The runs

Climbing the stairs in the pleasant low-rise block, Claire began to have misgivings. The flat was on her way home, true, but perhaps it was a bit intrusive. It might look as if she were trying to catch them unawares. Was she?

No time to ponder that, as she was standing in front of their door. No option but to ring the bell.

“Oh hi, Ms Lough, I’m Miss Roberts –“

“I know who you are. He’s seriously ill in hospital.”

The shock of it, and the bald declaration, made her gasp. “Oh no, what’s the matter with him, I mean, why?”

“What I’ve been trying to tell the school all along – he has a serious gastric problem. He was throwing up all night Tuesday, he couldn’t get off the toilet and he kept fainting. I was at my wits’ end.  I told you something was wrong! I called an ambulance at three in the morning and went with him to St Martin’s.”

Despite her shock, Claire was conscious of the woman’s angry words echoing around the stairwell.

“Can I come in?” she ventured.

Wendy Lough’s voice cracked. “I’ve just got back from seeing him. They say he’s comfortable now.”

“Do you mind if I come in? Or is there anything I can do?”

A moment’s hesitation, then Claire was gestured inside. Finding herself almost immediately in a sunny living room, she gazed out of the window at the trees and the town beyond them, wondering if she should wait to be asked to sit down. She decided not.

“How bad is it, Wendy?” she asked gently.

The woman’s face crumpled and she wept suddenly, in deep, hacking sobs she tried to stifle with her hand. “They don’t know. It’s not his appendix. It could be –“ she gulped “– they’re saying it could be a tumour.”

“Oh my God.”

Silence.

“I’m sorry, I haven’t offered you tea or anything –“

“What? No, please, you don’t need – “

“No, I need to keep busy. How do you like it?”

Wendy shuffled off into the tiny kitchen. Claire stood up to follow her, but could see it would be uncomfortably crowded with two. She glanced around the tidy room. Silver-framed photos on a little table. There’s Jordan, aged about five, smiling gappily up at the camera.

She felt she was seeing him for the first time. Whenever she passed his desk, his head was slightly dropped; her image of him was a kaleidoscope of shiny black hair, long eyelashes and chewed nails. Lately he’d acquired a habit of rubbing his forehead with the heel of his hand, as if to wake himself up. A bright, shy boy. Her eyes swelled suddenly, as she realised her affection for him.

“We had a chat last Parent’s Evening, didn’t we?” Wendy called from the kitchen. Perhaps it isn’t that bad, Claire thought. At least she’s calmed down.

“Yes we did, it was good to meet you. Jordan’s a lovely boy, one of our best students. But you know that already,” she said, attempting to put a smile in her voice.  Wendy Lough was nothing if not a hands-on parent. She knew at least as much about Jordan’s grades, progress and homework schedule as Claire herself.

Wendy set down two mugs and settled into the sofa opposite. “Well, I’m on my own. If I don’t put Jordan first, who will? I know the school thinks I’m over-protective” – she sniffed – “but he won’t stick up for himself. And it turns out I was right to be worried, wasn’t I?” Her tone was defiant but her look was pleading.

“Yes, I’m so sorry about that. I got your note, but Jordan seemed well enough to stay at school, and he’s missed so much recently. But you’re right, we should have got in touch with you.”

“Yes, he should have come home straight away! That’s what I asked! He cannot have another accident at school. Diarrhoea’s no joke. It was horrible for him. After that he wanted to go to another school, but we talked about it and I persuaded him to stay at Heathfields, because you’re the best place around here. Now I feel I’ve let him down…” She started crying again, more gently this time.

Claire reached awkwardly across the coffee table for Wendy’s hand. “Of course you haven’t let him down, I’m sure he’ll be all right…”

“Oh, you know that for a fact as well, do you? Do you have kids, Miss Roberts?”

Bullseye, thought Claire, with a bitterness that surprised her. Ed didn’t want babies. And with eight more years than her to think about it, decidedly never would. Neither did she, yet. He still worked at the Solicitors’ firm where they’d met. He was a contented kind of guy, and their relationship a haven from the fraught attachments she’d been used to. She just couldn’t work out if it would be enough.

“No, I don’t. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have a child in hospital. But I am very fond of Jordan, Wendy. And please, call me Claire.”

The two women looked at each other: the rookie teacher and the battle-scarred mother. How did we get here, thought Claire.  She reached for her bag. “Well, I won’t take up any more of your time…“

“Look… sorry if I bit your head off.  I haven’t slept much and I’m stressed out. It is nice of you to come round. Will you stay for another drink? A glass of wine?”

Claire smiled. It couldn’t do any harm. And despite her attempt to recover some professional ground, she had no wish to get on the wrong side of Wendy Louth. “Well, just a tiny one, I’m driving.”

“Back in a sec.”

Claire wandered over to the cluster of photos again. Picked up a picture at the back of the table. A pretty young woman with a dark bob, with –

With Ed.

Wendy came back with two glasses. “Ah, you’ve found a picture of me in my prime,” she laughed. ”Before I put on all this weight.”

Claire tried to keep the tremor out of her voice. “Who’s this with you?”

“A guy I used to go out with. Jordan’s father, in fact. We split up, and a few weeks later I found out I was pregnant.”

“Where is he now?” Tell me it’s none of my business.

“No idea. I never told him about Jordan. We weren’t together that long. I just knew I wanted to keep the baby.”

A wave of nausea swept over her.  “Sorry, Wendy, do you mind if I use your bathroom?”

She closed the door and slumped onto the toilet seat, head in hands. Was this really happening? In the midst of trying to make sense of her thoughts, she got up and opened the bathroom cabinet. Behind the neatly stacked boxes of pills, ointments and herbal remedies, she found it.

Syrup of Ipecac. She’d known all along. Without even Googling it, she knew: the once-popular emetic, the bulimic’s friend. Heart-dissolving, gut-eroding ipecac.

She’d never be able to prove anything, of course. A misguided, anxious mother, into alternative medicine, tries to cure her son’s tummy troubles, only to compromise his health irrevocably. That’s her defence. Claire would forever be the childless teacher who falsely accused a single parent of abuse.

And maybe it wasn’t Ed in the picture.

Whatever, both were faits accompli.

She moved the bottle to the front of the medicine cabinet. She stared into her clear grey eyes in the mirror, and went back into the room.

by Tamara O’Brien

tamaracopy@gmail.com

Cetaphil

Jo was scratchy. Scratchy and late for the morning meeting.

She wished she hadn’t had to stop off at the chemist to get that dermatological cleanser. What was it called? Cetaphil, that was it. The nurse had even written it down for her, so she wouldn’t forget.

Jo hoped the Cetaphil would help relieve this incessant itching. To go just one day without her skin burning would be heaven, utter heaven. But on the back of her hands, Jo could already feel the first sparks igniting. And now she had to sit through this bloody meeting.

