Author: PWG Publisher

An Honourable Response

An Honourable Response.

(7767) words.

At first, I struggled to understand what I was hearing as I pulled the covers back, got out of bed, and hurriedly padded across the tiled floor in my bare feet. The sound came from the veranda next to our main lounge, which had glass doors leading onto the lawn. The entire area was enclosed by a twenty-foot security fence. Then my senses kicked in and I heard sobbing.

My father was on his knees, his face buried in the golden fur of Sabre, his favourite Rhodesian Ridgeback. He had raised her from a puppy. She was now 14 years old, and clearly dead. Her body flopped against my father’s torso as his tears and sobs continued. I moved across to him, knelt, and put my arm around his shoulder. He was barefoot, dressed in pyjama bottoms with a white T-shirt, his long but sparse hair moving in the early morning Zimbabwean breeze.

‘Come on Dad,’ I said and knelt down alongside him. ‘Sabres had a good run and you’ve given her the best life possible.’ He looked up and there was anger on his face.

‘Sabre didn’t die of old age. She’s been poisoned. Look at her mouth and the froth. Those bastards.’

‘What are you talking about, Dad?’ He paused, then relaxed, allowing Sabre to rest against his knees. I spoke again. ‘What’s happened Dad? Who are you talking about?’

‘James, I’m sorry, I should have told you before, but when you were in Harare last week, I had some visitors. Truck turned up at the main gate. Two members of the ZANU-PF. Came to tell me they have selected our farm as being suitable for Veterans from the Zimbabwean army and their intention is to compulsory purchase it. However, in their purchasing arrangements, we decide to offer it up for free. Didn’t open the gates to the bastards. Told them to piss off and that this farm is not for sale, now or ever.’

‘What was their response, Dad?’

‘They said that I should remember Martin Old, and if that made little sense then think about Alan Dunn.’ My father paused ‘I know you’ve only just got back from UK, but both were murdered and their farms occupied some 2 years ago. It had gone quiet on that front, so I didn’t bother you or your brother with it. Clearly, things have changed. Where is David?’

‘He’s down in Joburg, sorting out his wedding with Clare. He’ll be back on Monday. But as for knowing what was going on, although away, I still kept in touch with national news. I read about it, and wondered if you’d want to talk, but you’ve always been a private man in such respects, Dad, so your silence didn’t worry me too much. But now it damn well does. This is serious.’

‘They’re not having it, James. Since I left the Army, I’ve spent over 40 years building this home, lifestyle and the business and I’m buggered if Mugabe’s thugs can just walk in here and take over.’

‘Dad, when they took out Martin Old, there was a whole convoy of them. Over 40. He didn’t stand a chance with the police waving them through. They were so confident they even warned his workforce not to come in that morning. Head Boy was with him and tried to intervene, but they took him out as well.’

‘Army veterans? They’re just gangsters in my book. Look what they’ve done to Sabre. Clearly been up to the fence during the night, knew it was electrified, and pushed poisoned meat or something through the mesh. Wouldn’t have dared come in. Sabre would have torn them apart.’

‘Dad, like you, I think they’re scumbags and cowards, but this is just a warning. I’m going to phone David. He may have some ideas. Got a couple of contacts in the Government. One certainly was at Uni with him, and they became friends. Not all Zimbabweans are fans of Mugabe. In the meantime, why don’t you get a place ready for Sabre? Heat’s building up and it won’t be too pleasant soon.’ My father nodded.

‘OK, but I’ve got a job to do, that is more of a priority at the moment.’

‘Dad?’

‘Get the bloody gun cabinet opened and ready for business. I told the first lot what to do. If it happens again, there’ll be no polite conversations. Let me speak to David when you get through to him.’

David’s response was predictable. ‘I’ll be on the first flight out of Joburg. I’ll let you know when. Can you meet me? OK. Right, in the meantime, I’ll make some calls. This is serious, James, and we need to make sure Dad understands fully what the options are, and in effect, how limited they really are. It sounds as though he’s already preparing himself for Custer’s Last Stand. A good idea in principle, but not in terms of what is happening in Zimbabwe at the moment. This has been brewing for a long time, and we need to tread carefully.’

‘David, if Dad’s got anything to do with it, the only treading will be on carefully planted land-mines. When I saw him last, he was emptying the gun cabinet, checking what we had and what we might need. He’s clearly up for a fight, although I’m not sure he really understands the increasing opposition and what they are capable of, especially with Mugabe seeking re-election and stoking the fires of anti-Colonialism.’

‘Have the workforce showed where they stand, James,’

‘Not sure. We’re lucky in a way that our unwanted visitors came on a Sunday, gives us a bit of time to talk to Tawanda and his team.’

‘How many are living on site?’

‘At the last count, it was six. The rest come from the nearest village each day, but they’re all workers that have grown up with us since we were kids, so would trust them implicitly, David.

‘Me too, James, but history is littered with surprises, so we need to be cautious. OK, I’ll be in touch once I know my ETA at Harare.’

When I walked back into the fenced compound, at the bottom end of the garden, my father was up to his knees in a large trench, with a mound of fresh soil constantly being added to as his shovel dug and lifted. Then I realised that next to the mound, was the grave of my mother, who had died some 5 years ago.

‘What are you doing, Dad? Why are you digging so close to Mum’s grave?’ He laughed.

‘Not as close as you think. Besides, she’ll appreciate having Sabre next to her. Give her company. Might stop her wandering.’

‘Wandering?’

‘Yeah. Haven’t mentioned it before. I often wake up at night and there she is, at the end of the bed, staring down at me. Not saying anything. Just looking, nodding, then leaving as quietly as she came. If she brings Sabre with her next time, then I’ll know it’s for real and not just a dream. Mind you, it’s a pleasant dream. Not frightening at all. So that’s why Sabre is going where he is. Make sense?’

‘I guess so. But how did you get on with the gun cabinet, Dad?

‘Alright, but hadn’t realised how much we’d let it run down. Was a time when we could have equipped a small army. Well, a squad at least. Need to top it up fairly quickly, but I’ll leave that to David. I’ll also want some ‘extras’. Things you might normally find in a farm setting but with different uses.’

‘Such as?’

‘Fertiliser, James. Comes in handy.’

‘People can make bombs with that stuff, Dad.’

‘Really? Didn’t know that, I was thinking of spreading it about a bit. Mind you, James, your idea has lots of merit. Let me think about it.’

‘As if you hadn’t already done so, eh, Dad?’

‘Anyway, when’s David coming back?’

‘Due into Harare about 10 tonight. I’ll meet him.

The Airbus from Joburg was on time, and within half an hour, David emerged from the transit area and we shook hands. He was two years older than me, and worked in global markets and exporting, dealing with the sort of produce we grew on our farm, tobacco, maize, sugarcane and wheat. Prior to Mugabe being elected, he had served in the armed forces for 2 years, on return from university. He spent quite a lot of time on the road, visiting production centres and major farms, attending product auctions and ensuring a smooth flow of exports. It was during one of his many flights that he met Clare, a South African born air hostess, living in Joburg.

‘How’s Dad?’

‘OK at the moment, David. It’s always been difficult to read him, but he’s very calm, and is clearly making plans.’

‘He hinted at that when I spoke to him a while ago, just after you rang and gave me a sitrep.’

‘Let’s get out of the airport and then we can talk properly.’

‘You’re not frightened of eavesdroppers, are you, James? Didn’t think we had sunk that low yet.’

‘Not at all, but I know that all movements in and out of Zimbabwe are increasingly being monitored, not so much from a white perspective, but certainly ethnic groups are closely watched. Think Mugabe is trying to deter removal of wealth since his election. Who knows? Anyway, the jeep is in the nearest car park, so let’s head home.’

‘For as long as home remains so,’ said David, ‘but I’ve picked up some nasty vibes from my contacts in Government.’

The return to our farm took around 3 hours, and as we approached the compound fence, we could see secluded lighting from the bungalow. All curtains looked drawn, although there were glimpses of the interior and rifles stood against the windows. After a brief pause, Dad emerged from the bungalow. His appearance had significantly changed. His hair, now roughly cut, was displayed beneath a green beret, and he was wearing a pair of khaki combat shorts and khaki T-shirt. Desert boots completed his attire as he ambled towards the gate carrying a Remington 870 Magpul shotgun, the Holy Grail of such weapons, and one that carried 6 shells. It hadn’t been used in anger, since he bought it, nearly 10 years.

Unlocking the gate and pulling it ajar allowed me to enter the driveway in the jeep. As David got out of the front seat, Dad moved across to him, and after moving the shotgun over his shoulder with the muzzle pointing downwards, embraced him. There was a visible moistness about his eyes as he finally stepped back.

‘Wow. The three of us what a team,’ he said. ‘Come on in, I’ve just opened a bottle of Jameson’s, been gagging for a drink all night but wanted to wait for you both.’

Dad secured the security fence, then walked into the lounge. Normally he would be quite insistent on family members and guests taking off their footwear so as not to spoil the highly polished redwood floor, the pride and joy of Patience, our Zimbabwean housekeeper. But not tonight.

Patience was the wife of Tawanda, the team leader of the native workforce, and held in high esteem by all of us. When she married Tawanda over 10 years ago, my mother was still alive and insisted they have their reception on the lawn and surrounds of the bungalow. Such an act of generosity was valued by the workforce, and their music, dancing and celebrations on the day had been a delight for us all, but especially Mum, who reminded us regularly of her wedding day in London. It was a Registry Office affair, with a couple of drinks in the local pub. Their black and white photographs showed my father still in the dress uniform of the Royal Marines.

Having carefully placed his shotgun close to the gun cabinet, Dad poured out very generous measures of his favourite Irish whisky and sat down in his favourite chair alongside the log-burning fireplace. He leant forward and with a poker gave the logs a quick poke, which allowed sparks to rise upwards into the chimney area.

‘How did you get on, David? James said you were contacting some people you knew in Government?’ David paused, drank from his glass and then spoke.

‘Not looking good, Dad. There’s been a definite shift in attitude, even within the people I might remotely call acquaintances, let alone friends. The resistance amongst existing white farmers has been far sterner than Mugabe and his minions thought possible. My contact said they genuinely thought that one or two ‘unfortunate’ incidents might lead to a wholesale departure by the white farmers. Hasn’t happened. There was another attack last week, some 70 miles away. The owner of the farm, Marina Joubert, widowed for some 15 years, but still making a damn good job of it, shot in the back, when she refused to talk to two ZANU-PF officials who called on her.’ My father interrupted.

‘David, haven’t briefed you yet, but told James about the two bastards who turned up here last week. Gave them short shrift, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the same two weren’t responsible. Evil pair of sods and got very nervous when I called Sabre over. Come to think of it, that could have been them with the poisoned meat. What else did you find out?’

‘Well, clearly the Government is getting more bold, even openly aggressive towards any opposition, both black and white. That Opposition leader is still recovering in hospital from the machete attack when he got out of his car. Mugabe condemns it, of course, especially when the Western media are around, but it’s a mixed message. Openly and publicly, he’s calling upon long established White farmers like us, to negotiate the return of the lands and farms, which were in his view stolen from the Zimbabwean people. He emphasises a negotiated return with inferences that such assets will be transferred at market values, and over an extended period. In reality, with elections looming in 12 months, his foot is clearly foot down on the accelerator, as well as the market value of our properties.’ Dad emptied his glass in one swallow.

‘They’re not just walking in here, chucking me and my two sons out, taking the keys and then marching in their Veterans’ army to take over. They can barely march in unison, let alone run such a massive undergoing. Some farmers have even offered to work alongside the Veterans for a couple of years, showing them how the farms should work, but that’s rejected as reinforcing the colonial stranglehold.’ I hesitated for a moment.

‘Dad, we have to be realistic. Even before I was born, Macmillan had spoken of the ‘Wind of Change’ blowing through Africa. When you compare events in other African countries, we are light miles behind many of them. I hate to say it Dad, and I know you intended it as our inheritance, but I think we’ve had it. What we have today is for today only and our days and the ownership of this home and business is under real, and I believe, inevitable, threat.’

‘James, I never thought I would ever hear you say that in the way you did. You’ve never been one to give up and roll over, and as for scraps, I can’t remember how many times I’ve had to intervene, and not just in conflicts with your brother.’ David spoke quietly.

‘Trouble is, Dad, what James has just said is an accurate reflection of what is coming down the line, not just for us, but for every white farmer and their families in Zimbabwe. I was stretching my friendships with my contacts in Government, and they were clearly nervous about talking to me, but the message was clear.’

‘What message? What message David? Come on, we’re all grown men. What is clear?’

‘There is no prescribed timescale, nor any way to seek an exemption. It’s clear they have already identified our farm. The two scouts you met will report back on our level of resistance. I don’t want any of us to become another statistic like Martin, or Mariana, or those three farmers intercepted in their truck some 62 miles away from Harare. Bandits stole their truck, put them in the back, then offloaded their cargo at over 60mph. Really horrible injuries. I don’t want that for us.’ Dad was quiet for several moments.

‘So, what do we do? Invite them in. Put up some bunting and say, ‘welcome one and all, help yourself to our 40 years of hard work, investment and commitment to our workforce?’ Don’t think so. Do you?’ His question lingered. ‘Do you? James, David, I’m talking to both of you. Is that it? Pack up and resign?’ We nodded in unison.

‘Sad as it is, Dad, I don’t see any other option,’ said David. ‘We could try to sell the farm quickly and quietly before the ZANU-PF visit becomes common knowledge. However, no white farmer in his right mind would buy it in the current climate. Major corporations wouldn’t be interested unless they could insist on experienced and primarily European management being imported on site. African purchasers would be nervous, particularly in view of Mugabe’s stated intent to return all such farms and land to public ownership under the management of Veterans. I think we have to cut and run.’

‘What do you mean by that?’ Dad reached across to the Jamieson bottle and refilled his glass. He nodded at us both, and David held out his own glass, whilst I declined a top up.

‘The harvests are due in around 6 weeks. Let’s not bother about optimizing profits. Let’s harvest as soon as possible, clear the farms, get it to the auction rooms and markets, take what we make from the sale, and disappear. I can minimise any PR about the auction and have the money raised, paid straight into a South African bank. With our other investments, and having cleared out all our accounts, we would have enough to live on for the immediate future. My job is secure at the moment, unless they decide African employees must also absorb European held jobs. There are masses of work for all of us in South Africa, and that includes farm management. Clare’s father has important contacts and would help us without hesitation. Mandela and his government are adopting a quite different approach, more realistic and a proper partnership between black and white residents. That’s our options from my perspective.’ Dad turned to me.

‘James?’

‘I promise you, Dad, that David and I have only had a brief conversation about this on our way back from the airport, and I agree with the major thrust of his argument. Having worked on the farm my whole life, it will be a massive wrench, but I have learnt major skills and expertise from you that if, as David says, I end up in farming in a different country, so be it.’

‘But you won’t own it, neither will it be your heritage like this place is. Eh?’

‘Dad, I rather be alive and watch you in your dotage somewhere. Who knows, you may meet someone? You’re still young, and according to reports I’ve had from the golf club dinner dance, your movements are a sight to be seen.’ He looked at me for a while and then smiled.

‘Depends on the Jameson consumption. Speaking of which, who wants a refresher?’ There appeared to be a lightness in his mood, almost as if he’d been relieved at our response. Maybe, deep down, he didn’t really fancy the gung-ho approach he’d formerly adopted. Whatever it was, we finished the bottle, and then having had one last security check, and with the Remington 870 shotgun firmly tucked under Dad’s arm, we all went to bed.

It was mid-morning before I surfaced, and I reflected on the lack of urgency which usually underpinned our lifestyle. Normally, I would have been up and around by 7 a.m. organising the day’s work, liaising with Tawanda, ordering supplies, and oiling the wheels of our well-run and profitable farm. Today, I realised that already I’d distanced myself emotionally from our current lifestyle, and felt sadness. The unknown hadn’t arrived and yet already I felt unsettled.

Dad was walking across the lawn and looking at the last resting place for Sabre. Tawanda was with him, and they appeared in deep conversation. As I approached them, Tawanda gave me a friendly wave, although his face appeared rather strained.

‘Mr James. How are you sir? Have you had a restful sleep? I have set the team to work on increasing the capacity of the drying rooms. Tobacco is nearly ready to crop.’ Tawanda was in his late 50s, his hair was a shock of grey, and there were significant strands visible in his beard. He’d been part of my life for the last 20 years, and I loved and valued him dearly.’

‘Tawanda, I apologise for my lateness. We had a late night. I had to collect David from the airport, and then father insisted on opening a bottle of Jameson’s. The outcome is a slightly hungover person. However, I am in total agreement with what you have set in place.’ Dad intervened.

‘James, I want to brief Tawanda on certain key issues that have just arisen. I also want to tour the farm, so we’ll take the jeep, and then we can talk on the way. Besides, Tawanda has told me he has just finished making some of his special beer, so once we finish, I’ll go back to his home with him for a while. Tell Patience I won’t be back for lunch. I expect Tawanda can find us something in his kitchen.’

‘Definitely Boss.’ Tawanda replied. ‘It has been a long time since you last tried my beer.’

Dad laughed, ‘Tawanda, the memory is as alive with me today as when I last visited, only this time, I shall be more careful when accepting your hospitality. Right, let’s get the jeep keys and be off.’

As they exited the compound, I saw Dad was carrying a leather rifle case and guessed at the whereabouts of the Remington 870. I found David sitting in the kitchen, eating some eggs and bacon, whilst Patience busied herself preparing food for the later meals. As I told her about Dad’s absence at lunch, I realised she was quite fretful and anxious. Reaching across to her, I tapped her on the shoulder and nodded towards the lounge. She followed me, looking back at David, who by now was on his mobile phone. He nodded as we left the room.

Patience sat down on the sofa and nervously rubbed her hands together, whilst looking down at the floor.

‘What is it, Patience? What is worrying you? Tell me.’ Whilst she had been the housekeeper since she married Tawanda, my relationship with her had deepened when my mother died. She had discretely and sensitively kept a special eye on me, and sensed when my grieving was becoming too much. She would make an excuse to walk into the garden and invite me to accompany her. ‘Mr James, I have found a new plant in the border, what is it, will you help me?’ was a familiar approach.

