flatness like a slowly deflating balloon. His scuffed shoes pinched his toes and his shiny suit was too thin for the December morning. He looked at his watch – she was late.
Suddenly, a shiny black car screeched to a halt beside him. The door slid open.
‘Hop in Jack,’ invited an unfamiliar voice.
Jack peered into the car, his brow furrowed. ‘Where’s Jen? Who are you?’ he asked.
‘Couldn’t make it. They sent me instead,’ grinned the young man, his teeth a perfect pearly array, the smile not managing to reach his cold grey eyes.
‘Are you going to stand there all day?’ he asked. ‘It’s bloody cold outside.’
‘Do I know you?’ said Jack, clutching his small leather case, which contained all his belongings.
‘Sort of,’ shrugged the young man.
The sky darkened and the rain suddenly pelted down, bouncing off the pavements and soaking through the thin soles of his shoes. Jack jumped into the car and slammed the door. At least he’d be out of the rain, he thought.
The driver slammed his expensive leather brogue on to the accelerator and the car lurched away from the kerb with a screech of rubber.
‘Hey, what’s the hurry?’ demanded Jack.
‘Nowt, just enjoy driving fast. Gives me a buzz,’ said the young man.
‘Mind if I smoke?’ asked Jack.
‘No, go ahead,’ he said. He pressed a button on the dashboard and an oak embossed ashtray slid out.
Jack sank back in the comfort of the black upholstery and lit a cigarette. His first cigarette as a free man.
As the car screeched past the dilapidated terrace houses and gas works on the outskirts of London, he sighed. He opened the window to waft some of the smoke out of the vehicle. The young man set the windscreen wipers on high speed to cope with the torrent of rain.
‘What happened to the Green Bricks?’ he asked.
‘Knocked down a few years back,’ answered the driver. ‘They’re building a new posh development with wine bars and boutiques soon,’ he added.
Jack felt a dull ache in his chest. He reflected upon the lost years and fought back a tear. He was afraid of finding out how much things had changed.
‘You could just drop me off at Hammersmith station?’ suggested Jack. ‘I could make my own way to West Towers from there,’ he added in an attempt at being nonchalant, although he felt a prickle of fear at the back of his neck.
‘Sorry, governor, those tenements are out of bounds now. Gonna pull ‘em down because the place is over-run with druggies and gang wars,’ replied the young man, his eyes focused on the road.
‘Still, if you drop me off at the station, I can see about booking into a hotel or something,’ Jack said, thinking that the cash in his wallet wouldn’t go far.
The driver sighed, a flicker of impatience crossing his handsome features.
‘Sorry, Jack, orders is orders. I’ve been instructed to look after ya. Don’t want to make the boss angry,’ he said.
Jack felt his insides turn to water.
‘Who is your b-boss?’ he stammered, dreading the answer.
‘Johnny Heaton,’ said the young man flatly.
Jack kept his gaze fixed outside and tightly gripped his case. He needed some more pills. He would have to find a doctor as soon as possible. He glanced at the door. Should he get out and run? He didn’t have the energy, though. His long legs felt leaden.
Suddenly, the car swerved to avoid a motorcyclist.
‘I wish you’d slow down,’ said Jack.
The young man just laughed and patted Jack on the shoulder, a bit too heartily.
Eventually, the car slowed down when it hit a wall of traffic. Jack let out an audible sigh of relief. They crawled through the city of London, past St James Park and Covent Garden with its ubiquitous red buses and tourists. They drove past stately white houses with the huge shiny black doors. The rain had stopped and the pavements were glistening, illuminated by the streetlights. The shop windows were impressive – all designer items and muted lighting. Jack peered upwards to see the dome of St Paul’s cathedral before they drove along the Embankment.
The car eventually slid seamlessly into an underground garage, its doors rising automatically on approach.
They were suddenly plunged into darkness. Jack felt trapped.
Abruptly, the young man jumped out of the car, tossing his keys into the air.
‘C’mon, let’s get you sorted out with nosh,’ he said. The lights automatically flicked on illuminating the rest of the garage. There were two other cars parked up – a gleaming red Porsche and a vintage Aston Martin. Jack wondered who the rich owners were – surely not his companion’s, he thought.
They walked through a black door, which led up some stone steps. His companion keyed in a code to another door and they walked into an ornate lobby, decked with white lilies. Their strong fragrance made Jack feel nauseous. He hated lilies. They reminded him of funerals.
The security guard who had been aimlessly doing a crossword suddenly jumped to attention.
He stood up and tipped his hat. ‘Good evening, sir’, he said.
His companion nodded imperially and they entered a lift.
Jack loosened his shirt collar as he watched the numbers seamlessly ascend to floor 30.
The doors glided open to reveal a long corridor laid with a plush red carpet.
‘Voila!,’ said the young man, removing a card from his pocket and sliding it into the nearest door.
Jack quickly scanned the spacious lounge. Its floor to ceiling windows were devoid of curtains. The polished parquet flooring was punctuated with pristine white Persian rugs. The furniture was minimalist and monochrome, a depressing palette of black and white. It just matched his mood, thought Jack.
The young man pressed a button by the sofa and a huge plasma television emerged from behind it, from seemingly nowhere.
‘Catch up on telly, if you like,’ he said, patting the black leather sofa.
Jack had watched enough television inside. The thought made him feel weary. He shook his head.
‘Fancy a coffee?’ asked the young man.
Jack just shrugged.
‘Right you are then,’ he smiled, before disappearing into the kitchen.
Jack walked to the window and peered out. The view was breathtaking – he could see the sharp pinnacles of the Shard building and the Houses of Parliament. The Wheel was crawling round, its passengers like black specks. The apartment just oozed luxury. He could hear his host clattering about in the kitchen and the hissing sounds of steam.
Eventually the young man returned and handed him a tiny cup of steaming coffee.
‘Expresso,’ he announced. ‘The housekeeper has left some pasta for you too – just warming it up.’
Jack didn’t feel hungry. He grimaced as he threw back the bitter coffee and swallowed. He hated coffee. He put the cup down on to a low glass table.
‘Where’s the bathroom?’ he asked.
The young man nodded towards the door, ‘Second door on your left down the corridor,’ he said.
Mirrors clung to each wall and there was an enormous oval opaque bath in the centre of the room. He peered closely at his sunken features. His cheeks looked pinched and his face felt like sandpaper. He needed a shave. He examined his crows’ feet and the grey hairs that peppered his black hair. He glanced at the pots of men’s anti-ageing products lining the shelf. No real man would touch those, he thought.
Jack splashed his face with cold water when he worked out how to use the tap. He dabbed his face with a black fluffy hand towel.
When he emerged, the young man was shrugging back into his long grey overcoat. It made him look like a gangster, thought Jack wryly.
‘Where are you going?’ he asked.
‘Just got some business to attend to,’ he replied. ‘Won’t be long.’
‘Dinner’s ready for ya in the kitchen. There’s some new clobber in your wardrobe.’ He looked pointedly at Jack’s shabby trousers and gestured in the direction of his bedroom.
‘See ya,’ he said.
‘Erm, wait a minute,’ Jack called.
‘What is it?’ he asked.
‘Erm, I don’t even know your name,’ said Jack.
The young man paused. Then said, ‘It’s Ned,’ before striding out of the door.
Jack waited a few minutes and worried that he’d heard the front door click. Was he locked in, he wondered?
He hurried to the door and tried the handle. It opened. He sighed with relief. He felt he was being paranoid. He was out of prison now – he was a free man. He peered out into the long corridor. He wondered who else lived in the apartments or whether they were vacant. It was eerily silent.
