Sunday, 30 September 2012

The Clearing


I speak from experience when I say that last year's self-catering holiday home was above average and rather unusual. Shortly after our arrival, I remember standing at one of the quaint little upstairs windows, watching Karl heave our bags from the car. As he carried the bags inside, I transferred my gaze to a lovely old deciduous wood which completely surrounded us. The house was a large, square building on a quiet part of the south coast. It sat in the centre of this wooded clearing at the end of a long, single-track road, well out of sight of our nearest neighbours.
Karl clumped into the bedroom, dropped a bag from each hand and flopped onto the bed.
‘That's me done. I hump them, you unpack them. That’s the deal.’
‘I'll unpack mine,’ I said sweetly. ‘Then I'll make a cup of coffee. I'll unpack yours when we get home, when my holiday is over. That’s the real deal.’
Karl closed his eyes and grunted, so I wandered off downstairs to make further explorations of the house and garden. The house was clean and well furnished, not so functional and second-hand as some self-catering places we've been to. I was pretty sure the owners used it as a second home, but the garden was what I liked best.
To be honest, it could be described as a minimum maintenance garden eschewing neatness in favour of a natural look. So it would be rather shaggy to some eyes, but just right for the house, with its surrounding sweep of mature woodland. It fitted my townie notions of a country garden more closely than anything else I'd ever seen. It had massive rhododendrons, gnarled old apple trees and straggling lilacs, while honeysuckle twined its way round red brickwork.
Instead of a house in a clearing, it blended into the woodland via that garden, with no formal dividing lines between one and the other. It was not even possible to tell if the effect was deliberately contrived or the happy result of semi-neglect.
‘Badgers.’
Karl's voice startled me out of my reverie. I turned round to see him holding a book in his left hand while stabbing a king-sized digit at the open pages.
‘What?’
‘Badgers. It says in the visitor’s book that badgers come into the garden at dusk and eat anything you care to put down for them.’
I took the book from his hands, reading for myself the comments of previous holiday-makers. They all mentioned the badgers and their feeding habits, which seemed to be charmingly indiscriminate. According to the visitor’s book, badgers were omnivorous creatures who would eat almost anything, including breakfast cereal, dog food and toast and jam. While I read about the badgers, Karl's interest faded away and he wandered off towards the woods. I went back into the house to brew up some coffee and freshen up after the journey.
I remember lying in bed on our first night, savouring the silence surrounding our house. City folk rarely know real silence or real darkness. There is always the rumble of a passing vehicle on the nearest road or someone slamming a car door and the sky is never quite free from the orange glow of street-lights. To me, silence is like a singing in the ears, as if one’s hearing becomes hyperactive with nothing to do, with no background noise to be screened out. Modern ears, when they encounter true silence are rather like deprived workaholics. With nothing to do, they fidget and invent sounds of their own to try and screen out the silence.
On impulse, I eased myself out of bed away from Karl's slumbering bulk. I parted the curtains to absorb some inner peace from the surrounding woods, but saw little beyond the glass of the window. There was no moon and even if there had been, the trees were high enough to shut out what little light there was. I climbed back into bed, snuggled up to Karl’s broad back and fell into a deep sleep full of oddly disconnected dreaming.
Morning finally found its way through our outer palisade of trees as a shaft of sunlight triumphantly bore down on us through window and dust motes, sending Karl and I downstairs in search of coffee and croissants to be eaten in the garden.
‘I need a few bits from the shops, shampoo and suchlike,’ I told Karl as I brushed the last few flakes of pastry from my fingers.
‘Okay.’ He sat slumped in a slightly dusty wicker chair, sipping noisily at his coffee in his usual, non-committal fashion. ‘I'll go for a walk - see if there are any decent beaches round here and then meet you for lunch,’ he added after another slurp of coffee.
 It was too late in the year for spending much time on the beach, but the weather was still sunny and warm, almost an Indian summer. The road, or rather track, petered out when it reached our house, narrowing into a footpath through the woods, signposted to the nearby village of Deeming. I left Karl to clear up after breakfast, grabbed a bag and my purse and followed the path into the trees.
The woods grew right to the edge of fragile cliffs overlooking a narrow strip of beach and as the path meandered its way in the direction of the cliff edge, I was able to catch glimpses of the sea through the trees. About half way through the wood, the path brushed by a small clearing which went right to the cliff edge. There was a wooden slatted bench set facing out seawards.
The walk to the village turned out to be no more than thirty minutes. I'd collected my shopping and set off back by a quarter to ten. I shouldered my bag, promising myself a couple of hours of relaxation in the garden while Karl was out on his beach-searching ramble. Anyway, I'd detected the onset of one of his surly moods at breakfast and had no desire to spend the entire day in his company.