Jo had no idea why the board had summoned her on this particular Wednesday morning. She watched them nervously as they downed their morning espresso shots. People like that are far too important to waste time on drinking lattes.

The executive to her left spoke first. Something about profits and margins. He’d obviously been indulging in a little too much fine wine and red meat because the skin on his nose was a rich crimson, and his large pores turned his whole face into a big fat purple sponge.

Jo looked away feeling scratchy. Scratchy and increasingly anxious. The flames were beginning to singe her forearms. She wished they would hurry up and tell her why she was here and what this meeting was all about. She wanted to get out of this stuffy room with its ornate double doors and unnecessarily large table. It made her feel uneasy.

The executive to her right was saying something about moving the business forward. His skin seemed to hoard grease. The layer of oil on his face was thick enough to tempt half the western world to invade. Something about falling market shares and missed targets.

Jo was getting more and more scratchy. Scratchy and worried about where this conversation was leading. The fire had now spread up her forearms and past her elbows. She desperately tried to resist the urge to plunge her nails satisfyingly into her own flesh. She knew scratching it would make the fire worse, but the moment of release would feel incredible.

Next to speak was the executive across from Jo. Her alabaster skin was intimidatingly clear. Not a blemish, pimple or laughter-line dared to decorate that Botox-stiffened mask. The blankness of it unnerved Jo. She couldn’t read this woman, she couldn’t recognise any signs of human emotion within that empty exterior. Something about underperformance. Something about decreasing profitability.

Jo was really scratchy now. Scratchy and panicking. The fire had spread over her shoulders and was burning her chest.

Finally, the executive at the top of the table spoke. His skin was bone dry. Cruel. Uninhabitable. Dead flakes fell onto the lapels of his Suit, only to be casually brushed off onto the expensive carpet below.

Something about redundancy.

For a moment there was silence and nobody moved. Nobody apart from the spongy faced executive who was inspecting his tie for remnants of pain-au-chocolat. Jo’s face blazed. They stared at her like some eight-eyed monster. She wanted to say something to fight off their gaze but she was in shock so no words came out.

The company hadn’t been doing that badly, they were making a half-decent profit and Jo knew there were other things they could have done, there were still other things they could do. But not this.

Jo’s face was now utterly scratchy. Utterly scratchy and inflamed.

The oily skinned executive carefully selected a pain-au-raisin from the platter of French pastries in the center of the table.

Then the fire in Jo’s skin turned white-hot and something inside her snapped. Without thinking she reached into her handbag and her fingers closed tightly around the bottle of Cetaphil.

A second later Jo was walking out through the ornate double doors ignoring the carnage behind her. For the first time in ages, she didn’t feel scratchy.

by Steph Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Free Stuff

Offered: Ealing
One waterproof motorcycle jacket, blue and black canvas. With fleece lining and Kevlar pads in shoulders, elbows and back. It’s a women’s size 10. Unfortunately I am not.

Offered: Ealing
Motorcycling jeans: specially made double thickness black denim with Kevlar pads in knees and hips. Women’s size 10. (With Kevlar pads in hips, they make you look like a size 14, but it’s up to you: safety or style.)

Wanted: Ealing
Tall bookshelves needed, please. Preferably old and in need of restoration. Am beginning to have difficulty hurdling the European Book Mountain currently located on hall floor.

Offered: Ealing
Back copies of Kitchen Garden magazine. January – December 2007. (They are pretty much the same as January – December 2008, etc.)

Offered: Ealing
Women’s purple tango shoes, handmade by Flabella of Buenos Aires, size 38.5. Only worn indoors, never in daylight, and only for walking backwards.

Offered: Ealing
Eco-bags. Five organic cotton, three canvas and two so huge that they scrape along the pavement. Suitable for someone with short arms and/or long legs.

Offered: Ealing
Coloured pencils, paints, drawing paper, crayons and glue.

Offered: Ealing
1940s vintage handmade cream silk suit. Pencil skirt, jacket has a back pleat. Probably made for a wedding while fabric rationing was still in place. Size 8.

Wanted: Ealing
Perfume you’ve decided you don’t really like.

Offered: Ealing
In-line skates. Top of the range in 2004, bought from Skates on the Haight in San Francisco during a short bout of holiday-induced insanity. Used twice on flat pedestrian areas in parks. Sizes women’s 5.5 and men’s 9.

Offered: Ealing
Cardboard boxes for house move/storage. Used once. Also a roll of orange Sellotape.

Wanted: Ealing
Origami paper.

Offered: Ealing
Computer keyboard. Came free with new PC, but is pretty cheap and nasty. You’d only want it if you are 1) desperate 2) a really slow typist so it doesn’t matter 3) prone to spilling your coffee.

Offered: Ealing
Piano music: I have spare copies of Chopin’s Preludes and Beethoven’s Sonatas up for grabs.

Offered: Ealing
Ideas.

Wanted: Ealing
Wings, lightweight, safe to a height of 30m. Size 12 women’s.

by Sarah McCartney

 

 

 

Robert

He nudged the front door open, resisted only by unopened bank statements and takeaway menus – the last stand in a siege he had no interest in breaking. Even the afternoon light seemed reluctant to creep into the hallway, with its impassive silence and smell of stale laundry. Dropping the keys back into the envelope, and pushing the debris aside with a tentative toe, he looked once again at the words scrawled on the front: ‘Mr Taylor, 39 Pear Tree Walk’. Probably best to start upstairs.

The landing was more or less as he had expected. A computer keyboard, with some of the letters missing, resting on some half-dismantled bookshelves (no books). A faded china plate on which he could just about read the the slogan ‘Ble s this h use’. A few empty bottles, naturally. Through a half-open door, the bathroom: on the sink, a mound of disposable razors waiting to be disposed of. He was moving towards the bedroom when a shout came from below.

“Hey! Is someone in there?”

Stepping halfway back down the stairs, he saw an old woman silhouetted in the front door frame.

“Can I help you?”

“Oh,” she exhaled, resting a papery hand against the woodchip. “I’m sorry, love, I saw the front door open and thought something might be up. Kids round here, see, never know what they’ll get up to now the place is empty. Was all ready to call the police!”

He looked down at her, in her sheepskin slippers and cheap cardigan. He feared she was eager to chat.

“You must be from the solicitor’s, then?” she suggested. “I don’t think I saw you at the funeral?”

“I wasn’t at the funeral.”

“That’s what I thought. I would have seen you. Not that many people there, no, not many at all. Did you know Mr Taylor well?”

A pause. “No, I didn’t know him.”

Indifferent to his remoteness, she seemed to spot an opportunity. “Dear me – a rum one, Mr Taylor. Lived fast, you might say, in his youth. See, he had a wife and a son, but on top of that too many girlfriends to count. Don’t know how many kids running round these parts ended up with that devilish smile of his, no. They didn’t hang around, though. In the end, the drink did for him.”