He shut the door and the lounge landline suddenly gave a shrill ring, startling him. He tried to ignore it, but it wouldn’t stop.
He tentatively picked up the receiver. ‘Yes?’ he said. The caller hung up.
Jack wandered into the kitchen and perched at the breakfast bench on a chrome stool. He pushed the slimy carbonara pasta around the huge white plate that reminded him of a satellite dish. He longed to eat something wholesome – shepherd’s pie, followed by a pint, perhaps. He missed Jen’s cooking. He wondered where she was now. He suddenly pushed away his plate and lit a cigarette. He looked around tentatively. He half expected some sort of siren to be activated by the smoke, but it was quiet. Too quiet. He could hear the kitchen clock thudding or was it his heart? He inhaled deeply and then puffed out a ring of smoke. It helped him to think.
Where was he and who was Ned? He looked uncomfortably familiar. Why had he been brought here? He tapped the ash on to a saucer and skilfully lit another cigarette.
Jack paced about the apartment and ended up in his bedroom which dominated by a king-sized bed covered with a black silk counterpane. He slid open the wardrobe and gulped. He felt as if he was on the set of a James Bond film. The rails were packed with designer suits, all in muted colours – black, navy blue, grey and taupe. He examined one of the labels – Armani. He shrugged into the jacket and stared at his reflection in one of the huge mirrors that lined the wall. He decided that he looked quite snappy, showing traces of his former self.
He needed to think about getting his life back into order. He had a meeting with his probation officer next week and wanted to show him that he could cope. He didn’t suppose that anyone would employ him with his record but he’d go down to the job centre anyway and see. Perhaps there’d be some simple factory work for him, particularly with Christmas around the corner. He needed to sort out his life and get away from the past.
The telephone on the bedside table trilled. He stood motionless, a bead of sweat forming on his brow. He crept over to the telephone and snatched up the receiver. There was a click and the line went dead.
Jack suddenly saw a shadowy figure reflected in the mirror. His heart thudded as he turned around.
‘Woah, steady on mate. Didn’t mean to scare ya, just got back earlier than expected,’ said Ned.
He stood back and examined Jack. ‘You look good in that jacket. Perfect fit,’ he said coolly.
‘Where’s Jen?’ said Jack.
There was a long pause. Neither man spoke, just listened to the tick-tock of the bedroom clock. Jack thought he saw a flicker of fear cloud Ned’s features.
Ned didn’t answer but strode back into the living room and poured two glasses of whisky from the bar. He handed one to Jack. Ned gulped the fiery liquid down in one gulp.
‘Got something to tell you first,’ he said, gazing out across the muddy swirling waters of the Thames, ‘Dad’.
‘What did you call me?’ said Jack as the colour drained from his face. He gulped down the whisky, letting the fiery liquid burn his throat.
Ned avoided making eye contact. He thrust his hands into his pockets and examined his shoes.
‘I said that I am your son, your long-lost son,’ he said, with a trace of sarcasm.
Jack realised why he’d had such a feeling of déjà vu. They shared the same features, the same shade of eye colour. Even the gestures were similar, the way he held a glass …
‘Sorry for the shock. You last laid eyes on me when I was ...’
‘Two years old’, said Jack, his eyes watering.
Ned’s face clouded over. ‘Yes, when you walked out on me and Mam.’
There was a long uncomfortable pause.
Eventually Jack said, ‘Er, it wasn’t that simple, son.’
‘Go on,’ said Ned in a steely voice.
‘Things had happened. It was complicated. Anyway, she wrote to me inside. Think she still loves me.’
Ned glanced at his watch.
‘But why are you mixed up with all this son?’ asked Jack.
He opened his jacket pocket and removed his wallet, flashing a badge at him.
‘I’m not Dad, I’m a cop working under cover. Just going along with the gang, I’ve been trying to keep you safe. I thought I could protect you. But things are moving along. Johnny wants his money back. He wants to know where you hid it. We’re going to have to move quickly.’
‘But I don’t know where it is,’ said Jack.
‘Well, it’s too dangerous for you to stay. I’m taking you to Heathrow now.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Jack. ‘Where am I going?’
‘Australia. Your part of a protection programme. We need to be quick. Grab your case.’
The doorbell chimed.
‘It might be too late,’ said Jack, his heart hammered.
Ned felt for his gun.
‘Dad, get back in the kitchen.’
Jack did as he said as Ned slowly opened the door.
Jen was standing there with a suitcase. ‘Hi darling, is your Dad there? ‘
Jack stepped out to see his wife’s familiar chocolate brown eyes twinkling. She was wearing a belted black raincoat which accentuated her slender frame. Her long grey-black hair was swept up in a bun as always.
‘Hi love, welcome to the outside. I’ve heard it’s really hot in Australia at Christmas. Fancy some company? Think we might live there quite comfortably, if you know what I mean?’ she winked.
Jack stepped forward and swung her round in his arms, hugging her tightly and for the first time since he left prison he smiled.
If I tell you that I’m a hundred and seventy three years of age, you would understandably doubt the veracity of my claim, though there is an element of truth in it.
I was born Charles Edward Carrington on a hot summer’s day, or so I am told, in the year 1850 and the current year, I am reliably informed by my new friend Max, is 2023. The mathematics you will agree does support my claim, though I was not continuously present during the intervening years.
The very strangest thing occurred on the day prior to my twenty fifth birthday in August 1875. I’d been having tea with mama on the south terrace. As usual, she was extoling the virtues of Elizabeth, adding fuel to her argument in favour of Elizabeth as a suitable future wife for me. I was, and still am unconvinced. Elizabeth’s simpering irritates me and her conversation is mindless. She does however have one redeeming feature which in mother’s eyes greatly outweighs all else, she is exceedingly wealthy.
My father, I sense, may support my cause if he dared, but he rarely contradicts mama who is the dominant personality. My father inherited Carrington Hall from a long line of free spending forebears and thus a combination of debt, death duties and the deterioration of his family home obliged him to marry into money, a situation which strengthens mama’s hand.
Even her wealth though was finite, and the estate, which one day will pass to me, is in great need of an infusion of cash. Mother sees Elizabeth as a perfect solution and continues to agitate for a betrothal.
Thus it was that to escape mama’s badgering, I determined upon a long, restorative walk in the gardens. The grounds of Carrington, I should mention, are extensive, covering a large area including the village and several tenant farms.
The land was granted to a Thomas Carrington, my many times great grandfather, by Queen Anne for services in support of the illustrious John Churchill at the Battle of Blenheim. While Churchill was gifted a huge part of Oxfordshire where he subsequently built the spectacularly ugly Blenheim Palace, my ancestor received this more modest corner of Suffolk and built a tasteful, though large manor house.
I visited Blenheim a few years ago whilst up at Oxford. The latest young Churchill had rooms near mine in college and we became friends of sorts. I found his palace oppressively gloomy and felt fortunate indeed to be blessed with the less ostentatious Carrington Hall.
However, I digress. Let’s return now to my walk in the gardens and my bid to escape mama’s plans. At the far end of the walled garden I noticed an arched gateway I had never seen before and inevitably was drawn to explore. Here it was that the most bizarre thing occurred. Pushing the gate open, I stepped through into a flower meadow where I immediately sensed that something was changed.
The countryside was strangely altered. I could see the village in the distance and the tower of the old, Norman church, this much was familiar; but I also heard a distant humming sound which I did not recognise and enormous wooden poles with what I now know to be connecting wires surrounded the village. Really extraordinarily ugly!
Confused, I turned to go back the way I had come and was astonished to see that the unremembered gateway had vanished. Nothing stood before me but a solid wall. Thinking myself subject to hallucination, I blinked hard and tried not to be alarmed. Surely there must be a perfectly rational explanation.
