Sample of my new novel ‘The Mystery of Beauford Manor’ available on Amazon Kindle now!

Prologue

As the pony and trap turned to enter the long drive of Beauford Manor, I couldn’t help but catch my breath. Despite the fading afternoon light, I could see the house was exquisite; both beautiful and terrifying in equal measure, with its tall brooding turrets and dark shadowy windows that no doubt hid a multitude of secrets just waiting to be discovered.

To whomsoever may be reading this,

I was nineteen years old when I first entered Beauford Manor and I would be nineteen still when I left for the last time, but I was not the same sheltered, innocent girl that I had been when I arrived; I’d never be that girl again.

My tale is not one that I tell lightly; I have been ridiculed in the past for revealing it, especially as the family involved are so well known in English society and have, as is their right, dismissed what I say as pure folly.

Perhaps, in hindsight, I was wrong to reveal my story publicly, but I was assured that the matter would be handled sensitively, and I only did it because the family dismissed me without a reference, and I therefore knew I would have great trouble finding alternative suitable employment quickly. My family was not a wealthy one; my dear father passed away many years ago and being as yet unmarried, the burden fell to me to try and support my mother as best I could.

I was approached by a man from one of the large daily newspapers who sympathised with my plight, and told me he could pay handsomely in return for printing my story. He assured me of anonymity and that no detail could lead to the identification of the Beauford family or myself, but looking back I was naïve to believe his promises. Once the story was published it became immediately apparent that he had only made only a thinly veiled attempt to disguise those within the story, and I was horrified to discover that even a modestly educated person would be able to identify the family involved.

I tried in vain to keep the publication of those terrible happenings from my mother, but our maid, who was a common sort of gossip, happened to ask her if she had read the story in that day’s paper about the anonymous ‘lady’s companion in haunting drama’.
Of course, my mother knew what had occurred to me at Beauford Manor, as I had confided in her after I had left. I had no choice; for reasons that you will come to understand at the end of my tale. I contemplated telling my mother a falsehood for why I had left Beauford Manor, but in honesty she would have unlikely believed me, and I felt the truth would be the best policy in the end. Therefore, when she heard about the newspaper story, there was little chance for her to think it could be about anyone else but her daughter’s experiences at Beauford Manor.

Now that twenty years have passed since those events I finally feel able to write a frank and full account of its occurrences in my own words, and I hope that any who read my tale may not think badly of me, and perhaps will understand the reasons for my subsequent actions. I can assure you my motives were not to cause the Beauford family any ill will, and I hope that by reading my tale you may consider both sides of it equally before passing any judgement.

Jane Ludlow

August 1929.

***

Chapter One

As I descended from the trap I noticed the staff lined up to greet me beside the great front entrance, but also something else; an immediate atmosphere of… hostility? Or just indifference? Whichever, I had no chance to notice more as an austere-looking woman was striding towards me with such a fearsome expression on her face I felt myself physically shrink back. As she drew level with me though I swore I saw a flicker of panic flash across her eyes before she regained her previous hard-faced appearance.

‘Miss Ludlow? I am the housekeeper, Mrs Burnett. Welcome to Beauford Manor. I trust you had a pleasant journey.’

I made ready to reply, but Mrs Burnett had already turned away and gestured to one of the footmen to pick up my cases. The young man caught my eye as he straightened up with my bags, but when I smiled and thanked him he looked away quickly.

I took a moment to stand and gaze upwards at the imposing frontage of Beauford Manor, distracted briefly from the matter in hand, until Mrs Burnett restored me to reality.

‘Miss Ludlow; this way please.’

The entrance hall was truly magnificent with its sweeping staircase and gleaming wood panelling that somehow managed to look both old and new at the same time. There was an overwhelming smell of wax which could have been polish or more possibly the candles in their huge floor standing candelabras, as well as silver candlesticks on every surface. I presumed the candelabras to be decorative as I could see electric lighting installed, but I didn’t query it further; I didn’t dare.

‘You’ll be wanting some refreshment,’ she told me, rather than asked. ‘Agnes will show you to your room, then you’re to ring for her when you want to come down.’

Before Mrs Burnett and the other servants had all gone back to their business I stated loudly;

‘I would like to thank you all for my welcome, and tell you how happy I am to be amongst you here at Beauford Manor.’

‘Yes Miss,’ Mrs Burnett stated emotionlessly, and turned to head through a door that I could only suppose led to the servants’ hall.

As Agnes ascended the staircase ahead of me and showed me to my room, I asked her what position she enjoyed in the household.

‘Under housemaid Miss,’ she replied, as she straightened the bedspread.

The room was exquisite; gleaming oak furniture stood proudly, and a beautifully ornate night stand held a Bible and, strangely for a house with electric lighting, candles.

‘Agnes, why are there candles when the house has electricity?’ I asked, curious.

‘It’s for the night-time Miss. The electric is funny at the best of times, but woe betide us if we use it once the family are in bed.’
She turned to leave, bobbing a quick curtsey.

‘Stay Agnes; you may as well wait up here while I quickly freshen up, otherwise you’ll have to climb all these stairs again in a few minutes,’ I offered, smiling.

Agnes seemed to recoil as if I had struck her.

‘Mrs Burnett wouldn’t like that, Miss,’ she said quietly, before scuttling away to descend the staircase.

I dismissed Agnes’ manner as shyness around a new member of the household, and set about taking in my new environment.

My room was large and attractively furnished, without any hint of over-extravagance or vulgarity in the décor. The walls were a powder blue paper with white vertical pin-stripes, and there was a thick pile rug on the floor in an attractive shade of cream that complemented the rest of the room perfectly. There was an ornate chandelier that sparkled every time the daylight caught it, and two shaded sconces on each wall that would ensure no corner of the room would remain in shadow. There was a pair of portraits on the chimney-breast that could well have been ancestors of the present Earl, and an enchanting landscape by the window that was the very view of Beauford I had been presented with as I advanced along the driveway.

Compared to my sparsely furnished top floor room in the modest manor house of my previous employer this room was pure opulence, and I hardly knew how to begin believing it was my new home. I had been truly happy in my last position, but once the young lady I was governess to had gone off to ‘finish’ in Germany there was no need for me to remain in her father’s employ, though there had been mutual sadness at my leaving, I felt.

I freshened quickly and rang the bell for Agnes, as I did not want to keep Mrs Burnett waiting. I honestly felt I would be a little afraid of her for the whole of my time living at Beauford Manor.

*

As I followed Agnes into the servants’ hall, I noticed a hush descend the room and several gazes that had been trained on me all averted quickly. I took a deep breath and walked into the centre of the room where Mrs Burnett was standing.

‘Miss Ludlow; I see little point in telling you the names of every servant as you won’t stay long-’ a small gasp came from behind me, and Mrs Burnett seemed to briefly castigate herself while throwing a sharp look to whoever had made the noise.

‘What I of course, meant Miss Ludlow,’ she attempted a thin smile, ‘was that you’re not here for long and you’ll never remember everyone’s names; besides, you’ll have little call to deal with most of them anyway. Your place in the household will see you down here fairly infrequently as you’ll take your meals with Lady Sophia in the dining room or upstairs parlour.’

As the Housekeeper paused, it seemed to me, to compose herself, I looked around the room and smiled, but no-one returned my greeting. I wondered why Mrs Burnett’s statement had caused such a reaction; I had only been engaged until September when Lady Sophia would be going to Geneva to ‘finish’, so it was accurate to say I wouldn’t be there long, but three months in fact. However, the terms Mrs Burnett used were a little strange; to say I wouldn’t stay long was not the same as I wouldn’t be resident long, but I decided not to dwell on small details when there was so much else to learn in such a short time.

‘We are,’ Mrs Burnett continued, ‘an old-fashioned household Miss Ludlow. We observe a lot of the old rules and ways here that are perhaps out of style in the smaller households and the big cities,’ she fixed her gaze on me so sternly that I felt like apologising, but for what, I had no idea; ‘to the extent that we do not indulge in idle gossip,’ her voice began rising at this point, ‘we do not say or do anything that could be misconstrued as disloyal to our ancient and noble family,’ I heard a sniff behind me as if someone had been reduced to tears by Mrs Burnett’s terrifying manner, ‘and, most importantly of all, we occupy our correct place at all times.’

I was at a complete loss as to how to respond to Mrs Burnett’s speech, so I ended up saying nothing, yet I also felt rather annoyed. Had I already given the Housekeeper cause to think I would not occupy my place? Or did she give this address every time a new member of staff arrived? Either way, it quickly became evident that the only way for me to observe Mrs Burnett’s terms was to try and stay out of her way as much as possible.

As I sat in my room later I thought about what Mrs Burnett had said. I appreciated that I perhaps occupied the most difficult place of all in the household; after all, I was neither ‘up nor down,’ as my mother had warned me when I had first told her I’d gained employment as a young lady’s companion.

‘I would strongly advise against it Jane, I really would. You’d do much better to look for employment in a fine hotel or shop rather than be the ‘in-between’ in a household like that. It’s not so bad if you remain in a smaller house but woe betide ever entering a large, grand household in such a position; you’ll be shunned by everyone there, believe me.’

I hadn’t paid much heed to my mother’s words; after all, she had never been in service so how could she know? When she had met my father he was just a poor cleric, although she’d known that one day he would rise to better things. Indeed, my father enjoyed the position of Archdeacon of the diocese before he was prematurely taken by the scarlet fever, aged just forty-three.

I tried to look on the bright side of my mother’s words; I decided that I would be the exception to that out-dated rule and Lady Sophia and I would become more like best friends than companions. Even as I thought it though, I knew I was fooling myself a little. No matter how friendly Lady Sophia and I became, she was the family and I was in the employ of the household, and that meant we could never be close like true friends should be. I resolved however, to be as friendly as I could, and make things as fun and interesting as possible for Lady Sophia when she returned from school, despite what society, and my mother, thought. I also decided that I would try and engage with the servants downstairs a little more and see what they thought about things in general. They seemed a little afraid of Mrs Burnett, and I couldn’t blame them, after all so was I. However, she could not watch them all day every day and I resolved there and then to try and be friends with the servants too, not just Lady Sophia. Feeling better about my position already, I decided to venture once more to the servants’ hall to see if I could be of assistance to Mrs Dawson the cook. After all, in my previous position I had taught the young lady of the house how to make gingerbread, which our maid at home had taught me to make many years before when I was just a small child.

(c) Sarah Butcher, 2015.

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http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mystery-Beauford-Manor-S-M-Butcher-ebook/dp/B00UU7PVJI/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1427113124&sr=8-1&keywords=mystery+of+beauford+manor

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Five Year Plan

I’m kind of done with this place. I hate to admit it, but I really am. I’ve lived here all my life but it’s not the place I grew up in, if that makes sense. It’s changed. Or maybe I’ve changed. Either way, it’s not where I want to be anymore.
For a start, there’s a really old guy lives next door; he’s off his face most of the time and plays his stereo at full volume and keeps my little boy awake. If I’m being honest (and I reckon that I should start by telling the truth, otherwise what’s the point?) I only kept my baby so that I could move out of my Mum’s and get a flat, but if I’d known this was where they’d stick me then I might have thought twice. It’s a shithole in this block; it’s where all the dossers and druggies live (or should I say pass out) and I’m always having to put up with smashing glass, loud music, raised voices and the like.
I can’t leave my pushchair downstairs either as one of pissheads would go to the toilet in it or set fire to it; oh yeah, there are pyros here as well although they don’t live in this block, thank God. I couldn’t sleep a wink if I thought someone might set fire to the place and we’d be trapped, although I can’t always sleep anyway as the neighbours’ kids run up and down the corridors outside until stupid o’clock some nights.
Then you’ve got the stoners hanging about on the stairs making it really difficult to get past with the buggy and I’m always scared that one of them is going to try and grab the baby. I heard about it happening to someone in another block. A couple of stoners held her back while a third grabbed her kid and threw him down the stairs. Broke his neck, just like that. When they caught him, the bloke said he’d been convinced the kid was Satan and a voice in his head told him to kill it before it killed him. Utter bollocks if you ask me. He was just off his face and had destroyed every brain cell his head might ever have contained. They put him away for only five years which was disgusting, but someone got to him in prison and now he’s a vegetable, which is kind of poetic justice I reckon.