“I heard as much.”

“I’ve been next door for years. Once tried to talk to him, as you do, get him to sort himself out. Sad, though. It was like he didn’t have the words.”

Another pause. Suddenly, an idea seemed to dawn on her.

“I think I’ve got some of his post, put through my door by mistake – letters all mixed up, from recently. I suppose you’ll be wanting those? You will, I’m sure, hold on…”

Before he could stop her, she was shuffling down the path to her own doorway. Thankful for the renewed solitude, he made his way back up the stairs.

As he walked, a tune rose up somewhere in his brain:

“I remember when I was a lad

Times were hard and things were bad…”

What was the next part? Every silver lining had a cloud… Something about dirt. He suspected he was remembering it wrong. But he remembered this door well enough, and the grooves beneath the handle where he had scratched his own name. Yes, there it was, the letter ‘T’, just about legible. Kneeling and running his finger over the wood, he remembered the nights he spent alone here. And the nights his father locked the door against women’s voices, some indignant, some pleading.

Standing straight again, he moved towards the master bedroom. Not quite as he remembered it. Behind the door, trunks stood in teetering piles, lids dappled with greasy fingerprints. Yellowing newspapers with the print bleached to nothing lay on the cobwebbed windowsill. Nothing had been thrown away in years. Taking off his jacket, at a loss as to where to hang it, he sighed. Surely none of it was worth keeping. But he had promised to look – so, he began.

*

After grappling with binbags for what felt like hours, something caught his eye in the half-light. A cardboard box, close to the bed, with a tattered piece of paper taped to the front. Written on the piece of paper was a single word.

He kneeled and opened the lid. Touching the edges, he wondered if this was the only thing in the house not covered in grime. To his amazement, inside was a meticulously ordered collection of photographs, newspaper articles and other papers – swimming certificates, school reports, drawings, Christmas cards, and half-completed puzzle books. This was obviously recently used; seemingly much-loved. Frowning, he took one of the photographs by the corner, between thumb and forefinger, and eased it from the box. A boy sat at a white plastic garden chair, smiling broadly at the camera, a bottle of ketchup in one hand and a blackened beefburger in the other.

He dropped the picture onto the floor. It wasn’t one of his half-brothers, Luke, Thomas or Simon. He didn’t know this boy at all. Pulling another photograph from the box, he saw the same face, this time riding on the shoulders of a man. They had the same smile, the same eyes, the same strawberry blonde hair. In photograph after photograph he saw the same faces, together, ageing, beaming. His father, and a boy he didn’t recognise, happy, fixed together in a picture-perfect world. And there, gathered together at one end of the box, a collection of books – gentle creases in the spine, but otherwise well kept. He glanced at the title, the name still gleaming on the cover.

He suddenly felt claustrophobic. Must be the dust, in this airless hovel. Without knowing why, he lifted the box and carried it quickly out of the room. His head felt foggy as he retraced his steps, down towards the front door. To distract himself, he forced the lyrics from his memory: There’s a silver lining behind every cloud, just poor people, that’s all we were…

As he strode through the door frame, the old woman appeared again, this time with a bundle of mail that was clearly nothing but junk. She jumped backwards as he strode blindly past her.

“I found these for you,” she called, hand outstretched. “Do you want them? If anything else comes, I can send it on for you, if you only give me the address…”

“I don’t want them,” he interrupted. “I’m not from the solicitor.”

“Oh – I thought… You’re not…”

“I’m here to get everything in order for my mother.”

There was a moment of stillness before the recognition dawned. “Oh! You… Bless me, it must be more than ten years… I, I wouldn’t have recognised…”

Resting the box on a gatepost with one hand, he fumbled in his pocket for a card, and thrust it towards her.

“If there are any problems with the house, call my mobile number. Or if you want to call a landline instead, my publisher’s number is on there too. Ask for Robert Taylor.”

She watched as he lifted the box and walked away.

*

He carried the box to the end of the road, to a familiar fenced-off area where a stray cat scratched idly at a black rubbish bag. He dropped the box onto the ground and the creature darted behind a bin. He told himself that he wasn’t the one who threw everything away. If he’d looked back, he would have seen the wind lift the piece of paper bearing his name, lift it clean from the box and carry it off down the pavement – Robert, a boy disappearing again. But he didn’t look. He strolled on and sang: “Daddy sang bass, something something something…”

by Kate Baxter

@kbaxtweets

 

Pay for it

The letters started coming after the twelve-week scan. They know the baby’s going to be healthy so they’ve made their presence known. Every week the letters have been inviting me for my free abortion, reminding us of the situation. The tariff’s going up twice a year now with the new government.

It’s not just letters. Paul gets phone calls and weekly visits at work. They keep picking his brains, trying to get our decision out of him. But the truth is we haven’t made it. He gets rid of them somehow and then we silently worry about it at night.

My thoughts are always on the pile of unopened letters. The red ‘urgent’ stamp branding my conscience every time I see it. I have to look away because it’ll affect the baby. They keep coming and we just get used to the constant ebb.

As the weeks have gone by my sickness has eased off but my belly button’s popped out. They stop the scans and hospital visits after twelve weeks – that’s as far as they help you. Their way of saying that having a baby isn’t the way to go. Not having a doctor around is frustrating. I don’t know if craving pencil lead’s normal or if having balloon ankles is natural. And I’m really conscious of what I think about and what I watch on TV. I’ve been really strict. I haven’t watched any scary films since I found out I was pregnant. Nor have Paul and I had sex. My thoughts are directly linked to the baby so I’ve got to be careful. I don’t want my kid to be violent or sex-crazed. I only have a vague idea of my due date because I remember them mentioning it back in school.

Schools used to have sex education. But by the time I was old enough, they cut it. And before we could find anything else out, they’d brought in the tariffs. I tried asking Mum about it once; I remember it so clearly. I’ve never seen her that angry before. She was insulted I’d asked her. Gave me a lecture on why it’s important and then she just flipped.

‘It’s a good thing they’re introducing free abortions. Then you won’t make the same mistake I did.’ I’m an only child, so that hurt.

When I told her and Dad about this they literally pushed me out the front door. I called Mum in the day and said I had some big news to tell them. So they invited us round for dinner. Mum, being the traditionalist she is, jumped the gun and assumed Paul had proposed to me. We got there and she’d done a slap-up meal, dressed the table with candles and everything. I waited until we were on the third bottle of wine to tell them. But that only dramatised their reaction.

Dad’s still not speaking to me. But Mum came in the shop the other day to say her piece.

‘If you’re doing this for us, we don’t want a grandchild. We didn’t even want you…’ she trails off. Once again, cutting her maternal ties to me, ‘Look, if you want to ask me anything baby-related then you can. But you’re not seriously thinking about keeping it, are you?’

Nowadays, there’s no way my questions can be answered. All the baby books were banned 20 years ago.