Max tells me that what in fact happened, is that I moved through a time portal, thus magically bypassing one hundred and forty seven years. Preposterous, I know but I have been unable to come up with a better explanation.
Max knows about these things she tells me from the television, whatever that is. I came upon Max as I stumbled in confusion down the lane towards the village. With her cropped, urchin hair and blue cloth breeches, I at first mistook her for a young farm lad.
“Wow, that’s a really cool outfit,” she said, staring quite brazenly at my perfectly ordinary clothes. In fact I felt rather warm but I didn’t argue, being too stunned to think clearly.
“You going to a fancy dress party, are you?” This was the beginning of a very complex and revealing conversation, during the course of which I learned that my farm lad was in fact a fourteen year old girl named Maxine, who prefers to be Max and that she and her family now occupy Home Farm.
It also transpires that by miraculous means unknown, I have been transported from my own time to this extraordinary and unnerving future world.
Since this fortuitous meeting some time ago, Max has been giving me shelter in a disused barn. She smuggled out bedding and brings me food when she can. I am entirely dependent upon her as the two guineas in my pocket are as good as worthless.
“You won’t get far on two quid,” she asserted scornfully, “so you’d better stick with me.” The strange thing is that she never appeared to doubt my story in the least, as being a great fan of science fiction she finds my experience entirely plausible. Her family on the other hand she tells me, ‘lack imagination’, thus necessitating my concealment.
“They’d think you were some kind of perv,” she assured me and though unfamiliar with the term, I nevertheless understood the sentiment. So faced with limited options, I find myself living as a fugitive on my own estate.
Much to my surprise though, I’m becoming quite accustomed to my new way of life and no longer fretting unduly about how I will get home. Even the garments I am obliged to wear so as not to appear ‘freakish’, no longer feel so strange. Max stole the blue work trousers and dark green shirt from the closet of her absent brother who, she tells me, is “backpacking in Tibet before going to university.” From this I infer some sort of Grand Tour but I could be mistaken.
My biggest problem is a shortage of money. Max provides a little but a fourteen year old girl has but limited means and the cost of even the simplest item in this future age is beyond imagining. It’s clear I cannot continue to live this way indefinitely.
However, on the subject of my eventual return to my own time, I am reassured. Carrington Hall, it transpires no longer belongs to my family but rather to a worthy organisation calling itself The National Trust. Max tells me that many of the country’s larger estates are now thus managed and open to the general public, an idea I find quite horrifying. I suspect mama would die of shame.
But it seems it’s quite the thing in this much changed age when for most families to maintain a large country estate is no longer viable. According to the National Trust guide book, it was my grandson, George Arthur Carrington who bequeathed the house and gardens to the Trust in 1948, shortly after the second of those devastating wars which overshadowed the earlier part of the twentieth century and changed society in such an unforeseeable fashion.
You will see here that I have become a student of history; that I have been profitably employed, using my time well for the duration of my stay in 2023. The truth is I’ve been spending my time in the lending library in the local market town, a place greatly enlarged since my day but still recognisable at its core.
An attractive young lady in the library has been extremely helpful, pointing out the most informative books and even instructing me in how to use the computer machine which apparently knows and can reveal everything that is to be known, about anything. Thus I am rapidly improving my education.
A source of more personal information has been the aforementioned visitors’ guidebook for Carrington Hall, provided for my perusal by Max. She tells me her grandfather passes his time since retirement as a volunteer in the Hall and ‘can bore for Britain’ on the history of the Carrington family. I was naturally keen to meet this mine of information but for reasons previously mentioned, my young friend would not allow it, so I must content myself with what I can glean from the book.
It’s astonishingly surreal to read of oneself as the protagonist in an historic family saga, though I am pleased to say I am presented as a good sort of chap who managed the estate well and took care of the tenants.
It’s also gratifying to learn that I am to live to the ripe old age of eighty five and that in the year 1876 I will marry a certain Eleanor Beswick from Yorkshire and that between us we will produce a healthy brood of six. This arouses my curiosity greatly, as I can think of no such family amongst our acquaintance. Who is this lovely Eleanor, I wonder? And by what stroke of good fortune am I to be spared the prattling of Elizabeth?
As well as good estate management, I am credited less flatteringly with the building of a new wing at the rear of the Hall, referred to as ‘an unsightly Victorian protuberance, in dubious taste.’
Indignant, I determined the other day, to inspect this for myself. Unable to raise the entrance fee, (more than enough to purchase a full suit of clothes from a good London tailor), I obtained access to the grounds by way of Baker’s Wood, a route unmonitored by officials. Personally I thought my new addition rather handsome, but I fear the architecture of my time is not highly regarded by current taste.
The upshot of all this is that I am confident of my eventual return to my own lifetime. Max shares this confidence as she assures me that the past cannot be changed.
“Well, it’s already happened, you see. It’s all in the book. So you must get back somehow, mustn’t you?” She explains this carefully as if to a slow witted child, which I suspect is how she perceives me.
So I fully expect that one day I will stumble back through another of Max’s ‘time portals’ and pick up my life where I left off. This interlude may even in time come to feel like a dream. I may perhaps begin to think it never really happened. Although perhaps not.
In the meantime I intend to take full advantage of the information available in the lending library with the assistance of the obliging young lady, with whom I confess to being just a little in love. Unlike most of her contemporaries, she eschews the uniform blue breeches in favour of most becoming ankle length skirts. Soft, copper curls dance on slender shoulders and her hyacinth blue eyes sparkle with intelligence and good humour. She is almost sufficient temptation for me to remain in this age of complex mechanical devises and deafening modes of transport; almost.
She mentioned in passing the other day that her family moved here recently from the county of Yorkshire. And today I at last learned the name of my Aphrodite of the book shelves. Her name it seems is Eleanor. Eleanor Beswick.
I confess that knowing this now, I eagerly anticipate our eventual return to the year 1875, but not without some trepidation as to how mama will greet her beautiful, though regrettably penniless, future daughter in law.
Her breath fogging the glass, Elle watched the gated fronts flash past, fiddling with the strings of her rucksack, “Carrie’s parents are back at ten. I know the drill. No parties, no booze, no boys.”
“Good to hear,” said Elle’s father, spinning the steering wheel to round a corner. “I’m not going to pretend I know what teenage girls do at a sleepover – I spent most of my time as a teenage boy wondering. What are your plans?”
She shrugged, “Megan said she’s bringing a game for us to play.”
Tyres slowing over tarmac, Carrie’s house slid into view. It was all glass walls and abstract shapes – unlike her own Victorian manor. Both their fathers owned successful businesses, and Carrie’s mother was a renowned director; they could afford nice things. Elle mused that they needed the gates – all their ‘nice things’ glittered on display.
“Well, have fun,” said her father. There was something forced in his smile. His pupils swept over her, the dying moments of their company pushing him to add, “If you want me to come get you –”
“I know, you’re only a phone call away,” she assured him. The rucksack string was now frayed between her fingers. “I’m going to be fine.”
As she pushed the door open, her father called, “Annabelle.”
It must be serious – only her passport called her that nowadays. Elle rummaged through her memories, trying to figure out what she had done wrong. The best candidate was undoubtedly her recent fib that she was with friends the time she came home late, with an honourable mention to her last essay, returned with the note, ‘not your best work’.
His eyes were glossed, but he was smiling. “I’m so proud of you.”
Uncomfortably, she nodded, walking through the gate.
Megan was already there, spotting Elle on the crunchy gravel path. Abruptly ceasing their intense conversation, Megan waved enthusiastically, nudging Carrie. By the time she reached the door, Carrie was holding it open.
