Thomas cantered into Wadesmill. He was tired after the long ride from Cambridge and longing for a good drink of ale. But most of all he needed to think. Ever since he had written his prize winning essay, ‘Is it lawful to make slaves of others against their will?’ on abolishing the slave trade, his mind had been buzzing with questions. What can I do about it? Shall I visit the slaves in the Caribbean? What about finding out more about the conditions on the slave ships? Can I find an MP to put the case for abolition in Parliament? So many questions.
He dismounted at the Feathers, tied his horse to the post and went in to the inn. “Landlord, a pint of your very good ale and some bread and cheese please.”
“Where have you ridden from today sir?” asked the landlord.
“That’s a fine town. I’ve got a niece who lives there. She is servant in one of the Professor’s houses. Reckon she likes it fine. They have grand dinners in the house for the Professor’s friends. Nelly serves it all from the roast beef to the syllabub and coffee where they often fall to talking about politics and such like. She hears some meaty comments sometimes.”
“Have you ever thought about where the sugar we put in our coffee comes from, landlord?” Thomas asked.
“Out west somewhere in the tropics where the weather is hot. Not Yorkshire, sir” he chuckled.
“Yes on the Caribbean islands where the natives work. But do you realise they are slaves to their masters and have no freedom like we enjoy? Is that right for us to hold them as our slaves so we can have cheap sugar?”
“Well, I’ve never thought about it,” answered the landlord as he mopped his brow “but I wouldn’t mind having a slave in my kitchen even if he was black. I guess it’s just the way things are. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“But that’s just it, landlord, I do worry about it and I am going to do something about it!”
As he left the coaching inn, Thomas felt his cheeks burning with indignation and resolution. Maybe nobody cared about the slaves - but he did and he would take on the world to fight for the end of slavery. It would be a hard path persuading all the vested interests who were making a fortune out of this evil trade. He walked up the hill and came to a spot where he sat down on the turf. Holding his horse, Thomas reflected on the evils of slavery and the thought came to him that this had gone on long enough and that someone had to stop these calamities. Then he had the revelation, sent by God, that the someone was him!
Right, I resolve on this spot to dedicate my life to the abolition of the slave trade, he thought. A voice said to him “This is your destiny Thomas, open the gates.”
Excited and inspired, Thomas mounted his horse and patting it on the neck whispered, “Let’s go to Ware and call on Joseph Aldridge – he will help.”
A few miles further on, Thomas stopped outside his friend’s house on Ware High Street. Thomas knew it was the old home of Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII. Thomas’s thoughts raced back three hundred years. If it hadn’t been for her, he mused, we would never have had Henry VIII or Elizabeth to rule us. How history depends on small events! Well if all the wrongs against slaves I have described in my essay are facts, then it’s high time something was done about it. I don’t want to depend on a small event to happen to free the slaves. No - I need to take action.
In this frame of mind Thomas greeted Joseph and poured out his passionate belief in the need to change the fate of the slaves. Joseph didn’t need persuading as he had long thought on the same lines. “Calm down my friend,” said Joseph as he put a comforting arm around Thomas’s shoulder.
Joseph poured out a good red wine and sat down with his friend. Grasping his hand urgently he said, “I have met and talked to some slaves on a slave ship. They are not savages but men, good craftsman who miss their families.” Joseph went to a cupboard and produced a beautiful carved object. “Wonderful work,” marvelled Thomas. “You give me an idea to demonstrate to others their humanity and call them to our cause.”
Two years later in London, Thomas delivered his essay to the MP for Hull, William Wilberforce. Wilberforce wrote to him:
“I congratulate you on your ideas and passion. We must join forces to campaign on this, the biggest issue of our time. If you could gather more evidence about how the slaves are treated I will make an impassioned plea in Parliament. Can you meet me tomorrow at the Cheshire Cheese?”
The two men formed an alliance with a toast of good claret. Thomas was to do the research and William to use his oratorical gifts to convince people of influence and get a bill passed in Parliament.
The result of their pact was a brilliant speech in Parliament in 1789. Clarkson supplied the information on the terrible conditions on the ship Brookes, which he had visited in his incredible journeys of hundreds of miles in search of the truth.
“When surgeons tell you the slaves are stowed so close, that there is not room to tread among them; and when you have it in evidence from Sir George Yonge, that even in a ship which wanted 200 of her complement, the stench was intolerable,” he wrote.
But Parliament resisted and the Bill failed by 163 votes to 88.
Clarkson became more of a threat to the slave merchants and on a visit to Liverpool, that city of iniquity as a headquarters of the slave trade, he was set upon by a group of sailors who tried to throw him in the water at the docks. Clarkson was no physical fighter but he outwitted his attackers and managed to escape. Mopping his brow afterwards over a reviving glass of ale he thought, “do I give up? Is this too dangerous?”
He resolved to continue and not be scared out of his mission. Instead he became energised and gathered more evidence of the cruelties and monstrousness of the slave trade. He started a boycott of West Indian sugar, created a box of African artefacts to demonstrate the humanity of the slaves, travelled to Paris to persuade the Revolutionary government and to Tsar Alexander of Russia. He had some success with the Tsar but met more abuse in France and returned to England disappointed.
Then came another blow when the sons of Wilberforce held a public event praising their father and not even mentioning Thomas Clarkson’s amazing contribution. So disappointment was followed by sadness that his thousands of miles of travelling and gathering the essential information that Wilberforce needed was not acknowledged.
It took several more attempts and was not until July 1833 that Parliament finally banned the slave trade in all British Colonies. Slave merchants were paid huge compensation and the now free men were forced to work as apprentices for six years. Only then was real freedom theirs.
Thomas died in 1846, exhausted by his thousands of miles of travelling and staying up until 3am writing his research for Wilberforce to use. Shortly before the abolition, Thomas was prevailed upon by other abolitionists to return to Hertfordshire and point out the exact spot at Wadesmill where he had had his revelation and dedicated himself to the abolitionist cause.
You can visit this spot today and see the monument erected to Thomas Clarkson - and have a drink afterwards in the Feathers pub where Clarkson may have encountered a dubious landlord in 1785.
Barry had to queue at the Rex to get in to see National Velvet. At least it was only a U film so he didn't have to hang around to ask an adult to take him in or, worse, bunk in at the side door when no-one was looking, as his best friend Maurice used to do when he was out of funds.
He came out of the cinema smitten. He could still see her eyes, dark and velvety themselves, he imagined he was in love but only with an unreachable film star. How stupid I am, just fourteen and I get keen on a girl I can never go out with. Perhaps that’s the point, he mused. I don't know anything about girls, just talk about them a lot with other boys at school and then we stick pictures from Picturegoer of pin-ups such as Lana Turner and Hedy Lamaar on our bedroom walls. “Gosh, my dad doesn't seem to think I should be doing that at my age,” he thought.
Barry wondered about this and felt it was a bit old fashioned of his dad. He concluded that the real problem was that he never met any girls as they were all boys at William Ellis Grammar. Although there was the girls’ school next door at Parliament Hill, they would get detention, or even caned, if they went anywhere near it. Seems daft to me, thought Barry, why don't they let boys and girls study together? He fell to wondering if that could ever happen in this country. Maybe in a hundred years from now! Anyway he was too shy to talk to a girl so why worry about it? Girls were strange creatures anyway. How do adults ever get together, marry and stuff, he wondered.
Flicking through the pages of the latest Picturegoer magazine, Barry was surprised to see a photo of his heroine, Elizabeth Taylor. New Child Star Wins Race was the headline. Interviewed at her home with her mother in Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard, Elizabeth Taylor said she was homesick for London and often went to sleep crying at the thought of Hampstead and Parliament Hill where she went to school. “But you might become a real Hollywood star after your performance in National Velvet,” said the journalist. Elizabeth said she didn't really believe this would happen and didn't like the bright lights of Hollywood; she really yearned to go home and live a normal life in London. The reporter wrapped up the interview by saying she'll get over it and see this is her life now, Hollywood. We at Picturegoer think she will go far, even if she doesn't.
Wow, so she came from round here and even went to school next door to me, thought Barry. His best friends at school, Leonard and Neville, had taken up a new hobby: writing fan letters to the stars of the silver screen. Leonard had even received a signed photo from Lana Turner.
