Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Ring

See how it shimmers,
platinum and gold.
Closely entwined,
clinging like ivy
as I will to
bank account

Galvani’s Concept of Electric Current
– An electric current is produced when animal tissue comes into contact with two different metals

Two Christmas Trees for Leo

Leo was very worried about Christmas.
Last Christmas was fun.
Mummy took him into town and they bought a jumper for daddy.
Daddy took him to the garden centre and they bought a bird table for mummy.
Then they bought a big Christmas tree for everyone. They tied the tree on the roof of the car. Daddy drove carefully but the tree wobbled all the way home.
In the garden mummy and daddy fixed the tree on its stand. Leo helped them carry it into the lounge. The branches tickled his nose. When they stood it in the corner it was so tall it tickled the ceiling.
Daddy climbed into the loft for the big box of decorations. He put the box on the carpet for Leo to open. Inside were lots of shiny red baubles and some gold and silver tinsel. Right at the bottom were the fairy lights, all tangled up on their long green wire. Mummy untangled them and daddy wrapped them round the tree.
Leo lifted the shiny baubles out of the box very carefully. He hung them on the bottom branches. Mummy hung some baubles on the branches Leo could not reach. Last of all daddy put a big gold star right on the top branch.
Daddy switched on the fairy lights. Leo clapped his hands. The tree looked very pretty. The baubles spun round and glittered. The lights twinkled like little stars.

But that was last Christmas. This Christmas was different and Leo was very worried.
This Christmas daddy would not help with the tree because daddy did not live with them any more.
Leo did not know why. When he asked if it was because he had bent the wheel on his new bike, daddy said no. When he asked if it was because he had torn his new jumper, mummy said no.
Leo thought of all the other things he had done. Mummy told him not to be a silly boy. She and daddy loved him a lot but they did not want to live in the same house any more.

So this Christmas Leo had two houses. One was the house where he had always lived. The other was the little house round the corner where daddy lived. Leo stayed with daddy one week and with mummy the next.
On Mondays he changed from one house to the other. Mummy and daddy called Monday change-over day. In the morning Leo would go to Jack and Jill nursery with mummy or daddy. After tea the other one would take him to their house. He stayed later on daddy-days because daddy worked longer than mummy.

With two houses to live in Leo wondered how Father Christmas would find him. Christmas Day was a mummy-day. What if Father Christmas left the presents at daddy’s house?
He asked mummy. She said Father Christmas was very clever. He would know where Leo was and leave his presents under their tree.
Leo wondered where daddy’s presents would be. Mummy did not take him to buy a jumper this year. She gave him a box of toffees to wrap up for daddy instead. Leo sat in the lounge in mummy’s house on the blue chair daddy liked best. He cuddled Monkey with its long arms and big stripy Fish and held daddy’s toffees.

The next change-over day he made two Christmas cards at nursery. He drew Christmas trees on both of them. He painted on some glue and sprinkled it with glitter. One card was for mummy and one was for daddy. Some of his friends made two cards as well. Leo was happy he was not the only one. He gave one card to daddy when they went to his house. He put mummy’s card carefully in his bag with Monkey and Fish.

At the little house daddy gave him a pretty plant with fuzzy leaves and purple flowers for him to give mummy.
Leo asked how daddy would get the toffees Leo had wrapped up for him. Daddy said after Christmas lunch mummy would take Leo to the Jack and Jill car park. Then Leo and daddy would come to the little house for mince pies and Christmas cake. Even though it wasn’t a change-over day Leo would stay for the night. Daddy said there would be a big surprise for him. Leo jumped up and down and asked what it was but daddy would not tell him.

On change-over day Leo took the fuzzy plant and mummy’s card to nursery with Monkey and Fish. When mummy came she had a big plant on the front seat of her car. It reached from the floor to the roof and was wrapped up in a net. Mummy said it wasn’t a plant. It was a Christmas tree with its branches all squashed up.
At mummy’s house Leo helped to carry the squashed-up tree into the lounge. They put it in the stand and mummy cut the net. The branches jumped out. Now it looked like a proper tree.
It wasn’t as big as the tree last year. It didn’t reach the ceiling. Mummy said it would look prettier because all the lights and baubles would be cuddled together. Leo asked if daddy had taken any baubles for his house. When mummy said no Leo thought daddy’s house would look sad.

On Christmas Eve Leo hid mummy’s plant under the tree. He put daddy’s toffees in his bag. He cuddled Monkey and Fish in bed and wondered if Father Christmas really was clever. It took a long time for Leo to go to sleep.

On Christmas Day Leo woke up early. He ran downstairs without his slippers.
Mummy was right. Father Christmas was clever. There were lots of presents under the tree.
Inside a big red box was a tractor big enough for Leo to ride on. It had a yellow body with big blue wheels and an orange seat. Leo rode it up and down the lounge while he was still in his pyjamas. Mummy sat on the sofa holding her fuzzy plant and smiling.