“I’m so glad you came! My parents just left. They gave me some money to order pizza,” she surprised Elle by taking her coat and hanging it on a hook, even carrying her rucksack into the living room for her, “Meg and I decided you can choose the toppings.”
“Really?” she raised an eyebrow, “Megan was ready to go to war over chicken wings last time we ordered a takeaway.”
“Exactly – we can’t trust Meg with a choice like this,” Carrie said, giggling when Megan gasped.
“I’m sorry I turned down your noodle place!” Megan sprung from her lounging state, slapping the pillow in her lap repeatedly, “You’ll have plenty of time for that in Uni – we’ll be living off noodles!”
“Meg, I doubt your parents would let you starve,” Elle sat on the couch opposite her, “Your mum owns a supermarket – you’ll be fine. Honestly, I’m fine with whatever you two want tonight.”
“No, this is me making… what’s that word, Carrie – you’re good with words and stuff,” asked Megan.
“Reparations,” Carrie answered routinely.
“Yeah, I’m making…Whatever she said. No pink chicken tonight!” Megan wagged a finger at her.
Carrie joined Megan on the floor, picking up a jug from the coffee table and pouring juice into a cup for Elle. Seeing them side by side highlighted how different her friends were. Carrie was slim and blonde, whereas Megan was brunette and full-figured. Shy and quiet, Carrie spoke in a soft, breathy voice, but a foghorn couldn’t compete with Megan. Children of tiger parents, they spent a lot of time considering their future careers. For Carrie, this meant volunteering in hospitals to build credits for a medical degree. But Megan liked being in the spotlight, her future lay in entertainment.
Elle represented a middle ground between her two friends. She was dark-haired and slender, calm, but able to bite back if she needed to, eyeing a position in her dad’s energy company. Maybe it would be her company one day?
“Megan’s brought a board game,” said Carrie.
“Well, it’s not exactly a board game. It’s more – You know what? It’s easier if I show you. Hold on!” she crawled over to her bag, complaining all the way that her skinny jeans were cutting off her circulation. When she returned, she unfolded the board, spread it across the coffee table, and sat back, presenting it with a warbling fanfare.
“A Ouija board? Really?” asked Carrie.
“It’s retro! I found it at Grandma’s. What’s the prob–?” Megan trailed off at Carrie’s not-so-subtle nods towards Elle.
Both sets of eyes on her, the sudden weight on Elle’s chest nearly stifled her voice, “I’m fine.”
Exchanging a concerned look with Megan, Carrie said, “We don’t have to –”
“It’s not a big deal,” Elle gripped Megan’s elbow to stop her from packing it away,
Carrie, however, shook her head, “It’s just weird, since –”
Lifting her chin, careful to keep her voice even, Elle forced herself to meet her eye, “I don’t even believe in this stuff.”
Megan leapt to her feet, running to get a glass, whilst a still anxious Carrie drew the blinds, shutting out the cool winter sun, bathing the room in warm, low lamplight. Elle studied the Ouija Board. A dark, rich mahogany, it boasted golden letters, the word NO burned white hot beneath the glare of the lamp.
“That’s my dad’s whisky tumbler. He’ll go mad if we break it!” Carrie warned Megan when she returned from the kitchen, skipping and holding the glass aloft.
“Why would we break it? Do you think a ghost will fling it across the room?” Megan teased.
“And if it does? What do I say? – ‘Sorry, Dad, no whisky for you, the poltergeist broke it.’ That’s worse than ‘my dog ate my homework’!”
“Are you ready, Elle?”
Elle hadn’t been paying attention. Instead, she ran through every potential, considering how to act. She wouldn’t be the one to push the glass. That would probably be Megan, but Elle was sure Carrie would change the direction if necessary. Maybe none of them would have the guts to shift the tumbler? Regardless, she was determined to laugh when the others laughed and jump when everyone else did.
There was always another possibility. What if –?
Don’t! she warned herself. Speaking to the dead was a one-sided conversation.
“One finger on the glass,” Megan commanded, demonstrating with a flourish.
Elle felt the smooth glass beneath her fingertip. Carrie followed suit, a slight tremble in her movements, her pale lips curving into a smile her eyes betrayed. Her misgivings were understandable, but Elle wished Carrie would relax. It was making her feel tense.
Megan took a deep breath, closing her eyes, “Are we in the presence of any spirits?”
Everything was eerily still – the air, the girls. The glass. Elle peeked at the others to see Carrie doing the same. Megan’s face was screwed up in concentration.
But then, something changed. Elle’s finger nearly slipped as the tumbler performed less of a glide and more of a scrape across the board.
Elle wasn’t surprised. She felt the drag on Megan’s corner of the glass. Carrie was fooled though, her reassuring smile now a grimace. Let them have fun, thought Elle.
Rallied by Carrie’s reaction – and Elle’s lack of accusations – Megan asked grandly, “Are you a friendly spirit?”
This time, the glass moved quicker, with more conviction.
Normally Elle was skilled in the art of quashing a laugh – the main reason Megan usually ended up in detention and she didn’t – but today was a rare exception. Her friends looked to her for an explanation. “Made up your mind faster that time, didn’t you, Meg?”
“That’s not me!” she protested.
“Who is it then?”
“I don’t know! Let’s ask!”
“I’ve got it,” Carrie jumped in, “Why don’t we ask a question Megan doesn’t know the answer to?”
“Good luck with that,” said Megan, “I know practically ev– ”
“What’s the capital of Indonesia?” asked Elle.
After a slight pause, the glass moved again.
Elle tried not to look smug, but Megan was doing quite a convincing job herself, her eyes wide, all traces of a smile now vanished. “That wasn’t me – I’m not smart enough to come up with that!”
“She’s got a point, Elle,” said Carrie.
“Hey!” Megan shoved her with her free hand.
“No, but really, this is freaking me out! I feel all cold!” Carrie leant closer, addressing the board in a fearfully polite tone, “Sorry to bother you, Mr Spirit, Sir. I mean, if you are a Sir.”
“Oh, sorry, Ma’am,” Carrie apologised.
Carrie was not an idiot – Elle only needed to look over her shoulder for proof, the display cabinet boasting her many accolades. An ornate letter I, distorted beneath the tumbler’s base, was much more chilling from this point of view.
“Doesn’t narrow it down a lot. It could be anyone from Queen Elizabeth to my Great Auntie,” Megan seemed more excited than scared.
“Don’t you think Lizzie would have better things to do?” posed Elle. It offered a distraction – she had just noticed the goosebumps on her forearms.
“What should we ask –?” began Carrie.
But Megan seemed to have already decided on their next question, “Are you connected to anyone around this table?”
The silence was a cloak that allowed her friends to remove their masks and show their real faces, both of which were pointed at her. Megan was searching for a reaction beneath Elle’s composed veneer. She wouldn’t let it shatter, but it was hard to ignore the creeping flush, the sting of tears, the poison of dread.
Carrie took a more compassionate route, clearly terrified by the thinning of the veil. She appealed to Megan, “Maybe we should”
But Megan powered through, “Spell your name.”
Elle pressed her finger hard on the glass, but it was not enough to stop it from spinning towards the alphabet.
Elle slammed her hand over the glass, stopping it in its tracks. Now her mask was slipping. Underneath the ice sculpture was a crimson-skinned monster, burnt raw, exposed. She broke the circle, heading for the bathroom.
“Megan!” Carrie was appalled.