Dear Miss Taylor, wrote Barry, I have just seen you in National Velvet and think you were super. I go to school at William Ellis and it is just wizard to think of you being next door. I read that in Picturegoer! When was that exactly? Did you get the bus from the school? Gosh I may have been on your bus. I hope you come back to England. Can I have a signed photograph please? Yours sincerely
To his astonishment, a reply arrived only a few weeks later. That was amazing, especially as his letter probably had to go all the way across the Atlantic in a ship, as he didn't pay for airmail, and then all across America to California, and hers had to do the same in reverse.
He tore excitedly at the envelope but carefully preserved the stamp for his collection.
It was nice to get a letter from you, especially as you live where I lived and go to William Ellis. I remember it well and I did use the bus. Please write to me again and send me something, a picture would be nice, that I can remember North London by? Here is a photo of me which I hope you like.
“What's the matter son? You look hot, haven't got a cold or something have you?”
Barry quickly hid the letter in his homework, and placed his school cap on top of the photo which was half peering out of the envelope. The blue cap with its oak tree emblem reminded him of the school motto: Rather Use than Fame. Perhaps Elizabeth was choosing that herself, rather than the fame she could have if she wanted to stay in Hollywood.
“No, Dad. I ran home from the bus stop because I thought you might be going to work in the pub tonight”. Barry wasn't intending to share his great secret with his father. It was lucky he had got to the post on the mat early this morning so his Dad needn't know the best thing in the world was happening to him.
In his room that night he looked at the picture of Elizabeth. She seemed to gaze at just him with her deep black eyes. She still looked girlish in a dress with puffed sleeves. I wonder, he thought, if......
He searched through the pages of the Hampstead and Highgate Express looking for a good photo he could send. At last on the third week of looking he found it. A great picture of Parliament Hill Fields and a feature on the schools and the area. Perfect! Barry cut out the relevant pages and preserved them as if they were the precious pages of a medieval manuscript.
There was an even bigger surprise at Christmas. Apart from his family, he wasn't expecting any Christmas cards but the one that landed on his mat was from Elizabeth Taylor. And, he excitedly noted, it was hand-made with a photo of her from Lassie Come Home and a message inside “To Barry, Happy Christmas, Elizabeth”. Barry sighed and stuffed it in his satchel to show Neville and Leonard after Christmas.
Barry was even more surprised when a letter arrived.
Mummy and I are coming to Europe next month to promote my new film. We are staying at the Savoy in London and then going on to Paris. Can you come to the Savoy at 6.30 on May 22nd? If you can I'll meet you in the foyer and we can have a cup of tea and talk about London. It would be fun if we could meet.
Barry couldn't believe his luck. He was going to meet her. Was he dreaming? No, this was real and she wanted to meet him. This would be amazing to tell Leonard and Neville and the other boys at school.
They didn't believe him. “Oh yeah, and I'm going to have tea with the King next week” said Leonard with a wry grin.
Counting the days. It seemed like years later that May 22nd arrived. He pulled his best jacket out of the wardrobe and put it on. Looking in the mirror he was immediately worried that it wasn't good enough to meet a film star. But then she would know that no schoolboy would have anything great to wear while the country was still on rationing and using clothing coupons. And his Dad didn't earn enough to buy stylish clothes and certainly not those Spiv jackets in Cecil Gee’s in the Tottenham Court Road. It just would have to do.
Dad had worked as a waiter in West End hotels so he might know where the Savoy was. It turned out he did. “It's in the Strand son. Plush place for posh people. Why do you want to know?”
“I heard this dance band on the radio, Carrol Gibbons and his Savoy Orpheans it was called and I just wondered why it was called that. Do you think they play at the Savoy Dad?”
Dad carried on reminiscing about dance bands. "I met your mum dancing to Ambrose's band at the Lyric Hammersmith before the war.” His father's eyes misted over as Barry was readying himself for his big adventure. Now he knew where the Savoy was, all he had to do was get there on the 134 bus.
Standing outside the Savoy, Barry was overawed. Everyone going in was arriving by taxi or even a chauffeur driven Rolls Royce! Nobody was just walking in off the street. And just look how they were dressed. Didn't seem to have any problem with clothing coupons nor money neither. He looked down at his jacket and thought about turning straight round and getting the bus home.
“Barry - it is you isn't it?” a young girl's voice shouted excitedly. He looked around but couldn't see where the voice had come from. “I'm here, over here”. And then he saw her standing at the entrance bathed in a golden halo of light. Slowly the light dissolved and he saw an ordinary girl standing there, except she wasn't ordinary at all. She was Elizabeth Taylor!
It turned out that Elizabeth didn't want him to go into the Savoy anyway. She wanted to experience a bit of London she had missed and wanted him to take her to Lyons Tea Shop. “I remember they have these waitresses called Nippies and they serve good old English tea in silver teapots. We only get bad coffee in plastic cups on the film set,” she exclaimed. “But won't people recognise you after National Velvet and all that?” “No I'm not that famous and I've got this head scarf.” She smiled as he had always imagined angels smile, as she wrapped the scarf round her head.
Sitting in Lyons everything was as she had said. Though it felt really posh with elegant mirrors and fancy décor, he could see the customers weren't posh at all but more like his own class. Barry looked down as she placed her holdall on the floor and noticed a book peeping out. “Gosh, do you read Virginia Woolf? That's really difficult stuff.” “Oh well, yes, but I like it because she's always writing about Bond Street and Regent Street. That's me and my nostalgia for good old London” she sighed.
At the next table there was a bloke with a girl, probably his girl friend by the way they were looking at each other, all moonstruck. She was a pretty blonde. She might work in Woolies and he had just put his Burton raincoat over the back of the Windsor chair. “Come on Laura - say you'll go to the pictures with me next week. Meet me at the Odeon on Monday night at 7 and I'll get us seats in the three and sixes. Brief Encounter is on. I know you'd love it.”
Barry thought the bloke had won, as the girl gave him a nice smile and squeezed his hand and whispered, “I hope this is not a brief encounter, with us I mean.”
What he hadn't anticipated happened now. His tongue stopped working. Barry didn't know what to say, felt very self-conscious and had apparently had his tongue cut out in payment for this amazing piece of luck. Elizabeth didn't seem to notice much as she was babbling on about her happiness to be in London, her plans for her next film, her Mum's determination that she should become a great film star, her not really wanting this as she would much rather live in London than Hollywood. All this seemed to put him at ease and eventually his command of the English language returned - it was a good school, William Ellis. “But if you become a star won't you be able to get married to a handsome leading man like...you know...like...someone like say Michael Wilding”
“So what, all these stars get divorced in no time flat. I wouldn't want that. And the work too, it's awful. Mummy wants me to do well so I put up with it but you wouldn't believe what these directors expect from you. I feel like a cat on a hot tin roof sometimes, they make you work such long hours and I'm officially still a child so they should give me more time for my school work.”
And soon they were planning to meet again: they would go to Parliament Hill, get some sweets at the tuck shop and go for a walk on Hampstead Heath. “And now I've got to get back to the Savoy. Mummy will be wondering where I am. She was having a rest and I told her I was going to the bookshop in the foyer.” She leant over the table and kissed him quickly on the lips. “I'll write,” she said as she dashed out on to the street leaving Barry in a happy daze, swearing to never wash his lips for a hundred years.
The letter came two days later.
It was so nice to meet you. You are so sweet. I'm so sorry but we won't be able to meet again. Mummy found out from the doorman that I'd walked out of the hotel and met up with a young boy. She didn't like that and has forbidden us to meet again. Mummy and I are off to Paris tomorrow so it's goodbye to lovely London. You know all that bad stuff I said about Hollywood. Well it’s not all bad. I've earned an awful lot of money and I can spend some of it in Paris. I think I’ll buy a Chanel dress and some jewellery with real precious stones, maybe even diamonds. And we are going to go to the Eiffel Tower! I hope you have a nice life.
It was a completely unexplained killing. There was absolutely no reason why Sarah Parks should have been so brutally battered. The police were baffled.
At first it had been assumed that she had wandered on to the tracks and then been struck by an oncoming train, but the coroner’s report had already ruled that out. When I visited the station to collect the CCTV footage, I asked to see the platform where Sarah was last seen. As soon as I saw the safety barrier at the end of the platform, I was convinced that she’d been pushed. I kept my thoughts to myself for a couple of days, but Boyle brought a few pictures to show me over dinner at my flat.
“She had cotton fibre under her fingernails that didn’t match anything she was wearing. Where would that have come from?”
“You could be breaking a hundred different rules by just asking me that question; in fact, I’m sure of it. I can’t interfere or even offer an opinion on a case unless requested to do so by a senior officer.”