Patience looked up, and I could see the beginnings of a tear in her eye. I reached across and held her hand. ‘Come on.’

‘Mr James, Tawanda and I have been hearing some horrible rumours. We went to a friend’s funeral yesterday and met many people from other villages. Mugabe is making lots of speeches about people like you, and some things he is saying are very worrying. Some people from other villages were getting very excited and said bad things, but I told them the truth.’ She paused. ‘Mr James, Tawanda and I have the greatest respect for you and your family. Your mother was my best friend, and helped me a lot. People still talk about our wedding at your home. Now though, we hear bad things, evil things, and that is why I am worried.’

‘Patience, thank you for telling me of your troubles. My father is driving around the farm with Tawanda and giving him the latest news as we know it. Some things may be outside of our control. The Government is making it very difficult for white farmers, even those like us who have been working here for over 40 years. We have always valued the hard work and friendship of yourself and Tawanda, as well as the other workforce. Whatever happens, we will do our very best to make sure you are looked after.’

‘Will you lose the farm, Mr James? Others say you will. They say Mugabe will take it from you and if you object, you may be killed!’ As she finished talking, a trickle of tears ran down her cheek. She withdrew her hand from mine, and pulling a handkerchief from her apron pocket, and wiped her eyes. ‘What will happen to us, Mr James? What about us? This is our home as well. It is not just about finding a new job, is it? What about us?

‘My lovely Patience, there is nothing I want more in the world than for you to live out your lives, in the way you choose. My dreams were always about the future, and my taking over from my father, once he retired, and that included both you and Tawanda. I would always see you on the farm, even when you could no longer work, if that is what you wanted to do. Today, at this very moment, I cannot say anything about what will happen in the future, but rest assured, as soon as we know what is going on, we will tell you, and whatever happens we will do our best by you both. Promise.’

Patience stood up, and blew her nose again. ‘Need to get on with lunch,’ she said. ‘I trust you, Mr James and your father and Mr David. I trust you with my life.’ As she left the room, I felt an involuntary surge of emotion, followed by a determination. I knew what my focus had to be.

As Patience left the lounge, David came in. He was still talking on his mobile phone so I sat with him, privy only to his comments and responses to whoever he was talking to. On one occasion, I saw he was becoming somewhat agitated. His face became flushed, and he gripped the phone more tightly. After a further brief exchange, he flipped the phone closed and looked at me.

‘That was my contact in the Ministry of Justice, or non-Justice dependent on which side of the fence you are on. Really quite anxious about talking to me, although we go back some 10 years. He thinks phones are being bugged, and the interior military service are becoming more strident. I asked him straight about our potential to sit this one out, and he strongly urged against it. Now that we’ve had our initial visit from ZANU-PF, we are in the system, and whilst he couldn’t indicate ‘when’, it is no longer a question of ‘if’. I sounded him out about one option I’ve been thinking of, but he was non-committal, which I think means forget it.’

‘Sorry David, you’ve lost me. The Jameson effect from last night has worn off. We were close to determining a couple of options, so what are you thinking about?’

‘I’m conscious of the tremendous loyalty, hard work and commitment of Tawanda and Patience, together with the workforce, and in particular the immediate family of Tawanda. Last we talked about perhaps trying to sell the farm quickly and discretely, before the ZANU-PF approach becomes public knowledge.’

‘But we agreed that was a non-starter. No European would touch it, Africans with sufficient funds would be very nervous, and major corporations would also back off. What are you thinking of?’

‘I’ve not talked this through with Dad yet, but I can see clearly how much this is affecting both of you, as well as Tawanda and Patience. She was in tears when she came out of the lounge. What did you talk about, James?’

‘A very limited future. They’ve already picked up on the vibes about this farm being requisitioned. Locals in other villages are talking openly about it. Some of them will definitely support a takeover, enforced or otherwise. I explained that whatever the outcome, we as a family will do our very best for them.’

‘That ties in with my thoughts.’ David drew a deep breath. ‘Let’s try to donate, handover, call it what you will. Let’s get as much of the farm into the hands of Tawanda, his family and his team as quickly as possible. It might have to be a sale for a nominal $1 to make it legal. If not, let’s make some immediate and discrete legal enquiries about transferring ownership to them. We still sell off all the current tobacco, maize, sugar and wheat by auction, and get the best possible deal for it, so we have some additional working capital. The bungalow grounds and the farm itself would become Tawanda’s. His family and team would inherit the lot and I would suggest form a worker co-operative. So, they get all the outbuildings, equipment, tractors, everything associated with running the farm. It’s theirs to look after, manage and develop.’

‘What about the ZANU-PF?’ I could feel an excitement about David’s plans and yet it was tempered by the likely reaction from the Veteran’s Army. David’s reaction was immediate.

‘We’ve been missing the most obvious. Don’t forget that before he came to work for us, Tawanda was a member of the Zimbabwean army. They may not consider him a veteran in their terms, but not only has Tawanda served the Zimbabwean cause, so have several current workforce. That would give them a powerful argument if the authorities in future tried to seize the farm, from Zimbabwean owners, and former members of their armed forces.’

‘David, that’s a brilliant idea. We need to talk to Dad as soon as possible. He’s out with Tawanda for the day, touring the estate, and indulging in some beer tasting in Tawanda’s home, so let’s presume that such discussion won’t happen till tomorrow. What about the discrete legal advice we need? Any contacts?’ David paused for a moment, then flipped open his mobile phone, activated it and then spoke.

‘Jonathan, old chap? Yes, it’s David. I know it’s been a bloody long time. Just wanted to invite you to my wedding. Clare and I are getting hitched soon.’ He paused. ‘We’ll be really chuffed to see you. Invites are on the way. Now, having got the good stuff out of the way, I need some advice. It has to be discrete, reliable, and competent. Know anyone? What you? Oh, that would be terrific. I’ll send you an email immediately with the problem and the advice we seek. Keep your fees low, and you might get a seat on the top table, instead of the tent on the lawn. On its way mate. Caio.’ He closed his phone and winked. ‘Right, where’s the laptop?’

It was getting dark when there was the sound of a hoot from Dad’s jeep, and I hurried to open the enclosure gate. He lurched to a halt on the driveway, the front wheels nestling against the borders of the lawn. There was a long pause, then the driver’s door swung open. Dad swung himself slowly down onto the gravelled surface before reaching into the vehicle and withdrawing the leather rifle case.

He walked slowly towards the veranda, then appeared to have problems in negotiating the steps which were inset into the façade. David emerged from the bungalow, saw what was going on, and reached back into the building. Suddenly, there was a cascade of lighting across the enclosure which silhouetted Dad’s figure next to the steps. Looking down, he waited for a moment, and then in a series of quick steps scampered up onto the veranda decking, clutching the leather rifle case to his chest. He paused for a moment.

‘Going to bed. Speak to you in the morning. Bloody beer!’ with that, Dad lurched across the veranda, passing David, who stood aside, simulating a bullfighter pose, as his father went past him.

‘How the mighty are fallen.’ I said. David burst into laughter, then adopting an Aussie accent, replied ‘Too bloody true mate. Sod the Amber Nectar! Anyway, James, time for a final security check and then we’ll follow Dad to his designated place.’

Dad was clearly hungover when he emerged from his bedroom the next morning. He was still wearing the camouflaged kit and looked as if he’d slept in it. The Remington 870 trailed behind him in its leather case, and had become a fixture of Dad’s day-to-day lifestyle.

He slouched into the kitchen, nodded at Patience who was busying herself at the range and having poured himself a coffee from the percolator, sat down, shook his head as though to clear it and sipped the coffee. Patience looked back at him from the sink area, then shook her own head in reprimand. Dad looked up sheepishly.

‘Patience, the reason I feel like this at the moment is because of your husband Tawanda and his awful native beer.’

‘No one makes you drink it Mr Boss. My husband not fit to be a husband this morning, either. He blames you. You blame him. Both of you behave like children. Not good.’

‘Apologies Patience, it won’t happen again.’

‘You said that last time, Mr Boss, and the time before. My Tawanda is easily led and you know that.’

‘He doesn’t just work here, Patience. He’s a friend. One of my best friends, in fact. Trust him with my life. We had a lot to talk about. Important stuff.’

Patience looked across the kitchen at me before responding. ‘Mr James, give me some idea of problems ahead, when we talked yesterday. I told him, and I tell you now, I trust you to do the right thing, not just for us, but for your sons and your own future.’ Dad just nodded, then turning to me said,
‘We need to meet and agree on what we’re doing next. Last night when I got home, and despite the beer, I sensed you were both excited about something. Find David, let’s meet out on the veranda. Ask Patience to bring some fresh coffee, and lots of it. My head is feeling worse by the minute, ask her to bring me some Paracetamol as well.’

Within minutes of David outlining his proposal, I could see Dad responding positively. When David spoke of the previous military service of Tawanda and some of the workforce, Dad slapped his thighs with delight.

‘What an angle. That’ll screw the Veteran’s lot, but I can see at once a potential snag.’ He looked at us both before continuing. ‘Whilst Tawanda’s service was legit and recorded, there is a problem.’ After a brief pause. ‘His army was the Army of Rhodesia. His officers were in the main white European, and part of the conflict he saw was regarding some of today’s Veterans, and Mugabe’s key henchmen. Is Tawanda a veteran? Definitely. But in what context might be challengeable. However, you’ve come up with a brilliant idea David. Both of you, really. Well done. Now what about the legal advice?’ David responded.

‘My contact responded this morning. He thinks the idea could work, and we should pursue it as a matter of urgency. Now Dad, on the basis we are all in agreement, we need an immediate action plan for all the developing crops, we also need to make some immediate moves in terms of existing Zimbabwean banks, and shift as much money as possible to South Africa. Clearly, we need to engage Tawanda and his team regarding forming a Worker Co-Operative.’

‘How does that work?’ asked Dad, laughing. ‘Last time I was engaged in a Co-Operative it was back in the UK; there was a shop in most high streets!’ I’d researched the process, so replied.

‘In principle, all interested parties in such a venture, all staff and management that is, have a number of shares in the profits, dependent on what they do, how much time they spend, what level of authority they have. Clearly Tawanda, as the leader, would have more shares than say a farm labourer, but it’s a relatively straightforward process once it’s established. Tawanda and his team take over the management of the farm in all respects, it’s their business, and they share any profits, according to their number of shares.’ Dad reacted.

‘Right, I’ll ask Tawanda and a couple of his team to come up to the house after lunch. James, you can explain what you’ve just said. David, can you draw up a crop schedule and identify the labour we need? I want to get that finished in, say, 2-3 weeks. Everything in terms of saleable produce, off to the auction. If we need extra labour, I’ll allow Tawanda to get them in. He can decide on who he employs. After all, that is his job in the future. Can expect another visit from our ZANU-PF friends soon. Don’t think they’ll come mob-handed just yet, but will clearly keep the pressure on.’

‘Dad, there’s one very personal issue we haven’t covered.’

‘James, what are you talking about?’

‘What about Mum and Sabre? Are we simply going to walk away? Patience and Tawanda would care for their graves forever, but just in case this doesn’t work out the way we’ve planned it, what then?’ For a moment there was a complete silence, with the three of us all looking down, then Dad intervened.

‘That’s one for me to sort out. I have thought about it, and until this all blew up, reckoned on my being laid to rest next to Mum, courtesy of Sabre, of course! Mum had a favourite spot down by the river, just below the treeline. Used to go down there for hours and paint. It’s on our land, it’s discrete, and if we keep the markings to a minimum, she’ll be at rest and not disturbed. Are you OK with that?’ We both nodded. ‘Right, that’s it then. I’ll leave that task till the end, and then we’ll do it as a family and invite Patience and Tawanda. Let’s crack on with what we can do now. I’ll contact Tawanda.’

Shortly after lunch, the jeep, which was used by the workforce, swung onto the drive. Tawanda had three workers with him, Emmanuel, Chido and Bongani. Bongani was married to Chido’s sister and they had invited me to their wedding, although the memories of the event were rather limited, because of the flow and amount of native beer. We sat in a circle on the veranda, whilst Patience fussed around bringing jugs of iced water and fresh melon to the group. She hovered for several moments before Dad turned to Tawanda.

‘I’d like Patience to join us. She has a very sensitive and observant manner and I’m sure will think of things we might miss.’ Tawanda chuckled, then beckoned Patience from the doorway of the bungalow.

‘You got me off the hook, Boss. She’s been pestering me ever since we arrived, wanting to know what’s going on. Now she can do her own listening.’

‘We deal with harvesting all available crops first and marketing them’. David had worked out, that with full worker attendance, and some working extra hours, the job could be completed within the prescribed timeframe. Patience raised her hand.

‘What will we do if all the crops are sent to the auction? Do we starve? She said mockingly.

‘Of course not, Patience. Identify a storage area within the barns, and we will reserve enough food for you all for at least a year. Let me know what you want and how much, and I will ensure you will get the pick of the crops. You will be left with all the freezers, and remember, once we’ve left, you will grow your own food and other produce in the future.’.

It was then the reality set in. Patience began to cry and I could see that other people in the group were also becoming emotional. Dad, reached across and put his arm around her shoulders.

‘Peace, woman, the Boss and his sons will do their best for you. We’ve promised. Now, how about some of that lovely fresh lemonade you are so good at?’ As Patience, still sniffling, left the veranda, he spoke again. ‘There’ll be more tears before this is resolved, but don’t be afraid to show your feelings. All of you. Don’t bottle it up.’

The next few weeks were a blur. We had rigged floodlights over the major fields so that recovering the crops could happen throughout the night and day. Tawanda brought in extra labour who were delighted at the wages we paid, which was far over other farmers. They also went home at night laden down with fresh produce, which included a decent amount of dried tobacco leaves, which I knew they would mix with their native Ganga leaf to produce a really potent, hallucinatory smoke. Once tried, never forgotten.

Despite being considered an early crop, David had achieved significant profits at the auction and these had joined our reserves in South Africa. One issue, however, came as a significant surprise. Dad was sitting in the lounge, with the beginnings of another bottle of Jameson, and filled all our glasses.

‘Tawanda has decided not to move into the bungalow. He wants to remain in his own home down on the farm itself. The area is also where generations of their family are buried, and there is a belief, that leaving, without due cause, is a rejection of the deceased. Patience is in full agreement, and whilst she has tended for, and cared for, our home, for all these years, the idea she might sleep in Mum’s bedroom, is causing her difficulties. Divorcing the bungalow from the farm precincts makes it easier.’

‘Easier? For what?’ David asked. ‘Are you going to sell it?’

‘No,’ Dad replied. ‘I have something in mind but I won’t bother you with it for the moment, but don’t forget tomorrow we move your Mum and Sabre. I’ve been down to the location, and it really is perfect for them. That really is the last act before our departure and the creation of the new regime under Tawanda.’

‘How is he Dad? He’s so like you. Inscrutable at times, and yet clearly boiling inside. How is he, really?’

‘James, we’ve had lots of long talks, especially in the last week or so. He’s nervous, and rightly so, but now he’s met David’s friend, who will advise the Co-Operative, he’s much more reassured and gaining confidence. I’ve told him that no matter how far away we are, we can talk on the telephone, or once he masters the computer, it will make it so much easier.’ He laughed. ‘I’ve also reminded him that if the Co-Operative works out the way we hope, he could become a fairly rich African in his own right, and then he and Lady Patience can come visit us. That’s when the impending change really struck home with him. His own boss for the first time in his life. We’re absolutely doing the right thing.’

‘I’m booking the flights for next Monday, Dad. Harare to Joburg. Alright?’

‘Book for the two of you. I want to have a couple of days on my own to say my farewells to my home for the last forty years. I’ll book my own flights. Just want a bit of time to myself. That’s all.’

‘I’ll book you a ticket you can use to suit yourself, Dad. Transferable to any flight, any day.’ David replied.

Standing on the banks of the river, which bounded Mum’s favourite spot, it reminded me of the majestic beauty of my homeland. The fast-flowing river cut through the adjacent forests, leaping across rocky outcrops and disappearing into a gorge that was as far as the human eye could see. Dad, David, Tawanda and Patience were moving away from the two discrete mounds just below the tree line. Patience had brought a bag of soil from the borders of the garden in the bungalow and scattered it across the coffin and the tarpaulin holding Sabre’s remains. I paused for several moments before following them up the incline to the waiting jeep, only turning one more time to look towards the gorge, and the ever-present river.

Once again, the Airbus service, this time from Harare, was on time, and David and I emerged from Joburg airport precinct. Clare was waving frantically at us from a nearby car park, and as we pulled our luggage across the hot tarmac, her father emerged from the rear of a Range Rover, lifting the tailgate and helping us load our baggage. Clare and David wasted no time in romantics and were embracing one another around the other side of the vehicle. I felt a little envious, and then remembered their engagement party, and Clare’s very attractive, and single, younger sister.

I was sitting in the garden of Clare’s house some three days later, listening to the radio and working my way through some international newspapers. There were a couple of shaded hammocks nearby, which David and Clare occupied, whilst her father busied himself with a heated barbeque. Smoke was swirling and rising, when the radio programme was interrupted with a newsflash.

Police in Harare have confirmed a major shootout between members of the Veteran’s Army and a resident of a farming community in Chegutu, some 3 hours from Harare. Many casualties amongst the militia have been reported. The fighting took place in an enclosed area surrounding a family home, and according to eye-witness reports, following prolonged bursts of fire for nearly an hour, there was a massive explosion from within the home. This killed the sole occupant and many of his attackers, and demolished the building. Further explosions from home-made land mines planted in the grounds caused more casualties. I will give an update in our next bulletin in 30 minutes’ time.”.

The End.

A Stately Affair

A Stately Affair

Cast Doreen, Maralyn & Sonia – all early retired and volunteers. Sonia is a spinster, Maralyn and Doreen are widowed. Cliff Edge (40 ‘ish) manager of the stately home.

Setting An ante-room in a stately home, in the West Country.

It is mid-morning in the ante-room of a stately home. A small group of unpaid volunteer guides have assembled for a meeting with their Manager. Doreen, Maralyn and Sonia are all senior citizens who have worked together for over 20 years. They come from quite different backgrounds, with Doreen being a former CEO of major companies. Their Manager, Cliff Edge has just returned from a meeting with other stately home managers and senior managers.