I think I’m eight months along but I haven’t bothered asking Mum anything. When I told the neighbours they looked repulsed. And Paul and I still haven’t talked about it. His answers always mirror mine. It feels like my opinion’s out there floating mid-air and his is wedged in his throat, trying to escape through his expressions. Until yesterday.

It was Friday and Paul did a half day at work. He came home with a smile on his face, one I hadn’t seen in a while.

‘What’s up with you?’ I asked, smiling for him.

‘I got a promotion. And you know what that means? More money.’ The relief that covered me came out in tears. But then anxiety started choking me as he carried on, ‘This means we can finally paint our bedroom. And I’ll take you away somewhere.’

I was breathing hard now, trying to break the sealant of phlegm that blocked my throat. I eventually coughed up a wail and cupped my stomach, ‘What about… this?’ I could hardly see through the tears. He really didn’t get it.

That night we didn’t talk. I lay awake for hours, just me and the baby. It kicks occasionally, to let me know it’s there. I respond by thinking of myself smiling and saying ‘I know’ to it. I don’t talk to it because it won’t understand. And it’s like tapping on the glass of a fish tank; my voice is ten times louder to the baby and I don’t want it to be deaf. Eventually I fall asleep to the sound of my heart beating against my temples. Paul stays on the sofa.

The next day we try and talk about it. But I can’t help but think how much I love being alone with the baby. I’ve deliberately woken up in the night lots of times before, just so we can be alone. And I get the same feeling every time. I love what’s inside of me more than I’ll ever love the man sleeping next to me.

I don’t need to say it but I do, ‘I want to keep it.’

He looks at his hands as if they’d have an answer, ‘Are they open now?’ I didn’t know what he was getting at, ‘I’ll go down there and fill out the forms.’

*

By the time he’s back it’s gone six. I’ve made a half-arsed dinner maybe as a thank-you. Or just because I thought I should.

‘Where’ve you been?’

‘To do what you wanted.’ He sits down and starts scoffing some bread.

‘What we want.’ He doesn’t look up from his plate and starts twirling pasta round his fork.

‘So what did they say?’

‘The usual. That it’s not worth it. That the fees are going up and that we can’t afford it.’ His voice is sticky through the carbonara.

‘So. What happens now?’

‘He told me to sleep on it. Then if we still want to, I can go down first thing tomorrow and pay for it.’

*

The last of the letters arrived yesterday. I opened it.

by Jo Wigley

 

Jerusalem

13 July 1936

Cornwall is in the grip of an English heat wave, slumbering in a drowsy fug. The Ship Inn perches precariously on the edge of Falmouth Bay. It’s a quiet Monday lunchtime, no-one in but Len, drawing deeply on one of his foreign cigarettes, a rasping cough followed quickly by a dark stream of spittle. He sups on a pint of warm bitter.

**

Len, 45, learnt his trade on the streets of the East End.  It hadn’t changed much since Dickens’ time; there were the richer classes, the rulers, living side by side with the under classes. The relationship was a symbiotic one with a shared code of conduct. Like a dog with fleas, they kept each other honest.

Len knew his way around London. He looked at the poor saps on their bicycles burrowing through the warren of streets, lamps boring their way through the fog, all to get their badge of honour, “The Knowledge”, from the imperialist bureaucrats at the Public Carriage Office.

Len hated authority, unless it suited him not to. He still visited the capital, but infrequently. On those occasions the most skilled exponent of the Knowledge would not have found his destination: buildings that officially did not exist, where visitors were “by invitation only” and accompanied by a minder.

Len made useful contacts on both sides of the divide. They served him well when he found himself a deserter during the Great War. He made sure he was one of the few, not the many; a survivor, though he always wore his poppy on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. He had been spirited away in the night to lie low in Cornwall.

After the war, he picked up where he’d left off, and filled a need in the post-conflict vacuum, where food was as scarce as eligible young men. Len was not one for relationships but he had charm, and a steady income stream of dubious provenance. He employed both ruthlessly.

Under its Edwardian exterior, English society was no different to any other. Men had needs: favours were bartered across the land like any other illicit commodity. There was a constant market value, a good exchange rate, and a regular customer base.

***

Falmouth was a labyrinth of dark alleys, stairs leading to hidden landings. It’s dark and murky past still shaped its present. A centre of trade and commerce, the deep estuary and bustling dockyard fuelled an economy that wasn’t always as transparent as the bay on a sunny day. The 1930s cast their ever darker shadow over the town; the local economy went further underground, where it flourished.

The big containers from the Americas and Europe and the ever present Royal Navy ensured a cosmopolitan clientele in The Ship. Len picked up smatterings of whispered conversations in pidgin English and foreign dialects, understanding enough to detect a growing undercurrent of unrest across Western Europe: social division in Germany, anarchy in Spain, the rise of fascism in Italy. While England dozed, world- shaping events were unfolding on the continent.

***

Len had a visitor, sharp-suited, straight off the train from London. He was well spoken, his face a blank canvas, but his comportment cried out Armed Forces. His English was perfect, a bit too perfect perhaps. Business with Len was concluded quickly and the two left. Neither were seen in the Ship again.

14 July 1936

Len leant into the strong and rising south-westerly wind as he steered a course around the north west of Spain. He was relieved to see the lights of Vigo looming into view through the inky black darkness. Captain Bill Peters, as he called himself, was busy down below with papers and a radio transmitter. Len’s curiousity, though tempered by the large sum he had been promised, couldn’t stifle a certain sense of intrigue as to the captain’s business. He whetted his lips.

Len had charted the seas of this corner of Europe, a gateway to Africa, over many years. He traded mostly tangible contraband but understood how his knowledge of these dark oceans was valuable to those shadowy figures in Whitehall, those who traded not in cigarettes or brandy, but in the sponsorship of world conflict, when it suited their interest.        

15 July 1936

Len was up early, setting course for African waters. Next stop: Gran Canaria. He pulled out his charts. They were not where they should be. Captain Peters had been busy in the night. A scrap of paper fell to the floor. Heavily typed in Spanish. Short and to the point:

Operacion Ciencia

18 Julio 1936

Todo por la patria

Len, with his rudimentary Spanish, understood: “Operation Knowledge”, “All for the Fatherland” ….in three days time!

He heard steps and put the paper back quickly. Captain Peters came up behind him, slapped him on the back and demanded coffee. Len turned round and noted the penetrating eyes.

16 July 1936

Gran Canaria emerged through the early morning haze that had drifted across from the North African coast. The old Spanish Colony reeked of rotting fish and human decay. Len ignored the main harbour and tracked across to a lonely cove, his regular disembarkation point. No welcome party, no record of entry.

Captain Peters handed over the attache case of laundered banknotes. Len knelt down to tie the boat securely. He heard a click, turned, and was shot dead in cold blood, cleanly through the head.