After lunch Leo was sad to leave his tractor. Mummy said he would soon see it again. She put him in the car and off they went.
Daddy’s car was the only one in the Jack and Jill car park. Daddy jumped out as soon as they arrived. Leo ran to him and daddy swung him high in the air. Mummy gave daddy the bag with Monkey and Fish and the toffees. They both said Happy Christmas. Leo gave mummy a kiss and a cuddle and she sat in her car as Leo and daddy drove away.

At daddy’s house Leo could see fairy lights in the window. He thought they looked very pretty. Daddy smiled a lot and said that wasn’t the surprise. The surprise was in the lounge.
He opened the front door and Leo ran inside.
What a surprise.
In the corner was a Christmas tree. Not a real one but a pretty silver one with glittering tinsel for branches. It was tall and thin and tickled the ceiling. The lights on it changed colour, blue and green and red and white. Lots of red baubles hung on its branches.
Father Christmas had been very clever again. Underneath the tree were more presents for Leo. Inside a big green box was a digger big enough for him to ride on. It was yellow and orange with a red lever that pulled up the scoop on the front.
Leo put Monkey and Fish in the scoop. He took them for rides to the sofa and back while daddy ate the toffee.

Now Leo was very happy. Mummy had a Christmas tree. Daddy had a Christmas tree. Leo and Monkey and Fish had two Christmas trees.

Leo and Daddy's New House

One Saturday Leo was splashing in his paddling pool in the garden. The big sun was shining happily. Leo was very warm.
He was also very wet. His yellow swimming trunks were wet. His t-shirt with monkey face on it was wet. Even his sun hat was wet. He jumped and splashed. His hat fell off onto his boat and sank it. Leo laughed and splashed some more.

Mummy and daddy were talking in the kitchen. He could see them through the window. Leo thought mummy had a cold again. She was blowing her nose and wiping her eyes. Daddy looked sad that mummy had a cold.

Leo stopped sinking his boat. He ran indoors to give mummy a hug. His feet made wet footprints on the paving. In the kitchen he wrapped his arms round her knees. He made wet marks on her skirt. Daddy went out for a walk. Mummy took Leo into the garden. They splashed a lot in the pool. Mummy’s face was all wet.

After tea mummy and daddy and Leo all sat down on the blue sofa in the lounge. Mummy sat on one side holding Fish. Daddy sat on the other side holding Monkey. They each put an arm around Leo. Daddy said he was not going to stay in their house any more. He was going to live in a nice little house just round the corner. Leo would come and stay with him one week. Then he would come back and stay with mummy for the next week. After that it would be a daddy week again.

Leo didn’t know why daddy was going to the little house. Leo wanted him to stay with him and mummy. Mummy said everyone would be happier if daddy went to the little house. Leo didn’t think he would be happier.

At bedtime Leo cuddled Monkey and Fish. He thought about the little house. Was daddy going there because Leo had bent the wheel on his new bike? He climbed out of bed and called for daddy. Daddy came upstairs and told him it was not because of his bike. Daddy said not to worry.

In the morning there were suitcases in the hall. Daddy put the cases in his silver car. He came back and gave Leo a big hug. He didn’t hug mummy. Daddy drove away. Leo waved but daddy didn’t look back. Leo thought daddy was going to work even though it was Sunday. He thought daddy would forget all about the little house and be home at teatime.

Leo played all morning with mummy. They had spaghetti hoops for lunch. Leo loved spaghetti hoops. In the afternoon it was sunny and they went to the park. Some of his friends from Jumping Jacks nursery were there. Leo climbed up the slide with them. He whizzed down so fast he bumped onto the grass at the bottom. He slid down again and again until it was time to go.

Daddy’s silver car wasn’t there when they got home. Leo couldn’t see it anywhere. He looked out of the window until it was dark. Daddy’s car didn’t come. It didn’t come the next day either. Or the next. Leo was very sad. He missed daddy a lot.

One morning mummy put Monkey and Fish in a new blue bag she had made. She put Leo in her little red car and they went to nursery. Mummy said today was change-over day. After tea daddy would take Leo to the little house to stay. Leo asked if she was coming too. Mummy shook her head and blew her nose. She said she would see Leo in a week. Then she drove away in her little red car.

Leo took Monkey and Fish out of the bag and sat in the corner. When the other children talked to him he cuddled Monkey and Fish tighter. He didn’t come out of his corner for lunch, not even for spaghetti hoops and sausage.

After tea the door opened and daddy came in. Leo dropped Monkey and Fish and ran across the room. Daddy gave him a great big hug that squashed Leo’s tummy. They put all Leo’s things in daddy’s silver car and drove off.

Daddy didn’t drive home. He drove to a street Leo didn’t know. They stopped outside two little houses joined together. Daddy said the one with the green door was his new home. He opened the door and they went inside.

Daddy showed Leo the lounge. It was very small and had one brown sofa and one black chair. Beside the window was a table with two chairs. In the corner was a small television on another little table. Leo thought the lounge was not as nice as their real one. He said the sofa was not so comfy. Daddy said it was only borrowed and not to worry.