ACT ONE, SCENE ONE (Door opens and Cliff comes rushing in).

DOREEN Oh at last.

CLIFF Apologies girls, sorry I’m late.

MARALYN Girls? I wish.

CLIFF Sorry. Ladies. Had a hell of a meeting.

SONIA What’s wrong?

CLIFF Numbers/

DOREEN What about them?

CLIFF Does the word “Footfall” mean anything? (Pauses) Anyone?

MARALYN Don’t you know?

CLIFF Course I do. Just wondered if you three did. Cos it’s important. Head Office is getting worried. Our footfall is a lot less than others in the group.

SONIA Footfall?

DOREEN The number of people coming round the estate. It’s a trendy word. Came from the States, like most annoying things do.

MARALYN So what’s the problem, Cliff?

CLIFF Well, our operation is costing more than others. Fewer people visiting, less car parking, fewer meals served, less income from the portable loos, less direct debits. It’s all less.

SONIA Well we don’t get paid a penny. So, we ain’t less. Perhaps we should start using the portable loos rather than the staff ones. Stop bringing a flask in and buy a coffee from the cafe. Would that help?

CLIFF Hardly Sonia, but thanks for the idea.

MARALYN Glad about that. Those Portaloos are awful. Fancy paying 20p a pee.

DOREEN So what are you saying, Cliff? We cost more than others to run? (Cliff nods) So what?

CLIFF If we can’t increase our footfall…/

SONIA Visitors!

CLIFF Visitors. We must increase our visitors……… (Pause) or else.

MARALYN Or else what?

CLIFF We could close. Either permanently, or only open a few months of the year. My job would go, so would other paid staff. (Pauses) As for yourselves, if we weren’t open, there wouldn’t be any need for you. Sorry to be brutal.

DOREEN Oh that would be bloody awful. Since my husband died, this has been my lifeline. Sonia and Maralyn are my best friends. Every day we open I look forward to coming here, seeing my friends, (ironically) “us girls, meeting the public, telling them about their heritage/

MARALYN Don’t forget, looking for a new husband. Since my old man died. It gets very lonely. Still hopeful…./

DOREEN Maralyn, can I assure you that I am not here “looking for a new husband”.

MARALYN No that’s me. (sniffs) Still, ain’t found one. Fancied one or two, but someone already took them……or they fancied Sonia instead.

SONIA (Flustered) Don’t bring me into this. I’ve never married and never want to…ever!

CLIFF Ladies, girls,……please. This is serious. Now, I may have never said this before, and if I haven’t, I do apologise but I wanted to place on the record my appreciation for all your hard work and efforts over many, many years.

DOREEN That’s the closest we’re ever going to get to a P45. Sounds like cheerio Cliff? Have you given up already? Cos, we haven’t. This place is important to us (Other two nod), so get used to it. We’ll find a way, a solution, we’ll sort it. Footfall, Football, Freefall, even FA – don’t matter to us. We’re the 3 Musketeers and if you want to be D’Artagnan, all well and good.

MARALYN Well said, Doreen! Love it!

SONIA So do I. It’s really exciting. What about you Cliff? Up for it? (Waves an imaginary sword in the air) All for one and one for all!

CLIFF You missed a bit…Dumas. “All for one and one for all. United we stand divided we fall!” Yes indeed. I’m in! (Pauses) Although, not sure what I’ve just signed up for. Got carried away by all the emotion and camaraderie. Not used to it.

DOREEN Wait and see. First the 3 Musketeers need to meet in private. Then D’Artagnan can join us. (Pauses) We’re having a “pre-strategy planning meeting”. (Points at Maralyn & Sonia) They, haven’t got a clue what it means, but it was in a magazine in my Dentists. Anyway, sounds good. So off you go Cliff. We’ll see you in the morning.

(Cliff sheepishly leaves the ante-room looking pensive)

MARALYN What now Doreen? You seem to know what’s going on. I’m completely lost.

DOREEN If this place is to survive, we need to do some serious thinking and take some real actions. Didn’t want to say much in front of Cliff, but he’s not exactly a Winston Churchill figure./

SONIA What? We going to “fight them on the beaches” and all that

DOREEN Sort of. Right, now listen…………

END OF ACT 1, SCENE 1.

ACT 1, SCENE 2 (The volunteers are sitting in the ante-room. There are large sheets of paper all over a table, and Maralyn is writing furiously.)

DOREEN Done? (Maralyn nods) Right. That was a good couple of hours’ work. When I was in business, we used to call it brainstorming. Can I say, Sonia, how impressed I was with your contribution. Some stuff that came out of your head was amazing – even worrying.

SONIA (Enthusiastically) Couldn’t help it. Once you said what you wanted, my mind took over. Thoughts kept rushing in. Needed to shout them out before I forgot them. Felt a bit like “Snap”, used to love that game.

DOREEN That’s brainstorming for you. Now we need to go back over all the ideas, have a look at them, see what are workable and put them to one side, but don’t forget the others, because we might need them later.

MARALYN There are dozens here. How are we going to sort them out?

DOREEN Right before we start, let me summarise. Our stately home is under threat. I said “ours” because we’ve been working together for over 20 years and long before all of us ended up being on our own. This place means a lot to me and I’m damned sure I’m not giving up without a fight.

SONIA (Claps) Well said, Doreen. Brilliant. Now I can see the Churchill connection!

MARALYN Me too. I love this place. The atmosphere, the history, heritage, the chance to meet my friends and do something useful. We cannot let them close it. (Defiantly) No matter what we have to do.

SONIA (Nervously) But what do we have to do Doreen? I just had a little panic then. What is it? What can we do?

DOREEN It’s simple. (Points) Get more people through those doors, visiting, spending money. We’re in the game of selling – like anyone else. And do you know what the best salespeople rely on? Throughout history. What sells? What makes people dish the cash to buy things or visit places like this?

MARALYN History? Heritage? Lovely gardens? The Tea Room? (Pauses) Well, it can’t be us!

DOREEN Nearly Maralyn. Nearly. (Long pause then triumphantly) “Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll”

SONIA What?! “Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll” Help!

DOREEN Look at all the adverts. The successful ones I mean. Cars, clothes, perfumes, holidays even a bar of chocolate for goodness’ sake. They all had an element in them. Sexy, desirable, enticing, inviting, a memorable piece of music. Remember that Hamlet cigar theme. Massive. Then there was the chocolate flake. Wow!

MARALYN I’m OK with the idea till I get to drugs? How?

SONIA I’m a little nervous about the other thing…..you know……not the drugs or the music…(softly) the other thing (looks guilty and whispers) “Sex?

DOREEN I’d never have guessed Sonia. As for drugs, not so obvious, but drugs are about people wanting more. Get them hooked, then make sure they can get more and more when they want it. Look at those kid’s games, the rush for Xmas toys. (Mimics) “Must have this Mummy. Must have that Mummy” How many mobile phones can any one person want or need? Yet every week they seem to have a new model.

SONIA Don’t want to be a wet blanket, but this is a 500-year-old stately home. How are we going to make it more attractive to visitors? A couple of years ago, they had Queen with Brian May playing on the roof of Buckingham Palace with thousands watching down the Mall. We can’t compete with that/

DOREEN Brilliant Sonia. Maralyn, write that down. Live music festivals. Top name acts.

SONIA What about Sex?

MARALYN I thought you weren’t keen on it. (Laughs) When we were talking about men earlier on, you got all humpety. (Pauses) I’ve got it. (Excitedly) Last year that woman was found to be running one of those bondage clubs in an industrial unit in Plympton. Making a bomb. We’ve got the original cellars, sorry dungeons here where they used to put difficult serfs in. Perfect. Yes?

DOREEN You’re a natural for this Maralyn. What a smashing idea.

SONIA I was wondering about costumes. (Pauses) You know. At the moment we show visitors around the House wearing our day-to-day clothes. What if we dressed up?

MARALYN What as Bunny Girls? Don’t think that would fit. Mind you, some weirdos we take round would enjoy it. Remember that retired Vicar? And that German last year. “Hans On” or whatever his name was. Even wore one of those funny leather coats.

SONIA (Excitedly) I’m getting the hang of this. Now I know what we need to do. (Pauses) I wasn’t exactly suggesting Bunny Girl costumes, but what about a bit of Nell Gwyn? Bit of oomph, show off some cleavage.

DOREEN There’s a darkness in you, Sonia. Some ideas you’ve come up with show a side we’ve never seen before. Definitely keep an eye on you, madam.

MARALYN What about enhancing the information we provide to visitors? You know. Enhance it a little…../

SONIA Do you mean lie? Oh, how exciting.

DOROTHY Maralyn used the word “enhancing “but I think you’ve got it in one. Maralyn, can I ask you to take that option away with you? Work on it a bit. Look at what we say now, and think of better ways of describing the heritage, facilities and history. Perhaps add on a couple of extras. Things that might entice the stately home punter and put us more firmly on the map.

MARALYN Of course. However, there was one option that I was thinking of, but it might be a little dubious.

SONIA Depends on how desperate we are.

MARALYN You’d definitely be desperate for this one.

DOREEN Stop teasing us.

MARALYN My nephew’s been away for a couple of years. Guest of Her Majesty. He’s looking for new facilities for his next venture. He’s a keen gardener. Learnt a lot of new skills these past few years. At the back of the house, there is a heap of empty Victorian glass houses. Haven’t been used for ages.

SONIA What a good idea. Grow lots of delicious fruit and veg. Sell them direct to the visitors. Should make oodles. Healthy living and all that.

DOREEN Don’t think fruit and veg are on the menu. Eh, Maralyn? (She nods) But, it’s a very lucrative option, and would increase the number of visitors.

SONIA What are you talking about Doreen?

MARALYN Hash, grass, cannabis, call it what you like. It’s green money.

SONIA Oh my God. (Pauses) Wahoo! (Jumps up and down)

DOREEN I take it you’re in favour. It needs to be carefully thought through, but desperate times need desperate measures. Now, Maralyn. Read something off your list of ideas. Pick something at random.

MARALYN Yanks. Someone shouted out Yanks. Next year the whole city will be going mad. It’s the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower sailings. There’ll be thousands of visitors, masses of Yanks. Lots of money, all obsessed with our history and culture. They’ll be dying to see the rooms George Washington used when he stayed at our stately home and especially the tree where he carved his initials.

SONIA (Puzzled) Don’t think he ever left the USA, let alone visited here?

MARALYN It was a discreet visit, but I’ve found a recent document that suggests otherwise, so we’ll go strong on a suggestion rather than absolute fact. And the initials on the tree will be absolute proof.

DOREEN Which tree?

MARALYN The ones by the meadow.

SONIA George Washington had been dead over a 100 years before someone planted them.
DOREEN Minor detail, which we can deal with. However, I think Maralyn has identified a major source of future visitors. All drawn to our stately estate by established world events and several coincidences. This could be it, ladies. Mayflower 2020. Let’s get down to some authentic events. It always helps although sometimes the truth is even more bizarre.

SONIA I guess you’ll give us an example.

DOREEN How about when the whole crew and passengers of the Mayflower stayed in the house prior to their embarkation? Mayflower needed urgent repairs. I’m sure some artefacts and other items littered around the house have Mayflower connections from their short stay here.

SONIA So this was a stately hotel for the Mayflower team prior to them sailing?

MARALYN More of a village inn for some, and a place of custody for others. Hence the dungeons. Don’t forget they had a contingent of slaves with them. They would have needed to be looked after, apart from the Hoi Polloi – the common people. Then there was the elite who slept in the same beds as our previous historic visitors.

SONIA Such as?

DOREEN I’m sure Maralyn’s list includes Charles I & II, even Oliver Cromwell.

SONIA Elizabeth I? What about her?

MARALYN Just seen the film. Don’t enhance the truth too much Sonia. She died before someone built the House. (Pause) Now. (Pause) Michael Jackson. (Pause) Was definitely in the UK lots of times. I know for a fact he visited Exeter cos he was friends with that Uri Geller who lives there. Only 40 minutes down the road. Used to bend things.

SONIA Uri Geller was bent?

MARALYN No he bent things, spoons, forks and the like. Anyway, Michael Jackson visited, slept over and even tried to buy the place. Wanted to start one of those Zoos like he had back in the States, in the grounds near the river. Yeah. What about a small safari park? There’s a nice hook. That’ll bring them in.

SONIA Who the Fraud Squad, or Trading Standards? You’ll never get away with it.

DOREEN Desperate times, desperate measures Sonia. (Pauses) Remember. (Pauses) Right now let’s brief our Manager on what’s happening.

END OF ACT 1, SCENE 2.

ACT 1, SCENE 3. (3 months have elapsed and there is a meeting in ante-room with Cliff, and the three volunteers present. Cliff has opened a bottle of wine and poured four glasses. Each takes one as Cliff proposes a toast).

CLIFF I choose my words carefully here, but Ladies can I say how delighted I am. The results for the past quarter have been stunning, and it’s entirely down to you. D’Artagnan once said, “No difficulties can ever daunt me.” You’ve taken the challenge and thrashed it. I propose a toast to my special 3 Musketeers. Well done all. (All lift glasses and toast one another). More visitors than ever before, new facilities, masses of interest from the USA about next year’s Mayflower celebrations celebrations. Bookings flooding in. Amazing. How did you do it?

DOREEN Well it was a mixture of teamwork, innovation, and a nice dollop of good luck.

SONIA I loved the innovation, the freedom, the opportunities that developed.

CLIFF Was it your idea to introduce an evening of history and briefings in the Cellars. Seems to have caught on. (Laughs) Someone, told me it was better than going to a special place in Plympton, whatever that means?

SONIA (Giggles) Well, some of our regular customers get a little too hung up on the history. Soon sort them out. Give them a good old thrashing if they don’t behave. (Doreen and Maralyn smile)

DOREEN Those nights are very much Sonia’s pride and joy. She’s developed a regular little group, all with a common interest. Maralyn, was the lucky one. (Pauses) Why don’t you explain?

MARALYN Well it was odd, really. This rather shabby old man became a regular visitor to the House, always had a small notebook with him, and kept writing things down. I’ve been watching too much Crime-Watch, because at first, I thought he was one of those Gypsy people who’ve been breaking into stately homes throughout the country and stealing valuable artwork and whatever else they can lay their hands on. (Puts on an American accent) “Thought he was casing the joint”

CLIFF What happened?

MARALYN Had a chat to him during a quiet moment and realised he had been doing research on our House for over 50 years. He had masses of notebooks, tons of information, and some of it was quite mind-blowing. Especially about previous historical figures who had visited.

CLIFF Is that where the George Washington thing came from?

MARALYN Definitely. Like you, I was a little sceptical at first, but when he showed me his notes about old records, it became clear it was true. And there were others which I’ve now included in our “Enhanced Visitors Guide.” It’s like an upmarket Watchtower magazine, without the Jehovah’s.

CLIFF It would be nice to meet him. Seems like an interesting character.

DOREEN Well he’s a bit of a recluse. Hates publicity, shy, and disappears for months on end, apparently. However, we’re sure that if we need his expertise and knowledge, someone will make it available.

CLIFF Anything else?

MARALYN We haven’t discussed the garden project, and in terms of openness and honesty between us, I wanted to be clear on how it’s developing. As you know my nephew is running it; as a volunteer. He had a difficult start in life, but has turned his life around and is now attempting to develop the project.

CLIFF I’ve seen quite a lot of activity there. Lots of visitors and it’s very encouraging to see he attracts the younger person. About time too. What’s he growing?

MARALYN Initially he’s concentrating on green plants. The stuff that a person can take home and grow on, in their own environment. Low cost, low maintenance and should prove profitable in the longer term. Most importantly, he’s increasing our visitor numbers and raising awareness of what we do.

CLIFF That’s brilliant. I’m really impressed with you all. Now, what do you want me to take the lead on?

DOREEN We thought a Musical Concert in the grounds.

SONIA Queen inspired us playing at Buckingham Palace a couple of years ago. On the roof and all that.

CLIFF I’m game for anything. So, will this be part of the Mayflower 2020 tribute and reconstruction?

MARALYN I’m told the devil is in the detail. Go on. Be a Devil! You have a blank canvas. Think outside of the box. (Pauses) I’m really loving those American business expressions you know.

DOREEN So can we put it down as a matter of record? Cliff responsible for organising a concert in the grounds. That’ll draw them in if nothing does. Try to get some big-name artists.

SONIA I might help you there. One of my neighbours has a son Eugene who plays in a band and has lots of other band contacts. Says a few of them owe him a favour.

CLIFF Can I ask what group he’s in?

SONIA Not sure of his group, but his Grandad is one of the Rolling Stones. I think they’re still playing? Would they do?

CLIFF (Gibbering) Do? Do? Sonia, if you can pull this one off, I’ll run naked around the grounds of this stately home.

SONIA Well you might have company. Eugene says his Grandad’s band are still lively.

DOREEN Wonderful. A geriatric Rock n Roll night. That’ll put us on the map.

MARALYN Do they still need groupies? Been looking for a husband for so long, might have to lower my sights though.

DOREEN You keep your tights high. Don’t embarrass us all.

SONIA Lower her sights, Doreen. Sights. Your batteries need changing.

CLIFF Well ladies, I must be off. (Rubs hands together then clenches fists) I’m getting a real buzz about this. Feel quite euphoric. Just like the other day when I saw your nephew, Maralyn. Those greenhouses really make one feel revitalised, energised ready for anything. There’s an atmosphere about the place. It’s unique. The place was heaving. (Pauses) Right, see you all tomorrow. Important meeting.

END OF ACT 1, SCENE 3

ACT 1 SCENE 4

(Interior of ante-room, mid-morning, Doreen and Maralyn are comparing notes at the table. There is a knock at the door. They ignore it at first, but after further knocking, Doreen gets up and opens it. Sonia is in full Nell Gwyn costume.

SONIA Well? What do you think? (Pauses and twirls again, going slightly off-balance, stops, steadies herself and pushes her breasts back up and into place in the low-cut costume.)

MARALYN Amazing. Thought just then, we were going to have the first topless moment in this stately home for a few centuries.

