Category Archives: Short Stories

Pax Americana

The worst part of long distance business travel is not the ever present delays at airports, caused by customs and immigration, but the flight seating arrangements. There is an expectation that buying a business class seat confers privilege. Sure, you get extra leg room, free drinks and the close attention of the steward but privilege does not extent to your choice of travelling companion.

He was late to his seat and he struggled to take off his jacket to reveal a Jaeger short sleeved shirt, a gold Rolex and forearms tattooed with the legend ‘Bagdad or Bust’ surrounded by daggers and flags. His head was clean shaven covered in perspiration like a fine sea spray. The tray space between us was not sufficient to hold back the heady mix of expensive aftershave and alcohol. Nor did it stop the flow of questions and unsolicited opinions that the short, trim inhabitant of New York shouted at me above the roar of the engines as the plane gained height above Staines before turning on course for our destination.

“Been to the Apple before? Great place, Europe, nine days, five countries. Fantastic business.”
I was confused between the Apple and Europe but he didn’t wait for a reply, but assuming interest as I averted my gaze down to his arms.
“I was in the Gulf twice, once for George Senior and then finishing it off with Bush Junior. Never could understand why you Brits have it in for Tony Blair. Did you see any service?”
I stammered “Falklands” and sat higher in my seat in an attempt to disguise my sagging waistline to match his trim athletic figure.
“You should have stuck with Maggie Thatcher. She wouldn’t have bailed out your banks. That Gordon Brown doesn’t have the balls.”
A fleeting nightmare vision of a ninety year old Margaret Thatcher hitting bank managers with her handbag was disturbed as the plane hit a little turbulence.
“Obama may be getting it right in Afghanistan with the surge but we should have gone with Sarah Palin. Now there’s a real fighter.”
As a lightly leftist leaning liberal and signed up member of the ‘avoid confrontation club’ I put on my permanent inquisitorial smile.
“So tell me about The Gulf.”

Five hours later, with only a pause for dinner and the film – a nasty action adventure with Nazi SS men killing to meet their oath – I was the best informed person on the planet on Bush Senior and Junior’s strategic grasp of the Middle East and the war to set free the people of Iraq to enjoy their democratic rights and the benefits of American civilisation.

As we left the plane, just before he was whisked away by two deferential young men and I joined the line for immigration and customs, he turned to me.
“Here’s my card. Come in and see me. My place is just off Wall Street.”
‘Moses Washington, President, Jayhawk Security Inc.’ The daggers and flags logo was tagged with ‘Securing the Free World.’

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The Garden Room

The pattern of the upholstery overwhelmed the frail occupant of the chair next to the double glazed French windows overlooking the walled garden. Dense grass growing wild over the pathways; rose bushes running riot in the weed strewn boarders. Nesting in the trees that surrounded the unkempt garden was a rookery that sustained the cawing of crows which fed on the road kill off the arterial road build alongside the wall to the south side of her garden. She sat deep into the cushions her body twisted at an unnatural angle.
‘Would you like tea now, Mrs Forbes as I have to get away early this afternoon?’
The home help took her silence for agreement and left the garden room with its well worn Persian carpet, heavy antique furniture and a dozen mementoes from places where they had served scattered on book cases full of well used literature. A grand piano, with the lid propped up, sheet music on the stand above the keyboard looked as though it had just been played, but dust on the keys gave lie to that.
As the tea arrived the old woman attempted interest in the early departure of the home help. ‘Are you and Albert doing something special this evening, Mrs Dobbs.’
‘It’s our wedding anniversary. Twenty three years. The children are treating us to a night out at the Italian restaurant in Dorchester.’
‘Forty two years we were married.’ The old woman paused and her eyes were opaque with tears before she picked up her tea and said no more.
‘The nurse will be in later to help you to bed. See you on Wednesday.’

The old woman looked around the room, once such a friendly place full of life when Clive had first retired. Overlooking the paddock this garden room had been his idea. Full of exotic plants and the sound of music. So much activity in the first few years after they moved to the village. Retirement had given them a new purpose in life. Then came her stroke. Through his patience and gentle insistence she had learnt to speak again. He had become entertainer, nurse, teacher and constant companion. They had lived together in this room and he had gradually abandoned the rest of the house. Now the paraphernalia of her infirmity -commode, Zimmer frame, wheelchair, iron sided bed- overwhelmed the room.
The soundproofed windows could not keep out the constant traffic hum of the arterial road. It was the road that killed Clive. Not a physical act, but it drained his whole being as he fought against the plan. The final straw was the compulsory purchase of the Paddock to build the dual carriageway. The village backed the plan as it took traffic away from the small market place. Even though Clive had once chaired the Parish Council they ignored his pleas and the road became a barrier between the garden room and the village. She had no doubt that the day the contractors started to build the wall that separated them from the Paddock was linked to his fatal heart attack.
Since Clive’s death her only contact with the village, apart from Mrs Dobbs, was the weekly visit of the Vicar to offer Communion. She prayed often but understood why the Lord did not answer her prayers. He would not allow her to join Clive just because she could no longer bear this life. She knew she would leave this garden room in The Lord’s own sweet time.

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Between Cup and Lip

WPC Jane Thompson was enjoying the early afternoon sun as she and her beat partner, PC Dave Brackley, started their shift at Bow Street and walked towards Convent Garden. Jane still found London an intriguing place; so much going on compared to her previous life near Weymouth on the Dorset coast.
‘Jane, don’t look so pleased with life. A policewoman’s lot is not a happy one.’
Dave, a member of the police choral group paraphrased W.S.Gilbert’s words to her. Twelve years a London policeman, born in Hackney, he had few illusions about the city.
‘Cheer up Dave, it’s a lovely day and so far Tilly hasn’t said a word.’
Jane insisted on humanising the communication system fixed to one of the many pockets of her knife proof vest. Dave smiled back at her. He knew that a sunny Sunday would bring the tourists out and where there were crowds there would be trouble. In previous years pickpocket gangs had been the major nuisance, but the improved surveillance systems in the most popular tourist haunts had forced them out. Over the past two years there had been a growth in threatening behaviour, largely from addicts seeking money to feed their habit, who were so desperate that they ignored the CCTV.
‘Sorry Dave, I spoke too soon. Security Camera team reports an incident. Corner of Floral Street and the Garden.’

