First Love

It was the end of the 1950’s. I was seventeen, in the Upper Sixth of the Grammar School. A gangly, spotty lad, and something of a lone wolf. Not much use on the football field and even less on the cricket pitch. Books were my escape, birdwatching my hobby.

Ours was a mixed school, but I was invisible to the girls and so I decided to let them be invisible to me. There were occasional exchanges of course, but on the whole nobody would have noticed if I hadn’t been there. Sometimes, that came in useful and I’d skip a particularly boring class so I could hide in the library, which was quiet and peaceful and I could lose myself in other worlds.

It was on such a day, when I was trying to think of something sagacious to write in my essay, that I became aware of a girl sitting a few feet away from me, at the next table. A sudden shaft of sunlight shone right onto her, a spotlight that lit up her head, and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, a shiver ran down my spine, and my whole body was covered in goose bumps. Her hair looked aflame, and her face aglow. The rest of the room faded away in a mist and I could only stare at the vision before me. Did my jaw drop? Did I gasp? Did I whoop for joy? I don’t know. All I knew was, I was in love.

Did she feel me looking at her? Perhaps, because she raised her eyes from her book and looked straight into mine. She smiled, and the smile wasn’t just on her lips but also in her eyes. Then she went back to her reading. I floated back to the present, and dropped my eyes in embarrassment. Until the bell went for break, I didn’t dare look up again. When I did, she had gone.

It was a week before I saw that wonderful halo of golden hair again, and this time, to my surprise and pleasure, I realized that she took the same bus home as I did. My fevered brain invented excuses to speak to her, scripted long, involved conversations, devised exciting scenarios for interaction. Eventually, it was she who spoke to me, on the crowded bus: “Mind if I sit here?” All my clever responses dried up in my parched mouth and I could only nod and mumble an indistinct, “Sure.” She was sitting beside me! Her sleeve was actually touching mine! And then she turned those eyes like headlights on me, smiled that wonderful smile, and asked, “Are you any good at Latin?”

My opportunity, and I seized it with both hands. “Carpe diem!” I replied and she looked blank. So I cleared my throat and told her I was doing A-Level Latin and wasn’t too bad at it.

“Could you help me?” she asked. “I don’t understand the gerund.”

She was in the Lower Sixth, so fortunately for me that meant I was a year ahead of her and yes, I was able to explain both the gerund and the gerundive, topics which had not figured in any of my imaginary conversations, but in fact led to a perfectly normal, almost relaxed chat. Next time we were on the same bus, she made a beeline for me and sat down with a Cheshire cat grin on her face. 

“Thank you for helping me,” she said. “I got full marks for my Latin homework, and did OK in the test, too.”

I would have been chagrined had she not received full marks, but didn’t say so. Instead, I smiled back at her and noticed a dimple in the corner of her mouth that came and went as she spoke. All my prepared smart comments vanished from my mind. How was I going to impress her?   

“Any time,” I shrugged, “just ask, and … well, er, just ask.”

In the following weeks, I occasionally saw her around school, in a corridor or at the other end of the hall, once or twice in the library, but never had any chance to speak to her there. However, she made a habit of sitting next to me on the bus once a week, and for the fifteen minute bus ride, I coached her in Latin.

One day, after thanking me yet again for helping her improve her grades, she invited me to tea. I was over the moon! Sunday afternoon, high tea at 5 pm, at her home. Her mother greeted me kindly, her father looked at me as if inspecting an unidentified object left on the doorstep, and her little brother just stared at me with an inscrutable expression that made me feel very uncomfortable.

At about a quarter to six, her father looked at his watch and said, “Well, if you’re going to Evensong, you’d better be on your way.”

Evensong? I wasn’t a churchgoer, and in fact prided myself on my agnosticism. We certainly hadn’t discussed any plans other than having tea. I looked at my gorgeous angel, and she beamed her disarming smile. 

“Come on, then,” she urged me, “don’t want to be late.”

And thus I found myself walking beside her up to the lychgate of the parish church. Was I ready for conversion? Would I find my salvation here? Was I destined … ?

But a couple of yards short of the lychgate she stopped and turned to me.

“Thank you for coming with me. I hope you enjoyed your tea. I know you don’t attend church, so you can go now. Bye!”

And before I could say a word, she had flown those few yards and vanished through the gate. I stood stock still for a long moment in disbelief. Then my paralysis melted and I followed her tracks. I looked through the lychgate, and what I saw broke my heart. 

On the church steps, about to pass through the main door, was the girl I had been dreaming about for weeks, clinging to the arm of a young man wearing a ‘varsity scarf. As I watched, she put her face up to his and he kissed her on the lips. She gave him her most beautiful smile, and he hugged her. Then, holding hands, they went into the church.


Through the years life has been pretty good to me, though there have been some rough passages as well as smooth sailing. I met and fell in love successively with a range of young women, married one of them, and then, realizing our error, we divorced. I had settled into my bachelor retirement and hoped for a few years of quiet pleasure pursuing my genuine interests rather than those that brought in an income, when a chance phone call turned my world completely upside down.

An old friend of my youth whose path had continued to cross mine at intermittent intervals rang to tell me he had run into an old schoolfriend whilst visiting family who still lived in our old home town. 

“And guess what, he lives next door to somebody who used to know you!”

“Who might that be?”

Of course, you have guessed the name he then spoke, a name that I had locked away in a never-to-be-opened compartment of my heart, and had never dared to mention in over 60 years. 

“Oh.”  That was all I could say. “Oh, really?” 

“She remembers you very well … hold on, I have her e-mail address here … “

Instantly I was seventeen again, suffering the agony of having my heart broken for the first time.

I wrote down the e-mail address but it took me a week to pluck up the courage to re-open a wound I had thought long scarred over. She replied the next day, suggesting a video call. I hesitated. I could see what Time had done to me – but could I stand the shock of seeing what the decades had done to her? Well, I decided, confront your demons: maybe this is the way to heal that pain that I have been repressing all these years. I made the call. 

The face that appeared on my screen stopped my heart. Those eyes, that smile, just as bright and warm as I remembered them – no, even brighter and warmer, with a glow that only maturity can give. The golden hair was now silver, but all I saw was the sixteen-year-old whose radiance had enthralled me sixty years before. I was in love again.

What did we say to one another? Strangely, I don’t recall any of that first conversation. But there were many more, and although we were now in different parts of the country we talked and shared our experiences as if we were in the same room and had never been apart. She was widowed, with grown-up, middle-aged children living far away. I was alone, childless, a retired teacher of Classics, still birdwatching, reading and playing chess on my computer. In our regular video chats we created our own world of comfort and common interests, shared and discussed all kinds of topics, and found that even where our views diverged, we could differ without arguing.

Finally, after about a year of video chats, we decided to arrange a meeting. I would travel to her place, and we would see whether we were as compatible in the flesh as we were on the screen. Did we have a future together? I was feverish with excitement, planning my long weekend, envisaging scenarios, packing and unpacking then packing again, until finally it was the day of departure. 

I was on the doorstep of my house, about to turn the key in the lock, when my phone rang. 

A voice I didn’t recognise spoke, asking if I was Mr D. I affirmed that I was indeed he, assuming this was yet another nuisance cold call, but then the speaker identified himself and my blood ran cold.

“I’m really sorry to have to break the news to you like this, but I need to tell you that my mother had a stroke and died this morning. She had written your name and phone number on her calendar for today, so I thought …”

I didn’t hear the rest of what he had to say. I stood there for a long, long moment with the phone in one hand and my suitcase in the other, as my mind replayed a scene from long ago. 

A golden-haired girl walking away from me, hand-in-hand with a young man wearing a ‘varsity scarf, into a church.

And silence.

Pots from the Past

Pots from the Past

Housework finished, I was about to sit down with a well-deserved cup of tea when the doorbell rang. NO! I thought, I am NOT answering. But I couldn’t resist peeking, and saw there were two women standing on the doorstep. Jehovah’s Witnesses, no doubt. Ignore them and they’ll go away. Only they didn’t. The bell rang again,  more insistently. I put down my cup and opened the door.

“I’m a Pentecostal,” I announced. That usually gets rid of them. These two looked baffled, however.

“I’m born again,” I continued. Jehovah’s Witnesses rarely argue with charismatics, I’ve discovered. But these two didn’t react.

