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The Man in the Wheel Chair

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

James glanced to one side, tilting his head.

So, he said, what do you think?

Billy pulled a face.

It’s a tricky one, he agreed. They drifted down the broad path towards the ornamental pool, the wheels of the chair leaving ephemeral pale lines upon the wet tarmac.

What would you do? James asked. Billy twisted his head towards the water and grimaced.

When push comes to shove, he said, you’ve got to have your ammunition ready.

I’m not sure I know…James began.

Write it all down: dates, times, events. Keep a notebook. Don’t tell anyone. Keep it quiet, but when the day comes you can’t take anymore, then you produce it. You say, this is what has been happening, and you give them the where and when, and the how.

That seems a bit…

Look, it’s no use complaining without you can prove what you’re complaining about. Otherwise they’ll just tell you to go away and put up with it a little longer, and let them know if it happens again. You might as well get all that done in advance.

I suppose so.

They stopped at the water’s edge and looked out over the black, stippled surface.

We could do without all this rain.

It’s not too bad.

James looked at his watch. People were throwing their leftover lunch crumbs to the ducks.

Greedy bastards, Billy said. The ducks chased each other and squabbled over the fragments of food. There’s some bullying going on there too, Billy observed. The churned water splashed white and fell back to dark ripples that settled to stillness and black.

We should get back to the office, James said.

They followed the curving path back up towards the park gate. The motor on the wheel chair growled like a dreaming dog.

You’d have had to push this damned thing once upon a time, one of them said.

 

I thought long and hard about whether or not to include some ‘genuine’ flash fiction – so here’s a micro-fiction.

 

And They Lived Happily Ever After

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

When Melanie got the fifties’ bob she could have passed for Audrey Hepburn. Her mother chided: you foolish girl, men like longer hair.

Melanie, though often undermined like this, was resourceful. She didn’t seek help, but bought a wig, as long and bronze as you could sell shampoo on. Blood orange sunsets stained its tresses burnt umber.

Timothy came on the scene then and fell head and shoulders in love. When he left her, mere weeks later, as they do, she let him keep the wig.

 

A friend passed on to me a Telegraph from May this plagued year in which Julie Kavanagh writes of a lunch taken with the late John Gielgud. It consisted ‘quails eggs and jellied consommé followed by salmon and summer pudding’, and was described as ‘typical English fayre’. Typical? I was born seventy years ago in the heart of England and have lived within its confines ever since, but I cannot recollect ever having seen or heard of such ‘fayre’ being placed on an English table. Here’s what I have reason to believe an English story though….

 

The Whole Story

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

Uncle Fred was notorious in our family. His one un-forgiven crime was that he had fled to America to make his fortune shortly after his father died.

 

The crime was not that he had failed to make the fortune, nor that he had chosen America, nor even that he had fled. It was leaving his younger brother – my father – to look after their two sisters, and widowed mother. My father, at the time, was still at school, and only thirteen. This was before the days of Social Services and the Welfare State.

The story was told so often that I developed an unreasoning dislike of Uncle Fred, though I had never met him. Like the bogey man he lurked in my subconscious but never appeared. We never received so much as a postcard, and no Christmas cards were sent either. In those days a transatlantic phone call would have been prohibitively expensive. Then one day it was announced that he and his ‘new’ wife, would be visiting for a cup of tea. What was more, they were moving, imminently back to the town and we would be seeing much more of them.

When Uncle Fred and Sophie arrived, I treated him with distant civility.  I was surprised to find him a chirpy little man, with a stereotypically fat, jolly wife, who fussed over him incessantly. She fussed over his chair, plumping and pummelling its cushions until he was comfortable. She fussed over the tea cup, to which the precisely correct amount of milk had to be added, before the tea. She fussed over the cup of tea, testing it for temperature before allowing him to press his lips against it.

Fred is very delicate, she told us, fussing over the amount of light falling onto him through the sitting-room window from the afternoon sun.

What surprised me most of all was that neither of them had the slightest trace of an American accent. Feeling resentful towards Fred, for his abandonment of my grandmother – whom I never met on account of her early demise – and his curtailing of my dad’s education, I was churlish and uncommunicative. There was no way I was going to give him the satisfaction of hearing me enquire about his life across the pond.

 

Poor Fred, who was only a few years older than my dad, took after his mother when it came to dying, and popped off soon after.

My dad lived for another decade, and at his funeral a slim man with a Hitler moustache and a comb-over, accompanied by two equally slim and middle aged looking teenagers appeared. Who are they? I asked my mother. They’re your Uncle Fred’s grandchildren, and his son. They’re your cousins, she hissed.

None of them had American accents either, and this time I wanted to find out why.

It turned out Fred’s American adventure had lasted barely two years. Throughout my childhood he had been living less than twenty miles away.

 

 

There’s a wee consideration on writing from BHDandMe on The BLue Nib

Angel’s Men

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

Bedford had driven past three pubs already. It wasn’t that he was driving particularly fast, nor had they all been on the wrong side of the road, necessitating a turn across the traffic. In fact, the third pub had been on this side of the road, which Roger had pointed out.

We’ll run out of bloody road if we don’t settle on one soon, Roger said hunching down in his seat to watch the pub diminishing in the rear view mirror.

Sorry, Bedford said. I was going too fast.

The fact was, as they all knew, that when the road stretches out ahead it’s difficult to stop. It’s difficult to stop whatever the road is doing, when the car is moving.