Going back to what I said earlier about my son, don’t think that means I don’t love him to bits because I do; I couldn’t live without him now, but sometimes I do wonder what my life would be like if he’d never been born. That’s not a bad thing to say I don’t think, it’s just like wondering what would have happened if I’d passed my GCSE Maths instead of failing by one point. That was the night I got pregnant. As soon as I realised that I wasn’t going to get on the college course I wanted, I kind of cut loose and stopped caring about anything to do with my studies. I’d worked so hard for so long just to achieve my grades and suddenly I needed to have some fun. I also thought I’d fallen in love, but that’s for later in the story.
I’d wanted to do that course since I was in Year 8; that was when Mum’s boyfriend had moved in and she’d stopped being interested in anything I did. I knew that all I had to do was get a C grade in my Maths, English and Science and I was guaranteed a place. It was in the next town so I could live away during the week and then come home at weekends. I was going to get a job too, so to be honest I would never really have been at home, which suited me fine. I had my five-year plan; I would pass the college course then go to University and in only sixty months I would have changed my life beyond recognition. I’d be a success; unlike anyone I’d grown up around. That might sound harsh as well, but you have to understand where my Mum and I lived. We were on the arse-end of the most roughneck estate in the town; the streets where I grew up were a no-go area even for the police. Someone called an ambulance once because an old man had been knocked down in the street and before they could get him inside it, someone had nicked everything that wasn’t nailed down and another kid had torched it. The ambulance crew were lucky to escape with their lives but needless to say the old man died. Don’t feel sorry for him; he was a nonce that had been taking kids up to his flat for years. I’m surprised that anyone actually bothered to call an ambulance for him to be honest, and even more surprised that it turned up at all.
The day of the GCSE results I’d been up before six; my best friend Toni and I were going down to the school together and I was so excited. Mum was still in bed when I left although Teak (her boyfriend) was banging about in the kitchen. He barely glanced at me as he shuffled back upstairs for another few hours; most likely planning to drag themselves out of their pit around lunchtime.
I don’t mean to sound like a bitch; Teak wasn’t the worst of my Mum’s blokes by any measure and at least he didn’t knock her about like one or two had, but still. He wasn’t exactly the vision of a strong, dependable man that most little girls want their Mum to be with, although so far he’d been around nearly three years, which in fairness was three years longer than my actual Dad had hung about.
So Toni and I skipped off, picking up some of our other mates on the way and by the time we got to school there were about twenty of us desperate to get hold of that brown envelope which would decide our futures for us. Toni didn’t want me to go on the college course; she wanted me to go to the Tech like she was planning to do so that we could still be mates, but I knew I wouldn’t be happy with that, no matter how much I’d miss her. My five-year plan was set in stone as far as I was concerned and nothing and nobody was going to alter that.

As Toni and I crossed the playground, it occurred to me that this would probably be the only time that I’d be in school during the holidays and the unusualness of the situation made me giggle. Toni didn’t see the funny side when I explained and we walked the rest of the way towards the swing doors in silence.
As our group dove into the crowd jostling for space in front of the noticeboard and increasing the number of people by double, I saw Lisa Annersley, school bully and bain of my life for the last five years. In my experience, school bullies were either incredibly intelligent or incredibly thick and annoyingly, Lisa Annersley fell into the former category.
‘Hey Dan,’ she called out loudly as she pinched the top of my arm, ‘so I guess this is the last time we’ll be seeing each other then.’
‘Finally being sent to prison are you?’ interrupted Toni as she waded in next to me, ‘I guess it was only a matter of time.’
‘You want to watch yourself Collymore,’ said Lisa, as she corrected her stance after being caught in one of the crowd’s waves of movement, ‘I know where you live.’
‘Of course you do,’ said Toni, deadpan; ‘you have to walk past my house to get back to your family in the zoo.’
Despite not being the wittiest put-down in the history of comedy, it caught Lisa on the hop and it took her a moment to respond. I tried really hard not to laugh at the banality of the remark but unfortunately Lisa caught me smirking.
‘Hey everyone, Dan Druff made a funny!’
I shuddered as she called me by the nickname I’d heard every school day since I was eleven years old. So my Mum couldn’t afford to buy Head & Shoulders and we made do with the cheapie brand? Big deal. Well, now maybe, but five years ago it was a tragedy. Trust my name to be Danielle. Dani for short.
‘Whatever.’
Was that really the smartest put-down I could come up with? Jeez.
‘Do you know what’s funnier than that though Dan?’ Lisa was obviously enjoying her final moment of glory and was milking it for all it was worth.
‘What?’ said Toni, in the most bored voice she could muster.
‘I wasn’t talking to you Collymore, I was talking to your thinks-she-knows-it-all mate. Seen the results board yet have you Dan? I was very pleased with my six A-stars, but that paled into insignificance when I saw your results and felt joy like I’ve never done before. Enjoy your life retards; I’m getting out of this shit-hole town and you’ll be stuck here for life.’
Lisa walked away from us, laughing loudly, but she was no longer the focus of my attention. What did she mean about my results? It’s true I hadn’t exactly kept my five-year plan secret and I’d enjoyed telling people I was getting out as soon as I could, but I’d never acted like a know-all. Or had I? Maybe I’d been saying a bit too much a bit too often. Maybe I should’ve kept a better lid on my feelings, but I was proud of the fact that despite my unprivileged upbringing, I would be leaving this town at the first opportunity, unlike the majority of the kids in my class; most of whose families considered the position of dosser to be too much of an effort to undertake properly.
Lisa Annersley was the annoyingly smug exception; her mother had brought her up single-handedly, until when Lisa was nine her mother had begun re-training as a nurse. Three years later she had qualified and was working at the local hospital, where she’d promptly met a wealthy surgeon and married him a short-time later, before giving birth to Lisa’s half-brother Max the following year. Lisa’s step-dad was an incredibly supportive parent and he immediately started a trust fund for both his children’s University fees, meaning that for the first time in her life, Lisa would be able to use the brains she’d been blessed with for something proactive, rather than just bullying smaller children and considering inventive ways to embezzle their pocket money out of them.
I had to know what she’d meant about my grades, so pushing other people aside to a chorus of ‘hey’ and ‘watch-it’ I finally stood before the noticeboard and began running my finger down to where my name was printed.
‘No!’
I ran my finger across to the results columns over and over again before I’d allow the alarming truth to properly hit me. Despite hearing Toni’s voice yelling at me to come back, I ran straight out of the doors and across the playground, before heading towards the open grass that ran parallel to our school and bordered the rest of the estate.
I later found out that Mrs Kilpatrick, my lovely Maths teacher, had been waiting in the room where the envelopes were given out just so that she could break it to me gently about my grades, but I never got that far, preferring instead to join the throng around the noticeboard first. Maybe I was honestly no better than Lisa Annersley in reality; I’d wanted everyone to see my long boasted-about C (or above) grades and have them congratulate me and pat me on the back, reinforcing my long-held belief that I was smarter than almost every one of them. If I’d only gone to the envelope room first it wouldn’t have been so bad, but I’d been so sure.
The letters were whirling around in my head as I kept running; my future plans lying in tatters in all but an instant.
D. D. D. D. D.
How could I have got five D grades? I worked so hard, even spending Saturday mornings in the local library studying, when I would much rather have been hanging about in town with Toni.
Toni. I hadn’t considered what my best friend’s grades had been, much less been supportive if she needed me to be. I’d only thought about myself again, which was all I seemed to do lately. I slowed my pace down to a walk and I hoped if I waited around the field a while she might catch me up. If of course she’d come after me at all. I wouldn’t blame her if she hadn’t; after all, it was her results day too. Maybe she’d be out celebrating already.
After about ten minutes, I saw Toni approaching the field and I jumped up in readiness of our mutual commiseration. Seeing me pop up from my hiding place in the long grass, Toni jogged over to me and searched my face for a clue as to how I was feeling.
‘What happened back there? It wasn’t because of Lisa Ape-like was it?’
‘No, I couldn’t care less about her. Did you see my grades?’
‘Yeah, I did. Sorry mate. What’ll you do now?’
‘Dunno, to be honest.’ I couldn’t bear to think about it. ‘What about you?’
‘Two Ds and an E. Much as expected really. Won’t the college let you on the course with Ds then?’
‘Doubt it. The places are so fiercely fought over that it’s always over-subscribed. They told me that when I went for the interview. It’s all Cs or above. No exceptions.’
‘I know you don’t want to hear this, but for what it’s worth I’m glad you’re not going away. I wouldn’t have coped without you. Now you can come to Tech with me in September. It’ll be a right laugh.’
Suddenly the reality of what my future actually held hit me. I’d gone from dead-cert for leaving when I’d woken up this morning to same-old loser as everyone else by mid-afternoon.
I later admitted that I shouldn’t have let all my anger loose on Toni, as she was only being honest with me, but right then it was the last thing I wanted to hear.
‘You think that makes me feel better?’ I yelled, rounding sharply on Toni. ‘You think that I can feel happy about being stuck in loser-ville and wasting away at the Tech for the next two years?’
Toni’s face flushed as if I’d struck her and I thought at first she’d yell back at me, but somehow worse, she spoke very quietly.
‘I thought you wouldn’t mind so much if it was still you and me there.’
‘Well I do. I was going somewhere; I had my five-year plan. Now I’ve got NOTHING.’
I turned away and began walking quickly across the field, before breaking into a run as I reached the edge. The tears were falling fast now; some were in anger, some mourning the life I never had the chance to lead and the rest were in frustration that my best friend could be so insensitive at my greatest hour of need.
As I rounded a corner, I almost collided with someone coming the other way and I angrily pushed past them, clipping their upper arm with my shoulder.
‘Watch out!’ they called, but I was in no mood to listen.
‘Shove it.’
I didn’t look up as I thrust my hands deeper into my pockets and carried on walking.
‘Dani? Dani Elsmere?’
At the sound of my name, I mean my proper name, not the stupid nickname that Lisa had so cleverly devised, I stopped in my tracks. I didn’t look round though. Not then anyway.
‘Dani? Are you okay?’
I was beginning to think I’d heard that voice somewhere before, but I wasn’t sure. The honeyed low tones of a boy in his mid-teens could honestly belong to several of those in my year at school, although none had ever really given me much attention. To be honest, I’m surprised there was one who even knew my name.
I turned slowly, trying to wipe my eyes and face with the sleeve of my t-shirt. I’d also found a raggedy tissue and pulled it from my jeans pocket so I could wipe my nose as nonchalantly as possible.
Standing before me was Simon Welsh; a boy whom I’d had a crush on for almost the entire time I’d been at the school, until his parents had moved him from there without explanation about a year before. I felt my face flushing a deep red and I silently cursed my thin skin for probably the thousandth time since puberty.
‘H-Hi Simon. How are you?’ Trying to think of something less inane to say, I decided the exams were a safe subject. For him anyway. ‘Did you get your results?’
‘No, I can’t really be bothered. I know I’ve got enough to get into my school’s sixth form and do A-levels so apart from that what does it matter? How about you?’
I hadn’t thought about my disastrous results for all of three minutes during the exchange with Simon, but I was mortified to realise I had sobs choking up in my throat at the mere thought of the five Ds just waiting to taunt me.
‘Hey, what’s wrong?’ Simon took a step towards me and rubbed gently at the top of my right arm, which for some reason made me cry even more. ‘I didn’t mean to upset you.’
I waved my arm to try and signify that it wasn’t his fault, and as my tears began to subside again I told him about the devastation of losing sight of my five-year plan.
‘Oh God, I’m so sorry. I’m the same; I’ve got a plan that takes me right up to Uni and beyond and I know I’d be gutted if anything went wrong with it. I’m honestly, truly sorry Dani.’
Despite never actually exchanging more than a handful of embarrassed words with Simon over the previous four years, I felt that he was being sincere when he expressed his sympathy to me. That was how we started walking in the direction of town and why I let him buy me several alcoholic drinks over the next couple of hours, courtesy of his older brother’s I.D card.
When we left the pub I was embarrassed to discover I couldn’t walk very straight without Simon’s support, but despite my awkwardness, for some reason I also found it immensely funny.
Simon helped me all the way to the bus stop, where I presumed his intention had been to help me safely onto the number sixty-three and then leave me forever with the pleasant memory of those stolen moments together. However, as we stood together in the cooling evening air, Simon took his hand from my arm and instead placed it into mine.
‘I don’t suppose…well, my mate’s having this party tonight…’
I didn’t get a chance to reply because suddenly he was crushing my lips with his and thanks to the alcohol coursing through my bloodstream, I found myself unencumbered with the usual awkwardness that an inexperienced sixteen-year-old would feel kissing a boy she’s had a crush on for years. My hands went everywhere and I didn’t care about the sniggers and stares of the other people waiting at the bus-stop; nothing mattered to me right then except that Simon Welsh was kissing me and it suddenly gave me something to believe in, for the first time since I’d seen those Ds on the notice board earlier that day.
‘Wow, calm down,’ Simon murmured as he pulled away from our embrace, ‘you’ll get me going if you carry on like that.’
Whether it was Simon’s words or the several shots I’d consumed in a short space of time, I suddenly felt attractive, which was a wholly new sensation for me. Simon Welsh was the sort of boy who normally went out with the really popular girls at school, like the Lisa Annersley bully-types and I wanted to make the most of this situation that would probably end before much longer.
‘Come on.’
I grabbed his hand and managed to stagger along the road, trying to maintain my balance and what was left of my dignity, before heading behind a thick-set row of hedges and leaping headlong into another round of passionate kissing. I could tell how obviously excited Simon was, but I was shocked to feel the new sensations that were coursing through me. Of course I was aware of sex; we’d had a talk in year seven from a highly embarrassed Mrs Rushlake, the school PSE teacher, but what hadn’t been communicated in that discussion was just how damn good getting physical with a boy could feel. We’d been told about periods and shown how tampons worked (which had led to poor Claire Soames fainting and having to be helped from the room) but never had it crossed my mind that being with someone intimately, was something that I’d ever actually want to do. Unfortunately, this light bulb moment had occurred behind a hedge on the main road and despite my growing ardour, there was no way I was going to take things further there.
‘Can we go to that party at your mate’s house?’ I asked Simon, trying to get my breath back. I took his nod for the best kind of answer I was going to get and I let him walk me a few metres up the road where another bus stop on the same route stood.
‘I’ll text him and say we’re on the way.’