Megan sounded on the edge of tears when she bellowed after Elle, “I just thought, since you didn’t get a chance to say good–”
Elle had made it to the bathroom door before striding back into the living room, “You couldn't even be bothered to learn her name? It’s in the papers! And, for the record, my mum would have known the capital of Indonesia is Jakarta!”
Megan flinched, every word a dagger, but, for once, was silent, diamond-sized tears dripping down her cheeks.
“Elle, why don’t you take a seat? Let's try and all calm down,” Carrie petitioned for peace. Elle remained standing, but she took a few steadying breaths, compulsively wiping the few tears that had managed to fall. Carrie accepted this and turned to Megan, “Why would you do that?”
“I’m sorry! I just…” Megan gulped, her eyes fixed on Elle. With all the excitement of the game, now Megan was scared. “You didn’t even take any time off school. You’ve been distant, missing lunches and catchups with us. I expected you to be crying – me and Carrie would have been ready to comfort you. But you’ve been so…so…”
“Stoic,” Carrie heard the search party, but Elle was shocked she had answered the call. At Elle’s glare, Carrie bowed her head.
“You’ve been so stoic! It’s not healthy!” Megan continued, “I thought, maybe some closure –”
“Wow, it must be 5 PM on a Tuesday – that’s when I have therapy!” Elle snapped. She wondered if she had been the subject of that intense conversation between her friends as she arrived. Stupid glass houses.
“I’m not trying to be your therapist!” Megan argued.
“Elle –” Carrie tried to soothe her, but it felt as patronising as Megan’s attempted séance.
The whole town had read the headline; Irene McKenna Commits Suicide, Age 41. When a wealthy man’s wife kills herself, the gossip practically spreads itself. Her father was accused of being a philanderer, an abuser, even a murderer. He was nothing of the sort – just a man who worked too much and didn’t monitor his mentally ill wife’s every movement. When everyone looks at you like you’re something, they reduce you to nothing. They delight in it. She was the girl with the dead mother to everyone – even her friends.
When she turned her back on them, Carrie pulled Megan away, “Come on, give her some space.”
Alone, Elle sat on the sofa, her head in her hands. It wasn’t the Ouija board, or the lies, or the manipulation that brought her so much sorrow. It was the realisation that her friends, with their fancy glass houses and diamond tears, were sheltered. She had been too, before the doors were ripped off and the rest of the wide ugly world came marching in, before the middle-aged women saw the obituary as a job opening, interrupting their grief by throwing their unwelcome hats into the ring, before people analysed her grief and thought pizza toppings and séances would make a difference.
What hurt the most was that she almost believed, for one stupid moment, that she was going to speak to her again. She had tried – sentiments delivered to a sleeping casket, muttered prayers before bedtime, hours passed sat at her grave, missing curfews in the hope that something would happen, some kind of connection, anything to give her peace. But she was always greeted by silence. Talking to the dead was a one-sided conversation. And that pain was something her friends would never understand.
The Ouija board was still on the table, the rim of the glass circling the golden letters, Goodbye.
Ben Devereux sat on a cottage chair in his living room, bored by his existence. He gave up his job as a teacher when he inherited a substantial amount of money from his late father and now he didn’t know how to fill in his time. Outside, wild October winds shook tree branches and leaves from the trees in the street swirled around giddily before landing in his garden. He could sweep them up, but it was pointless in such a wind.
Daytime television held no interest for him, and he had given up on newspapers, which were full of the direst warnings and seemed to concentrate on the worst aspects of humanity. He was pleased when the telephone rang. He picked up the receiver.
‘It’s Jack Carver here.’
Jack taught at the same school as Ben and the two shared a common interest in bus timetables. It was a friendship that lasted until Ben quit teaching.
‘I haven’t heard from you in ages,’ said Ben.
‘I thought I’d give you a call - see how you’re getting on.’
‘Well, Jack, I’m engaged in an arboreal project at this moment.’
‘Yes. I’m watching the autumn leaves fall to the ground.’
’Always the joker, Ben.’
‘Jack, what is it you really want?’
‘Is it as obvious as that?’
‘After a gap of two years, yes.’
‘I’ve a field trip to arrange - those little blighters from 2B. I’m short of a decent pair of binoculars. My six by thirties are no use. I need your twelve by fifties, if you’ve still got them.’
Ben thought hard. Where were they? Not in the garage, for he was in there yesterday looking for an Allen key and the binoculars were conspicuous by their absence. The loft? Yes, the loft.
‘I still have them, Jack. I believe they’re in the loft. I’ll have a look after lunch and give you a ring if I find them. You can call here and collect them.’
‘Thanks. Where are you living now?’
‘17, May Crescent.’
‘South end of town?’
‘Just past the carpet warehouse.’
‘I know it.’
Ben rang off and went into the kitchen to prepare a lunch of cheese and chutney sandwiches and a cup of tea. He brought his lunch back into the lounge and sat in his cottage chair to consume it, all the while thinking of the last time he’d used the binoculars. Bird-watching, the feathered variety. He’d been out on the moors and spied a stonechat, at least that’s what it looked like, according to the British Book of Birds he kept in his extensive library. He was still teaching then, and it seemed appropriate to have some sort of outdoor hobby. He didn’t pursue it, once he’d finished at the school, so the binoculars languished somewhere in the loft. They were his father’s, an expensive pair - Barr and Stroud naval binoculars, used in the second world war. Ben’s Father bought them from a retired submariner from Plymouth long after the war ended, and they were amongst a litany of items Ben inherited after his father’s demise.
The loft was accessed by a hinged aluminium Ramsay ladder that folded neatly inside the roof space and extended when you let down the trapdoor. If you were lucky when you unfolded it, you retained all your fingers, for the edges of each of the three spring-loaded portions were razor-sharp.
Ben climbed the ladder and hoisted himself into the loft, which was long and high, easily able to accommodate a man standing. It was also stuffed full of bric-a-brac and furniture. It was boarded and insulated with rockwool fibre, thanks to a government scheme that encouraged householders to insulate their lofts and attics by offering a fifty percent discount on the contractor’s charge. He switched on the light. A cloud of dust rose as he made his way gingerly across the floor, as if at any minute the boarding might give way and he would end up flat on his back on the bedroom floor below.
At the far end, against the chimney wall, was a small deal table upon which stood the binoculars in their fine leather case. Ben smiled and shuffled over to pick them up. As he did so, his knee hit a dining-room chair and something fell from it and landed on his foot. He clicked his tongue in annoyance, picked up the item, to find it was a camera in its case. He slung it around his neck by the shoulder strap and collected the binoculars. He would examine it later because he couldn’t recall the item at all.
He returned to the lounge and placed both items on a coffee table. He withdrew a tin of Lord Sheraton’s leather balsam from a cupboard and polished both cases vigorously. When he was satisfied at the sheen on the leather, he examined the binoculars first. They were in excellent condition. Putting them to his eyes and adjusting them, he could see as far as the fire station on the left and the town hall on the right. He expressed satisfaction and set them back in their case.
He took the camera from its holder and gazed at it with a puzzled expression. It was a Cosina CT1A, a relatively cheap 1980s unit. Then he remembered. He’d been given it as a gift for his eighteenth birthday by his Aunt Maisie. He’d only used it once, because he was no photographer. It occurred to Ben that he’d never even had the film developed. He closed the curtains and very gently opened the back of the camera. He was right - the cylinder containing the exposed film nestled snugly in its nacelle beneath the winding mechanism. He removed the film and laid it on the table.
Ben took the undeveloped film to Carter’s on the corner of Beak Street. The shop was a throwback to the 1960s, the last time it was modernised, although Mr Carter was obliged to sell modern digital cameras and accessories, all of which he heartily despised. He was a throwback to a time long before the 1960s, with his grey corduroy jacket and faded cavalry twill trousers. He looked through horn-rimmed spectacles at Ben before speaking, in a slow, considered way.