Simon allowed himself a smile. He knew why Bedford hadn’t stopped.

The roads in that part of Suffolk can be narrow and subject to violent turns to left or right. Enclosures Act roads, Simon thought of them as, roads that cornered the right angles of fields that had been laid out with theodolites and measuring sticks. The roads that snaked and weaved like unravelling threads, he knew, were the tracks of drunken Saxons going home.

A narrow lane edged out of the hedge fifty yards ahead, and Bedford changed down through the gears, braking hard. He swung the car into the lane, brushing flowering grasses with the driver’s side wing.

Where the….?

Village, Bedford said. Bound to be one there. Simon shook his head: almost certainly, he thought.

 

The pub was cool and gloomy and paved with a dark stone that had a touch of sullen green about it. The bar was a polished mahogany slab heaved to the top of a flint-stoned wall. Three tall stools stood before it, and three upright beer pulls, each labelled with a local ale stood upon it. An overweight barman in a blue denim shirt stood behind it. Or rather leaned against it from the far side. He had thick brown sideburns and a grey pony-tail, and was smoking a thin hand-rolled cigarette, something that had been illegal indoors for the best part of a decade.

Roger paused at the threshold and looked around.

This’ll do, he said, and then the other two jostled him into the room. The barman lifted the cigarette to his lips and took a drag on it. He turned his head aside and exhaled, then daintily laid the cigarette down in an unseen ashtray behind the bar.

Three pints, landlord, Bedford said, pointing to one of the pumps.

That’s illegal, you know, Roger added, nodding towards the still rising smoke. The barman lifted a glass and held it to one of the pumps. He glanced at Roger with a sort of curious detachment.

Simon opened his mouth to speak, but thought better of it. He leaned slightly forward and peered to the side where the narrow space behind the bar turned into a corridor that dog-legged out of sight.

You the Feds? An American accent spoke, and the three of them turned around to see a man sitting in the shadows against the far wall.

The barman had finished pouring the first pint and had begun on the second.

We don’t get the Feds around here that often, the American said.

He was a thin man, probably in his fifties. He had on a check shirt and frayed blue-jean cuffs sat on the top of his worn grey trainers. His hair was cropped short and flat on top. It was greying. A half empty pint glass stood on the round table in front of him. He had long, pianist’s hands which lay palm down on the table as if to show that he was hiding nothing. Bedford smiled.

Would you like another?

Thank you kindly.

The barman moved to another pump and held a glass to it.

Comin’ up.

 

Roger hauled himself to a bar stool and reached for his beer. Simon leaned back against the bar. Bedford carried his own and the American’s pints over to the table. He sat down, pulling one of the empty chairs to one side to keep all of them in his arc of vision.

The American nodded and moved the full glass nearer to him, like a man moving a chess piece. Bedford raised his glass and took a sip.

Simon pushed himself off the bar and turned back to the barman, who had lifted the cigarette again and was holding it in front of his mouth.

Will Angel be in later? Simon asked. The barman stiffened and looked past him towards the American who remained motionless. Angel had yellow hair that curved around her face like cupping hands. She had a wide smile and eyes with chips of ice in them.

You knew Angel? The barman asked.

Sort of.

Sort of? What the hell does that mean? The American said. None of them had known Angel as well as they would have liked.

Angel doesn’t work here anymore, the barman said.

Roger shifted uneasily on his stool and put his beer down on the bar-top.

That’s a pity, Bedford said, and he took a long drink from his pint.

The barman stubbed out his cigarette.

Yeah, the barman said. That’s what we thought.

So where’s she gone? Simon asked, with wide, innocent eyes. Roger looked from the barman to the American and back again as if it were a game of tennis. The American had finished his first glass and switched the two around, bringing the full one closer to him.

You boys come out here just to see Angel? He asked. Nobody answered. He tried again. You come a long way to see Angel?

Far enough, Simon said without turning to face him.

The American laughed quietly.

What’s so funny? Bedford said.

I gotta get somethin’, the barman said, and he turned away from the bar and went out through a door to somewhere beyond that they couldn’t see into.

Roger picked up his beer and took a drink. Simon turned again, this time with the drink in his hand. He looked relaxed.

Do you know where she’s gone?

I know, the American said.

You going to tell us? Bedford asked.

The American took a drink of the second beer and put the glass down, looking at it like a man assessing something which he’s about to make an offer for. Bedford leaned forward.

I said, are you going to tell us where we can find her, Angel?

I heard what you said, the American said.

There was a metallic click, and Roger jumped. The barman had come back in, quiet as a snake and was standing behind the bar again, both his hands out of sight below the level of the mahogany slab.

The American raised his eyes towards him, and then turned to look at Bedford. He knew that you have to find your courage at the beginning or in the end.

I don’t think so, he said.

 

This story was written more than a year ago, but seems to have a resonance with current events…

 

Mothballed

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

I

 

Some bright spark with too much education had thought it up. There were too many people with the wrong skills, or no skills at all, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. What could you do with them? You couldn’t re-train them. They were too old, or thick, or bloody recalcitrant. They didn’t want to be retrained. They didn’t want to fit in with the future. The present was fine for them, and the present was firmly rooted in the past. The past was fine for them. The past was the best place they had ever been.