SONIA (Pulling at costume) Still needs a change, a few alterations. However, it wouldn’t have been a few centuries since the last time. They billeted Yanks in the grounds during WW2. My mother said there were plenty of topless shenanigans. (Pauses/flustered) Sorry, I wasn’t suggesting she was……/

DOREEN I can guess Sonia. Yes, they were here, with their cheap stockings, chocolate, perfume and cigarettes.

MARALYN Sounds like Lidl’s or Aldi.

DOREEN That’s another German invasion. No Yanks this time, to win the war for us. Huh!

MARALYN Sonia, are you expecting us, (Pauses) Let me re-phrase that, are you expecting ‘me’ to get into the costume you’re wearing? Is this to be the official garb of the volunteer guides?

SONIA (Laughs) Well, you wouldn’t need as much padding as some (looks at Doreen) but yes. I was hoping you might like my idea. Borrowed this costume from the Theatre Royal. They hire them out but gave me a 48-hour free trial. Said I might be able to help them out with a big problem they’ve got. What do you think Doreen?

DOREEN I think they’re perfect Sonia. Well done. This new image together with the work Maralyn has been doing on the visitor’s guide will really make an impression and draw in the crowds.

SONIA Glad, you said that Doreen, ‘cos last night I tried wearing one for my Tuesday night meetings in the cellars……I mean dungeons. Went down a bomb. Even the rubber brigade found the image attractive, and they are usually into sniffing car tyres.

MARALYN And wearing those awful masks with the cutouts.

SONIA Well not all of them wear masks. The ones with psoriasis find them uncomfortable.

DOREEN OK. Stop! The mind boggles. (Pauses) Right, Maralyn, let’s have a run through of the new scripts for the house guides. You’ve done masses of work……….(Pauses)…Ladies and Gentlemen. May I present Maralyn’s monologues? (Claps then sits down at the table with Sonia and Maralyn).

END SCENE 4. END OF ACT 1.

ACT 2, SCENE 1

(One month later. Interior of ante-room. A door at the end opens and Maralyn dressed as Nell Gwyn character enters followed by a small group of visitors (male, female, young, old etc, different ethnicities, including one person wearing a burka* Visitors borrowed from audience except *)

MARALYN Ladies and gentlemen, please follow me and if you could gather round I’ll continue the tour briefing. (Visitors move closer and wait expectantly) (Pause) I do hope you have all enjoyed your tour so far. We have one other major room in the home that we will be going into next which is our “piece de resistance” This room has had more historical figures tread its hallowed boards, than the Old Vic. It is drenched in history. There is an aura about it. Something magical, memorable, historical is waiting for your presence. Your grand entrance is close. (Pauses)

However, a bit of Admin first. I explained earlier that because of the unique nature of the experience there would be a small surcharge/

VISITOR A. How much? The bloody cafe was expensive. Two quid for a cuppa. Rip off. How much (mimics) “for this unique experience.”

MARALYN (Nervously) Would a pound be alright?

VISITOR A Each? Or for a couple?

MARALYN (Flustered) Well, it should be a pound each really….(pauses) but you’ve been such wonderful and interesting visitors, I will only ask for a pound per couple. (Forcefully) Mind you it’s still a pound for a single. Is there anyone single here? (Flushes) I don’t mean single in a marital or relationship sense………..although……no what I meant was/

VISITOR We know what you meant Nell Gwyn. Right, can we get on with it?

MARALYN Right this way Ladies and Gentlemen. (Person in the Burka hesitates then follows group out-of-door following Maralyn.)

END OF ACT 2, SCENE 1

ACT 2, SCENE 2

(Later that week. The 3 volunteers are sitting in the ante-room drinking coffee.)

DOREEN I must say how impressed I was with the new Visitors Guide. Went down an absolute bomb. Couldn’t believe some tosh I was coming out with/

SONIA Me neither, but the visitors all seemed to like it especially when I gave them a chance to meditate.

MARALYN What? Meditate?

SONIA Just a little experiment. Got them all together in the Blue Rooms, and had them hold hands, close their eyes, deep breathing and use their imagination. Went down extremely well.

DOREEN Were the windows open?

SONIA Yes why?

DOREEN That explains it. The Blue Room windows are right above the extractor fan in the greenhouses. They were stoned! Mind you, what a bloody good idea. I’ll try it this afternoon with my group. Do they have to chant?

SONIA No Doreen. A few moments of deep breathing does the trick. (Pauses) And here’s me thinking I had some mystic influence.

MARALYN Had some awkward customers yesterday. One chap objected to everything. Apparently, when he’s normally on holiday, he pays one price for his break. All-inclusive, he called it. Food, drinks, entertainment all paid for in the price. He objected to the surcharge for the Yellow Room, objected to the price of a cup of tea, and paying for the loo. (Pauses) Had another strange one. Dressed in the full-face Burka.

SONIA She was on one of my groups a couple of days ago. Tall with big feet and had a funny smell about her.

DOREEN What do you mean funny smell?

SONIA I’m not being horrible. It wasn’t B.O. or something like that. It was more like the smell of aftershave. Men’s aftershave. Strange.

DOREEN I’d better let Cliff know. He’s ex-Army. Knows about these things. What if it were one of those terrorists? Perhaps thinking about blowing the place up. Look at all those damaged temples in Syria and Iraq.

MARALYN But us? No. More likely to do with our potential visitor for the Mayflower celebrations. Saw Cliff just now, he was running around like a headless chicken with a letter in his hand. Excited. I won’t spoil his news.

DOREEN (Sniffily) Well, I would hope that someone would share such news – whatever it is with us all. Equally. At the same time. And without exception…../ (Door of the ante-room bursts open and Cliff comes rushing in). Speak of the devil. I understand you have something important to tell us.

CLIFF Too blooming right I have. He’s said Yes! Yes! Yes!

SONIA Who for goodness’ sake? Jeremy Corbyn? Is he coming to our pop concert? Made a complete fool of himself at Glastonbury. Is he coming, or is it the Messiah?

CLIFF President Trump! President bloody Trump! He’s accepted our, I mean my, invitation to visit when he’s in Plymouth for the 2020 celebrations. Passed on the information that Maralyn found, about his great, great, great grandfather who used to work on the estate and married one of the aristocracy. That was it. Hook, line and sinker. The world press will crawl all over the place. Need to get myself some new clothes. Bound to be doing masses of interviews. Wow! Wow!

DOREEN Don’t get too excited. He’s prone to changing his mind like his underpants. Besides…/

CLIFF Besides what?

MARALYN We’ve had a strange visitor. Might be suspicious.

SONIA Tall, with big feet and dark. And I mean dark. (Pauses) Wearing a full face Burka. Visited twice.

CLIFF Well what’s wrong with that? We have a growing population of Muslims in Plymouth, we’re bound to attract visitors from different backgrounds. What’s wrong with that. Because someone dresses that way doesn’t make them a terr………(Pauses) Oh my. President Trump the target of a (stutters) terr, terr, a terrorist plot?

DOREEN The person was wearing aftershave.

CLIFF What sort. What did it smell of?

MARALYN (Indignantly) I don’t know. It’s been years since I worked in the perfumery of Dingles. But I think someone called it Al Qaeda or something like that.

CLIFF I must go. Need to ring the US Embassy and take advice. This could bugger everything up. Let me know if you see the person again. (Cliff exits ante-room rapidly)

DOREEN Sonia, a little while ago you said you’d been talking to the Theatre Royal, about their costumes and something else. You said they had a problem we might help with.

SONIA Yes. Big time problem. And I mean big time.

DOREEN Go on…..

SONIA Well if you remember they put that statue 30ft bronze statue outside the Theatre. Thought it would be arty like. Meant to be a character from one of Shakespeare’s plays?

MARALYN Bleeding Bianca! Courtesan! My backside. She was a prossy and the statue cost £500,000. Everyone told them to forget the idea, but no, the arty-farties had their way, and there she is. Bigger than a double-decker bus and thirty feet wide, only now they try to call her Messenger. Theatre said they expected people entering the theatre would go through and under her legs. Dirty buggers.

DOREEN Trust Plymouth to have its own version of up-skirting! Anyway, Sonia, what’s the problem?

SONIA Well ever since it arrived people have been complaining. It’s regularly vandalised, had graffiti, eggs thrown at it, the students climb it for a rag-week dare, and now someone has fixed a blow-up doll just above its right ear. They’ve had enough.

MARALYN So they want someone to kidnap it and take it away. Surreptitiously, steal it away and drop it in Plymouth Sound. Yes?

SONIA (Puzzled) How did you know? Well, not like that. They want it out of sight as soon as possible, and before the 2020 celebrations start when the US Mickey Mouse appreciation society arrive and adopt it. That would be the ultimate embarrassment. They’ll make a fuss about vandalism in the local media for a day or two, then get the pavement repaired, put some new trees back and hopefully it would soon be forgotten.

DOREEN And we, I mean the stately home funds would inherit half a million quid’s worth of bronze.

SONIA Melted down and sold to visitors as genuine early medieval coins, found in a secret cache.

DOREEN In business Sonia that’s what we called a win-win situation. Now I’ve got a friend in the Gypsy camp. He’s got one of those big cranes. Owes me a favour as I’m suing him at the moment for botching up several tarmac drives in our road. We put in a collective order and his team buggered every one up. He’d want a cut.

SONIA Well give him an arm.

MARALYN Or a leg. There’s two of them.

DOREEN I didn’t mean literally, but your suggestion will appeal to him. Leave it with me. So, an early morning kidnap, relocate to our grounds, hide it away for a while, then smelt? (Pause) Agreed. (All three nod, then clench fists and 3 Musketeers style shake their hands together).

END OF ACT 2, SCENE 2

ACT 2, SCENE 3

(One week later the three volunteers are in the ante-room and looking out of the window)

SONIA That statue is huge, even on its side with one leg and one arm missing.

DOREEN My Gypsy friend insisted on “an arm and a leg”, said it was standard haggling, but in this case, it was for real. Anyway, it’s here, tucked away and is a nice little earner for the future. Local headlines are full of outrage, but comments from the Theatre Royal and the Council are muted. Lots of regrets, but one Councillor who’s retiring, nearly gave it away when he said it was a relief, really. Think they want the memories to fade as fast as possible.

MARALYN (Looks out of window) What’s going on over there, near the Orangery. Isn’t that our manager Cliff? Looks like he’s having an argument with a customer. (Pause) Oh, No. (Pause) He’s not. (Pause) He is.

SONIA He’s what Maralyn? Got me all excited. And that doesn’t happen very often. What’s he doing?

DOREEN Our illustrious leader appears to have argued with a member of the public. That member of the public is now lying on the ground and our Manager is removing the person’s clothing.

SONIA What! That’s incredible.

MARALYN Not so incredible when you realise the customer is…… (Pauses) rather was wearing a Burka. Our mysterious visitor has returned and Cliff is doing his ex-military bit.

DOREEN Well something’s up because the visitor is clearly a man, not a woman, and an obviously angry man.

SONIA How can you tell that from here?

MARALYN Well a punch is a punch in any language.

DOREEN Cliff has been punched and is lying prone on the ground.

SONIA Where’s the visitor?

MARALYN On his mobile phone.

SONIA Ambulance?

DOROTHY Don’t think so. Cliff tried to get up, and the person hit him again. Furious. We’d better help. (All three leave ante-room)

END OF ACT 2, SCENE 3

ACT 2, SCENE 4

(Shortly afterwards. Interior of ante-room, the door opens and three volunteers enter supporting their manager Cliff. His head and right hand are bandaged. They sit him down and Sonia opens her flask and offers him a drink).

SONIA Get this down, you Cliff. (Cliff tries to pick up the drink with normal right hand but cannot manage it). Oh, how silly of me. You’re immobilised. Let me help you (Holds cup to his lips and spills it down his trousers) Oh I am sorry. (Pulls a hanky out of handbag and attempts to dab at Cliff’s crotch before realising what she is doing) (Flustered) Oh good heavens. (Lifts hands up). Aaagh. Sorry. Sorry

CLIFF Leave it Sonia. Don’t worry. I’m not upset. In other circumstances, I might have enjoyed it. Still haven’t managed one of your dungeon experiences.

DOREEN What on earth was that all about? I mean two grown men fighting.

CLIFF No! One grown man fighting. The other one trying to protect himself. That maniac.

MARALYN Who was he? Thought you were tackling a terrorist for a moment.

CLIFF So did I. Spotted him lurking around the Orangery. Way off the visitor routes so challenged him. He replied in some gibberish, so I thought that’s it, and brought him down. My army training kicked in, immediately.

SONIA But he was beating you up. What happened?

CLIFF Well he was talking gibberish because he’d just been to the dentists. They froze his face. Soon as he got up and before he hit me, I knew him. Regional Manager. Couldn’t believe our results. Didn’t trust me apparently and wanted to check up personally and ‘have the full visitor experience’. Well, he got that alright. Even if it nearly cost me my job.

DOREEN Nearly? Surely, you’ve had it, Cliff. Fighting with your Regional Manager.

CLIFF No. I’ve got him bang to rights. It was the Burka that did it for him. Head Office would go bonkers at him denigrating those of the Muslim faith by wearing their dress and apparel. So, we’ve called it a draw. I stay stuumm if he stays stuumm. And……….(smiles broadly) they have promoted me. Going up to Windsor Castle to try to help increase their footfall. Apparently, since the latest Royal wedding, there’s been an absolute slump. Want my expertise. Any of you fancy joining me.

ALL THREE (Shout) Remember our motto. “All For One And One For All” (Pause then in unison) But not this time Cliff. (Pause) This time D’Artagnan is on his own. We’re home birds at heart! (Sonia looks ruefully at Cliff then holds her hanky to her nose).

End of Act 2, Scene 4 and play.

END OF ACT 2, SCENE 4 AND END OF PLAY.

A short play for 3 characters by Alan Grant.

THE AGENDA

THE SETTING IS THE LOUNGE BAR OF A QUIET, HISTORIC PUB NEAR THE WATERFRONT.  SIMON AND HIS SECRETARY JANE, ARE MEETING FOR A DISCRETE SUPPER.  BOTH ARE MARRIED.  THEY HAVE WORKED TOGETHER FOR 2 YEARS, HOWEVER THIS IS THE FIRST TIME THEY HAVE MET OUTSIDE OF THE OFFICE.  

THERE IS A JUKE BOX PLAYING QUIETLY IN THE CORNER, ELVIS PRESLEY IS SINGING “ARE YOU LONESOME TONIGHT” AS JANE ENTERS THE BAR TO MEET SIMON WHO IS ALREADY SEATED IN THE CORNER.  A WAITER IS NEARBY BEHIND THE BAR.

Cast

Simon, 40’ish, handsome, well dressed , successful businessman.  

Jane Mid 30’s, very attractive, slim and self assured.  

Waiter/Barman Youngish.  Smartly dressed in white shirt, bow tie, and waistcoat with black trousers.  

(LOUNGE DOOR OPENS, AND JANE ENTERS HURRIEDLY, THERE IS THE SOUND OF SEAGULLS IN THE LOCALITY, AND WIND AND RAIN BEATING ON THE PORCH OF THE DOORWAY.  SHE CLOSES THE DOOR BEHIND HER.  JANE HAS RAIN ON HER RAINCOAT AND UMBRELLA, WHICH SHE TRIES TO SHAKE OFF.  SHE LOOKS NERVOUSLY AROUND THE LOUNGE, WHICH HAS SUBDUED LIGHTING.  SIMON NOTICES HER ENTRY, SMILES AND GIVES A LITTLE WAVE, BEFORE STANDING UP AND MOVING TOWARDS HER.  TAKES UMBRELLA AND SHAKES IT).  

SIMON Hi Jane.  Glad you could make it.  Miserable isn’t it?  

JANE (Laughs) Miserable?  Us or the weather?  Can’t remember the last time someone stood up for me.  Been waiting long?

SIMON No not really.  Understand this pub can sometimes get busy.  Difficult to predict.  Told it does nice food though.  

JANE Uhm, a discrete table in a discrete pub.  Must’ve done this before.  (Pauses and stands looking at Simon who is still fiddling with the Umbrella, trying to close it) Shall I sit here?

SIMON Sorry?  (Flustered) Oh how silly of me.  Of course, let me move my coat and newspaper (Pauses) Jane I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve already ordered….crab salads, and white wine.  

JANE Oh……OK.  Thank you.  (Picks up glass).  Cheers.  Anyway how did you know what I’d like?

SIMON Uhm…..I guessed.  

JANE Really?  (Pauses)  Do I look a “crabby” sort of person?  You’ve spoilt my self image now.  Always thought of myself as more of a romantic Italiana.

SIMON I cheated.  Knew you brought a packed lunch into the office.  So I checked the fridge.  

JANE (Mock indignity)  Anything else you’ve been checking up on……….

SIMON (Pauses)  Some.  I’ve spent quite a time wondering about your likes, dislikes, even what you might be doing at any particular moment.  

JANE Is that why you’ve asked me here tonight?  Or as my boss, are you going to give me an off duty performance appraisal and pep talk (Pause) or is this is going to be something different?  Simon?  (Pauses)  Simon are you blushing?  

SIMON If I am it’s because I’m really pleased to see you.  Even if you might be teasing me.  (Pauses and looks at her breasts for a moment) I do like your blouse.

JANE Thank you kind sir.  Now is it my turn to say something nice.(Laughs) do you want to borrow it?  (Teasingly) Closet cross dresser?  Cos I’ve got quite a nice wardrobe.

SIMON Why not?  Let’s go for it (Pauses) Jane your face is a picture. No thanks, the blouse looks great, on you!  (Pauses) .Anyway what about saying something nice, to me?

JANE (Picking up menu from table) Well I’ve just noticed the description of this pub at the bottom of their menu.  “A place for family, friends and lovers to enjoy sea views, fine food and good company.”  

(JUKE BOX MUSIC CHANGES FROM ELVIS PRESLEY TO ROY ORBISON SINGING “PRETTY WOMAN“)

SIMON Which are we?

JANE Well we’re clearly not family and it does say friends and lovers.  OK on the first part?

SIMON That depends on why you’re here.

JANE Excitement?  Talking to you about things that really matter  (Pause) or maybe because you’re my boss, and I felt I had to.