‘Not much call for developing these films now, Mr Devereux, what with all this digital claptrap,’ he said with a sigh, his bushy white eyebrows waving like a butterfly’s antennae. ‘Of course, I’ve still got my equipment - it’s only that I never get the chance to use it these days. I’ll have your film ready for you tomorrow.
‘Did you find them?’ asked Jack.
‘Yes. I’ve cleaned and polished them. They’re as good as new and waiting for you to collect.’
‘When can I come round?’
‘I’ve some prints to pick up from Carter’s, which won’t take me long. How about this afternoon, after school?’
‘Fine. I’ll see you then.’
Ben stepped inside Carter’s. A bell rang in the back shop where the proprietor was eating his lunch and he bustled into the main shop, brushing crumbs from his jacket as he went.
‘Ah, Mr Devereux, I have your photographs here. Not the best quality, I’m afraid, but I’ve done what I can with them. Some of them are a little over-exposed, I fear. I think you’ve used too slow a shutter speed for the lighting conditions.’
‘I was only eighteen.’
‘Really? It’s a miracle the prints could be developed at all after all that time.’
‘They were still in the camera, in an unlit loft.’
‘Ah, that perhaps explains it. That’ll be eight pounds, Mr Devereux, and I hope to see you shopping here again soon. Always a pleasure, sir.’
Ben shook hands with the old man and slipped the prints into his overcoat pocket. The bell rang again as he closed the door and left the shop.
‘How is the old boy?’ asked Jack, seated in a chair opposite Ben.
‘He seems remarkably well, and in good spirits. He doesn’t like digital cameras, though.’
‘No. He’d be more at home with a black cloth over his head and flash powder waiting to explode, so he could get the perfect negative on a photographic plate.’
‘Yes, there is a touch of the Victorian about him.’
‘Let’s see them then.’ said Jack.
‘Oh, I haven’t had the chance to look at them yet.’
Ben went to the sideboard and picked up the envelope containing the wallet that held the prints. He opened the envelope carefully with a sharp letter-opener and extracted the wallet. On one side were the photographs, on the other the negatives. He carried them back to his chair. He withdrew a score or so of six by four coloured prints and arranged them face up on the coffee table. He picked up the first and handed it to Jack.
‘Where is it?’ asked Jack.
‘Heathersley Common, I think.’
‘A few shrubs and some grass. Call yourself a photographer?’
‘I was eighteen.’
They went through the photographs, one by one. Most were over-exposed, as Mr Carter said, but the last one held an absolutely perfect image. Ben laid it down and both men stared at it for some time before Jack said: ‘who is she?’
The photograph showed a pretty girl with long dark hair, standing in front of a bus shelter. She was wearing a trench coat and a pair of calf-length boots. What was most striking about her was a twinkling smile that seemed to light up her whole face. Ben was silent for a while before answering him.
‘I had quite forgotten. It’s Diane Oliver.’
‘She was older than me - nineteen. Her parents weren’t fond of me.’
‘They thought I was too quiet, too reserved. I was, of course. They wanted someone more outgoing for their daughter.’
‘They put an end to it?’
‘They wouldn’t let her see me. Just after this picture was taken. It was the winter of 1985 - you can see she was buttoned up against the cold. I never saw her again after I took that photograph. It broke my heart.’
‘Is that why you never married?’
‘Perhaps. I never really gave it much thought. I did love her, and I think she loved me.’
‘What happened to Diane?’
‘She married and had a family. That’s all I know and that’s only because I found out from Mrs Islington, my father’s next-door-neighbour.’
‘Nosy old biddy,’ said Jack, who did recall the formidable Mrs Islington.
‘Know what I’d do, if I were you?’ added Jack.
‘I’d look your Diana up, for old time’s sake. See how she’s managed over the years. See if she still remembers you. Show her the photograph.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous. She’ll be in her sixties now. She’ll not recall any of this. She might think I’m a confidence trickster. In any case, how on earth can I find her? I’ve no idea what her married name is.’
‘Does she still live in the town?’
‘I haven’t a clue.’
‘It doesn’t matter. You can search for the marriage certificate on-line if you know her maiden name.’
‘I told you - it was Oliver.’
‘You’ll have to search one of the genealogy websites, such as Ancestry. You can sign up for a 14-day free trial, then cancel the trial once you’ve found out what you’re looking for. Go and fetch your laptop.’
After a few hours’ research, the pair uncovered the fact that Miss Diane Oliver married Mr John Featherstone on 7 April 1988. A check of the local electoral register showed a Mrs D. Featherstone lived at 26 Lily Avenue. There was no mention of a Mr J. Featherstone at that address or anywhere else on the register.
‘Let’s go,’ said Jack, once all this information had been gleaned.
‘I’m not sure,’ said Ben.
‘It’s a once in a lifetime chance,’ said Jack, ‘it looks like she’s divorced John and settled down on her own. You never know till you try. I’ll come with you, hold your hand, so to speak.’
Lily Avenue was a street of prim 1950s bungalows with tidy gardens, a few with monkey puzzle trees in them. Number 26 was no different - front and garage doors painted red, cast-iron guttering black, windows sparkling clean, and lawn clipped neatly.
Ben lost his nerve and made to turn away. Jack grasped his arm and almost dragged him along the street. As they approached the house, some of the neighbours came out of their homes and stood around the entrance to number 26. Ben and Jack mingled with them.
‘Shouldn’t be long,’ said one woman.
‘No, Edith, they’re due at twelve,’ said her companion, ‘it’s five to already.’
‘Such a pity, Sarah.’
‘Yes. No warning, either. You know what they say - here today, gone tomorrow.’
‘Molly’ll be upset…’
‘And Gareth, don’t forget Gareth,’ said Edith.
‘Here it comes.’
A long black hearse rounded the corner followed by three funeral cars. It pulled up outside the house. Six men in dark coats and striped trousers entered the house, led by a woman in a grey top hat and similarly coloured gloves. The men soon emerged from number 26 carrying a coffin. The woman in the top hat followed, comforting a man in his thirties, who wore a dark, defeated look, and a woman of a similar age, whose eyes were red with crying.
‘A heart attack,’ said Sarah, ‘down like a light she went.’
‘She were never the same after her husband died,’ observed Edith.
‘Still, it comes to us all in the end,’ remarked Sarah, sagely.
‘Funny thing, though, Sarah. According to Molly, she’d recently been looking for somebody,’
‘Somebody she knew?’ asked Sarah.
‘Yes, someone she’d met a long time ago, Molly said.’
‘Do we know who?’
‘Molly said it was a bloke she once went out with,’ said Edith. ‘He had a funny surname, apparently - Devilblow or something. That’s it, Don Devilblow.’
‘Did she find him?’ asked Sarah.
‘No. I don’t think she ever did.’
Jack touched Ben lightly on the arm, and very quietly they both walked away.
The written word is a powerful medium – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I was nine when Mum died. Her death devastated me and my dad. After Mum was gone we grew closer. I could talk to him about anything. My dad was my whole world. We did everything together. But two years after Mum died he spoilt it all by meeting Janis. I hated her from the very beginning for stealing my dad. I felt that whatever I did or said against Janis, Dad always took her side.
Eighteen months later my worst nightmare came true. Dad told me they were getting married. I threw the almightiest tantrum accusing him of having forgotten mum and made it clear that there was no way I’d EVER call Janis mum. Then I stormed upstairs and trashed my room screaming to the world how life was unfair. I buried my face in my pillow - no way I was going to let HER hear me crying. After a few minutes, I wiped the snot across my sleeve and surveyed the carnage. There among the wreckage was a broken photo frame.