This time, it was me who could only nod, wondering just what exactly the night would hold for the pair of us and knowing one way or another that those five D grades were going to matter a lot less by the end of it.
By the time we’d travelled the couple of miles to his friend’s house, Simon and I had learned loads more about each other. I discovered he had an older sister called Melanie and his parents had saved up to take him out of our school due to its mediocre GCSE results the year before. He had heard about my Mum and Teak and he had begun to get an understanding of why I had been so desperate to do well in my exams and move away for college.
‘I have to say though; I’m kind of less upset about it than I was…earlier.’
‘Yeah?’ said Simon with a smile, ‘why’s that then?’
‘Just because…you know,’ I continued, embarrassed.
‘Yeah?’ said Simon again, but it seemed to me he had said so much more.
We’d walked hand in hand from the bus stop to his mate Miles’ house, whose parents had trusted him not to have any parties while they were in Dubai for a week. Such belief in their son had been misguided though as by only this second night of their holiday, he had filled their house with adolescents who were desperate to liberate his father’s drinks cabinet.
‘Welsh, you old dog,’ laughed Miles as he opened the door. ‘Who’s this then?’
‘This is Dani. From my old school.’
‘Well hello Dani from his old school,’ said Miles, ushering us in, ‘I thought I’d never seen you around before.’
‘Um, no,’ I managed, feeling a little out of my depth amongst Miles and the other local private school pupils. ‘I’m not usually this side of town.’
‘You don’t say,’ replied Miles, with raised eyebrows and an element of either sarcasm or condescension, ‘we shall have to make the most of this evening then, won’t we?’
I wasn’t sure what exactly Miles meant by that, but I smiled politely and let Simon pull me by the hand into the kitchen, where we collected some cans of beer before heading up the stairs.
As soon as we were alone and the music downstairs was just a thumping bass cacophony, I felt myself relax and let Simon take me in his arms again. We drank a couple of beers while we lay on the bed and alternated between kissing and talking about the future and for the first time in a long-time, I actually felt that there may be an alternative future to that of endless study. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to stay around here after all? Perhaps Simon and I could get a place together eventually? I felt I could probably even put up with living at Mum and Tink’s a while longer if I had Simon around to distract me from it all.
With those thoughts blurring my mind to sense and reason I let Simon undress me, him surprisingly taking his time, his apparent restraint making me even more eager.
Before I knew it we were under the covers, both of us naked, but I’m sad to say I don’t remember much else about losing my virginity due to the quantities of alcohol I’d consumed that day. It must have been okay though, as I had no sensations of discomfort when I woke up the next morning, although I did wonder if Mum and Tink would have noticed I hadn’t come home the night before. Somehow though, I doubted it.

Simon and I were pretty much inseparable for the next couple of weeks, spending all our free time together and hanging out at each other’s houses. I was concerned that he’d think badly of my Mum and Tink’s domestic habits, but in all honesty he barely seemed to notice. We were afforded more privacy at my house as they never came into my room when I was at home, which was not the case at Simon’s. He told me that his Mum would frequently pop upstairs and knock on his door for the flimsiest reasons, sometimes even walking in unannounced. He reckoned it was because his parents were paying so much for his schooling now and were worried that he would be easily distracted from his studies if he was spending too long with a girl, so we only went to his place when his Mum and Dad were both out.
We’d carried on having sex almost daily since the night of Miles’ party and I had to admit I was enjoying every aspect of mine and Simon’s new relationship. We had used condoms a few times but quite often we just didn’t bother, me misguidedly believing that I wouldn’t be likely to get pregnant this early into becoming sexually active. There was more to our burgeoning relationship than sex though; we would go to the cinema or grab a burger, or if money was low we’d just walk somewhere hand in hand and enjoy each other’s company.
With hindsight, maybe even by this point I was starting to be aware that this artificial reality we’d created for ourselves was unsustainable once the new term began, but at that moment I didn’t want to think of things like that; I just wanted to be with Simon.
It took about another week before Simon started to act strangely; coincidentally about the same time that I started feeling sick every morning. He began by saying that the pressure of the new term was getting to him as he was worried about the leap from GCSE-level to A-level, but I didn’t really buy that explanation as Simon was so effortlessly intelligent and had never worried about his schoolwork before. He’d told me as much himself. No, it was more the little things like him checking his phone all the time when he thought I wasn’t looking, but then jumping if he got a message notification. He also started cancelling on me a couple of times a week, which was awful at first as my confidence began to plummet and I truthfully hadn’t anywhere else to go since Toni and I had fallen out after the exam results. That meant I had to sit in with Mum and Tink most evenings which was depressing beyond imagining, so I was incredibly grateful when Toni called and asked me to go round, saying she missed me. I’d thought about her a lot since the new term had started, as I was dying to know how Tech was going; it seemed so strange not to be gossiping with Toni on a daily basis.

After Toni and I had hugged warmly and said how much we’d missed each other, I apologised for being such a bitch the day of the results and she told me to forget it; all water under the bridge. She said that she’d heard I was seeing Simon Welsh and couldn’t believe how lucky I was and I assured her I felt like the luckiest girl on earth. I told her about the previous three weeks and how much fun it’d been, but all she really wanted to hear about was ‘had we had sex yet?’ and ‘what was it like?’
I answered Toni’s questions patiently, although I didn’t really want to discuss our most private moments; even with my best friend. It felt dirty somehow, like I was letting a third person in on our secret world that was only really designed for two. Then she asked me whether I’d had to go to the doctor to get the pill or whether the family planning clinic had provided condoms.
‘No, I’m not on the pill. Simon’s good though; he uses condoms most of the time.’
‘Most of the time?’ said Toni, incredulously, ‘What about the rest of the time?’
‘It’s fine, stop fussing will you? He’s careful, okay?’
Toni leant back on my pillows and exhaled loudly.
‘You should take a test.’
‘What?’
‘You should take a test,’ she repeated. ‘A pregnancy test.’
‘Yeah, I got what you meant. I’m not pregnant though.’
‘When was your last period?’
‘Jesus, Mum, chill out will you?’ I snapped, annoyed by Toni’s superior manner. She should be in awe of me. I’m the one who was having regular sex; with Simon Welsh, no less. She should be well jealous.
‘Okay, okay. I’ll drop it, but only if you tell me when it was.’
‘Look,’ I began, nervously. ‘I haven’t actually had one this month; probably because I’ve been so over-emotional about me and Simon that it sort of, forgot to arrive. People say that you can miss them for no good reason.’
‘Yeah, of course you can,’ agreed Toni, ‘but you can also miss them for a very good reason. Being pregnant.’
‘I’m not PREGNANT!’ I shouted, just as Toni’s mum opened her bedroom door and brought in two coffees and some chocolate hobnobs.
‘Christ, mother!’ said Toni, annoyed, ‘don’t you ever knock?’
Telling her daughter not to be so cheeky, Mrs Collymore put down the tray, cast a knowing look in my direction and left the room again, pulling the door closed behind her.
‘Great! Now my mother even thinks you’re pregnant!’ said Toni shaking her head. ‘She’ll be on at me constantly now, making sure that I’m not having sex too, or at least if I am that I’m being sensible.’
‘Bully for you; at least your Mum cares. Mine couldn’t give a shit either way I’m sure. Anyway, this conversation is irrelevant; I’m not pregnant.’

But I was.
The next day, Toni gave me a testing kit that her Mum had bought ‘just in case’ and I went into their bathroom to perform it. Five minutes later my life had changed in yet another irreconcilable direction and I had to face facts; I was going to be a Mum. I really was beginning to tick off all the boxes on the ‘to-do’ list of the teenage no-hoper; I guess I did fit right in on the estate, despite what I’d thought and hoped. All I needed to do now was get hold of a bull mastiff and a packet of twenty Mayfair and my transformation would be complete.
The only light at the end of my doom-filled tunnel was Simon. I knew that he’d be shocked but ultimately supportive; he was so nice and had told me how much he liked me, so I figured it would be okay. His parents might even be able to give us some money towards things, although I knew they worked really hard just to make sure Simon had everything he needed at his upmarket school. Still, it was worth a try.
I went straight round to his house without announcing my arrival in advance, just so that I could hopefully speak to his Mum and Dad at the same time as I told him.
As I walked up the drive of the tidy, three-bedroom detached, I saw Simon’s mother standing with her back facing the window, looking into the room as if she was talking to people there. I rang the bell and heard her cursing the ‘unexpected visitor’ as she came towards the front door. I smiled broadly as I opened it, about to apologise for interrupting her and her friends, when I caught site of Simon sitting on the sofa next to a girl with dark, wavy hair. Worse, he had his arm around her shoulders.
Without hesitation, I pushed past Mrs Welsh and stood in the lounge doorway. Seeing it was me, Simon jumped up quickly, his face a mixture of surprise and anger. Forcing me out into the hallway and following behind, he closed the lounge door and spun around to face me, gripping the tops of my arms too hard.
‘What the hell are you doing here?’
‘I haven’t seen you much the last few days and I missed you. Haven’t you missed me?’ I asked him, as I stretched up to kiss him.
Turning his face away, Simon released his hold on my arms and stepped back. His face seemed to soften as perhaps he realised that I genuinely had missed him, I don’t know; but whatever the reason, he took me through the kitchen door and we both sat down at the dining table.
Neither of us could really ignore the huge great elephant in the room, except that she was actually a gorgeous brunette sitting on his lounge-room sofa, so I asked the inevitable question.
‘Who is she?’
Simon flushed red, his embarrassment at being caught out apparently equalled by his annoyance that it was me who’d caught him.
‘Who’s who?’
‘Come on Simon; the girl you had your arm around? On the sofa? I know you haven’t got a sister so don’t try that one on me.’
‘Look, don’t get weird, okay? That’s Emma, she’s…well, she’s my girlfriend.’
‘Your WHAT?’
I suddenly felt incredibly nauseous. Clamping my hand to my mouth, I dove out of the kitchen and into the under-stairs bathroom, trying not to let my sobs get the better of me or the threatened tears to spill down my face.
I sat on the closed loo seat for what felt like ages before there was a quiet tapping and Simon’s loudly whispering voice was echoing through the door.
‘Dani? Dani? What are you playing at? My Mum’s wondering what’s going on and Emma’s threatening to go home if I don’t go back in the lounge and rescue her from the family inquisition. Are you coming out?’
In all honesty I could have happily stayed in that little cupboard-sized loo for the rest of my life, if it meant I wouldn’t have had to face Simon, Emma and his parents, let alone my Mum and all those others who thought I’d never amount to anything and I’d seemingly proved right.
As I wiped my face and blew my nose I unlocked the door, grateful that my stomach had finally settled down. Simon pulled it open out of my hand and looked at me quizzically.
‘Why are you being so weird about this? You always knew we were just having fun until I went back to school. Didn’t you?’
‘No,’ I croaked, hoarse from crying and retching, ‘I don’t remember you telling me that Simon, so how on earth could I possibly know? To be honest, I might have thought twice about having sex with you the first night we met had I realised how little I meant to you.’
‘Oh come on Dani, you were as willing as I was. Don’t try and make out that I forced you. You couldn’t wait.’
‘You bastard,’ I started crying again, not caring that the lounge door had opened and Simon’s parents and Emma were now listening to every word we were saying.
‘Look Dani, it’s complicated with Emma, okay? We had a bust-up at the end of last term and then she went abroad all summer with her parents. I didn’t know if we were together or not until this week. I never meant to hurt you, honestly.’
I heard a sharp intake of breath coming from Emma’s direction and I could imagine she was as thrilled with Simon’s statement as I was. I started giggling at that point; unsure of why, as there was certainly nothing funny about the current situation.
‘You’re so right Simon. It is complicated; very complicated. So much more complicated than you could ever imagine in fact.’
Before he had a chance to react or say anything else, I delivered my killer punch.
‘I’m pregnant.’
‘What?’ That was Emma, stood in the lounge doorway of her boyfriend’s parents’ house, having just learnt that said-boyfriend had been busy shagging someone else while she was in another country.
‘No, Simon!’ That was his Mum, who immediately stole my thunder by bursting into tears and running into the downstairs loo.
‘Jesus Christ!’ Finally, that was Simon’s Dad, who in fairness was probably secretly relieved that his son was a red-blooded male, but was also doubtless aware that he would potentially be facing the financial costs of his son’s own personal meltdown, whatever they may be.
I can’t pretend that the rest of that evening was terribly enjoyable; once Simon’s Mum had got over the initial shock, she made a huge pot of very sweet tea which made me feel sick all over again, but which I managed thankfully to just keep down.
Emma excused herself almost immediately, saying we obviously had ‘a lot to discuss’ and that she ‘needed to do some thinking’. God knows what she thought she had to think about; it was me who was facing this nightmare situation with potentially zero support. She’d be alright; she had a good education at a great school and her parents were wealthy, if Emma’s brand-new car and designer handbag were anything to go by. She also had that air of confidence that only the financially well-off have; a sort of measured condescension, like she knew she was better than all of us but nevertheless sympathised with us because of it.
Simon’s Dad on the other hand had headed straight to his study, no doubt feeling that this sort of conversation was better suited to his wife. Judging by the way Simon’s Mum’s hands were shaking as she held her mug of tea though, I wasn’t so sure.
‘So is it definitely Simon’s? Are you sure?’
‘Mum!’ said Simon, outraged on my behalf, but then he ruined his concern by turning to me and asking the same question.
‘Of course it’s yours! How could you think such a thing?’ I cried, blushing beetroot red. ‘I hadn’t been with anybody until I met you.’
‘That’s what you say dear,’ said Mrs Welsh, ‘but how do we know that’s true? You could be trying to trap my Simon. He’s got a bright future ahead of him you know; I won’t have some tarty girl stopping him from reaching his true potential.’
‘Mum, you’re not helping!’ cried Simon, but made no attempt to castigate her for insulting me. ‘It was only meant to be a bit of fun.’
Turning to me, he echoed his sentiment. ‘It was only meant to be a bit of fun.’
*
Well, you can imagine what I made of Simon’s final statement. When I realised that I wasn’t going to get any kind of constructive help, or even a declaration of responsibility from him, I walked away and decided that I was the only person I could rely on. I asked for, and got, help from the health service and social services and various other places, but ultimately I was the only one who could decide what I wanted to do. I honestly didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew what I didn’t want to do; that was the easy bit.
Surprisingly, my Mum turned out to be a bit of superstar in all this, taking to imminent Grandma-hood with the sort of enthusiasm that I hadn’t seen her muster in years. Even Tink smartened himself up a bit and started doing the house up with gusto. I think they wanted me to have the baby even more than I did, and I eventually decided that I definitely wanted to as well.
I also decided that I should take the council-offered flat, even though Mum and Tink said I could stay at home, because I wanted to try true self-reliance and make sure I really could cope with the responsibility I now had. To be honest though, that was the only part of the story that didn’t really work out for me, as living here has been and is, a daily waking nightmare. This estate has many salt of the earth people residing on it, but unfortunately those people do not live in my block. I would never ask to go back to my Mum’s though; that would have to come from her, as I would never want it to seem that I couldn’t cope and was asking for help.