“That’s nice,” said the taller of the two, a middle-aged lady with a pleasant smile. “I’m sorry for disturbing you, but I really couldn’t pass by without stopping to see if anyone’s in. You see, this used to be our house … when I was a little girl. I have so many memories …”

I felt myself blushing. 

“Oh dear,” I said. “I thought you were Jehovah’s Witnesses. I’m sorry. Please come in, I’ve just made some tea.”

I opened the door wide and they both stepped inside. Now I could see that they were very clearly mother and daughter, the middle-aged lady a younger version of the elderly lady beside her.

“My name’s Margaret Anderson. We moved away from the area a long time ago, but I  just happened to be visiting old friends and couldn’t help coming by to see if the old place has changed much.”

I ushered them into the living room, glad I had finished my cleaning. They looked around with interest and I invited them to sit down on the sofa while I added two more mugs of tea. 

“You’ve made it very cosy,” said Margaret. Her mother nodded and smiled. “It’s quite different in some ways, but I see you have kept some of the original features.”

“I like the old fireplace,” I told her, “Though of course it’s no longer in use.”

“Ah yes, we had central heating installed,” replied Margaret, “And wall-to-wall carpeting.”

 I looked down at the thinning carpet, and explained that we were about to replace it, a DIY job scheduled for the coming week

“There used to be oak parquet underneath,” Margaret said. “You might find it’s still there, quite fashionable again nowadays.”

 Since I had made the beds, vacuumed and dusted everywhere, I offered to show them upstairs. They rose eagerly, and followed me, Margaret explaining animatedly how it had been in her youth and who had slept where. 

“What do you use the loft for now?” she asked suddenly. 

I looked blank. 

“The loft? Nothing – it’s just roof space,” I said.

Margaret looked surprised.

“We had it made into a den for my brother. He used to spend hours up there!”

I looked up at the narrow trapdoor in the ceiling. 

“How did he get in?”

“There was a telescopic ladder fixed onto the trapdoor. It drops down when you open the trap.” She looked around. “We had a long pole with a hook on the end to open it with, but I don’t see that anywhere.”

I was startled. We had lived in this house for five years and nobody had ever thought of opening that little trapdoor or exploring the roof space.

As we returned downstairs, Margaret told me a little more about her family. The house had been built in the nineteen-thirties for her grandparents, and her mother had been born there. Her grandfather had been killed in World War II, and her grandmother had brought up her only child alone. When this daughter – Margaret’s mother – married, she and her husband had moved in with the old lady, and Margaret had also been born there. 

“It was always a very happy house,” she told me, and again her mother nodded and smiled. “We were sorry to leave, but you know how these things are. I never knew my grandfather, of course, but he worked for The Ruskin Pottery, works manager or something. He bought this house, brand new, with the money he got when it closed down and when I was small, I remember my grandmother still had quite a few pieces of Ruskin pottery. No idea what happened to them – they’d be worth a bit nowadays.” 

I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about, but politely didn’t let on. I noticed that the old lady was staring very hard at the corner of the room in the alcove next to the fireplace, but she didn’t say anything. I followed her eyes, but could see nothing unusual there. She noticed, blinked and smiled, then looked away.

After they left, I sat for a moment musing about my visitors. It must be strange coming back to your childhood home after so many years, I thought, and seeing how so many things had changed. 

Why had nobody told us about the loft? 

I was curious. I took a chair from my bedroom and placed it below the trapdoor. The catch was difficult to budge as someone had painted over it, but eventually I managed to open it and pushed the little door upwards. A cloud of dust enveloped my head, but I reached up into the opening all the same. Yes, there was a telescopic  ladder attached to the back of the door, fastened with a leather strap. I released it, letting the ladder down and bringing more dust down with it but I was too intrigued by my discovery to bother about that. I climbed up the ladder and through the hole.

To my astonishment, I realised that there were floorboards there, and dustsheets spread over what appeared to be items of furniture. It was very dark, but as I groped around I discovered a light switch on a wooden beam. Amazingly, when I pressed it, a light went on! 

Yes, the dustsheets covered chairs and probably a table. But the most surprising thing was that the wooden floor was covered in miniature railway tracks, and I could see several very dusty boxes piled up to one side with pictures of trains on them. Why had nobody told us about this? Surely the estate agent must have known that they were there?

When my husband came home, I told him about my visitors and my discovery. We hauled the vacuum cleaner plus a mop and several damp rags up into the loft, and removed quite a lot of dust. It was quite a comfortable room that emerged, and I could well imagine that a young boy and his pals might have been very happy playing with their trains, or lounging about reading their comics away from the adults. Yes, there were old comics there and my husband got quite excited as he realised that the comics as well as the trains and the railway track were still in excellent shape and probably quite valuable.

“I suppose this all belongs to Margaret,” I remarked. My husband shook his head.

“We bought the house and contents, so that includes anything that wasn’t removed by previous owners. Anyway, did she leave you a phone number or an address?”

I had to admit that she hadn’t, and I had no way of contacting her at all. 

“I think she said they lived abroad,” I said, trying hard to remember details of our conversation. “But they had old friends nearby.”

We decided to deal with the attic room and its contents the following weekend, and in the meantime I tried to find out more about Margaret and her family from neighbours and local shopkeepers. Nobody remembered them. The house had changed hands more than once in the past forty years, and even the estate agent we had purchased it through couldn’t throw any light on its history. 

On Saturday morning we climbed the ladder again, and made a more thorough inspection of our magical loft. In addition to the boy’s toys and treasures we also found an old biscuit tin with a string tied around it. Inside was a bundle of letters, still in their original envelopes, with strange-looking stamps.

“Wow,” said Mick, my husband. “Look, that’s King George on the stamps! These are ancient!”

Tentatively, feeling that we were intruding on very private property, we pulled a letter from its envelope. 

My darling Marjorie,
We are being sent overseas tomorrow. Please don’t worry about me, I’m fine and I’ll take good care of myself … we’re glad that we’re going to see some action at last. I love you and miss you. Give Baby a big kiss from her daddy … All my love, George xxx

No, I couldn’t read any more; it really was an intrusion into intimacy. The writer must have been Margaret’s grandfather, who had been killed in action in 1940, and Baby – well, that must have been the old lady who had accompanied her the other day. 

Mick, however, didn’t share my scruples. “We might find some clues here,” he said, “and be able to contact Margaret after all.” 

He took the biscuit tin downstairs and spent the remainder of the morning reading this heart-wrenching correspondence, but found nothing that pointed to a contact with Margaret.

“This is funny,” he called after a while. “Listen to what George says: 
‘I hope the pots are all safely stowed away in the hidey-hole and will not be damaged in case of an air raid.’ 
What do you think he means by that?”

“Oh,” I said, as my conversation with Margaret came back to me, “He was employed at a pottery before the war. Margaret said they had some valuable things but she didn’t know what had happened to them.”

“Well, there aren’t any pots in the loft. What kind of pottery?”

I racked my brain, trying to remember the name of the pottery. Russel? Rankin? Finally it came back to me, and I cried triumphantly: “Ruskin!“

“Never heard of it,” said Mick, reaching for the laptop. “Let’s see what we can find.”

Wikipedia was quite helpful, and we found that the Ruskin Pottery in Smethwick near Birmingham was an art pottery studio producing highly valued ceramics in the Arts and Crafts style, that had closed down in 1935. Certain items could fetch very high prices even today. All the formulae for the very complicated glazes and all documentation relating to the pottery had been deliberately destroyed when the studio closed in order to preserve the unique Ruskin effects. 

“The owner didn’t want anybody replicating the glazes,” read Mick. “Bloody incredible! And you say the old man worked there? Did Margaret tell you anything else?”

“Not really,” I replied, “She did say there’s 1930’s oak parquet underneath this carpet. What about taking it up and having a look before we go out and buy new laminate or something?”

Mick agreed. “Can’t hurt,” he said. “It’s a job we’ve got to do anyway. But it’s probably completely ruined, so don’t get your hopes up.”

And so we began the dusty unpleasant job of removing the fitted carpet that had served several previous owners, and yes, there was indeed oak parquet underneath. No, not very beautiful any more, but Mike was jubilant and very optimistic that with a bit of sanding and varnishing he could restore it to its original glory.

As we reached the last corner in the alcove next to the fireplace, Mike paused. 