By the time I reached the clearing near the cliff edge, the bench had been taken over by an elderly couple. The man was in the act of pouring tea or coffee from a Thermos flask, while the woman rummaged around in what I took to be a picnic bag.
‘Good morning,’ I called out, waving and smiling, feeling distinctly sociable for a change.
The man returned a slight smile and a nod, lifting the flask in a kind of picnicker's greeting, while the woman looked up briefly from her bag, flashed a bright little smile then busied herself again like a small bird.
‘Pleasant spot.’
The man's voice came from behind me as I strode off. A thin, reedy voice - rather distant. I glanced back but they were both busy with their picnic.
'What a nice idea - they must be having their elevenses or even an early lunch,' I remember thinking as I re-entered the trees.
Karl failed to turn up at lunch time, so I read for a while in the garden before falling asleep amid all that lovely quiet. Karl finally turned up by early evening, claiming to have walked at least a dozen miles along the coastal path. He’d caught the bus back.
We watched the sun drop below the trees over a couple of bottles of wine, then put Cornflakes and some rather disgusting tinned meat stuff on the back lawn. Presumably the tinned meat had been left by previous occupants but was still okay for badgers. Karl was hoping to photograph the badgers. He set up his camera and tripod in the conservatory, which was to be our observation post. He fancied his talents as a wildlife photographer, but never quite made enough effort to get some really good pictures.
We watched as the light faded. Soon a couple of black and white snouts appeared in the undergrowth at the lawn edge. Karl was enthralled as the badgers gobbled up meat first then cornflakes, snuffling around the lawn, not missing a crumb. I don't think he could have seen badgers before because he seemed really surprised when they turned up, as if he'd bracketed them with mythical creatures from childhood. All in all, it was a good day, the best for a long time.
The next day was bright and sunny too. We drifted off in the car to a beach about twenty minutes drive away where we actually sunbathed for hours. We drove back in the early afternoon, affected by that dry, gritty lassitude which sun, beach and idleness can produce. It must have been about a quarter to three when I asked Karl to drop me off in Deeming so that I could collect a couple of bottles of wine for the evening.
‘You go on in the car, I’ll walk back through the woods,’ I said when Karl seemed ready to come with me to the shop. I also picked up a bottle of Rioja, intending to treat myself on the bench overlooking the sea. Karl would be sure to disapprove of me drinking wine from the bottle, and on a bench to boot! He’d say it was unladylike but I didn't care.
In the event, I didn't get the chance to be unladylike, because the same elderly couple occupied the bench in the clearing. I wasn't quite up to sitting in on their picnic with my collection of bottles.
‘Good afternoon,’ I called out, trying to suppress both my annoyance and a too-obvious clinking of bottles.
The man gave his faint smile and nod, lifting up his flask as before. His wife was rummaging in the picnic bag again. She flashed me her smile, the afternoon sun glinting on her spectacles, hiding her eyes.
‘Pleasant spot.’
The man's voice was addressed to my disappearing rear, but I didn't look back this time. I remember striding on through that wood, counting points of similarity between my two meetings with the elderly picnickers. I recall my puzzlement too, when I realized that I knew of no points of dissimilarity, save the time of day.
Days slipped by as they do on holiday. We fed the badgers, went to beaches, drank wine and Karl even became quite jolly. We both agreed the holiday was turning out to be something of a success. It was on Thursday though, that the weather first showed signs of breaking. Small, high clouds floated across the sun, sending shadows racing up the beach, while the pure, azure dome of the sky was gone, filmed over with haze like the finest gossamer veil. It was one of those transient September weeks between late summer and the cool, misty mornings of early autumn. Although it was early evening, the light was beginning to fade rapidly and the warmth of the day soon faded to an autumnal chill.
Karl dropped me off in Deeming on our way back from sightseeing because I wanted to walk back by myself and a woodland stroll seemed a peaceful way to end the day. I faced the setting sun as I walked, so when I first reached the clearing, I couldn't see that the bench was occupied yet again. I suppose I was quite startled, because I stopped walking, shading my eyes to be absolutely sure that it was the same elderly couple. It was, so I carried on walking. Polite as ever, I called out my good evening as I passed.
The figure of the man was a dark shadow outlined against the red arc of the sun still sinking below the horizon, but I saw his pale, bony old hand round his up-raised Thermos. I felt a creepy, prickling sensation at the back of my neck as my eyes switched to the old woman and her interminable groping in that damned bag. She acknowledged my presence by looking up as usual, her glasses catching the livid red light of the sun, her face not properly visible, lost in sharp black shadows.