I get that you might wonder why I’m telling you all this now; why today is the day I’ve spoken about all this? Well, that’s the strangest part of all. I was sitting on the sofa giving the baby his bottle when someone knocked on my door. I ignored it at first, because the local kids frequently gain entry to the block via the trade button and then run up and down the galleries knocking on everyone’s doors.
This time though, the person was persistent. They didn’t knock and run, their tell-tale giggling giving them away. This person knocked twice; a purposeful, professional and what’s more friendly knock.
I carried the baby to the door and was more surprised than I could begin to describe to see Mrs Kirkpatrick, my former Maths teacher standing there.
‘Hello Dani; how are you?’ Casting a look downwards she said, ‘well your Mum told me he was a gorgeous baby and she was right. He’s beautiful!’
Still shocked as to why she was here, I couldn’t think of any sort of appropriate response, instead I invited Mrs K inside and made us both a coffee while she cuddled Charlie, who’s named after my late Granddad, bless him.
‘So when did you see my Mum?’ I asked her, as I set our mugs down, ‘you said you’d spoken to her.’
‘Yes I popped round there this morning. I expected to speak to both of you actually, but your Mum said you’d moved into a flat a few weeks ago. After I’d explained why I’d come to see you, your Mum was happy to give me your new address. She said you wouldn’t mind either, once you knew.’
‘Once I knew what?’
‘Why I’d come round. What I’ve been doing. Dani, I lodged an appeal on behalf of you and a few other students as I felt your exams had been, let’s say, aggressively marked. It turned out that quite a lot of students were marked down last year when they shouldn’t have been. Well, I appealed and we won.’
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing; Mrs K had done all that extra work for us? A group of usually ungrateful and non-attention-paying young people who had a diamond for a teacher and we never even thanked her when we left. The woman was a living legend!
‘So…what was the result?’ I asked, trying to keep the tremor out of my voice, ‘what happened?’
‘Well Dani. Congratulations are in order as your five D grades have now turned into two Bs and three Cs!’
So I’d messed up my life for nothing? I could’ve gone on the course anyway? I’d sabotaged my own and it seems my son’s future for absolutely nothing. I walked into the kitchen and stared out of the grimy window, endless moss-covered slate tiles stretching away from me like a metaphor for the future.
‘Dani?’ Mrs Kirkpatrick had followed me into the kitchen, still holding Charlie. ‘Look, I know what you’re thinking-‘
‘I doubt it,’ I interrupted.
‘Yes I do. You’re thinking that you could’ve gone on the course after all, but now that you’ve got Charlie your chance has gone.’
‘Near enough.’
Mrs Kirkpatrick gently placed Charlie back in my arms and I looked down at my sleeping son. It occurred to me then, for maybe the first time, how vulnerable we all are; how fragile life is and how we all need someone to look after us, no matter how old we get. The all-consuming rush of love I felt for Charlie just then was overwhelming and I knew I owed it to both of us to try and achieve my goals in life and support us as best I can.
‘Mrs K, the course I wanted to do; do you think I could apply for it again next year?’
‘You could do,’ said Mrs Kirkpatrick, smiling, ‘if I hadn’t already asked them to defer your place anyway. There’s no need. You’re already guaranteed for next year!’
‘Oh my God,’ I cried, as the threatened tears began to fall, ‘that’s amazing. You’re amazing!’
‘No Dani; you’re the amazing one for never having given up. I’m just doing my job but you’re changing your life. You’ll do so well on the course and I’m so proud of you.’
As Mrs K’s words sank in and excitement threatened to engulf me, I suddenly had a massive reality check. What was I thinking? I had a baby son to provide for; I couldn’t just go swanning off to college without a second thought.
‘What’s wrong?’ asked Mrs Kirkpatrick, seeing my face fall, ‘you looked so excited a second ago.’
‘It’s a lovely idea; everyone needs a dream, but I can’t go, can I?’
‘Why not?’
‘Oh come on, Mrs K. I’m so grateful for what you’ve done for me but I’m not in a position to go anywhere.’ I looked down at Charlie and smiled wryly. ‘I’m stuck in this flat, I can’t get a minute’s decent sleep and I’m like a zombie half the time. How the hell could I study in this place?’
I was so frustrated at the injustice of the whole situation that I burst into tears, thrusting Charlie at Mrs Kirkpatrick and grabbing some kitchen roll to wipe my eyes.
‘I know you’ve had it difficult recently and that’s something else I was talking to your Mum about. Dani; she wants you and Charlie to move back home. She’ll help you take care of him so you can go to college. Tink’s got a job working away so he won’t be there most of the time; it’ll be just you, your Mum and Charlie. The best part is, you’ve got a few months to see how it works out before your course starts. What do you think?’
By the time Mrs K had finished talking I’d got through three pieces of kitchen roll. I couldn’t believe that everyone was being so great; even Mum and Tink had pulled their fingers out and got sorted! Who said miracles don’t happen? I reckon I’ve just witnessed a bona fide one.
*
So that was my story. I moved out of the flat a couple of weeks ago and apart from Tink singing in the shower, it’s so much quieter at Mum’s; Charlie and I are so much more relaxed. Don’t get me wrong, this estate’s not paradise and we still get the odd one or two idiots thinking it’s funny to have a shouting match with themselves at two in the morning, but compared to the flat, it’s golden. Charlie and I are getting a decent night’s sleep which has made us both less grumpy and my Mum’s being a legend with him, even getting up for night feeds sometimes. Tink’s also redecorated to make the place more welcoming and I’m finally starting to feel more positive about the future.
The college course will be Monday to Wednesdays, so Mum’s going to look for a job that fits in with that, but we’ll keep Sunday for our ‘going out as a family’ day, as we’re all off then. It’s all working out and I’m so grateful.
I haven’t heard a thing from Simon or his family but I’m not surprised; Simon has his five-year plan same as I did and I can’t see anything interfering with that, even his son. Mum says it’s them that are missing out and every time Charlie looks at me with those huge brown eyes, I know that she’s right.
Funnily enough, I saw Emma the other day, when I was pushing Charlie through the shopping centre. I wasn’t going to say anything to her, but she approached me and asked how I was! She also said how gorgeous Charlie was and that he must take after me rather than Simon! She was actually really nice and for the first time I realised that it must have been hard for her too.
I asked if her and Simon were still together but she laughed and said she’d never wanted to see him again after the night I announced I was pregnant. Apparently, at first he’d sent her flowers and apologetic messages and begged for her forgiveness, but within a couple of weeks he’d supposedly moved onto an ex-friend of hers, so she was well rid of him. After our short conversation I really thought Emma was great and far too good for Simon, so it actually worked out much better for her too. While we chatted, there was a lad waiting for her who was way better looking than Simon and looked totally besotted with Emma, so fair play to her.
As for me? Well, I’ve been out a couple of times with a lad who I knew from primary school whose family has just moved into our road, but believe me I’m taking it slow. I’ve been to the clinic to get myself sorted out just in case it goes any further, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon and he’s cool with that. He’s taken me to the pub as well but I’ve sworn off alcohol for life, so it’s strictly Diet Coke!
As for Mrs Kirkpatrick, Mum and I have nominated her for a top teaching award, so fingers crossed. The finals of the ceremony are in London, so we could all get invited down for a posh knees-up if she gets that far. I reckon it’s a dead-cert that she does as she’s the best teacher in the world. Thanks to her I’ve finally got my five-year plan in my sights again and it may only need twelve months adding to it. Five year plan or six-year, who cares? All I know is that the future looks bright once more and it’s all down to the fact that someone believed in me.

© Sarah Butcher, 2015

Paradise (part 3)

Gosh, I’ve just re-read some of what I wrote before and it doesn’t half sound gloomy and ungrateful. I had to give myself a talking-to about that; ‘you’re in Heaven for goodness sake, get a grip. How many people would kill to get where you are?’ (That wouldn’t work of course-I can’t imagine pre-meditated murder would get you up here, even for supposed repenters. As I understand it, pre-meditated means you’re evil and truly evil people can’t repent at all: it just doesn’t work. I may be wrong, but that’s how I interpreted it anyway.) I’ve wandered off topic again, as that was then and this is now. I didn’t hear anything for a fair while after I’d submitted my application, but then I was summoned to a meeting with a ‘senior human resources assistant’ to ‘assess my suitability for the post’. Standard gumpf, you know. Bloody bureaucrats. The interview unhinged me a bit, as I wasn’t expecting one straight away, but I did my best and hoped that she was on the ball, rather than just the polished trophy of the HR team; y’know, all shine and no substance. Lovely girl, smashing low-cut blouse; made it difficult to keep my mind focused in all honesty, but I managed somehow. One thing I’ve never understood about women; they wear revealing clothes and push-up underwear but then complain men don’t make eye contact with them. During the equal rights demonstrations from all those years ago I remember women burning their bras and saying they were free from the shackles of male oppression, but I always thought women wore bras for their own comfort, not for men. It didn’t bother me whether my wife wore one or not, as long as she was comfortable. I said that to her once and she told me she’d never go bra-less as it would be ‘like wearing a very heavy necklace’, which confused me even more. I guess with women you never really understand what’s going on in their heads and what’s more, you’re better off not trying to. So I got the job. I have no idea how; maybe I was the only applicant, but I doubt that as haunting opportunities come up so infrequently and there’s always loads of folk who fancy giving it a try. Some people think it’s an easy-in for moving on to the Big Place although why it’s considered a short cut I’ll never know. The only person I knew who took on a haunting role had to give it up after a while because, according to him it was ‘knackering’. The massive points value helps draw them in too of course, so I really must have been the best candidate; either that or she felt sorry for me, but who cares? I got it and that’s what matters. Once I’d got the position I admit I felt a little nervous; I hadn’t had a new job for so long and there was also the difficult point of telling the wife what I’d done. Needless to say, she was not happy when I told her but once I explained that she could relax down here for as long as she liked and eventually she’d have enough points for automatic promotion she cheered up a bit. I honestly want her to stay here and get pampered for a good long while as if anyone deserves it, she does. All those years of caring for other people means she’s earned a rest now. No, once she got over the shock, she began to see that I was right and I’m glad. I’m sure by now you’re desperate to know how I got on with my new role and you’ll be pleased to know it started off very well. I spent most of my day down in Acacia Close and then came back up here for a relaxing evening with the wife, although as it progressed I did have to start working some rather more unsociable hours. As I’ve already explained though, time doesn’t mean much here, so it’s not the end of the world and we made the most of each other’s company. By the way, the astute among you will have noticed that I’m talking about it in the past tense and will have figured that I’m no longer doing the job, but that I haven’t actually got my promotion yet either. Well, there’s a reason for that which I will of course tell you in due course, but for now I need to say more about the property in question and its inhabitants.

