The Uninvited Guest

Today’s and next week’s posts are short fictions as we are away. Normal service resumes in 3 weeks time with travel notes.

The Uninvited Guest

How many there are! The only space remains here at the back, near the door. I’d have chosen to sit here anyway, since I am less likely to be spotted and can make a swift exit whenever I choose.
Who selected this music, I wonder? It makes me realise how little we know those who are closest to us. I wouldn’t have opted for ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. It is far too gloomy. ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ would have been a more cheerful opener-and more appropriate, of course.
Ah-someone is closing the door. The service must be about to begin. And there is someone approaching the podium, the woman they’ve chosen to officiate. She’s Pastor Mona Chesterton, according to the programme. They’ve got that correct, at least; getting a woman to do it.
I can just about see the casket from here, between the heads of those in front. I’m hoping it’s cardboard, sustainable and eco-friendly; only one spray of flowers so they must have asked for donations instead.
Pastor Mona has asked Val to take the stand. She’s going to read a poem. Ha! This will be interesting! Although I love my sister Val, she isn’t the most literary of people. I think her reading material consists mainly of ‘Hello’ magazine and the Daily Mail so she’ll have had to Google funeral poetry or ask someone for a suggestion. Yes. Just as I thought: ‘Stop All the Clocks’. She’d have remembered it from ‘Four Weddings’. When it comes to Auden I’ve always thought ‘Tell me the Truth about Love’ was one of his best. She must have practised reading the poem but she’s made the classic mistake of reading too fast. I notice she’s sat herself next to Stan, close enough for their arms to be touching and a little too close for mere comfort. I suppose she’s got what she wanted now, hasn’t she? Good luck to them is what I think.
Stan isn’t going to say anything. That’s wise of him. The hollow echo of his words would be magnified in this cavernous building with its barrel-vaulted ceiling.
They’re all standing to sing ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. What a cliché! The singing is a bit weedy, as if they are a load of drunks at four o’clock in the morning, which is disappointing. I’d have liked some gusto, a rousing chorus of enthusiastic mourners.
Ah, here are James and Becca, together, for moral support, perhaps? They’ve got scruffy pieces of paper. I suppose James has scribbled something on the way here, which is his normal approach to any task. Becca looks pale but dignified and I expect she’d be delighted to be described so. They are a handsome pair of young adults, considering the genes they’d have been handed. I’ve enjoyed hearing their childhood memories but I was startled by their choices. Camping? When was that? Perhaps they went with Aunty Val…
Pastor Mona is summing up now, with the platitudes used by those who never knew the deceased. She’s asked everyone to stand for the final hymn, ‘Abide with Me’, which will be appropriate for Stan and Val, at least, as the carton begins to slide away behind the blood red curtain.
It’s time for me to leave so I’ll slip out during this dirge of a hymn. I’m glad I came but happier still to be outside in the fresh air of this April afternoon.
I know what you did, Stan and Val. They say revenge is best served cold and cold is my future now. I’m going to extract a great deal of entertainment from watching your regrets as I occupy your dreams and loiter around your shared bed disturbing your recreation.
I feel a new spring in my step and a soaring joy to be away now. You’re a long time gone. Can’t wait to get started…

How was it for You?

January is my least favourite month-cold, dark and seemingly interminable. Many like to begin the month with a party. Here’s a story I wrote years ago about a New Year’s party that did not go according to plan…