Boyle pretended to be indignant. “I am a senior officer,” he said. “Besides, we gather our facts from several different sources as a matter of routine.”
“But you now have to report all your sources to your reporting officer before engaging them in your investigation. Failure to do so could result in severe disciplinary action. And you know what that means.”
“Yeah, she’s going to roast my meatballs on a spit and have them with spaghetti.” Boyle drained the last of his wine. “Remember when I said we were like two sides of the same coin? We look at a situation from different sides, but we invariably see the same thing. What are you seeing here?”
I stared into my glass and swirled the remaining rioja slowly. “I see Sarah being pushed over the barrier by someone wearing clothing of cotton fibre who then followed her on to the tracks to finish her off.”
“Then we agree. But by whom?”
I had no answer. I could only confirm what the station staff had told me. Sarah was alive and visible on the security screens at 10.35 on that Monday night. She turned around and appeared to speak to someone out of view of the camera. The next train to stop at that station was the 10.50 to Hertford and that was when the alarm was raised.
“That’s a pretty tight window,” I commented. “Fifteen minutes to kill someone; it’s pretty brief.”
“But still perfectly possible.” Boyle gathered the notes scattered across my dining table. “The coroner suggested that the killer felt extreme rage; at least half a dozen of the blows were inflicted post mortem.”
I held up my hand and averted my gaze from the sheath of photographs. “Please don’t give me any further details. I’ll go back to the train company in the morning and check the footage again. What about her husband? Aren’t they usually first suspect?”
“Not this guy,” said Boyle. “His alibi is solid. I spoke to him myself yesterday. The poor man’s in bits.”
I gathered together the dirty dishes and wine glasses. “Coffee?”
“Please.” Boyle looked thoughtful for a moment. “Liz, when would you leave your handbag unattended?” He held up a picture.
I ignored it on my way to the kitchen. “Well, these days, I’d like to say never, but there must be times when I do.” I had already noticed what had caught his eye. When Sarah had turned to talk to the invisible fellow passenger, she had left her handbag on the platform bench. I scooped coffee into a cafetiere and closed my eyes as I inhaled the aroma. It failed to calm my nerves.
“You know what this suggests, don’t you?” Boyle came in holding the photograph and leaned against my counter top to look at me.
I nodded reluctantly. “We’re looking for someone she knew and trusted.”
Boyle’s phone jangled and he pulled a face as he looked at the display. I knew it was his boss and couldn’t resist a smile.
“Does your mother know you’re here?” Even having dinner together was now a reportable event.
“I’m going to speak to Sarah’s employer tomorrow,” said Boyle, when he ended the call. “And my boss was wondering if you’d like to join us?”
“Good God! As assistance or a suspect?”
Boyle laughed. “I think she just wants to see you for herself. She wants to know what you think.”
“I’d better iron a blouse, then.”
The following morning I took a copy of one of Boyle’s photographs back to the train station and spoke to the bored young man behind the glass whose shirt tag said his name was Justin. He wasn’t on duty at the time of the incident and was relieved about that.
“They didn’t let old Jim go until nearly midnight,” he said. “I’d have buggered off regardless. Would have been on my sixth pint by eleven.”
I showed him the photograph of Sarah moving back towards the entrance of the platform with her handbag behind her on the bench. “Who else would have been here at 10.35?” I asked.
“Well, Pat does the earlier shift,” he said scratching at the stubble under his chin. “Jim gets in before the 18.12. There would only have been a handful of passengers about at that time of night, plus a few stragglers from 22.11.”
I pointed to the time stamp on the picture. “It says 10.35, here. But the next train was at 10.50, not twenty to eleven.”
Justin laughed and handed over a timetable. He tapped the surface of his digital watch and then pointed to my traditional looking timepiece. “Things have moved on a bit since then,” he chuckled. It’s 22.11.” he separated the two numbers between his hands as if weighing grapefruit. “As in twenty-two hours and eleven minutes. Any passengers hanging around at the time you’re talking about had probably missed their train. There’s a phone number on there, too.”
I thanked Justin and called Boyle as I left.
“Gloria and I questioned the staff. They all say that Sarah was popular and hard working. Everyone was shocked when they heard the news.”
“What time do you want me there?”
“We’re questioning her closer colleagues after lunch. You better get here by 1 o’clock. “
I loved the way he said that.
“Ms Philips, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you.” DCI Gloria Hancock extended her hand and shook mine in grip that was assertive and kind in equal measure. Gloria was dressed like a business woman for whom the eighties had ended too soon. Her formal, padded jacket and tailored skirt gave her a stern and authoritative air. “We now know that Sarah Parks worked for Ray Seymour as a junior secretary for the last six months having been promoted from another department. Mr Seymour’s wife confirms he was at home with her from 9.30 onwards; he often works a later shift.”
“Here he comes now,” said Boyle. “And he has company.”
Ray Seymour walked into his office with a young lady of about Sarah’s age. “This is Kate; she’s my PA. I thought you might like to start with her.”
“Actually, Mr Seymour,” I interrupted, “I’d like to start with you.” Ray was in his early forties and carried with him an arrogance that he seemed to assume as part of his job description. “Your wife says you were at home with her by 9.30 on the night Sarah died.”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“So what time did you leave here? I’m told you often work late.”
Ray glanced at his PA. “Well I guess it was probably between 8.45 and 9pm. It usually takes between 30 and 45 minutes to get home from here.”
“Probably? You can’t be more sure than that?”
Ray frowned impatiently. “No, the traffic on the main road out of town often gets blocked even at night. The time can vary.”
“Of course it can,” I agreed, trying to sound reassuring. “But if you are claiming alternative or extra hours at work, you’d need to know what time you left to be sure you got paid the shift rate. Even senior managers have to report their hours. Don’t they?”
“It was 9pm,” stated Kate, confidently. “We were both working on the same project and left about the same time.”
“What project is that?” asked Boyle.
Ray reached over to his desk and handed Boyle a file. “This one; the whole team is involved. It’s for the American market so we’re keeping to US time.”
“And what was your opinion of Sarah?” asked Gloria.
“I liked her,” responded Kate. “She was smart, too. Really nice.”
I turned to Gloria as soon as they had left. “Apart from the fact that they’re hiding an affair, do you believe what they’re saying?”
Gloria hooked a finger over her chin as she stared after them. “Not a single word of it.”
I turned to Boyle. “What’s in the file?”
“It looks like a protective IT back up system. Hmm, that’s interesting. The original notes were compiled by Mrs Seymour.”
“Ray’s wife? Did she work here?”
Gloria answered my question. “Yes, she was Ray’s PA a few years ago. He divorced his first wife to marry her.”
“Is she your next port of call?” I asked hopefully.
“Boyle, you go. We better make it official. The team and I can continue here.”
I smiled my thanks at Gloria as we left.
“I like your boss,” I said to Boyle on our way out.
“She likes you too,” he replied. “Look, I’m still breathing.”
Kathy Seymour was a lot younger than I expected. She was pretty, in her early thirties, I guessed.
“I really don’t have the time for this,” she complained. “I have a nail appointment in less than an hour.”
“I understand that you used to work with your husband before you were married.” I said. “When did you leave?”
“I gave up working after we married two years ago. Ray was doing well and I wanted to start a family.”
“But you compiled the notes for the new system they’re working on.”
Kathy shrugged. “Many projects can take years to get made. And I had previous experience in IT systems. I’m sure that most of the secretaries there now think that IT was what their grandmas used to have at four o’clock.”
“Ray was working late again that night,” said Boyle. “What time did he get back home?”
“By nine thirty. We’ve been over this before and I’ve already made my statement.”
“But that’s not right, is it? End of business in the US would be about 10pm here. Something else happened that night. What was it, Kathy?”
Kathy pressed her lips together and looked at her shoes. “He called me Kate,” she said. “He tried to cover up, but it was just something that slipped out. And that’s when I knew. It was happening again.”
“Ray cheated on his first wife with you,” I prompted. “Is that how it started?”
Kathy nodded, but couldn’t meet my eyes. “I knew another secretary had been promoted and figured that must be her.”
“What did you do?” asked Boyle.
“I knew she took the train home, so when Ray called and told me he was staying late again, I drove to the station.”
“What time was this?”
“And then nothing. She wasn’t there. I asked the guy behind the desk what time the train was due and I’d missed it.”
“Which train was that?”