17 July 1936

Captain Peters, who had become Flight Lieutenant Smythe, drummed his fingers on the table top. All was going to plan. The plane was waiting, fuelled and stripped down. He wore civilian clothes. Captain Peter’s papers and effects had been disposed of, along with Len’s body. A new passport and identity had been issued. The penalty for being discovered by the authorities, he knew, would be execution.

An English officer, illegally operating on Spanish soil, was a risk. Even his status as a special envoy of the British Government, engaged on official business, would not save him. The British Consulate would deny all knowledge of his presence, an unmarked grave would be prepared. A small corner of a foreign field forever British and German. For Captain Smythe had been chosen for this task due to his dual nationality. He had spent many years growing up in Germany and witnessed firsthand the rise to power of Hitler. His son was an eager product of the Hitler Youth movement, proud of his brown shirt and fascist salute. He was seen by the British Conservative establishment as ideally placed to advise on the changing social structures in 1930s Germany.

Tension was building between the two countries, and indeed the rest of Europe. The American allies were concerned, though the Wall Street crash and its aftermath preoccupied them. Britain was carefully positioning itself as the threat of war loomed closer. Its economy was weak, the banking elite was wary of war. Shadowy meetings took place in discrete country house locations. Ministers sounded out business leaders.

The elite that ruled England from the shadows was not in favour of war. There was a grudging respect for Herr Hitler and his effective marshalling of austerity measures. The talk was of appeasement.

A motor car came to a halt outside, escorted by a pair of uniformed motor cyclists. Flight Lieutenant Smythe stood up and saluted.

18 July 1936

The weather was breaking over the south west coast of England. The band of high pressure was moving away to the continent. The oppressive heat of the last week was waning. There was a crackle of thunder in the air. It was 11 o’clock in The Ship, time for the news on the BBC World Service.

“This is the BBC,” announced the clipped tones.”Today saw the outbreak of civil war in Spain. General Franco, commander of the North African Brigade and exiled to the Canaries, was flown into the south of the country under the cover of darkness to take charge of the rebel nationalist forces. Mr Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, has just made a statement in which he reassured the British public that their government had no prior knowledge of this dramatic development, which was entirely an internal matter for the Spanish authorities.”

by Paul Murphy

http://thelittlesummerofthequince.wordpress.com/

Fourth night

It was Puzzle Time again. This was the fourth school night in a row, and a treat for them both. And though Nana had become more accustomed to grown-up wine-amplified chatter on evenings in with old friends, she loved this disruption to the norm. The sound of her granddaughter’s exclamations were welcomed and embraced by all the corners of the house.

Anya came speeding down the stairs, having changed out of her school uniform, and slid herself onto a chair at the wooden dining table, swinging her seven-year-old legs with the excitement of staying over. She planted a kiss on Nana’s smiling cheek. They were nearly done with the puzzle they’d started three days earlier – a picture of an amphitheatre under the sunshine in the ancient ruins of Petra. The world’s rose-red city. After three days, the empty stone-pink stage, a place where ancient dramas were once played out, was beginning to take form, piece by piece.

‘How was your day Anya? What did you learn today?’

Anya concentrated hard on a faded-pink puzzle piece while thinking back, to give her Nana an honest, considered answer.

Somewhere in the room, Nana’s phone gave out a text-message-tinkle. ‘I’ll check it in a second. Go on, tell me.’

‘Well, Sophie gave out invitations for her 7th birthday party. She gave me an invitation – it’s in my folder. Sophie’s my good friend – not my best friend – but my good friend. I think all my friends will be there.’

‘That sounds like fun. Does that mean you’ll have to buy Sophie a birthday present?’

‘Yes, I’ll wait for mummy to get back, then we’ll go shopping together – you can come too, Nana. Do you think mummy will be back by then?’

This four-day sleepover, especially during school time, was out of the ordinary – and out of the blue. And while enjoying this little person’s company, Nana hadn’t thought about what to tell Anya. She fiddled with a puzzle piece, spinning it between thumb and forefinger, while coming up with answer.

‘Why? Are you not having a good time with Nana?’

Anya looked up.

Nana smiled and winked.

Anya smiled back, shy and reserved all of a sudden. ‘Yes, I aaaaam.’

‘Good then.’ Nana put down the puzzle piece and walked towards the fridge. ‘Now, you carry on with that puzzle while I get us out some of those carrot sticks with hummus that you like so much. And tell me more about your day.’

Anya was more than happy to carry on. ‘Well Georgia, my other good friend, told me her granddad’s taking her to the farm this Saturday to feed the pigs and comb the pony’s tail. And she said there were chickens too. And they get to see the baby chicks being born.’  She traced her fingers along the edge of a puzzle piece in front of her while she spoke.

Nana came back to the table with a plateful of carrot sticks and bowlful of hummus to go with it. Anya studied her Nana’s face with the scrutiny of a seven-year-old about to ask a question she probably shouldn’t ask. ‘Nana, why don’t I have a granddad?’

Nana wasn’t Nana yet and Granddad wasn’t a granddad when he’d driven her through Jordan all those years ago. That’s how they’d met and got to know each other. He was earning money driving tourists around a country he’d come to love. She was the only woman travelling on her own. She had coloured beads around her wrist and neck, and a tattoo of a peacock on her shoulder. Her hair had been dyed a flaming red.

So he asked her questions. And answered hers about the deserts, the towns, the ruins of Jordan. They bonded over a love for liquorice tea, a shared sense of humour, wickedly dry, and a secret favourite pastime of solving fiendishly difficult jigsaw puzzles. He taught her his secret hummus recipe – the best she’d ever tasted. She told him of her dreams to visit all the places in the world she’d read about in books as a little girl. They teased each other about getting old and spending their years putting puzzles together all day long.

When she finally decided to head back to London, he came with her. They set up a home, where they’d spend evenings with friends. They started designing their own puzzles that he’d print onto wood and carve out for them. They drank wine and ate hummus and solved home-made jigsaw puzzles with the radio on in the background…

Nana switched the radio on. She and Anya weren’t making as much progress as she’d expected to make that evening. She picked up a puzzle piece and slotted it in smoothly, finishing up the set of stairs leading to the amphitheatre. She picked up another piece and spun it around between her fingers again. ‘That’s a really good question, pumpkin. You do have a granddad. Hasn’t mummy ever told you about him?’

‘Ummm. Nope. I never knew what a granddad was, but Georgia said everyone has a granddad, sometimes two granddads, and then at playtime I asked Sophie and she said her granddad lives with her. Do you know where my granddad is, Nana?’

Around the time he left, not-yet-Nana had been having odd, vivid dreams for a few weeks. So when she’d heard the front door gently open and click shut again, she thought nothing of the sound. She believed she’d dreamt it.