SIMON (Indignantly)  Jane.  If I thought you felt obliged to be here, then I’d be/

JANE I’m pulling your leg.  I’m here because I want to be.  Simple as that really.

SIMON Did you have any difficulty in getting away?

JANE No.  Monday night is evening class.  What excuse did you make?

SIMON Told Sonia I had an evening meeting.

JANE Well at least that bit’s true and I am your PA after all.  So lets draw up an agenda.  Come on boss.  First item (Pauses)  Come on boss.  Play the game.

SIMON (Pauses) First item.  Manager’s declaration of interest and opening statement.  (Long pause)  I think I’m falling in love with you.

(JUKE BOX MUSIC CHANGES FROM ROY ORBISON TO TEDDY BEARS SINGING “TO KNOW HIM IS TO LOVE HIM”  WAITER MOVES FROM BEHIND BAR, AND APPROACHES THEIR TABLE.  WAITER PUTS MEALS ON TABLE, SETS OUT CROCKERY, NAPKIN ETC)

WAITER There you go Sir, madam.  Enjoy your meal.  Crab’s fresh this afternoon.  Anything else?

JANE (Holding wine glass up)  Yes can you bring the bottle?  

WAITER Certainly madam.

JANE (Pause)  How long have you felt like that, or was it simply an impulsive statement?  

SIMON No impulse.  How long?  Long enough to want to do something about it.  And you?

JANE Me?

SIMON Yes you Jane?

JANE I think you’ve sensed something already Simon.  If not you’ll just have to work it out.

SIMON (Gently) Can I share something with you?

JANE Of course  (Teasingly)  you do want to wear my blouse/

SIMON Be serious Jane.

JANE I’m nervous Simon  (Pauses) but I do want to know  (Pause)  really.

SIMON Jane, I’m so attracted to you.  I’ve been on edge ever since I asked you out.  This is the first time I’ve really felt able to do something/

JANE So that’s what tonight is really about.  Simon I’m here, cos I feel something similar, but we also have to be honest with one another.  (Pauses) I mean I do find you quite/

SIMON Handsome?

JANE Definitely

SIMON Irresistible?

JANE Given time/

SIMON Sexy?

JANE That’s usually the first question/

SIMON From whom?  (Jane smiles but does not respond)  Jane answer it, please.  

JANE That’s one I’d like to find out more slowly.

SIMON Well I’m glad I ordered a salad for you.  If it had been steak and chips I probably wouldn’t have got a word out of you.

JANE (Laughing)  What are you on Simon?

SIMON Confession time, I checked your original job application this afternoon.  Hobbies, favourite meals – steak and chips, etc.  Pastimes (Pauses)  Do you still Salsa?  Wow.

JANE (Nods) Yes.  Only nowadays, only in a bowl, with crisps and watching a film on telly.

SIMON With John?  

JANE Why ask?

SIMON Don’t you think I should?

JANE Not sure Simon.  Unlike you, this is not my first time/

SIMON For what?  First time for what?

JANE Simon I’ve been in this situation before, only..

SIMON (Pauses)  Only what Jane?

JANE Look my husband just upped and went after 2 years of what I thought was a reasonably successful and happy marriage.  Felt betrayed  Hated his new partner, and yet we’d never even met  (Pauses)  unlike Sonia, whom I like and respect.

SIMON Where’s John in all this?

JANE John and I have been together nearly 5 years.  I’m talking about my first husband.  I was married at 20 and divorced by the time I was 23.  Spent a year in shock, drifting, till I met John.

SIMON Well OK.  Uhm.  (Pauses)  Hadn’t realised, but it doesn’t change anything for me/

JANE It’s just that I often remember how I felt  (Sighs)  Simon moving from where we are, into to a full blown relationship, it’s huge.  Don’t forget it’s company policy that personal relationships between staff aren’t allowed.  

SIMON Now you’re really are making me nervous……………

JANE Well as the Chief Exec you should be.  Anyway, forget us – there are other people who might be harmed

SIMON Only might be harmed?

JANE I’m excluding John from this equation.  He’s already had enough.  You and I spend more time together.  He’s either drinking, down the rugby club, or sleeping.  Plus his long trips to Scotland to see his “mother”  if she exists.  

SIMON So you’re primarily concerned about Sonia?

JANE Not just Sonia, all of us.  I can assure you this will hurt.  I mean look at you, what are you, 40, 42?  You’ve been married for what?  12, 15 years?

SIMON And?  (Pauses)  Listen.  Please.  My decision to ask you out tonight was not made on the spur of the moment.  I’ve spent weeks thinking about us, and  that included doing nothing.

JANE Simon this is not a business negotiation.  (Points to herself) With this lot you will get huge emotional baggage, and even a few regrets (Laughs)  And that’s just me!  Then you’ll have your own issues to deal with, if we decide/

SIMON You said “if” I we decide to do something.  Are you still on “if” rather than “when”?  (Pauses)  Jane?

JANE (Pauses) What do you think?  You’ve got the most to lose.

SIMON I’m not in love with Sonia.  We share the same house, bed, friends, children, even occasionally the same interests, and I’ll put sex in that category/

JANE Sounds like love to me.  (Pauses)  Or at least a good enough version of it.

SIMON (Emphatically)  Stop it, please.  I know I’ve been with Sonia for a long time, but I’ve never,  (Pauses)  never experienced the feelings and attraction that I feel for you.  I’m frazzled.  I think about you, day and night.  When you leave on a Friday, all I do is wish the weekend away.  I’ve even been tempted to phone you at home and pretend there’s a crisis in the office, just so we could talk.  

JANE Why didn’t you?  Then you’d have understood my home situation a long ago.

SIMON (Pauses) Jane.  Listen, these past few moments, (Pauses)  tonight have been really quite difficult.  I’m being honest here.  Put me a bit on edge.

JANE (Assertively) Well what were you expecting?  (Pauses)  Simon whatever we decide now, someone is likely to get hurt.  Neither of us want that, and at the end of the day, it could be one of us.

SIMON What’d you mean?

JANE Look Boss.  My position is clear.  John and I will inevitably part the waves and move on.  Your situation is quite different.

SIMON Is it really?  Aren’t we both in relationships that aren’t working?

JANE Sonia might not agree with your statement, besides you’ve got kids/

SIMON Ouch.  (Pauses)  Well you certainly know my Achilles heel.  Anyway my boys are older, plus Sonia is tremendous at dealing with family issues, and if she and I can remain civil then, given time, who knows?.

JANE That doesn’t make it any easier Simon.  (Pauses)  Anyway I also think it’s time we resolved a certain subject matter before we go any further..

SIMON Children?  (Jane nods)  (Pauses)  Well?

JANE Your sons will always be welcome.

SIMON That wasn’t what I was asking.

JANE I know.

SIMON And?

JANE (Pauses)  Simon I’ve got used to the idea that nappies will never be a part of my life.  (Pauses and then wistfully) although once found myself walking round the maternity department of my local store.  Just touching things.  Holding them.  Really weird.  

SIMON (Looks disappointed)  Right issue?  Wrong time?/

JANE No.  (Pauses)  In fact it helps me.  Shows that you have thought some things through, even if you didn’t get the answer you perhaps wanted.  (Pauses)  Wow.  I feel quite exhausted.  Where’s the waiter gone with that bottle.  (SIMON STANDS UP AND BECKONS WAITER USING EMPTY GLASS TO ATTRACT HIS ATTENTION.  WAITER HURRIEDLY APPROACHES TABLE WITH FRESH BOTTLE).

WAITER Sincere apologies sir, madam.  Sorry for the delay.

JANE No problem (Pauses) Just leave the bottle, we’ll sort ourselves out, thank you.  (WAITER PUTS WINE BOTTLE DOWN ON TABLE AND LEAVES.  SIMON PICKS UP BOTTLE AND FILLS BOTH GLASSES).

SIMON Well?  Are we drinking to our future?  (Pauses)  Or shall we both get sloshed and drown our sorrows?  (Pauses, then a deep sigh.)  I’m pushing it, aren’t I, Jane?  (Long pause, then Jane picks up her glass, takes a sip from it, smiles ruefully, then nods)

JANE (Gently) Simon I think for now, we’re going to need some more wine.  (Pauses) lots of it.  (Smiles)  Meanwhile, tomorrow you’ll still be the Boss and I’m still the PA.

(JUKEBOX CHANGES SONG TO ROY ORBISON SINGING “ONLY THE LONELY”)

Lights down.

END.

O.C.D. & Me

In this play for Radio/Audio, Dean is lonely, inadequate mid-20’s, young man who lives on his own in a bedsit.  Having visited his GP many times and been on and off medication for mild depression, he is finally referred to see a Psychologist, and is surprised, and somewhat delighted with his diagnosis.  However, the treatment plan suggested, triggers off a series of incidents, which ultimately, but not by intention, resolve his issue of loneliness. 

Alan Grant.

ALL ACTION TAKES PLACE WITHIN THE CONSULTING ROOMS OF DR ETHAN AMIS, A CONSULTANT PSYCHOLOGIST EMPLOYED BY THE LOCAL NHS.  THE DOCTOR IS IN HIS MID 50’s, DEAN HIS PATIENT IS MID 20’s).

FX              (KNOCK TO DOOR)

DOCTOR   Come in Dean.

FX              (KNOCK TO DOOR REPEATED)

DOCTOR    (SHOUTS) Dean come in. (FX DOOR OPENS SOUND OF DEAN CLOSE TO MIC)

DEAN        Hello Doctor.  Nice to see you again.

DOCTOR   Dean, please sit down. Sit anywhere you like.  There’s a choice of chairs, but I do need to be able to see you, and talk.  As always, I shall be recording our conversation.  First of all, I think it would be helpful, if we review why we’re meeting today. OK? Yes? (Pause).  Right.  Dean, I started to see you some six months ago, when you were referred by your GP.  OK?  You’ve nodded, so I will assume that so far, we’re in agreement.  You presented as a lonely, isolated young man, who had difficulties in making relationships and friendships.  Yes?  Those that did occur, were primarily short-term and in respect of work and fellow employees (Pause) right?

DEAN        Yes Doctor.

DOCTOR   In other words, if your job ended, so did your friendships?

DEAN        Yes Doctor.  Although, I’ve got a new girl-friend.  We’ve only just met, so I’m taking things very slowly., like you said previously.  

DOCTOR   That’s helpful Dean and encouraging, but we need to look at why you lost your three most recent jobs.  Firstly; a food production unit, wasn’t it?

DEAN        Quality Controller.  On the hand-made Pasty line, local Company.

DOCTOR   Dean, in your first shift, you rejected around 90% of the products. The MD couldn’t believe it.  Operatives engaged on pasty hand crimping are primarily women.  Women, like men, have different size hands, fingers and crimping techniques, yes?

DEAN        I was looking for crimping consistency.  Thought it was important for the customer.

DOCTOR   Crimping consistency?

DEAN        Consistency in the crimping.  It is important for the appearance.

DOCTOR   Two shifts and you were sacked Dean.  Now, what about the Fish & Chip shop?  In one weekend you nearly made the owner bankrupt.  Queues down the street, fish portions getting cold, whilst you rifled through the chip tray, insisting that every chip should match.

DEAN        Looks nicer on the plate if they do.  Again, it’s about what’s best for the customer.  Isn’t it?

DOCTOR   I understand your stated motivation, thank you, Dean; now the petrol forecourt?  As the cashier, when customers paid for their petrol, did you think your comments were helpful.  I quote. “Pump number five?  Thirty pounds and three pence? Three pence.  Wahoo. Not much hand/eye co-ordination there, Madam.  No test pilot career for you. Eh?”  No wondershe complained and another job lost.

DEAN        It was a bit was insensitive.  But many customers use the pumps like a Video Game, trying to hit the exact moment when they’ve spent £30.  They get quite aggressive, and think the till operators are controlling the      pumps.  Just trying to encourage her for the next time.

DOCTOR   This aggravated your work situation, and reinforced your isolation and loneliness.  Agree?  You’re nodding Dean.  So far so good.  Two months ago, I asked you to do two things.  Firstly, try and find an interest, hobby or activity totally unrelated to work.  This would enable           you to actively explore new friendships and relationships, not directly affected by your apparent death wish in terms of employment.  Secondly, I asked you to keep a detailed diary or journal.

DEAN        I did the diary.  Gave it in.

DOCTOR   Dean, thank you for handing it in before our session today.  I’ve studied it with great interest however, can you explain why having suggested you find an activity, you appear to have taken on multiple experiences?  In a two-month period, 26 events!  Dean, on some days you were engaged in three different events, and all organised from A to Z.

DEAN        Could look like that I suppose.  Didn’t have a job, so wanted to keep busy and try your ideas out in full.  Was that wrong Doctor?

DOCTOR   Not wrong Dean.  Definitely not wrong!  Just different.  I’m trying to understand what you set out to achieve, as opposed to the actual outcome.  Now can we refer to your journal. Page 1 – A – Art for       Amateurs?’

DEAN        Found it on a local website.  Run by the Council.

DOCTOR   How many sessions?

DEAN        It was meant to run for eight weeks.

DOCTOR   What happened?

DEAN        Week two, I suddenly realised it was all about “life art”, proper models and all that.  Tutor said he thought some of my body drawings were “crude“.  I thought he meant like amateurish, but he meant rude.  I mean if      a naked man is sat in front of you, with his willy on display, and you’re asked to a detailed drawing, of some aspect of his        torso, what decision do you make?  I clearly got it wrong.  Chose the wrong bit.

DOCTOR   Did you deliberately give the model certain enhancements?

DEAN        Doctor that was meant to be a bit of a laugh.  Everyone was so serious.  Mind you, it wasn’t me with the lady.

DOCTOR   What lady, Dean?

DEAN        Week three.  She walks in, all calm and collected, in a silk gown, then drops it in front of all of us, and sits down in a pose.  Starkers.

DOCTOR   And?

DEAN        Someone at the back muttered “Look at that fattie.”  It wasn’t me, but I got the blame.  She walked off in a huff and I got chucked off the course.  Not fair.

DOCTOR   Well as you describe it, I must agree.  But what about B?  Bridge for beginners?

DEAN        I put my hand up for that.  Always wanted to understand more specialist card games.          Got in the room and found I had a partner and opponents.  Then all my childhood experiences and training kicked in.

DOCTOR   What do you mean?  Kicked in?

DEAN        Well until then, my total experience of cards, was when I played with my brother and sister at Xmas.  Sometimes Mum and Dad would join in.  We’d play Snap all day (Pause) constantly.  So, when I got into the Bridge game, as soon as anyone put down the same card, I went into auto mode and began to shout ‘Snap, Snap, Snap.’

DOCTOR   What happened?  What went wrong.

DEAN        They snapped; but at me.  I got ejected after only two games.

DOCTOR    Tell me about the Psychology Department at the University?

DEAN        Saw an advertisement in the local paper.  University, were paying £5.00, to people willing to help their Psychology students carry out behavioural studies, tests etc.  Sit down with the students, answer a few questions, let them analyse the responses and then go home with a fiver.  At the same time, a chance to make friends.  Easy-peasy.

DOCTOR   And?

DEAN        Two of the students immediately resigned from the course.  Said they hadn’t reckoned on dealing with “People like me” for the rest of their working lives.  Course tutor went daft.  Totally unfair and I still haven’t been paid.  Not my fault.  Was it?

DOCTOR   I’ll reserve judgement on that for the moment.  What about the prison?

DEAN        I read this report, which said that over 50% of homeless people, and especially those in prison, were illiterate in terms of English and Maths.  So, I joined a volunteer tutor group and ended up walking into Dartmoor Prison.

DOCTOR   Sounds very interesting and laudable Dean.  How did you get on?

DEAN        I was taken hostage!

DOCTOR   What!  I saw nothing in the media about it.  For how long?  What on earth happened?

DEAN        Long enough.  My organisation never even reported me missing. Seemed to think prison was the best place for me!  Some loyalty.  I was on my own in the kitchen washing up our mugs getting ready to go home when it happened.

DOCTOR   What?  What happened?

DEAN        This bloody great prisoner walked in and started acting funny towards me.

DOCTOR   Funny?

DEAN        Came up close like and then whispered in my ear “fresh meat”.  Didn’t know what he meant at first, but soon guessed. 

DOCTOR   How did you deal with it, it must have been quite frightening.

DEAN        Tried to make myself as obnoxious as possible to him.

DOCTOR   How?

DEAN        Kept farting like.  Making a smell.  Only I meant it, cos my bowels suddenly felt very stressed and anxious. 

DOCTOR   What did the prisoner do?

DEAN        Just laughed, then grabbed my arm and locked me in the food store.  Said he’d be back later “for his supper.”

DOCTOR   That must have been a dreadful experience.

DEAN        I felt really sorry for the Prison Officer, who nearly died, when he found me in a cupboard a little while later.  Jumped a couple of feet in the air.  My bowels still play up when I think about it.  Can’t help myself.

DOCTOR   Well let’s move on quickly, shall we. 

DEAN        Mind you, I really needed sanctuary shortly after that.

DOCTOR   Why?

DEAN        I’d joined this conservation group.  Lots of really nice, very committed ladies, all ages and sizes.  Felt quite at ease, until we had the saga of endangered species.  Went for an urgent briefing and was told that someone walking on Dartmoor that day had found “one, of only three” known species, of this particular plant. Everyone got excited, started jumping up and down, hugging each other and kissing. Didn’t mind that.  Even began to enjoy it and respond; then suddenly we all piled into vans and off we went to Dartmoor.

DOCTOR   What happened Dean?

DEAN        We spread out across the moors and were told to “seek and find.  I struck lucky           straight away, and after an hour, nearly fell over the plant.  I got back to the assembly point with it, looking for praise and found everyone really pissed off with me.

DOCTOR   Why?

DEAN        Apparently, there were now only two known species of this plant left alive, ‘cos I’d just killed number three.  They made me walk home.  Fifteen miles.  My feet were blistered.

DOCTOR   That’s sad.  Talking of death, how did your Landlord’s cat die?  This is listed under T for Taxidermy?