I walked on, quickly entering the trees, trying not to run but imagining their old eyes boring into my back.
‘Pleasant spot.’
I’m afraid that at that point I just broke out into a run. I ran through the woods until I reached the house and I didn't stop running until I burst into the kitchen where dear, homely Karl was pottering about making coffee. I stood at the door panting, getting more than my breath back. He looked up, quizzical – concerned even.
‘What's the matter?’
‘An unnerving experience.’ I managed a shrug and sat down, still out of breath.
‘Tell me,’ he said calmly, arresting my hand as I reached automatically for my bottle of Rioja.
‘You won't believe it.’
‘Try me.’
‘It's too bloody weird.’
‘As I said, try me.’ Karl uncorked the bottle of Rioja and poured me a drink, a small one, pushing it across the table. Well, I told him as best I could, emphasizing again and again the exact correlation between all three meetings. I explained how improbable it was, the weirdness of it and how he as a man of science must see that. He didn't though, not at first.
‘It’s just a coincidence,’ he said easily.
‘Well it’s a bloody odd coincidence if you ask me.’ I swallowed the wine in a single gulp. Karl frowned as always.
A couple of bottles of Sancerre took us through the remainder of the evening. I knew Karl didn’t see the weirdness of those elderly picnickers. By the time midnight had come and gone and under the mellowing influence of good wine, I was beginning to see it as a coincidence too. Unfortunately, about half an hour after midnight, I realised I had to be sure Karl really understood. Another phase in my alcohol intake I suppose. I had to explain the weirdness in a way even he’d understand. After a bit of searching, I came up with a pen and a piece of paper and slapped them down on the small table between us.
‘Right mister scientist, I'm going to make a list.’
‘A list? Okay – let’s make a list.’ Karl smiled one of his rare, broad smiles as he sat back in his chair.
‘Yes – I’m going to list every point of similarity between each of those three meetings.’ Karl watched as I wrote my list, the length of which even surprised me. Once finished. I handed it over.
‘People are creatures of habit,’ he said as he took my piece of paper in his big hand.
‘Maybe they are, but read that then talk to me about the laws of probability, about three chance meetings on three separate days at three widely differing times of day.’
‘Yes, yes,’ he said, tracing his way down my list with a finger like a banana.
‘When you've finished,’ I added, risking his disapproval by pouring a final glass of wine. ‘When you've finished I'll tell you about instinct and sensitivity and atmosphere and weirdness.’
He finished reading and handed the paper back. ‘What was the time of day for each of these meetings?’
‘Ten in the morning, three in the afternoon and eight this evening.’
‘So five hours between each one.’
‘I suppose so, yes.’ Actually I hadn’t noticed that.
‘Well,’ he said, glancing at his watch, ‘it's now twenty minutes to one. At one o'clock it'll be five hours since your last meeting. Let's go and check it out.’
‘But it'll be one o'clock in the morning.’
‘Exactly, if they aren't there, the chain of coincidence is broken.’
Karl fetched a torch from the car while I picked up the bottle and glasses. If that bench was empty, then I intended to celebrate a kind of exorcism. Outside, it had become quite breezy, with huge, stone-grey clouds illuminated briefly as they skimmed rapidly across a curl of moon. Karl shone the torch on the footpath sign, making the entrance to the woods seem like a disused railway tunnel, a dead black arch set in the trees. I suddenly changed my mind about the wine and left bottle and glasses at the base of the signpost. I seized Karl's arm in a firm grip as we set off.
There is no natural contrast quite so vivid as that between a woodland by day and in the dead of night. A wood is a living, breathing thing, serenely beautiful and friendly by day, aloof and alien by night. Night is a time set aside for creatures of the dark, creatures that touch and smell their way around. It is not a time for blundering, sight-limited humans. High wind-voices whispered through unseen branches as we cautiously followed our pool of torchlight. I had no real notion of progress until quite suddenly, a patch of grey appeared in the blackness ahead.
‘Wait, stop.’ I tugged Karl's arm.
‘What is it? Are we there?’
‘Maybe - switch off the torch.’
Karl switched off the torch. As we strained our eyes towards the patch of grey, it resolved itself into the clearing with a dark, indistinct smudge for the bench. The light was too poor to see anything more at that distance, so we edged closer without the benefit of torchlight. Just at that moment, we heard the first spatters of rain which very soon began to find its way through the canopy of leaves overhead. We stood together for a few moments while a livid flash of lightening forked across sky and the first boom of thunder rolled over our heads. The rain became a steady, hammering downpour, hiding what little we could see of the bench and slicing through the leaves above our heads as if they weren’t there.
‘This is becoming too ridiculous,’ Karl said.
‘We haven't checked the bench out yet.’