Number Six, Acacia Close was occupied by two members of a thoroughly rotten family named Morebad and never was there a more fitting surname in my opinion. Previously all four members of the family had lived there but for various reasons I’ll go into in a moment, there were only two left in the house by this point. (I know I make you wait rather a lot-I’m sorry about that. I know how impatient the living are; but sometimes waiting is unavoidable.) The father, Mr Rufus Morebad, fifty-six years old and as far as I’m aware never having lifted a finger in gainful employment, had two children with his wife Janet; Jeffrey and Ruth. Now I can only offer conjecture here as to what the real story with their children was, but it seems that even the job of helping his wife conceive was too much like work for old Rufus, as after Jeffrey was born they waited a couple of years and then adopted Ruth. There’s a suggestion that Ruth was the daughter of Janet’s sister who decided to give her up (or was encouraged to) but that has never been substantiated, no matter how many conversations I eavesdropped on in number six. Jeffrey was actually quite a sweet kid when he was younger, sweeping leaves, mowing lawns and offering to run errands for the folk in the close, but that’s where the problems really stemmed from. At first, everything was fine and folk were really pleased with Jeffrey’s kindness, but after a while he started short-changing folks, blaming the shopkeeper, or people would notice things had gone missing when Jeffrey had been in the house. One by one, people stopped giving Jeffrey tasks to do and I truly believe he held a vendetta against the older folk in the close, blaming them for losing him trade. Unfortunately, my wife had been the only one of the older residents brave enough to confront Jeffrey directly, which hadn’t exactly endeared us to him or his family either. After one particularly unpleasant exchange with his father because we’d caught Jeffrey pulling up flowers from our front borders, we decided that we would gather support from the other residents and lodge a formal complaint with the authorities about the Morebad family. I’ll talk about all that again shortly, but I want to introduce Ruth first. I know I haven’t talked about her much yet, but that’s been deliberate. When the business with Jeffrey really began in earnest Ruth was only about ten years old and we strongly believed that she wouldn’t turn out as bad as he had. How wrong we were. If anything, Ruth was actually more antisocial than her brother and people soon got sick of having to tidy up her messes. When Ruth was twelve, Jeffrey when to a young offenders’ place for a few months for some misdemeanour or other and the rest of the close breathed a collective sigh of relief. Without Jeffrey, people’s flower borders would be safe and there wouldn’t be him and his mates sitting on the drive in his Dad’s battered pick-up truck, listening to loud rock music every evening. The first night was relatively quiet, which lulled everyone into a false sense of security, as by the second it became painfully clear that Ruth was trying to emulate her brother, presumably in some misguided attempt to impress him or continue his ‘work’. The next morning, the neighbours in the close woke up to deflated tyres, bent aerials and/or scratched paintwork on their cars and they really didn’t have to think too hard to know who’d been responsible. Unfortunately, the Morebads went to great lengths to reassure the police that their daughter was emotionally damaged due to her brother being ‘inside’, and her mother sincerely promised the officers that  the family would do everything in their power to put Ruth back on the ‘correct path’. In truth though, Janet Morebad could do nothing with her daughter and had no influence over her behaviour at all, so her reassurances were groundless. The officers had spent a cursory five minutes with Ruth, in which time she’d promised never to do anything else ‘mischievous’ and to keep away from the neighbouring properties, so satisfied that the matter was closed, the police departed. It was about eleven-thirty that night when I heard a noise like splintering wood and bleary-eyed, I leant out of the bedroom window and told whoever it was to ‘piss off and come back at a more reasonable hour.’ ‘Fuck off you old bastard!’ was all I heard, as a projectile made contact with the lounge window and shattered the large glass pane. I told my terrified wife to stay in the bedroom and call the police, as I pulled on my slippers and dressing gown. I also grabbed my golf putter from behind the bedroom door, confident I was adequately armed should the need arise. I carefully opened the lounge door, worried that there would be glass everywhere and I wasn’t wrong. The large main window had a massive hole in the middle and when I got closer I could see there was a brick nestling in the deep pile rug. I said a silent prayer of thanks that neither of our two cats was asleep on the sofa at the time as they would both have been covered in flying glass, but even so, I knew they’d be hiding somewhere, petrified by the noise. For now though, I couldn’t worry too much about them, I had to see what was going on outside. I went up to the window and thanks to the lamppost right outside our house, I could see that there was a young figure stood on our front lawn; just standing there stock still and staring in my direction. ‘What do you want?’ I called, but the figure neither moved nor spoke, so I went into the hall and opened the front door before stepping outside. I repeated my question, my voice faltering slightly now, unnerved by the way the figure stayed inanimate. ‘I want you old man,’ came the reply, as the figure stepped into the circle of light cast by the street lamp, revealing the protagonist to be the young Ruth Morebad. ‘This is for you because you got my family evicted. You grassed us to the rest of this fucking road and now the landlord’s chucking us out. Bastard.’ ‘You’ve got a vile mouth on you for a young ‘un,’ I said before I could stop myself. ‘Your mother should wash your mouth out with soap.’ Before Ruth could utter forth any more expletives though I heard my wife cry out in shock. ‘Oh what have you done, you evil child?’ I spun around to see my wife looking at our shattered fence panels which up until that point I hadn’t even noticed. In the poor light I hadn’t been able to see anything, but my missus was shining a torch beam onto them and I could see they’d been kicked or smashed with something heavy until they’d given way. ‘You’re a nasty little wretch. How dare you upset my wife like this,’ I cried, hearing sirens approaching in the background. I didn’t want her to get away before they got there though so I walked forward to try and grab her, but she dodged out of my grasp. ‘Don’t fucking touch me!’ she screamed, as she began walking backwards away from my position. Most of our other neighbours had come out of their houses by now and despite being in nightclothes or sweatpants they had come rushing over to see if they could help. Observing that she was now totally outnumbered, the girl went to make a break for it, but as I caught her wrist she twisted and grabbed a large stone from our rockery and slammed it hard into my forehead. I heard my wife scream and several other voices shout ‘no’ or ‘don’t’ but as a splitting pain accompanied by a blinding white light shot through my whole skull, I fell to the floor. The next instant I could feel my wife kneeling next to me and stroking my head, her sobbing just audible, along with the sensation of her holding my hand. At first, I couldn’t believe that this had happened and I presumed that any second the white light would begin to recede and the agonising pain would start fading, but nothing seemed to be changing, except that the sirens were now deafeningly loud and I wanted them to stop. The next thing I remembered was being lifted into an ambulance, my wife climbing in beside me and us speeding through the night, presumably to the hospital. Somewhere along the way I became aware that I had died. My wife was rocking back and forth, moaning and crying while a paramedic worked on me and called to his colleague to pull over and come and help him. The driver had to gently push my wife so that she’d move back and he could help work on me, as otherwise she would’ve stayed where she was hanging onto my hand, bless her. The chaps were trying their best to resuscitate me but I could have told them not to bother; I didn’t need my physical body anymore and it was a bit of a relief if I’m being honest. I was hovering at the ceiling of the ambulance, watching everything that was happening with a kind of detached disinterest; like you might have if you were sitting through a TV programme you never usually tuned in for. I was fascinated to discover that just by lifting my head I could actually see outside the ambulance too, the night sky clear and cold with what looked like billions of stars hanging there. In my youth I’d been quite keen on astronomy and even had a telescope for one of my birthdays. Not an expensive one you understand; it didn’t really focus very well or show much detail but it had been mine. I could look out at the infinite blackness and dream of the day when space tourism would be a reality and I’d treat the wife to a trip around the Moon for our hundredth birthdays. Of course, thanks to Ruth Morebad neither myself nor the wife made it that far, either physically or metaphysically, if you know what I mean. The night I died set off a chain of circumstances that culminated in my wife joining me up here in less than a year, partly from the stress of the trial and having to leave the house that we’d lived in for so many years as well as her beloved garden. On top of that, my wife and I had been one of those married couple who actually liked spending time together and since we’d retired we’d done little else. Not everyone’s cup of tea, living in each other’s pockets like that, but it suited us and she couldn’t get over losing me in such a violent manner, bless the poor old girl. Thankfully, one good thing came out of my passing, which was the Morebad’s landlord did good on his promise and evicted them almost immediately. They’d gone by then anyway; moved on and rehomed by the council I expect, as the police knew that if they’d stayed in the street some of our neighbours may just have turned vigilante on them and metered out their own kind of justice. So now I hear you asking, if the Morebad family don’t live there anymore, why did I want to haunt number six Acacia Close? Well, if only that was the end of the story, then it would have been great for everyone else who lived on the close, but bugger me if the landlord didn’t go and let them move back in some months later. He stated to the neighbours who asked that the Morebads had left it in such a mess he hadn’t been able to rent it to anyone else and the council had come to him cap in hand, desperate to get shot of the troublesome family from their books as it were. So he let them move back in (no doubt after a large backhander from the authorities) and as several of the original residents had now sold up and moved, unable to stare at my place of death on a daily basis I like to think, people that were living in the close were largely unaware of the Morebads and their history. Ruth didn’t return of course; she is in a young offenders’ institute, serving a minimum of eight years for my murder, the jury not buying her plea of manslaughter I was pleased to see, but Jeffrey’s back at home now and so is his father. I never found out what happened to Janet Morebad; I hoped that the mother of those hateful children just had enough of living in a household of such idleness and evil, as to be honest she was the most approachable of any of them and was possibly a victim herself, but it was more likely taken out of her hands. Either one of the family killed her and she’s buried in the garden of their previous house, or it could just be that she wanted to live closer to her daughter’s ‘hotel’. Either way, it was only the father and son who moved back into number six; a fact that was probably not much more reassuring to the poor sods that had to inhabit the same airspace as them. So in time Jeffrey began his petty misdemeanours again, although his time in prison had obviously taught him some useful rules that might have been heeded by his sister, had she not clubbed me to death with a lovely smooth giant pebble some time before his release. Firstly, he took to heart the sage advice of his cellmate that you ‘never shit on your own doorstep’, choosing instead to carry out his burglaries, car break-ins and ram-raids as far from where he lived as was practical and possible. Second, after a night of cheap vodka-drinking he had managed to get a girl in the next close pregnant and her father wanted to ‘rip Morebad’s head off’ as he’d put it when the girl had tearfully confided in her parents, so spending as much time away from his home was not only advisable it was downright essential, as far as Jeffrey was concerned. This meant that Morebad senior, or Rufus as I remembered he was called was often alone in the house, sometimes all night, which made it easier for me to exact my revenge on the man who had spawned such evil offspring and done nothing to control their behaviour. He would not only drink cans of lager while sat in his jacked-up truck, arguing with the police that he couldn’t be arrested for being drunk in possession of a motor vehicle as his had no motor, or even any wheels, but he’d play the stereo he’d rigged up at varying times of the day or night, depending on Rufus’ mood and intoxication levels. I started small; just the usual things like making the lights flicker, tapping on the walls and moving objects slightly, but unfortunately Rufus Morebad is not the kind of man to pick up on subtle signals. By the end of the first week I was starting to get restless; I would only get my massive points bonus if I achieved my objective, which I now believed was to get Rufus to leave, so I had to start thinking big and pulling out the stops. I hadn’t worked this hard in such a long time but I knew it would be worth it for me to get up to the Big Place as I’d planned. However, by the tenth day I hit on a bit of a brainwave; Rufus spent most of the day sleeping and most of the night awake smoking cigarettes of dubious origin so no wonder he wasn’t spooked by my nocturnal nuisances, he probably hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary. What I needed to do was think bigger; I needed the kind of display that even Rufus wouldn’t be able to ignore. I needed spectacular. Okay, so with hindsight the rest of my plan wasn’t entirely foolproof, but how was I meant to know that the kid would come back and decide to have a kip at his Dad’s house that one night out of so many he’d been absent? Burning someone’s house down when you’ve lit a match in front of their face in mid-air and set fire to the chair they’re sitting in is nigh-on genius in my opinion and Rufus would probably agree, when he’s got over the shock and all that. Unfortunately, the problem with a supposedly foolproof plan, is forgetting that you’re dealing with people even lower on the intelligence scale than fools are. Rufus was probably a buffoon, or more likely an idiot, or maybe even as far down as a moron, so when you’re dealing with that amount of missing brain cells, mistakes can be made and unfortunately, on this occasion they were. The trouble is; the biggest mistake was made by me and I know I’ve possibly forfeited my promotion to the Big Place because of it. Rufus Morebad leapt out of his burning chair and, being under the influence of goodness knows what, grabbed his most prized possession; no not his son sadly, but a framed football shirt signed by the entire Manchester United football squad, circa 1997. Despite the fact that it had been Jeffrey who’d found the shirt on an online auction site in the first place, it still didn’t trigger anything in Rufus’ mind that he should check the bedrooms in case his son had returned without him knowing. I watched from my old front yard as Rufus run out of the back door and down the close, then I followed him as he continued to run towards the High Street and the local police station. Being well-known to the officers there of course, the desk Sergeant looked up as Rufus, struggling for breath, collapsed into the foyer and cried out for help. ‘Well Morebad, you don’t usually save us the bother of having to come and get you. What’ve you been up to this time?’ ‘You don’t understand!’ cried Rufus, cradling his precious football shirt, ‘I’m under attack!’ ‘Oh God, not Aliens again?’ laughed the Sergeant, calling over his colleagues, ‘was it the anal probe this time?’ As the other police officers stood around Rufus laughing they were surprised to see tears rolling down his face. ‘You don’t understand! There’s a ghost in my house and he’s trying to kill me!’ As I heard Rufus’ words I was surprised that he’d picked up on my intentions so lucidly. I’d thought that he would’ve just presumed insanity or intoxication rather than the fact I was an actual entity trying to do him harm and I wondered if he possessed slightly more aptitude than I’d originally given him credit for. ‘’course you have Rufus,’ chuckled the duty officer as he helped him to his feet, ‘don’t say it too loud though or everyone will want one!’ ‘You don’t believe me do you? None of you do! He’s real, I’ve seen him.’ A chill went through me when he said that. Surely he hadn’t actually seen me? The information pack I’d got about the case had stated that none of the Morebads were on the Psychic register which meant none of them had any recognised spirit-spotting abilities. Maybe Rufus didn’t mean he’d literally seen me; maybe he’d sensed me or just put two and two together. Either way it had unnerved me, but it was about to get worse. ‘He’s here now! He’s stood by the notice board! Don’t let him get me!’ I turned slightly, alarmed to see that I had inadvertently positioned myself next to a glass-covered felt board that had various warnings about scams, chaining your door and not giving out your bank details over the phone. The police officer s’ laughter died down as they all turned and looked my way. For a moment I thought something had gone dreadfully wrong and I was visible to all living beings, but just then one of the officers turned back to Rufus and took his arm. ‘You had us going there for a minute old son; come on, we’ll take you for a nice rest in a cell and then you can make your way back home when you’re feeling better.’ Rufus suddenly leapt up as if he’d been still sitting in the burning armchair. ‘Home! I can never go back there, not with that ghost in there too!’ The desk Sergeant’s phone rang and after checking who was calling, passed it over to the duty officer. He had a brief conversation without muttering more than ‘right’ and ‘I’ll tell him’, before replacing the handset, his grave tone making all the other officers look concerned. ‘Constable Peters, Constable O’Brien, you’d better take Mr Morebad into the relative’s room and make him a cup of coffee. I need to come and talk to him.’ With a muted ‘Yes Sir’, the young officers walked with a suddenly silent Rufus Morebad down a corridor that led from the foyer and into a room with a frosted glass door. ‘What’s this about lads? It’s only been medicinal use like I promised you.’ As I slid through the door and joined them, Rufus once again began to get agitated. ‘Oh God, he’s here again!’ No-one had time to think about his words further as at that moment the duty officer came in and Rufus quieted down, casting furtive glances in my direction every few seconds. ‘Mr Morebad. Rufus,’ began the duty officer with a solemn expression on his face, ‘I have some rather unpleasant news. There’s no easy way to say this but-‘ ‘He’s burnt my fucking house down hasn’t he? Hasn’t he?’ shouted Rufus, pointing at me. ‘Arrest him then! He’s right there. He’s a pyrotechnic. He should be locked up!’ Rufus’ words made me laugh out loud and I mentally filed ‘pyrotechnic’ away to share with Reg when we next played canasta, as he’d find that sort of cock-up funny too. I wouldn’t be sharing any of this with the wife though; she’d expressly asked that I never again mentioned the Morebad family to her as she just wanted to forget it all and I respected her wishes completely. ‘Rufus, please-‘ began the duty officer, as the other officers rolled their eyes. ‘He’s laughing at me now! He thinks burning my home to the ground is funny! Why aren’t you arresting him?’ ‘Rufus, there’s more I’m afraid,’ said the duty officer in a raised tone and Rufus looked up. So did I. There shouldn’t have been more; I’d got him out and burnt his house down. That was it, wasn’t it? Objective met. I could retire again after this and make my way to the Big Place at last. ‘Rufus, the fire brigade found a body upstairs…’ I felt an icy shiver pass over me as the duty officer paused to let the severity of his words sink in. ‘You can’t have,’ said Rufus at last, ‘my wife has been dead, er, gone for months and my young ‘un is inside. That only leaves Jeffrey but he hasn’t been home for days.’ I was starting to feel panicky; surely I couldn’t have burned the house down with someone still in it? I wouldn’t have been that careless. As the duty officer carried on talking though and Rufus broke down sobbing, it began to appear as if I’d done exactly that. Somehow, Jeffrey Morebad had entered his Dad’s house without being noticed by Rufus or me and had fallen asleep listening to a CD, his huge headphones melted to what remained of his head. You couldn’t really blame Rufus for not checking upstairs before bolting from the house, although you’d like to think that most fathers would have looked anyway for peace of mind, but you also couldn’t blame Jeffrey; as he’d presumably seen his Dad snoring away in the filthy armchair he called home most of the time and figured he’d go straight upstairs to get some sleep. So that just left me. I searched for a reason not to blame myself but couldn’t easily find one. Page one of the ‘Haunter’s Guide’ states that if you are intending to take any course of action where property will be damaged or destroyed you must check the house thoroughly before said action commences. I hadn’t checked the house before I started the fire; I’d just got caught up in the moment and if I’m being honest I’d enjoyed the power I had over Rufus, or so I thought, which was the biggest rookie mistake anyone can make. Jeffrey Morebad was an unpleasant young man but he didn’t deserve to die in such circumstances. I’d played God with someone else’s life, albeit inadvertently and as such had to be punished. I was summoned back up for a meeting with human resources as soon as the news broke about Jeffrey Morebad’s demise. I saw a different lady this time; she was older, with close-cropped hair and large glasses and she didn’t smile once. Her nameplate read ‘Miss King-Human Resources Manager’ and straight away I knew I was in trouble. ‘This is a very serious matter you know, very serious indeed,’ began Miss King and I nodded. I knew that I was in for it badly but just how badly didn’t become clear until after Miss King had droned on for another ten minutes about ‘irresponsibility’ and ‘amateur mistakes’. ‘Don’t you want to make a defence for your actions?’ I didn’t. I couldn’t see the point in all honesty. I was guilty; she knew it and worse, I knew it so there was really no point in dragging things out and I said as much. ‘Your honesty and willingness to accept responsibility are admirable and I do understand the highly emotive circumstances of your history with this particular family-‘ she consulted her notes, ‘-the Morebads. However, I’m afraid the rules on such things are very clear and my hands really are tied. After careful consideration I have had no choice but to permanently revoke your possibility of promotion. You will never be able to ascend to the Big Place.’ ‘What? But that’s-‘ ‘Furthermore,’ continued Miss King, ‘you will be required to attend a one week’s equality and diversity course on following protocol correctly, to be arranged in Hell during the coming month.’ ‘But you can’t!’ I blurted out, horrified that I’d ruined mine and possibly the wife’s chances of promotion and worse, they were sending me to Hell, even if it was only for a week. ‘I’m afraid I can. I have no other choice. You can of course appeal but I wouldn’t recommend it. It costs upwards of four hundred thousand points and has a very low chance of success. Good afternoon.’ I walked out of Miss King’s office close to tears. How could I have been so stupid? What was I going to tell the wife? She’d expected me to come back with news of when I was getting promoted not a week’s one-way ticket downstairs. As I walked into our home she took one look at my face and knew the news hadn’t been good. I explained everything to her and she surprised me by saying she’d secretly hoped I’d be prevented from getting promoted and she was glad it had happened. ‘How can you say that? I’d always dreamt of the Big Place and now I’ll never get to go. You can’t imagine how despondent I feel.’ ‘I can imagine how you feel as its how I felt when I knew you weren’t going to be here with me much longer. It’s the same way I felt when you were slipping away from me the night you died and I couldn’t do a thing to stop you. And it’s the same way I felt every day of the year we spent apart before I was able to join you up here, you silly old man,’ laughed my wife, as she stroked my hand and my head. I suddenly had an enormous déjà vu moment of the day I was killed and how my wife had done the same things to try and comfort me then. Instantly, the disappointment about not ever getting promoted didn’t seem to matter, as I remembered why I had even wanted to get revenge on the Moorbad family in the first place. It wasn’t about my death, it was because of what they’d done to my wife that I wanted to hurt them, but I’d missed the point entirely. My wife didn’t care about revenge or restitution; she just wanted us to be together and had actually been grateful when she’d suffered her enormous heart attack and died at home before an ambulance could even be called. When she’d joined me so suddenly I was angry for her, but it had taken all this time for me to see that she wasn’t angry about it, she’d been glad it happened. The only sad part was that young Lee from next door had to find her on the floor the next day, after she’d noticed that our milk hadn’t been taken in but that even had a silver lining as Lee now looks after our two cats Tango and Smudge and I’ve observed on several occasions that they’ve both never been happier.