That’s not to say the good times wouldn’t come back one day. Resources run out. Wells dry up. Mines are exhausted. Markets evaporate. Then, twenty or thirty, or a hundred years down the line, something changes. Reserves are discovered, new seams are found, new processes are invented.  Somebody thinks up something nobody ever thought of before, and before you know it, you’re re-inventing the wheel, and it’s all guns blazing again. Then, if you’ve been clever, and thought far enough ahead, you can gain a march, catch a jump on the opposition, be up and running before they know what’s hit them, hit the ground running before their heads are above the parapet. That’s why mothballing the factory made more sense than simply knocking it down. You never know what’s round the corner, up the street: the devil you don’t know.

No use mothballing the bloody factory, though. It was the workers you couldn’t replace, the skills. The willingness to live like that, work that hard, die that young.

Who was going to want to do the jobs like that in a hundred years time, even if it did become economically viable again? No-one in their right bloody minds, that was who. Even if they’d had a state education they’d be wanting something better than that, wouldn’t they?

You could reconstruct the buildings, even rebuild the machines. You could sink new mines, extract the raw materials. You could even work out how to make it all work again, but unless you had the people who could actually do it, were prepared to do it, what use would it be? You needed people who couldn’t see beyond it. People who didn’t know there was anything better out there. People who were fit for nothing else, who were too stupid to want anything else. People who felt comfortable in that kind of environment. People who belonged there, and had a sense of that belonging, who were even proud of it. People who would thump their chests and say, if it were good enough for my dad, and my granddad, and my granddad’s granddad, then it’s good enough for me.

Then someone had quipped. It was a quip all right, not a serious suggestion: pity we can’t mothball the workers too.

That is the nature of true genius. The ability to see sense in the nonsensical, the possibilities of the impossible. The science in the fiction.

 

II

When Harry Talbot first woke up, his immediate thought was of Julie, and then of little Angel. Then he wondered how long he had been under. It seemed like only moments ago that the Doctor had leaned in close and whispered, Good Luck, Harry, as he administered  the injection.

Then he remembered the others. Had they all awoken too? Had they all survived? And how long had it been? Had they slept for years, decades, centuries? He realised that he had not yet opened his eyes, and for a moment he held them shut. What if the world had changed beyond recognition? What if he had been called back not because the time was right, but due to some technical failure? He was suddenly aware of the banging of his heart.

Harry Talbot opened his eyes and looked out upon the world with trepidation. He could see only a smooth white surface that curved above him. He strove to focus. Was it inches away or feet? Was it a ceiling, or a lid? He jumped in surprise as a man’s face, a stranger’s face, swung into view, looking down upon him.

Harrah Towbo? The man said gently.

Harry tried to speak, but a strangled groan was all that came out. He felt an inrush of air as he gasped for breath, and then the words came.

What? What did you say?

The stranger looked puzzled for a moment, and then said again: Harrah Towbo? How are you?

Harry Talbot. That’s what he was saying, Harry realised. The man was saying his name in some sort of foreign accent.

Yes, yes. That’s me. Harry tried to sit up, but something held him back. The man’s hand appeared and pressed gently on his shoulder.

Genty, genty, the man said. Another face, also a stranger’s, but this time a woman’s, appeared in his line of sight.

Awyte, the woman’s face said. He fine.

Harry breathed out heavily, then slowly in again, savouring the air. It felt fragile. To breathe the air, and know that you were doing it. He didn’t want it to end: breathed out again, and in. He could feel it all the way down to the pit of his stomach. He could feel his legs. He could feel his arms and shoulders. He could feel his balls, tightening. He was having an erection. He tried to move his hand, but that too was restrained by something.

The man grinned at him.

Aa’wokin’awda, Harrah Towbo.

The man glanced at the woman and made what seemed to be a questioning face and to which, seemingly in answer, she nodded. The two faces receded, and Harry felt a pressure on his back, felt himself being lifted, folding to an upright posture. He could see into a room. A hospital room. Machinery of unknown purpose stood behind the two stragners, and there were other figures, gowned and masked standing behind them. They were all looking at him.

How long have I been? Where am I? What date is it?

The man beamed at him.

You have swept, he said with slow deliberation, for hunderd an’ seventy year. Now is fifteenth year of Publican Britannia. You in Capitah City. Wonjin.

Harry felt a stinging in his arm, and looked down to see that he was being injected again. The man’s face went serious.

You mus weep norma weep nah. Feed thlu tupe a bee wonga.

He bowed his head, a gesture of service and respect, and Harry felt his grip on consciousness slackening, his vision darkening from the periphery, closing down, ending.

 

III

Harry’s second awakening was more natural. He drifted into consciousness, and heard birds singing. He was in a bed, and he stretched, yawning before his eyes were open. He could feel sunlight on his face, and when he did open his eyes it was to find himself in an ordinary room, with a window through which he could see out into a formal garden, with neatly trimmed shrubs, gravel paths, and a surrounding wall of old red brickwork.

A movement by the bedside attracted his attention. A nurse was seated there, watching over him. She smiled, and gave the same respectful bow as the stranger had given. She was of some race that he could not identify.

Goo mawni, Harrah Towbo, she said, in the same accent that he had heard before. She made eating motions with her hands. I nah fetch, she said.

He had been shaved and washed, and dressed in what he thought must be hospital robes, when Doctor Fusbee came to him.