‘It's one o'clock in the morning and we’ve managed to walk into a bloody great storm. Just look at it,’ he answered, holding an arm out to the rain-curtained clearing.
‘We're wet already; a spot more can’t do any harm.’
‘A spot? You call this a spot of rain?’
‘Please Karl - let's break the chain of coincidence. I need to break it.’
‘Make it a quick break then.’ He sighed and switched on the torch.
‘No, not yet.’ I held back, uncertain, hoping perhaps that the rain would ease off enough to see the bench from where we were.
Karl knew I couldn't bring myself to cross that clearing and also knew I wouldn't go back to the house without a sight of the bench. Anyway, what are big, strong men for, if not to be of use on these occasions? He sighed - again.
‘Right, you stay here. I'll be back in ten seconds and you'll have to take my word for it if the damned bench is empty.’
He stepped into the rain and for a few seconds I could see the torch beam dancing in time with his stride. Suddenly I seemed to feel the earth groan beneath my feet, as if a slumbering giant had awoken deep beneath the woods. An inorganic stirring, massively indifferent to fragile organic life. At the same moment, I heard a kind of slithering, muted roar and part of the darkness in front of me sank away, replacing blackness by a grey view of the sea.
I'm not sure what I did next. I have an image in my mind of new, grassy edged cliff, glistening with wet, red clay like an open wound. I remember screaming Karl's name into the wind and rain, but I don't remember running back through the woods or using the telephone, although I suppose I must have done.

I must have phoned for help, else how could I have ended up in this room with Nurse Muir to look after me and Doctor Carlisle to visit me every day? They asked me a lot of questions at first, about how Karl came to fall down the cliff and what we'd been doing there so close to the edge. Many questions with people taking notes all the time.
They tell me that there has been no clearing and no bench by that path through the woods for twenty years, ever since a landslip took a bite out of the cliff, killing an elderly couple out for a picnic. At first, they even said I’d pushed Karl over the cliff and talked about a trial. I think Doctor Carlisle sorted that one out, because they stopped saying those things – it was too absurd.
Actually, I’ve noticed that Nurse Muir says the same things to me each morning - exactly the same. It’s too weird. I've started to make a list of the things she says and what she does. When I’m sure of myself I’ll show the list to Doctor Carlisle.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Lance and Boyle


‘I blame you for this Boyle.’ Lance stroked his chin with long bony fingers while glancing up and down the street.
‘Me? Why do you always have to blame other people for every little problem?’ Boyle shuffled his feet, trying hard to blend into the brick wall at his back.
‘I don't blame other people, I blame you.’ Lance wrinkled his long nose at a faint sewage smell in the sun-warmed air. Sewage in a city? A fly buzzed and he heard the faint sound of singing, but otherwise all was quiet.
‘It's always me though. The tiniest hitch and you blame good old Boyle, your best buddy for fifty years. Anyway, this could be the right time.’
Lance still peered up and down the quiet cobbled street, studied a narrow row of shops and houses with small-paned windows. The two men, both in their mid-sixties, stood with their backs to a high brick wall. Boyle, the shorter of the two, scratched at the grey stubble on his large head. Lance still stroked his chin.
‘We are supposed to be in the twentieth century collecting material for our act and this looks nothing like the twentieth century to me,’ Lance said eventually. Their time machine was on the other side of the wall in a mass of nettles and brambles. Lance wasn't looking forward to scrambling back over the wall. Neither of them was of an age to be climbing over walls.
‘This bit of the twentieth century could be really backward.’ Boyle shrugged.
‘Any fool can tell we are nowhere near the twentieth century,’ Lance hissed impatiently. Boyle had always been the optimist, even when they were kids. He was the optimistic half of their comedy duo too, but even professional optimism could pall after fifty years.
‘I don't see how you can tell - there isn't much to see.’ Boyle gave his head another puzzled scratch as if digging for ideas.
‘I actually read a few history books before you dropped our time machine into that jungle over the wall.’
‘So what time do you think it is then professor?’
Lance smiled in spite of himself. What time is it professor had been one of their catch-phrases. Lance and Boyle the great comic double-act. They might not get the laughs now, but folk still remembered that one phrase...
‘Something's coming.’ Boyle nudged Lance in the ribs, jolting him out of his reverie.
Lance followed Boyle's pointing finger, saw a two-wheeled chaise pulled by a single horse trundling down the cobbled road. It was occupied by a man and woman in unmistakable eighteenth century dress. The carriage occupants stared briefly before they rattled past.
‘That proves we aren't in the nineteen sixties.’ Lance watched the carriage disappear down the road in a faint haze of dust.
‘If you say so professor, you're the one who's read the books.’