When she’d woken up alone in the morning she still hadn’t a single suspicion, no reason to suspect anything was wrong. Their half-finished puzzle and his half-empty wine bottle were still on the dinner table. He had kissed her cheek before sleep the previous evening, and rubbed the growing bump under her night shirt.

When, by lunchtime, she hadn’t heard anything, she assumed he must be busy at work. She cleared up last night’s dishes, made the bed, tidied the room. And it was only when she went to put her clothes away in the closet that she noticed the emptiness. Where there should’ve been shirts and trousers hanging, there was only now a phantom. It declared its dizzying presence through tobacco scent, the freshness of wood shavings from a day’s work, the smell of the solvent used to scrub ink off hands.

He’d left a note, the absurdly polite man. She hadn’t seen it coming. But she had to get herself together for the child she was about to bring into the world. Her child, not theirs. A few weeks later she had stopped wearing her wedding ring. Her memory of his young face didn’t match her own, ageing, so she let go of it. And though it took years, she eventually stopped thinking about how she’d react if she ever saw him again.

She helped Anya slot another piece into the puzzle. Then she picked up another, brought it close to her face and took in a gentle breath of the wood scent she’d pretended to ignore for decades. It still reminded her of him. He could’ve been there in the room with them.

‘Your granddad… he’s… I’m afraid I don’t know where he is, my lovely. He used to live here, many many years ago. But not anymore. I don’t think he’d be able to take you to the farm.’

As Nana said it, Anya turned her head towards a silhouette approaching the door outside. Children somehow always sensed when their parents were nearby.

Nana had forgotten to check her phone. The message said ‘I’ll make it back this evening. I’m bringing him with me’. Nana should’ve expected it – she knew where her daughter had gone. But before she could make anything of what she’d just read, Anya had run to open the door.

‘Mummy!’ They gave each other kisses and hugs.

‘Hello Anya, my dollface. How are you? Have you had fun with Nana?’

Nana approached the door to find her daughter wasn’t alone.

The man had ink under his fingernails. He was the jigsaw piece she had just held to her face. He was the hummus she’d just fed to her granddaughter. The flat pink stone of the Petra amphitheatre. The day she’d tried so hard to forget. He was his daughter’s curiosity. And as he stood in front of Nana now, he was the past. She stepped back. And she let him in.

by Roshni Goyate

www.twitter.com/roshnigoyate

My Young Love

Who are all those people walking over Waterloo Bridge? I often wondered. Where are they going? And why? All those journeys, all that shoe leather. One evening I stopped to speak to someone. Some stories you don’t want to hear.

I’d worked late on a pitch I was due to present to a new client the following morning. I was pleased with the ‘Bank with us because we’re banking on you’ strapline so I treated myself to a drink at the Betsey Trotwood. I met up with the usual crowd from the Free Word centre but left them to it at around ten.

I took my usual route home down Farringdon Road, through the legal district, along the Strand and onto the upriver side of Waterloo Bridge.

Halfway across the river I stopped and breathed in London: the smell of money and diesel. I leaned on the cold, metal railing and took in the sweep of the Thames with the broken lights of London bobbing on the surface. Taxis rattled past as the swirl of October wind lapped the water below. I remember I could still taste the last pint of Guinness as I took out my mobile phone and composed a frame. One for the blog. As I was framing another picture I became aware of a still figure in the shadows a few metres away.

‘Don’t do it,’ urged a voice. ‘She’s not worth it.’

A man, possibly in his late 30s, stepped into the streetlight. Etiolated. A man of the night. He was wearing a T-shirt that read ‘Don’t Believe the Lies’, and had an acoustic guitar strapped across his back. Busker?

‘Some are worth it,’ I said.

He held a quick smile before killing it.

I recognized him.

‘Weren’t you just in the Betsey Trotwood?’ I asked.

‘Yeah.’

‘Your local?’

‘Never been there before,’ he said, seriously. ‘I went to meet someone. She didn’t show. But I caught up with her later.’

I could remember the man coming into the pub but not speaking a word. He sat conspicuously alone on a tall stool and glanced at the swing door every time someone entered. When he didn’t have his eyes glued to the entrance he was checking his phone for messages. He left before I did.

‘Been playing long?’ I asked.

He swung his guitar from his back and strummed a D major.

‘Some pub gigs, a studio session or two. You?’

‘I can bash out a few chords,’ I answered. ‘Now I’m strictly words, no music.’

‘You write, then?’

‘Yeah.’

‘For a living?’

‘Yes.’

‘Have I heard of you?’

‘No but you may have read something I wrote.’

‘Try me.’

‘“One word is worth a thousand pictures.”’

‘Like the ad for the phone company?’

‘Yeah. That was me.’

‘Not exactly Shakespeare, is it?’

I shrugged.

‘Not exactly Ray Davies, are you?’

‘Helps pay the rent,’ he said.

‘Same here.’

‘One word is worth a thousand… which word, exactly?’ he asked.

‘You choose. That’s the point. It’s meant to inspire people to use their phone more. “It’s good to talk”, and all that.’

‘You mean it’s good to spend more money I don’t have talking to people I barely know on an expensive phone tariff I don’t understand.’

He glared.

‘It’s only an advertisement,’ I said.

‘Yeah, well bollocks to it.’

Then he stuffed a hand into his trouser pocket, took out a mobile phone and, daring me to stop him, threw it in the air. It spun in a wide arc before disappearing over the railing. Instinctively I ran to the barrier and saw the glint of the phone at the moment it hit the water.

‘Shit, man, was that an iPhone?’

‘No use to me now,’ he said.

He stepped up next to me and looked down into the darkness. I surreptitiously slipped my BlackBerry into my jacket pocket and stepped away.

‘I’d best be off,’ I said. ‘I’ve got a Tesco curry at home with my name on it.’

‘Did you write the ad for that too?’

He was baiting me now.

He played the D chord again and sang: ‘No need to worry, when you can force down our curry.’ Then, to a C major: ‘Tesco’s curries, no worries.’

‘Very creative,’ I sighed.

‘New words to an old tune,’ he called, and then to the same melody, he sang: ‘My young love said to me… I’m sure you don’t want to hear the rest.’

‘Maybe some other time,’ I said, and began to head south.

‘If not now, when?’ he hissed, his eyes forced shut.

The guy seemed upset so I stopped. I was in no hurry (for my curry) so I took a few steps back and let him talk.

‘The things she said. I believed them all.’

‘Words are important,’ I said.

‘But only if you mean them.’ The tremor beneath his words held me. ‘You’re a man of words; do you mean everything you say, everything you write?’

‘I mean them to be suitable for the client I’m working for, if that answers your question.’

That line came out clever, which wasn’t intended.

Traffic streamed by as tourists up and down the bridge took photographs west to the Eye and east towards the OXO Tower and the City. Despite the bustle, this curious guitar playing man and I seemed to be trapped in a capsule of existence insignificant to the rest of London.