“That’s weird,” he muttered. “See? There’s an area here that looks like a trapdoor.” 

I remembered instantly how the old lady had fixed her eyes on this corner while we were talking, and felt a shiver run down my spine. I squatted down beside him and saw very clearly what he meant. “Can you open it?” I asked. Mike poked a screwdriver between two pieces of parquet, and up came a square about three feet on each side from the floor. It was hinged on one side, and was indeed a trapdoor. Underneath was a dark space. We looked at each other. 

“Quick, shine a light in here,” said Mike. I shone my phone into the space, and directly below we saw a large box roughly the same size as the trapdoor we had discovered. 

“How do we get it out?” I asked. “Has it got handles?” 

Mike muttered something under his breath, then put his hand down into the space and felt along the top edge of the box.

“It’s a tea chest,” he said. “My parents used one of these for years to store stuff in. Maybe the lid is loose, and I can get my hand into it.”

The chest was covered in a thick layer of dust and dirt, but after a moment or two, Mike was able to shift the lid slightly aside and reach inside. 

“It’s full of something – things wrapped in paper, I’d say. I don’t think we should try to get the whole box out like this. Better to take some of the things out first and see what they are.”

It wasn’t easy but with great care we managed to pull out several oddly shaped parcels wrapped in brown paper. Off came the wrappings, and we were looking at an array of multicoloured vases and bowls.

“This must be the hidey-hole and the pots George wrote about,” I said. “Ruskin pots?”

“Must be. Careful, they are probably a hundred years old or more.”

It took some time, but eventually we had removed all the contents of the tea chest and Mick was able to pull the chest itself out of the space beneath the floor boards. We shone the phone-light once again into the hole, and saw that rough boards had been placed to form a kind of protective little room for the tea chest.

“How long do you think they have been there?” I wondered.

Mick was looking inside the tea chest, making sure we had really removed everything. 

“Hey, look! There’s something else here,” he cried, dipping his hand deep into the box and bringing out a rectangular parcel wrapped in oilcloth. 

Very cautiously he unwrapped it. Inside the oilcloth was an old-fashioned leather-bound ledger with a name inscribed on the front cover: The Ruskin Pottery. I opened it.

“Did you say that all the documentation and glaze recipes had been destroyed?” I asked.

“That’s what it says in Wikipedia.”

“So what do you think this is?” I pointed at a page headed “High-Fired Flambé Glaze – N° 6”. Beneath the heading was a list of chemicals and quantities, followed by notes in a flowing copperplate handwriting.

“We have to find Margaret,” I said. “She really needs to see all this, even if we are the legal owners. If she hadn’t dropped in the other day …”

To my relief, Mike agreed. We wrapped everything up again very carefully (the brown paper was old, but the tea chest had protected everything from dust and dirt, so it was still all very clean) and placed the precious bowls and pots back in the chest. Then we closed the trapdoor, tidied up the room as well as we could, and called it a day.

The following afternoon, I was very surprised when the doorbell rang and I discovered Margaret Anderson standing on my doorstep again. 

“I don’t believe it!” I gasped. “I have been trying to trace you, but nobody remembered any Andersons.”

“No, they wouldn’t!” she laughed. “That’s my married name. I just wanted to come by before I fly home, and thank you for showing me around last week.”

I asked her in and led her into the living room, where she looked taken aback at the uncovered old parquet flooring and the tea chest standing in the corner.

“My goodness, you have been busy,” she said. “This floor brings back memories. My grandmother loved it, and my mother hated it! Polishing, you know? The first thing she did after Granny died was to have wall-to-wall carpet fitted.”

“Did you know about the hidey-hole?” I asked. Margaret looked puzzled. 

“What hidey-hole?”

I pointed to the trapdoor. “Under there.”

“No, Granny had a little table in that corner with a Chinese rug under it. I didn’t know there was a trapdoor there.”

“That’s where we found the tea chest.”

Margaret still looked puzzled. “The tea chest? What’s in it?”

With a smile, I showed her one of the vases we had found in the tea chest. Margaret’s eyes opened wide as she recognised an item from her childhood. 

“Granny always had that on the front windowsill,” she whispered. “There were always vases, bowls, dishes – oh, all sorts of things all around the house when I was small, but they all vanished when Granny died. I thought my mother had given them away or sold them … but … are there any more?”

“The tea chest is full,” I told her, “Have a look.”

Margaret couldn’t keep the tears from flowing as she saw the pottery she remembered so well. I explained that I had managed to get into the loft, told her about the things we had found there, and showed her the biscuit tin with her grandfather’s letters. 

“Mike read the letters, looking for clues, but we both felt we had no business intruding into their lives,” I explained. “Still, we wondered what he meant when he asked if the pots were safe in the hidey-hole, and when we found the trapdoor and the tea chest, it all made sense. If the house had been hit in an air raid, they would still have been safe there. 

Look, Margaret, I know that we bought this house together with all its contents, but we don’t feel it’s right for us to keep these things that nobody knew were there. Obviously, you have to have your grandfather’s letters, but we’ve got to sort out who owns the trains and comics and Ruskin pottery too. They’re probably all very valuable.”

 “I have to sit down,” she muttered, flopping heavily onto the sofa. “This is all too much. Yes, the letters – they are important to me. But the pottery – honestly, I don’t know what to say about that. I suppose it’s valuable, and that little vase – well, maybe I could keep that in memory of my grandmother. My brother died last year, so I’m the only one left. Do you want to keep it? Or sell the lot, and share the proceeds? Do I have a claim on it at all? I suppose we’d better consult a lawyer.”

“I think we’d better have a cup of tea first,” I suggested. “Mike will be here soon. Then we can talk about it. There’s also the ledger – I haven’t even mentioned that.”


“Glaze recipes!”


I explained about the ledger. Everyone believed that Mr Howson Taylor, the owner of the pottery, had destroyed all the glaze recipes, but it seemed that Margaret’s grandfather had rescued at least some of them. This was going to be a sensation in the art world. Margaret looked as if she were about to faint, so instead of a cup of tea I poured us a glass of brandy each.

“It’s funny about the hidey-hole,” I said. “Your mother kept staring at that spot all the time the other day, but she didn’t say anything.”

Margaret gave me a peculiar look.

“My mother?”

“When you came last week, with your mother. She must have known about the trapdoor and the pottery in the hidey-hole, but she didn’t say anything.”

Margaret shook her head and took a large swig of her brandy. She grimaced.

“She’s the only one who could have put all that stuff away down there before the carpets were laid, so yes, she would have known about it. I suppose she remembered my grandmother putting the pots there for safety during the War,” she said. 

“But – I came here alone last week. My mother died 15 years ago.”

What doesn’t kill me …

Winston always dreaded the start of the new school year. For some reason, he had regularly found himself in classes where he knew hardly anyone and had to overcome his shyness in an attempt to make new friends every September. Friends? No, he never made friends; he had to invest all his energies into withstanding his enemies and trying to keep the rest of the class neutral towards him. This already daunting task was made worse by the reaction of his classmates as soon as they heard his name. He was the instant butt of jokes, teasing and bullying. In a way, it was boring. They were always the same unimaginative puns on his name and initials – Winston Chambers, W.C. “Here comes the Winning Pisspot” was about the least offensive and hurtful. He was inured to the bad jokes and teasing, but he still feared the bullies. And they knew it.

As he entered his new classroom on this sunny autumn day he could feel his heart sinking into his socks. Very few familiar faces, and those belonged to people he least desired to see. Didn’t the powers-that-be, the members of staff responsible for allocating kids to classes, realise what went on?

Winston drew a deep breath and walked to the place that would be his during this school year. To his surprise, hardly anyone took any notice of him. He glanced up and saw that the bully boys were already busy, their attention focused on a small chap with a quivering lower lip, the sign guaranteed to goad a bully to even greater heights – or depths – of torment. Winston’s first reaction was to shrink down into his seat, away from the bloodthirsty horde. Then he heard what they were saying and a flame of anger shot through him.

“Poor little ice-arse!” and similar jeers struck a chord and before he could stop and think Winston found himself striding across the room to the side of the miserable victim.

“Shut up, the lot of you!” His voice was loud and fierce. His eyes were blazing and he suddenly looked much bigger and taller. He felt he was towering above the lads who were now gaping at him. One of them giggled, but they stopped their banter and shifted their attention to Winston.