‘You don't have much feel for the past do you Boyle? I happen to know a carriage like that can't belong in the nineteen sixties, because everybody travelled by Mini in the nineteen sixties.’
‘Mini?’ Boyle suddenly looked worried. ‘You said a Mini was a type of skirt - you promised me I'd see loads of mini-skirts and we've been here half an hour.’
‘No Boyle, there were two types of Mini in the nineteen sixties.’
‘Two?’
‘As well as mini-skirts there were Minis you travelled around in, a vehicle powered by something called Esso.’
‘Esso? Was that the same as coal?’
Lance stroked his long chin, trying to remember some hard facts about the funny little vehicles he'd seen in his books and the museum, something to remind Boyle who the smart one was.
‘Everyone knows Esso wasn't quite the same as coal,’ Lance said. ‘Anyway - these Minis were painted in bright colours and everybody drove round in them saying far out man. You must have seen them in museums.’
‘I don't waste my time in museums.’ Boyle sniffed. ‘So what did far out man mean? Was it a catch phrase like what time is it professor?’
‘Not exactly. In the nineteen sixties it was polite to say far out man to everyone you met. Or you might say peace. I would lean out of my Mini and say to you – hey Boyle - peace.’
‘Piece of what?’
‘Not piece with an 'i' Boyle. Peace as in not committing violence on the so-called friend and partner who got you into this mess in the first place. People in the nineteen sixties just said peace as a friendly greeting.’
‘These guys with wigs aren't saying peace or far out man. They aren't driving around in Minis either, unless Minis were pulled by horses instead of Esso.’
‘They aren't driving around in Minis, because as I've told you a zillion times, this is the wrong time. We've dropped into the wrong century and it's your fault. Where did you get that TimeFinder map?’
‘Hey - now there was nothing wrong with my TimeFinder map - I'm not taking the blame there.’ Boyle folded his arms and glared at a pigeon in the road. It flew off.
Lance grinned and nodded politely to a gentleman passing by on the other side of the street. Backing his historical hunch about their predicament, he resisted the desire to shout peace man- far out. The gentleman over the road wore a sumptuous bottle-green frock coat, powdered wig, cream coloured breeches and black silk stockings. Lance wondered how conspicuous he and Boyle were in their flared blue jeans and Afghan coats.
Lance transferred his gaze to Boyle and realised his friend was wearing mirrored sunglasses. He snatched the sunglasses off Boyle's nose, dropping them in his pocket.
‘Ow - why did you do that?’ Boyle rubbed his nose, blinking in the sudden rush of undiluted sunlight.
‘Nobody wore sunglasses the eighteenth century you nutjob.’
‘The eighteenth century - are you sure?’ Boyle squinted vaguely after the gentleman in the bottle-green coat.
‘Shut up and let me think. Try to look inconspicuous.’
‘I look much less conspicuous than that guy in the weird wig.’
‘No you don’t. Everyone wore wigs in the eighteenth century; it's we who stand out. You got that TimeFinder map from the cheapo warehouse place, didn't you?’
‘It’s the cheapest place around,’ Boyle replied. ‘Because in case you hadn't noticed, we don't make the money we used to since our act went out of fashion.’
‘We'll bounce back.’
‘Yeah?’
‘We got that booking for Mablethorpe.’
‘Mablethorpe?’
‘It's a chance to launch ourselves back into the limelight...’
‘Look,’ Boyle said firmly, ‘it was your idea to buy us a black-market time machine. It wasn't my TimeFinder map, it was your time machine. We should have used a time-scanner like everybody else. Unlicensed time travel is illegal as well as dangerous.’
‘We'd never have got a license.’
‘A scanner would have done us,’ Boyle grumbled.
‘We need to get a flavour of the past if we want to beef up our act,’ Lance said. ‘Time-scanners just don't give that - a feel for how things were. We need ideas for a whole load of new sketches.’
‘Talking about flavour - when do we eat?’ Boyle looked round as if searching for a foodery.
‘Can't you think about anything else but your belly?’
Suddenly Lance spotted a large, shambling figure with a peculiar, rolling gait walking towards them. He wore a shabby brown coat and a little scratch wig was balanced on his head. Lance pulled Boyle sharply back to the wall.
‘Hey Boyle - something worked at least,’ Lance grabbed at his friend's arm.
‘What?’ Boyle rubbed the back of his head where it had contacted the wall. He prized Lance's fingers off his arm.
‘Good evening gentlemen.’ The voice was rich, loud and precise, as if every word had been loaded with judicious consideration and weighty considerations. The big, untidy man in the brown coat had stopped just before he opened the door to one of the shops. He nodded, peered short-sightedly in Lance and Boyle's direction. Lance just managed a reply as the big man disappeared into the shop, then he looked up at the name above the shop door and turned to Boyle, his face glowing with triumph.