So there you go. Every cloud, etc. I spent the whole of last week in Hell which wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be actually, except for the mind numbing HR course I had to sit through. However, I nodded and smiled in all the right places and now I’m back up here with the wife and my record is reset like none of the Acacia Close stuff ever happened. I even saw Jeffrey Morebad in Hell and he insisted on buying me a drink in gratitude for getting him access to the ‘coolest fuckin’ place I’ve ever been, man’ as he told me about thirty times. We parted on good terms and with hindsight i have to say that week in Hell has done more for my state of mind than the rest of eternity in therapy could ever do. ‘What’s that love?’ Sorry, the wife’s just called out to let me know Reg is here for canasta, so I’ll have to go, but before I do I’ll leave you with this one thought. However nice I’ve made it sound up here, don’t be in too much of a hurry to join us, as you’re in a pretty good place there too. Oh and everything happens for a reason, as I hope you will have realised by reading my tale. Good night to you all, oh and don’t forget to look at the stars once in a while will you?

Paradise (part 2)

Of course, Paradise is going to be different for everybody. We get the brochures from time to time that tell you to pre-book your ‘ideal Paradise welcome party’ with ‘fully trained staff who can guide you through your first few confusing hours in the Big Place’. Like I said, time isn’t technically a factor here but it can be hard to stop thinking in such terms. The wife and I have chatted about what we think the Big Place is going to hold for us when we get there, although I can’t imagine it’ll be anytime soon, for her especially. She worked as a nurse for forty years and considers doing nothing her payback for that, and although she got a shed load of points for such heroic and selfless work she’s not amassing any on a daily basis now. She says she’s not bothered how long it takes her to reach the Golden Total, as they say when we get promoted we don’t actually remember our loved ones, so why hurry? I don’t think it’s like we forget everyone though; I imagine it’s more that our consciousness moves onto a higher plane where emotions are redundant, so those we loved, hated, pitied, envied etc in life just don’t factor. That’s what I like to think anyway; it suits my outlook better rather than thinking we just forget each other after all these years of marriage.
Anyway, I was telling you about Marty. Well, Marty was one of those guys who was just good through and through. He worked all his life as a school janitor, but that was just a title, as in reality Marty was a guardian angel to scores of kids who went through the school, especially those who came from difficult backgrounds. He’d spend his weekends fixing their bikes, running go-kart derbies at the local community centre and paying for snacks and drinks out of his own pocket. He also used to tell the parents who were short of money that he’d pay for their kids to go on school excursions, give them birthday parties in the school hall and make sure that they all had someone to confide in if they needed it. It wasn’t just the kids though; he’d help the less educated parents with form filling and run Saturday morning reading groups for those who wanted to improve, as well as helping people apply for jobs and writing them references when required. It broke his heart when the council made him retire at sixty and he had to give up his cottage in the school grounds, and even though local people submitted a petition to keep him in the job the council weren’t shifting. Marty was canny though; he approached a local community group and carried on his work from their premises instead and even from his small local authority flat when necessary.
So you understand why Marty came up here with so many points already banked. But instead of relaxing like my missus has, when Marty got up here a year ago he took jobs as a golf caddy, a hotel porter and a volunteer in a children’s nursery. Therefore, his points were racking up at an astounding rate and I knew he wouldn’t be around here for long. He deserves it, especially when you consider that he shouldn’t by rights have been up here at all yet, only being sixty-three when he passed. He even passed in an heroic way; saving a child from the flat upstairs from his when some youngster decided to shove a petrol-soaked rag through their letterbox and light it. Marty jumped through the kitchen window to get to the child and her mother and had gone back for the little girl’s pet cat when the ceiling gave way and fell on him. Ironically, the bloody cat had already jumped out of the window without any of them noticing and was hiding in the bin cupboard so he technically died unnecessarily, but that was just like Marty; he wouldn’t have been able to live with himself if he hadn’t at least tried for the girl’s pet.
So I have to say I’m not surprised he’s gone up already, I personally wouldn’t have expected anything else. I’m quite keen to move on myself which is why I’m even looking at the board, but the wife is happy to wait a while so I might not tell her, as it would only upset her. Trouble is, she’s happy to browse the shops and chat to her friends whereas people like me and my canasta partner Reg are getting quite bored with it all, so that’s why I’m looking for a job. If I get something that will give me lots of points then I’ll be ‘bye bye boredom, hello Big Place’ and I’d be over the moon. Yes, I’d be sorry to go without the wife; the old girl and me have had some great times together over the last few decades (we managed fifty-six years married on earth before we came up here) but I know she’d be okay without me, whereas I don’t know how much more of all this I can stand.

(C) Sarah Butcher 2014

Paradise (part 1)

The newly-pinned notice caught my eye.
‘Haunting opportunity,’ it said, ‘6 Acacia Close, Wiseldon, England. All interested parties please apply to..’ Blah, blah, blah.
Now you might be wondering why I’d be interested in a haunting opportunity when I’ve got a pretty good deal going on where I am. Up here in heaven it’s all very nice of course; breakfast in bed if you want it, bingo and bowling every afternoon and even guest quarters so your friends and relatives can stay for Christmas and the like, but the truth is, sometimes it’s just a little too nice. The wife loves it of course as she can get her hair done whenever she likes and never needs to make an appointment, but I have to admit to sometimes getting a little bored. My old mate Reg and I play canasta most days and I have been known to hire a rowing boat occasionally and just potter about on the lake (no money needed here of course-the deal is, if you’re good enough to have got in then you’ve already paid in life) but, well, I really thought if there was such a thing as an afterlife that it wouldn’t be quite so much like a Saga holiday. All very nice, but full of oldies, if you know what I mean.
So that’s why I happened to be browsing the ‘Situations Vacant’ board that day (we don’t actually have days and nights as such here, but it’s hard to break a habit of a lifetime. Literally.) I’d seen that the golf club were looking for a new caddy which I was really pleased about, as it meant that Marty had got his Paradise posting at last. I’d never known a harder-working guy than Marty, so it was fantastic he was being promoted to the Big Place.
I should explain how the system works before I go any further with my story, otherwise you’re just going to get confused and you’ll probably stop reading this altogether, which would be a shame as it really does get a lot more interesting from hereon in. When you die you go to Heaven if you’ve been good (or if you’ve been bad but you’ve truly repented and your soul is pure-and believe me, they can tell) but if you have no hope of rehabilitation then you’re going to Hell with no chance of parole. From what I hear though, Hell itself isn’t so bad; for those who like those sort of basement bars where there’s never much light, the beer is warm and the women are loose. Anyway, Hell isn’t the problem; it’s where you’re demoted to from there that those low-lifes should be scared of. The rumour goes that it’s only the real lost souls, the ones who did things in life that were so bad they don’t even stay in Hell, that end up ‘down there’ as we refer to it here.
Anyway, I digress. I was talking about Marty’s promotion. The Big Place is what’s always been called ‘Paradise’ in church and with good reason. Only a few people get to the Big Place as quickly as Marty did, but that’s because he was a selfless guy in life and a selfless guy in death. Honestly, he’d give you the shirt off his back if you needed it, or his coat in a snowstorm, which I actually saw him do on more than one occasion. Yes, we still have snow up here, but only in the sector where people who want snow reside. It wouldn’t be much of a Heaven for sun-worshippers if they had to put up with cold weather would it?! So you get the idea. The better you are in life, the higher your points total when you arrive here. You then amass more points depending on what role you take (selfish or selfless, service industry or getting waited on day and night- you get the picture) and as soon as you reach the golden number of points, off you go to Paradise.