“Who’s this?” asked one of the boys Winston didn’t know. “Batman come to help Robin?”

“Bogman, more likely,” sniggered another. “It’s old WC, the chamber pot. One shithouse come to the rescue of another!”

 The gang laughed and for a moment it looked as if both Winston and the little chap were going to get battered, but at that moment the door opened and the class teacher walked in.

“What’s your name?” Winston whispered hurriedly.

“Nicholas Winterbottom,” muttered the boy, flushing deeply.

Winston returned to his seat and it wasn’t until break that he was able to find and speak to Nicholas,  tucked away in a quiet corner in the shadows.

“It’s bad enough being called Nicholas,” said the boy, “but then Winterbottom as well …”

“I know what you mean,” nodded Winston feelingly. Knickerless winter bottom, he thought. What on earth were his parents thinking of when they named him? 

“Look, Nick,” he said, “That lot in there – do you think we can face them, together?”

Nicholas looked at him hard. Winston returned the gaze. Neither flinched and something – neither could say exactly what, but both felt it – passed  between them. Nicholas nodded.

“You’re brave,” he said. “You make me feel braver than I’ve ever felt before.”

Winston smiled. “We can stand up to them, you know. Together.” 

He wasn’t sure what made him feel so positive, but he remembered that sensation of power that had suddenly filled him the moment he had taken his place by Nicholas’s side earlier. He had faced the enemy, looked into his eyes, and seen – what? Surprise? Yes, but more than  that:  not fear exactly, but … respect. The other boy had looked away first, and had backed off. Winston was discovering confidence, self-assurance. Perhaps, too, he had grown a few inches during the summer holidays. He was unaware of it himself, but in the past hours his posture had changed: he was standing up straight and tall, his chin raised, his entire body proclaiming: “Don’t mess with me.”

The effect on Nicholas was startling. For the first time in his life, he had a champion. More than a champion, a role model. By the end of the first week of term, encouraged and inspired by Winston’s new attitude, Nicholas  was also walking tall, his head up and his gaze steady. 

That was all a very long time ago. Years. Decades. So much water under the bridge, Winston thought, as he re-read the headlines on his computer screen. New Year’s Honours List – well, well! In his mind, he saw Nick’s young face, as it had been that first week when the two of them had decided on their strategy and had enrolled in a martial arts course after school. And look at them now. 

“Never looked back!” he murmured to himself. “Good old Nick!”

He picked up his phone. 

“Professor Chambers here,” he announced. “Is Sir Nicholas available?”

Left-Brain Fairy Tale

“Let me tell you a story,” I said to my millennial grandson when he was about nine. 

He acquiesced, probably out of politeness to his aged grandmother.

“Once upon a time there was a beautiful princess who lived up on the top of that mountain,” I gestured towards the peak towering above our village.

“Was she a dwarf?” he asked.

“Er – I’m not sure,” I hadn’t developed my story quite to that point.

“She was the daughter of the King of the Mountain …”

“The King of the Mountain was a dwarf,” he stated in an irrefutable tone. 

I considered that irrelevant and continued:

“… and she spent most of her time wandering around exploring the …”

“Did she have a snowboard?”

“A snowboard?”

“There’s a lot of snow up there in winter.” He was, of course, right. “Or skis. She might have had a sledge.”

“Well, maybe she did, but she was a magical princess and she could fly …”

“Did she paraglide? Or did she sky-dive?”

“I think she sort of floated on the breeze …”

“In a wingsuit?”

My mental image of my fairy princess drifting like thistledown over the mountaintops began to waver.

“Sometimes she rode on the back of an eagle, and …”

“Oh, so she must have been a dwarf. Or a midget.”

I decided to ignore this and continued with my depiction of my beautiful magical princess.

“One time she flew into a rainbow, and took it for a cloak that she wrapped around her …”

“Did she get wet?”


He rolled his eyes and patiently mansplained to me that a rainbow is the result of light being refracted through raindrops, so it would inevitably be wet. I valiantly returned to my story.

“She was very loving. She knew and took care of all the animals that lived on the mountain …”

“A lot of them have fleas. Was she a vet?”

At this point, I gave up.

“Would you like to tell me a story?” I asked.

“Not really, Granny. I’d rather play Minecraft.”


You knew, didn’t you, right after the birth of your second son. It was obvious.  You couldn’t go on like that. 

You never needed a magic mirror to tell you who was the fairest in the land. You only had to look at the young men around you, the ones who didn’t swoon at your feet, only the best looking guys who had the confidence to approach a beauty with the expectation of acceptance, no fear of rejection. Oh yes, you knew who was the prettiest girl and you knew who was the most handsome boy, and so did he. Like opposite poles of a magnet. And you looked like a couple of film stars on your wedding day, glowing and sparkling like diamonds. But good looks alone, as you soon found out, don’t guarantee the happy-ever-after marriage.   

You did your best, both of you. You really tried, and you had the second child in the hope that this baby would be the glue that stuck the shattered pieces back together. It wasn’t. Then one day he didn’t come home from work. Nor the next day. You waited, wondered, continued with your life because somebody had to cook and clean and look after the children, and you thought: Maybe he just needs a break, he’ll be back soon. 

A week later a postcard arrived from Marseilles: I have joined the Foreign Legion. 

You exploded in anger and frustration, screamed and wept, banged your fist and stamped your feet at such crass egotism and lack of consideration. Money arrived at irregular intervals and in varying amounts, so you had no alternative: you had to find a job and childcare. An attractive face and figure are always welcome at the reception desk of any company, so that wasn’t too difficult and you also had enough of a brain to pick up the fundamentals of accounting. In no time, you were a career woman. And you were lucky with the childcare, too.

Routine set in, and the boat of your life stopped rocking for a while as you seemed to be sailing smoothly downstream, steering your own course. Up in the morning, drop off the children, work till lunchtime, have lunch in the restaurant just down the road, work again in the afternoon, pick up the children and play your role of mother in the evenings and at weekends.

Of course there were men who’d flirt a little with you and occasionally try to arrange a date, but you were once bitten, twice shy, and in any case, even though he’d disappeared, you did have a husband. On paper, at least. Sometimes that was a handy excuse, and you continued wearing your wedding ring to deter unwanted attentions. No excitement, but you felt in a way you had had enough excitement. Now and then you wondered if you should sue for divorce, but then you’d think, why bother?

And so life drifted on until the telegram arrived. Out of the blue it came, with the news that your husband had been killed in action in a place you had never heard of. You hadn’t seen him for years, and you felt a tinge of guilt at your indifference. The children had completely forgotten him.  Later, a box arrived with his effects and quite a large sum of money was paid into your bank account.

Kids, we can have a holiday! 

There was enough for you all to go away for a month, a great holiday for the three of you with sun, sand and sea, plenty of fun things to do and no need to count the pennies. You came back feeling ten years younger and radiant.

On Monday morning, you slipped back into the old routine: school run, work, and at midday you headed off to the restaurant as usual. Oh, but your table was occupied. You looked around for a free seat, and met a pair of bright blue eyes in a face brimming over with joy.

Oh, great! You’re back! It’s so wonderful to see you again!

Who is this? Do I know this man?

I was so worried about you. I thought something awful must have happened. I’m so pleased to see you looking so well, and so glad you’re here again.

You looked at this happy face and remembered that this man was another regular at the restaurant, one of the people you nodded to when you came in but had never actually spoken to.

Somebody else has taken your table, but I’d be very honoured if you’d join me … if you don’t mind …

Why not? He seems pleasant enough, and after all you had been lunching in the same restaurant almost every day for the past few years. You smiled and sat down opposite him.

Your holiday mood hadn’t quite dissipated, and he sounded like good company even though, as you quickly realised, he was actually quite shy. Not a man to go rushing in where angels fear to tread. But he explained in the first few minutes that he had been trying to pluck up courage to speak to you for a very long time. Then, on the day he had finally decided on what he would say to you by way of introduction, you weren’t there. And you weren’t there all the rest of that week, nor the week after. He could have kicked himself for his lack of courage, for not having approached you before when he had the opportunity, and now he feared you had either left your job or something dreadful had happened to you. He was in despair, and full of self-reproach. Ah, but now you were here again, and this time he had seized his courage in both hands and dared to open his mouth. He explained all this and then, to your great amazement, blushed bright red to the roots of his hair.