“Eleven after ten. The next train was at ten to eleven.”
Boyle and I sat in my car, just a few doors away from Kathy Seymour’s house. I closed my eyes and let out a breath. “All of this time comparison is making my head spin.”
Boyle frowned as a thought seemed to come to him. “Do you have a timetable?” I handed it over.
“Look; all the times listed are in 24 hour clock. I’m willing to bet that if you call the helpline number, the voice tells you the time of the next train in 24 hour clock too. Gloria had Sarah’s phone inspected. She called the helpline at 9.40 that evening. That means that she must have left the office between 9.40 and 10pm. She must have thought that she had plenty of time to get to the station, not realising that she’d missed her train.”
“But even in 24 hour clock, Kathy’s timeline doesn’t match with Sarah’s. Sarah would have had to walk to the train station and Kathy took her car. She had probably already been and gone by the time Sarah got there and we know Sarah must have arrived after 10.15.”
Boyle nodded. “Kathy spoke to a member of the station staff. They’ll verify what time she was there. So we know she didn’t do it.”
“What about Kate? She says that she and Ray left the office about the same time; 9pm. She would have been too early to meet Sarah at the station.”
“Unless she didn’t leave,” suggested Boyle. “She may have stayed until 10pm with Ray and no one would have thought that was unusual or strange. And if Sarah made her call when we think she did, she was probably still at the office.”
I looked up to see Kathy hurrying down her driveway to her sporty looking car. “That looks new,” I commented. “This lady really does like the good things in life, doesn’t she?”
“Yeah, none of which come cheap. Where do you think she’s going?”
I started the engine and got ready to follow. “I don’t know, but it won’t be the nail salon.”
I kept a safe distance from Kathy and obeyed Boyle’s instructions. She led us back to the office, but this time parked in a residential road nearby.
“She’s going back to straighten out her story with her husband.”
Boyle pointed to another car on the opposite side of the road. “You’re not the only person who thinks so.”
DCI Hancock waited for Kathy to turn towards the office building before getting out of her car. If she was surprised to see us there, she didn’t show it.
Boyle marched towards Ray’s office and demanded he remain seated, but Gloria and I met outside the ladies room. Kathy and Kate’s voices screamed from within.
Gloria pushed the door and jerked her head back towards the office. “I think it’s time we had another little chat.”
Back in Ray’s office I saw the colour drain from his face as soon as Kathy walked in.
“Oh, man up, Ray,” she sneered. “You’re a lousy liar. I was there the first time, remember?”
Gloria fixed Kathy with a stern stare. “You lied yourself when you said Ray had come home at 9.30.”
Kathy glared at her husband. “It was 10.30. Why did you follow Sarah to the station, Ray? Were you sleeping with her too?”
“I wasn’t sleeping with her.” Ray nodded towards Kate. “She said Sarah knew something. I had to find out what. I only wanted to talk to her.”
Boyle snorted. “I’ve heard that one before.”
“But I didn’t!” Kate’s voice was shaking and so were her hands.
“You did. You said she knew all about us and what we did here. I overheard you talking to the others in the office.”
Kate pointed a trembling finger towards Kathy. “I was talking about her. She was the one who had initiated the current project.”
Kathy suddenly threw her head back and laughed. “So she’s the one you’ve been screwing behind my back.”
“But you’d always said you’d divorce me if I had an affair.”
“I was going to divorce you anyway, you twat! Do I look like a stay at home mother to you? You pushed Sarah over for nothing!”
Ray rose from his seat and marched towards his wife, his face in a contorted snarl. “Don’t you get it? I pushed her over for us. You spend money like running water. Sarah went over the spreadsheets and found your overspending in the new software. I couldn’t afford the Americans finding out and I can’t afford another divorce! Why do you think I had to take the American contracts in the first place?”
Gloria stepped in between the two and held up a hand. She pinched the bridge of her nose and looked like she was getting a headache. “All three of you were at the train station that night and all three of you played a part in Sarah’s death.”
“That’s ridiculous,” retorted Kathy. “I didn’t even see her.”
“That’s just the point,” I said. “What would you have done if you did? Push her over yourself? You could have gone looking for your husband.”
“But I was here,” said Ray, panicking. “Ask Kate.”
We all turned our attention to the quietest person in the room who was also the closest to the door.
“He asked where Sarah was,” she said. “I told him that she had already left to catch her train.”
“You made the same mistake as Sarah.” Gloria walked towards Ray forcing him to move backwards towards his chair. “You heard that the train was at 22:11 and assumed that meant twenty minutes before eleven o’clock.”
Ray bounced into his seat. “But she was alive when I left her, I swear it.” He swallowed, looking from Gloria to Boyle and back again. “You have to believe me.”
“I do believe you,” said Boyle. “That’s what makes this so inexcusable. Sarah had a sprained ankle. She couldn’t get up. If you had helped her and made good on your actions, she’d still be alive.”
I looked back at Kate, who was pulling on a pair of soft gloves. “But someone else was there, someone who realised what the mistake with the time really was. Someone who saw what happened and then climbed down onto the track. Who told you that the next train was at 22:11, Ray?”
The office was suddenly very quiet. Kate stared at Ray with hateful eyes. “We all know how you can’t resist a new face.”
“But I wasn’t sleeping with her!”
“That’s what she said.”
Gloria put a hand to her chest. “Oh dear God. She must have thought you were going to rescue her. And instead you gripped her coat and smashed her head against the rail again and again and again.”
Kate simply moved her eyes from Ray to Gloria. “I want a solicitor.”
When I shook Gloria’s hand later, I knew I had made a new friend. “You’re very perceptive, Ms Philips,” she said. “You’d have made a good police officer.”
“Nah,” I shook my head. “You’d have me suspended in a week.” Gloria smiled but didn’t disagree.
“Do you think she’s forgiven me yet for almost turning you to the dark side?” I asked as I drove back.
Boyle laughed. “Sure. It’s me she’s watching like a hawk.” He looked at his watch. “Do you fancy getting a takeaway tonight? Chinese?”
“Absolutely,” I agreed. “Guess my two favourite numbers.”
In the beginning, there was Catholic school and apart from the incident at the dinner party, Father Ben could remember very little about his early life. This was a blessing for which he remembered to thank God every morning. Each day the padded kneeler in front of Ben’s window seemed to shrink further away and on especially cold days, its distance seemed obvious enough to mock him. Ben gripped the window sill with both hands and tried to brace himself for the pain and embarrassment of his creaking knees. This morning’s ritual had a new dedication.
He was twelve when he experienced the classroom incident and that was how Ben had come to view the majority of his life; as a series of incidents. At St. Ignatius boarding school, Easter was the biggest of all festivals and in the preceding weeks, Lent was the most strictly observed of penitent periods.
It was during the last week of Lent that Simon Dorsey taught Ben to smoke. He and a few other second year lifers, as they called themselves, had gathered in the caretaker’s garage at the back of the sports field to sample the delights of the confiscated stock locker. The locker was kept closely guarded in the headmaster’s study, but at the end of first term, the caretaker was awarded special permission to enter the headmaster’s rooms for Spring Cleaning. This was a wonderful event in the school calendar because it meant the clearing of the confiscated items. All the sins of the outside world were waiting to be discovered, like a Pandora’s Box of Catholic misdemeanours.
Beer, unfortunately, was dispatched to the kitchen to be poured immediately down the sink. Cake, sweets and other edible treats were only permitted weekly after tea on Saturdays and any tardy parent whose dispatch had missed that deadline had their gift immediately confiscated. The boy they were meant for might get his toffees eventually, but the cake and chocolate were invariably never to be seen again.
But it was the forbidden contraband that the boys lusted after most; cassettes of rock music, creased and suspiciously sticky copies of Playboy and cigarettes. This was the evil stock that Mr Hammond was instructed to dispose of forthwith. Apparently, he only kept these items in his garage so that the boys wouldn’t be able to steal them back from the rubbish, but nobody dared to question why the headmaster would keep such things locked in his study in the first place.
Clarke and Adams bagged the porn as soon as it was found. It didn’t really matter how old the copies were or if they’d already been seen. It was the social standing that came with ownership that was important. In the land of the permanently penitent, the boy with porn was king.
“I’ve already seen that lot,” said Dorsey. “That was the bunch of mags that was confiscated from Harris before Christmas.”
“It’s only Playboys here,” said Adams. “Harris had Penthouse and Hustler, too. His older brother smuggles them in.”