The phone call, early on Sunday morning, caught Hal James as he got out of the shower. He stood drying his strong square hands before picking up the phone. The dressing gown thrown over his broad shoulder slipped onto the floor leaving his slightly overweight body reflecting in the full length mirror fixed to the main door of his small Chelsea embankment flat.
‘Hal, Kenneth and I want to see you today. Something has come up.’
‘Clive, I‘ve only just got in from New York and I’ve arranged to see my kids today. Can’t it wait until tomorrow? I can be in the office by seven.’ Hal’s voice was tinged with irritation. It was unusual for the Gordon brothers to work on Sundays as they still clung to their Scottish Presbyterian upbringing.
‘Sorry Hal, this can’t wait. Kenneth and I will expect you at Convent Garden by eleven o’clock. I’ll send a car for you.’
The phone went dead in Hal’s hand. As the junior partner in Gordon, Gordon and James Limited, now called GGJ and Associates, he knew that he would be ready when the car arrived.
Twelve years earlier, when Hal was thirty, the Gordon brothers offered him a ten percent share in their new marketing agency business. He would bring the contacts and they would put up all the capital. Kenneth, a Scottish Advocate, and his brother Clive, an Accountant, held the remaining shares. Since that time the business had grown by acquisition, mergers and joint ventures with Hal’s percentage of the larger business declining. His trip to New York was another fire fighting exercise as the constant business growth outstripped the organisation’s necessary expertise to manage a dynamic international business.
The phone call to his estranged wife was even worse than he anticipated when she refused to let him tell the two boys why he had to cancel their arranged outing. Unfortunately she had every justification as his cancellations came more frequently than the outings.

Clive and Kenneth were already seated around the board room table when Hal arrived. Whenever the two brothers were at the same meeting it was always Clive who acted as spokesman. Today was different. Kenneth handed Hal a single sheet summary of the organisation’s assets, their respective share values and an offer document from Interbusiness Incorporated, one of the joint venture companies.
‘Hal this may come as shock but we have been in negotiation for some three months and wish to accept their offer, but as you can see there is a condition to the offer that they require over seventy percent of all shareholding. This, together with their existing shares, will allow them to make an outright purchase. Consequently we wish to buy your shares and will pay you a ten percent premium over the sale price of our own shares. You will also notice that the offer is specific in that they have no wish to offer you a role should they be successful in their bid, and there will be the usual restrictions on your short term operations.’
There was complete silence around the table as Hal read and tried to absorb the documents.
‘Kenneth, I’m still too jetted out to take all this in. I’ll need some time to think about it and I’ll need to talk to someone about the tax and legal implications.’
‘Sorry Hal, we need a decision today, by two o’clock. They want to make an announcement before the markets open tomorrow. Be assured that Clive and I have taken your best interests to heart and I hope you will trust us in the same way we have always trusted you. Our calculations on what the final offer price will come in at will net you just over five million, twenty percent immediate cash and the remainder in shares in the new business. Not a bad return for twelve years work!’

Hal sat in the early afternoon sun in one of the many restaurants that made Convent Garden one of London’s best tourist traps. Drinking his third coffee, watching the free show, he realised that this was the first time in eight years, since GG&J had moved into their Floral Street offices that he had the time to pause and take in the street scene.
“Not a bad return for twelve years work.” The phrase stuck in his mind. What about the loss of his family and friends? The disastrous separation? Was it really the job or had he not cared enough? Two fine sons, no credit to him, but their mother’s efforts. So he paid the bills, but that couldn’t make up for the times he should have been there instead of seeking self gratification in chasing business ventures around the world.
He looked again at the summary that Kenneth had given him and thought about the decision by Interbusiness Incorporated not to take him as part of the business. He had talked with Jon Levy, their CEO, just two days earlier in New York and there had been no hint of either their offer or any sense of dissatisfaction with their personal relationship. Hal knew he should not take the issue personally, but whichever way he looked at the condition his pride was wounded. From a business point of view he should accept the offer, however, where would that leave the rest of his life? For the last twelve years there had been no distraction to work, no time for outside interests. At thirty Hal had looked forward to a future as a wealthy man, but now at forty-two his work had absorbed him and sucked dry his imagination to cope with wealth being thrust upon him. He signed the documents needed to take him out of the business and pushed them into his briefcase. Twelve years of meetings in board rooms, business plans, constant travel and commercial success had set him free. Free to do what? He had no idea, but the business case for selling his stake in the business could not have been stronger.

Jane and Dave pushed aside the group of Japanese tourists who surrounded a man on the floor with blood streaming from a gash on his forehead. A woman was beside the man trying to stem the flow with a white glove. Next to the man was a furled bright green umbrella with a printed yellow streamer declaring Tour 2, now stained by blood.
‘I saw what happened. I was explaining something to the group, we were just over there.’ The woman pointed with a blood stained hand. ‘This man and a young woman seemed to be arguing when another man came up from behind and tried to take his brief case. The woman pushed him, he fell, and his head hit the kerb. The young woman bent down and I thought she was going to help him. Then I saw her going through his pockets. I should have tried to stop them. It all happened so quickly. The two of them walked off into the Arcade. The man had the briefcase. So brazen!’
Jane took a dressing from one of the pockets of her vest and gently eased the tour guide’s hand and blood saturated glove from the wound. She felt for a pulse at the neck and stemmed the blood flow with the dressing. Meanwhile Dave had corralled the Japanese group just inside the arcade.
‘Jane I’ve radioed for medical assistance so it’s best not to move him.’
Dave spoke to the tour guide. ‘How can we contact you? We’ll need a formal statement.’ She pushed a blood stained hand into her shoulder bag and gave him a card. ‘Do you think any of your group saw the incident?’
‘I don’t believe they did but I will ask them.’
She picked up her furled bright green umbrella with a trickle of blood running down the streamer which flapped in a warm breeze, walked across to the arcade and Dave listened without comprehension as she spoke in Japanese.
‘No. It’s as I thought. I was the only one facing that direction.’
Dave breathed a sigh of relief as the vision of the Mikado chorus cluttering up Bow Street retreated.
‘I think it would be best if you carried on with your tour. We’ll talk later. Thank you for your help.’