‘Look, I know it’s none of my business,’ I said, ‘but why did you throw your iPhone into the river?’

‘She took everything else. Everything that mattered, anyway. She might as well take the phone – and all her messages. The final word from my young love.’

He strummed D major, and sang, ‘My young love said to me, my mother won’t mind, and my father won’t slight you for your lack of kind.’

He seemed to sob, and then continued, ‘It will not be long, love, until our wedding day.’

‘She said she’d marry me,’ he said, ‘the girl who didn’t show at the pub.’

I felt like I was being dragged into something.

‘So, she called it off?’ I asked.

He nodded.

I breathed an empathetic sigh. ‘That’s tough.’

‘Life’s shit and then you die,’ he said, and held my gaze.

He leaned on the rail and balanced the guitar on the paling. It was a Martin, an expensive instrument, and one I’d expect to be carried in a case through the city.

He noticed me clocking it. ‘It’s a D forty two. Best one in my collection. Can’t go wrong with a vintage Martin.’

I was so far into the story I couldn’t pull out now.

‘Did she meet somebody else?’ I asked.

‘I’ll never know,’ he said. ‘She sent a garbled message while I was in the pub. The last text. I can’t show it to you as I seem to have misplaced my phone. Like you say, words are important. She never heard the song.’

He ran his fingers across the strings then let go of the guitar, which slipped over the railing. The open chord rang out but quickly died and we both winced as the guitar belly-flopped onto the water.

All I could think was: ‘What next?’

As I imagined the guitar floating towards St Paul’s, I searched for some words to fill the chasm that was growing between us.

‘No chance of making up?’ I asked. Daft question. This is serious.

‘It’s gone too far for that,’ he replied. ‘Too much has happened. Everything’s been said – spoken down the phone, whispered on the pillow, sung into microphones.’

‘Not necessarily,’ I said, too earnest. ‘You could give her a ca… contact her somehow. These things have a habit of working out. When did you see her last?’

‘Just before you appeared. Ten minutes ago.’

‘She was here on Waterloo Bridge?’

‘Yes.’

‘Which way did she go?’

‘Down there. Into the dirty old river. With all the texts and all the songs I ever sang for her.’

I froze.

He pulled out a sheet of paper. Blankly, he said, ‘Except this one; the song she never heard.’

I ran to the railing and leaned over. A pleasure boat cruised underneath filled with people unaware of what was above them, or below.

‘Christ! We’ve got to do something!’

I took out my phone and called 999.

As I waited for the pick up, I asked, ‘What’s your name?’

‘Terry.’

‘And your girlfriend’s?’

‘Julie.’

I scanned the bridge for help.

‘Emergency – which service do you require… ?’

I turned back to see Terry standing on the outside of the railing, holding on with one hand and waving the sheet of paper in the other.

‘NO!’ I shouted.

He sang, ‘We are in paradise,’ and let go.

The song, written out in his own hand, fell to the ground before he hit the water.

by Alan Whelan

A Job for Easter

– Sorry, that’s my phone, hold on…no, I missed it. Who’s that from? Oh, it was mother. I hope she’s ok. Maybe I should I call her back?

– If it’s not very urgent, please leave it until after the session. We only have twenty-five minutes left, and this is supposed to be time for you and Joe. So, let’s continue, Christine, you mentioned you’ve been feeling under pressure.

– I’ve been busy. Work’s always very hectic in the weeks before Easter. People come in for repeat prescriptions before the holidays, and the flu’s still around.

– And how does this affect you?

– Well, I worry about the stress, because I know I should be looking after myself right now. But I think it’s becoming a negative circle for me. There’s so much at work, and what with my mother, and the Home.

– The nursing home, she’s a volunteer. As if our own home wasn’t enough.

– Joe, that’s different. Helping the elderly is important. Anyway, when I get back in the evening, I have a glass of wine to wind down, and then another one with dinner. Before I know it, a bottle’s gone down.

– She drinks wine like it’s water.

– It has been a bit too much lately.

– Can you describe a situation recently when you had that overwhelming feeling?

– Just the other day, I’d had a full day at work, stopped by the shops, and then popped into see my mother. She’s a bit poorly. Used to be so full of energy, one of those feisty redheads. Now she‘s gone grey, and she’s on her own. Well, she’s always been on her own really, dad was never very present in our lives. I cooked for her, put some extra in the freezer, and checked she’d taken her medicine. Then I was on my way again. I got home and was preparing dinner when Mo came back with a bag full of sweaty footy kit and a note from school saying “A job for Easter”. Great, I thought, just what I need. Another bloody job for Easter!

– You shouldn’t scratch at it. See those red rashes on her wrists? It’s eczema, chronic. I’ve told her before, scratching will only make it worse, but she won’t listen to me. She’s starting to get flaky patches below the hairline as well now. There.

– I know, I know. Anyway, it turns out that for Geography class they need to learn their home address off by heart. Including the postal code! He barely knows all the letters in the alphabet, and we’re in NW. He hasn’t reached W yet, he’s barely past ABC.

– They actually don’t need to learn the postal code off by heart. I saw that note you’d stuck on the fridge. It says you can put the postal code on an envelope that they bring to school with them.

– But what if all the other kids come back knowing the whole thing? Mo would feel awful. I want to give him the best chance I can at school.

– He’s just a lad, let him get on with it.

– What do you know about school? You never get involved with Mo’s homework.

– I did practice the two-times table with him. It went well actually, I enjoyed it.

– Once! You did homework with him once, Joe. It’s really important that he doesn’t fall behind at this age. It’ll be much harder to catch up later on.

– School’s not all there is. When they leave there are no jobs to be had anyway. I’ve told Mo. I’ve told him either you come work with me as an apprentice, or you set up your own thing. A man’s got to make his own money these days.

– Let’s take a step back. You may not agree right now about what your son should be doing in the future. But at the moment, he’s in school, and helping out with homework is one of the jobs that come with having a family. What are your thoughts on this, Joe?

– I want to help, but she’s the expert on everything, it’s intimidating. And I come back after six at night, and my whole body aches. I can’t bear to do anything.

– Not the cleaning anyway, that’s for sure.

– No one’s asked you to clean the house every week either, you just do that.

– But if I don’t do it, it won’t get done!

– I’ll interrupt here. Is this really about the cleaning? Is a dirty house unbearable to you Christine?

– Yes! Erhm, yeah, I suppose.

– Can you compare it to something else? Is cleaning more important than Mo’s homework for example?

– No, Mo’s schooling is very important.

– Good. You’re starting to identify priorities. Sometimes it might be worth considering what is a little less important, and give that less time.

– But it’s nice when the house is clean.

– Well, it’d be nicer for me if you were a bit more relaxed. You’re already doing the volunteering, and cooking for your mother.

– She hasn’t been well, Joe!

– I know. But she qualifies for Meals on Wheels. It takes you two nights a week to cook and stock up the fridge for her.