Hello, old chap, the Doctor said, stretching out a hand. Not a medico, you know. I’m your interpreter, what! Specialise in ancient languages, what. You’ll jolly well have to let me know how good I am! Haw, haw!

He sat down on the bedside chair and thumbed up a tiny screen, plugged in some sort of ear plug, and looked at Harry with bright eyes.

I expect you’re wondering, he said, what’s been going on while you were away, what? Well, old chap, it’s my job to jolly well fill you in! Don’t suppose those medico johnnies gave you much of the dope, what?

No, Harry said, not much of it.

The fact is, old boy, we’ve not fetched you back for quite what you expected. He leaned forward intently. You do recall the original plan?

The works, Harry said. We were going to be used to re-open the works, when the time came.

Fusbee nodded, a rather regretful look on his face.

Ah, yes. You do remember, old chap. Well. Change of plan at the old top, you know. Never can trust a bloody politician. Same in your day, what?

Yes, Harry said doubtfully.

The fact is, no need for the old works these days. Johnny Foreigner bought up the whole damned shebang, cornered the market, what? Of course nobody else could afford the damn stuff after that; had to think of some other way. Mother of invention and all that, don’t you know. He glanced at the screen before speaking again. Well, somebody came up with a corker, put the buggers out of business, so we’re back on top here in Blighty, don’t you know. All’s Well That Ends Well, what!

You mean we are going to start it up again, the works?

Not as such, old chap.

So what will we do? Me and the other men?

Doctor Fusbee looked uncomfortable. He studied the little screen intently, then pulled out the earplug and tucked it away.

The fact is old chap, it’s not ‘we’ any more, it’s just you, I’m afraid. Bit of a shaker, that, I imagine, but there it is.

The others are still asleep?

Fusbee looked positively ill at ease.

To all practical intents, you could say that. He brightened up. It’s you, I’m concerned with, though. Other matters can be left. The fact is, the Government want to make you an award, a sort of thank you, for what you’ve done.

I haven’t done anything, yet, Harry said, which was only partially true.

Well, you made the sacrifice, old chap. You and your fellow workers. Your today for our tomorrow and all that. So they’re going to give you a gong. OWS, something like that, on behalf of all the chaps who, went to sleep, so to speak. Jolly nice idea really, considering.

But why me? Harry wondered. And if I’m not going to be employed in the works, what will I do instead?

Luck of the draw, old bean. Tombola of life! Way the cookie crumbs and all that. Of course, there is the issue of where we go from here. Fusbee ran his finger around his neck, as if he were wearing an old fashioned collar that had suddenly become too tight.

You’ll find me an alternative, source of income, Harry said. I’m only thirty two.

As if Fusbee wouldn’t have know that.

Unless, Harry looked hopeful, unless I could have my pension, early. It will have been…He did some quick maths. It will have been invested for more than a hundred years.

Fusbee winced.

Technically, yes, he said, but everything like that, financial arrangements, mortgages, debts, investments, all that sort of stuff, got rather, disrupted during the revolution.

The Revolution?

Messy business, a few years ago now. Change of Regime. Lop off the top, get new growth. New brooms, sweeping clean. You understand.

I’ll have to retrain, Harry said. I’m young enough for that, surely?

Fusbee winced again.

Not possible I’m afraid. We’re already well over our quota for incomes. Too many Indians, not enough chiefs. Rather a change from your day, what? Then again….

So what exactly do you have in mind?

Harry Talbot tried to think of alternatives. They could hardly turn him out on the street, if there were still streets. Maybe they could keep him as a sort of exhibit. He could give classes, for children. Tell them about the good old days, the bad old days. He realised that Fusbee was talking again. Funny accent the man had: like something out of an old movie.

But looksee, once you’ve got the medal thing out of the way, we can pop you back in the box, don’t you know. Just till times get better again. You’ll not know you’re there. Still be thirty two when they wake you up again, however long it takes.

 

IV

 

Harry wondered briefly, before he drifted off, what had happened to Julie, and little Angel….

 

No Place Like Home

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

A dual carriageway bisects it these days, and you can drive across in under an hour, but back then, before the motor car and the tarmac road, it was one single flat expanse of marshy ground, across which the incised channels of slow black rivers coiled and uncoiled, not so much lazily, as without purpose or hope of finding a sea, though there was sea enough three quarters of the circle around a day’s ride off, and you could smell it on the air save when the wind sat in the west..

A half a dozen villages surrounded it like a piquet line, villages with their backs turned to the wetlands, straddling a perimeter track that passed from one to the other skirting around in a great circle, with any roads off heading away from, and not into the marsh. It had no name, but was referred to, if it was referred to at all, with a glance and a grimace and a splayed thumb, as ‘That Place.’

You doan wan’ go in That Place, missah, the locals would say, or something like it, and even when passing between the villages on either side, which was rare enough, travellers who knew That Place, would choose to go around rather than across.

There were no fences or hedges and no stone for building walls, though what few houses stood on the small lumps that passed for hills, be they only inches high above the plain, had found enough. Trees were represented by old stumps and coppiced willows along the waterways, and old beams in roofs and serving as lintels, and as testimony to ancient forests.

This was Marold’s land. He was a big, slow man, as slow and as dark as the river he lived beside and he carried himself sometimes on old stilts so that you might see him for miles off across the flats moving slowly like some imagined beast, black against the sky. He wore a hat that must once have been new, and was made of plaited reeds and grass, but which now flopped much like a net about his weather beaten head.