You were very touched by his candour, and for the first time in many years you, the ice maiden, melted. Gently, warmly, you responded. Your conversation came from depths that you both normally never sounded, and your souls recognised their affinity. He was ten years older than you, had never been married, and had given up hope of ever finding the right person although, as he confessed, he had been admiring you from afar for a very long time but in the way one pays homage to the unattainable. Now, suddenly, you were within his sphere and he reached out, daring to connect. And connect you did, on every imaginable level. No time to lose. You were married six weeks later. 

Happy ruby wedding!

My Fishing Secret

It wasn’t every weekend, though in retrospect it feels like that. As a nine-year-old, it was what I looked forward to all week long. Grandpa would pick me up on Saturday evening after tea, and bring me home on Sunday in time for Mum’s high tea with its customary tinned salmon and salad followed by a Victoria sponge. Grandpa enjoyed those, too. In between those two tea-times was Grandpa-and-me-time.

Grandma gave me a cuddle when we arrived on Saturday, but on Sunday morning I never saw her. “I’m not getting up in the dark to make you two your breakfast on the one day of the week when I can have a lie-in,” she said, when I asked her about it. “Your Grandpa’s perfectly capable of that if he has to.”

He was, too. I usually woke up a few minutes before the alarm clock’s scream at 6 a.m. and Grandpa didn’t fuss about making me wash and brush my teeth. He made a big pot of tea, poured us two cups and the rest went into his thermos flask. At the same time he boiled us a couple of eggs – sometimes hard, sometimes soft – and cut thick slices of bread and butter that he smeared with Marmite. We drank our tea, ate the eggs with one doorstep slice of bread, butter and Marmite, and wrapped two more hefty Marmite sandwiches in greaseproof paper for our lunch. 

Then Grandpa’s fishing mate George would arrive in his van, always with the same question for me: “Got your stomach well-lined, ‘ave yer, Sonny?” and I would reply with the same answer every time: “Yes, George, good ol’ Marmite!” as I clambered into  the back of the van with the creels and fishing rods.

Usually, the sun rose during our drive to the river, so we could see by the dim early light where the best “holes” were. Grandpa and George always talked about “good holes”, the best little semi-circular hollows in the river bank where you could place your folding seat and settle down comfortably to wait for the fish to bite. Sometimes we found a good hole pretty quickly, other times it felt as if we’d walked miles before Grandpa said, “This’ll do!” and I could unpack my fishing tackle. 

My job was to put the maggots on the hook, which could be quite fiddly because the maggots didn’t really like it and weren’t always cooperative. We’d cast our lines and then sit back to watch the float bobbing about in the water, waiting for it to dip and signal that a fish had taken the bait. Sometimes it was a long wait, but there was always something interesting going on along the river bank, and though I always had one eye on the float, the other followed the activities of ducks and voles and whatever else was foraging in the undergrowth. After a while, Grandpa would nod towards the thermos flask and the packet of sandwiches and I’d silently pass them over to him. Then we’d have a quiet little picnic. 

One day, a bit of Marmite was transferred from my fingers to the maggot I was threading onto my hook. To my surprise, I had a bite almost immediately and hauled in a nice big perch. Was it a fluke? I carefully applied a smear of Marmite to my next maggot, and again a fish took it within seconds. Repeated the procedure, and another fish. Grandpa looked on in amazement. 

“What are you using for bait?” he asked. 




He smiled, and his next maggot also received a dab of the dark brown magic. It worked!

When George came by an hour or so later with his usual question of: “’Ad any luck, mate?” and we pulled up the keep-net to show him our bounty, he almost fell into the river.  He had been downstream from us and hadn’t had a single bite. “Bloody ‘ell!” was all he said. After that, Grandpa and I always added a smidgeon of Marmite to our bait, and it almost always worked. Fish like Marmite, we decided. We didn’t tell George our secret, though, and I don’t believe Grandpa ever let on to him even though he was his best friend.

Angling remained a hobby of mine long after I was grown up and Grandpa was no longer around. My wife, like my Grandma, left me to make my own breakfast on those days when I rose before dawn and made my way down to the river to take advantage of the fishes’ early morning hunger. I always made Marmite sandwiches to take with me, exactly as Grandpa had done. One day, on my return she asked me about this time-honoured custom.

“Why Marmite?”

“Well, “ I replied, “It’s for Grandpa. He loved it. And the fish do, too.”

“But you don’t normally eat it, only when you’re going fishing …”

“Sure! I told you, it’s for Grandpa. And the fish. To tell you the truth, I can’t stand the stuff.”

The Apple Quandary

It started off like any other school day. I was playing a game as I walked to school in the morning, bouncing my ball three times then throwing it up in the air three times and catching it, which demanded all my attention, when not only the ball came down but also an apple. I was passing under an overhanging branch of an apple tree, and the ball must have knocked the apple off its twig. I caught them both, to my own great astonishment, and looked round to see if anyone else had witnessed my amazing accomplishment. Nobody was there.

“Well,” I thought, “this must be my prize for being so clever at catching!” (I didn’t yet know the word ‘dexterity’) so I put the apple in my pocket and continued on my way. At break, I remembered the apple and fished it out of my pocket. Angela, sitting beside me, studied it intently.

“Where did you get that nice big apple?” she asked.

I explained how it had leapt into my hand out of nowhere.

“That’s the Vicar’s apple tree,” she informed me. I nodded. I knew that. Everybody knew that.

“You stole it from the Vicar.”

“No, I didn’t, It fell off into my hand.”

“You stole it from the Vicar, and that’s like stealing from God. You’ll go to hell.”

With that, she turned on her heel and left me.

I gaped after her receding back, and then at the apple, rosy and ripe in my hand, ready and willing for me to take a bite out of it.

Angela’s right, I thought. That is the Vicar’s apple tree, and so this really is his apple. If I eat this, I’ll be like Adam and Eve, and … well, we know what became of them, eating God’s apples.

I put the apple into my school bag where it glowered invisibly at me all day. At home time I looked at it again and knew what I had to do.

My steps slowed as I neared the Vicarage and my heart beat faster. I walked up the garden path and rang the bell. I waited. Nothing happened. Should I just leave? No, I must be brave. I rang again and then I heard steps inside. The door opened and there he stood, looking down at me. The Vicar.

“Hello, what brings you here?”

“Please sir,” I began, not quite sure how to address the man who represented God on earth, but certain that he was no less important than my teacher, who was always Sir. “This is your apple. I’ve brought it back.”

His eyes rested on the apple in my outstretched hand, then on my equally red and shiny face and he smiled.

“Come inside and explain yourself,” he said.

If fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, fear of the Vicar isn’t far behind. I didn’t dare refuse. I followed him into his study and he gestured towards an armchair.

“Now then, sit down and tell me all about it.”

“This is your apple, sir, and I don’t want to go to hell.”

The Vicar’s eyebrows reached for the sky.

“Why do you think you might go to hell?” he asked gently.

“Like Adam and Eve, sir. They listened to the serpent and ate the apple and God was angry.”

“Aha,” he said, “and you think that if you eat an apple you’ll make God angry too?”

I could feel tears beginning to burn the back of my eyes, and the corners of my mouth turning down. Of course I didn’t want to make God angry. I gulped.

“It’s YOUR apple, sir,” I told him. “It fell off your tree and I caught it. I was going to eat it but Angela said I stole it from you and that’s the same as stealing from God. I didn’t mean to steal it, sir, honestly. But Angela …” I choked on the words that signified my damnation and blinked hard to stop the tears that were welling up.

The Vicar nodded.

“I see. It fell off the tree into your hand?”

“I caught my ball with one hand and the apple with the other.” I couldn’t help boasting of my feat.

“Hmm. So did the ball make the apple come down?”

My turn to nod.

“Did you throw your ball up into the tree on purpose to make the apple fall?”

“NO!” I exclaimed indignantly. “I didn’t even see the tree.”

The Vicar looked at me with a very serious expression on his face, preparing the theological explanation that the situation demanded.

“Well, as I see it you didn’t steal the apple. If you didn’t even see the tree, how could you know that the ball would knock an apple out of it? So your intention was honest. Then, secondly, the apple fell all by itself – or maybe even God made it fall – just exactly at the moment you were about to catch your ball. That really was very adroit, by the way, to catch both your ball and the apple. So in a way, the tree gave you the apple. Or, if you like, God did. So I would say that it’s actually YOUR apple.”