‘We’ve missed the deadline. I’ll need to call Jon Levy to see if we can extend it. Hal must be aware of how crucial this is. Do you think he’s using the delay as a negotiating ploy?’
Kenneth, tall and angular, Clive, slim and dapper, sat on either side of the board room table with the remains of lunch pushed to one side.
‘No, that’s not Hal’s style, Kenneth. He’s a logical pressure point negotiator and he knows our offer is very attractive. I’ll try his mobile.’
‘There’s no response. He must have it turned off.’
‘I’ll call Jon now. Without Hal’s shares I’m sure he will try to re-negotiate the price. Will you try to contact Hal? You might like to talk to his family. I know he was supposed to see his children today.’

Jane moved away from the unconscious casualty as the paramedic and ambulance crew eased him onto a stretcher.
‘No Dave. No identification. Wallet gone! Not even a mobile. Clothes, all Savile Row, say he’s not short of a few pennies. Probably get some identification from there tomorrow if he’s not come round.’
‘Pity about the mobile. You can bet your life that the card has been dumped down a drain. Even the addicts are wise to tracking.’

‘I think there are some fragments of bone penetrating the brain. His blood pressure is too low and his reflexes are poor. To be safe get him down for a scan and I’ll see if there’s someone available to operate. Nurse, please contact his next of kin to get formal permission.’
‘Sorry Doctor, as yet he’s not been identified, but I’ll talk to the police to see what the situation is.’

The neurosurgeon pushed back his magnifying lenses and rested his hands on the side of the operating table. The sounds of a Beethoven Quintet flowed over the theatre from a portable disc player.
‘Jennifer, would you turn off the music. There’s no more we can do here. Time of death, seven thirty-five. Peter, would you close him up. Might have been different if we could have got to him earlier.’

WPC Jane Thompson and her beat partner, PC Dave Brackley, returned to Bow Street just before eight o’clock and reported to the Duty Sergeant.
‘C.I.D. wants a word about a possible murder charge. Your mystery man didn’t make it.’

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Strangers Meeting

There he was again. It was the fourth time this week that she noticed him standing at the bus stop with his head deep into a book. Jessica slowed the car as the regular traffic jam built up at the junction to the industrial estate where she worked. She watched him. He was wearing tight blue jeans and a white sports shirt that needed a wash. He had a denim jacket over the crock of his left arm. She judged he was in his early thirties, although his light coloured hair had a grey tint as the weak spring sunshine glowed behind him. His head was bent forward over his book and she noticed that he was running his finger across the page as though pointing out the words. She realised that his mouth was moving at the same time. Somehow it seemed a familiar set of motions and with a start she recognised the action as identical to Simon. It was exactly what he did, wrapped up in towel as they sat after his bath, when he was spelling out the short sentences in his nursery book. It was always the best part of her day and she smiled at the memory. As she smiled he looked up and caught her smile. He smiled in return and suddenly embarrassed, as though she knew his guilty secret, he turned away. The traffic moved forward and she was back into her normal routine.
Thursday was always very busy. It seemed that people wanted to think about their problems before the weekend caught up with them. Today was going to be tougher than usual, as she had to cope with two trainee help desk people as well as her usual team of five. The theory was that her existing staff could manage without too much help while she concentrated on the new comers. In practice this rarely worked out. Irene and Janet were very capable but the others were not so confident and passed on a number of enquiries for her to deal with. Although she knew her way around the system, and could usually make sure that clients were directed to the right support organisation, it all took time. It was a tough day and she felt tired as she picked Simon up from the child minder. The tiredness went away as they snuggled down for his story and her mind went back to the man at the bus stop.

The spring sunshine had given way to blustery showers of rain. She should have replaced the windscreen wipers on her small car when it had its last service, but money was very tight and she had decided to wait until just before the MOT. She and Simon were better off than many other single parent families. She had a job, a small flat and a good child minder and her parents gave what help they could afford. The marriage had broken down and Jack had moved on. She had no wish to burden him with a family. He found it impossible to cope with responsibility and had not contacted her for almost three years. Simon was almost four but still too young to realise what he was missing and Jessica firmly believed that she could offer all that the boy needed.
Jessica spotted the man at the bus stop. This morning he was wearing his denim jacket with the collar up around his ears and there was a small plastic sheet across the page he was studying. His finger moved and his mouth formed the words. She heard a squeal of brakes and peering through the rain streaked windscreen she realised too late that the car in front had stopped. The front of her old car buckled as it hit and there was a scream of metal on metal as the fan gouged its way into the core of the radiator. For a moment there was silence. Then the sound of water turning to steam and the smell of petrol roused her from her shock.
The door opened and the bus stop man was leaning in and releasing her seat belt.
‘Are you OK?’ She nodded. ‘ Sure you can move? It’s probably best if you get out of the car.’
She tensed her legs and arms and realised that she was in one piece. ‘ I’ll be OK.’
He stretched across her and picked up the umbrella that was lying in the floor well.
‘You had better use this until we can sort out the mess.’
He seemed to take charge and calmed the angry driver of the other car.
‘I’m sure the young lady can give you her insurance details and there’s not too much damage to your car. The tow ball took most of the impact. I saw what happened and I’m very happy to give both of you my name and address as a witness.’
Within a few minutes they were standing looking at the wreck of her car. Jessica was close to tears as together they pushed the damaged car to the side of the road. He produced a mobile phone from his jacket pocket and she noticed for the first time that the book, wrapped in plastic, was bulging out of the other pocket.
‘Would you like to call a garage or anyone to give you a hand? There’s a coffee shop just round the corner where we could get out of the rain until they turn up.’ Somehow it seemed right that he would stay with her while she sorted things out.
‘I should call my work to let them know what’s happened.’
‘Go ahead.’ He smiled as he handed her the phone. ‘I’ve just finished for the day, or rather the night, so if there is anything I can do please ask.’
‘I’ll have to try to organise another car. My little boy is with a child minder and I pick him up at four today.’
She didn’t understand why she wanted to establish that she had a child and was not available. She hadn’t worn a wedding ring since Jack walked out. Maybe it was the easy way he assumed responsibility.