DEAN        Doctor, I genuinely don’t believe I killed it.  The course was interesting. I love nature and nurture and wondered if it would be possible, to retain the body and somehow the spirit of a deceased animal, thereby giving additional comfort to the owners.  I was simply holding the cat on my lap, stroking it, considering future options for it, when it became clear that the future was here and now.  It looked up at me with this funny expression, and then slowly curled up and went to sleep.  Forever.  I was shocked.

DOCTOR   What was the outcome?

DEAN        Landlord gave me notice.  Got to find somewhere else to live.  Not easy. That’s why I joined the Medieval Re-Enactment group.  Knew they had several local landlords amongst them and a good social club.  Lots of nice maidens. 

DOCTOR   Fascinating rationale Dean.  And?

DEAN        Got carried off the battlefield on my first encounter.

DOCTOR   I thought it was all carefully controlled?

DEAN        Well it is normally and basically it was my fault.

DOCTOR   Your fault?  Again?

DEAN        Properly this time. I was meant to be basic foot soldier; carried a heavy stick with a long chain.  On the end of it, there was a supposedspiked and dangerous ball.  During battle, I had to swing it around and strike objects and people.

DOCTOR   And?

DEAN        Well it quickly became clear to me, that the ball on the end was only made of rubber, and it wouldn’t swing properly.  It was like a black tennis ball with bits.

DOCTOR   So what did you do?

DEAN        Put a couple of lead inserts into it, so it swung better and harder.

DOCTOR   And?

DEAN        Got a bit carried away and hit Sir Guinevere, of the local LGTB group, and took him out.  Next thing I know, his official aide de camp and Protector, is charging at me with this damn great medieval sword.  Woke up in Derriford Hospital.  Apparently, Sir Guinevere was the biggest landlord in town, so that scuppered that idea.

DOCTOR   Dean, I’m exhausted.  Having read your journal, I need to take time out and reflect on options for future support.  I’m conscious that we’ve not covered your experiences in other activities such as Zulu dancing, Tibetan cooking, Classic French. The Evangelical Church experience also looks quite interesting, but that’s for another day, as will be your feedback on Sexual deviances throughout history.  Hadn’t realised the local Council were still running it.

DEAN        What have you done that one?  By the way, it’s not in the diary but I’ve just finished Xylophone or Xenophobia.  That was a hoot.

DOCTOR   (Hurriedly) I’ll see you in a month Dean.  Make an appointment with my Receptionist, Sarah, as you leave.

DEAN        What about my good news?

DOCTOR   Sorry?  What good news?

DEAN        Job Centre sent me to work on a local farm.  Picking.  Hard work.  Made my back ache like buggery but I establishedvery quickly that despite them all looking the same like, you know, daffodils and new potatoes. both have a mass of differences.  Did my head in.

DOCTOR   I have a sense of deja vu.  Can I presume you lost the job?

DEAN        I left.  My own choice.  However, there were some nice people working there; Polish mainly, so I did make some friends.  Even picked up bit of the lingo.  One of them put me onto another job option, with a Polish building company.

DOCTOR   Well that’s positive. Doing what?

DEAN        Electrician

DOCTOR   Dean I don’t remember you including that in your list of skills and experience?

DEAN        I decided to wing it.

DOCTOR   I don’t quite understand. I’m not familiar with that term.”wing it

DEAN        You know, you know.  Enhance my skills.

DOCTOR   Do you mean lie?

DEAN        Well some might call it that. But I really wanted to try, so yeah, I winged it.  Sort of.

DOCTOR   OK Dean. How did you get on?

DEAN        Only lasted a day.

DOCTOR   I’d be fascinated to know why?

DEAN        Well I’m colour blind ain’t I.

DOCTOR   I should have remembered.  So, you had problems identifying the negative and positive leads.

DEAN        Big time. Supervisor tested a piece of work, next thing there’s a bang and a flash, and I’m out the door.

DOCTOR   They sacked you?

DEAN        No. I ran.  He was a big bloke and he used another Polish word I’d learnt.

DOCTOR   What about tools?

DEAN        No that wasn’t what they called me.

DOCTOR   I meant what did you do about your tools.

DEAN        Nothing.  I just hoofed it.

DOCTOR   Hoofed it?  Isn’t that some form of dance?

DEAN        I ran fast.  Then I really landed on my feet.  (Excitedly) I’ve been offered a job, and it’s a dream.  But it’s happened!  My sister Mandy rang me.  Her car had broken down, she needed me to collect her daughter Vickie from the Nursery. 

DOCTOR   What happened?  Why are you so clearly excited?

DEAN        Shot round there.  Found out I had masses of time on my hands, so the staff let me join in their games with the kids.  Apparently quite a lot of kids have never known a male person in their lives.

DOCTOR   And?

DEAN        Well it was weird.  It was as if the kids knew I had my own issues, but they weren’t bothered.  Kept coming up to me with things to do.  Ended up reading to them, some even sat on my lap.  Mind you as in all things, there had to be a clever-clogs.

DOCTOR   I think I’m generally getting the gist.

DEAN        Well Doctor, as you know, despite being a prison tutor, I can hardly read myself, so when this little boy came up to me with a book, I decided once again to “wing it”.

DOCTOR   Like you did with the Electrician’s?

DEAN        Yeah, but in this case, all I did was make up a story, rather than what was in the           book.  Most of the kids seemed to enjoy it, however, the little clever lad who gave it to me, could clearly read better than me.  He realised I was reading porkies.

DOCTOR   What did he do?

DEAN        Nothing.  He just looked at me in a special way. I knew, he knew, and he knew I knew he knew but he didn’t say anything.  I finally realised what I wanted to do.  No matter what!  As long as the kids needed me, I needed them more, and we had a bargain.  Anyway, the Supervisor thought I had potential, especially as a male figure.  Offered me a job.  Start in a couple of weeks.

DOCTOR   Dean, I feel a little emotional.  My assessment of your behaviour over these past months, is that you are showing classic O.C.D. symptoms.  Obsessive, definitely compulsive and creating disorder.  Despite all that, you are a thoroughly nice lad.  Now all we have to do is find you a girl-friend, and your life will be complete.

DEAN        What do you mean?  I’ve got one.  I told yah.  Early days, but looks promising and already I know I love her to bits, and I’m getting the feeling she feels the same way.  Who knows?  A few more dates, and I might be asking her a serious question.

DOCTOR   What sort of question?

DEAN        Whether she wants to continue being your receptionist!!  It’s Sarah. Whilst I’ve been sitting in the waiting room all these months, we’ve had lots of chats and things.

DOCTOR   Are you aware she’s my daughter?

DEAN        Sorry, Doctor before I answer that, I haven’t explained how I got mixed up between Xylophone and Xenophobia yet.  Nearly cost me a hammering, when I met all these skinheads by mistake. 

DOCTOR   I suggest you keep that one in your memory box.  It would make a nice opening at a wedding reception speech.

DEAN        Are you serious?  I’d like that, if it’s OK with you?  Father-in-Law.  Sounds nice.

END OF PLAY – OCD & ME.

No Mercy

No Mercy

            ‘Bravo 22 to Gold Commander, over.’

            ‘Go ahead Jim.’  As Ian responded, there was the old, familiar rush of adrenaline.  Bravo 22 were the strike force tasked with responding to any terrorist attack on London, and only dealt in cutting edge situations.  Jim Fletcher their OIC was one of the most experienced anti-terrorism officers in the Metropolitan Police and had been seconded two years ago to head up the unique unit.  It was made up of specialists from across the police, armed forces, special agencies such as MI6 and other counter-terrorist teams.  As a former SAS senior officer himself, Ian Lenagh the Gold Commander, trusted Jim Fletcher implicitly.

            ‘Boss, we’ve just had a report that two suspects have just highjacked a London bus.’

            ‘What have you got?’  He could sense a trickle of sweat already moving down his back and beginning to stain his battle-dress uniform.

            ‘Well, following the explosions on the Central line, witnesses saw two males running away.  Dressed in grey hooded suits, both carrying small back packs.  They jumped on the bus at Trafalgar Square.  One stayed downstairs and the other apparently went straight the top floor.  Both are carrying weapons, but no identification of the type, as such.’

            ‘Passengers?  Hang on a minute Jim, more intel incoming.’  There was a pause.  ‘Jim, they’ve just done King’s Cross, so that’s three underground hits.  What about the bus passengers?’

            ‘Bus half-full, mid-morning.  Shoppers and tourists.’

            ‘Driver contact?’

            ‘Nothing.  Experienced driver, plus he’s an ex-veteran, which could be helpful.  He’s got voice radio with his HQ but not activated.  Bus appears to be heading towards Admiralty Arch.  Police cars in close proximity.’

            ‘Pull them back Jim.  This could be a trap.  Stay on them, but more allow distance.’

            Ian looked across the bunker at the series of desks with monitors, and overhead screens streaming live footage from many of the thousands of CCTV points across the city.  There was increasing evidence of the seriousness of the attack with many pedestrians scurrying along the pavements, stopping occasionally in shop and building doorways, then resuming their journeys.  The underground entrances were flooded with passengers desperate to escape the localities, and traffic was already backed up nose to tail as far as the cameras could record.  Emergency vehicles of all services were visible with a cacophony of siren sound accompanying their blue flashing lights. 

            The team that had assembled to support and advise him were fully focused on their screens with a constant movement within the varied communication networks.  They had consistently practiced for such an attack, but as the reality began to sink in, he knew that practice alone would not have prepared them for the real event unfolding in front of them.  There was a positive nervousness in the room and yet a visible determination to respond to the current attacks.

            He looked down at his monitor.  Bravo 22 were responding.  There was a pause.

‘Boss they seem to be heading directly towards the Mall.  Consider interception?’’

            ‘Not yet.  Queen’s awaiting evacuation by Helo.  They’re taking her to Windsor Castle.  Should be airborne in 5.  Palace being evacuated.’

            There was a distinct pause.  He looked longingly at his tunic hanging off the office door, which held a packet of cigarettes.  As he moved towards them, his personal mobile on the desk vibrated.  He paused momentarily then activated it.

            ‘Daddy, I know you’re probably very busy, but Mummy said I should speak to you direct.’

            ‘Alright sweetie, but be quick.’

            ‘Are you coming to see me in the school play tomorrow?  It’s on at four o’clock.’

            ‘Look darling I’m up to my eyes in it at the moment, but will do my best.’

            ‘Does that mean yes?  Please Daddy say yes.’

            ‘I’ll do my best, as I always do, now I must go.’  As he began to disconnect, he could hear his wife in the background saying “I told you so.”, and knew that whatever time he managed to get home, there would be another row.  They’d become more frequent and vicious recently, but he could not face the inevitable outcome at this stage, particularly when his daughter was so vulnerable.

            The comms network activated again 

‘Bravo 22 to Gold Commander, over.’

            ‘Go ahead Bravo 22.’

            ‘It’s definite now.  Bus will enter Mall shortly.  No other route Boss.’

            ‘Right Jim.  Continue to follow.  I’m calling for backup.  There’s an Apache flight located at RAF Northolt.  I’m activating them.’

            ‘They can’t evacuate passengers Boss. 

            ‘I’m fully aware of that, Jim.  I want their strike capability.  The PM has authorised whatever action is necessary.  Now I want you to set up an in-depth blockade in front of the Palace.  Commandeer whatever vehicles are in the vicinity, cars, lorries, buses, anything.  Stack them up at least 100 metres in depth and evacuate all the drivers and passengers.  Nose to nail, side to side.  Once it’s entered the Mall, that bus is going nowhere.’

            ”Understood.  There’s plenty of parkland on either side of the road but the trees will stop any other exit.  There’s a unit of SAS being helicoptered from their base in Hereford.  We’ll need to establish a control and command point in the vicinity.’

            ‘Don’t think that’ll work Jim.’

            ‘Boss?’

            ‘Whichever cell this group belong to they’ve shown already they’re not prepared to negotiate.  They’re on a killing mission, they’ll be expecting us to seek a stand-off with them able to maximise PR and making various demands.  But in the end, it’ll end with major casualties.  This is not the Iranian embassy, when we last used the SAS.’

            ‘So, what is your intention?’

            ‘No mercy.’

            ‘Boss what about the driver and passengers?’

            ‘Jim we’ll do our very best for them, but we’ve had three underground trains destroyed, hundreds killed and maimed.  We can’t stop what they intend to do, but I’ll make damn sure, this part of their plan won’t happen.  Well, not the way they think we’ll respond.  They’ll drag it out, maybe even offer talks of hostage release getting maximum media for their rotten cause.  But not today.’

            ‘So that’s why you’ve called up the Apache strike force?’

            ‘You’ve got it in one Jim.  There will undoubtedly be casualties.  Where’s the nearest medical facility?’

            ‘Best equipped emergency centre is the MOD one, just off Horse Guards Parade.’

            ‘OK, put them on high alert, establish a comms centre there, and tell them to ensure they have extra back-up.  Hang on a minute Jim, just been notified that the bus driver has been allowed to use his Mic.  Wait one.’  After a pause, Gold Commander spoke again. 

‘Whoever’s got the bus is demanding a meeting with the world media.  If that demand is met, they might consider releasing some of the hostages.  How’s the road blockage going?’

            ‘Almost complete Boss.  About 400 metres before they’ll have to stop.  SAS will be with us within ten minutes.’

            ‘OK.  I’ll tell the bus we agree to a short stand-off.  No back-offs on our part and we want some hostages released.  Where are the media now?’

            ‘All stacked up at Admiralty Arches and desperate to get their cameras rolling.’

            ‘Right, I will stall some more to give us more time.  Meanwhile, divert some of the SAS straight to the media centre.  They’re taking over the cameras.  The high-profile anchormen have just got themselves a new team.  Terrorists will be suspicious if they don’t recognise some familiar newsroom faces.’

            His microphone activated again. 

            ‘What’s this damn nonsense about activating a comms centre in my hospital facility?  It’s outrageous.’  He did not recognise the caller, who then continued ‘this is Colonel Park, Medical Officer in charge of this unit.  What’s going on?  Who the hell are you taking over my medical unit?’

            ‘Colonel, there’s no time for explanation, London is under terrorist attack, 3 tube stations blown up, and an attack in the vicinity imminent.  We need your comms facilities which I am advised are state of the art.’

            ‘We’re fully aware of the current emergency Gold Commander, we have casualties already here and more enroute, but I must protest, this is a medical facility, not a location for more armed combat.  However, apart from all that, we need the comms network ourselves.’

            ‘Colonel, I am acting on the PM’s direct authority.  My understanding is that you’ve got more than enough comms, and there is capacity in an emergency to share.  Whilst I appreciate your medical ethics, they are nothing more than that.  Ethics.  My job is to try and prevent even more deaths in this city.  Now I must go Colonel, I have several other calls stacked up.’

            ‘I must protest…’ said Colonel Park again, as he was disconnected.

            ‘Bravo 22 can I have a sitrep?’  As he spoke, Ian saw that his personal mobile was activating.  He looked down, and immediately switched it to voicemail.  His wife and her predictable outburst could wait.  Bravo 22 responded.

            ‘Bus has stopped.  100 metres from our barriers.  Doors just opened.  Hang on a minute, some hostages being released.’

            ‘How many, Jim?’

            ‘About 20.  Difficult to count they’re running in all directions.  Man in grey hoodie now in sight at bus door.  Wait!  Just heard sound of shots from inside.  SAS now in position in close vicinity and with press group.’

            ‘Right.  Am telling bus that press will set up interview point with worldwide cameras, 50 metres from bus.  Need more hostages to be released and if so, media can be ready in 5 minutes.’  Gold Commander paused.  ‘Jim, just been told only prepared to release 5 more and none of them can be Jewish.  Estimate how many are left, on bus?’

            ‘Boss we’ve managed to talk to an escapee.  They’re lying.  There isn’t that many left.  Consider it leaves two terrorists onboard, plus driver and two other passengers, both elderly and unable to escape.’

            ‘That explains the shots we heard Jim.  Bastards.  Right hold the press at Admiralty Arch, ask the SAS in locality, to withdraw discretely.  I’m being looped directly into the bus.’  As he did so, a special red phone activated in front of him.  Ian picked up the receiver.

            ‘Gold Commander, PM enroute to your location.  Are you ready to give him a sitrep?’

            ‘Yes Sir.  How long till he arrives?  Am at a crucial point of intervention.’

            ‘Within a few minutes, but you already have his full authority to act.  Don’t let his arrival delay operational decisions.  He’s coming over to support your response, not interfere with it.’

            Ian replaced the receiver.  The next phase of operations, and his reactions were crucial. 

There was a crackling sound across the bus microphone.  He took a deep breath, then spoke.

‘This is Gold Commander.  We know you have just shot innocent people on the bus and are still holding the driver as hostage.  Time is running out for you.’  A voice from within the bus activated its microphone. 

‘Allahu Akbar.  Where are press and TV?  You promised.  Where are media?’

            ‘I want to speak to the bus driver.’

            ‘Not possible.  You speak to me.  You insult Allahu Akbar.  Why are you changing what we agreed?’

            ‘What we agreed was in good faith.  You broke that.  We know you have murdered innocent passengers on the bus; several elderly people.  Deals off.  And I would advise you to look in the sky behind you.  Some friends arriving.’ 

From behind Buckingham Palace came a distinct deep throbbing sound as helicopter blades rotated.  Four Apache helicopters swung into view, spacing themselves so they covered each corner of the bus.  There was a distinct presence with the “chuff, chuff, chuff” of the rotor blades dominating.

The voice from the within the group had a distinct US accent. 

‘Gold Commander, Flight 002 in place, await your instructions.  Over’ 

            ‘Allahu Akbar,’ came a defiant cry from the bus, then the sound of a scuffle before the voice of the driver broke through.

            ‘Fuck em.  Do it.’.  It was followed by a burst of shots.

            ‘Deliver as directed.’ said the Gold Commander.  The response was immediate.  Each of the Apache helicopters shuddered as they simultaneously discharged their rockets directly into the bus.  Within seconds it had burst into flames, with a spiral of dark embracing smoke reaching skywards. 

            As he sat back in his chair, Ian realised that both his fists were clenched.  He relaxed momentarily then sensed a presence nearby.  The PM was holding out his hand.  His personal mobile was also activating again. 