“But it’s your apple tree, sir,” I protested.

“Yes, that’s true. But were you on my side of the wall, in my garden?”

“Oh no, sir. I was outside on the pavement.”

The Vicar smiled at me again.

“You see, that’s a public place, so if an apple falls outside my garden in a public place, it’s public property. That means anybody who wants it can have it.”

“You mean finders keepers?”

“Absolutely. You aren’t a thief and I see no reason why you should be going to hell. Please explain that to Angela, too. Now, shall we see if there are any more good apples lying around under the tree? Windfalls can be just as good as the apples you pick, you know.”

He led me out through the back door into the garden of the Vicarage and we walked to the little orchard. There were plenty of apples lying about on the ground, freshly fallen and not at all bruised or worm eaten. He handed me a carrier bag.

“Take as many as you like, and tell your mother they’re a present to you from God, a reward for being honest. I hope you enjoy them.”

He patted me on the head – which I hated – with a blessing and went back into the house. I filled the bag and took the apples home to Mum, who was beginning to wonder why I was so late home from scholl.

Perhaps those apples were also blessed: it was the best apple pie I had ever eaten in my life.

The Teddy Bear Man

Rachel’s mouth was a grim line as she buckled the twins into their car seats. There had been the usual fracas, with Josh refusing his cereal and Grace tipping her yoghourt over the cat, so she was running late again. Of course she allowed time for this kind of thing, she thought to herself. “I know every time something will happen, and it always takes longer than I expect.  We’ll never ever be able to get up, wash, dress and have breakfast in an orderly manner.” She had a momentary vision of herself as an old woman, still trying to get the twins organised and off to work, and a rush of irritation against Tim made her bang Josh’s arm against the seat. Immediately she felt contrite, and stroked and kissed him better.

As she drove her thoughts turned again to Tim. She was constantly in a turmoil of grief and anger, frustration and anxiety about the future. How could he have gone like that? Just as everything was starting to look good, a perfect little family, loving parents, beautiful children, ideal home, good career prospects. She had to admit that she resented it, and more than once had banged her fist at the lack of consideration he had shown in dropping dead, without any warning, without any farewell. How could that happen to a healthy thirty-six-year-old man, going out like a flame in a draught?

They’d had so many plans, so much they were going to do, and now …. Nothing. She was alone, dealing with all the everyday problems and issues, no one to talk things over with, no one to look for solutions and answers with her. No one to share bringing up the twins, to laugh about the funny things they said and did, or to give them that extra cuddle. And to top it all she felt guilty about her resentment towards Tim.

At least she still had her job, and thank goodness the day nursery near her office could take the kids so she didn’t have too far to drive each day. For the time being, anyway. The grim line of her mouth tightened even more.  A year to grieve, they had said. Then you can start making big decisions. Well, it had been more than a year now. She already had a buyer for the house and knew she would soon have to find a smaller place for them to live, but the thought filled her with fear.  Downsizing was an easy word to say, but the reality was a totally different matter. Should she look for a place to rent, until she knew what she wanted to do permanently? Her brain felt like scrambled egg.

Once she was in her office, though, she could close that compartment of her mind filled with all her private cares and worries, whilst she focussed on the matters demanding immediate attention. There were plenty of people worse off than she was, and her job reminded her of that. Her department was tasked with helping find accommodation for the homeless, the waifs and strays that wandered in and out, some looking utterly helpless, others defiant or vociferous.  Some of them were easy to deal with, but there were others who seemed like hopeless cases and almost deliberately sabotaged all her efforts, their own worst enemies. Concentrating on their troubles helped her forget her own for a while.

Rachel looked at her agenda and realised she was due to give a talk at a local charity that afternoon. She had known about it, obviously. It had been there in her calendar for several weeks, but she hadn’t registered that it was today. She heaved a sigh and set to work on updating the last presentation she had given. No time to do anything original now.

By two pm, in professional mode with fresh makeup and her hair re-coiffed, she looked as if she hadn’t a care in the world as she arrived at the charity HQ. They gave her a warm welcome, her presentation went well, and the questions afterwards were less inane than usual. Rachel’s mood was definitely much brighter than it had been at breakfast time.

“Excuse me,” said a warm voice, “Would you have a moment to spare? I have a few more questions, more specific ones.”

Two smiling hazel eyes met hers.  “Of course,” she said, “I think most people have gone now, so the rest of my time is yours.”

The eyes belonged to a middle-aged man who reminded her of a teddy bear, with his short sandy-coloured hair and beard and rather rotund figure. She wondered if he would growl if she pressed his tummy, and the thought made her smile.

“They’re serving tea and coffee next door,” he said, “if you would like to sit down somewhere more comfortable …” It seemed a good idea, and soon they were cosily ensconced in a couple of armchairs with their coffee.

“My name’s David,” he said. “Our church has a programme that tries to help people who are down and out, and I thought we might be able to work with your association.”

David was easy to talk to, and after they had discussed the various possibilities for their two organisations, their conversation turned to more personal topics. David told her about himself and how he had come back to his native town after working abroad for several years, and how much more fulfilling he found his present occupation than the rat race that had previously consumed him. Rachel found herself telling him about her predicament and the house-hunt that she was about to engage in.

“I’m thinking of going back home to Lincolnshire,” she said, “I still have family there, and the children aren’t in school yet, so it would be a good time to move. Trouble is, I do love my job and I’ve made some friends here. I feel so unsettled.”

“What would you do if you went back?”

“Don’t know, really. If I could find the right place here, I’d prefer to stay.”

David looked thoughtful.

“One of the things our Centre does is find work for our lame ducks. I’m mostly involved with building trades because that’s what I know about. It gives the lads a bit of experience and independence, helps their pride and self-esteem. We pay them at the going rate, and sometimes they can move into a place themselves. I’ve just sunk all my savings into a couple of properties that need some TLC,“ he said. “An investment for my old age. I thought I’d do them up and let them, some income when I can’t work any more. I don’t know if that might help you?” 

“Where are they?” asked Rachel.

“One of them is in Long End Street, about ten minutes walk from here. Would you like to have a look? I haven’t found a tenant for that one yet, because I was going to do a few things to it first, but you’re welcome to first refusal.”

They arranged to meet for a viewing the following Friday, and Rachel went back to her office.

She was pleasantly surprised that evening, when the twins were tucked up in bed and she had finally managed to kick off her shoes and sit down, to get a phone call from her cousin. Jackie was the same age as Rachel, and they had been very close all their lives in spite of the geographical distance that now separated them.

“I’ve been praying for you,” Jackie said. She was a regular churchgoer, the only one in the family nowadays.

“God knows what for,” said Rachel flippantly.

“Yes, he does,” retorted Jackie. “You shouldn’t be so negative, duckie! Funny thing, actually. I got the distinct impression that you are going to live in a house with chickens in the garden!”

They chuckled at the thought of career-girl Rachel keeping hens, and turning into a smallholder, then went on to exchange all the rest of the family news and gossip.

By Friday Rachel had forgotten this conversation, and she almost forgot her appointment with David, but he called her just as she was about to leave the office, to give her careful directions.

“It’s an old house, as I told you,” he said. “But you can’t miss it, it’s got a black-and-white porch around the front door.”

Rachel didn’t have high hopes. He had said the house was a fixer-upper, and she knew enough about property to understand what that meant. But it could be a temporary solution until she had got everything sorted out, and she was touched by David’s kindness in offering her first refusal.

Her premonitions were correct. Her heart sank when she saw the peeling paintwork, the cracked path and the large patch of weeds in front of the house. This wasn’t promising. David opened the door and they stepped inside. Rachel was surprised by how light and airy the place was, and noticed instantly that it was relatively clean. Yes, the décor was stuck in the nineteen-eighties, the wallpaper and the patterned carpet screamed at the swag curtains, but it did have central heating and double-glazing.

“I’m planning to redecorate, of course, “David told her, “And put in a new kitchen and bathroom. I thought of knocking this wall out, and extending the kitchen. What do you think? It wouldn’t be too big a job. There’s plenty of room and it would make a huge difference to the kitchen. If you’re interested in renting it, I could get it done to your liking. A woman’s input matters in a kitchen.”