“Don’t matter anyway,” said Clarke, shoving one copy up inside his jumper and one down the front of his trousers. “They’re mine now.”
“I’m having this one,” said Adams, loosening his belt. “This copy’s got that actress in it. I don’t mind removing a few staples.”
Clarke glanced over his shoulder. “Best get a move on. Hammond will be back soon.” He and Adams jogged back towards the main building to stash their hoard safely.
Dorsey and Ben were still rummaging in the box, but in Ben’s opinion, all the good rock music seemed to have been taken. “Why bother confiscating this lot? There’s nothing here worth listening to anyway. It’s all Abba and love song duets.”
“Got ‘em.” Dorsey held up his prize triumphantly. “B and H. Good ones. I can’t stand those cheap ones my mum has.” He pulled one from the pack and handed the rest to Ben. “There are matches in here somewhere.”
Ben held the pack back out to Dorsey. “Don’t smoke,” he said. “Never learned.”
Dorsey laughed, his cigarette jiggling between his teeth. “Time you tried, then sonny. Here, I’ll show you.” He shook a match box and lit his cigarette. He squinted a little, as if the strength of the smoke was almost too much, but he kept his cool and handed the cigarette to Ben.
Ben wasn’t too sure about this. He knew he wasn’t as cool or smart as Dorsey, but he’d give it his best shot. The pain of the cough, though, was enough to wind him and Dorsey bent over double as he laughed. Ben was just bent over double.
“Oi! Wot you kids up to now?”
Dorsey shot Ben a startled glance. “Leg it! Hammond’s back.”
They both ran for the door but Hammond was waiting for them outside. “Wot you thieving little tykes got this time. More of my stuff have ya?” He had Ben by the arm, but only managed to grab at Dorsey’s collar. His straggly moustache whistled like reeds in the wind as he puffed his red cheeks out to catch his breath.
“Nah, Mr Hammond,” said Ben, desperate for an excuse to present itself. “We were only looking for stuff for a school project.”
“Oh, yeah? And does that school project require a wank and a fag?”
Dorsey looked like he could wriggle free, but he didn’t bother trying. He and Ben were mates, after all.
Hammond frogmarched the boys back through the school yard and directly past the teacher’s common room. It was just their luck that old Evans saw them. He stood in the doorway to the school hall, waiting, with his hands behind his back, gently tipping backwards and forwards on his heels.
“Thank you, Mr Hammond,” he said, as the boys were presented back to him. “And what is the excuse this time?”
“Looking for stuff for a school project, Mr Evans.”
Evans eyed the boys before him and Ben was sure he could see the faint beginnings of a smile on his smug face. This was going to result in punishment and it was going to be painful.
“Looking for stuff for a school project.” Evans pronounced each word carefully and individually.
“Thank you Mr Hammond. I think I can take things from here.”
Yes. Very painful.
“Well, come on then. Let’s see what discoveries you’ve made that would result in a school project.”
Dorsey and Ben looked at each other. The jig was up. They were going to have to empty their pockets.
“Cassette tapes and cigarettes.” Evans pretended to look confused. “Forgive me,” he said as if the clarity of the situation escaped him. “But this looks a lot like the confiscated items from Mr
“Are you sure it’s not yours, sir?” Dorsey dared to stare straight back. “You can have it back if you want. There were some mags in there ‘an all.”
Evans’ cheeks shone pink and Ben had to bite the inside of his mouth to prevent a smirk.
Evans’ eyes were cold and when he spoke his voice was barely a whisper. “I shall join you in class momentarily.”
Ben and Dorsey walked back to their form room in silence. Of all the form masters they could have had, Evans had to be the meanest, most miserable and downright wacky son of a bitch there ever was. Most of the masters told the boys that they were dirty, un-saveable souls, destined for hell. Most of the masters would indeed have punished the raiding of the confiscated locker items and most of the masters would have sent the boys to the headmasters study for an ear-bashing and a stiffly-worded letter sent home in that afternoon’s post. It was only Evans, the boys learned, who seemed to take a perverse kind of pleasure in ensuring that the boys knew they were un-saveable and destined for hell, in seeing them punished for almost any misdemeanour and in posting the letters home himself.
Ben and Dorsey had only just taken their seats when Evans quietly entered the room. He closed the door gently behind him and stood in front of his desk at the top of the class as he waited for the boys to stop their chattering and stand to attention. No boy in the room could have failed to notice what Evans had brought in with him. It was the longer of the two canes that hung above the mantle in the staff room. Ben also noticed that the punishments book, in which all crimes deserving of a caning were written, was conspicuous by its absence. Usual house rules stated that a caning could only be administered by a teacher if the headmaster was unavoidably absent. Ben wondered where Father Graves was now. He had only had cause to stand in front of Graves once before and had been surprised at the leniency shown to him. Vomiting over a classmate’s shoes at evensong was surely worthy of a stern admonishment, as was the drinking that had preceded it, but Graves had clearly known, correctly as it turned out, that the ensuing hangover would be sufficient.
“Be seated,” said Evans. “Dorsey and Jones, stand here.”
Ben and Dorsey made their way to the front of the class to stand by their teacher. “These two,” said Evans, flicking a wavering finger towards the boys, “broke into the garage at the back of the lower school sports field with the intent to steal the confiscated items held there, presumably for personal use, but also perhaps for redistribution. This action was a deliberate attempt to flout school rules. Their theft and willingness to share the spoils have not only demonstrated their own guilty desires, but also a blatant disregard for you.”
“It wasn’t an attempt,” said Dorsey, moving only his eyes to glance up at Evans. “It was a successful mission.”
“Shut it, Dorsey,” hissed Ben. “You’re making it worse.”
“Ain’t gonna get no worse, mate,” he replied. “Put the kettle on, Grandma. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Evans beckoned his finger at Dorsey. “You first. Assume the position.”
Dorsey stepped forward and the class started to snigger as he undid his trousers and let them fall to his knees. He stood with his back to the class and leaned forward with both hands on the front of the teacher’s desk. His dark blue pants stared back at the class and Adams softly wolf whistled.
“And the underpants.”
The class stopped sniggering. Dorsey had been on the receiving end of his fair share of punishments, some legitimate, some not, but this was a first. “Sir?”
“The underpants,” repeated Evans. “Those, too.”
“But Sir,” protested Ben. “That’s not right.”
“Silence!” commanded Evans. “Underpants. Down.”
Dorsey looked nervous, and seemingly unsure of this new instruction, his hands began to shake. With a red face and deepening embarrassment, he did as he was told. Cowering low, and with his lily-white arse for all the class to see he gripped the desk with renewed fear to await the impending assault.
Evans assumed a stance of his own. He stood by the side of Dorsey, facing the class with his feet squarely apart and tilted from one foot to the other to align his balance. Raising the cane in his right hand high above his head, he arched his left arm up to pinch the tip between thumb and forefinger.
The cane bowed in a tight arch before Evans released the tip and sent it whizzing down to connect with Dorsey’s quivering rear.
Dorsey screamed in pain and collapsed to his knees, his hands still clinging to the desk.
“Sir,” he gasped, “please, sir. No. No more.”
“On your feet, boy,” demanded Evans. “You have four more.”
“No, he ain’t,” whispered Ben. He’d seen enough.
Evans resumed his stance and readied the cane for another swing.
Almost unaware of what he was doing, Ben stepped forward, reached up and gripped Evans’ wrist.
“What on earth are you doing, boy?” shouted Evans. “Let go at once.” But Ben couldn’t hear. Already he had started chanting. His Latin master said he had a gift.
“I beg the Lord to forgive you your sins and cleanse your soul. Obsecro ut obliviscaris sceleres peccata et emundet animam tuam Dominos. I beg the Lord forgive the harm inflicted on the innocent. Ignosce quaeso Domine innocerti nocumenti.”
“Jones,” hissed Clarke. “You’re going to give him a heart attack.”
Evans’ face had already developed an unhealthy purple hue, his anger gathering in tiny droplets of barely contained spittle at the corners of his mouth.
“How dare you! How dare you! Let go this instant.”
Dorsey took a deep breath and turned his face, blotchy and wet, towards his unlikely hero. Evans’ left hand still gripped the tip of the curved cane. Ben lifted his other hand to his chest and felt his heart beating. He gripped Evans’ wrist even tighter as he begged for the forgiveness of sins with all the fervour of a sideshow preacher casting out a demon.