Kitty Rawlins and the Archangel Spence

Kitty Rawlins and the Archangel Spence (1654)

Yes, well, those were exciting times back then. ‘Course I was a young man with a young man’s sense of invincibility. Only, I wasn’t invincible to the charms of a pretty woman. No, sir, I certainly wasn’t invincible to those.

I remember the day Kitty Rawlins walked into my life. What a looker, she was! Tall and straight as a poplar, with melt-your-heart dark brown eyes the size of saucers and a smile as wide as Canada. Just light you up in a flash.

I was dealin’ with devils at the time, with the torments of drink and empty pockets.

I heard the rustle of her dress first and then her voice: ‘Why’s a man like you sleeping rough in the street?’

Her words flowed over me like honey, as she stretched out a hand and pulled me to my feet. ‘That’s better! You certainly look more dignified standing up.’

I didn’t know if I was being admired or admonished.

I only know I caught the whiff of gardenias as I came up level with her. She had kind of sharp features, all cheekbones and jaw and coils of hair pinned up. Reminded me of a school teacher, but she sure was pretty.

What’s your name?’ she asked me.

Spence,’ I told her.

Well, Spence…,’ she paused, ‘what kind of a name is that, anyway?’

Only one I got,’ I said.

That’s when her face split into this great gash of a smile; and, what with the glitter in her eyes and the shine off her teeth, I thought she was about to have me for her supper.

Never mind,’ she says; ‘Spence it is and we’re going to have a talk about your rehabilitation.’

I’m fine happy with this habitation right here,’ I tell her; ‘I like being out in the open.’

She just laughs and says, ‘Tell you what, Spence, see that cafe over there? We’re going to go in there and I’m going to buy you breakfast fit for a horse.’

Sounded like some infernal hell of the damned, when we walked in, like being smacked in the face by a west coast roller; folks jabbering, waitresses calling, trays banging, knives and forks striking on china, chef’s hollerin’ and a coffee machine building up steam like a locomotive.

Boy, I’m tellin’ you, if that whole buildin’ had taken off across country, wouldn’t have surprised me one bit!

She led me through an arch to a table where it was quieter somewhat and talked all the while I ate. By the time I’d finished my eggs and fried potatoes and bacon and tomatoes and God knows what else, I was totally smitten. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I tell you, if the hog’s puddin’ had gone in my ear ‘stead of my mouth, I wouldn’t have noticed.

So, that’s the deal,’ she ended up; ‘What do you say?’

Yes,’ is what I said, though I’d no idea what the deal were. I’d been too busy watchin’ her mouth dimplin’ at the corners as she spoke and wonderin’ at the way stray strands of her hair went curlin’ round her ears like petals round a bud.

Course, I had no idea what I was lettin’ myself in for. Force of nature that Kitty Rawlins. Certainly was. Force of nature, all right.

Spark came into her eyes, like a hunting dog on the scent, and we were off.

She had me shaved, barbered and bathed and then reclothed, before I’d had time to put the cap back on the ketchup.

You’re a fine looking man under all that degradation,’ she said finally, appraising me out on the sidewalk.

Caught sight of myself in a store window and didn’t know who I was looking at. Person in the reflection got nothing to do with the person inside me, I can tell you that.

Aidycomp’, she called me, whatever that means.

Well, I’d worked fairgrounds, games parks and race courses, too. I get along pretty well with horses. But I’d never been an escort before.

Deal turned out to be I was to accompany Ms Rawlins on her lecture tour. Drove her from town to town, big ones, little ones, didn’t make no matter; took the door at her rallies and made sure she got back safely to her room every night.

There were plenty of folks wanted to do her harm, once she opened up on poverty and deprivation and the need for equality, no matter where you come from or what the colour of your skin was. Said women were the most put upon of all and she wanted laws changed to give them equal rights with men, who were makin’ all the rules.

Never had so many arguments and fist fights before or since. Husbands, businessmen, die-hards, even some starch-faced matrons, all came pilin’ in. Had my nose broken twice and my jaw, ribs kicked in and enough black eyes to spot a leopard!

Why are you being so provocative, Spence?’ she would say, dabbin’ at the cuts on me with some stingin’ ointment of hers. ‘I never knew a man before with your inclination for getting into trouble.’

And I’d get so all-fired riled up at the turn-around injustice of it that I could hardly get my words out. ‘It’s you doin’ all the provokin’!’ I’d explode. ‘I’m just…I’m just lookin’ out for you, all the time. So…so…Goddammit!’

Next thing, she’d be grinnin’ and laughin’ at me with so much evident delight, she took all the hurtin’ and the anger out of me. And then she’d come in close, puttin’ her face up to mine and fixin’ me with those eyes of hers like sinkin’ sand, you could fall right into them. Restin’ the palm of her hand on me, ‘Spence,’ she’d say, soft as if someone had turned the volume down low, ‘You’re my protector, my street angel.’ And she’d lift up on her toes and kiss me so lightly it felt like I’d got feathers on my lips…oh, boy! I’d tremble at the sweetness of her, I can feel it now. ‘You’re my Michael and you’re going to join the Archangels. Archangel Spence.’

I didn’t know if she was foolin’ with me or fallin’ in love with me. But I do know it sort of filled me out…as if everything was right with the world and with me. Gave me a sense of purpose and…I don’t know…of a kind of goodness in myself. Yes, you could say that….yes, indeed.

Anyway, there I were, lookin’ out for her, when one night in the middle of one of her speeches…don’t remember where exactly…some meeting hall up north, maybe…a bunch of guys come burstin’ in, wavin’ clubs, just itchin’ for a fight and yellin’ out against her, callin’ her a ‘commie dyke’ and tellin’ her to ’take her tits back to the kitchen’ and worse. And, in the commotion that followed, a stream of cops come pilin’ in…helmets, riot shields, the lot…break up the meetin’ and cart Kitty Rawlins away, arrestin’ her for disturbin’ the peace.

When I started protestin’ and tryin’ to explain wasn’t none of her fault, one of ‘em slammed me with his truncheon and hauled me out to the van. Turned out he’d broken my collarbone and I ended up at the hospital.

She got 3 years in prison on some technical charge I never really understood, somethin’ about underminin’ the political and economic stability of the state. Didn’t seem to dim her light none; told the judge he was ‘a patriarchal dinosaur’, which earned her an extra month for contempt.

They fined me a whole lotta money and I went back on the road, didn’t want no more part of their world. Wrote to Kitty a few times, once I was someplace long enough to hear back from her. Her replies always came addressed to ‘Archangel Spence ’. But she got moved and I didn’t know where. Besides, by that time, I’d gotten involved with a long distance truck driver, Della Riva; and I was happy enough for a time ridin’ along with her, with her wild hair like a burning bush and legs as sturdy as the tree trunks she was haulin’.

Didn’t last though, no more than any of the others. Somehow, my thoughts always went back to Kitty, like she’d carved her name in my brain. Middle of nowhere, there she’d be, fillin’ my head, just standin’ there, hands on hips, and grinnin’ at me, scent of gardenias in the air.

Then, blow me, one day I’m fixin’ some barn doors…had a small maintenance business at the time…when the farmer’s wife comes over, tells me there’s a phone call.

Would that be the Archangel Spence, by any chance?’ Her voice was deeper, but I’d have recognized the teasin’ note to it anyplace. Damn near fell over with the shock of it.

Kitty Rawlins!’ I exploded. ‘Well, I…I…’

Just as well she cut short my stammerins, as I was pure lost for words, couldn’t get my wits together.

I see you’ve lost none of your eloquence,’ she says. ‘No Matter. The thing is, Spence, I’m running for public office and I need someone I can trust.’

Course, I went. Dropped everythin’. Turned out campaignin’ wasn’t much different to lecturin’, ‘cept she got elected, not arrested. Did a lot of good things, too. Folks’ll say I’m biased, no doubt, ’cause I stayed with her after that, all those years before the cancer got her. Never did marry her though. Wanted to. Proposed to her any number of times, but she’d just wink at me: ‘Archangels can’t get married, Spence, can they?’ And she’d put her arms round me and whirl me around in a dance, till she spun the idea right out of my head…until the next time, anyway.

My Dearest Miranda

My Dearest Miranda (863 words)

My Dearest Miranda,

With the sobriety of morning, I can see my behaviour last night was quite reprehensible.

To have said the things I did was bad enough, but to accompany them with such actions as I remember was so unforgivable that I can barely summon up the courage to ask you to attribute these lapses of decency to the effects of too much wine and to accept my unreserved apologies for such ungentlemanly conduct.

When I said that, but for the size of your nose and the squint in your eye, you were the most Venus-like of women, please believe that I meant no offence, but was imagining in you the line and beauty of Botticelli’s goddess in her scallop shell.

I hope this may cast in a different and more acceptable light my having asked you to stand in the dog’s basket, while relieving you of your dress and loosening your hair.

Furthermore, in the cold light of day, I realize that it would be entirely understandable for you to misconstrue the respect and admiration I have for you as no better than a cover for lewd and lecherous cravings. And let me hasten to add that no insult to your reputation was intended when I handed you that bicycle saddle and suggested you consider it emblematic of the designs I had upon you.

Even as I write, I grow scarlet at the memory of my vulgar jests at the expense of your surname, my own, dear Miss Bakewell. You are not a tart, you never were a tart, nor ever could be; and, in my foolishness, I wish I had concentrated instead upon the excellence of your bread making.

Never have I felt more ashamed of myself, as I contemplate the improprieties I imposed upon you. And I fear an excess of the gift of Bacchus is no excuse for my impertinent dwelling upon the unsavoury associations of your name or of my subsequent and questionable demonstrations of devotion towards you.

You must believe me that, when I planted the rose in your bosom, it was an act of adoration and not as the tawdry means of touching your appurtenances. A still graver misdemeanour, I know, was my attempt to rearrange your corsetry; and I am not surprised you chose to leave the dog basket, at that point.

Which brings me to the matter of my wholly despicable vileness in pursuing you upstairs, while unbuttoning myself. I wished only to give you a signal of the ardour of my regard for you, a tangible token of the passion you arouse in me. Nevertheless, I fully appreciate it was a gross display and I accept full responsibility for your swooning and loss of colour.

Nor could it have seemed to you anything other than the most flagrant breach of your modesty when, upon the merciful return of your composure, you discovered me unclothed and holding you in my embrace. I hurry to assure you that my nakedness was due solely to the considerable heat I experienced upon freeing you from your petticoats so that you might breathe more easily.

I see now how easily this state of affairs may have been misunderstood by you and, upon reflection, I am overwhelmed by your magnanimous generosity in favouring me with your trust and demanding no more of me than a pledge of matrimony, which I believe I may have given you.

Now that the sun has risen, however, and bathed these baleful events in the fulsome calm of its own bright warmth, I have no hesitation in releasing you from an engagement that must be so very distasteful to you; and I will readily bear the heavy disappointment of that circumstance as my just desserts for having treated you so abominably.

Yet, how extraordinary is this! Your messenger has just called to deliver your note; and I am, of course, full of wonder at the alacrity of your posting of the banns proclaiming our forthcoming nuptials. You do me a greater honour than I had anticipated.

Let me say this, however, so that I may behave with rather more propriety today than yesterday and, hopefully, redeem myself in your eyes; I assure you that I have no intention of holding you to your commitment to a life-long bond, founded upon the shallow ground of my inebriation. To do so would be to add injustice to the indignity I have already subjected you to. And I hold you in too high regard to allow you to sacrifice yourself in such a way.

On the contrary, it is clear to me now that the only honourable course of action is for me to leave you in peace and not to inflict my shameful presence upon you ever again. Please do not try to dissuade me from this, as it is the very least I can do by way of recompense.

There is so much more I would wish to say to you; but, I must draw this to a swift conclusion as your father is at the door and my carriage awaits.

Eternally yours,

Freddie

Copyright: Charles Becker, 2017.

Alexis Creek Blues

Alexis Creek Blues (996 words)

My history’s a long one. My family grew up around Alexis Creek by the Chilcotin River in southern British Columbia, two hundred miles north of Vancouver. It flows southeast from its source in the Itchas range of the Coast Mountains to the Fraser River and drains the Chilcotin plateau.

Our neighbours have always been lodgepole pine, trembling aspen and white birch; they like the cold, dry climate. You don’t see a lot of maple; but the coarse gravel soil and good moisture of our homeland have suited us well. And long before the Europeans came, we thrived there, living peacefully with Canada’s First Nations’ Tsilhgot’in people, which means ‘people of the red ochre river’.

We’re known as ‘Big Leaf’, because our leaves are larger than our cousins’, almost 60 centimetres wide, and we grow faster than them, standing tall at 30 meters or so. I was young when I was cut down; but my oldest relatives were there in Alexis Creek before the first British and American traders came, almost 250 years ago.

When the winds blew hard and I and my friends were anxious saplings, the timeless ones would whisper to us of their early days, when the only people they saw were the Tsilhgot’in trading salmon from the coast to Cree people territories in the East. They would calm us with tales of those days of crystal air and pure rainwater, disturbed only by the honking of trumpeter swans and the shaking thunder from the hooves of wild mustang. And I would forget my fears of being torn out by my roots, dreaming instead of the wilderness then, free of loggers and cattle ranchers with their poison machines, making it difficult for us to breathe.

My parents used to talk of the richness of their multitudinous woodland wilderness when they were young: not just the squirrels, woodpeckers and chickadees that they were home to, or the mosses, ferns and liverwort that clung to their bark; but also the mule deer and caribou down from the mountains in the winter, bald eagles and osprey, even black bears and cougars at times. And, in the evenings, the maniacal cry of the loons from the lake made them sway with laughter, as it did me when I first heard it.

But with the coming of the traders two hundred years ago, things started to change. What my grandparents witnessed, and later my parents, was the decimation of the Tsilhgot’in people, as they were struck down by whooping cough, measles and, finally, smallpox. Within fifty years, only a third of the population was left. And then came the Chilcotin War, as the incomers tried to build a road through to the Cariboo gold fields further east and the starving Tsilhgot’in attacked them for food and to retain control of their land.

We trees were not affected directly – not until the loggers came – but it disturbed my parents’ sense of the natural order of things. After hundreds of years, in which they and their ancestors had prospered in the unaltered rhythms of the year, change, and undesirable change, shook up their world; and, suddenly, it was no longer the rare drought or forest fire that they feared, but the damage to their habitat, the dwindling of the animals they shaded and, worst of all, the whine of the chain saw and the crash of the fallen.

I cannot imagine how my parents felt as I smashed through their arms to the ground and watched me being dragged away. The pain of those metal teeth slicing through me, flaying me apart ring by ring, was so intense and savage that I was severed from my roots and the earth that nourished me in a state of numbed horror. Nor was I able to recover, before the whining started again, as I was stripped of my limbs, trimmed top and bottom, then loaded and chained with others of my kind on a lorry and transported hundreds of miles away to a saw mill, where my skin was stripped off and I was sundered into separate lengths, edged, trimmed and imprisoned in heated kilns that sucked all the moisture out of me.

Displaced, dismembered and traumatised, I was dispatched in different parts to different places. Most of me went to an up-market furniture factory in Vancouver; but the heart of me was packaged and sent to the Gibson guitar factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan. And there, I am happy to say, the next and most unexpected stage in my life began.

I think it was when I was first introduced to my singing companion, Sitka Spruce, that I felt the sap rising in me again, as I became the sides and back to her top. I say ‘singing’, because with our dear Rosewood fretboard and bridge, once the fittings and strings were added, we became famous for the clarity and projection of our sonorous acoustics.

And very happy we were when we were chosen by Emmylou Harris to go on tour with her and Randy Newman in 1985. Indeed, that was probably one of our best experiences. She treated us well, played us skilfully and under her fingers we sang our hearts out in intimate venues to wildly appreciative audiences. And I can say that, in those days, my chest reverberated with a warmth and pleasure I had not known since the coming of spring after winter, as I stood with my family, feeling those tender shoots of green unfurling along the waving tips of my woody arms.

We stayed in her house for years, until one day a fan from England came on a pilgrimage and she presented us to him as a gift. In our comfortable, plushly lined case, we travelled to a wooded creek in Cornwall, where he cherishes us, taking us to local gigs, playing blues and telling our story. His name’s Alex and I feel I’m home from home.

(Copyright: Charles Becker 2017)

The Curious Case of the Convulsing Chihuahua

The Curious Case of the Convulsing Chihuahua (1450 words)

There was something mysterious happening. When Margaret Nettle got home, she was distraught to find her Chihuahua, Samson, alone in the garden in paroxysms of distress. His very skin seemed to be loose over his bones, as he heaved and trembled; and even his noble head appeared to have shrunk.

Spying him on the lawn through the kitchen patio doors, she dropped her shopping basket on the floor with a shriek and raced out to him.

Samson! Samson! What ever’s the matter?” she cried, as she dashed towards him. “Everything’s going to be all right,” she crooned, scooping him up into her arms, just as one last convulsion, greater than the rest, shuddered through his tiny frame and he threw up all over her cardigan and the blouse beneath.

The stench of the ochre slime was disgusting; and, holding him out at arms’ length with her face turned aside, she carried him into the kitchen. Seizing a pail from under the sink with her free hand, she half-filled it with hot soapy water and dropped him in it.

You stay there!” she commanded, depositing the bucket in the sink, while gingerly removing her cardigan and blouse and even her capacious brassiere and casting them one at a time, between forefinger and thumb, into the drum of the washing machine.

Having refreshed her wardrobe upstairs, she returned to the kitchen, where she rinsed the crestfallen Chihuahua and dried him first with a hand towel and then with her hair dryer.

That’s my Samson!” she exclaimed as his fur fluffed up.

Clutching him to her bosom, she advanced once more into the garden. “Right,” she said, “what on earth have you been eating, that’s what I want to know.”

Starting near the vomit stained patch of grass near the middle the lawn, she walked head down in widening elliptical circles, the garden of her semi-detached house being longer than it was wide. By the time she had reached the borders on either side, she had discovered nothing.

Well, daisies didn’t do it,” she told Samson, kissing his nose and shifting him under her arm.

At which point, looking up for inspiration, she saw her neighbour’s voluptuous black cat, Delilah (her neighbour’s infuriating joke) , sitting on an adjoining fence post observing her, it’s tail circling its paws – and so did Samson!