Daddy showed Leo the kitchen. It was small too. In their real house mummy put Leo’s paintings on the wall. Daddy said there was lots of space for Leo’s paintings on the door. There was another door in the corner. Daddy opened it and they went into the garden. It was very small. In the middle was a bird table just like the one they had bought mummy for Christmas. Daddy gave Leo some birdseed to put on it.

Daddy said there was a surprise for Leo upstairs. Leo scampered up the twisty stairs in the corner of the lounge. The little room beside the bathroom was Leo’s new bedroom. Inside was a lovely big bed that looked like a car. It had red sides with black tyres painted on them. On the bottom of the bed was a number plate that said LEO 1. Leo loved his new bed. He climbed on it and bounced up and down. Daddy laughed.

Beside the bed was a red chest of drawers. Leo opened the top drawer. Inside were some of his t-shirts and socks. In the next drawer were some of his trousers. On top of the drawers was a picture frame with a monkey on it. In it was a photo of mummy. Daddy said he could kiss mummy goodnight every night. Leo loved the photo. He gave it a kiss.

Leo took the photo downstairs with him. He stood it on the table and sat on one of the chairs. Daddy gave him some new crayons and some paper. Leo drew a picture of his new bed. When it was finished daddy stuck it on the kitchen door. Then they sat on the brown sofa and looked at the birds eating the seeds until bath time.

When Leo was warm and dry in his pyjamas they went into his new bedroom. Leo climbed into his new red bed that looked like a car. Daddy tucked him in with Monkey and Fish. He said the little house was just the right size for them.

Daddy sat on the bed. He told Leo a story about a boy who did lots of lovely things with his daddy. They went to the zoo. They went to the park. They went to the swimming pool. Leo thought it sounded fun.

When daddy had finished the story, he hugged Leo goodnight. Leo gave mummy’s photo a goodnight kiss. He snuggled down with Monkey and Fish. He went to sleep thinking about his bed and the little house where he and daddy were going to be very happy.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Murderin' Circles


Wooton Poges knew its place. It stood four-square behind decent behaviour, gainful employment and thoroughly-boiled vegetables.
The passing centuries had changed its opinions not one jot, a fact which had disheartened foreigners and regicidal belligerents alike. Stray Vikings, for example, arriving on the doorstep for a little pillage and rape had wiped their feet and stayed to tea. Flat-nosed Normans had given up counting and departed, weighted down with half-filled ledgers and total depression. Lancastrians and Yorkists, Cavaliers and Roundheads had all taken one quick look and hurried by leaving Wooton-Poges to mind its business serenely undisturbed.
Until, that is, May Day, 1934 when the vicar had his bright idea. He wanted harmony; he achieved uproar and mayhem instead. From manor to cottage, shop to pub, malice seethed and tempers exploded. Civility was stretched to its limits and collapsed in a heap; sex reared unrestrained into the havoc. Everyone knew it meant trouble. No-one knew it meant murder; lots of murders.