Evans released the tip of the cane and delivered a sudden backhanded swipe to Ben’s cheek, sending him into a spin and crashing into a chair. Ben hit the floor with a dull thud and then there was a second of shocked silence. No one saw Clarke slip from the room.
“Is he all right?”
“Of course he ain’t. Look at him.”
“What’s happening? I can’t see.”
Dorsey hurriedly hoisted his trousers over his hips and limped over to kneel beside his friend. “Jones? Say something, mate.”
Dorsey rolled Ben over and an already ugly looking lump, the size of a duck egg, was forming over Ben’s left eye.
Evans staggered backwards and almost collapsed against his desk. The cane clattered onto the wood and Evans seemed surprised at the sound; too loud in a silent classroom. He pointed a finger at Ben.
“He was being disobedient and unreasonable,” he stated. Dorsey said nothing, but his face was wishing a curse. Evans swung his finger out over the rest of the class. “You all saw it. You saw what he did. He behaved possessed!”
No one said anything. No one dared, but they didn’t look away.
All eyes then swung to the door as Graves entered, followed by Brooks, the Latin master and Clarke.
“You’re a dirty grass, Clarke,” whispered Adams.
“Shut yer face,” spat back Clarke. “This ain’t happening again.”
The boys stood as they were expected to, but Graves waved them back down to their seats. “I shall be taking your class today, boys. Mr Evans, please accompany Mr Brooks back to my study.”
Brooks bent down and heaved Ben up into a fireman’s lift. Ben groaned. “I feel sick.”
“Do me a favour and wait till you’re in Matron’s room, ok? Dorsey, you’re coming, too.”
The unhappy little procession made its way back down the corridor, and in the classes where the door had been left open, curious faces peeped out at what was to be Evans’ last parade.
The boys were dropped at Matron’s office without explanation and Dorsey faced embarrassment for a second time that day as ointment and dressings were applied to his broken skin.
Not too many boys came forward to speak to Graves, despite his assurances that that there would be no further punishments, but times were changing. It was 1975 and Graves’ promise came a little too late. In the end it was Matron’s log book that provided all the shocking details. The words ‘delivered from Mr Evans’ class’ appeared too frequently to be ignored.
Ben and Dorsey remained friends until Dorsey moved to Australia. He became a paramedic there and remembered to send the occasional Christmas card. Ben turned over the letter in his hands and read again the kind and gentle words that told him his dear friend had died. He succumbed to a stroke last week. His wife said that he’d been swimming in the sea with the grandkids only the day before.
Clarke became a lawyer and Adams became a politician. Ben never saw Clarke again, but Adams brings an expensive bottle of something over at New Year.
Ben lifted his head and spoke his “amen” to the sky. “I’ll see you again someday, mate.”
He lifted his hands onto the window sill and assumed the position. It wasn’t just his knees that dictated how he said his prayers, but the memory of a schoolboy hero.
I pulled back the curtains expecting to see a new world, but it all looked reassuringly the same. Would it for much longer? In dawn’s dim light I could see the Bennetts’ ageing ginger cat sitting on their front step, now too old to bother to hunt or roam. The milk bottles, newly delivered, stood with pure white innocence and optimism. Today, there was nothing different in the way this long London street opened its sleepy eyes.
Bill was still snoring, oblivious to my wakefulness. I walked down the wooden stairs, careful to avoid the steps I knew would let out a painful cry, filled the kettle and set it on the range. I opened the back door and Fred, our mongrel dog, ran in. Always seeming to smile and dance, we named him Fred Astaire. He yawned and looked as if to say: “why so early?” I stoked the fire and cleaned out the ash. While it grew hotter I collected the milk and noticed that, yet again, the milkman’s horse had left a mess just outside our gate. I closed the door and saw Bill creeping downstairs, he too avoiding the creaky boards so as not to wake baby Lizzie who could be disturbed by the drop of a feather.
“Bit sodding early for a Sunday,” he said.
“Well I’m frightened and we all know it’s going to happen today.”
“Yeah,” he said, “probably will.”
“Aren’t you scared about what it’ll mean for us?” I asked angrily.
“Not much I can do to stop it is there?” was his sanguine reply.
I made a pot of tea and sat at the kitchen table. I thought of how the cloth needed a wash, how the kennel could do with a brush, I thought of chores, things to do, anything that would distract me. Through the window I could see Mary in her kitchen, now so solitary since Hazel died. We never knew whether or not they had lived as a married couple but they had worked together as teachers and lived side-by-side for over thirty years. Rarely venturing out beyond our street and seemingly without friends or family, she delighted in being asked to babysit. Mary wasn’t usually up so early either - surely she too felt this dread.
“Might go and see if Tom’s up yet,” Bill said as he drained his cup and placed it in the sink.
His younger brother and wife lived five minutes’ walk away. Maggie, so timid and frail, was expecting their first child. I had been worried about how she would cope with an uncertain future but as time went on she surprised me with her tenacious spirit, courage and unfailing loyalty to the family.
“If Maggie’s up tell her to come over,” I said.
I could hear Lizzie chattering away to herself in her cot. Not quite a year old, she started each day sitting up and talking to the rag-doll my mother had made. I put some milk into her bottle and placed it in a jug of hot water. Bringing her downstairs, I sat Lizzie in her high chair and mashed some of the milk into a rusk. Over her shoulder I could see the street beginning to stir. No longer half-light, the day was now bright and sunny, the air sultry after last night’s storm. As Bill left the house I went upstairs, washed and dressed and put on my lipstick while Lizzie watched. I heard the front door opening and Mum calling up. She visited most mornings at about 11 o’clock but over the past few days it had been earlier. As I carried Lizzie downstairs I could see Mum’s face etched with worry.
“I’ll put the kettle on,” she said. “You had anything to eat?”
“Not yet, Mum,” I answered. “It’s still only eight o’clock!”
“Sorry, didn’t realise it was so early. I haven’t slept much.”
We sat at the table sipping tea, nibbling half-heartedly on toast while we watched Lizzie pulling herself up to standing and trying to take a step.
“Won’t be long before she’s up those stairs,” Mum said, as if it hadn’t occurred to me.
Through the window I could see Bill walking back home with Tom and Maggie.
“I’ll put the kettle back on,” said Mum, grateful to be doing something useful.
We chatted and drank tea, ate toast and cake and felt each others' nerves. Maggie and I put Lizzie in her pram and took her for a walk. The day was as bright and beautiful as any I could remember. We stopped to chat to neighbours, to return balls to children playing in the street and to stroke dogs let out to wander for the day. When we returned the kitchen was silent and the family had been joined by Mary and two other women I recognised but did not know well. The radio was on and we knew what we were about to hear. Mr Chamberlain began his broadcast and soon we were weeping, each of us alone with our fear. Some of us in the room were too young to remember the Great War but for those who could, the pain and terror of another outbreak was unbearable.
Her name was Doris.
Not fuchsia, or petunia, like the pretty flowers. It was as if the gods walking by decided that the other plants and flowers in the great garden were to be given beautiful names, but by the time they reached her they had run out of good ideas. So having exhausted their supply of floral and faunae related names, they assigned the plant the only name left: Doris.
Doris was unhappy but didn’t know why. She wasn’t like the other flowers and plants. The pansies bloomed, the tulips blossomed, the grass grew in withery shoots that whispered gossip, while the roses huffed in their fragrant beauty and ignored her altogether.
Doris felt all alone. She was not a mean plant, far from it. She just hadn’t blossomed or bloomed into anything yet. Day after day she sat planted in the midst of the other flowers in the flower beds, waiting for something that never seemed to happen. All the other flowers bloomed. Why not her?
She wondered, was she in the wrong place? The gardeners had their reasons for putting her into the garden. She knew better than to question. She had felt the earth tremble and shake, and had heard what happened to unruly plants that grew too much or in the wrong place.
They were damned as weeds. Any disliked or unnecessary flower, herb, vegetable, or fruit was pulled from the earth. It was a grim culling, and it happened regularly. Doris hated it. She learned that the roses and flowering plants were safe, for they were beautiful.
She was not.
Doris grew wary when the gardeners approached. She knew they were either on the lookout for weeds or new ground to plant more flowers. She withdrew when they came near, ducking her head and hiding her hideous bulbous spikes.
She bowed her head behind her leaves.
Nothing had actually touched her, yet she felt pain. She had not felt the growing shadow of the giant shape steal over her like an angry raincloud, but she felt hurt, with no fresh rainbows to cheer her.