(C) Sarah Butcher 2014

Delayed

The platform was empty for once, but that didn’t inspire relief in her; more so it made her worry that she’d got the departure time wrong or that the train had been cancelled. Wiggling her toes to try and keep warm, she read another page of the book she’d brought with her, and silently urged the train to appear. A woman on the opposite platform asked if anyone wanted to share a taxi to her destination as their service was so late, but no-one even looked up, let alone answered her. With a slightly defeated air, the woman muttered a muted ‘No?’ before shrugging her shoulders, lifting her head and striding off towards the rank.
As one or two more people arrived on her platform she felt her insides relax a little; she hadn’t made a mistake-this train was still running today. She knew there’d been an accident earlier on and she’d felt guilty that her first thought had been about affected timetables rather than the poor man who’d seen no alternative but to throw himself under the fast service to London. That was human nature though she thought; to think about how inconvenienced one was by an event once the initial ‘oh dear’ feeling had worn off. No need to castigate herself over that, it was just what happened on a daily basis. She was surely no different to anyone else in that regard.
A man in a sports coat was talking loudly on his phone and she listened to the one-sided conversation, trying to imagine what the person on the other end was saying.
Man: Yeah, some selfish twat threw himself under the fast train.
(Pause)
Man: Yeah, I know! (Hearty laughter)
(Pause)
Man: I dunno either mate. They must know how much disruption they’ll cause; they probably do it deliberately.
‘Yes,’ she thought, ‘that’s exactly what someone so incredibly depressed would be thinking. Not, will the world be better off without me, but how can I piss off a load of commuters on the inbound service?’ Before she could stop herself, she’d said ‘idiot’ out loud, causing the man to look her way. Registering her lack of importance in the situation, he swiftly turned away again and continued his conversation, while kicking at the platform tarmac with an expensive-looking brogue; an unknown man’s suicide evidently not something he would spend any time dwelling on.
She thought how typical it was that she had to be delayed on such a cold day, making a mental note to dig out her winter boots from the loft when she got home. That was the sort of thing she would’ve asked Marcus to do in previous years, but now Marcus had a different loft in a different house and that meant if she wanted the boots she’d have to get them down herself.
Checking her watch again, she noted that if the train didn’t come in the next ten minutes she’d have to ring Mrs Mountgate and tell her that she’d be late collecting Zara. That wasn’t a phone call she relished; her daughter’s child-minder was ferocious on a good day and a parent being late fetching their offspring did not constitute a good day in Mrs Mountgate’s eyes. She was superb with children though and Zara adored her, so she figured a little verbal violence from the child-minder was worth it for her daughter to be settled while she had to work.
She fleetingly allowed herself to again curse her ex-husband (she’d never get used to calling him that) for deciding that he’d rather be with a vacuous blonde in her late twenties than his wife and toddler daughter, causing her to return to full-time work two years earlier than they’d originally planned. Marcus earned good money, so they’d figured that she could stay at home until Zara went to pre-school, which would be good for both mother and child. It would also save a lot in child care costs they’d agreed, so the decision was made and she’d been happy with the plan.
However, suddenly becoming a single parent had thrown her into financial turmoil. Marcus stopped paying the mortgage almost immediately, meaning she’d had to once again find a well-paid job in the city, necessitating an hour’s commute every morning and evening which she loathed.
They’d bought the house in an area that suited Marcus more than her, but as the idea was she’d be giving up work after they’d got married it seemed to make sense. Marcus liked the idea of the ‘little woman’ waiting for him in an apron when he got home from work; in fact he liked it so much he often made her wear it in bed, which always made her cringe and was as far removed as you could get from the successful banker she’d been when they’d met.
After she’d conceived Zara she was thrilled to have an excuse to not have to indulge in Marcus’ perversions, for there were many. She presumed that was what probably drove him into the arms of the pneumatic blond from his firm’s Personnel department in the first place but in all honesty, despite not wanting her marriage to end, she was relieved that the strange things Marcus enjoyed were now the other woman’s problem rather than hers.
Friends had thought they’d been helping when they told her about single men they knew who’d be ‘just perfect’ and ‘loved kids’, but truthfully she couldn’t bear the thought of anyone touching her, or worse, expecting her to touch him and for the time being at least, she was happy it was just her and Zara. Marcus had shown little interest in seeing his daughter once he’d moved out; the once or twice they’d made an arrangement he’d turned up late and had to leave early, meaning the time they had together was barely enough for Zara to even remember who her father was. Despite trying to encourage his visits for her daughter’s sake, she had to admit defeat when on the third occasion he’d actually brought the other woman with him, expecting them all to sit and chat in such a civilised manner about why the pair of them had destroyed her and Zara’s supposedly happy lives.
It hadn’t worked out like that in the end. After she’d seen the blonde woman strapping Zara into the car seat she’d seen red and gone rushing out to tell her that she’d already ‘stolen her husband’ and she was ‘buggered if you think I’ll let you have my daughter too’, so Marcus had called her a ‘fucking nutter’ and said he wouldn’t be visiting Zara again until his ex-wife had apologised to his fiancée. Weeks had passed and Marcus had been true to his word so far, so she presumed that was the end of her ex-husband’s involvement in their daughter’s life, suspecting that he would eventually feel it more keenly than his daughter ever would.
She did her best to give Zara a happy and enjoyable home-life whenever they were together and she had negotiated an early finish on Fridays so that they could have a long weekend to spend however they liked. She had to admit that the evenings were the hardest though; once Zara was asleep she had several hours of solitary television watching, book reading and web browsing to get through and she’d acknowledged that she was relying more and more on a bottle of wine or two to help her while away the time. Her mother tried to help but she lived two hour’s drive away, having escaped the city as soon as she was able and retired to a life of countryside village bliss. She did visit a couple of times a month though and the company was welcome, as well as the importance of her daughter getting to know her grandmother.
The station announcer brought her back to the present as the speaker crackled and an automated voice informed them that their train was ‘delayed by twenty minutes.’ As it was already thirty minutes late by that point nobody took much notice and carried on what they’d been doing before. Most people had earphones poking out from upturned collars, or were staring vacantly at smartphones and tablets and she pulled her book out of her pocket and once again tried to read.
‘Rubbish this waiting around isn’t it?’
She ignored the voice at first, presuming it not to be addressing her and resumed reading the chapter.
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt your reading. This waiting around though; it’s a lonely business don’t you think?’
Realising that somebody had moved closer to her and was now standing at her shoulder made her push the book back into her pocket and turn around slowly.
‘I beg your pardon? Were you talking to me?’
Straight away she regretted the formality in her response as she saw the man of a similar age to her shrink back slightly, perhaps thinking he’d offended her by stepping over the boundaries of polite society and talking to a stranger. She smiled thinly and spoke again quickly.
‘I-I mean, yes it is inconvenient, but the poor man who jumped must have been pretty desperate to do something like that. I guess a short delay is nothing compared to how he felt?’
The man’s face changed as she spoke and he visibly blanched.
‘Oh my God, is that why the trains are late? Shit. Poor fellow. I feel awful even mentioning the delay now, you must think I’m heartless.’
‘Of course not,’ she stressed hastily, ‘it’s only human nature. I was thinking something similar myself before I found out the reason the train’s late. Don’t worry.’
The man smiled broadly and half put out his hand as if wondering whether he was being too forward, but then he decisively held it out while introducing himself as Alistair. Shaking it firmly, she looked at his face properly for the first time and had a sense of familiarity.
‘Do you catch this train every morning?’
‘Most days yes,’ said Alistair, ‘although I do work a day a week from home. Company cutbacks and that sort of thing,’ he continued, explaining.
‘I thought I recognised you. I catch it all week too. I work for Bloom Brothers in the city.’
‘Really? Gosh, you must be a high flyer. I don’t do anything nearly as exciting as that. I work for a small publisher of not very popular romance novels; not much cash in them these days thanks to e-readers and the like but I do it for the love of books. I must admit, that’s partly why I spoke to you; it was so refreshing to see you reading an actual book rather than a tablet or looking at a phone. There aren’t many of us left now you know.’
She absently touched the top of the book now wedged in her wool coat’s pocket and smiled widely.
‘You’re right, I don’t see many people reading actual books on the train these days either, but I’m afraid I’m about to disappoint you. I do own an e-reader; it was a gift from my-from someone a couple of years ago.’
She couldn’t understand what had stopped her mentioning Marcus; normally she wore her ex-husband like a suit of armour, almost to prove that despite losing him, she had at least once managed to marry someone.  It was a desperate measure she admitted, but she even still wore her wedding ring; her self-confidence not yet repaired to the extent where she could go out in public without that symbol of conformity and reassurance present.
‘Can I ask what it is you’re reading?’ Alistair’s voice had a warm, comfortable tone to it that made her feel they’d been talking for years rather than minutes and she had to admit that she was starting to regret that the train would probably soon arrive and break up their little bubble of co-dependence.
‘Oh I doubt you’ll have heard of it; it’s very old. It was one of my mother’s books, but when she moved she had to get rid of so many. This was one I remember her reading when I was little so I knew I had to hang on to it.’
Pulling the book out of her pocket, she brandished it towards him and let him take it from her. Cradling it carefully he turned the cover over and over and let out an exclamation.
‘I don’t believe it! It’s one of ours! This is incredible.’
‘You’re joking! But my mother’s had it for years.’
‘She would have,’ said Alistair laughing, ‘this was one of the first titles our publisher ever produced, in the early 1970s. Well I’ll be damned.’
Feeling pleased that he’d not only heard of the book but worked for the company that actually published it, made her feel like they had an even tighter connection than simply catching a train at the same time from the same place every day. While Alistair continued to look at the back cover of the book and chuckled to himself, she almost unconsciously worked her wedding ring from her left hand and dropped it into her other pocket.
‘Look,’ said Alistair, shuffling uncomfortably, ‘it doesn’t look like this train’s going to come anytime soon. I don’t suppose you’d…you’d like to come for a cup of coffee would you? It’s just I’m freezing stood here and there’s a really great café just up the road.’
Forcing down her feelings of under-confidence and pushing all thoughts of Marcus from her mind, she looked up and smiled.
‘Yes please; that would be lovely.’
‘Okay then…Hang on; I know you and your mum have a great taste in books but I still don’t know your name. You never told me.’
‘It’s Claire,’ smiled Claire, as she walked alongside Alistair up the platform and left the station.