– Home-made is nicer.

– As I said, it may be possible to make priorities, and you would have to agree on which ones. Please reflect on that individually, and we’ll talk about it next time. Now tell me Joe, you mentioned that you feel very tired after work. What do you do to help you unwind?

– Well, not much, to be honest. I would like to have a bit more, you know…intimacy. But it’s like she’s too efficient. Especially since we started trying for another baby. She’ll only do it at certain times, when the temperature’s right and all that. Then again, she’s never been much up for it. A bit of a miracle we ever had Mo, if you ask me.

– You just don’t know how to…

– We’ll come on to your physical relationship another time. For now, I think we can agree that you need to readjust the balance of work, childcare, and time for yourselves and each other.

– There isn’t any balance at all!

– Our session’s almost finished, but I have a piece of homework for you. There are a few bank holidays coming up over Easter. Now, being away from work doesn’t necessarily allow you to relax unless you change the behaviour that causes you stress. Use these days to break the pattern. I want you, Joe, to take on the responsibility of cooking and cleaning, and also anything to do with Mo’s football training and Easter homework. Christine, you’ll go on a retreat of sorts. For three days starting tomorrow, which is Good Friday, you won’t do any housework. And especially stay away from anything that could worsen that eczema, like doing the washing up.

– But…

– Take time out for reflection. On Easter Sunday you have a family meal, and talk about how you’ve each felt over the past three days, including anything you’ve found difficult. Make sure to include Mo in this. Consider whether you think there’s something in the experience that you can learn from, especially reflecting on priorities. We’ll discuss it next time. Any questions? Good, I’ll see you in two weeks.

“Fourth floor. Lift going down.”

– You always come across as so good, Christine. No one can compare to you.

– I’m just trying to do what’s right, but it’s not easy. By the way, I’m not sure about this exercise, Joe. But I’ll do my best if it means saving anything.

– Saving us, you mean? I hope so, if you’ll give me a chance.

by Sara Westerberg

 

 

 

 

Silk, swimming and ice-skating

When you feel silk slipping over your skin, by turns coolly caressing and indifferently sliding away, how could you think of it as the thin line between life and death? And who, warmed by the sight of a father lifting his daughter joyfully into the air, would suspect that a love so pure and deep could prove lethal? Sometimes survival is maintained – or destroyed – by the most fragile thing.

***

Hans Schmidt steps off the Tube train at Charing Cross and makes his way to the wooden turnstile at the exit. The rancid smell of the hundreds of Londoners who had sought shelter under ground the previous night hangs in the air.

“Your ticket, sir?”

“There you are, my good man. A cold day, eh?”

“It is, sir. And icy. Watch your step out there.”

The winter of 1940 is bitter. At the top of the stairs Hans turns left towards Trafalgar Square and raises the collar of his coat to protect his neck from the biting wind. Trevor Sandown has agreed to meet him at 2pm; he has ten minutes to walk down to the Old Shades pub. Hans has spent three months in London and this is his last meeting. The arrangements have been made and he will be home with Birgit and Anneliese within 48 hours. He can’t wait to see them again but he has this one last piece of business to attend to.

He enters the smoky pub and spots Sandown at a table opposite the bar. Sandown looks nervous – as well he might; he’s been Hans’s contact for five months but who knows when their luck might run out? Hans will make this as quick and painless as possible then make his excuses and get the hell out of there. But as he strides forward and thrusts his hand out to shake Sandown’s, another man slides out of the shadows and Hans knows he won’t be going home that week.

***

The golden rule for spies working undercover in enemy territory was ‘No Personal Effects’. A photo, a piece of jewellery, a letter – anything that contradicted your cover identity – all of these could betray you if you were caught, especially if they held a particular emotional attachment. If you had to carry information such as coded plans, British ingenuity had helped, but only if you worked for the Special Operations Executive: some clever sod realised that silk could be written on and sewn into the lining of clothes – it didn’t rustle like paper during a casual search.

***

Hans doesn’t know about silk but he isn’t stupid. However, he also loves his daughter with all his heart and believes that love to be a lucky charm as he carries it back and forth on his many trips. At their home in Germany, they are surrounded by fields, trees and a beautiful lake – the land smells of freedom and peace; he wants this war to be over so that he can reclaim it. He wants to be able to smile at a shopkeeper and not have to worry that he’s remembered his ‘English’ smile. He wants to be back home with his family. The lake freezes in the ringing coldness of winter and he has taught his little girl to ice-skate on it. He has also taught her to swim, mainly so she could enjoy the lake in the warm summer months too, but he thought – foolishly, he knew – that if the ice did break… Well.

Within half an hour and with the minimum of fuss, Hans finds himself in a small, clinical room faced with two business-like men. Just at the moment that the interrogation begins, a few hundred miles away Anneliese is spinning round and round, faster and faster – a move she’d only learned on her ninth birthday a month ago. She can’t wait to make her dad proud of her, for him to see how she can glide around the lake with her mother – a swan and her cygnet, floating over the milky white surface. He’ll be home soon. She’s been practising her English to surprise him, writing the words over and over, just like he showed her, until they feel natural; so much love poured into her childish scrawl. She had thrown away the pages that weren’t perfect – her father had laughed at this when he was there to see. She had patiently explained that they were wrong and she wanted to write a page worthy of his attention – one to keep! – for when he returned.

But he had kept one page. Perhaps he had become careless because this was his last trip; perhaps he really did believe in the protective charms of love. He’d often rubbed his fingers over the notepaper in his pocket when he had a difficult decision to make during a mission, or, like today, when he wanted an extra bit of luck when he was nearing the end of a trip.

***

The last German spy to be executed in the Tower of London was Josef Jakobs, in 1941. He was blindfolded and seated in a brown Windsor chair on account of the broken ankle he suffered during his parachute landing. Then the firing squad did their thing. Had the Home Guard who apprehended him not witnessed his descent, there’s a chance his cover would have been blown by the German sausage he decided to pack alongside his forged papers, radio and British currency. The things we can’t do without in times of crisis.

Subsequent spy executions were carried out by hanging at Wandsworth prison in south London. But Hans has been caught during the time of the Tower

He is brave and confident but when his interrogators search him there is a rustle. He remembers Anneliese excitedly telling him about how far she can swim and how good she is at skating just before he left. He remembers her sitting at her little school table with her writing pad, concentrating on her hand as the pencil danced across the page like a girl skating round on ice. He remembers picking up one of her discarded pages and slipping it into his pocket. For luck.

***

As the soldiers line up in the Tower and cock their guns, the scrap of paper they found inside Hans’s trousers flutters away through a window, down to the street and, caught by the breeze, round and round in the air. The paper flies further and further away, leaving the Tower, the firing squad and Hans far behind.

by Sharon Gethings

sharongethings.co.uk
@sharong2011