These stories are extracted from our anthology “A decade of writing 1997—2007 ”.
Here are some short stories from members past and present.
She lay on the grave of Judas Elm listening for the chime of midnight. Inevitable and close, she shivered. Was it the cold, dank air or the destination ahead? ‘I’m here for you, this is your time’ was the message.
She had come, adorned in her lace night gown as specified by the image she had conjured into her mind, into her thoughts, into her dreams and nightmares alike. She had envisaged this moment for a long time.
Minutes before, the bottom of her night gown had caught on her heel and ripped as she climbed over the cemetery fence where she had fallen disorientated with a thud onto the other side. Locked at seven was their
protocol, here at twelve was hers. She imagined that the mixed palette of greys and browns from the wet earth below had covered all traces of the gowns original white. A wintery fog rest close to the ground, in
the distance a fox crossed cautiously as it looked over at her.
‘I’m here, I did what you asked’ she whimpered to the gravestone. A hoot from the woods broke the silence. An icy breeze whirled around her forcing goose bumps to grow on her bare arms and neck. A wave of light
headedness passed through her.
Head now lay on stone, stiffness consumed her. Jerking involuntarily as she got colder, she wrapped her arms around her body. No coat, she wasn’t allowed her coat, this was suffering after all. Forgiveness would
be achieved once suffering had consumed and used up all there was to offer. She owed it to him; all his messages had reminded her of that. Lying there, she waited for the poison to take effect.
Startled by his call, she shivered. ‘Come with me’ Judas shouted, laughing as he ran. Another image, she watched it play out. Then again, it had never stopped, had played on a loop all her life. Forgetting was an
option but it had never worked, even though she’d tried so many times. ‘Here’ he called, pulling her attention back to him. His little expectant face looked up as he beckoned her over to the cliffs edge. They
weren’t meant to be out but it was fun. With their food packed and coats on they had escaped the home as they’d done many times before. ‘Lucy, I’m glad you’re my friend. You’re a girl but I still like you’ he
laughed as he handed her a marble. Holding it up she could see its smooth surface and clear glass, she knew it was his best marble. Being two years older, she had protected weak Judas from the taunts of the tough
lads and the blame of the staff. ‘You’re skinny, you smell, clean it up, I know you’ve cleaned it but hey clean it again.’ The abuse was never ending. They had always blamed him. Poor little Judas. She smiled,
ruffled his matted dark hair and placed the shiny glass marble in her pocket.
They had climbed down into the rocky crevice where they had often hidden, then sat and ate cake. ‘The midnight feast’ they had called it, this was their secret. They ate and laughed as they watched the waves
crashing against the rocks below. No moon that night but the stars that made up the plough had brightened up the skies. And other stars of course, ‘What’s that one? Is it a planet?’ Judas had asked.
An owl hooted. Scraping her leg against the bare stone Lucy felt a creeping wetness. She opened her eyes and forced her shaking body to move so that she could see the gash. Blood seeped onto the grave, she smiled.
She owed him blood and she was paying him back. Numb, she felt no pain, just relief. How long this would take, she had no idea. On the stroke of twelve he had promised. But twelve still hadn’t arrived. Listening,
still there was nothing. Releasing her arms that wrapped her body she placed one under her head like a pillow and the other, next to her. In her hand, she gripped the marble, ‘Please hurry’ she cried. Her stomach
cramped hard but her joints were unnaturally relaxed. The jerking had stopped only to be replaced by the chattering of her teeth. She could no longer see her surroundings through the thickening fog that had risen
further. Maybe this was it, maybe there wasn’t really fog, maybe it wasn’t really cold, and maybe she wasn’t really numb. But the chattering, no she was still here. Closing her eyes, she allowed herself to drift.
‘I’ve been waiting for you. I was always here waiting for when you were ready’ Judas called. They were back on the cliff. After finishing their cake they began the climb back up. At one a.m. there was always a
room inspection, they had to get back for one. Standing, Lucy held her hand out to Judas. He stood and smiled at her. His dew absorbed hair had lengthened, the kinks now flattened out hanging in wet tendrils over
his dark eyes. She laughed, ‘Come on then.’ Climbing up the fine path to the top of the cliff Judas stopped and yelled, the ground gave way beneath him. Screaming loudly Judas held on with one hand as he placed
his one foot unsteadily in a foot hole. ‘Help me’ he cried. Frozen with fear Lucy stared. Tried to speak, to offer him some words of reassurance but she couldn’t speak, she couldn’t move. His eyes wide open,
fully aware of her lack of response. That stare pleading with her to help, to pull him up. Trembling with fear as she gazed down at the crashing waves. Her speechlessness turned into sobbing. Holding on to the
rocks above her she held out her hand. More rocks fell and the gap between them widened She tried to reach but they were now too far apart. ‘Will you catch my hand Lucy, if I reach for you?’