Sometimes Marold stumped his way across to one of the villages, to find a blacksmith or a carpenter perhaps, or to smell fresh cooked food, or to sell what he had scooped from the waters. Then he would leave the stilts resting, side by side, like the long shanks of an upended cart from which the horse had been withdrawn, against the stone back of the building nearest to where he had come from, out of the wetland.

Children would dog him through the street, but silently, fearing that if they spoke their taunts aloud and in his presence, he would turn on them and do a magic that no others could undo. The villagers would eye him with curiosity rather than fear, and some, perhaps those who had ventured once or twice into That Place after fish or other game, would nod, if by chance they caught his eye.

For Marold walked with his head down and his shoulders hunched, in the same stooped shape in which he strode high on his stilts, as if the world through which he walked were still beneath him even on his own two feet.

The house, or cottage, call it what you will, was no hovel, though it was small. It sat facing the east wind with its only door closed and two windows squinting shut against the howl. On the west side a third window blinked into the sunset, but the end walls were blind, and against one of them, that to the north, Marold had built a sort of lean to out of lost timbers and tin sheets that others had discarded and in this he kept tackle of fishing and setting traps and tools for doing odd jobs, and old tack from a horse that was dead, and an oval basket made of wicker in which an old dog lay on an old blanket.

Inside the cottage there were two rooms: one to live in and one to sleep in. In the room for living he had a table and two hard chairs, and hard by a fireplace with a softer chair beside it. In the sleeping room there was a bed, and a wooden chest into which he folded his clothes. There was no kitchen, but Marold used a skillet on the fire, and gutted his fish, and kneaded his bread dough on the table at which he would later eat it, and beside the fire there was a hollow space in which the kneaded dough would bake if the fire were built high enough. He burned a sort of peat that he cut and dried a half a mile away, where the land rose a little, beyond a stream.

Filkins told me the story the last time I passed though.

 

Old Marold been in town, he said.

Town? It is one now, I’m told, but back then it had a church, a public house, a blacksmith and a market, once in a while.

He wantin’ a chair.

I says, what you want a chair for Marold? He says, never you mind Filkins. I says, you won’t get no chair round here. You’m want go over Thripley, where Bill Mulvey has his workshop. He do make you a chair. Anyways, I says, you got two chairs already. I seen his little place.

He says, I doan wan’ no chair a Bill Mulvey’s. He say, it’s a fireside chair I’m lookin’ fer.

Ar! He were right talkative that day. I say, you’m got a fireside chair, Marold. What you wan’ a bee ‘avin’ two for? I says, you bin ower careless with ‘em flames.

He says, Never you mind, Filkins. He’m goin’ to post a letter, orderin’ himsen a chair outta city. Whaddam you think o’ that?

Filkins gave me a grin. He said, I says, Marold, That Place ain’t no place for a woman.

 

The Beloved

by Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

Berger’s kitten was a sweet little thing, as fragile as tissue paper when she twined herself around Berger’s huge hands, which could have torn her in two, you would have guessed, without him even noticing.

The brightness of the fire deepens the shadows that writhe against the wall as if they are trying to find a way out. They raise their arms and fall back as if defeated, dark against the white painted wall, darker against the black oak door into the cracks of which they seem to press and slip. Walls soak up sound and weep silences. Candles have guttered and gone out an hour ago.

Berger sits, his black eyes glittering in the firelight, staring but not seeing, down into the hearth where logs crackle, though he does not hear or heed them. They split into orange rimmed oblongs and fall to ash, as if they were distant buildings burning. And the kitten, soundlessly winds its way between his crooked fingers.

It is warm in the darkened room and airless. His breath his shallow, as if he were the one upon his death bed. He is barely breathing, barely seeing the flames that are consuming the blackening wood. The heat in the heavy, low ceilinged room presses outwards, soaks into the upholstery and the drapes, sits heavy on the dark wood surfaces, slips round his shoulders like a shawl. There is no draught from behind the heavy curtains, nor from beneath the heavy oak door, though on the stairs outside a cold stream tumbles, dank and heavy. It sinks through the gaps between the wooden floorboards in the hall.

He knows that however many friends and relatives attend the death bed, those who are dying will wait, hovering on the edge of life, until the watcher must pay a call of nature, or go in search of a drink, or to make a call, or to consult with a harassed doctor out in the corridor. It is only then that they will slip off into that unknown, as if they were somehow embarrassed to do so in public, or are deterred by the presence of witnesses. Or perhaps it is, that when no one is there to see, angels or demons come for them and will take no more prevarications, no more procrastinations. Such creatures as ravish us in sleep sometimes.

That is why Berger is not waiting upstairs for the inevitable, by the side of the bed. He knows it is no comfort to the dying to be crowded so by those who still hope to live. It is not squeamishness that keeps him rooted to the fireside chair. He can do no more and knows it. All that is left to be done must be done alone, as it shall be for all of us.

He hears a scuffling, a tinkle, and twists around his head to stare up into the ceiling. He lays the kitten aside, onto the small round wooden table from which it jumps silently to the carpet by his feet, from where it looks up as he rises and moves slowly from the room. He is clumsy enough at the best of times to crush it under foot without meaning to.