She sensed the towering presence of the gardeners. Her leaves trembled in the morning sun.
“Come on, don’t be a dull Doris. Perk up and open your leaves,” the gardener said.
Dull Doris, Dull Doris… The other flowers whispered with glee, hiding their mirth behind delicately curled flower petals.
Dull Doris, Dull Doris. Don’t be a Dull Doris...They chanted.
Stop it! She cried, feeling bruised and hurt.
Their laughs and snickers abused her like angry insects, battering her senses with phantom pains.
She would have welcomed the angry clouds at that point. At least then a good storm would frighten and silence the other flowers.
She soaked up the sun as best she could, nestled in the afternoon shade, and yet something was wrong. Something not quite right. She felt slightly weak and fidgety.
Then her spiky bulbous leaves opened.
“Oh look at that!” one of the gardeners said.
She could sense them towering over her. Watching, waiting.
“Look at the colour. It’s like a dusky rose pink. How pretty.”
Pretty? Were they really talking about her?
The other flowers were noticeably silent. Then a fly came and ruined everything. It buzzed by, annoyingly, beating its fragile transparent wings, coming to land on her newly opened leaf.
Its tiny feet stamped and tracked dirt all over her new pink pillowy flower, staining her beauty.
The other flowers laughed and snickered, the grass whispered, Dull Doris. Dull Doris.
Doris grew angry. She wasn’t going to let some stupid fly ruin everything. Her spiky green clawed leaves began slowly to close.
The fly grew wary and tried to buzz away, but it couldn’t move. Her pillowy pink flower grew ever so slightly sticky on the surface, encasing the fly’s intruding feet.
It watched in fright as her clawed leaves rose and curled over it, trapping it within a smooth green clawed cage. It was hers now.
What to do with it?
She felt a part of herself reach out and envelope the fly. It beat a protest with its tiny wings, but its chances of escape were as great as a fresh pickle surviving a summer luncheon.
She felt the fly’s body crush in her embrace and sensed its heart stop. The eyes popped, the wings flattened and tore, and she tasted its bodily juices, running down its small pitiful black body. She swallowed it whole and drank the juices, feeling at all once surprised. Was she meant to do that?
If she’d had lips she would have licked them. It had tasted meaty and exciting and she had found it surprisingly satisfying.
The gardeners were still there. “Look at that. It’s gone. The flower ate it. It ate the entire fly.”
Incredible? The grass whispered.
Doris opened her leaves again, leaving no trace of the intruder. Only a pretty dusky pink pillow.
She welcomed intruders now. She had a purpose. She wasn’t just another pretty flower or fruit.
She was beautiful and deadly. Flies, bees, spiders, mites, she didn’t care. She would welcome them all.
She was hungry.
The gardeners left to observe other plants. She felt the familiar tremble as the earth shook, releasing more weeds into the hands of the gardeners.
The pansies snickered and the roses sniffed. Dull Doris. They spoke. Their favourite new slang word.
Doris turned and said, I may be Doris, but I am not dull.
She gnashed her spiked clawed jaws. And if you ever call me that again, I’ll eat you. Down to the very last leaf.
There was a stunned silence.
Incredible, the grass whispered. Incredible Doris.
Incredible? She asked. Me?
Incredible, the grass agreed.
He did not despise the lights and trees that began appearing in gardens and houses in late November, but the display of Christmas gewgaws in shops since summer had made him immune to their charms.
Down the road he heard an electric pump breathing life into a vast snowman. Reindeer hauled a sleigh along the edge of a roof, Santa looked furtively over his shoulder as he climbed a ladder up the wall, and blue and white icicles hung flashing from the bay window. Tacky, perhaps, but not without humour, and what struck him was the effort and expense that had gone into their purchase, deployment, and the electricity to power them. A few more houses like that and the council could switch off the streetlights until New Year. He might suggest it if he saw his councillor in the pub.
The night had come early, as they did this time of year. Lights draped over a hedge not only flashed on and off in what seemed a random sequence but also danced around in the cold wind. The natural world was co-operating with human efforts to brighten the dark season.
As, day by day, one house after another acknowledged the coming of Christmas he began to wonder if people noticed and judged his own home’s lack of adornment. Was he being marked out as a miserable old git? Well, if people looked carefully, they would see his Christmas cactus carefully tended and in full bloom, even if the daft thing did insist on coming out when the Americans give thanks for the good harvest they enjoyed in 1621. With any luck it would still be flowering at Christmas.
He would bring in the fir tree which had been growing in a pot in the garden for the past few years, but not yet. As the years went by it seemed increasingly perfunctory. He remembered housefuls of people, laughter, excitement. That was how it should be. Now it was fragmented. They would all come, but at different times, on tight schedules.
Perhaps the keen decorators truly believed in what they were doing, that Father Christmas really would be more likely to call at a house where a sign read, “Santa, please call here”. Maybe they just wanted to create some magic for their children, magic they remembered from their own childhood. No doubt they would eat the carrots and mince pies, drink the sherry they encouraged their children to leave by the fireplace. What about those with underfloor heating? What story did they make up for the appearance of presents on Christmas morning?
On the bus people took up more room than usual, their bags stuffed with stuff. One man brought on a Christmas tree, squeezed into stockinette. Now, he thought, that would hold a lot of presents if you tied up the end. A group of teenagers sat at the back, faces all a-glow from their phones, scowling under their Santa’s hats. Must remember to block up the chimney, he thought.
He arrived at work for the late-evening shift and made his way up the back stairs to the staff room, where he changed into his uniform. That it should come to this, he thought. Words from the Scottish play came to mind, “that which should accompany old age, as honour, love, obedience, troops of friends, I must not look to have; but, in their stead, curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.” He would not utter them, even here, but they steeled him for the fray, grounded him in the art of performance.
He tightened his belt, rouged his cheeks, applied and checked his beard, pulled on his boots and arranged his hood around his yellowy white curls. Assuming a benevolent expression, he made his way into the grotto, his sonorous, “Ho, ho, ho!” evoking gasps from small children queuing for their turn to tell him what they hoped he would bring them in a week’s time.
Old hands had told him of the days when children came in on their own and took possession of Santa, climbed all over you. No physical contact now, even after a Disclosure and Barring Service check, and parents kept up running commentaries, making sure child and Santa knew what to say and how to behave.
Deep breath. Now for it.
Christmas starting in September?!
There was a time that I remember
When December was early enough to see
Lights in Oxford Street; Trafalgar Square the tree
Am I growing grumpy? Is it me? ****
**** It seems to me, (I could be wrong)
The summer’s hardly been and gone
Before the shops drag out their sign
Telling us it’ll be soon be time
To post our cards to foreign climes.
Bah ! Humbug
The television’s just as bad
And makes me feel a little sad
To be told I know I really oughtta
Order now that brand new sofa
For festive visitors to sit and lofa. ****
****Supermarkets say it’s not too early
To sell us cakes with icing swirly
It’s enough to make you wheeze and cough
Cooking programmes? I’ve had enough
So they can go and just Bake-Off.
Bah ! Humbug
Posting signs for poor old Santa
To stop here, is the latest mantra
Competing neighbours lights outbid
Pushing demand on the National Grid
Enough’s enough ! It must be said ! ****
**** Getting gifts is just too trying
In the shops or on-line buying
Keep the receipt; just to be sure
In case it’s returned back through the door
Where you queued hours days before.
Bah ! Humbug
Check names to send cards from last year
Cross out the ones no longer here
Buy the stamp and write the card
It really shouldn’t be that hard
No sonnets - you are not the Bard ****
**** Boxes make it easier to wrap
Those awkward gifts so if you lack
The expertise to be a winner
And your wrapping resembles a dog’s dinner
Disguise with ribbons, tags and shimmer.
Bah ! Humbug
Homemade presents can be more unusual
And can save hours of perusal
But did Granny think her jumper chunky
(Albeit it quite unique and funky)
Needed sleeves to fit a monkey? ****
**** From the kitchen mother’s shouts
Alert us to impending sprouts
As saucepans jostle to form a queue
There really is too much to do
So many owed by all too few.
Extra chairs for extra bums
In-laws, family, neighbours, chums
Dad and brothers disappear
To the pub for Christmas cheer
Just returning when all’s clear. ****
**** Mum’s specs are steaming in the kitchen
While guests are drinking and just sittin’
In the lounge their chatter louder
Children squealing getting hyper
Running, squabbling; what a caper!