‘I don’t know Judas, I don’t know if I can’ she cried as tears fell heavily down her face. She closed her eyes, ‘I can’t’ she cried.
If only she’d been braver, she would not be here, on this cold gravestone in the night awaiting her punishment. If only. A regret that had followed her through all her forty eight years, a regret that could be
fixed with the blessing of the one she’d made false promise to. The promise to protect always, to catch him when he fell. A promise broken and he knew, that’s why he had never left her. This time things would be
different. She needed her mind to go back; she willed it to go back to the broken cliff. It would not oblige, one last punishment, even in her mind she could not put the wrong right. The tablets had begun to
sedate her, no longer able to move, she cried. All she could do was cry until the time came. ‘I’m here for you if you want me.’ She whispered and closed her eyes, hoping he would come for her soon.
‘Will you catch me Lucy?’ Startled she looked up. Judas, desperate, pleading for her. Shaking, she looked into his large brown eyes. His breath was heavy and fast. She could see that he was beginning to loose his
grip. Now was her time to be selfless, to show him she could be the person he had needed her to be.
‘I will catch you’ she shouted. ‘Jump towards me now.’ A look of hope, just for a moment but it was there. She held out her hand, ready for him. With a large leap he flew towards her. She had done it, caught him.
‘I love you Lucy’ he shouted as he held onto her tight. She had him, gripped hard but he was too heavy. She would not let him go this time, not now she had been given a second chance. She would stay with him,
take away his fear. ‘Everything will be alright, I promise and I love you too. Close your eyes and think of nice things like cake and marbles. We’re going to be alright’ she replied as her grip began to loosen.
Crying she knew she couldn’t let him go and make him suffer alone. She was all he had and she would go with him. As he pulled her further down with all his weight, she lost her grip and they fell. ‘Keep your eyes
closed’ she shouted as they tumbled through the cold night air. The church clock began to chime loud. Chime one, she saw the crashing waves. Chime two, the stars. Chimes three, she wondered if the parents she
never knew would even care. Chime four; she forgave them, what was the point? Chime five, hatred for all those who had hurt Judas, Chime six, the realisation that hate was something she didn’t want to take with
her. Chime seven, the hate lost its grip, it was her and Judas and the love of a sister for a brother. Chimes eight to ten, she looked down at Judas. His eyes still closed, full of trust in her that they would
both be alright and it broke her heart. Nine years is all he had, nine lonely years and she smiled as she had made some of them good. He would never be alone again. She would be with him for eternity. Chime eleven,
a feeling of peace, serenity. The crashing waves and jagged rocks were upon her. The twelfth chime struck. Lay broken on the jagged rocks below, her last expression, a smile; her hand still linked to Judas’s. She
never let go.
Forty seven years to the night, Lucy Baker lay on the grave of Judas Elm. No longer listening for the chime; no longer thinking of the past; no longer feeling the guilt and pain. Lying cold and still, the marble
fell from her hand and rolled off the edge of the grave and onto the grass. An owl hooted and rain drops fell onto Lucy’s body.
In each other's pockets
The first thing she said to me was "It's not going to change me. I will still be the same old Pauline Ashcroft, just Pauline Ashcroft with a bit more money to spend."
I knew it would change her. How could it not? I mean it's not every day that someone wins £5.9 million is it?
The first thing to change was that her house went up for sale. She'd lived next door to me and Alb for 32 years. She had her Melanie the same year as I had Debbie and we had been great friends ever since. We went
through the sleepless nights together, the toddler tantrums, the don't want to go to school blues. Then I had Mark and she had David and we went through it all again. We shared everything. There wasn't anything
that wasn't solvable or anything we couldn't cope with after we had discussed it over a cup of tea and a piece of cake.
We did everything together - the school runs, the trips to the park, the shopping. The private lives of the other folk in our street were stripped bare and dissected over our garden fence. The kids swapped hand me
down clothes and shared paddling pools and picnics in the sunshine. We were "in each other's pockets" or so my Alb was always saying.
It hit us both hard when the four of them flew the nest but we still had each other. The long chats over tea and cake continued and we were each other's saviour, this time from the endless days that stretched out
in front of us without the children to run around after.
They say married couples finish each other's sentences but Pauline finished mine and I finished hers. We knew each other so well that she knew what she would be able to do to help before I even opened my mouth. I
remember this one time I hadn't been feeling so good and the next thing I knew Pauline was standing at the front door with bags full of shopping for me. She was like that, nothing was too much trouble. She was
always so thoughtful.