Chapter 1

‘Odious little man!’ The elder Miss Rushton-Ferrers shut the front door with a snap. Her voice carried the length of the hall depositing sharp crystals wherever it passed. ‘I’m sure I don’t know what the vicar was thinking of!’ She slapped her hat and bag onto the narrow table and stalked into the sitting room.
The peace of Emily’s afternoon promptly disintegrated. She looked up from her book and sighed. ‘What’s happened, aunt? You look quite flushed.’
Winifred Rushton-Ferrers strode across the rug. ‘Egbert Lethbridge should not be on the Churchyard Restoration Committee. He’s too opinionated by far. Those trees will have fallen down before he agrees with anything I say.’
She halted. The expression of a constipated camel settled onto her face. ‘What do you mean, flushed? I have never looked flushed in my life! I am not a lavatory.’ She stared down her long nose at the curled figure on the sofa.
Emily uncrossed her legs and sat up quickly. ‘No. Of course not. I just meant you looked a little. . . er, determined.’
‘So I should hope. Someone has to stand up to him. If his wife hasn’t the breeding to keep him in check, I shall do it.’ She looked at the armchair beside the hearth. The chintz cover was smooth and the antimacassar neatly centred on the back. She sniffed and folded her aristocratic height onto the seat. Her joints complained like cracking ice.
‘Perhaps she has her ways,’ Emily said.
‘Really?’ Elderly eyebrows rose. ‘Well, the less you know of such things, the better.’
‘Oh, aunt.’ Emily flipped the book onto the seat. ‘I’m almost twenty-one. It’s not the dark ages.’ Her pointed chin lifted and an element of defiance settled around her pretty mouth. ‘Things have changed since you were a girl.’
Miss Rushton-Ferrers produced a quelling stare. ‘I’m not sure I care to be mentioned in the same breath as the dark ages.’ She allowed her gaze to rest on the upturned novel. ‘And treat books with more care.’
Youth’s small flame of rebellion wavered and sputtered out. The auburn head drooped a fraction. ‘Sorry.’
‘Very well.’ Miss Rushton-Ferrers folded her hands into her lap and inflated her meagre chest. ‘I’m sure I don’t know what the world is coming to.’
An imminent lecture on modern morals hung in the air. Emily felt in urgent need of escape. ‘The world,’ she said, ‘is coming to tea. It’s almost ready, there’s just the kettle to boil.’ She hurried out of the room.
Ten minutes later, she elbowed her way back round the door holding a massive wooden tray by its handles. A silver teapot squatted on ball feet in the centre of a linen cloth. Around it clustered teaspoons, china and cakes. Emily put on a bright smile. ‘Here we are.’
She carried the tray across the room to a table beside the sofa arm. As she eased it down a corner nudged the upholstery. Three drops of tea brimmed from spout to pristine fabric. Emily froze. She glanced up; her aunt was scowling at a smudge on the brass fender. Emily breathed again and settled the tray. A surreptitious finger edged the sugar bowl over the stain. ‘Would you like one of these?’ She held out a plate of iced fancies. ‘Doris made them before she went off this afternoon.’
Miss Rushton-Ferrers’ attention swam from fender to cakes. ‘And that’s another thing, that girl’s leaving early and not putting in her hours.’ She examined the uneven mounds; lurid icing had drained into congealed scallops round their bases. She levered up a green lump between finger and thumb and deposited it onto a proffered tea plate. ‘I shall have to speak to her.’
Emily’s heart sank. Memories of finding anyone to occupy a position in the Rushton-Ferrers household spiralled hideously down her spine and slid into her stomach like cold porridge. There was nothing tempting about doing it again. She sat herself down on the sofa and chose the lesser of two evils. ‘What exactly did Major Lethbridge do?’
Her aunt forgot Doris and her casual approach to timekeeping. ‘Dreadful man! He has some ridiculous notion of buying full-grown trees and transplanting them. Where he thinks we can find the money, I do not know. And I’m not at all interested in what they do in the Middle East.’ She eyed the confectionary with disfavour then bit firmly into it with yellow teeth. ‘Heathens!’
Emily helped herself to a fancy and tried to hang onto the thread of conversation. ‘Heathens?’
‘Apparently some maharaja in India or somewhere had a whole grove of lemon trees moved just to decorate his harem. Pure exaggeration, I’ll be bound.’ Winifred Rushton-Ferrers produced a judgemental stare as Emily lifted a second iced lump. ‘Stop eating all those cakes.’
Emily jumped. The offending item fell from her hand. It executed a neat somersault and landed upside down on the plate. Pink goo adhered to her fingers.
‘Girls didn’t gorge on cake in my day.’ Pearls of wisdom from decades of spinsterhood dripped into the air. ‘It ruins the complexion. Young men don’t like spotty complexions.’
Emily balanced the plate on her skirt and pulled a handkerchief from her waistband. She rubbed at her fingers. Her aunt ploughed on remorselessly.
‘It’s my duty to safeguard your future now your parents are gone. They’d want you properly settled.’ She drew a considering breath. ‘You don’t seem to be making much progress with young Maufant. A solicitor would be quite suitable.’ Her eyes flickered from Emily’s head to her toes. ‘And he’s tall enough for you. You should make more effort.’
The temptation to shrink into her flat shoes was immense. Emily fought it and stood as firmly on her dignity as possible while seated with sticky fingers. Her chin went back up. ‘I don’t want to make an effort with Richard. I’ve known him years and we’re just good friends.’
‘Really? I don’t think he’d agree. He’s much more acceptable than that good-for-nothing Scratby. Always hanging around the village flirting. That would mean Marianne Lethbridge in the family.’ Miss Rushton-Ferrers suppressed a shudder. ‘Not that I believe their story for one moment. If he’s her cousin, I’m a Chinaman. Lethbridge ought to keep an eye on them both. He should have married a woman of his own age, not that creature. And her hair colour can’t be natural.’
‘Aunt, really! You shouldn’t say things like that.’
The camel-nostrils flared. ‘I shall say what I like in my own house. And outside it. I believe in speaking my mind.’
This was the absolute truth. Her aunt’s conviction that everyone wanted to hear what was in her mind had caused Emily countless difficulties. The consequences of slander were too awful to contemplate. She stood up, grabbed the tray and fled to the kitchen.
In the cool, dim refuge she crashed about at the sink, stacking dirty dishes and trying to think of a way out of her predicament that did not involve marriage to anyone, solicitor or wolf. She ate another cake.