“Mum.” I’d slid off my bed to pick up the shattered pieces. Turning it over, I felt on the verge of crying again. My mum’s picture was sticking halfway out. There was blood smeared over her face from a tiny shard of glass embedded in my thumb. “Oh Mum, how can he marry her? She’s, she’s not you.”
I remember Dad coming up the stairs, he thumped on my bedroom door.
“Penny, open this door.”
“If you don’t open this door I’ll break it down.”
He’d never been so angry. We’d never ever shouted at each other before. This was Janis’s fault. The door lock slid back with a thunk and I ran back to my bed facing the wall with my back to him as he entered.
“Get downstairs NOW and apologise to Janis.”
“No I won’t. How can you forget about mum so soon? I bet you never really loved her. I miss her so much. I’ll NEVER forget her and I’ll always love her.
“How dare you accuse me of not loving your mother. I miss her too, but she made me promise not to live in sadness for the rest of my life and to make sure you didn’t either.”
“Well I can’t, I won’t forget her.”
“How can I when every day I see her face reflected in your eyes.
At that moment I realised then how much I had hurt him but I was too stubborn to apologise to him or Janis. Before he left my room he made one thing clear he WAS going to marry Janis.
For the next three months leading up to the wedding I behaved like a spoilt brat. I lost count of the number of times I’d stormed upstairs to the sanctuary of my room. I’d pick up the photo of my mum in its new frame and talk to her about Janis’ latest scheme.
“That bitch is turning everyone I love against me, Mum, She’s a Dad stealing bitch and she wants to erase every trace of you from my life. Well I’m not going to let her, Mum. I’ll never forget you.”
They tried to include me in the wedding preparations. But at every opportunity I found ways of sabotaging their plan. Like trying to cancel the registry office booking; changing the flower order; turning up late, or not at all for my dress fittings. I even threatened not to attend. Nothing worked. Instead of getting rid of Janis I ended up pushing dad further away. A rift had grown between us and it was all her fault.
When the dreaded day arrived, I finally had to accept my Dad and Janis were getting married. It was strange none of Janis’ relatives came to the wedding. I secretly hoped she’d been a druggie or something and they had thrown her out or she’d stolen from them. It was obvious her own family hated her just as much as I did.
I sulked the whole day. In the evening Dad asked me for the first dance, not Janis. She smiled and nodded as she pushed us on to the dance floor. The record playing was so familiar. It was the first song dad had heard the night I was born, Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t she lovely”. Dad was forever telling me that it was our song and whenever it came on the radio we’d stop whatever we were doing and dance together.
Whilst we danced Dad kept telling me how much he loved me; that I would always be his princess and that although he’d remarried, Janis could never share the special bond between him and me, or our memories of Mum. Just before the end of the song he asked if I could try to get on with Janis for his sake. I agreed, but I lied. I had no intention of becoming friends with her. I’d smile and chat nicely whenever Dad was around, but when he wasn’t there, I showed Janis just how much I resented her coming into our lives.
I was such a hateful cow towards her in so many ways. The best day of my life was the day I made her cry. One afternoon I saw Janis’ silver locket on the bedside table and sneaked in to steal it. I knew it must have had some special meaning to her as she never usually took it off. I heard her coming up the stairs and rushed into the bathroom holding the locket over the toilet pan in full view of Janis - then I let it slowly slip through my fingers into the toilet and flushed it away. I laughed seeing the pain in her eyes.
“What have I done to make you hate me?” was all she’d said as she walked into her bedroom closing the door behind her. I listened at the door and smiled relishing in my victory - she was crying.
Later that day I realised I’d gone too far. I was terrified Janis would tell my dad what a spiteful daughter he had. When he came home I waited anxiously for him to come upstairs and have it out with me, but he didn’t. At dinner he called me down. I ignored him, afraid to face him. He had to call me three times before I warily ventured into the kitchen. They were chatting about something, I can’t even remember what it was. When his back was turned, I glanced at Janis. By the look on her face I knew she hadn’t told him. I grinned at her, gloating once more in my victory.
My triumph over “the enemy” came three weeks before my entire world collapsed. I arrived home from school and Janis was sitting at the kitchen table crying. There were two police officers with her. One was holding Janis’ hand. I felt like I was suffocating. I couldn’t get my breath as I realised something bad must have happened to my dad.
Janis asked me to sit down and began to explain. I couldn’t take it in. They had to be wrong. Not my dad, my dad couldn’t be dead. I’d only seen him that morning and he was fine. But he wasn’t fine. He’d been in a road accident, a head on collision with another car. My dad, my darling wonderful dad was dead. At that moment I felt completely alone. I didn’t notice Janis reach over and put her arm around me. I was numb. Then the grief spilled out and I sobbed shouting for my dad as I ran to my room.
The funeral was a week later. I sat next to Janis in the church refusing to look at the coffin. If I didn’t look at it, then he wasn’t in there. It was all just a bad dream. I never heard the priest’s words or the eulogy by my uncle John.
The wake was at our house. I hated it, all those people looking at me with their sad, pathetic expressions. I spent most of the time in the gazebo. Dad had made it for mum when she was pregnant with me. My mum had loved her garden.
Finally everyone left the house and it was just Janis and me. It was all too much, I ran upstairs seeking the solace of my room. I cried and cried, the tears just wouldn’t stop. An hour later I heard the front door close. Looking out of the window I saw Janis taking Mimsy our Labradoodle for his nightly walk…that used to be dad’s job.
I wandered downstairs feeling ravenous, I realised I hadn’t eaten anything all day. Opening the fridge I took out a plate of sandwiches, neatly covered with cling film left over from the wake and sat down to eat.
That’s when I noticed the letter sticking out of Janis’ handbag. It was addressed to my dad. I know I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help myself. I took the letter out. It wasn’t sealed and my fingers trembled as I removed it from the envelope. I started to read.
It wasn’t the love letter I was expecting to find about how much she loved my dad; it was about so much more. The wedding had been small. I remembered there being no guests from Janis’ side. My Uncle John, dad’s brother and his wife were witnesses and the only other relative was Nanna Bent. All the other guests were dad’s friends.
Through the words of a simple letter, I discovered who the real Janis was. How she’d been forced to choose between me and Dad, and her own family. She lost everything, money; family; friends. She was reviled and shunned by her whole community for marrying outside of her religion, but she’d given it all up willingly to be with Dad and a child who hated her.
She even wrote about me,
“I love both of you Tom, and although I can never replace her mum, one day I hope she will call me her friend and the three of us can be a proper family.”
I swallowed hard as I read those words. How could she love me after all the awful things I’d done to her?
The final paragraph reduced me to tears. Janis, the so called “dad stealer” had once had a child of her own, a little boy who’d died when he was two. The silver locket, the one I had so maliciously flushed away had held the last remaining piece of her son, a lock of his hair. I never knew. I’d never wanted to get to know the real Janis, the Janis who’d given up so much to try to make a difference to my life. I felt sick with revulsion at what I had put her through over the last four years. That day my tears weren’t just for my dad, they were for all the hurt I had caused her.
I didn’t hear the front door open. Janis caught me hurriedly stuffing the letter into her bag.
“Oh, I didn’t mean you to find that,” she’d said.
I can remember rushing over and throwing my arms around her neck. In between sobs I apologised for every mean thing I’d said and done to her.
That was the first time Janis and I really talked. I asked her to tell me all about Janis, her family, her son and it was well into the early hours when the talking was over. Then without thinking I’d blurted out,
“Janis, I’d like us to be a family, just like Dad always wanted and – if you’ll have me I’d really love us to be friends.”