We used to cook double quantities when we made a stew or a batch of cakes and we'd have one lot and they'd have the other - more often than not one of us would knock on the connecting wall and we'd meet out in the
garden and swap dishes of piping hot hotpot or rock cakes over the fence.
I loved living next door to Pauline and Derek. The husbands used to joke that if one of us moved there had better be a house for sale next door so that the other could move too. But of course we never thought that
would happen. We were content and settled where we were and the houses certainly were big enough for us once the children had gone, the walls seemed to breathe out when the kids and their accompanying clutter left.
But now she has her house up for sale and we don't. We couldn't afford to move if we wanted to Alb's not worked properly for months now and we are living off our savings, the kid's inheritance.
Next thing I know they booked a holiday to Australia to go and see their new granddaughter. Melanie had a baby earlier this year so they went away for 6 weeks, over the other side of the world. Me and Alb's never
been further that the Isle of Wight.
Anyway we found ourselves in charge of showing prospective buyers round their house and feeding their cat. Nice to be needed.
When they got back I was flabbergasted. She came round, all tanned, in clothes I'd never seen before and a hair do straight out of Beverly Hills. Can't say it suited her, too big, too blonde. She looked like
mutton dressed as lamb.
Well, she knocked on the door and stood there teetering on four inch heels, looking down on me , in more ways than one, I thought. She had a paper bag in her hand.
"Thanks for keeping an eye on the old house, love, bought you a little something from down under to say thank you". She handed it over grinning and I invited her in for a cup of tea and a cake, just like I would
always do. I thought she would say "yes" and come in and make herself at home, just like she always did, but instead she turned and said" Sorry, can't stop, just waiting for a parcel. We're having a new computer
delivered in a bit - so we can keep in touch with Melanie in Australia, over the internet. It's amazing how the world shrinks, when you've got a bit of cash to splash. See you soon" And that was that, gone for 6
weeks, then she breezes by and off again before you could say flamin' "billabong".
I went inside, and flicked the kettle switch to the on position and looked at the bag in my hand. It was emblazoned with pictures of Sydney opera house. I opened it and guess what? a bloody tea towel with a blurry
transfer of Sydney Harbour on it. She wins £5.9 million and I, her best friend in the world, gets a flippin' tea towel.
I didn't see her to speak to for a couple of days after that. I saw her plenty, through the window though; when the new car arrived on the drive, when the courier turned up with a huge flat screen TV and when the
reporters descended like vultures to take photos and interview her and Derek.
I heard the sound of the champagne cork popping for the photographers and I saw the interview go out on the local television station a day or so later.
“We are absolutely delighted to win this money. It couldn't have come at a better time for us. Derek has handed in his notice at the paper mill and we are going to travel, the world will be our oyster, we've
already been to Australia" Oh so he's stopping work then, she never said - I thought
"Yes, we have put the house up for sale and we are moving to Surrey to be near our son David, we're going to be grandparents again soon" How could I not know that, I wondered?
"Yes we have lots of plans on how to spend it - we've gone a bit technology mad, haven't we Derek?"
"Flat screen TV, DVD, computer, I-pod , hybrid car - you name it, it on our list! grinned Derek inanely.
"We've organised trust funds for the grand daughter and the one on the way and given some to our children and a few charities that are close to our hearts"
"And bought a lovely tea towel for my next door neighbour." I sobbed.
Alb found me howling and spluttering noisily wiping my face on the said tea towel.
"Cheer up love; it's only talk for the media. All the excitement will die down once the novelty wears off and she will be the same old Pauline again"
"But she won't will she" I snivelled, snottily through the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
"She's got a 52 inch telly now. We've got a 12 inch portable. She has a brand new Hybrid motor car, we've got a Vauxhall Corsa on its last legs. They've got trust funds for their Grandchildren and we have got a
career girl and a homosexual and not a chance of a grandchild. They've got an i-pod and I don't even know what one of those is and I still want one. We were two sides of the same coin but she's got millions of
quid in the bank and we haven't even gone decimal in comparison."
"You're over reacting love" Alb tried to calm me down but I was on a roll.
"She's got Jimmy Choo's and I've got Primark, she's got a Hollywood Hairdo and I look like Hilda Ogden. I thought she was my best friend but now I'm just boring old penniless Moira from next door"
"Look love you can't have this attitude. Get yourself round there and talk to her. She's probably dying for a chance to have a natter. Let her see that you haven't changed and it will put everything right"
He did have a point I suppose. So I blew my nose and popped upstairs to make myself look respectable, like I hadn’t just spent the last half hour bawling my eyes out at the very least.
I knocked on the door, Victoria sponge cake in hand and waited. I half expected a butler to come and let me in. She opened the door herself though, looking rosy cheeked and a bit sweaty, wearing a silver
tracksuit- my god she looks like Jimmy Saville, I thought uncharitably and recovered quickly enough to say hello and hand her the peace offering cake.