 

She is not yet dead, but the fire has died down to a dull red glow in which only the tiniest flames are showing, and the wooden oblongs have all folded to dust through which the dying fire breaths unsteadily. The kitten lies dead to the world beside the hearth. Berger’s fingers seek for the whisky bottle and pull free the stopper. He pours, carefully, a little whisky, adds water from a jug. The whisky clouds. He sets the bottle down beside his chair, nurses the tumbler against his chest. He sips and dozes as the fire dies, and without looking he reaches for a log to cast upon the flames.

Something, he knows, has changed. The smothered fire darkens and the black shadows blossom against the wall and fill the spaces between the furniture. He rises from the chair again, stumps out and clumps up the stairs. He is away a long time, and seems wearier when he returns. At the dark oak door he pauses and sniffs the air, thinks perhaps that a cinder has been spat out by the fire, singeing the threadbare carpet.

Dull embers nestle in the lumps of black. He looks from side to side, as if something were missing, reaches for his whisky tumbler. Nothing clears his head. He will wait an hour or two in contemplation before making any calls. When they have gone, he tells himself, there is no use in thinking of the dead.

 

 

 

[Thanks for all the re-tweets, re-blogs, likes and comments folks, as we move towards the last forty stories!]

 

The Unofficial Story

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

The boss’s son, who was home from university, was doing a week on the building site, for work experience. He hung around uncomfortably, getting under everybody’s feet. Johnson, who was the site foreman, was a decent bloke, but didn’t know quite how to handle the situation.

Johnson had run some sort of farm in Africa but had been forced to leave. I had seven hundred blecks under me, he told them. The boss’s son had asked what a ‘bleck’ was.

They were like children, Johnson said, but they did what was asked of them. Not like you buggers, he added.

They quizzed him about life in Africa, for people like him.

You all had swimming pools and stuff, they said.

The swimming pools were very small, he said. He’d lost everything at the airport, coming home (as he called it). Had to sell it all at a knock down price on the runway.

There was a problem on the site with a hole. It was deeper than two men standing one on top of the other, but it wasn’t deep enough. The digger’s arm couldn’t stretch down any further, and the plastic flask, the digester, was a good four inches too tall to fit in below the level of the drainage pipes. They hauled it out and tried again. The digger rocked dangerously on its tracks, tilting forward as the bucket arm stretched.

Hold it! Johnson shouted, and the digger backed off. There were cracks in the clay, running down from the edge, beneath the caterpillar treads.

We could cut the effing top off, one of the workmen suggested.

Somebody needed to go in and dig out another few inches. The sides of the hole were not supported by shuttering. It was a death trap; a bear pit. If any of the sides gave way it would be a certain fatality. Shuttering, at this late stage, wasn’t an option, and neither was digging out the sides so that they sloped down to the bottom.

The boss was under pressure. Penalty clauses would kick in if the job weren’t completed in time. Johnson would have sent his blecks in without a second thought. He would have gone in himself. He’d written out a little note, saying ‘I fully accept responsibility for my actions’ and was going to ask the workmen to sign it. He had already signed it himself. The Safety Officer explained to him that it didn’t work like that. After the Safety Officer had gone the boss descended. The gang, with his son, and Johnson, were all standing back from the edge peering down into the hole. Johnson told him what the Safety Officer had said.

We’ll have to dig out the sides, or try to get some shuttering up, Johnson said. He started to explain how they could drop in some scaffolding planks, starting at the top, and brace them from side to side with poles, but the boss waved his hands.

No, no, no. There’s no time for that. I want this finished within the hour. We’re on a tight margin here.

We can’t do it, Johnson said, not by hand.

The boss looked at Johnson and said, if you’re scared of course.  Then he got out his wallet and removed a fifty-pound note.

I’ll go down, one of the young labourers said.

You see, the boss said. There’s someone with balls.

Then he left the site, not wanting to be present when the crime was committed.

 

That was when the boss’s son offered to go. He’d done bugger all before.

I can’t let you do that, son, Johnson said, and he wouldn’t have let the other either, but the boss’s son was used to getting his own way and picked up a spade and jumped in with it.

Jesus Christ!

The little bugger!

Whoa! The workers crowded round the hole, looking down. Handfuls of clay crumbled from the edge and tumbled in after him.

Keep back from the edge, Johnson said, all of you. He lay down and looked over the lip. The boss’s son thought he was in a grave. It looked far deeper from inside. Stay in the middle, Johnson shouted down. We’ll get a ladder.

The boss’s son started digging, but there was no way he could get the spoil out of the hole. Put it in the corners, Johnson shouted down. Somebody went for a ladder.

The flask had a rounded bottom. Maybe, Johnson thought, if the boss’s son dug a hole in the centre large enough for that, it would do the job. One spit down, two at the most, would be enough.

Get in the hole, he shouted.

I am in the hole, the boy shouted back.

In the one you’re making, Johnson said, work from the middle. The middle was the safest place to be, but if a side gave way, at that height, it would sweep right the way across. Johnson had seen a man buried in a trench that was only three or four feet deep and this was nearer twelve.

 

When the ladder arrived Johnson went down with another spade and joined in. It only took about twenty minutes, but it seemed like an age.

Now let’s get out, Johnson said, and he pushed the youth up the ladder before him. He was sweating, and not from the work.

They eased the flask in over the side and pushed it upright with scaffolding poles. It fitted to perfection. While three of them held it in place the others shovelled loose soil back in all around it. The digger lowered its bucket and used it to push the bulk of the spoil back, and then rode over it, tamping it down.