‘This is it, it's worked - this is the first on my list of important historical events.’
‘Important historical events?’ Boyle laughed then his eyes shone with suspicion. ‘So this mess is your fault after all, it wasn't my TimeFinder map. You've been fiddling with the Temporal Compass haven't you?’
Lance winced. ‘Well I might not have reset it properly after a little experiment, but never mind that now. The guy in the brown coat was Samuel Johnson, so this is Tom Davies' bookshop. At this very moment, Johnson must be inside the shop meeting James Boswell, so this is the eighteenth century. May the sixteenth, seventeen sixty three.’
‘And this is a great historical event? This is the reason we never reached the twentieth century? You promised me the twentieth century.’ Boyle glared around at what he could see of eighteenth century London.
‘Look Boyle, we'll go to the twentieth century soon enough. This is a big event in the history of literature. Johnson and Boswell became great friends like us, and that led to one of the world's greatest biographies. Historical guys like Johnson and Boswell might be a source of new gags for our act, gags nobody ever dreamed of in our own time.’
‘New gags?’
‘Well...’
‘Eighteenth century gags? For a booking in Mablethorpe?’
‘Well - ideas for sketches...’ Lance's enthusiasm suddenly sputtered to a halt, squashed flat by Boyle's infinite scorn. They weren't going to find any ideas for new gags or sketches, not in the eighteenth century or the twenty second or anywhere else. Lance and Boyle were part of the past - their time had slipped by forever.
‘I was expecting something different to this. I was hoping to see the Beatles and some mini-skirts. We should be getting back - there's nothing for us here old buddy.’ Boyle stuck his hands in his pockets and looked glum.
‘Don't you have a sense of history?’ Lance persisted. Surely Mablethorpe wasn't their swan song – not the final curtain for the great double-act Lance and Boyle star laughter makers.
‘I can't feel any sense of history when guys with wigs keep walking past giving me funny looks.’
‘You've just set eyes on Samuel Johnson - one of the most widely quoted men in history bar Shakespeare.’
‘Well, here's a Boyle quote. Time travel makes you hungry. Is it lunch time yet? Did you remember to bring a bag of Snak-Stix?’
‘Oh shut up.’

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Two pickpockets


Pickpocket one
I opened the door and walked into the room. The bar was smart – copper lamps, fake beams and a buzz of genteel chit-chat. Dim lighting too - thank God for energy saving bulbs - just right for a little dipping. A spaced-out teenager soon caught my eye. Maybe he’d have no cash or cards but he’d have his stash – or whatever wasn’t up his poxy nose. His stash I could sell.
‘Oops – sorry mate – my fault – no harm done.’
He was away with the fairies, so I took his drink too. No point buying one. It was bloody cola though – and his stash was a crock. A few lousy grams from our local cheapo supplier – mostly talc nicked off the Avon lady. Ah well, I’d sprinkle it in me socks later – save on washing.
‘Mind if I sit here mate?’ I sat by a quiet guy, alone near the window. He seemed gloomy and not too prosperous which wasn’t a good start.
‘Suit yourself,’ he said, ‘I’ve only three weeks left to live, so why should I care?’ Well it was an opening.
‘Lucky sod,’ I said, ‘no need to buy Christmas presents.’ I could tell he didn’t realise what a bonus that was, because he began to snivel into his beer. Things on his mind I suppose – coffins and stuff. I patted his shoulder and dipped his coat pockets but they were empty, so I looked around for a healthier prospect.
A businessman with his flies undone – maybe – but back pockets only.
That woman in the corner with the posh headache – she might be interesting.
And maybe the loud blonde with the blue drink – the one going on and on about her next holiday. You’d think she was off to Mars from the way she bulled it up.
I didn’t like the look of the body-builder with the tattoos and shiny head though – sat at the bar as if he wanted to bend it. He bulged all over, but nothing looked right, as if he’d done his body-building on a trampoline. Anyway he was no good – clothes too tight.
Just then another woman came in, looked round nervously as if she thought the place might be full of weirdos. She sat at a table, then got up as if she felt out of place without a drink. On a blind date – I could tell. An internet date even. At least she’d have some cash.
I watched her buy a glass of white wine with a note from a nice fat wad. Once she was back at her table, she dropped her purse into her handbag. Snapped it shut. I winced. The last time I did a handbag, I dropped it. The strap wrapped round me ankles and I fell flat on me face and twisted me bad knee. I didn’t get much sympathy from the woman either - she just kicked me in the head and started screaming.