After they had been through the whole house, Rachel found herself feeling slightly more positive about the house. Yes, it was old, and had been occupied by an old person, but it felt friendly and had character, with real beams in the living room and a neat bow window with a window seat. There were three bedrooms, so the twins wouldn’t have to share, and although it was centrally situated it was in a very quiet cul-de-sac with little traffic. She could actually walk to work from there. She began to visualise how it might look with new flooring and freshly painted walls, and how she could fit in at least some of her furniture.

“What about the garden?” she asked. Through the windows, especially from upstairs, she had noticed that it was a decent sized jungle. Maybe the kids would like that! Much depended on what was lurking in the undergrowth, though, and it might not all be harmless.

“I’ve got people lined up for that,” David nodded, suddenly aware of the importance a garden might hold in the lives of four-year-olds. “We can do the front, too, make it into off-road parking. And I’d be very grateful for your advice on landscaping it and making it safe for the little ones. There are a couple of outbuildings, a shed and something, might have been a greenhouse once. The old man left all his gardening tools, too. I’ll get it all cleared away and we’ll prune the bushes and trees. It could be lovely.” He added this in a hopeful tone and Rachel smiled.

They stepped out through the kitchen door into a kind of lean-to, and David explained how easy it would be to make the kitchen so much bigger with a proper extension and picture windows looking onto the garden, which he promised to make child-friendly. “You could easily keep on eye on them while you’re in the kitchen,” he said, “and make sure they don’t get up to mischief.”

But Rachel wasn’t listening. She had noticed the old wooden shed next to the lean-to, and opened the door. It was dark, dusty and full of cobwebs, but one thing stood out very clearly: the black shape of a cockerel raising his head to crow. She gasped.

“What’s that?” she whispered.

“Oh, the old boy who lived here used to do metalwork as a hobby. This was his workshop. I think he made weather vanes and things.”

As her eyes adapted to the darkness, Rachel made out a few more recognisable shapes. What had Jackie said? “Chickens in the garden”?

Well, these were definitely chickens: fowl of all shapes and sizes, not just cockerels and hens but ducks and geese too.

She looked at David, her eyes like saucers.

“I think I’m supposed to take it,” she said slowly. “My cousin said I was going to live in a house with chickens in the garden!”

David grinned.

“What made her say that?”

“She’s a good Christian, goes to church regularly, and she said when she prayed about me, that’s the answer she got.”

“Did she say anything about the rent?”

Rachel shook her head, puzzled.

“Well, “ he laughed, “You’ll have to tell your Christian cousin that when I prayed about this house, and how much rent I should charge, I got the answer ‘Chickenfeed!’ I think we may have a deal!”

David awoke just before sunrise on Saturday as the sky was turning pink. Still in his pyjamas, he made himself a pot of coffee and sat down by the window to watch the daily miracle of dawn and prepare for his quiet time. He could see his reflection in the glass, his beard and the roundness of his cheeks. He sighed.

“Not getting any younger, are you?” he said to the face looking back at him. “What on earth are you thinking of?”

Later that day he was busy at the Centre when the pastor, George, turned up.

“Could do with a word sometime, George, when you have a minute.”

“Right. Want to book a date for the wedding or are you going to Gretna Green?”

David was taken aback.

“What do you mean?”

“That gorgeous redhead you whisked away from us the other day – you didn’t lose any time, did you?”

“Actually, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about, George. She’ll be moving into my house …”

George’s jaw dropped. “You don’t hang about, do you, David? I was joking …”

David laughed out loud and clapped George on the shoulder. “My house in Long End Street,” he explained. “You know I’ve been looking for a tenant. Well, she’s looking for a house and there was this strange coincidence.” He told George what had transpired, and that he needed to get the house fixed up sooner than originally intended. That would be work for some of the people on the charity’s books, and he wanted George’s recommendations. They had soon agreed on that, and David turned back to his duties. As he moved away, he suddenly stopped.

“George, I think you’re right,” he said.

“Of course I’m right,” responded George. “What about, in particular?”

“I’m going to marry her.”

Where did the words come from? David had no idea. He didn’t stop to elaborate, but fled into his tiny office and closed the door. Why had he said that? How stupid did that make him look, a tubby man getting on for fifty, who had never even been engaged before let alone married – what was he thinking, how could he dare to think, of himself and that striking young woman in any kind of relationship? They hadn’t spent more than a couple of hours together. And yet, the idea had settled into his mind that morning and now it was stuck fast like a limpet on a rock: “That’s the woman I’m going to marry!”

There was a knock at the door.

“May I come in?” asked George. “I thought you might like some prayer support.”

He sat down and the two men prayed.

After a lengthy silence, George looked up.

“I think you’re right,” he said. “But give it some time.”

Nothing moves as fast in the real world as we would like it to, and David was shy. He was not a man to sweep a woman off her feet, and he was embarrassingly aware of the age difference between them.

His house was soon ready for occupation, and he had been very grateful for the opportunity to see Rachel a few times with the genuine excuse that he wanted her advice on the refurbishment. Together they had selected the new kitchen and bathroom fixtures and fittings, and she had chosen the flooring and colour scheme she wanted. They had met to discuss what would be best in the garden, and where to erect the trampoline.

Rachel was grateful that she didn’t have to deal with plumbers, plasterers and electricians, and pleased that her ideas and choices were respected. Their dealings were businesslike, but a friendship was budding. She liked this uncomplicated man, who listened to her and talked sense. He treated the twins as human beings, taking them seriously, and giving them little jobs that made them feel important and involved in the preparation of their new home.

Finally, the sale of Rachel’s house was completed.  Deciding what to keep and what to get rid of, with all the memories and associations attached to every object, had been harrowing. Some precious things went into storage. Everything else was packed up and to Rachel’s relief the move went smoothly. She lost that tight-lipped expression and her colleagues noticed that she was no longer on such a short fuse. She smiled and sang in the car on the way to the nursery. The twins were excited about having a new place to live and the novelty of a new garden.

“Are we going to have a new Daddy, too?” asked Grace, as she helped Rachel unpack a box of family photos, picking out one with Tim soon after the babies had been born.

 “Do you want a new Daddy?” Rachel asked back, nonplussed.

“Well, our old Daddy hasn’t come with us, “explained the little girl.

Josh joined them.

“We’ve got the Teddy Bear man now,” he announced matter-of-factly.

“He can be our new Daddy.”

Grace nodded sagely and put Tim’s photo down on the floor. The two children picked up some toy cars and went off to play, leaving Rachel with the photos.

She stared at the picture of Tim, the radiant new father gingerly holding a child in each arm. It had been eighteen months now since his death, and so much had happened. The twins had been toddlers, little more than babies. It struck her like a bucket of icy water in her face that they had no clear memory at all of the man who had played with them, hugged and kissed them, and been so proud of them. He was a face in a photo, nothing more. He had disappeared forever.

She wiped her eyes, kissed the photo of all she had loved most in the world, and put it back on the pile of things that would go into a cupboard to become memories.

Saving the Bacon

I don’t like these dark, wintry mornings, so cold and unfriendly, but there’s nothing for it: somebody has to get up first and start the day off. They all need a good breakfast inside them for extra energy and warmth these days. It’s a different matter in the summer, when the sun shines into the kitchen and makes it all sparkle, then it’s a pleasure, and I don’t need any encouragement to get going then. Oh well, here I am now, first as usual. So let’s get things started. George likes a cup of tea in bed so on with the kettle. Then coffee for me. Once they smell the coffee, that’ll help them to wake up. And the bacon. Nothing nicer than the smell of breakfast to get them out of bed!

Now surely we should have more eggs than that? I’ll have to remember to buy another dozen when I go shopping. Where’s the list? Never mind, I’ll add it later. Right, kettle filled. What else do they like for breakfast? Cereal? Porridge might be a better idea in this chilly weather, lines the stomach. It really isn’t very warm in here this morning. Bacon. Bacon and eggs. Oh, I’ll have to scramble the eggs or there won’t be enough to go round. Bowl. Whisk. Frying pan.

“What are you doing?”

Jilly, my youngest daughter, still in her pyjamas, standing in the half light of the doorway, rubbing her eyes.

“Ooh, you made me jump,” I cry. “What does it look like I’m doing? Making breakfast of course! What do you think?”

“But Mom,” she mumbles, “What for?”