At midday Jessica was supervising a call when her own phone rang. ‘Hi, it’s Peter Rolf. Remember we met this morning. I just wanted to make sure that you’ve sorted yourself out. I got your work number from the memory on my mobile.’
Jessica wasn’t sure whether to feel pleased or concerned that he had tracked her down. Whilst they had waited in the café their conversation had been very fragmentary as she used his phone to talk to her office and then the garage. She remembered telling Peter that she would get a Taxi to pick up Simon. He had suggested that he could help out but she didn’t want to involve him. She was an independent person and managed her own life. In any case he was a stranger and she was not prepared to allow him to use the accident as a way to gain her friendship. There was something about him that she half recognised from the people she dealt with on the help line. He smiled too easily and had an inner tension that he couldn’t disguise.
‘It’s kind of you to call but I have every thing under control. I’ll let my insurance company have your name as a witness. It won’t do me much good as the accident was my fault and I only have third party insurance.’
He cut across her conversation. ‘How will you cope without a car?’ She could hear real concern in his voice.
‘I’ll sort something out over the weekend. Thanks again for your help.’ She placed the phone back on its rest and cut him off abruptly.

The weekend passed in a rush. The spring weather had changed again and it was great to see blue sky and sunshine when she and Simon had a picnic in the local park. She spoke to her father but there was not much he could do to help with the car. She had double-checked her savings account and it hadn’t mystically grown since the last time she looked at it. She was determined that this year they would have a holiday in the sun, even if it were only for a week. On Sunday night reality had washed into her consciousness and she knew that the car must come first. She set the alarm clock an hour earlier so that she could take Simon to the childminder by bus and then onto to work. Taxis were for emergency only. Not for the first time since Jack had gone she cried herself to sleep.

As she got off the bus she saw him standing at the bus stop on the other side of the road. He smiled and waved. She couldn’t stop herself and she smiled back and gave a half wave as she turned and hurried off to work. The garage phoned with a price for the damage. She told them to go ahead and resigned herself to spending their holiday with her parents in Bournemouth. Did it really matter? Simon would have a wonderful time being spoilt by his grandparents and she would settle for some solitary walks along the Chines, weather permitting. It was the last year that she would be able to take Simon somewhere where they could get a bargain out of season holiday. Next year he would be at school and she would be tied in to the high season rush, as she needed to juggle work, school and the child minder into a regular pattern.

The Sunday sunshine was just a memory as she stood at the bus stop in a shower of rain. It was Friday afternoon and the week had dragged out as Jessica became more exhausted by the extra hours added to her day. Simon sensed that something was not right and he had disturbed her sleep for the past two nights. She had taken him into her bed and cuddled up until exhaustion gave her some rest.
A car stopped and Jessica recognised the driver. It was Peter Rolf. ‘Can I give you a lift?’ he called through the open near side window. ‘Car not repaired yet?’
She stood for a moment and all her concerns surged through her head. Then her tiredness overcame her fears and she opened the car door. ‘I have to pick up my son from the childminder. It’s just off Crendon Road if you’re going that way.’
‘No problem. Jump in.’ Again that smile which touched the mouth but not the winter blue eyes. She looked around the car and saw a suit jacket on the back seat half covering a large book that had music notations on the front cover. He was wearing a white, buttoned down collar, shirt with a severe blue tie. A plain gold cufflink glinted at his wrist as he pulled the car into the traffic.
‘Do you work around here?. I haven’t seen you at the bus stop recently.’ Jessica was conscious that this might lead her into admitting that she had noticed him before he had intervened in the accident. She didn’t want to get more involved but sitting in the car with him she felt at ease. May be it was just that she was tired and would have accepted help from the devil himself.
‘I’ve been on an assignment at a factory around the corner.’ His response didn’t go any further and Jessica felt that she was not being invited to push for further information. His next remark confirmed her understanding as he switched the conversation back to her.
‘How soon will your car be ready?’
‘The garage are waiting for some spare parts so probably not until the end of next week.’ As she said it she wanted to cry. The vision of another week of early mornings and late nights with Simon becoming more difficult each day crushed her spirit. She took a tissue from her bag and blew her nose to stop the tears from spilling over.
Jessica sat in silence and watched Peter’s slender hands on the steering wheel. He had a contained stillness about him that gave reassurance. They reached Crendon Road and she gave him final directions.
‘You look tired. Can I give you and your son a lift home.’ He sounded concerned.
‘Thank you but we’ll manage. I don’t want to put you to any trouble and the bus will be along soon.’
‘It really isn’t any trouble and I have nothing planned for this evening.’
Jessica looked at him and immediately the professional carer came to the front of her mind. He was lonely and needed to talk with some one. That smile couldn’t hide that something was hurting. She recognised it in herself and even though she knew she was vulnerable she couldn’t turn him away again.

Simon climbed out of the car and looked back at Peter. ‘Thank you for the ride. Would you like to see my room? It’s the same colour as your car. Mummy painted it.’
Jessica felt confused. From the moment that Simon met Peter he had not stopped chattering to him. It was almost as if he wanted to exclude Jessica. Was there a bond that men enjoyed and she could not give to her son? Jessica looked at both of them and realised that she should thank Peter for his help and leave it there, but it didn’t come out like that.
‘Would you like to come in for a coffee and Simon can show you what a terrible decorator I am!’
The smile of response, as he got out of the car, still lacked wholeness and she sensed he was fighting against accepting her offer. She was confused. This was the man who had tracked her down to offer help and now he seemed reluctant to take his involvement with her any further.
She could hear Peter and Simon chattering away as she made coffee in the small kitchen. Their conversation seemed so natural as Peter asked Simon about his day with the child minder and then moved on to his favourite TV programme. They were sharing what Jessica had always regarded as her own private connection with her son. For a moment she felt jealousy and anger at this man she had invited into her home. A feeling of guilt followed this. Peter was only doing what any caring person would do to help her son feel at ease with a grown up.
Jessica was suddenly relaxed as they sat with Simon and drank their coffee and it was natural that she asked him to share supper. For a moment he looked as if he might say “Yes” but the smile returned to his mouth and for a moment Jessica thought it had reached his eyes.
‘Thank you, but I have to be at my new assignment later this evening. Can we make it another time? Say Monday, I’ll pick you and Simon up.’ He didn’t wait for a reply but walked to the door and waved to Simon as he left.