Squirming from her grasp and tumbling to the ground, he raced across the garden, barking repeatedly; except that due to his elfin proportions and to the alto register of his expletives, it sounded very much more like yapping. In vain, he leapt and leapt again at the fence, his yapping becoming more and more frenzied as the disdainful cat looked briefly down at him.

Oh, for goodness sake, Margaret!” came the exasperated voice of her neighbour, Rita Luckpool, who was planting out her dahlias on the other side of the fence. “Why don’t you take him for a walk? He’s been treating us to that cacophony all morning.”

You’re not a dog lover, are you, Rita?” Margaret retorted; and, as she said it, the truth dawned upon her: Rita had poisoned Samson, while she was out shopping. “Well, I…I mean…you…” she spluttered, rendered momentarily inarticulate by the enormity of her revelation.

Seizing hold of the hyperventilating little dog, she clamped her hand over its face and marched back towards the house, calling over her shoulder, “You’ve gone too far this time, Rita. Mark my words!”

What do you make of that?” Rita asked Delilah, as she straightened up and arched her aching back.

The cat blinked and padded silkily towards her along the top of the fence, a low rumble growing louder as she came.

As far as Margaret was concerned, the vet was a fool. She had always thought so. His ears were too big and stuck out like radar dishes. According to her mother, it was a sure sign of dolthood.

Just something toxic he ate, I expect, Mrs Nettle,” he said, handing her an invoice for £90. “Give him a little water until tomorrow; and then a couple of teaspoons of boiled rice and chicken. No skin or bones mind. And, if he keeps that down, slowly increase the amount over the next few days. You’ll be right as rain, won’t you, um…”

Forgetting the name, he put out his hand with a benign smile to pat the little dog’s head and just managed to whip it away again in time, as Samson machine-gunned a volley of yaps at him and lunged for his fingers.

Quite right, too,” Margaret Nettle assured her diminutive companion, as she strapped him into his booster seat for the drive home. “He’s no idea what you’ve been through, has he?”

By the time she turned into the narrow parking space beside her front path, Margaret had made her mind up; and, having deposited Samson in his favourite armchair with a precautionary towel spread underneath him, she went straight round to confront her neighbour.

Climbing the short run of steps to the front door, she rang the bell and knocked firmly three times. When the door opened, Margaret was momentarily taken aback to find her neighbour dressed in a floral pinny and regarding her with a certain fierceness in her narrowed eyes. In her seventies, she was trim of figure with a full head of dark brown hair pinned back at the temples.

May I have a word, Rita?” Margaret said, recovering her composure.

As long as it’s quick, I’m baking.”

Although used to her neighbour’s brusque manner, Margaret had not anticipated having to deliver her homily on the doorstep.

Very well then, I’ll come straight to the point. I have known for some time, although I do not understand why, that you resent my dear little Samson; but I had never imagined that you would be,” here Margaret paused for breath, her jowls trembling with indignation, “could be, so vindictive as to deliberately poison him.”

As Rita opened her mouth to reply, Margaret put up her hand to stop her. “It’s no use denying it. There can be no other explanation. Mr Chardry, the vet, has diagnosed the cause of Samson’s vomiting as being something he ate.”

Remarkable!” Rita said, with the ghost of a smile; but Margaret, building to her climax, ignored her and sailed on.

Here is his account,” she said, thrusting forward the envelope she was holding. “As you are responsible for this unseemly incident I expect you to settle it without delay and to give me your word there will be no repeat of this…this…,” struggling to find the right words, Margaret drew herself up and almost lost her balance, having to put one foot back on the step below her to regain it, “of this cruel charade. In which case, I will say no more about it.”

I see,” Rita said, making no effort to take the envelope; so that, out of weariness, Margaret was forced to lower her arm, while still holding it. “Excuse me a moment; I’ve left a ring on.” So saying, she disappeared into the shadows of the interior, leaving Margaret glancing furtively up and down the cul-de-sac behind her, feeling both nonplussed and exposed.

Now then,” Rita said, returning, “I have a point or two of my own to make, since you are here.” Margaret, who was unused to being stared down, flicked at an invisible speck on her cerise cardigan and cleared her throat. “Firstly, you have no idea of the Chihuahua brouhaha that ensues from your garden when you go out.” Margaret’s plump face creased in puzzlement. “I mean Samson’s noisy, overexcited yapping,” Rita explained. “I cannot tend my plants, read a book or just sit and enjoy the peace of my own garden, without being constantly subjected to your dog’s infernal racket.”

Well, if you’re going to take that tone, Rita, there’s no more to be said.” Margaret moved back and down a step and then a second and then a third, until she was once again on terra firma and more sure of her footing. “I never expected this from you. I came here in good faith and you behave like a…like a banshee!”

Rita watched her go. “I’m not sure that’s what you mean,” she said softly, as she closed the door, “but it may be truer than you know.”

Back in the kitchen, she found Delilah sitting on the table by the china bowl, her tail curled about her.

Who can resist chocolate cake?” Rita smiled, taking hold of the wooden spoon and beginning to stir the mix.

(Notes:

  1. Banshee – a female spirit whose wailing warns of a death in a house.
  1. Chocolate contains theobromide, an ingredient that is toxic to dogs. All chocolate contains this substance, but baking chocolate contains the highest concentration. Signs of theobromide toxicity include vomiting, diarrhoea, tremors, elevated heart rate and seizure activity.)

Copyright: Charles Becker, 2020.

The Wild Camel

The Wild Camel (1595 words)

Afterwards, I lie on my side enjoying the warmth and solidity of him, my arm across his chest. Through the window behind him, I can see rooftops falling into shadow. The afternoon will soon be over.

You’re my bear,” I whisper; “I don’t want you to go.”

His face is angled away from me, looking out at the sky; and, at first, he doesn’t say anything. I don’t mind. I’d be happy to lie together like this forever, just resting in the warmth and joy of him.

I know you don’t,” he says eventually, rolling his head on the pillow to look at me. “I know that; but I will have to,” he pauses, “in a little while, anyway.”

I know his moods and their expression in his eyes. When he’s feeling playful, the brown irises shimmer with flecks of gold; and when he’s tired or tense they cloud over into muddy pools. Now they’re deepening and softening in a way I haven’t seen before.

What’s up?” I ask, running my fingers over the rough stubble of his jaw. “You look so serious…and sad.”

He reaches up, taking my hand in his, and lowers it against his chest. I can feel the rhythm of his heart under my palm.

It was Miriam brought you,” he says. “Do you remember? All that time ago. Twenty years, maybe.”

I lean up on my elbow. “Twenty-three,” I say. “I was nineteen. And, of course, I remember; I was terrified!”

There was nothing of you.” He frowns. “’Why’s Miriam bringing me this scrawny chicken?’ I was asking myself.”

He pauses, looking through me, lost in his own thoughts; and I lie back, wondering why he’s gone back to the beginning. Something I don’t want to hear is coming, I can feel it. It’s like a shadow has fallen over us. I want to say something…anything…to clear it away, but I can’t think what.

I love you,” I say; and he lets go of my hand and swings out of the bed with his back to me.

I wait, but he doesn’t say anything, just sits on the edge, head dipped, his shoulders curving away from me, slashes of light catching them, burnishing them mahogany above the tapering darkness of his back.

I want you to turn to me. I want you to hold me. I want to feel you against me again and know that you are mine and that you are not going to go off and leave me, disappear. I can’t say these words aloud, but I chant them inside myself like a mantra.

It’s Miriam,” he says, not turning. “I can’t go on like this anymore. It’s not right.”

He’s not making sense. “What do you mean?” I cry. “Miriam’s dead! She’s been dead for years.”

I kneel up and scramble across the bed to him, putting my arms around him and my head against his. He doesn’t move; he lets me hold him. He’s bending forward looking down, his forearms resting on his thighs

There is a life after this one, you know,” he says. “And Miriam is my wife; I made my vows to her.”

His voice, it’s so final, as if there’s nothing more to say; but this is crazy.

You’ve been everything to me,” I say, trying to pull him over. “You are everything to me.” But, I can’t budge him. He may be fifty, but his body is as firm as it ever was and I’m not as strong as I was when he was training me. I give up and link my arms round his chest, pressing the side of my face between his shoulder blades, squeezing him tight and breathing in the familiar scent of him, something between bay leaves and…I don’t know… leather, maybe.

I had nothing, was nothing, when Miriam first took me to the gym. I was a scrawny chicken, you’re right.” I’m babbling, but I’ve got to say something. He can’t go while I’m talking…while I’ve got hold of him…while he’s still naked. “Miriam wouldn’t mind. She was kind…always genuinely kind. She’d want you to be happy. She’d want us to be happy. She wouldn’t care that it was me. She’d rather it was me…someone she knew loved you…respected you…would be good to you.”

I’m crying and rubbing my cheek against the smooth wall of his skin, smearing us both. And, even though I can feel him quivering, he doesn’t say anything. “We’re lovers,” I go on, stretching my hand round between his legs, finding him, holding him. “We belong together.”

Very gently, he lifts my hand away and, disentangling himself, stands up. I watch him walk to the chair and step into his boxers. He turns for his tee, pulls it on and comes back to the bed, bringing the chair with him. I think I’m going to be sick. My stomach is hollow and I can’t seem to catch my breath.

You were quite something,” he says, scooping my bathrobe from the floor and helping me into it, tying the belt for me. “You would have been the IBF Featherweight Champion of the World. You were ahead on every card.” Pulling the chair closer, he lifts his hand and strokes his thumb along my eyebrow, his fingers curling round the side of my face. They’re warm and I close my hand over them. “I’d never seen a gash like that before. I could see the bone. Sanchez butted you as clear as day. She should have been disqualified.” He draws his hand away and shakes his head. “I was so proud of you!” he says, and it sounds like tears are gargling in his throat.

It was all down to you,” I say. I want him to know the truth of that. “You gave me the self-belief. I thought I was…I don’t know…rubbish…worthless. Like I was a loser…and was always going to be a loser. That’s what school had taught me.” I stop. I don’t want to go into all that stuff again. It seems so…so small now, so insignificant…all that name calling…’parrot-beak’…’camel-nose’, just because it was curved and stuck out a bit. I don’t mind my nose at all now. In fact, I like it. I like the strength of it.

I laugh, remembering, and grab his wrist. “’You’re not a parrot,’ you told me, ‘you’re an eagle!’ I didn’t believe you, just thought you were trying to be kind. But you kept on saying it, telling me I was fast, swooping on my prey like an eagle. And you believed in me…believed I could be a boxer…be a fighter…and a good one. You put your faith in me.” I shake his wrist. “You put your faith in me. Don’t take it away now.”

He looks deep into me; but he doesn’t say anything, just draws his hand back. So, I wait. But I’m not comfortable kneeling anymore and I move to the edge, sitting facing him, interlocking our legs, our knees in a row, except mine are lower and paler than his.

The silence is heavy. I can’t bear it. “Don’t do this to us,” I say. “It doesn’t matter about an afterlife. We have to live this one first, don’t we?”

He shakes his head a couple of times and leans into me.

I’m not good with words, you know that. And I don’t understand this myself exactly…but I know it’s true,” he’s looking at me nodding, his eyes pleading with me; “except I don’t know the right way to say it. This isn’t about thinking, it’s how I’m feeling and I can’t stop it. All I know is Miriam is my wife. We were married in the sight of God. My mother was there. And I had no right to…to…” he closes his eyes and his voice trails off.

To what?” I ask him. “No right to what?”

No right to become involved with you.”

Become involved!” I’m scornful. Those aren’t the kind of words he uses. He’s dodging me. “What the hell does that mean?”

He shuffles his chair backwards, extricating himself. I see the confusion in his eyes, as he gets up and turns away, moving for the window. He stands there with his shoulders hunched and his fists half-raised, clenched tight.

I can feel the tension coming off him like he’s going to burst, like he’s going to punch out the glass. And I’m trembling. I want him to break and I’m scared of him breaking.

We are involved,” I say and I’m surprised at the conviction in my own voice, surprised how speaking the truth of what I’m feeling brings a relief from my fears and a strength like I used to feel in the ring, when I only had myself to rely on. I might get beat, but I’d fight with everything in me…I never gave in. “We are involved and we’re never going to be uninvolved. What’s done is done. And you’ve no reason to feel guilty about it…not before Miriam, not before God, not even before your mother! Because we have a right to this…here, right now, in this life. Do you hear me? There’s nothing wrong with our being in love and showing it! And, until one of us dies, I’m claiming you. You’re mine now and that’s the way it’s going to be. So you just better get used to it.”

Later, afterwards, he lies with his arms around me, spooning me, his knees crooked up into the back of mine. “I’m going to be in so much trouble,” he whispers.

(Copyright: Charles Becker, March 2020.)

The Cap, the Mouse and the Flying Swede

The Cap, the Mouse and the Flying Swede (1,075 words)

When Caroline came back from her bedtime bath, she discovered her husband, George, propped up in bed reading a book with his faded, cotton cap on. It was the final straw and two days later she found herself opposite a pinched-face solicitor in a brown tie.

So, to sum up, Mr Shruggs,” she said, realizing her free 30 minutes were almost up, “I want to know if I can sue George for divorce on the grounds of the irretrievable breakdown of our marriage, due to his unreasonable behaviour in refusing to remove his cap in the house or even in the bedroom, as I have told you.”

Yeeeez,” Mr Shruggs said on a prolonged outbreath; “unfortunately, as the law stands, you see, aesthetic abuse,” he smiled thinly, “is not a recognized basis for such a proceeding.”

Later the same day, Caroline was having tea with her friend, Molly. Molly, a patient, middle-aged woman, was cutting out bright red patches of material for the quilt she was making.

What do you think?” she said, holding scarlet floral against turquoise abstract.

The man’s a fool!” Caroline said. “I told him about the boiler suit, as well, and he barely raised an eyebrow.”

You’re right,” Molly nodded, setting down her pinking shears and the scarlet patch, “maybe it is a bit garish.”

Caroline brushed a biscuit crumb from her lap. “I’ve told you before, haven’t I? He won’t take the boiler suit off when he comes in, because of that bloody mouse!”

Mouse?” Molly said. “I did a nursery quilt once with three blind mice. Couldn’t find a farmer’s wife or a knife, but used a milkman and chip pan instead.”

What on earth are you talking about?” Caroline demanded.

Molly beamed at her and started chanting: “They all ran after the milkman, who fried their tails in a chip pan.”

Oh, for goodness sake, Molly,” Caroline broke in, “this is serious!”

Molly shrugged her becardinganed shoulders and went back to her snipping.

The point is,” Caroline continued, “George takes the anaemic, little beast to work in his top pocket and won’t take off the wretched garment when he comes home, because…and it defies belief, it really does…he doesn’t want to disturb ‘dear Pinky’!”

Pink and white are a bit wishy washy, don’t you think?” Molly said, sifting through some remnants and drawing one out to illustrate her point.

Pinky, I ask you!” The teaspoon jumped in Caroline’s saucer, as she thumped her cup down. “Just because of its horrid little eyes. Disturb it, huh! I’ll disturb it all right. Farmer’s wife had the right idea. I’m telling you he thinks more of that mouse than he does of me. Well, I’ve had enough, I’m leaving him. And it’s no use trying to talk me out of it, Molly; my mind’s made up.”

Molly extricated a roll of material from under the sofa and unfurled a length of it across the carpet. “What would you think of a whole quilt in dove grey with cucumber green fronds?”

When Caroline got home, she packed up the mid-grey, baker boy cap she had ordered in herringbone, which George had refused. “Makes me look like a Peaky Blinders’ gunman,” he’d told her. Well, her mother had warned her all those years ago. “N.O.C.D.” she’d said, with a knowing smile. “Not our class, dear.”

Caroline stuck the return label on the package and took it to the post office.

Coming along the path on her way home again, she saw her neighbour polishing his ancient car in his trilby.

Afternoon, Leonard,” she said, drawing level. “Outdoors is the proper place for a hat, if I may say so.”

So’s a bald ‘ead,” he grinned.

She went to move on, but he put up his hand. “Hang on a minute, I’ve got something for ‘ee.” And leaving his cloth on the bonnet, he disappeared into his house.

Dug ’er up this mornin’,” he said, coming back and holding out a mud-spattered, purple and orange swede. “Go well in a stew for George, I reckon.”

We’re having chicken casserole,” she said, taking a plastic carrier from her bag. She shook it and held it open; and, as he dropped the vegetable in, her arms sagged with the weight of it.

Some people confuse swedes with turnips,” she went on; “I did once!” She closed the handles and held the carrier by her side. “But swedes have proper substance, Leonard, and they don’t wear caps in bed!”

As she walked off, Leonard pushed back his hat and scratched his head.

It was almost six o’clock when George came through the back door into the kitchen.

Smells good,” he said, putting his sandwich box on the side by the sink.

He moved forward to greet her with a peck on the cheek, as usual; but she stepped back from the chopping board, knife still in hand.

Right,” she said, “let’s get this straight once and for all. You take that cap off and you go upstairs and change out of that boiler suit. I’m not going to put up with you being dressed in the house like that any longer.”

As she spoke, pink eyes and a twitching, whiskered nose appeared over the rim of his top pocket.

And I won’t have that…that rodent in the house anymore either. I mean it.”

Oh, come on, love, let it be,” George sighed, turning for the door to the hall. “It’s been a long day.”

Don’t you turn your back on me, George Dodd!” She tossed the knife onto the table.”I want an answer and I want it now, or else we go our separate ways.”

George turned round again to face her. “You’re not serious, are you, love?” he said. “I mean, I don’t ‘ave to dress up in me own ‘ome, do I?”

Caroline lifted her chin. “I’ve been to see a solicitor. Aesthetic abuse, he called it.”

George shook his head. “I don’t even know what that means,” he muttered, glancing down at the mouse. Then, looking up at her again, he added: “I know you’re ashamed of me sometimes and that you don’t feel I’m good enough for you; but I am doing my best and I do lov…”

The swede caught him high up on the side of his head, near the temple; and, as he went down, his head bounced on the tiled floor, his cap fell off, the mouse ran away, and Caroline knew it was the end.

Copyright: Charles Becker, 2019.