‘Excuse me, but is anyone sitting here?’ I asked in my nice voice. I didn’t give her time to reply, but managed to sit on her handbag which made a loud cracking noise. I tried to go through her bag as I handed it over with an apology, but all I got was a cut finger from her broken glasses. She leered at me short-sightedly as if I was her date - and even if I wasn’t I’d do.
Bloody hell.  An icy mouse ran down me spine and me bad knee began to throb. I jumped up, made some vague noises and cleared off to the other end of the bar where the woman with the posh headache sat nursing a large gin and tonic.

Pickpocket two
After a while, the odd little man stumbled across to my table where a third gin and tonic was sorting my migraine. He clutched a bloody handkerchief to his finger and managed to sit on my handbag.
‘Clumsy me,’ he said, jumping up. I was amused to see how he tried to rummage through my bag as he passed it over with an apology. He wasn’t very good. In fact he was hopeless.
He even left his bloodstained handkerchief inside, so I gave it back with a smile and offered to buy us a drink. He was so surprised he sat on my bag again, but this time handed it over without rummaging. He actually patted it as if it was my pussy he’d sat on.
The other people in the bar turned towards us without interest. The beefy guy flexed his muscles as if I ought to be a maiden in distress and the waiter glared as if I should try solid food for a change. I smiled at him, pointed to my packet of crisps and he stalked off to harass the waitress. So I bought a gin for me and another cola for my new-found friend. I was sure he was in the trade too.
‘How did you get into it?’ I asked, ‘picking pockets.’
‘Careers advice at school,’ he replied, sipping his cola as if he wished he’d asked for something stronger. Anyway, we talked of this and that and I ended up telling him I was a writer looking for new characters. He didn’t like that so he knocked back his cola and left.
Before he went I offered him my handbag to practice with. It was an old one and there was nothing in it, but the offer made him tetchy and our parting wasn’t as friendly as I’d hoped. I managed to lift his stash though, but it stank of Morning Musk which isn’t one of my favourites.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Corrigan Blake


Corrigan Blake sprang lightly into his sleekly polished six-litre Brighouse Special, pressing the starter. As the Brighouse roared into life, Blake deftly flipped her into first gear, dropped the clutch and headed for the Great North Road.
With the speedometer often pushing twenty miles per hour he weaved his way through London traffic, mind racing even faster than the car. As Blake swerved past trams and plodding horse-drawn delivery vans he ruminated on the urgent message he’d received on the telephone that morning in his bachelor flat just off Bond Street.
The call had come through as Blake was reading the Times, breakfasting on his usual coffee, toast and scrambled guinea-fowl eggs. Prunes the butler had just served coffee when the operator put through an urgent trunk call. It was Captain Trellis so Corrigan Blake immediately sensed a sharp whiff of trouble in the cool morning air.
‘Sorry about this Blake,’ said Trellis over a crackling line, ‘but it seems Lady Bostocke’s priceless necklace has been stolen.’
‘Again?’ said Blake gruffly. He sipped at his cup of ferociously strong Javanese coffee personally imported through Langley and Mill his Bond Street supplier.
‘I’m afraid so,’ said Trellis. ‘Looks like an inside job too. Or possibly an opportunist thief. Or she just lost it again. Must be something like that don’t you know.’
‘Well I know which one my money’s on. Right-ho Trellis I’ll meet you at Coldewyck Hall in a couple of hours and we’ll see if we can’t get to the bottom of this business of the stolen necklace once and for all. I’ll take the Brighouse to save time.

Blake’s steel-blue eyes narrowed as he drove the Brighouse out of London, reflecting on that phone call from Trellis. He fished in his pocket for his briar pipe and tobacco pouch, driving one-handed as he filled the pipe with black shag, specially prepared by his tobacconist. By now, Blake was headed out of London, leaving behind neat rows of suburban villas sprawling out from the great metropolis.
He made for the back roads to avoid early traffic and also for the sheer pleasure of guiding the powerful Brighouse Special through winding country lanes with the speedometer needle rarely below thirty.
Blake lit his pipe and inhaled deeply on fragrant smoke as he flicked the car with expert skill through quiet villages, past golden cornfields, down winding leafy lanes.
The exhaust growled as the Brighouse ate up the miles. Showers of tiny sparks danced away from the brightly smouldering tobacco in Blake’s briar. They swirled away in the slipstream of the speeding car to settle gently back to earth among dry grass, fallen leaves and hedgerows. Small roadside fires marked the progress of the thundering vehicle.
After two hours of hard motoring, Corrigan Blake brought the Brighouse Special to a graceful halt on the huge semicircle of pure white gravel gracing the venerable entrance to Coldewyck Hall. Trellis had obviously just arrived as he was still standing by his rather flamboyant maroon-coloured Ripley Cabriolet two-seater with white leather seats and the Trellis family crest emblazoned on each door.