"Sorry Love, I've got Denzel, my new personal trainer here. We are in the middle of a workout and I know he doesn't approve of cake. Let's catch up some other time; I've loads to tell you. Bye love" and the door
closed on me in more ways than one.
I trudged despondently back up my drive, then had a change of plan I turned on my heels and walked back down the drive and down the road towards the shops.
There was only one way to enter Pauline's world and this was the only way I knew how to get there. I pushed open the door of the newsagents and thrust a fiver at the poor woman behind the counter. "Five tickets
for Saturday's lottery please" I requested
"Lucky dip?" she asked
"Yes please, no actually four lucky dip and I will do this one myself"
I ringed the 6 numbers;
5 - The number of million pounds she had won
10 - The number of years they had had a dishwasher
34 - The number of years they had been happily married
17 - years since they had been on their first holiday abroad
6 - The number of weeks she had left me while they had been in Australia
32 - for the number of years I had wanted everything that Pauline Ashcroft had in her life.
George & Mary
They still have their thick woollies on from the January sales
Although it is now June
and has been, thus far,
an unnaturally tropical year in Warrington.
The suit was ten bob with a pin tuck shirt and pure wool tie throwed in.
Marys coat, twice that but astrakhan
had a lovely swing when she walked up the street.
They always felt the cold see.
Their legs was four fat wall hangings of corned beef
Their noses was blue Victoria plums
Their eyes was watery and shot with blood vessels and
The warm clothes embraced them like the fond grandchildren they never had
and as they lay on
the municipal beach that council had slewed out of derelict Lewis’s store
to bring tourists in
Asleep they went.
George – the man – dreamt of giant hot pies that flew through the air
Shot down for your dinner
Mary – the woman – dreamt of Victor Mature and Richard Burton
bickering about which one would take her for a drink
after the premier of
When they woke up 45 minutes later
the artificial tide had come in and was lapping at their
and it was time to go.
She looked at the Town Hall clock and
He flagged down the bus and
they were gone –
shuffling down the street, shaking off the builders sand like
a pair of Colditz escapees.
It seems like it happened just yesterday, but memories are like that. As I recall, it was early October 1977. I lay back on my comfortable bed, supported by three large soft pillows. I was reading Spike Milligan’s
autobiographical novel “Hitler my part in his downfall” and I laughed out loud at his hilarious exploits as a trainee gunner at Bexhill on sea during the Second World War.
Something caught my eye and I looked up from the book that was resting on my lap, to see a young woman standing in the doorway of my bedroom. She was wearing a long flower patterned petticoat frock of the style
recently made popular by Laura Ashley. Beneath which she was wearing a crisp white cotton blouse. “Can I help you?” I asked somewhat surprised. The young woman smiled at me but said nothing.
1977 had been a funny old year. It had started out with me sharing a house with two other lads in Cheltenham. We were full of devilment and energy to live life to the full. Our lives seemed to be one long party as
we moved from one good craque to another.
Work was getting scarce and redundancy was beginning to loom large on the horizon but as young lads do, I never really worried about the consequences. One day in March fate was to change my life. I won three
hundred pounds on the football pools. It was not a king’s ransom, but in those days it was six weeks wages so I did what any young lad would do under the threat of being out of work; I took a holiday. I went to
Great Yarmouth for a week. Whilst I was there I decided to have a look for a job and applied for a vacancy at a Butlins holiday camp. It was four weeks later when a buff envelope dropped on to my hall carpet. I
tore it open and eagerly read the contents. Joy of Joys I had been offered a start as an electricians mate at Clacton on sea.
I remember well the sunny April morning when I caught the coach to Clacton. That was the last time that I lived in Cheltenham, although after all these years I still visit that delightful little spa from time to
time. The summer at Butlins had been such fun. I soon discovered that people, real people that is, not the usual crowd of dossers and boozers that I would normally hang around with actually liked me and I revelled
in their company. However the summer, as it always does passed by far too quickly. The season was fast coming to an end and my thoughts turned to finding a job when the holiday camp closed. Eventually after several
trips to the local labour exchange I was offered a temporary job working at a sugar factory in Bury Saint Edmunds with a promise of another two years employment at another sugar factory just outside Great Yarmouth.
Although it meant leaving the camp a week before the end of the season I jumped at the chance. In those days I felt that I was not supposed to show my emotions, but still tears filled my eyes as I said good bye to
all my new friends
It had been a nightmare trying to find decent affordable accommodation in Bury. I had finally struck lucky coming across some comfortable and clean theatrical digs. I quickly settled in and was made to feel at home.