The Rescue Party
Brian Meadon peers out into the darkness and is forced to admit a grudging fascination for the way the snowflakes are looming out of the sky and settling in an ominous and ever growing heap on his car’s windscreen. His initial feelings of hot anger and frustration with the car’s failings have ebbed away to be replaced with somewhat colder resignation. There is still just enough light outside to make out the writing on a road sign beyond his lay-by. ‘Stoodley Interchange’, it asserts, taunting Brian with confident superiority, even though accumulations of snow are creeping up its legs.
Settling back into his driving seat once more, Brian decides to give his phone another go. He is pleased with the way he’d remembered to charge up the battery, a task he’d frequently been accused of neglecting by his ex-wife. This small celebration of competence affords him a slight, smug smile until yet again ‘no signal’ appears on the screen in an impudent gesture almost as if it were conspiring with the road sign to humiliate him. At least the phone’s tiny screen casts a little light.
Brian shivers. He attempts to recall the advice being provided by experts on this morning’s Beeb’s news programme but it had been burbling away as a background to packing. If he’d not been carried away with optimistic anticipation of the evening revelries he might have paid more close attention to the weather warnings and in particular to dire predictions concerning road travel. What was one meant to do? Firstly, you should not travel at all unless your journey is absolutely vital. ‘Well’, thinks Brian, ‘It is vital to my wellbeing to have a bit of fun, so I’ve covered that one’. Secondly, you should ensure that loved ones know your whereabouts and your travel plans. Brian feels uneasy about this one, since although he has made Jackie, his ex aware that he has been invited to a ‘country house New Year festivity’ somewhere in Berkshire he had not been motivated so much by a need for self preservation, more a desire to demonstrate what a popular, well-connected and upwardly mobile fellow he has become since they split up. ‘Neither is she a loved one!’ he speaks aloud into the silent phone. He has not brought a shovel or a torch, but these would be of no assistance as the car is going nowhere, snow or not. A flask of coffee, however and a warm blanket, he has to admit, would have been very welcome by now.
An exploratory foray into his overnight bag yields little of any use to Brian except for a towel, which he drapes around his shoulders like a cape. He has also brought some pajamas which, whilst the additional layer would be beneficial, he feels reluctant to don in case of rescue. After deliberating he decides to bear them in mind as emergency clothing supplies. His feet are by far the most pressing problem, having become totally numb inside his shoes so that he compelled to scrunch his toes up periodically in attempt to regain some feeling. Should he, perhaps break into the bottle of wine he brought along as a contribution to the New Year do? He thinks not, for now; best to keep something in reserve in case, Heaven forbid, the situation worsens.
Another glance at the phone reveals the time to be 8.57pm, and forty five minutes since the last vehicle passed by. Brian realizes with a grimace that his careful calculation of timing in order to arrive not too early and not too late will now be academic. His arrival will now be, at best, late. What will the reception be like if, and when, he arrives? Misgivings flutter through his digestive system like tipsy hens and peck away at his confidence. Rob and Shelley are people he met almost a year ago and spent one week with, when comradeship was enhanced by the thrills and spills of the ski slopes. But they were charming, friendly and fun, seemed to really like having him around, have kept up with emails. The invitation had been issued with genuine warmth and re-issued as a result of his last email enquiry as to whether the party was going ahead.
Brian decides that he can utilize more of his clothing resources if he curls up on the rear seat. The time has come to employ the services of his pajamas-which he acknowledges he only brought as an afterthought, thus freeing up his towel as a foot-wrapping. The achievement of all this takes some time and energy, resulting in the opening of the wine, thankfully of the screw topped variety. He lifts his head up enough to swallow a mouthful and then shudders as a yawn escapes him. He wonders what is happening at the party now and imagines he is there, glass in hand, chatting up a woman, asking her to dance, getting close, feeling the rhythm, moving his feet, becoming warm, hot, sweating, thumping.
Thumping! Brian starts awake, wild eyed, dropping the wine bottle into his overnight bag, an intense, dazzling light in his face and an urgent thumping on the window. ‘Just a minute!’ he tries to shout, managing a feeble croak. He fumbles with frozen fingers to open the rear door which eventually opens with a gasping crack, having been yanked from the outside. A large, unearthly figure swathed in black is bending in to scrutinize him, playing a flashlight over the interior of the car. For a fleeting, delirious moment Brian believes he has expired; that this horrific apparition has materialized in the afterlife to exact retribution for his earthly sins.
“Good evening sir. Are you alright?”
Speechless, Brian feels an ignominious, hot welling of tears behind his eyes as he struggles to get a grip on his emotions at being found. Minutes later he is sitting in the police land rover clutching a hot cup of tea while the officer calls the AA number he has given him.