That was twelve years ago and as I gaze out of the kitchen window I’m smiling as I watch my son playing with Nanny Janis.
They’d spend all-day each Saturday at Murphy’s, sitting on the same barstools at the far end, under the red, white, and blue glow of the PBR neon sign. On the big screen, they’d watch football in the fall, hockey in the winter, baseball in the spring and summer. He kept an open tab, always paid.
When dark came she would take him to her apartment over the garage on the alley painted with gang graffiti, home to the homeless, and a nation of rats. She felt safe with him walking the three blocks from the bar to her bed.
In bed she called him Magellan. “Who?” he’d ask, as his hands roamed clueless of any desirable destination. As he grunted atop her, his whisky breath winds carried her away to white sand beaches, lapped by tepid aqua marine blue waters. In her mind she swam, and her body came alive. She basked in the warm embrace of salt and sand.
After, he’d cough and shiver. They would lay silent for a while, then he’d ask “hungry?”
“Sure,” she’d answer. He’d cook her eggs and toast and clean the kitchen while she ate. When she finished, he’d kiss her forehead and say, “early morning at the meat plant tomorrow,” and before he closed the door, he’d say, “next week.”
Alone on her couch she’d watch the travel channel until she fell asleep, happy for a full day of dreaming ahead before the clock reset on its endless countdown to next Saturday.
They sit with her as she lies curled on her bed, a parchment-thin waif dressed in clothes that now hang on her like a poorly shod mannequin. Her parents had dressed her that way, hoping their child`s once love of clothes would somehow start her on the long road back to some form of normality. But like so many things they had tried, it had failed, their daughter so deeply buried within herself, that not even her loving parents can reach inside.
Time to them had become meaningless, a word suffused with endless pain as they had watched their beloved child slip inexorably into a trunk; a trunk to which no one seemingly had the key. They had taken her to experts, scoured the internet, listened to charlatans, their minds overflowing with scattered hopes.
With heavy hearts they leave the girl in her room, playthings from happier times scattered around, unseen and unloved. Alone, she stares blankly at the darkening ceiling, her body rocking gently back and forth, back and forth...
Twilight now envelopes her space, grotesque shadows dance across the walls as shafts of moonlight stab mockingly at the rocking figure. She sleeps but fleetingly, her mind too obsessed for rest. Downstairs the couple sit, silent, bereft. Tomorrow they will try again, coax and cajole, hide the pain as they ask themselves, as they have repeatedly done. Why?...
In the room the girl, exhausted, finally sleeps, her head thrust deep into her pillow, her thumb lodged firmly between thin, bloodless lips. Her eyelids flutter like butterflies wings, her fractured mind wrestling with demons she cannot control...
Everywhere is silent now, only a gentle breeze to tug at the fabric of the old house. In their room the couple doze, their bodies spent, their minds fearful yet ever hopeful of what another dawn may bring...
‘Cup of tea, love?’ Geoff called up to his wife. ‘Are you awake?’
He climbed the staircase, carefully balancing the teacups on the plastic tray, trying hard not to soak the two biscuits.
‘There’s a message on my phone, forgot to charge it up. I could see it flashing all night,’ he grumbled, getting back under the duvet, and handing Carol a tea-soaked Digestive. ‘It’s only a voicemail thingy from that company that does holiday insurance for what they call their Silver Customers.’
Carol hauled herself up on the pillow. ‘Oh okay, that’s because I spoke with them yesterday about that all-inclusive hotel you said you fancied. I lost patience in the end though,’ she said. ‘The girl had the cheek to ask if I knew which buttons to press on the phone and was I able to open the email she was about to send. Just because they deal with people over sixty... I was using a mobile when she was still in primary school. Still got it somewhere.’
Geoff chuckled, thinking it better to change the subject. ‘The kids were wondering what we wanted for our anniversary next month.’
‘What did they have in mind?’ Carol was on a roll now. ‘A CD of wartime music?’
‘They don’t use CDs anymore, love, everything’s downloaded or uploaded or something,’ Geoff said. ‘Have to remember to charge stuff up though.’
‘Oh yes, so it is,’ Carol said, taking a sip of her now lukewarm tea. ‘And stored on a cloud apparently, which actually sounds quite nice, although you won’t find what you’re looking for, ever again. I wanted to watch a film the other night, but Sarah said I have to stream everything these days, you can’t just turn the telly on and choose your programme from the TV Times. And you can watch all episodes of a programme before they’ve even been on the telly!’
‘You’re right, it’s such hard work.’ Geoff put his empty teacup on the bedside table. ‘On Friday night, all I wanted was to watch the gardening programme, but a message kept coming up on the screen saying I needed to log back into my service provider, enter a four-digit code and reset my PIN number,’ he said. ‘By the time I’d found my glasses and the right buttons on the handset, another message said I’d been logged out as I’d taken too long…and by then it was bedtime.’
Carol looked up from her empty cup. ‘Shall we just book the holiday for our anniversary and disappear somewhere? Think I can just about find my way around the website…’
‘That’s not a bad idea,’ Geoff said. And we won’t be taking any mobiles, tablets, e-readers, cameras, smarty-pants watches or anything that needs charging up. We’re going technology-free.’
Poor Jonathan Bale has been in a fever of nervous apprehension all day. Will the table be candle-lit (it is), will there be a single red rose in a tall, slender vase (there is), will lobster be on the menu (Sophie loves lobster and, yes, it is). Now, at last, he is sitting at the table by the window, uncomfortable in his stiff new suit and fiddling with a small leather box in his pocket. Disappointingly, although Sophie is seated opposite him, she is, at the moment, unaware of his existence.
Sadly, the single red rose has failed to delight Sophie. Indeed, her thoughts have drifted back to the lurid floral tributes jockeying for position on the lid of the coffin at the funeral she attended that afternoon.
Gaston (christened Gary) appears at their table, bearing menus and a wine list, just after Sophie has awakened from her reverie. He is in time to hear her telling Jonathan that she went to a funeral today. Jonathan’s bottom lip protrudes in an expression of sympathy but she rushes on with reassurances that it’s OK, she hadn’t known the deceased, she just popped along because she wanted to see what grief looked like. Jonathan glances anxiously at Gaston. Had he heard that? Gaston maintains a professionally impassive countenance as he turns and floats soundlessly back to the kitchen. Best of luck with that one, mate, he thinks.
Gaston has been ferrying preposterously expensive plates of food from kitchen to table for more than thirty years and has never once witnessed a proposal being rejected. And a proposal is definitely on the cards tonight, all the signs are there. Call it a gut feeling, but he thinks Mr Jonathan Bale will be unsuccessful in his bid to secure the fair (if slightly weird) maiden. He is about to return to Table 4 to take their order when he sees that he should give them a minute.
Jonathan has reached across the table to take Sophie’s hands in his. Opening his mouth to speak, to ask the question he has been rehearsing all day, he hesitates. Not for a moment has he contemplated not going ahead but, that business about the funeral…
Sophie assumes he is overcome with nerves. This is cruel, she can’t let him go through with it. Tenderly, she tells him that, during the funeral, she came to the realisation that she could never allow herself to love him - anyone - because she is afraid she would be unable to bear her grief if something happened to him - anyone. Just in case he was about to…
Jonathan laughs what he hopes is a nonchalant laugh, rather than a laugh of maniacal relief, as he tells her he’s not the marrying kind either. What, him? No way!
Gaston is happy; his unblemished proposal accepted record is intact and Mr Jonathan Bale has had a lucky escape. He’ll be happier still if they order the lobster and a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.