It was an interesting place to live and during my stay there I met the likes of Jeremy Irons and Wilfred Bramble (old man Steptoe to those of a certain age).the landlady was lovely; one of those creative people
who are good at everything. She had decorated her house so well in a chintzy kind of way that was very popular at the time that it was photographed for one of those house magazines. Her husband was a lot younger
than her and he always seemed to be wearing a tired expression.
Without saying a word the young woman turned around and walked away, leaving the doorway full of the darkness from the room beyond. “STRANGE,” I said to myself. I placed Spikes memoirs on the bedside table and
dressed in just a pair of shorts and tee shirt followed her. I quickly made my way through the dark adjacent room and down the steep narrow steps that led to the landing below. All the bedroom doors were closed
and there was no sign of anyone. I went down the stairs to the ground floor; the kitchen, dining room and lounge were in darkness. I shrugged and made my way back up to my room to continue with my book.
The following morning I was woken by the loud ringing of my large brass alarm clock. It was 6.45 and the early autumn sunlight streamed through my bedroom window. I washed and dressed and went down stairs for
breakfast to be greeted by the lovely smell of bacon and eggs being cooked. ”good morning,” I shouted into the kitchen. “Lovely day,” came the cheery reply. the weather so far that year had been miserable but
September and October had turned out to be a glorious Indian summer. A pot of coffee was already steaming on the dining table and I poured myself a large cup. A moment later my arty landlady appeared from the
kitchen holding a plate of food in front of her. She placed the plate on the table in front of me, “everything ok? “She asked “fine,” I replied “OH! ONE THING,” I remembered “one of your guests, a young woman
wandered into my bedroom last night. I thought my luck was in,” I joked. The smile suddenly fell from her face, “That’s odd,” she said
“We don’t have any other guests this week.”
|To Whom It May Concern
The Old Rectory,
Having recently received intimations of my mortality I have decided to leave for my beneficiaries some details about my past which I could not reveal in my lifetime. My career as a writer of murder
mysteries has already been fully explored in my autobiography, but there is an extra facet of my persona which can be revealed now that I too have ‘shuffled off this mortal coil’. This
information is revealed without any restriction – do with it what you will!
It must be the ambition of every murder mystery writer to plan the perfect murder and most of us do this in our stories. What is less common is for one of us to carry out such a plan, but this is what
I have done most successfully as evinced by my having lived to a ripe old age without my crime being detected.
This is how it happened.
After the runaway success of my first novel in 1935, and its subsequent conversion to a West End play, I was sufficiently well off to be able to set up in my own home in a flat in Oxford. The sale of the
film rights to Hollywood meant that I was then able to buy this Rectory just after the War, when prices of houses in the Cotswolds were still at a reasonable level. My home life with my mother, step-brother
and step-father had never been happy, my own father having been killed in the First World War. Like many others who made a success of writing, I had a rather lonely and difficult childhood.
I had great fun in furnishing the Old Rectory and was able to indulge my pleasure in antiques.
I was particularly careful to buy a second hand but still serviceable carpet for the main stairs. The fact that it was slightly frayed on the landing could be covered by a small rug. As an indication of
my literary pretensions, I bought a large bust of Shakespeare which stood on an oak pedestal at the bottom of the stairs.
I began planning the murder a long time ago, in the 1930’s in fact. My first move was to obtain a birth certificate of a boy slightly older than myself. The boy’s death was reported in the
newspaper and he seemed to have very few family members so was ideal for my purpose. The fact that he was dead was no bar to obtaining a birth certificate which was duly supplied by Somerset House. When
wartime came I used the certificate to obtain an Identity Card, which was later utilised to obtain a medical card at the inception of the National Health Service. I thus had all the documents necessary to
open a bank account.
This boy was to become my ‘husband’, and when I moved into the Old Rectory I began the routine which was to provide the framework of the murder. My ‘husband’ would leave home for
business soon after breakfast, and a little while later my secretary and amanuensis would sweep into the drive in her open topped M.G. She would spend the day typing in the study and I would take our large
dog for a walk through the village. Susan would leave about 4.30pm and my ‘husband’s’ Rover turned into the drive about 6.00pm.
Little Titterton became used to this routine. The fact that I was all three people was never discovered. I had shaved my head into the pattern of hereditary male baldness, and with a pair of heavy horn-rimmed
spectacles and some special shoes to gain height, I became my imaginary husband. We even had matching wedding rings. In this garb I bore more than a passing resemblance to my step-brother. Fortunately
I always had a rather boyish figure.