“Rescue vehicle is on its way sir,” the policeman tells him. The dashboard clock is showing 10.48pm. Flooded with a surge of optimism, Brian grasps that he has not missed the entire party, because it is a New Year’s celebration, and the nature of New Year’s parties is to extend up to, and indeed well beyond midnight. He pictures himself arriving at Rob and Shelley’s, hearing raucous laughter and the thudding beat of loud music, windows all lit and pulsating figures gyrating within. He will apologize for his lateness, explain his predicament, present the remnants of the wine, be hailed as a hero, exclaimed over, pressed with drinks and nibbles, surrounded by sympathetic, admiring women.
Whilst it takes longer than Brian has anticipated for the AA man to attach the defective car to the breakdown truck he calculates that he will still get to the party in plenty of time.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather go home sir? You won’t be the only person not attending, I’m sure, then there’s the car. You’ll have that to deal with. How will you get it back?”
“No! These friends of mine, they’re almost family! They’ll be disappointed if I don’t turn up, and Rob’ll help with the car tomorrow. He knows loads about electrics.”
“How about calling them, though, sir? Just to be sure?”
“I doubt if they’d hear it!” Brian chuckles. “No, let’s just carry on and get there. It’ll be fine.”
They lapse into a silence burdened with the AA man’s skepticism.
It is 11.52pm when they pull in to the entrance to the lane leading to ‘The Orchard’.
“I’m going to have to leave the car here, sir. I don’t want to be going up there and not be able to maneuver or turn the rig round.”
“No problem! We can sort it out tomorrow. As I said, Rob will know what to do.”
Once the offending car has been detached from the truck the AA man is as eager for departure as Brian is for merriment. Brian pumps his hand, more in a desire for him to disappear than in gratitude, staying only briefly to wave as the truck rumbles away. Having stuffed his pajamas back into the overnight bag he sets off round the bend towards ‘The Orchard’.
It has stopped snowing. Against the inky sky there is the silhouette of a house, but as yet no sound or hint of light. He walks on to find a gate, more easily visible now that his eyes are accustomed to darkness, unlatches it and continues up a path to the front door. He stops to listen, straining to hear a hint of music or a voice, gazing at the windows for some chink of light, any sign of activity or, as a frisson of anxiety begins to insinuate itself, an indication of occupation. There is a small click. Brian is instantly illuminated by the security light, setting off a tirade of furious yapping from the bowels of the house. ‘Strange’, he muses ‘that they never mentioned owning a dog’. He procrastinates on the doorstep in a doldrum of indecision. It is clear even to him that there is no party taking place. The unnerving idea that this may be the wrong house fills him with dread, since he has waved off the kindly AA man to whom he’d exaggerated the description of his acquaintances as ‘almost family’. It is now twelve twenty one am and he is freezing.
Faced with the choice of once more donning his pajamas and towel and sleeping on the back seat of his car or rousing the inhabitants of this house, whoever they may be, Brian opts for throwing himself on the mercy of the householders even if they are strangers. At the sound of the doorbell the yapping acquires new vigor and he feels both anxious and relieved as an interior light is switched on and he hears a muffled voice. There is a momentary hiatus while locks and chain are undone then the door is opened a little to reveal part of a pajama-clad body topped by a pale, wary face. The face speaks.
“Yes?”
Brian feels weak with gratitude to some unformulated source that it is Rob who has answered the door, albeit not the party-animal Rob he’d envisioned, the ‘life-and-soul’ Rob of the pistes. Nevertheless this suspicious, guarded individual is recognizable as Rob.
“Hello Rob. Happy New Year!”
He proffers the half bottle of wine, affecting a merry grin in the hope that his teeth are not chattering too much. The distrustful figure in the doorway peers further out at him, blinking until recognition dawns.
“Oh it’s um..”
“Brian. From skiing! You know. Last February”
“Brian. Yes. Brian. From skiing.”
There is an interval during which Brian lowers the wine bottle to his side and Rob continues to stand in the small gap he has allowed between the door and the frame and contemplate the visitor. Somewhere in the background the yapping continues apace.
“What did you want Brian?”
Brian swallows. His lips have become dry and numb, his voice a timorous squeak.
“The party. The New Year’s do.”
“Party?” Rob’s eyes widen as he stares at him. The moment is interrupted by a woman’s voice.
“What’s going on? Who is it Rob?” and Shelley appears, swathed in a white toweling bathrobe and a bewildered expression. Rob half turns to speak over his shoulder.
“It’s Brian. From skiing. He’s come for a party, apparently.”
It is Shelley’s turn to squint at him, looking closely from behind Rob’s shoulder. Brian dangles the wine bottle, nervous snicker hovering on his lips. Shelley appears to rally, declaring,
“Well we can’t all stand here letting cold into the house. You’d better come in, er, Brian.”
He steps over the threshold, still clutching the wine bottle and continuing to sport what he hopes is his most affable and charming smile despite the ambiguous welcome.
“I seem to have got you up, don’t I? Was the party cancelled at the last minute? Only I’ve got a slight problem with my car. The recovery vehicle has had to leave it at the end of your driveway. I can probably get it moved tomorrow. Do you think there’ll be any taxis tonight?”
Their confused frowns lead him to pause as he glances from one to the other.