“Oh Jilly, don’t be silly! Now go and get ready for school, instead of lolling around the doorpost asking stupid questions.”

Jilly doesn’t move. She stands there just looking at me, her hair untidy and dishevelled. She folds her arms across her chest and shakes her head.

“Why don’t you go back to bed, Mom?”

“Great idea,” I snap, “and who’ll get breakfast ready if I do that? Who’ll feed the cat and the dog?”

“Mom, it’s only 2.30 in the morning. You don’t need to make breakfast yet,”

Oh that girl! I look at the kitchen clock. The hands show 2.30.

“The clock must have stopped again,” I tell her. “Now come on, go and get ready and then you can take your Dad his cup of tea.”

I start beating the eggs while the bacon begins to sizzle.

“No, Mom.” She really is persistent. “Really, Mom, it’s 2.30. Look!” She points at the cooker, where there are little lights and displays. One of them says 02:32 but I don’t understand all those things and it means nothing to me. I have no idea what they are all for.

I start to set the table, putting out the cereal bowls, plates and mugs. Of course, not cereal, porridge. I take the milk from the fridge and the packet of oats from the food cupboard.

Jilly moves towards the table and starts collecting the plates, bowls and mugs together. She really is very annoying this morning.

“If you can’t make yourself useful, at least don’t hinder me!” I tell her curtly but she takes no notice and puts everything back in the dresser.

“Let’s go back to bed,” she says firmly. She’s standing in the light now and I can see her face. WHO IS THIS? It’s Jilly’s voice, but this isn’t my schoolgirl daughter, it’s a forty-something-year-old woman. Her mouth is smiling at me but her eyes aren’t. What does she want? What is she doing in my house?

I take a step back, clutching the bowl of eggs to my bosom.

“Go away!” I tell her, trying to be forceful but my voice trembles. “What are you doing here? How did you get in?”

Her mouth stops smiling.

“Mom,” she begins, “come on …”

I put down the bowl of eggs and take another step back, now I’m pressed right against the counter. What can I do? This woman is menacing me, preventing me from getting breakfast for my family. Why? Who is she? I try again.

“Who are you? What do you want?”

“Mom, I’m Jilly,” she says. Her face looks strange, crumpled, as if she’s going to cry. She sits down on a chair and I feel behind me for the breadknife. Didn’t I just put it down on the counter?

“It’s half past two in the morning, and we really ought to be in bed.”

No, how can she be Jilly? Where’s that knife?

Suddenly, she leaps up and grabs the frying pan. It’s smoking, dark, choking smoke, and the bacon is black. She thrusts it into the sink and turns cold water on it.

“That was lucky, wasn’t it? Another couple of seconds, and it would have been on fire!” She laughs, and instantly I recognise that sound, that tone of voice. I look at her again, and realize that it must have been the light playing tricks. How could I have failed to recognise my mother’s face?

“Oh, mother,” I gasp, “You saved the bacon!” We both chuckle. I look into her face, and she smiles, and I see her eyes fill with all the love my mother feels for me.

“Yes,” she says, and puts her arms around me.

“Come on, darling, let’s go to bed. We’ll do this another time.”

T – 6pm – Regency

Six o’clock. The minute finger on the ornate clock above the door juddered and jerked into position. Her eyes were fixed on the door. It opened, and he came in, beaming, with a look of happy expectation that she hadn’t seen on his face for a long time. He glanced around the room and she drew back into her alcove, out of his line of vision. She watched him as he stepped forward between the tables, still beaming, drawn like a magnet towards a table on the other side of the room where sat a young woman, whose expression mirrored his. She half stood up to greet him as he gave her a hug and a kiss, then sat down beside her on the curved bench behind the table. They looked at each other again and smiled, ignoring the rest of the world and its business, sealed together in a rosy bubble on the far side of the restaurant.

She allowed them a minute or two to enjoy their bubble, then she rose and made her way across the room as if she were heading for the Ladies’ Room. When she arrived at their table, she stopped suddenly, as if seeing them for the first time, and exclaimed, “Well, well, fancy seeing YOU here!” with a smile directed at the man. He looked up, startled, speechless. 

“What a coincidence!” she continued, pulling out the chair nearest to her and seating herself at their table. “Aren’t you going to introduce us, Tom?”

Through gritted teeth Tom mumbled, “Isabel, Tiffany.” His face told her she was unwelcome, but she ignored the signs.

“Tiffany – like the lamps,” she said, and smiled again to remove any sting the girl might have felt. Because she was a girl, Isabel could see that now. Pretty, fresh and guileless, she guessed. 

The waiter approached and hovered beside Tom.

“I’ll have a G&T please,” said Isabel, turning towards Tiffany. “What about you?”

“Er – yes, same for me,” nodded Tiffany.

“And you, sir?” asked the waiter. Tom was glaring at Isabel. “Oh, a – a lager,” he snarled.

Then, to Isabel, “Aren’t you on your way somewhere?”

She laughed. “Actually, no. I have plenty of time,”

She could almost hear his teeth gnashing. Strange expression, she thought, I don’t think I ever heard anyone gnashing their teeth before.

She turned a friendly face towards Tiffany. 

“And what do you do, Tiffany?” She almost added, “Are you a student?” but bit her tongue. No point in antagonizing the girl. 

“Marine biology,” Tiffany told her.

“Sounds fascinating. Any particular branch?”


Appropriate, thought Isabel. She shot a look at Tom. Aloud, she said, “Really? Does that involve swimming with them?”

Tom looked at his watch. Their drinks arrived.

“So how do you know Tom? The only sharks he deals with are at the office.”

“Oh, we met at a conference a few months ago.”

Isabel nodded. That explained a lot.

“What about you? What do you do?” asked Tiffany, raising her glass to Isabel who responded in kind.

Isabel’s smile widened. “Children’s stories mostly,” she said. “Fiction.”

Tiffany smiled back. “That must be fun,” she commented, “I wouldn’t know where to start, where to get the ideas I mean.”

“Oh,” said Isabel, “Ideas come from all over – in fact, you have just given me an idea with your sharks. You’ll have to read it when it’s finished.”

Tom was looking grimmer by the moment, and Isabel decided she had said and done enough. She drained her glass, put it down carefully on the table and winked at him.

“Must be off,” she said. “This is a story crying out to be written down, must go and do it before I forget. Much better than Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf.”

She rose and left the restaurant without a backward glance, but as she went she heard Tiffany say, “What a nice woman. Who is she?” and Tom answered: “Someone I’ve known a long time,”

Outside on the pavement she realized she was shaking. The adrenaline was subsiding and she felt weak, even a bit faint. She found her car and sat in the driver’s seat for a long while before she felt able to concentrate on driving. How had she managed to stay calm and bright, breathing evenly and exuding charm, when she felt she was drowning?

He had phoned her that morning to say he would be working late, and that had confirmed it. The piece of paper that had fallen from his pocket said only “T – 6pm – The Regency” but bore no date. When he phoned, she knew it would be today, so she had gone to The Regency at a quarter to six, to discover whether her suspicions were justified. Now she knew.

At home, she paid the babysitter and put the children to bed. Then she went straight to the master bedroom and filled three big suitcases with all Tom’s clothes and personal belongings. As a final touch, she took his dirty underwear and shirts from the laundry basket and added them to the contents of the suitcases. She put the cases outside the front door, which she locked, leaving the key half turned in the lock. She made sure the key was also in the lock of the back door, and the door to the garage. 

The children were fast asleep by this time. She poured herself a glass of red wine and sat quietly in the lounge, suddenly very tired, but unable to relax. Her ears were alert for the sound of the car tyres crunching on the gravel of the drive. Yes, there it was. He was back. She tensed as she heard his key in the lock, unable to turn. He knocked on the door. She ignored him. He called out, “Isabel, open the door. Let me in!” She ignored him. He knocked harder, banged his fist, and called louder. She ignored him. Her mobile rang – his name on the display. She ignored him. He swore and stamped, tried the other doors.

After some time, she heard him grunting as he heaved the suitcases into the boot of the car, and then she was aware of the car engine revving up and knew he was driving away. She listened. Nothing. She finished her wine and went to bed.

At breakfast, her son asked her, “Where’s Daddy?”

“He had to go away,” she said,

“Where to?”

“A deep-sea fishing trip, I think,”

“Will he be gone long?”

“I think so.”