Each day I would drive ‘his’ car to Cheltenham, a matter of a few miles, where I had bought a flat with a garage in an exclusive residential area. I would enter the flat as a man and emerge a
few minutes later as Susan Smith, my secretary, wearing a blonde wig, headscarf and sunglasses to drive the M.G. to Little Titterton. I turned quite a few heads in this manifestation I was pleased to note.
Entering the Old Rectory I would put a number of long-playing records of sound effects onto the radiogram – it would hold eight at a time I recall. The B.B.C. was very helpful in supplying sounds of typing,
telephone conversations and general office noises, through a contact I had made when my play was on in the West End. Mind you, I kept my telephone number ex-directory and discouraged my agent from trying to
I could then reappear as myself in another wig of grey tightly permed curls, and a tweed skirt and cardigan, in which I could busy myself with gardening or sharing a morning cup of tea with Mrs Peabody, our
‘treasure’ who came in three mornings a week to clean. Mrs Peabody was not very imaginative or curious but was an assiduous polisher. She had very strict instructions not to disturb Susan.
I thoroughly enjoyed the theatre of playing three roles. I tried very hard to make things as realistic as possible. My ‘husband’ had subscriptions to some rather esoteric journals and I ordered
the weekly groceries from the village stores. Of course I had to cook for two and this is where the dog came in. He was always ready to consume my ‘husband’s’ portions! The dog food which
was ordered with the groceries was sneaked out in the M.G. and donated by Susan to the R.S.P.C.A. in Cheltenham.
My ‘husband’ and I even managed to go to church. He, of course, was Catholic and went to early Mass whereas I went to the Church of England service in the late morning. I even discussed the
problems of mixed marriages with the Rector.
There remained but one hurdle – the doctor. I had a medical card for my ‘husband’ but there were no medical notes. I overcame this difficulty by visiting our village doctor with an embarrassing
female complaint. While he was washing his hands I slipped a man’s N.H.S. ‘Lloyd George’ type folder, form EC5, off his desk and into my bag. Dr Brunning was a kindly man but organisation was not one of his
strong points. It was not difficult to obtain a duplicate folder through a contact I had made whilst researching another of my novels involving a forger. In this folder I fabricated a suitable medical history
for my imaginary husband and on my return visit to report the success of my treatment I slipped both sets of notes into the pile on the doctor’s desk. Everything was now prepared for the murder of my
‘husband’. The only thing lacking was a corpse.
I must now reveal something which I have never told to anyone before. When my mother remarried she was presented with a step-son slightly older than myself. He was always resentful and truculent, an unpleasant
bully in fact. My mother was quite incapable of controlling him and she did not want to listen to my complaints about him. His father on the other hand thought he was wonderful and would not hear any ill
about him. This allowed him to begin to sexually molest me until I was able to escape from home into higher education and then into a place of my own.
He was the person who was to provide the corpse. Maybe he was surprised when I telephoned him one winter’s night but such was his egotism that he was not suspicious when I said that I would like to see him
again. I told him that my husband would be away for the weekend, told him not to come by car in the unpredictable Cotswold winter and arranged to pick him up from the station in Cheltenham. I settled the dog
down in the garden shed.
We arrived back at the Old Rectory as night was falling and I gave him a hot meal from the Aga with some excellent wine while we talked of our parents and our divergent lives.
After the meal I settled him on the settee in front of the TV with a bottle of single malt and excused myself to go to change. He was completely relaxed and confident of his mastery over me so that he did not
hear me come up behind him with the bust of Shakespeare in my hands. I raised it high and brought it down on his bald head. All the resentment of all those miserable adolescent years was in that blow. I
raised the bust again but he was unconscious or dead.
I slipped a plastic bag over his head and carefully tied it round the neck to keep the blood off the furniture. I then poured myself a large single malt and sat down to look at him. He did look very like my
imaginary husband and the blood running down his face would make recognition difficult.
I carefully went through all his pockets and removed any evidence of his real identity then planted a few items of my own – a wallet, some membership cards and ‘his’ wedding ring. Summoning up all my strength
I dragged him to the foot of the stairs and arranged poor old Shakespeare and his plinth appropriately. I rucked up the rug on the landing, removed the plastic bag and let out the dog.
The doctor came straight away of course, pronounced my poor husband dead and as I expected said that he would have to report the matter to the coroner. The police came and soon sized up the situation. The
drink, the frayed carpet, the rug, why, it was obvious that he had tripped and fallen down stairs. What bad luck that he had dislodged the bust of Shakespeare which had fallen on his head. The priest came
and said a prayer before the body went off to the mortuary. It was all very civilised.
The doctor produced a medical report from the notes which matched the details of my husband/brother’s post-mortem – his operation for appendicitis and the old fracture he got playing rugby. Everyone was so
sympathetic over my loss but rather surprised when I had him cremated – him being a Catholic.