Lady Bostocke herself waited at the door while behind her stood only daughter Francoise, riding crop in one hand and a haughty smile on her beautiful face. There had been a time, thought Blake as he caught sight of Francoise - but no – he was here on business and those days were over. He pushed thoughts of what might have been back into the furthest recesses of his mind, steeling himself to concentrate only on the matter in hand.
‘Mr Blake, thank you for coming. I simply did not know who else to turn to.’ Lady Bostocke extended a translucent, jewel-encrusted hand. Blake shook it firmly, failing to notice Lady Bostocke’s wince of pain as his iron grip crushed heavy rings into delicate fingers.
‘It is a pleasure as always,’ said Blake absently. He wondered vaguely why two tears furrowed their zigzag way down Lady Bostocke’s powdered cheeks - why she blew on the fingers of her right hand as if she’d just snatched it back from a flame. Arthritis perhaps? Was there a clue there?
‘Francoise will show you through,’ gasped Lady Bostocke, dabbing at her eyes with a lacy white handkerchief. Francoise turned on her elegantly immaculate heel to lead the way.
‘I won’t shake hands Mr Blake,’ said Francoise over her shoulder, ‘if you don’t mind.’
‘Where’s whatsisname - the butler?’ Blake demanded, following Francoise into the vast hallway and on into an elegant Georgian drawing-room.’
‘Purdy? He’ll be around somewhere – why do you ask?’ Francoise raised a polite eyebrow.
‘It’s always the butler,’ announced Blake. He strode across to the fireside and gave the bell-pull a hefty yank.
Within a minute, Purdy glided into the room. ‘You rang, madam?’
‘No - I rang, Purdy,’ Blake said, puffing away at his briar, showering hot little sparks onto a priceless Aubusson rug. ‘Hand over the jewels and we’ll go easy on you.’
‘The jewels sir?’
‘Er that’ll be all Purdy - Mr Blake was having a little joke.’ Captain Trellis stepped forward to ease Blake away from the indignant butler.
‘I damned well wasn’t joking,’ Blake complained. ‘What the devil are you up to Trellis?’
It wasn’t Purdy, Blake.’
‘Of course it was. The man’s a butler – it’s always the butler. Don’t you read any of those detective stories I send you Trellis old man?’
‘Purdy came back from his holiday in Cornwall only this morning Blake. Thank you Purdy; that will be all.’ The butler glided from the room, head held even higher than usual.
‘Oh well, I didn’t realise we were going all analytical old man,’ Blake announced, freeing himself from Trellis’ grip. ‘I suppose I’ll have to think up another of my famous theories now you’ve scotched my favourite butler angle.’
‘I think we’d better look at the evidence first old chap.’ Trellis said. He smiled at Lady Bostocke.
‘Evidence?’ Blake scratched his ear with the stem of his briar.
‘If you’d just give us the details in your own words Lady Bostocke,’ Trellis continued.
‘Well Captain Trellis, I first realised the necklace was gone late last night. I was about to lay out my breakfast jewels when to my horror -’
‘Own up old girl, it was an insurance swindle wasn’t it?’ Blake glared at Lady Bostocke.
‘Oh good lord, I do apologise Lady Bostocke,’ Trellis tried to bundle Corrigan Blake out of the room as Lady Bostocke swooned onto the still smouldering Aubusson, conveniently putting it out.
‘I say Trellis, this is too much,’ shouted Corrigan Blake, struggling to release himself from Trellis’ arm-lock.
‘You really can’t keep saying these things,’ Trellis grunted, tightening his grip on Blake’s arm.
‘Well somebody stole the blasted necklace it and I’ll feel his collar in no time if you’ll only let go of my damned arm. What about you Francoise my dear? Short of a few bob are we?’ Blake shouted while still struggling with Captain Trellis. There was a loud scrunching sound from somewhere on the floor.
‘Good heavens.’ Captain Trellis released his hold, bending down to pull something from under Blake’s large, but elegantly-shod foot. Trellis held up the remains of a crushed necklace, pearls and twinkling diamonds scattering their way across the antique Persian carpet.
‘It was under the sofa all the time, Lady Bostocke,’ Trellis explained. ‘You must have dropped it and Mr Blake seems to have found it for you. There is a little damage of course -’
‘Told you I’d find it,’ said Blake. ‘Don’t bother to thank me Lady Bostocke – it’s all in a day’s work for Corrigan Blake.’ He ducked as a small Ming vase whizzed past his head. Surely Lady Bostocke hadn’t thrown it?