Fifteen minutes later he is plumping up a cushion on the sofa in their lounge and unzipping the side of a threadbare sleeping bag that is most likely a relic of Rob’s past travels. At last the dog has lapsed into merciful silence. He takes a sip of the tea he’s been given and moves stealthily to the living room door, the better to hear what is being shouted in the kitchen.
“What the Hell were you playing at, inviting that bloke here?” Rob’s anger has broken out now that he is no longer in the room with Brian.
“We were all pissed, Rob, if you recall and we came up with the idea of getting together at New Year. He wasn’t asked specifically. He was just there. He was always hanging around. Don’t you remember? We couldn’t shake him off; odious little man! We must have overlooked him when we decided to cancel.”
Brian listens in for a few more minutes until the recriminations and accusations begin to be repeated, then he pads quietly back to the sofa to insinuate himself into the moth-eaten sleeping bag. He lifts the remnants of the wine to his lips, whispering ‘Happy New Year’ before knocking it back in two mouthfuls. In the morning he will have to phone up and get his car taken home and with luck, scrounge a lift for himself. Once he is home he will ring Jackie. If she is feeling magnanimous he might get invited round there, especially if he says he’d like to see the kids on New Year’s Day. She might ask about the party. He will tell her all the details. How the champagne flowed like water, the house was a mansion lavishly decked out, the women gorgeous. He will name drop a few minor celebrities and hints about not sleeping alone. Yes. She will be impressed. The bickering voices seem further away now. Brian sighs. The bottle slips from his hand on to the carpet where it leaves a blood red dribble. A gentle snore escapes him. ‘Happy New Year’. Well it didn’t turn out so bad.