So that is the story of my perfect murder. My step-brother was reported missing but no one was very surprised as his business dealings had been a bit shady at times. I feel no guilt, indeed I am rather proud
of what I have done. There is one tiny thing of which I am slightly ashamed. My ‘husband’ was insured against accidental death. At last I could have a new stair carpet.
‘Which way do I go?’
His voice echoed in the lonely silence. He waited for an answer though there was none to hear his question.
A breeze rustled the leaves at his feet but they only drifted round in tumbling circles.
Dark clouds hung low and heavy, slowly rolling southward, the direction from which he had come. But there was no path for him that way. There was no going back.
To the west lay woodland; dark bare trees where wild boar rooted for acorns among the leaf litter, and crows circled above.
Circles again, always circles. But he needed a straight path to follow.
To the east, a broad valley, a fertile plain that beckoned. But it was too soon to settle; too near his past. He turned from such temptation.
Behind him lay failure and ruin.
Not all had agreed, but most were against him. They had turned their backs and he could not serve the disenchanted. So he burned his hut and all he could not carry, and walked away.
For lack of a sign, he continued in the direction he had first trodden. Northward. It was a bad time of year to travel, especially to travel north. But he had not even contemplated the life that seduced
so many; had blocked his senses against the call of warmth and easy living that lay far behind him.
By day he observed the natural pathways, rejecting those that twisted and turned and deceived the unwary. He followed cattle trails when he could, and sheep paths over the hills when there was no other way.
Where the land was high and steep, he’d drink from a stream then follow its path uphill – so long as the course kept the noonday sun at his back.
At night he’d find a safe place near running water. A small spring, as often as not. There were plenty about if you knew how to find them and he had the gift of it. His fingertips would tingle even before
the hazel rod twitched.
With precious steel and flint he’d light a fire to cook a meagre ration of grain, adding what root and leaf he’d found by day. Lying back wrapped in his cloak, his stomach full and eyelids drooping, he
spoke with the stars. Sirius, so bright, but low on the horizon; Orion, dominant; the Seven Sisters, riding high in the sky by night, when by day the sun approached its winter nadir. But always he turned to
the opposite celestial aspect to find his goal. The North Star. Only then could he sleep.
On this journey with so few guiding signs, perhaps that was all he needed. A yearning to follow the North Star.
He woke one morning to a dusting of snow. His lips were blue, but he smiled. A tear froze on his lashes then melted as he blinked at a world transformed. The circle turns. Darkness to light. Failure and ruin
can be rebuilt in success. Another day, perhaps two. He’d know when the time came.
Later that same day he crested a ridge and saw the valley. A river ran deep and swift through its centre. Ploughed fields lay in strips to its bank. Half a mile from the river, a hamlet perched on rocky
outcrops where the river plain gave way to the hillside.
He stood, still as an ancient oak, and watched. Sheep scratched at the grass, half hidden beneath a blanket of snow. Hens huddled and bickered in their thorn enclosure. A dog barked at the geese that stamped,
confused, on their frozen pond, and somewhere on the edge of hearing, the snort of pigs from woodland above the hamlet.
The traveller closed his eyes.
A warmth began. Somewhere deep inside.
When dusk followed the setting sun, he was warmed through. The blue cracked lips now felt warm and were no longer bleeding. The rough, dry hands, cut and torn by flint and thorn, now seemed smooth and sensitive
to the finest thread. His cold, wet and blistered feet stepped out lightly onto the last path of his journey.
There were no signs – and yet the land was full of them. He knew which way to go and travelled safely in darkness along the mountain ridge to the valley head.
The people of the hamlet were there, waiting for the rising sun to end the longest night. Waiting for the sun to begin its ascent out of winter. Waiting for a better year than the last, when their shaman had
died and taken his healing power with him to the underworld.
And as the sun rose, the people saw the traveller walk toward them. Saw him walk toward them out of the sun. He was their sign; their gift of life and well being for the year to come.
And from the ashes of winter’s ruin far away, he would rebuild a new home for them all.
Trick or Treat
There was no getting away from it; Stuart was mean. Not nasty mean, although he could be tight-fisted mean. He was also
very wealthy but if he could avoid spending a penny, he would. That was why, on Halloween, his long-suffering wife, Margie,
expected a fight when she told him that she wanted to give sweets away to the local kids.
She didn’t get one. Stuart merely grunted that he didn’t believe in Halloween and that the kids should
be locked up for blackmailing taxpayers. Margie was surprised at his reaction; she expected to hear far more venom. She
asked him if he was okay but Stuart just shrugged and said that he was fine. He didn’t care what she did because he had a
business meeting and would be out anyway.