When the boss returned, the flask was neatly capped and connected up and the ground flattened. He took out the fifty and glanced around at the men, before turning to the boy who had offered to go down.

Don’t let it be said that I’m not a man of my word, he said.

I didn’t do it, the boy said. The boss looked around again.

Well, come on, who gets the big one? His son shuffled forward.

That would be me, dad. The boss screwed the fifty up like a used tissue in his hand.

You stupid little fool, he said. You could have got yourself killed.

As Safety Officer, that’s more or less what I would have told him.

 

Bags and trains offer rich pickings for the short story…. Here’s another one….

 

Overnight Bag

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

In those days they were still running the old coaches, with the strap operated sliding windows in the doors. In fact, in those days, you could still open the doors, even while the trains were moving, and it was quite common for people to stick their heads out of the windows to look ahead down the tracks, or when they were coming into a station. Look out when there was another train coming and you’d think it was going to take your head off. In fact, I’m surprised that didn’t happen more often.

The man with the suitcase was small but heavily built and had curly brown hair that guarded a bald spot. He had the case, which was one of those small leather cases you see in old black and white movies, on his lap. With one hand he clutched tightly the handle, while the other, his arm protectively around the case, clutched the opposite bottom corner. He sat in the window seat, with an empty place beside him.

There was no fear, in those days, of terrorism. The IRA had finished and the others had not yet started. Yet, there was something in the way he held on to that case which made you suspicious. What was there in it that he needed to cling to it so defensively? I was sitting across the aisle from him, facing in the same direction, and could see the faces of the people, on the far side of my table, and of his, and one or two further down the coach, who were aware of him. They were all watching him, surreptitiously, and with suspicion.

He too was watching; watching them with equal suspicion and something that looked very much to me like trepidation, fear even. Did he think that among them was one who might suddenly rise up, and cross the aisle and seize the suitcase from him? And what might there be concealed within it that would make him so fearful of that happening? Was it full of jewellery, I wondered, or stolen papers? Was he a spy?

That was a fashionable scenario in those days. The man didn’t look like a spy, or at least not what I imagined a spy would look like. He was too obviously ill at ease, so much so that he could not help but draw attention to himself, I imagined, wherever he went, perhaps even without the suitcase. He looked an inoffensive little man, timid even. There was a sort vulnerable helplessness about him that was somehow irritating, rather than charming. He engendered negative emotions in one, just by his mere presence. I could see, from the faces of the others, that they too, harboured similar antagonistic feelings towards him. He, as the journey progressed, seemed to shrink further in to himself, closer to the window, clutching the suitcase even more tightly.

We had all boarded at Euston. The train was a through to Glasgow, save for a brief stop at Carlisle. There was no getting off, for him, or for us, for at least the next couple of hours. We sat and looked at him, and he sat, and from an averted face, from beneath half lowered eyelids, looked fearfully back.

I wondered if he were some sort of pervert. A transvestite perhaps. There had been the recent case of a Tory MP who had died whilst dressed in women’s clothing and with a plastic bag over his head. The Prime Minister, having to recognise the man’s previous good work for the nation and his constituency, had paid due respects, but made it clear what a sad case he had been, and what a deplorable death he had suffered. I rather thought that probably he had died doing what he loved doing best, which, had it been mountaineering, or ski-ing or some other banal sporting activity, would have been pointed out.

Did our man, I wondered, have his lady-clothes, neatly laundered and folded, within the suitcase? Had he been doing what he loved best, in London, for the weekend, and was he now, drained, exhausted, guilty, going back to the grim, hum-drum existence of his northern life?

Perhaps not. He didn’t look like a man who had been enjoying himself recently. Curiously, it never crossed my mind that he might have been escaping a so-called normal life in the capital, for the joys of a Bohemian release in the far north. We all have our blind-spots.

As our journey progressed his unease deepened, and so, from the faces facing me, did our suspicions. At Carlisle there was a palpable intensity of interest as to whether or not he would get off, but he sat stoically through the stop. Several new passengers, working their way up the coach looking for a place to sit, came towards him, recoiled, and passed on. The seat beside him remained empty, and I thought I caught a momentary flicker of relief upon his face that it did so. When the ticket collector came along, as we rumbled slowly through the desolate marshalling yards to the north of the city, the man opposite me across the Formica-topped table beckoned to him and whispered in his ear. The ticket-collector turned briefly towards the little man, his eyes flicking the polished brown leather of the suitcase. He turned back to the man opposite and more whispers passed between them.

I have no idea of the regulations concerning suitcases and their contents in such instances, but I could see that the ticket-collector was weighing up his options. The woman next to the man opposite leaned forward and added her own whispers, and I thought that I heard the man’s voice saying the words ‘my wife’. The ticket-inspector looked at me, too unexpectedly for me to avert my gaze, so I gave a shrug. Let him interpret that as he will, I thought. Further whispers ensued. Someone further down the train, who must have been in line of sight to the man with the suitcase now also leaned forward and the ticket inspector took a pace towards him. The man with the suitcase seemed to clutch it yet more tightly, seemed to shrink back even further against the window. There was a distinctly fearful look upon his face.

I imagined the case being pulled from his grasp, laid upon the table and flung open, delicate undergarments in translucent pastels spilling onto the table-top. My own bag was safely in the luggage rack, and double locked. I gave the man a sympathetic glance, the first communication that had passed between us in some three hours.