(C) Sarah Butcher 2014

Bank Job

When he’d said ‘stick ’em up!’ she’d wanted to laugh. That was the kind of cliché only movies dared to use, not real-life actual bank robbers. However, that’s what he’d said and due to the gun he was thrusting through the slot of the cash window, that’s what she did.
He’d demanded that she fill a bag with all the money in her drawer but as she’d carefully pointed out, she could hardly do that with her hands in the air, could she? He’d begrudgingly agreed to let her put down her hands but to keep them in view, however, he couldn’t have known about the tiny alarm button her finger brushed over while gathering up twenty pound notes, which alerted the back room staff to the emergency situation in progress.
The robbery would’ve been seamless if her supervisor hadn’t come storming out of the office, demanding to know ‘which of you idiots has set the alarm off this time?’ suggesting that accidental deployment of the alert was a regular occurrence. This time of course, it wasn’t accidental, which the supervisor discovered as he came face to face with the man brandishing a handgun. The cashier’s face became a picture of resigned expectancy, which the supervisor could see reflected back at him in the toughened safety glass, but what he didn’t expect was the gunman’s next course of action. His face twisting up into a picture of disgust, he ordered the supervisor to swap places with the terrified cashier, whose life had flashed before her that very second and who’d been convinced she was about to die. The supervisor hesitated long enough for the gunman to scream that he was putting everyone’s lives at risk, as for the first time since the drama had begun every person still in the bank became an unwitting cast member of the drama playing out before them.
The supervisor had evidently been on a course that told him what to do in such situations as armed robbery, as he now tried to take control of the situation by supposedly engaging the culprit on his own level.
‘You don’t want to do this mate, you’re only young. Got your whole life ahead of you. Why not put the gun down and run while you can?’
Unfortunately, the supervisor had no way of knowing that his words would make things worse, despite them being from page one of the bank’s ‘how to deal with armed robbers’ ring binder that every new employee was forced to read.
Despite wearing a scarf around the lower part of his face, the fury in the young man’s features was evident to the supervisor and he realised too late how he’d misjudged things.
‘I haven’t got my whole life ahead of me have I?’ screamed the man through the window, his breath leaving a film of condensation on the glass despite his mouth being covered. ‘I’m dying, yeah? I’ve got nothing to lose. What about you though? What have you got to lose? And all you lot?’ the gunman swung round and addressed the remaining customers who’d been trapped inside after the self-locking door was triggered by the alarm.
No one dared speak, presuming the gunman’s questions to be rhetorical, but as he scanned the room, his eyes alighted on a young woman holding a baby that looked to be about six months old and he spoke to her directly.
‘I’m going to be a Dad soon; my wife’s five months pregnant. I’m doing this for her and the baby, so they’ll be alright when I’m gone. Or maybe I can pay for treatment abroad and I’ll actually get to stay alive long enough to meet my child, I dunno.’
‘I’m sorry,’ whispered the woman, almost involuntarily and for a split second they had a connection; a shared belief of the injustice and fragility of life.
Spinning back round to face the glass, the gunman saw that the supervisor had not continued the cashier’s efforts in filling the bag and his eyes took on a hard, determined look once again.
‘Haven’t you got anything to live for either then mate?’ sneered the young man.
‘W-what makes you say that?’ stuttered the supervisor.
‘Cause you’re certainly taking your time filling that bag.’
Unbeknownst to the young man, the supervisor had frequently spent time thinking he had nothing to live for. Working all week in the dreary sub-branch that his hometown contained, then going home to his small flat in a converted Victorian terrace; spending the evenings listening to his neighbour below playing heavy metal music and his neighbour above having arguments with his girlfriend, followed by noisy ‘make-up’ sex.
‘Maybe I don’t,’ said the supervisor, his hand poised between the cash drawer and the bag.
‘What?’
‘Maybe I don’t. You reckon you’re the only one with problems? You’re not, but you don’t see everyone going around threatening to blow people’s heads off.’
Suddenly emboldened, the supervisor began taking money back out of the bag and returning it to the cash drawer.
‘What the fuck are you doing mate? You’re gonna get everyone in here killed, you know that? Stop being a hero and fill the fucking bag!’
‘Look, the police are on their way already and you can’t get out of here because the doors are locked. Why don’t you come back here with me and I’ll get you a cup of tea? Give yourself up, yeah?’
Everyone in the bank held their breath momentarily, as at first it seemed like the young man would actually go along with the supervisor’s request. However, as the seconds passed the gunman turned to the assembled hostages and pointed his gun at them indiscriminately.
‘He’s getting you killed!’ he shouted to a man in his mid-fifties wearing a shirt which was now heavily coated with sweat. ‘He’s getting all of you killed!’
He pointed the gun at a man who looked to be in his early-thirties and went to pull the trigger. The man began crying and when he saw that the gunman lowered his weapon.
‘I can’t shoot someone who’s crying man, don’t do that to me.’
The cashier who’d originally been on the till looked across at the gunman, then placed her hand on her colleague’s shoulder.
‘Shall I do it Henry? You’re not putting the money back in. Do it Henry, for goodness sake!’
‘Yeah, listen to her Henry,’ parroted the gunman, ‘do as she says.’
‘I can’t,’ said Henry, trembling. ‘I can’t move.’
‘I’m losing my patience with you mate,’ said the gunman, ‘do it now or get a bullet in the head. The choice is yours.’
‘I-I think my colleague may have to do it for you,’ said Henry, shaking uncontrollably. ‘I can’t seem to do it.’
‘You weren’t so hesitant when you came out that door at the start, were you? Do you know why I wanted you to do it? Because of how rude you were to the cashier ladies. You’re a nasty piece of work, y’know that?’
Henry couldn’t believe he was getting called a ‘nasty piece of work’ by a man brandishing a handgun. Had he really sunk that low? Was he really such a cowardly, snivelling individual that he was even prepared to let the cashier take his place?
‘No.’
‘What d’ya mean ‘no’?’ said the gunman.
‘No, I don’t need my colleague to replace me, I can do it. I’m not going to be difficult.’
‘Very sensible of you mate. Now fill the damn bag.’
Suddenly, the sound of a voice enhanced through a megaphone filled the small bank vestibule.
‘This is the Police. We have armed officers out here and you will not get away. Come out now with your hands up and throw down your weapon.’
The gunman grabbed the nearest hostage, which happened to be the woman with the baby. The child began screaming and the woman struggled to get free, but the gunman held her tighter.
‘I’m sorry love; you’re the last person I’d want to do this to but I’m desperate. We’re going out there together.’
Grabbing the bag that Henry had stuffed through the service hole in the window, the gunman shouted at him to release the door, which he did. In the seconds that it took for the gunman to reach the outside, Henry had decided what he had to do. He jumped up and pulled open the staff access door and sprinted across the vestibule. He launched himself at the gunman and grabbed the child from the woman’s arms, causing her to scream and the gunman to jerk back in Henry’s direction.
Seeing the confusion, the police marksmen shouted for the gunman to let the woman go. The cashier had followed Henry outside and he thrust the baby into her arms before rugby-tackling the gunman to the ground. As the gunman fell he let go of the woman, who rolled away from him and scrabbled towards her baby.
‘Henry, they’re safe. Leave him!’ cried the cashier, who had reunited the woman with her child and was now concerned about Henry.
As the tussle between the two men continued, one of the police marksmen pulled the trigger, hitting the gunman in the back and causing his body to spasm. His finger, which was in the trigger, involuntarily pulled backwards and his gun fired.
Henry felt a burning pain spread from his stomach and his vision clouded over, so that all he could see while lying on his back was the blue of the sky.
‘Why haven’t I stopped and looked at the sky more?’ thought Henry, as he felt his bodyweight start to float upwards, ‘why haven’t I counted the stars when the sky’s been clear?’
‘Henry!’ screamed the cashier, as she rushed to his side, ‘Henry, stay with me. Somebody call an ambulance!’
Even as the sirens got louder, Henry knew his time on earth was drawing to a close, and he thought about his childhood, his schooldays, his adolescence and finally his working years spent entirely at the bank.
‘I never did go to India,’ he thought, as he felt someone kneeling beside him and cradling his head.
‘Henry, don’t go, stay here. Help is on its way.’
Recognising the voice of his colleague, he squeezed her hand and smiled.
‘It’s okay Sheila, it really is. I’m going to India to count the stars. It’s beautiful.’
‘Oh Henry, why did I never tell you how much I admired and liked you? Why have I waited until it’s too late?’
‘You admire me?’ croaked Henry, his voice starting to fade, ‘why me? I’m nobody.’
‘How can you say you’re nobody? You’ve just saved the life of that lady and her baby and probably the rest of us too. You’re a hero. You’re amazing!’
Henry felt the soft touch of Sheila’s lips lightly brush his cheek, as the blue sky enveloped him and whisked him upwards. When he opened his eyes again he was lying on his back, looking at the night sky, the stars twinkling and glowing before him. Reaching out to touch them and feeling their warmth in his hands, he floated closer to them and began counting.

(C) Sarah Butcher, 2014.

Their Place

This place had always been their favourite, hers and Damien’s. They’d first come here when they were dating (‘courting’ his Nan had called it) and he’d even proposed to her in this very spot. When it came to booking a honeymoon, her friends had suggested Goa or the Maldives, or even Thailand but she’d said no; this was the only place that would have felt right. They’d spent a blissful week; walking hand in hand or wrapped in each other’s arms to keep warm during the day, and no different at night.

She was sure she was pregnant on the third evening but Damien said she was being silly; there was no way she could be sure so early, but she’d known. She’d said it was mother’s intuition or something similar and he’d laughed and spun her round the room, before they’d collapsed into bed and tried to double their chances. He’d had to apologise when it turned out she’d been right all along and in between kissing her hands and rubbing her belly he’d called her ‘magical’, ‘incredible’ ‘miraculous’ for harbouring their new life inside her. When six weeks later their dreams had died, she’d seen a look in his eyes that she never wanted to see again and worse, be the cause of. He was lovely of course, saying all the right things and absolving her of any blame but she knew; she knew deep down that he held her responsible, because she felt she was.

Months turned to years and they rubbed along happily, just the two of them. Nobody could understand why it wasn’t happening for them, so the doctors carried on prodding, poking and peering until one day she’d said ‘enough!’ and that had been the end of that avenue of hope. They both claimed not to mind; each happy in their own way, either when together or apart, but they did mind really, they minded a great deal. It stood them apart from other people that they knew; meant people watched their Ps and Qs when talking to them and it got wearing after a while, trying to put others at ease when you cared little for their feelings. It also made everyday life difficult; she’d given up her job after it happened, as being around children all day was just too cruel of fate to orchestrate. The worst of it was the mothers though. They’d grip their children a little tighter when she approached; either because they wanted a reminder of the fact that they’d successfully managed that one duty that only a woman can fulfil, or because they thought her bad luck might rub off on them and their offspring. She’d joked that ‘maybe they think I’m so desperate I’ll snatch one of them’ but it had been an empty, hollow laugh that Damien had heard her conclude the story with and she’d been ashamed of herself for making light of the one situation that no amount of praying seemed to change, or that her usually so practical husband could alter through his own volition.

They would have been alright, she felt, if it had just been them and they’d been left alone but that was too much to ask it seemed. Well-meaning women from up and down the street evidently thought that their emptiness could be filled with an endless supply of Victoria sponges, lamb casseroles and bottles of cheap sherry. It was kind of people of course, but they were never alone long enough to acknowledge what they’d lost, or rather what they’d never quite managed to find, which was where the rot initially set in. Damien didn’t talk about much else either, preferring evenings nursing a pint in the pub to discussing his evident failure as a male of the species. When the money ran out, as it began to shortly after pints had given way to doubles of whatever the barman was overstocked with, those gifts of sherry and cherry brandy from the back of someone’s drinks cabinet became Damien’s weapon of choice. He discovered that, for remarkably less than what he was paying in the pub each night, he could achieve equal or greater levels of intoxication and therefore numbness, without even having to leave his armchair.

Of course, that state of affairs was never going to be maintained on a long-term basis and after he’d set himself and his chair on fire after lighting a cigarette then falling into an alcohol-induced stupor, the landlord wanted assurances that it wouldn’t happen again, along with a security deposit, damages and a higher monthly rent. Unfortunately, she couldn’t satisfy his mind on any of the raised points no matter how much she negotiated, especially as neither Damien nor her was coping well enough to hold down a steady job, so after living in that house for years they were asked to leave and they packed up what they could fit in the car and left.

They imposed on friends for as long as they dared, neither of them having family as such to speak of, but then they resorted to sleeping in the car; once again wrapping their arms around each other to stay warm but now out of necessity, rather than any suggestion of desire. That final night Damien had clung to her tighter than she’d ever known him do and he’d cried. He’d never cried in front of her before and maybe she should have been more concerned, but she was tired and cold and maybe she did blame him for their bad luck, more than she cared to admit. Whatever the reason, when he stirred at first light and kissed her on the forehead she let him go without any semblance of guilt.

She must have fallen back asleep because there were suddenly voices laughing and chatting outside, the sunshine still bringing tourists to the beach, even though the season was as good as over. It was only then that her thoughts turned to Damien; he must have been gone a long while by that point as the car park was busy with motorists and families and dawn was several hours behind them. She never understood just how she knew, but she had an unshakeable realisation that she would never see Damien alive again. Later, she was told that someone called an ambulance because she was apparently so distressed, sat in the car surrounded by bags of memories and boxes of clutter, but it transpired she was in the hospital when a nurse and a policewoman came and told her they’d found his body, washed up in a cove a few miles up the coast. The cove was a well-known favourite amongst families with young children, due to its shallow water and golden sand, but she knew that the last thing Damien would’ve wanted to do would be to upset or scare children; that was ironically the bit that upset her the most. It wasn’t her personal loss so much as the unpleasant circumstances of her husband’s discovery; even in death she was still sure of what he would and wouldn’t have wanted, and he wouldn’t have wanted that.

So that brought her back to this place. Their place; the one place she knew she could always feel happy, always feel at peace. It had to be here, there was nowhere else she would ever have the nerve to do it and nowhere else she would feel Damien so close by her side, reassuring her.
Climbing onto the railings, she looked down and saw the twinkling blue of the water; the late evening sun reflected as it disappeared on what would become the last day of her life. Feeling herself suddenly weightless, she had the purest sensation of being alive, being part of something bigger that no person could ever understand until their life-seconds were counting down to single figures. As the water came up to meet her, she knew she was no longer alone and would never be alone again. Damien’s hand slipped into hers and squeezed it tightly as he held her to him, before kissing her forehead and once more spinning her around the room.

(C) Sarah Butcher, 2014.

My novel is on Kindle!

I am very happy to report that my debut novel ‘When will I be famous?’ is now available to download from Amazon Kindle worldwide! It’s the culmination of a long labour of love and it has been a massive learning curve, but I’m so happy and so proud to have done it!

Search for the above title, or for Sarah Butcher, and you should find it! Thank you!

Great writers’ quotes!

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
― Stephen King

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
― Toni Morrison

 
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
― Maya Angelou