Bah ! Humbug
Dad’s now been called to carve the turkey
It’s tradition; not malarkey
Plates piled high with veg and stuffing
Chairs squeezed round with huffing and puffing
Crackers ready now for pulling. ****
**** Children prised away from toys
That flash and whizz for girls and boys
Makes them scream and sometimes cry
I really wonder why oh why
I can’t wait to say “Goodbye.”
Bah ! Humbug
In a flash the dinner’s gone
It’s time for pud with brandy on
Custard, cream or brandy sauce
Cholesterol nightmare which will force
Your heart to falter on its course. ****
**** And not to mention all the calories
You’re chewing on those poor old cavities
All washed down with loads of booze
You seem unable to now choose
But tightening waistbands should be clues.
Bah ! Humbug
It seems the kitchen is a TARDIS
Refilling plates, replenish! Replenish!
There seem no end to all this gluttony
The constant noise of clattering cutlery
Swamps the speech made by the Monarchy ****
**** At last the feasting now subsides
With plates pushed back with gasps and sighs
The cook is thanked for all her work
From washing-up they cannot shirk
From piles of grease out in the murk.
Bah ! Humbug
The tables cleared; chairs put away
Belts are loosened; I’d love to say
That I’d really enjoyed this but
Rather than lie or sit and tut
I’ll refrain; just keep my mouth shut.****
**** Remembering those missed around this table
Who I’d recall if I were able
Finally, I really do digest
The warmth and love of every guest
I realise I am truly blessed
Perhaps I AM - BAH ! HUMBUG
So, CHEERS EVERYONE AND MERRY CHRISTMAS
The new UKNOW party swept to a surprise victory today and is poised to implement its controversial CANCEL CHRISTMAS policy. When challenged by Christmas supporters, the Prime Minister said “Bah Humbug” and set fire to his Santa hat. A gaggle of turkeys on the Minister's farm were reported to be heard gobbling appreciatively apparently wishing each other a “Happy Unchristmas”.
The implications of UKNOW's policy soon came into play… with no play, just work, at Xmas:
No Xmas parties for office hearties
Or drinking to excess
No boss to impress
No Xmas stress
No Xmas crackers with funny jokes in
No pubs with drunken blokes in
No Xmas sweaters of wrong sizes
No stockings filled with surprises
No Xmas bonus
Now the onus
Is on us
to work not play
for there is no Xmas day
No Xmas nativity play
where fond parents say
How Johnny pleased us
When he played baby Jesus
No carols on Xmas eve from King’s
No more of that song of Bing's
No Xmas cards, mince pies or sherry
Nothing that will make us merry
No bells that jingle
No chestnuts roasting in the fire
No Xmas pudding all alight
Not even a Silent Night
No red nosed reindeer
Just no Xmas pain dear
All is not well
When there is No Noel
Xmas cancelled just like by Cromwell
No Xmas carol with old Scrooge
No peace on earth and lots of goodwill
Now all has changed for our own good
When challenged by the Xmas Resistance, the Prime Minister responded with “Bah Humbug – uknow it’s all for a better UK
that we have cancelled Xmas day.
Bah Humbug rules ...OK.”
7.30am. 25th July. Christmas Day. God I hate Christmas.
9.15am. Arrive at the house. One of those big white town houses you get in west London.
The interiors stylist, Polly, is already here. In fact, she tells me from her step ladder as she fixes an oversize star to the top of an oversize tree, she has been here since 5.30 this morning.
OK, she has transformed the house. Fake frost icing the windows. Fairy lights round every doorway, bowls of chestnuts and mandarins, artfully scattered snowflake patterned cushions.
The lounge is a triumph. It’s totally Scandi – grey walls, white fluffy rugs and pale leather sofas. Polly has amassed a forest of white candles in glass holders along the marble mantelpiece while the huge mirror reflects tinsel and garlands everywhere in shades of orange.
“It’s this year’s colour!” she snaps. “Who’s the featured celeb?”
It’s Carly Pinkerton, I say. Have you brought baking stuff? We want her making her famous mint choc-chip Christmas pudding.
“Yeah yeah,” says Polly. “I’ll get the kitchen set up.”
11am. Carly Pinkerton is an hour late.
Leon, the photographer, has set up the X-box in the lounge and is playing Zombie Apocalypse with Gary, the hair and make-up guy.
Polly is drenching packs of economy apple pies in icing sugar to make them look like mince pies.
Carly Pinkerton is our December issue cover. Celebrity homebody, winner of ‘I’m a Master Pastry Chef Get Me Out Of Here’. Glamorous mother of four and designer of the Belle Maman range of adorable tableware.
11.40am. A taxi pulls up. Out steps Carly Pinkerton.
I say steps. Falls would be a better word.
She totters into the kitchen on five inch heels. Glassy eyed, lank haired. “Better get to work Gary,” I say.
Carly is followed by her publicist, a hawklike woman in black leather trousers. It’s 28 degrees today - she must be roasting.
12.05. I ring my features editor. “She’s here but nobody else is”.
“Is there a problem?” says the eavesdropping leather-trousered publicist.
Well actually yes. This is supposed to be Carly Pinkerton at home with her charming family. Where’s the family? Husband, kids, sister, kids. We were promised.
“Of course her sister isn’t here,” says the publicist. “They haven’t spoken for five years, they just troll each other on Twitter.”
Features editor says Jonno, the husband, is on his way with the four kids.
But that’s only six – we’ve got a groaning dinner table laid for 12! We need extended family.
I’ll get you people, features editor promises.
1.30pm. Gary is trowelling another layer of make-up on to Carly. The sun is beating down outside and Polly has lit a blazing fire. The publicist arranges Belle Maman plates on the dining table and sniffs the glasses of red wine.
“Is this real?” she demands. “Are you mad? You want red food colouring in water. Now.”
1.40pm. Carly staggers into the dining room. She is not happy about her dress (white cashmere with reindeers). “I’m too hot. Oh God it’s even hotter in here!”
She picks up a wine glass and downs the red liquid in one. Her face screws up in disgust.
Jonno arrives. “Hello Dumpling!” he yells. “Brought the sprogs. God it’s hot in here!” He picks up a wine glass and downs the red liquid in one. His face screws up in disgust.
2.30pm. I round up the kids. The four year old and six year old are playing Call of Duty Black Ops on the X-box. I find the older ones down the bottom of the garden, smoking dope. I order them inside.
3.40pm. Features editor rings to say supplementary family are on their way.
The publicist says let’s do the interview while we wait. She starts dictating.
4.10pm. Six people turn up, a nice looking man and woman and four children ranging from eight to 13. They look remarkably like Carly, except that they are smiling.
I wonder if they’re a real family.
“No way,” says the man. Ben. (Quite hot).
5.45pm. Leon is finally happy with the Christmas dinner shots. Next we do the lounge, unwrapping presents under the tree.
Carly is completely plastered. The publicist missed the bottle of vodka in her handbag.
The kids are gone. I find them all down the garden, the older ones giving the younger ones a smoke for one pound a puff. I shriek at them.
Children dash into the kitchen and scoff the economy pies.
5.50pm. Everyone in place. Jonno and older kids in comedy Christmas jumpers, Ben and fake family smiling, little kids clutching presents.
Little kids clutching stomachs. Smallest one looks green. Where the hell is Carly?
Carly lurches in, publicist yelling “Do you want to sell your pointless plates or not?” The combination of marijuana and cheap pastry proves too much and the smallest child is horribly sick. Carly slips on the puke in her Manolos, grabs the orange tinsel on the mantlepiece and brings down 20 candles in glass holders. The white fluffy rug goes up in flames.
9.30pm. The last fire engine leaves. I reach for a glass of red wine…no…!!
On the up side, I did exchange phone numbers with Ben. And Gary exchanged numbers with Jonno.
11.30 am. 30th July.
Editorial meeting to choose the pics.
Carly looks gorgeous in them, radiating Christmas joy in her perfect home, at the head of a table of mouthwatering food, her adoring husband, children, sister, sister’s handsome husband and sister’s children at her side.
The features editor reads Carly’s interview: “I love Christmas. It is absolutely my favourite time of year. I go overboard with the tree and decorations and presents. We always sit round and sing ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ before anyone is allowed to open the first parcel.
“My house is always packed at Christmas. You never know who’s going to turn up! It’s all quite mad but it works! I don’t know how - that’s the magic of Christmas.”
Our best ever says the features editor.
Christmas. Thank God it’s over for another year.