What he neglected to say was that his meeting involved a brief visit to an amateur art exhibition with
his long-legged secretary followed by an intimate dinner for two. Stuart was confident that he would not be back till
morning but he did not tell Margie that.
When it came to art, Stuart knew what he was talking about. He owned his own gallery and had a
reputation as a hard dealer who could spot new talent that others might miss. He never kept his artists long, he screwed
too much out of them for them to stay, but he could find them.
Tonight’s soirée was an amateur show put on by the members of a local night school class and was being held in a couple of
rooms adjacent to the local library. The moment he walked in Stuart’s heart sank. He had been hoping to find someone with
talent here but one look around at the daubs adorning the walls showed him that these really were amateurs.
Even the free glass of wine he received at the door lacked any finesse and he wrinkled his nose in
disgust after the first sip.
‘Come on,’ he said, ‘let’s get out of here.’
‘Oh,’ Lynette, his secretary pouted. ‘Some of these look really pretty. Can’t I just have one tiny look
around in case there’s something I like?’
Stuart grimaced, Lynette’s idea of ‘really pretty’ meant that he was expected to buy her some awful canvas that should be
consigned to the rubbish bin. It would be a waste of money but one look at those sexy green eyes was enough to tell him
that it was going to be worth every penny.
‘Okay,’ he sighed. ‘But don’t expect me to come round with you, just pick the one you want and let’s get out of here.’
Lynette beamed and kissed his cheek. ‘Thanks, Stu,’ she said.
‘And take this rubbish with you,’ Stuart told her, handing her his glass of wine.
Lynette clicked off in her high heels and after admiring the sway of her hips as she walked away he
turned back to the monstrosities hanging on the wall. They really were bad; some of the artists could barely draw.
Shaking his head, he wandered into the second room and gave the paintings there a cursory glance. He was about to turn
away and dismiss them when one caught his eye.
It was not a spectacular subject, just a country scene. It showed an ancient looking cottage with white
walls and thatched roof sitting alongside a lane that was lined by oak trees. It was not even very big, but among such
garbage it shone out with a depth and vibrancy that grabbed his attention and held it.
Striding over Stuart looked at it closely. The detail was amazing and just for a second he wondered if
he was looking at a photograph, but then he saw the delicate brushwork. It was superb, worthy of any of the masters.
The colours held warmth and a depth that truly reflected nature. Stuart knew instantly that he had found
his next great talent.
Pinned alongside each painting was a small card bearing the title of the picture, the artist’s details and a price. This
one was called ‘The Witch’s Cottage’. Instead of details though it just bore the name ‘Annie’ and a note saying that it
was not for sale.
Stuart grimaced. Most of the paintings were priced between thirty and fifty pounds and he knew that he could get a least
fifty times that for this one. He looked around, there was only one other person in the room. She was a short, pretty,
blonde woman of about thirty-five.
‘Hey,’ Stuart called to her, ‘are you anything to do with the people who did these?’
The girl frowned; ‘Yes’ she replied, ‘I’m a member of the group. Is there something I can help you with?’
‘I want to buy this picture’ Stuart told her, gesturing at the painting. The girl leaned forward to look
at it, frowned again and shook her head.
‘I’m sorry, that’s Annie’s,’ she told him, ‘she’s very old and she never sells her stuff.’
‘Oh, come on,’ Stuart protested. ‘Let me talk to her, I’ll treat the old girl, give her two hundred quid
for it.’ He reached for his wallet but the girl was shaking her head again.
‘Sorry, she’s not here,’ she said and then she smiled; ‘she told us an old witch like her had better
things to do on Halloween.’
Stuart gave a sigh of exasperation.
‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Thanks anyway.’
‘You’re welcome,’ the girl replied, turning away.
Stuart’s brow furrowed and he stared at the painting once more. It really was excellent. It was almost as if there was a
breeze stirring the leaves of the trees and a wisp of smoke eddying from the chimney. He took a small magnifying glass
from his pocket and leaned closer.
The detail was magnificent. There were no people but the cottage looked so real, it was almost as if he could reach out
and touch it. One of the curtains even twitched as he looked at it.
Stuart jerked back. He grinned and shook his head. It was so good that he had imagined something in the painting had moved.
He had to have it. He looked round. For the moment he was alone in the room. Okay, he decided, if he could not treat the
old woman, he would trick her. It was Halloween after all.
There was no one around. The picture was small and would easily fit under a folded topcoat. Slipping his coat off, Stuart
stepped forward and reached up to unhook the painting.
Lynette came looking for him ten minutes later. She could not see any sign of him except for his topcoat lying on the floor.
As she bent to pick it up her eyes came close to a small painting hanging above it. It was a country scene, with trees and
a cottage. At one of the windows of the cottage was what appeared to be a screaming face.
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