Another fine spring weekend and Jessica had a sense of mounting excitement as it drew to a close and she returned to work on Monday. She did not hear from Peter until early afternoon when he phoned and confirmed the time to meet her at the bus stop. His tone was matter of fact and she knew that they had lost the intimacy of Friday evening but she could not stop the expectation that they would have a growing relationship. She didn’t know where it would go but she realised that it must be allowed to run its course. Not since she had first met Jack had she felt so sure of a relationship. She had taken three years to come to this point but at that moment she determined that whatever happened it must not be allowed to affect Simon. Her son was more important than her own needs and desires.
Peter looked exhausted when he picked her up at the bus stop. His suit and shirt looked as if he had slept in them and the smell of after-shave in the car was evidence that he had tidied himself up for their meeting.
‘Please forgive me for not changing but I had to come direct from an assignment. It ran on later than I expected and I didn’t want to let you and Simon down.’ He didn’t give her time to reply. ‘Do you think that Simon would like a pizza. There’s a very nice Italian restaurant, it’s about an hour from your place but the owners are friends of mine and I know they love having children around.’ Jessica some how knew that this place was important to him and nodded her agreement.

Jessica had not expected the warmth and sincerity of welcome the matronly woman gave Peter as they entered the busy restaurant. It was called “Sorrento”. .She hugged and kissed him, calling him ‘Pietro Cara’, and gave them the best table in the house. She looked knowingly at Jessica and Simon and ruffled his hair as she gave him a stick of sugar coated chocolate.
‘Little one you must call me Nona and what shall I call you?’
Before Simon had a chance to answer a large man, dressed in Chef’s whites, came from the kitchen and shook Peter by the hand and a flow of Italian overwhelmed Peter’s greeting which Jessica noted was in the same language. Drinks arrived without bidding and “Nona”, the Chef and Peter drank a toast to the future. Jessica felt overwhelmed by the togetherness of the group that had not sought to exclude her but neither had it included her. Then it was her turn to be introduced and at once she knew that she was somehow on trial. The Chef kissed her lightly on both cheeks and “Nona” followed suit but gave an extra hug and whispered ‘Let us talk later.’ Almost before she realised Simon was led away by the Chef and ‘Nona’ to inspect the kitchen leaving Peter and Jessica together seated at the table with glasses of wine in their hands.
‘Are they always like this.’ Jessica asked. ‘Are you related or something.’
‘They are wonderful people. You could say I’m related by marriage. My wife was their niece.’ He paused and his expression of anguish made Jessica realise that he was having difficulty going further. She tried to help and stretched her hand across the table and placed it gently over his tight clenched fist.
‘My wife died three years ago and for some reason I can’t properly explain I wanted you and Simon to meet my friends. I’m sorry if that’s too much for you and I will understand if you don’t want to stay.’
‘Peter you don’t have to explain anything. Can we leave it there and just enjoy the evening?’ She felt the tension drain from him and for the first time since she had seen him at the bus stop his smile engaged his eyes.
Simon went to sleep in the car almost immediately they left the restaurant. Jessica could not remember a better evening. It had flowed from the moment that Simon was delivered back to their table with flour in his hair and full of how he had made the pizza that was cooking in the special oven. Peter had asked her about her job, how she managed, her parents and all the minutia of her life that she had only shared with Jack. He had a way of asking questions that demanded honest answers and she knew that she wanted to tell him nothing but the truth. He also included Simon in the bout of questions and any intervals were taken up by Nona appearing at the table to keep Simon entertained with a fund of stories of her own grand children. She had also joined in the conversation and Jessica felt she had passed the test. She felt comfortable that Nona approved Peter’s choice of a dinner companion.
Jessica wanted to ask Peter more about his life but realised that he would tell his story in his own time and that time was not this evening. This evening was an experience to be treasured for itself. Reality would be back on the menu in the morning. Peter carried Simon to her front door which she had opened and gently lowered the sleeping child into her arms. He looked across the child and murmured
‘Thank you for a wonderful evening. Can we do it again soon.’ She nodded and a full smile ran across the whole of his face.

Each day she thought about him. After the first week she wanted to write to him at the address he had given her at the time of the accident. She composed a letter of thanks for the evening but her pride made it impossible to send. She checked out the address records at the office but he was not listed as living there and his name did not appear on the electoral roll. She even contemplated visiting the restaurant again. After a few days Simon stopped asking if he would see his friend Peter soon. Jessica couldn’t accept that their brief relationship was over. She had felt so safe and secure with him. She wanted to know more about him and why he didn’t feel the same about her and Simon.

It was almost two weeks before he rang. At first she was angry and said that she had another call on hold and couldn’t speak to him. He phoned again and by then curiosity and the strength of her feelings triumphed over her anger and pride.
‘ Can I see you and Simon this weekend? I thought he might like to spend the day at the beach. I can pick you up at ten on Saturday.’
‘We planned to go to Bournemouth to see my parents this weekend?’ Jessica hesitated and then made a quick decision. ‘Would you like to join us?’
Simon was enraptured by the journey to Bournemouth. The game of “I spy” and choruses of “Incy Wincy Spider” were punctuated by jokes and a book tape of Superman stories. Jessica could see that Simon had found his friend Peter again. Over lunch at their bungalow Jessica’s parents were charmed by the Peter’s easy manner. Her father had a fund of stories about his life as a travelling salesman, all of which Jessica had endured many times, but Peter was a good listener. After lunch Jessica’s father suggested that he and Peter take Simon to the beach for a walk whilst ‘the girls’ had a chance to catch up on all that had happened in their lives since Jessica’s last visit and join them later. Jessica felt her heart sink as she had that terrible feeling that her father had been encouraged enough to pose his eternal question “What are your intentions?” He was a lovely man but had some old fashioned ideas about modern living and relationships. Jessica was not yet ready to address that question herself and she felt that it might have been a mistake to introduce Peter to her parents.
The beach was not too crowded and Jessica could see Peter and Simon digging in the sand by the water’s edge while her father lay dozing in a deck chair. Jessica sat in the chair next to him while her mother joined Peter and Simon at the water’s edge. She nudged him gently and he smiled fondly at her.
‘It’ll be nice to have a writer in the family if he is what you want, but journalism means being away even more than being a salesman from what I can gather.’ In his own way he had asked the question that Jessica had never managed to frame.