The inspector had now pulled himself up to his full height and was straightening his cap. The military nature of the uniform, vestigial, but still there to the discerning eye, suddenly became apparent as the ticket-inspector marched the three paces towards us. He towered above the little man and gazed down upon him.

The other passengers leaned forward, silent, attentive. The little man loosed his grip on the case with one hand and fumbled in his pocket. He brought out a ticket, which he offered to the inspector. The inspector, tilting his head back slightly as he did so, took the ticket and clipped it insouciantly with his clipper, and handed it back. It seemed to me that for a moment he delayed relinquishing his grip upon the docket, and that both of them were bound together by it for a second. Then the tableau disintegrated, and the little man was tucking the clipped ticket back into his pocket, and the inspector was passing onwards down the train, and the other passengers were relaxing back into their seats.

At Glasgow I detrained and, as always, took a cab. I was bang on time and Rosa met me at her door.

Have you brought your things? she asked, glancing at my overnight bag, you naughty boy!

 

As it happens, this story wasn’t prompted by anything I heard during my years working in the criminal justice system, though I heard ones as daft….

 

A Suitcase

By Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

The boy who sat opposite to me had got on to the train, as had I, at Euston and was going all the way. We sat in silence, as the English are wont to do, and studied each other surreptitiously.

I spent a lot of my time back then, travelling to and from London. I’d taken early retirement in the Thatcher years, which we were generously encouraged to do and then found myself being offered equally generous inducements to go back as a consultant for odd days now and then, to sort out the mess that understaffing had plunged them into.

I could see that the boy had led a troubled life. He was sporting a borstal spot – one of those little blue tattoo dots on the cheek just below the eye that said he had done time in a institution for young offenders. He had the obligatory love and hate tattooed on his knuckles too.

Nothing as bad as a young man I had encountered at a northern Probation Hostel who had spent a painful morning tattooing himself in the bathroom mirror with the initials of his favourite football team. CUFC, right across his forehead in four-inch high capital letters, all except the U back to front.

This boy on the train, I call him boy but he must have been in his mid-twenties, had straightened himself up I guessed. It wasn’t so much the way he dressed, as that I got no sense of those passive-aggressive vibes off him that young offenders give out and to which working in the Probation Service for several years makes you sensitive. Of course, it had been decades since I had worked for the service, but I still had faith in my radar.

It was a long journey and a slow one, despite being a through train, and though we travelled in silence we exchanged the odd glance in rueful recognition of the fact that we would not be arriving at anything like on time. Eventually I felt the call of nature, and even at that age it could not be ignored, which gave me a problem.

I was travelling light, having only been to town for the day, but I was carrying a suitcase with me that I didn’t want to fall in to the wrong hands. In fact, I was not at all sure that I should have been carrying it on the train, or indeed on any form of what you might call public transport.

It was too big to lug down the corridor and manoeuvre into the loo, but I had decided that my companion could be trusted to watch over it for a few moments. It was not as if he could go anywhere with it, and nor could anyone else for that matter. His reaction to my request was astonishing. The suggestion threw him into panic. He thrust out his hands as if I had physically forced the thing on him.

No, no, I couldn’t, he said. This was before the 7/7 attacks, and long after the IRA terror campaign.

Why ever not? I said. I’ll only be gone a couple of minutes. I must have seemed as shocked as he did.

We both sat back and looked at each other, but the ice had been broken. He relaxed again and became apologetic.

I’m sorry, he said. You took me by surprise. I smiled, and waited for the explanation I felt sure would follow. This is the story he told me.

 

He had been a wild one in his teenage years. Mixing with the wrong sort of people; moving in the wrong circles. He had got mixed up in all sorts of petty crime. I nodded encouragingly.

Eventually he had settled down to a modus operandi that particularly suited him. You must remember that in those days there were nowhere near the number of security cameras that we take for granted nowadays.

His speciality was working the escalators at the underground stations. He would hang about at the top, looking for frail old people with heavy luggage. He would offer to help them, and by the time they were a short way down he would have worked out whether or not their bag was worth stealing. If it was, he would leap over onto the rising staircase and make a run for it. Old people, he told me, were more frightened of falling whilst going downwards, the view of the possible fall being open before them, and also, they would find it more difficult to turn around and call after him.

He had it all worked out, and it had worked well for him, until one day he took from an old lady a particularly bulky suitcase which she said was full of antiquarian books.

When he got it outside and opened it, down an alleyway not far from Liverpool Street station, he discovered the severed head and hands of the old lady’s husband. Of course, it was obvious to the police, who arrested him in a state of traumatic hysteria a few minutes later, that he had not been responsible for the capital crime. The incident had shaken him to the core, and indeed, became the turning point of his life.

My simple request had brought the whole thing back to mind and had completely thrown him for a moment. After that we chatted quite amicably for the rest of the journey. He was quite happy to help me out, and I have to say that despite my misgivings, I had to accept. I just hoped that he wasn’t tempted to do anything foolish.

 

I would imagine that one thing bothers you. Why would I be prepared to risk leaving the suitcase with someone who, I had rightly guessed, had a criminal past?

Well, my day in London had been mostly for work, but it had also enabled me to do my sister a favour. She lived in a high rise flat, with no garden, whereas I had a large orchard, and so I had offered to meet her and take away, for burial, her dead dog.