February Fiction 2

 

In Part 2 of ‘Lewis’s Basement Herbs’, Lewis’s mother’s mood becomes relaxed until the two receive an unexpected, early morning visit which is less than welcome…

 

Lewis’s Basement Herbs

Part 2

He waited for her to tell him to go to his room, to remind him of the ‘no TV’ sanction or to say it was bedtime, but she began to watch the next programme, a sport games show, not her usual choice. He noticed that she was smiling, another unusual event and once or twice she sniggered in an uncharacteristic way. At the end of the programme she turned to him and asked him to fetch a bag of crisps from the kitchen, which he did; one for her and another for himself. She tore into the crisps then requested the biscuit tin, helping herself to at least four, an unprecedented action. She sighed, wrapped her arms around him and kissed him, telling him what a good boy he was. Lewis grinned. The herbs must be making her feel better.
During the course of the next week Lewis sneaked a few more bags from the herb garden box and stashed them in his bedroom. When the tea caddy ran low, he topped it up with the herbal mixture. Life became more relaxed as he bathed in his mother’s benevolence and her tranquil good humour.
It was still dark on a school morning ten days later when Lewis was woken by strong light through his thin curtains, the sound of vehicles down in the road and heavy footsteps running into the building. He looked out of his window to see several police vehicles, their lights blazing and a number of police officers scurrying around, some of whom were accompanied by dogs sniffing the ground and wagging their tails. Soon the sound of their feet was echoing in the corridors and along the narrow balconies of the block and he could hear shouts and the banging of doors. He pulled a hoodie over his pyjamas and went out to the living room just as his mother appeared from her bedroom, wrapped in a voluminous towelling robe. It was five o’clock.
His mother was beginning to speak when their door was hammered by a loud knock and a voice calling, “Police. Open up please!”.
Lewis and his mother exchanged puzzled looks before she went to the door and opened it. A policeman, bulky in a yellow vest, with items hung about his waist and holding a leash attached to a laughing, wagging spaniel stepped into their small living room, filling it.
“I’m sorry to get you up but we have to search each flat I’m afraid.” He looked around. “It won’t take long and we’ll try to leave things as they are.”
Lewis thought he’d like to pat the dog, which looked friendly, but the policeman’s brusque manner was discouraging. The boy’s mother drew herself up into a statuesque stance, arms folded across her stout chest and scowled. “Officer! We are a law-abiding household. You won’t find any drugs in this flat!”
The policeman nodded. “I’m sure you’re right, Madam. But it’s procedure and as I say we’ll be out of here in a minute or two.”
The dog was whining and pulling, tail whipping to and fro like clockwork. They were in the tiny kitchenette in three strides, the woman and the boy following to lean in the doorway while the dog yapped and stood up with paws on the worktop, excitement vibrating through every hair of his curly coat. The officer turned to the woman. “Dog seems to be interested in your containers, Madam.”
Lewis’s Mum frowned at the policeman and pushed her arms higher over her bosom. “I don’t have anything except food in there-sugar, sweeteners, coffee and tea. That is all.”
The Officer withdrew a pair of gloves from his pocket. He took a caddy from the shelf, opened it and looked inside while the dog jumped beside him, barking, whining and wagging. The officer took another tin down, peered in and replaced it. He went for the third. Lewis heard his mother grunt in disapproval then the dog went wild, leaping up at the tin and barking in a frenzy. The lid was removed and the policeman shook it before sniffing the contents. He turned to the woman, tilting the caddy towards her.
“I’ll be taking this tin, Madam. And I’ll have to ask you to accompany me to the station. You might want to get dressed first. I’ll wait out here.” Now that the thrill was over the spaniel lay down on the floor, head between its paws.
Lewis’s mother’s mouth hung open as she stared at the officer. She tried to speak but no words came out. She frowned at Lewis as if begging him to help. After a moment she gathered her wits. “And what about my little boy? I can’t just leave him here you know. He’s only nine years old.”
Lewis licked his lips. He felt hot. He glanced at the policeman then at his mother, then back at the policeman. He cleared his throat, prompting them both to look at him. “Wha…what is in the caddy?” he stammered. The policeman waved the tin at him. “I believe this caddy contains an illegal substance, young man. Do you know anything about it?”
Lewis felt his face grow hot as he studied the laminate flooring. He mumbled, “Herbs-it’s just herbs.”
They were both staring at him now. He could feel their eyes on him, turning him to stone where he stood riveted to a fake knot in the plastic floorboard. “I put some herbs in the tea caddy” he managed to whisper, risking a sideways peek at his mother, who was gawping at him as if he was an alien. The policeman strode back into the living room and spoke into his radio.

Lewis led them down the steps to the basement room. Behind him he could hear the dog wheezing as he strained at the leash, enthusiasm rekindled at the prospect of more discoveries. As the boy reached the bottom of the steps and stood before the door with its frame of light, he felt a sense of loss at this, his own private retreat exposed to others’ eyes. He bent to swivel the numbers and pulled the lock open. The policeman, dog panting at his side, touched his arm. “Alright son, I’ll take it from here” and he reached in front of Lewis to pull the door open then he and the dog went in.
Lewis’s mother fixed him with what he had come to think of as the death-stare. “What” she hissed, “have you done?”

The new house still seems vast. Lewis’s new, bigger bedroom looks out over their small patch of garden and sometimes he just stands at his window smiling. Today he can see his mother sitting out on the patio and he thinks he’ll go down and offer to make her a cup of tea because this always makes her hoot with laughter. Nowadays she calls him her ‘lucky star’ for getting them this new home, away from dangerous gangs and threats, away from graffiti and basement drug manufacture. Once Lewis had convinced the police of his innocence, he and his mother had needed to be whisked away from the flats to avoid reprisals.
He wanders downstairs and outside to the tiny garden, his favourite part of the new house. His mother has sat down again so he perches next to her. “Mum” he says, bestowing on her his most guileless smile, “I’d really like to grow something in our garden, like we do at school. There’s a space at the end by the shed. I know what to do. I can grow some herbs. Please will you let me try? Please?”