Simon fell asleep on the back seat of the car almost immediately they had finished waving goodbye. Jessica sat silently contemplating the day while Peter eased the car out of Bournemouth and onto the road through the New Forest. They sat quietly as the trees gave way to open heath land and then back to a darkening landscape with ponies and cattle moving between the clumps of thorns and trees cropping the grass and bushes.
‘ My father tells me you are a journalist.’ It was a statement not a question.
For a few moments Peter did not respond.’Yes. I do investigative work as a freelance. It pays the rent and serves a useful purpose.’ He paused again before continuing in a more animated fashion. “ Six years ago I was working on a Mafia protection racket when I met my wife at the Sorento. She worked there at weekends. It was a good story and a lot of people benefited from the exposure and three Mafia bosses were convicted and deported as a result. Three years ago last February the restaurant was firebombed and my wife died in a gas explosion as she was helping customers escape. The police have never tracked down the people responsible.” He stopped talking and Jessica could see that his hands now tightly grasped the steering wheel.
Jessica felt helpless and couldn’t make a response. She moved closer to him and gently rubbed his hand on the wheel. After a while she said “Thank you for telling me. It puts my problems into perspective.”

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Collateral Damage

As always the pain started slowly. Creeping up from his right foot into his groin and finally up to his reconstructed face. To be accurate, it crept up from where his right foot used to be. He began the daily ritual of forcing himself out of bed. He reached for the bucket and vomited the excess of alcohol which, together with the prescribed pain killers, had pushed him into a night of horrific dreams. Again, for the sake of accuracy, they were not dreams but a playing over again, and again, of his memories of that last day in Afghanistan.

‘Stay down Taff! Don’t move! They’ve got you sighted! We’ll clear them out!’
Corporal David Winter turned away and talked urgently into his Bowman communication module.
‘Sir, we have a man down in the open and my section is pinned down by heavy fire. What prospects of some air support?’
‘Stay where you are and I’ll talk to Division. Give me some grid references for the fly boys?
Captain Eric Newby noted the references and transferred to Division with a request for Close Air Support. Then back to Winter.
‘About fifteen minutes. There’s an American AC 130 gunship in the area. Keep your heads down.’

It sounded like a swarm of angry wasps but twenty times louder as the gunship, modelled on the Hercules Transport plane, banked and circled around the compound at the centre of the Taliban position. One of the Taliban fighters leapt to his feet with a shoulder held missile launcher. He was cut to pieces as the computer controlled 25 millimetre Gatling guns and 40 millimetre cannons began to plough the area tossing aside buildings, boulders and bodies without discrimination.

‘How’s it hanging Taff?’ Winter knelt beside the wounded man who smiled back at him. Blood was seeping through the left leg of his stained combat fatigues.
‘The tackles O.K.Corp. Just a flesh wound on my thigh. The body armour took one and that knocked me over.’ He pointed at the Bowman. ‘Let me know when you get the result on the Final on that piece of shit? Bet I’m the only Welshman supporting Pompey.’
Winter recognised the banter to cover up Taff Williams’ fear.
‘My money’s on Cardiff. My old Welsh Grandma supported them for years.’ . Winter turned to hide the lie. ‘Phil get a dressing on this leg and take Taff back to cover. The Company will be coming up soon and they’ll get some transport up to take you back to Base.’
Winter waved the rest of the section forward and they advanced towards the gun racked compound. The remaining Taliban fighters retreated without their injured and dead. Inside the compound the dead and the dying were scattered on both the compacted earth and in the rooms built against the walls. The 40 millimetre cannons did not differentiate as they took their harvest of lives, puncturing the mud walls as a seed drill planting corn. Winter set up a fragile defence line in the direction of the retreating Taliban and had the remainder of his men separate out the wounded from the dead.
In a room at the back of the compound, huddled together, were three women and eight children. The canvas roof had been no protection and their bodies had been shattered by the Gatling guns. The wounds were monstrous. Winter felt compelled to look. Two years of strict discipline in the Children’s Home after the death of his parents. Five years training and discipline with the Mercian Regiment. Those seven years had not destroyed his human reaction to this atrocity. He ignored standing orders to search living or dead for documents or weapons. Of the twenty-three Taliban found in and around the compound only four were still alive. None was in a condition to be questioned.
‘Well done, Winter! Just as well you stirred up the hornets nest. Probably they were waiting to ambush the Company. Someone must have got excited and fired off too soon.’ Captain Newby had listened to Winter’s report. ‘How the hell did they know we were on our way? Happens too often for it to be a coincidence. Pity about the women and children but we must expect some collateral damage.’
Collateral damage: accompanying but secondary. Winter hated the term. Three women and eight children dead, not a construct invented by some public relations man. If there was one thing that Winter had developed during his military service it was to tell it exactly as it appeared to him; probably why he was still a corporal. Collateral damage was politicians’ double talk to erase the unfortunate civilian casualties from an electorate who would never be allowed to realise the full horrors of war.
‘Your man Williams is on his way to Bastion. We can leave Afghani intelligence to take care of the other wounded and arrange disposal of the bodies. Are your chaps ready to move? Get them to take up the rear and I’ll hold them as strategic reserve.
Hopefully there won’t be any more distractions.’