‘That damned woman!’ Egbert Lethbridge rattled his newspaper. The gilt-legged table beside his chair wobbled. He barely avoided dashing it, and his whisky glass, to the floor.
His wife was reclining on one of the sofas, well away from the sunlight that poured into the cream and gold drawing room. She stirred with minimal interest. A magazine rippled to the floor displaying pages of slim, elegant females. She watched it fall. One hand smoothed her dress over her rounded midriff; bones in the underlying corset slid under her fingers. She breathed in and re-crossed her ankles. ‘What’s the matter, Bertie?’
The Major frowned. ‘If you’d been there instead of nursing another of your damned headaches, you’d know. And I’ve told you before, I prefer Egbert.’
Marianne Lethbridge forced what had once been an attractively coy smile onto her face. ‘Don’t be such a tease. You know it’s our special name.’
The smile, like the special name, had long since lost its allure. Its appearance caused two scarlet blotches to stain the deep colour of Lethbridge’s jowls. ‘I’m going to have this out with the vicar,’ he said. ‘He doesn’t have a clue. Why he thought that woman would have a spark of an idea in her head, God alone knows. He’s just an old woman himself.’
‘Which woman is that?’
‘The Rushton-Ferrers crone, of course.’
‘Ah.’ Marianne’s attention was spurred. She sat up. It had come to her ears that Winifred Rushton-Ferrers had made certain remarks on her dress sense, her antecedents and her general suitability as a Major’s wife and occupant of Pendleton Hall. Certain unflattering remarks. In Mrs Lethbridge’s opinion, the more trouble Miss Rushton-Ferrers found herself in, the better. ‘What has she done?’
‘Done?’ The Major’s temper ratcheted up another couple of notches. ‘Nothing! That’s just it. If she has her way we’ll end up with six twigs stuck in the ground that wouldn’t raise the interest of a geriatric Yorkshire terrier. We’ll all be dead and buried long before they look anything like decent.’
His fleshy earlobes quivered. He flung down The Times and elevated himself out of the chair with as much velocity as a man of his corpulence could achieve. The whisky trembled in its facetted crystal world. ‘Stupid woman,’ he repeated. ‘I’ll go and see Draycott now. See if I can’t drum some sense into him.’
He tugged his yellow waistcoat decisively over his paunch. As he stomped out of the room, the vent of his tweed jacket parted, revealing a pair of twill-clad buttocks that fought to propel his legs at speed. His oft-repeated mantra “If you want something done properly, do it yourself” faded from the afternoon elegance. Marianne Lethbridge held a handkerchief to her brow, surveyed the ornate ceiling and gritted her teeth.