I hope you enjoyed reading this 2-parter. Comments, whether you liked the story or not are much appreciated. Normal blogging will resume next Sunday. Thanks for visiting!

February Fiction.

By the time this post is published I will have deserted the gloomy shores of the UK to enjoy some respite from the wintery weather and the wintery political climate in the sunny Caribbean. While the West Indies is a fine and inspirational place for writing my budget does not stretch to the huge sums needed for internet use. Hence the next 2 posts are a BRAND NEW short story, which begins today and concludes with Part 2, next Sunday…

 

Lewis’s Basement Herbs

Part 1

The first time was spooky. From the top of the last flight down the steps an eerie glow radiated from a line around the metal door and a soft hum throbbed from whatever was inside. Lewis had been both intrigued and nervous as he edged down the last few concrete treads and stood listening, riveted to the soft line of light.
He knew nobody lived down here in the basement because the numbers on the ground floor flats began upstairs where the lift stopped. He’d been subjected to repeated warnings from his mother not to come downstairs to the basement; warnings that whetted his curiosity, seducing him down into the bowels of the block even as she was glancing at the clock in their cramped kitchenette and preparing to summon him to supper.
He wasn’t supposed to wander off, although he was allowed to venture down to the lobby floor and outside to the bleak, graffitied playground as long as there were no teenagers there to intimidate or indoctrinate him. But the play area held few pleasures for Lewis, who was an introverted, solitary child, small for his nine years and not easily able to make new friends. The dark basement with its narrow shaft of light, its smooth concrete walls and gentle hum had a womb-like comfort that soothed him after the rigours of a tumultuous school day and kept him from his mother’s irritable nagging over chores and homework. He began regular descents to what he considered to be his own, private retreat, sometimes bringing his tiny games console or a notebook and pen and after a few visits he’d managed to sneak a small cushion out of the flat to make the concrete step where he sat more comfortable.
One late afternoon he was ensconced on his cushion and engaged in drawing a monster in his notebook when he heard some quick, light footsteps approaching the basement door above him. He closed the notebook, pocketed the pencil and, taking his cushion crept around the corner of the steps into the dark alcove behind them where he crouched, making himself as small as possible while the mouse-like steps pattered down.
A short, slight figure, silhouetted in the shaft of light stood at the metal door fiddling with its padlock, which Lewis already knew to have a combination like the ones on the bikes in the racks at school. The door sighed opened with a rasp, flooding the small space at the base of the steps with white light. Holding his breath, Lewis edged back tight into the shadow but caught a momentary glimpse of the interior before the door was pulled to; what appeared to be a still, silent row of slender, dark structures, their base a glinting, reflective surface like the Christmas decorations in the city centre. He could hear the person inside bustling about and see her-he was sure the figure was female-flitting backwards and forwards across the narrow gap in the doorway. Supposing she was busy on some task, he crept from his corner and across the passageway towards the metal door, where the combination lock lay open. He looked at the barrel of the lock. There was enough light to see the numbers along the shaft opening: 6628.
By the time the girl came out of the room he was back behind the steps, having written the number in his notebook. He watched as she clicked the lock together before pattering back up the stairs and opening the basement door, leaving him once again alone in his den.
Lewis was thrilled. He felt like a detective looking into a mysterious incident, except that no crime was being committed. He was determined to investigate the basement room further but would have to try tomorrow as his grumbling tummy told him his tea must be ready by now. He gauged that the woman would be clear of the ground floor and went up the steps to the lift.
As he exited the basement door a voice assailed him.
“Whoa! What you at, fella?”
Lewis flattened himself against the door as the tall, rangy figure of Desi loomed up against him. Desi was a member of the notorious Bunja gang whose antics terrorised the inhabitants of the block and who Lewis’s mother had instructed him to avoid. Now he was trapped, his mouth dry, his throat constricted as though strangled, unable to utter so much as a squeak. But Desi persisted.
“What you doin’ down there, eh?” The tall youth jerked his head at the closed door behind Lewis and stepped forward so that he squashed the smaller boy, his tobacco breath hot and nauseous.
Lewis made a frantic effort to think of a reason for being in the basement. A lost cat? But tenants were not allowed pets. An errand for his mother? But he couldn’t think of anything. A game? But there were no other kids around. He held his breath.
Across the lobby a voice echoed. “Eh Desi! Time to go! C’mon!”
Desi gave the boy a hard shove against the door before turning and loping off to join his companion and Lewis slumped forward, exhaling with closed eyes as the two Bunja gang members disappeared out of the building.