Even in his nightmare the day had started well. Reveille at sunrise minus one hour. The Company paraded in one of the well protected huts in Patrol Base Woqab north of Musa Qala in Helmand Province. A hand-made wooden sign in the camp said it all: “Welcome to Stalingrad”. An ominous landmark, Mount Doom, dominated the skyline. Taliban fighters operated up to mortar range of the base and retreated when necessary to the mountains of Baghran.
Winter was pleased that all his section had reported fit for duty. Their morale was high even following Newby’s briefing the previous evening.
‘Our objective is the village of Waja. For those of you who haven’t been there before it’s about two hours march north from here. We’re going there to discuss with the village elders the prospects of building a small dam to allow better water supply for the valley. It’s all part of the long-term reconstruction and governance plan.’
Winter had seen it all before. This was his third tour in Helmand and the second time he had fought over this same ground. Captain Newby was brilliant at winning consent for such small reconstruction but it had to be followed up and protected to deliver real progress. As soon as the army moved out back came the Taliban. Over the centuries, the village elders had become adept at learning the nuances of survival, regardless of who held authority.
‘Corporal Winter your section will lead. Skirmish order. There shouldn’t be any opposition.’

The two streets in the village ran either side of a fast flowing river. A bridge of rough hewn timber and stone joined the streets and at the other end was a square with a small stone built mosque. Three sections of the company dispersed to take up defensive positions around the village and, in theory, to stop anyone wishing to leave. The troops were relaxed, they knew it was only theory, as the noise of the gunship would have alerted the militants. They rarely chose to fight in such confined space. The Taliban usual tactic was ambush and retreat. The tactic had been successful for many generations and against many would be conquerors. Now the village was a peaceful scene as children greeted the soldiers and accepted the sweets and chocolate that materialised out of the soldiers’ packs. Two girls pointed out where the Taliban had buried three Improvised Explosive Devices on and around the bridge. The three devices were linked with a pressure plate detonator at the centre of the bridge. Winter’s section was detailed to mark them out and wait until the experts from the Royal Logistics Corps arrived to neutralise them.
By midday, Captain Newby had completed his discussions with the village elders outside the mosque. This time even Newby’s persuasive tongue could not persuade them. The discussion foundered on the issue of permanent Coalition presence in the village. The elders knew that the Taliban would be back as soon as Coalition forces moved out.
A helicopter brought in a two man team from the Royal Logistics Corps; they were too valuable to come in overland, to remove the Improvised Explosive Devices. On the way in the helicopter had come under fire from an armed group approaching from the south, between the village and ‘Stalingrad.’ Winter reported their arrival and news to Newby.
‘O.K. Change of plan. Have them rig the explosives to detonate in fifteen minutes. We’ll destroy the bridge. Your section will remain to give them cover until the helicopter lifts off. The Company will move out in ten minutes and you can catch up with us ASAP. Keep in touch.’ Newby spoke urgently into his Bowman as Winter ran back along the deserted street to his section.

The nightmare slowed. Winter could feel the blast from the first of two mortar bombs that fell in the deserted street. Then in rapid succession he was blown to the right, slammed against the rough brick of a compound wall, attempted to stand but his right leg wouldn’t respond. His helmet strap jerked at his neck. Once again peace reigned in the deserted street apart from the whimpering that swelled up into a hideous scream. The scream in his head stopped as he awoke. Then the pain reached a crescendo as he vomited into the bucket through his distorted mouth. Now it was a waking nightmare as he remembered the remains of that day.

‘Stay with us David! We’ll get you out on the helicopter.’ Newby’s voice penetrated his addled shocked brain. ‘There’s a tourniquet on your leg. Try not to move. The morphine should kick in any moment.’
He vaguely remembered being laid in the helicopter and one of the team from the Royal Logistics Corps saying, ‘Ride in, walk out. Oh the joys of this job!’
Then nothing until the operating theatre at Fort Bastion.
‘I’m sorry but the foot has to come off and the maxillofacial people will do some initial work on your jaw and face.’
More pain as the morphine drained away from his body. The anesthetist inserted a cannula into his arm to transfuse blood. Relief after an injection of Ketamine into his thigh to prepare him for major surgery. Then there was nothingness until he awoke in the military-managed ward at Birmingham’s Selly Oak Hospital.
‘Two goals for Pompey and none for Cardiff. What do you think of that Corp?’
Private Taff Williams sat in a wheel chair at Winter’s bedside. ‘Been waiting for you to wake up ever since we left Bastion. Got yourself into a bit of trouble without me to look after you!’

It was Taff Williams return to active service after six weeks in Selly Oak that set off Winter’s first bout of severe depression. The psychiatrist prescribed a course of anti depressants and they gave some relief. There were not sufficient resources available to dig down into the underlying cause. More bouts followed as he struggled to come to terms with his appearance and disability. The loss of his right leg below the knee was the least of his problems. Within two months he could walk with his prosthetic limb without a Zimmer frame, but in considerable pain. Surgery to his injured jaw and skin transplants to his face and neck over the following months made some improvements. His speech was impaired and he could not get full movement of jaw or neck despite hours of speech therapy and physiotherapy. He wrote on the pad at his bedside, easier than trying to make himself understood.
‘Give it to me straight. Will it ever get better than this?’
‘You have to keep trying. But in all honesty it’s doubtful.’ The maxillofacial specialist respected his patient and felt he deserved the unvarnished truth. ‘In my view we have done all we can and I think it’s time for you to move on to Headley Court. The rehabilitation centre has had some wonderful results.’

‘How are they treating you David? Thought I’d come and see for myself. Taff Williams keeps me up to date. I’m sure he’s told you that he’s been made up to take over your old section.’ Captain Newby’s visit came as a surprise to Winter.
‘He’s a good man.’ Winter fought to get the words out. ‘I’m doing well, Sir.’
‘We’re having a Company supper and get together before we take up our next posting. Thought you might like to come along as my guest. Most of your section is still with us and I know they’ll be pleased to see you.’
Winter struggled with his response. ‘Not sure about that. I’m not the prettiest sight. Don’t want to frighten them off signing up for a few more years.’
‘Well the invite stands for the twentieth of next month and I hope to see you there. What about your future? Thought about what you’re going to do?’
Winter had thought long and hard on the same issue. However he looked at it his only skills were military. The bottom line was no trade or skill except killing. He gurgled his response with great difficulty.
‘Nothing decided Sir. Haven’t been pensioned off yet. Expect I’ll survive. I’m used to being on my own.’
‘You know the Regiment can help. Keep in touch. See you on the twentieth.’
Winter looked at the retreating back and thought, ‘You always were an optimistic bastard!’