Up at the vicarage, Freya Draycott looked out of the sitting room window and watched her husband seek solace in his garden. The passage of time had stamped its mark on both his short little person and his refuge from the troubled world. Each was middle-aged and comfortably untidy. The old jacket he wore bagged at the elbows; the lawn undulated over squashed molehills. Wispy hair and divers shrubs were in need of a good trim.
The vicar wandered around clutching a pottery mug to his chest. His cardigan sleeves poked out of his jacket. He stopped to gaze at the hawthorn blossom arching over the gate, and then ambled on through fading daffodil leaves to a bed of haphazardly pruned roses. Adorning the topmost spike was a single early bloom. A lone bee plumped down on the blushing petals and sent a puff of gold pollen skywards.
Freya saw a slight brightening of Leonard Draycott’s eyes. Bees were creatures he admired. She had heard many a sermon on their virtues. Their industry and sense of community were his favourite examples of hard work for the common good. He never dwelt on the fate of drones. Nor the fact that a hive’s diligent efforts were likely to end up on someone’s crumpet for tea.
His wife sighed. It was his nature to concentrate on the bright side of things, to search out the good in everyone and everything. It was difficult at times. His quiet little soul bore the scars of many an encounter with the likes of Miss Rushton-Ferrers and Egbert Lethbridge. In her opinion, Leonard was much too good for this world and would only be truly appreciated in the next.
She stepped out of the French window and made her way across the lawn, followed by an enthusiastic cocker spaniel. She reached her husband. Taller by half a head thanks to her distant Nordic stock, she took his arm and smiled down at him. ‘How did the meeting go?’
The vicar sighed heavily. ‘It was dreadful.’
‘Oh dear.’
‘I’m very much afraid that Miss Rushton-Ferrers and the Major will never agree.’ His whole being drooped. ‘Things were said.’
‘Oh dear,’ Freya repeated.
The vicar sighed and gazed at the rose. His wife sighed and gazed at him. The dog watered a dandelion.
‘What are you going to do?’ she asked.
‘Do? I don’t think there’s anything I can do.’
Freya shouldered the burden with the ease of long practice and great affection. ‘Let’s see if we can sort something out. What exactly were they disagreeing about?’
Leonard Draycott continued to gaze at the flower. ‘The Major wants to buy big trees. Miss Rushton-Ferrers does not.’
‘What do the others else think?’
‘Well Mrs Lethbridge wasn’t there, but she would agree with her husband, of course.’ Freya took a deep breath. ‘Richard Maufant didn’t say much and Colin Scratby appeared to be bored. Perhaps he was feeling under the weather. Poor dear Angela could not get a word in at all, though I think she would like small trees. Then her Brownies could plant them.’
Not much help from the rest of the gathering, Freya thought. If only he had never asked their opinion in the first place. A plan to preserve her husband’s peace of mind began to form in her head. She concentrated with as much determination as the dog was using to unearth something in the hedge. ‘If they don’t speak up at the meetings, why don’t you see them privately? That way none of them will be scared to say what they think.’
Salvation shimmered on the vicar’s horizon. ‘Perhaps that would be a way forward.’ His eyes brightened again. ‘I hadn’t thought of it.’ He beamed at his wife. ‘You’re such a comfort, my dear. When I talk to you things sort themselves out in no time.’
Mrs Draycott glowed. Her satisfaction was brutally curtailed. A picture of fulminating corpulence erupted round the corner of the house. Egbert Lethbridge spotted his quarry.
‘Oh dear.’ The vicar clutched at his mug and inched towards his wife.
‘Now, now,’ she said, eyeing the Major. ‘Just remember what we’ve agreed and there’ll be no trouble.’
She took his arm and urged him forwards. The russet spaniel careered across the grass to the newcomer, ears akimbo. The Major was no lover of dogs. He growled at the animal. It turned and ran smartly back to Freya who patted its head and favoured her guest with a brilliant smile.
‘Major Lethbridge, how nice to see you.’
‘Mrs Draycott.’ The Major gave a small nod and turned at once to his prey. ‘Now see here, vicar - ’
He got no further. Freya, despite being too close to forty for comfort, was still handsome enough to turn a head or two. Her eyes deepened to fjord-blue when she was angry. She hid the cause and made good use of them. And the blonde hair Miss Rushton-Ferrers could not fault. The Major found his arm captured. The effect of eyes, smile and a squeeze on his sleeve was electric. He started as if a madonna had propositioned him. His mouth flapped like a priest’s caught in his undergarments with his cassock nowhere to hand.
While he was blustering, Freya propelled him inside. ‘I hear you have an exciting plan to use really large trees for the church.’
‘Uh? Oh, well, yes.’ The Major blinked.
‘You must tell me all about it. Leonard, of course, already knows.’ She turned to her husband. ‘Dearest, would you ask Gladys for tea while the Major tells me his marvellous scheme?’
The vicar, still clutching his mug for defence, left the room in acquiescent confusion. The Major, no less bemused, was led to the sofa. He found himself improvising a scheme he did not possess for the benefit of a very attentive audience indeed.
When Leonard Draycott returned his wife was perched on the faded cushions listening intently to Major Lethbridge.
‘I think it’s a perfectly splendid idea!’ She ignored her husband, awe-struck by her desertion in face of the enemy. ‘I’m sure the trees will look magnificent. How much are trees of that size?’
The Major, caught in an impasse, harrumphed and shifted about.
‘And where can one buy them?’ Freya gazed at him. ‘I do so admire a man who can see things through. Who’s thought of all the problems that would completely flummox a silly creature like me? And solved them.’ She waited breathlessly.
The Major struggled in vain for a way to avoid producing fully-grown trees from thin air, cheaply. ‘Well, of course, it’s only a suggestion at the moment. Although I thought it was rather a good one myself.’ A frown threatened. ‘There were some…’
The vicar’s earthly saviour headed him off. ‘We must find a photo. Of the old trees. Then you can show us just how high the new ones will be. It’ll be easier for those who don’t have your vision to see exactly how it will look.’
An image of himself as a man of vision so seized the Major he failed to realise anyone interested could still see the present trees in situ, rotting or not. ‘I expect there’s one in the church records somewhere,’ he said.
‘Oh, there’s sure to be, isn’t there Leonard?’ Freya felt able to include the vicar, now he was only required to make a statement of fact and not venture into the cut and thrust of the minor war she had just won.
‘I expect so,’ he replied innocently. ‘The verger does like to keep them in order.’
Freya turned back to her guest. ‘I’m sure Walter would be only too happy to help you look.’
Major Lethbridge suffered a shock. An active role was not his style. He gave the orders, others did the work. He pushed himself to his feet. ‘I’m sure that’s more in your line, Draycott. Your capable hands, eh?’
Small eyes gleaming with relief, he headed for the door but escape was not to be. Gladys Jones confronted him at the threshold. He pulled up short before her Amazonian physique. She looked down at his flushed face and favoured him with an unyielding stare. Years ago, officers of his ilk had sent her nineteen-year-old fiancé to a meadow in northern France. He was still there, underneath it. She planted her solid frame in the doorway.
‘Ah, Gladys,’ Freya said. ‘Tea. You will take a cup, won’t you Major?’
She smiled but the Major did not answer. He was circumnavigating the immobile Gladys. Inching through the doorway and taking particular care not to touch any part of her person, he deserted the field.