Next day was Saturday and he was obliged to help out with going to the launderette, tidying his bedroom and accompanying his mother to the shops and back, carrying his share of bags. After tea and washing up he asked if he might go out to play, as it was still light and after some hesitation his mother agreed, although she stipulated that he must be in again by seven thirty.
He was careful to look around before opening the basement door. This time he’d brought a tiny torch he kept in his bedroom. He was breathless as he swivelled the numbers on the barrel into position and breathed out as the barrel unclipped, freeing the padlock, allowing him to grasp the handle and push gently, whereupon he was bathed in the white light of the compact room and stepped in, mouth agape.
The structures in rows were dark green, spiky plants, all the same, their bases encased in silver foil like his mother used for lining the roasting tin. There were bright, white lights directed at the rows and the entire room was warm and damp like the launderette on a busy morning. But the smell was not at all like the launderette. It was fragrant and herb-like. Lewis walked up and down the rows for a few minutes then he realised. Of course! This must be a herb garden. They had one at school in a raised bed outside in the playground; only this one was indoors and this one had only one type of herb, not the mixture they’d grown at school.
He sat down on a box in the corner, enjoying the warmth and the cosy, aromatic atmosphere and forgetting how long he’d been there. At last he remembered he should not stay too long in case the girl came back so stood to leave. He stepped away from the cardboard box he’d been sitting on and looked at it. It was not sealed. He pulled up the flap and peered inside. It was full of small plastic bags containing what looked like tea leaves. He knew about tea leaves because his mother was fussy and refused to buy tea bags, preferring to spoon tea into a pot. After a moment’s hesitation he pocketed one bag, replaced the flap and crept from the room, giving the door a gentle push and locking the combination. He hoped the girl wouldn’t notice that the numbers, when he swivelled them around were different but he guessed she wouldn’t look too closely as long as it was locked.
It was later than he realised. As he ran to the lift he glanced at his watch. It was seven fifty. The lift, when it sank into place contained one person: his mother, coming to look for him.
Lewis was grounded for the next three days. His mother gave him chores and stood over him while he learned spellings and times tables. He was sent to tidy his room each day after school and was denied TV. Seeking to sweeten her up a little, on the third day Lewis offered to make his mum a cup of tea while she watched Coronation Street, a proposal that led to a narrowing of her eyes in suspicion but an acceptance. He filled the kettle and took down the tea caddy. When he glanced into their narrow living-room he could see that she was engrossed in the programme so he withdrew the plastic bag of dried herbs from his pocket and mixed them in with the tea leaves in the caddy, augmenting the amount by about one third. His mother was always moaning about aches and pains. They had learned at school that people used herbs to treat illnesses. Maybe the herbs would help. He took her a cup of tea and sat down next to her while she sipped it and watched her programme…

Check in next Sunday to find out how the ‘herbs’ affected Lewis’s mother and what happened next…

A Neighbourly Manor-Part 4

  In the fourth and final part of the story, Lena and Richard are surprised by a late night visitor and Lena is witness to some revelations about her cynical, curmudgeonly husband of many years…

A Neighbourly Manor [Part 4]