Winter put the bucket down next to his bed as the horrors of the night locked themselves away in his brain to await the coming of sleep. He sipped water through a straw into his parched throat. Then, a supreme effort to strap on the prosthetic limb and swing himself into a sitting position on the bed.
Newby had been right. The Regiment had found him this small ground floor flat following his medical discharge; but they could no longer give him the camaraderie and sense of respect he craved. His pension paid the bills and left enough to survive. Then depression. He started to use alcohol to back up the pain killers. He had used all his small savings and the rent was a month behind.
He managed to stand. The mirror on the back of the bedroom door could not lie.
‘You useless piece of shit!’ The words pounded at his brain. ‘You useless piece of shit!’ He screamed the words from his deformed face. Skin stretched and a trickle of blood ran down his chin. He reached for the pain killers and an unfinished half bottle of whisky. His control went as he slumped back onto the bed.

A thundering knock and shouts at the front door roused him from his alcohol and drug induced stupor.
‘David! Open this sodding door! It’s me, Taff Williams! I know you’re there!’
Collateral damage. Just one of the many casualties of a war that cannot be won. Corporal David Winter, Mercian Regiment, remained on the bed and waited for the agony to consume him.

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Skating on thin ice

‘Coffee, toast and three paracetamol’ were my mother’s home cure remedy for those frequent bouts of ennui that beset every teenager. I was no exception and to this day, ten years past my privileged teenage status, I still use the mixture as an antidote to boredom and frustration. In my profession the frequency of such attacks increases in direct proportion to the age of the students I warehouse in the concrete and glass barracks of a failing inner city comprehensive school where I earn my living.

George Purdom, the ever optimistic head teacher, is required to assess my performance to qualify me for additional payments under the arcane schemes run by the Local Educational Authority.
‘We need to prove value added as they move up the school.’
This mantra is meant to drive us on and give us inspiration. George even has the words in an embroidered, framed Edwardian sampler on the wall of the staff room. In the days before the smoking ban it acquired a sepia look as it hung in the smoking area of the room. Now it shines with pristine clarity since the staff room was given a fresh coat of paint and the excesses of the smoking culture removed to the backdoor of the room leading out onto the weed strewn patio of green paving speckled with cigarette buts like obscene white and brown worms.

George and I spent the first ten minutes of our meeting discussing the misfortune that had befallen fifteen year old Delilah Smith and Tom Chadwick, two of my star pupils. Pregnancy was not an uncommon experience among my unlovely students, but the timing of the onset of pregnancy was unfortunate. Delilah was suffering morning sickness and missed the exam while Tom was still in hospital recovering from the beating he had received from Delilah’s father, who was presently awaiting the court’s pleasure. There was also an unfortunate knock on effect as none of the other students had been able to take their answers from my star pupils. In some circles this may be interpreted as cheating but in the community of lost souls in my care it is known as sharing and caring.

He could not look me in the eye as he ended the meeting.
‘I really am sorry but the overall results of your students show they have lost value rather than gained. As a failing school you may have jeopardised our future.’
‘Well George at least Delilah has some added value!’
My flippant reply was addressed to his back as he left the room, but I could see from the slight check in his stride and the hunching of his shoulders that it was not appreciated.

So tonight it’s coffee, toast and three paracetamol before I get into the bottle of single malt I have been saving for a special occasion.

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The Morning after the night before

Laser beams penetrated through shadowed bars into the depth of his retina. A different resonance accompanied each laser as it flashed down the optic nerve to the outer portion of his brain. He came back to reality as his hand lifted the telephone receiver and the incessant noise pounding in his head receded, only to be replaced by a dull ache that matched the taste of the bile at the back of his throat.

He squinted at the light flooding into the room through the vertical blinds and croaked into the phone. ‘Hello.’

A wave of nausea added to his discomfort as he attempted to sit up and he flopped back onto the counterpane of the still made up bed. His loosened tie fell beneath his body and tightened around his neck and he had to make a conscious effort to retain the surging flow of vomit fighting to erupt onto the counterpane.

‘Nick, darling, did I wake you?’ then almost without a pause and, certainly with no opportunity to answer, ‘How did the interview go? It’s so important that you butter up the local press. Hamish says the Echo has a great deal of influence with the local booksellers.’

‘I’ll call you back. I’m in the middle of shaving.’ The lie came easily to him as he sought to focus on sitting up and replacing the receiver.

Eventually he made it to his feet and stripped off his tie and jacket. The room rotated violently as he moved to the elegant reproduction desk in the corner of the room and gratefully drank the bottle of Evian water provided by the hotel. At least the publisher had provided a reasonable hotel. Glad handing booksellers, distributors and the local press, starting in Edinburgh culminating in Liverpool four days later, was a chastening experience.

Abigail had insisted that this was the way that he could lift his fourth book out of the average seller into the best seller list. Apparently it put pressure on the booksellers to display his latest work more prominently and possibly have the sales assistants recommend it. This should produce some measurable sales when tied in with the publicity generated by sympathetic reviews from the press people he had entertained.

Abigail had delivered the lesson. ‘There’s no way to guarantee a best seller but at least we can put it in front of the punters. Eventually it’s down to the EPOS results. That’s the electronic point of sale figures.’ His current publisher didn’t have either the clout or the cash to get the best positioning for his titles.

The drink cleared his throat but set up a need for a cigarette. Unconsciously his hand went to his shirt pocket and he felt a sense of disappointment when it came way empty and reminded him that he had given up smoking ten years ago. It was like so many other things he had given up; marriage; family; career. He had even given up getting drunk until last night.

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