This Septic Isle

Chapter 1

Richard Granger plunged down the steps two at a time. Collar up, head down, fists rammed into the pockets of his navy overcoat, he crossed the pavement and stepped into the slushy road without a sideways glance.
A shorter man hurried after him with more care and less rage. Safety fought with concern. Concern won and he caught hold of the other’s rigid arm halfway across.
Granger’s dark head swung round and he stopped mid-stride. Behind him, a taxi struggling uphill to circumnavigate City Hall though the weather and lunchtime exodus stood on its brakes. It aquaplaned gracefully into the gutter. Inside the warm, glazed cabin, the driver shook his fist and freely expressed his opinion. Not a syllable escaped. The parody of a muted television soap was so ludicrous that at any other time Granger would have dissolved into mirth. But not today.
‘The bastard’, he said. ‘The lying, conniving bastard.’
‘Richard, for God’s sake,’ the shorter man said. ‘Don’t let it get to you. You know it’ll take years before anything happens.’
‘No it won’t.’ Granger allowed himself to be pulled to safety. ‘This is hot political stuff. Our master has spoken; so be it!’
They reached the pavement, minus the taxi driver’s charity, and walked down the steps to the promenade that overlooked the market. Below them, the striped awnings sloped down in corrugated ridges of red, white and green to the Christmas lights in the shops on Gentleman’s Walk. Steam filtered up from a group of stalls, wafting the gross smell of hot dogs into the air.
Richard stopped by one ornate lamppost. His shoulders slouched. He looked down and pushed at the slush-covered ground with the side of one foot. For a few moments there was silence, then he looked up.
‘I’m not having it, Michael. That’s no place to dump a load of immigrants, illegal or not. They’ve left the bloody deserts to come here. What’s the point of stuffing them in an old aerodrome in the middle of Norfolk? The wind comes straight down from the Artic for God‘s sake. They’ll freeze their bloody bollocks off in a week.’
‘I know that. We all know that.’ Michael Dunston shrugged. ‘It’s a stupid idea.’
‘I wouldn’t put my pigs in those decrepit old buildings, let alone a human. And they won’t keep them in unless they stick up a ten-foot fence. It’ll be a bloody concentration camp in the middle of the fields. Excellent bloody strategy.’
Michael shrugged again. ‘There’s not a lot you can do about it.’
Richard set off down the market steps. ‘I’ll think of something. I’m not having that lying bastard announce one thing then finesse it into something different.’

A hundred and ten miles further south, the lying bastard picked his way delicately across paving from which every trace of snow had been swept and stepped into the waiting car. He folded his lips but the smile leaked out of his eyes. ‘That went well,’ he said to the graceful young man climbing in beside him.
‘Excellently, Prime Minister. There’s no way the Opposition can counter that idea.’
The day’s assigned detective pushed the door gently shut and took his seat beside the driver. The Right Honourable Julian Palter, MP, PC, LSE, Matlock Comprehensive and bar, extended the seat belt to its maximum and clicked it into place.
‘Left them floundering,’ he said. ‘Floundering.’ His chin came up and the corners of his mouth lifted.
The younger man in the discreet suit fielded his cue neatly. ‘It certainly did. Now they can’t challenge us on not locking up illegals. Nor can they challenge us on giving them council housing either. And renovating that base will push up the local employment figures too. It’s a perfect win-win for you all round.’
Palter’s smile freed itself and escaped across his thin jowls. He settled his shoulders against the cream leather. Up front, the driver let in the clutch and slid out of the Palace of Westminster in the wake of two outriders with impressive-looking motorbikes slung between their legs. They took the corner of the square at speed, flashing past police in luminous jackets who were holding back the traffic across the bridge and beside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The car flexed on its suspension and crossed into Parliament Street. Palter looked out of the window. A bigger smile, entirely without charity, creased his face. Better in here than waiting like a pleb on a cold winter’s day.
The gates at Downing Street swayed open before him, towering over the car. They were not as imposing as the ones at Buck House, true, but here was where the real power lay, not amongst the gilding and pomp at the end of the Mall. Palter smiled again. Much good all that excess did the king. He was hardly ever there these days. More likely to be gibbering in Windsor Castle, or out at Sandringham, with the fiercely-protective queen bee hovering round him and forbidding all mention of Alzheimer’s.
The car door opened. Palter watched his hand unfasten the seatbelt. There was the power. In that hand. For a second he gripped the buckle hard. Nobody was going to take it from him. None of it. Not the Opposition with their flaccid leader, nor Steven Vincent, panting and hungry in the wings. Nor Vincent’s allies, seeking support in corridors and tearooms, or on the Member’s Terrace by the murky waters of the Thames. Palter smiled. The corridors of impotence. Vincent would have to carry on gritting his teeth and doing as he was told; waiting his time as Palter had done. And his time was not here yet, not by a long way. The Prime Minister climbed out of the car, nodded to the cluster of duty-men and went through the opened door to his longhaired, long-limbed, long-witted wife.