            The May weather turned unsettled as some gusty showers blew over in the middle of the next week and it was during a heavy downpour on Wednesday evening that the bell rang. I’d been clearing up the kitchen and Richard was upstairs in the study editing his latest batch of Spanish photographs. I hadn’t heard a car pull up so I assumed it was someone from the village as I opened the door.
It was Imogen, though barely recognisable as the radiant girl of six weeks ago. With her hair plastered to her head and her thin shirt stuck to her, soaking, she looked bedraggled. She also appeared to be in some distress, from her red-rimmed eyes and stricken expression. I reached out and all but tugged her inside the hallway, where she stood dripping, her thin shoulders shuddering. I wasted no time.
‘Whatever has happened?’ I asked her. ‘Come into the lounge. I’ll put the fire on!’
Her mouth opened to speak and produced only a shivering sob as she allowed me to tow her into the living room.
‘Wait here,’ I told her, ‘I’ll get you something dry to wear.’
I went upstairs and hissed at Richard’s enquiring face as I grabbed a towelling robe then I dashed back and pulled it around her before sitting her down in an armchair like a child. ‘I’m going to put the kettle on,’ I said, and by the time I’d returned my husband had seated himself in the chair next to her. He glanced at me.
‘Let’s all have a cup of tea,’ he suggested.
As I left the room she began to mumble in halting sentences dotted with ‘sorrys’ and ‘thank yous’ until Richard leaned forward, put his fingers together and asked her, ‘Can you tell us what is wrong?’
By the time I’d set the tray down she was into her dismal story, which was no less depressing for being predictable; a whirlwind, fairy tale romance rising from a chance meeting with a charming, wealthy, practised, older suitor who’d promised the world before exposing her fully to the circles in which he moved. Circles which included a whole host of other women; ex-wives, of which Kristina was one, ex-partners, ex-girlfriends, ‘friends’ who would like to be girlfriends, ‘friends’ who were ‘helping with the designs’ like Liliana, married women, single women and all with one purpose-to be Jackson’s wife.
Having swapped a ward shift and wangled a couple of days off Imogen had planned to turn up without warning and give her intended a surprise, but when she left the car and approached the house she looked in at the un-curtained window and saw him with Liliana; the two of them dancing in the stark emptiness of the drawing room, one of his long arms around her waist, another with a glass of wine in hand. She’d stood in the rain and watched them, watched as they laughed together at the intimacies he whispered in the woman’s ears making her throw her head back in delight. She didn’t know how long she stood in the rain watching. She’d felt panic rising, welling up, threatening to overflow into a scream and then she’d run, back along the curving drive and through the gateway up the lane to our front door. The girl’s breathless narrative ground to a halt as she sniffed; taking another tissue from the box I’d placed beside her.
Richard sat back in his chair, crossing one of his legs over the other and turning his head a little in Imogen’s direction without looking at her face. He began to speak in a quiet monotone. He told her that she may feel distraught now, but that she would recover. He reminded her that she was a strong, independent woman and had proved it by raising a child on her own and following a responsible, highly valued career. He said she must remember that she’d led a good, happy life before Jackson and would do so again; that she must never allow any man to control and manipulate her feelings or treat her as an object to be owned and cast aside like a painting or a house; that a relationship should be based on mutual love and respect and she should look at me, Lena for an example of a resilient, capable woman; that our marriage might not look glamorous but he’d never been in any doubt that he’d chosen the right person. Throughout this monologue she sat motionless, her shuddering sobs subsiding, her narrow shoulders lowering, her eyes fixed hard upon Richard as if he were dragging her from a swamp.
‘Right,’ he concluded, ‘it’s far too late for you to be driving back tonight. You can stay in our guest room, which is always ready’. He looked up at me. ‘My wife can lend you anything you need. Shall we open that bottle of brandy we brought back with us? This would seem to be a suitable occasion to try it.’ He winked. I have a feeling my mouth was hanging open.
He asked Imogen for her car keys, declaring that he would fetch her car from the Manor.
Later on I ran a hot bath for our guest, after which she was subdued enough to submit to being tucked up in bed.
I extracted a promise from Imogen as she left next morning that she would under no circumstances email, ring or visit Jackson Agnew, neither should she respond to invitations from him, all of which she agreed to with a solemn nod. Her puffy face and red eyes showed that she’d wept the night away, but as she drove off Richard assured me it would pass.
‘Let’s go out for lunch,’ he said and I knew the subject was closed.

Some unspoken agreement kept us from cutting through Chiddlehampton Manor’s grounds for a couple of weeks and we were relieved to see no sign of Jackson or any of his paramours in the pub, or anywhere else in the vicinity.
It was June when we returned from a week in Torquay and saw the sign on the gate at the end of their drive. ‘For Sale- Grade Two listed Manor House with OPP for eight apartments’, it read. It was to be sold by the agent ‘Knight and Rutter’ who are known for their upmarket properties.
Doctor Jackson Agnew and his entourage, it seemed, had moved on.