Margaret Chesterton crossed the ten yards everyone else was leaving clear around Steven Vincent and came to a stand beside him. She looked down at the icy Thames. Waves of interest from the surrounding MPs eddied up to her fine-boned ankles and crept up her flanks and spine to her sleekly-styled hair. She balanced on the cold stone in her killer heels and kept her back to the antennae oscillating on the head of every other person on the Terrace.
‘Well?’ she asked.
‘Not very,’ Vincent replied. ‘But keep it to yourself.’
‘You should have done what I suggested.’ She slid one hand under her jacket and hugged it to her side. Her fingertips struck chill through the pink cashmere. ‘If you persist in leaving him an opening, he’ll find a way to dump on you.’
‘Thank you. That’s very helpful.’
‘But right, just the same.’
They stood in silence and watched a boat of river police chop unevenly past. The wind was testing its muscles.
‘I’m going inside,’ she said. ‘Are you coming or do you need some more cold air before you can wring out a smile?’
Vincent looked round at her. The fury slid off his jaw; she was quite an eyeful. Tall as he in those ridiculous heels she always wore. She made the most of her thirty-six years and defied anyone to patronise her. On anyone else, mid-brown hair would be a statement of failure; on her, it was a mark of moderation, a defining element of her calm and ordered approach to the relentless progression of Steven Vincent to the ultimate position.
‘Come to bed,’ he said.
She shook her head.
‘This is no time for self-indulgence. We’ve got to find a way round this issue.’
He gave a brief snort. ‘If ever I lose my grip, you’ll know how to recharge it.’ He looked at her. ‘I wouldn’t want you for an enemy.’ A small smile crinkled his eyes. ‘Nor a wife. We’re too alike. What I want and what you want coincide for the time being. When it doesn’t, one of us had better watch out.’
The briefest hint of humour crossed her face. ‘There have never been any illusions between us. In or out of bed.’
‘Come inside,’ he said. ‘It’s bloody cold out here.’
They set off towards the warmth, step for step. At the threshold, a couple of reforming smokers were failing to keep up their resolve. As Vincent and Margaret approached, the fattest one said ‘Interesting few minutes, I thought.’
Vincent smiled. ‘Indeed it was. I thought the PM pulled the rug from under Lacey’s feet very effectively.’
The pair laughed more than was necessary.
Vincent smiled some more and followed Margaret inside. As soon as they were out of earshot, he muttered ‘What a pillock. How he ever managed to make it to Junior Minister, I’ll never know. Even allowing for his wife’s buddy-buddy act with Palter’s missus.’
‘Old alliances bring old debts.’ Margaret shrugged her shoulders. ‘At least he can’t do much harm. Not in Culture. Not that he has much to offer anyway.’
They walked on to his office, discussing nothing of any importance but unwilling to be seen in a silence which would occasion more gossip.
Vincent opened the door. Inside, a middle-aged woman, short and plump and sharp-eyed was standing by a cabinet easing files into an open drawer. Her sandy hair fell forward. She freed a hand and curved one side of it behind her ear.
‘Take ten minutes, Audrey, if you wouldn’t mind.’
She smiled. ‘Of course not, Steven. I’ll nip along and see if Gillian’s managed to sort out the Christmas lunch yet.’
She put the remaining files on top of the cabinet and left the room, closing the door behind her. Vincent took off his jacket and slung it round his chair. He sat down. A frown replaced the public smile.
‘Right. Well, there’s no way I can profit from this latest move on asylum seekers. I’ll just have to work on the next step.’
Margaret walked over to the window. ‘He’s weak on pre-school stuff. Handing out largess where it’s not needed. There’s room for us there.’
‘Dodgy ground. Start messing with the young and innocent and we’ll have every old-fashioned liberal of every description lining up to take pot shots at us. Anyway it’s too obvious.’
A delicately coloured eyebrow rose.
Vincent spread his hands. ‘Well it is.’ He sucked at a tooth. ‘There’s room for manoeuvre in the grey vote.’
‘True, but which way? They’re a large group and growing larger. Threaten their standard of living and you’ll alienate the very people who actually turn out to vote.’
‘But they know their kids aren’t going to have it so good,’ he said. ‘We could appeal to their parental instincts.’
‘Too many of their kids have already appealed to their instincts. For housing deposits or university fees. They’re being put on too much. Take any more and various camel-haired backs are going to break.’
‘All right then, we don’t bleed them, we promise them something. Conform to their ideas. Play on their nostalgia.’
‘Now you’re back to Victorian values and all that rubbish.’
‘Find a new angle then,’ he told her. ‘Something different that will pull them in. What gets them all united?’
‘Cutting taxes. That unites everyone.’
‘That’s like stopping immigration. Or re-opening village post offices. You name it, it’s been done. Someone somewhere has painted it on a banner and hoisted it up the barricade.’
Margaret moved from the window and perched on the corner of the desk, looking down at him. ‘We’ll have to sleep on it.’
Vincent raised his eyes. He lifted his hand slowly and placed it on the designer skirt. His fingers slid along her thigh.
She shifted her knees slightly. Her lids and mouth drooped.
‘Later,’ he said.

Monday, August 6, 2007


Pink snow swirling down
Drifts dying in the gutters
Wind-wrecked cherry trees


Embroidered words once
clothed my dreams but now they lie
marred beneath your feet

(with apologies to Yeats)