"Once or Twice Upon a Time" is a home for stories longer than is usual for blogposts. Some have been previously published in hardback. These are indicated (p) along with the year of publication. Word counts (2500 etc) let you estimate how long a read will take.

December 30, 2015


(2540 words)

On a warm, still afternoon in May of millennium year, a bike rider - his name is Jeremy - pedals the road that keeps close to the west bank of the River Wharfe in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. He is nineteen. He is nearing the end of his first year at University.  He has biked this road times lost count of, and not always as alone as he is today.  In the previous August when he last biked here, he was not alone.

“Listen!”  A girl – eighteen, his age at the time – is calling over her shoulder from the front of a tandem bike.  Her name is Shirley. She pilots the tandem like a pro. He’s content sitting in back – it’s his turn to anchor the bike.  The bike is a thoroughbred. They love it, love riding it.  The rhythm connects them. On their solos they can test each other, race each other.  On the tandem they must work with and for each other.
“What?” he shouts back. “Listen to what?”
“The names, Oaf!  Burnsall. Grassington. Kilnsey. Kettlewell.”  He’s “Oaf” except when she’s upset. Then he’s Jeremy.  And when he’s Jeremy he knows she’s cross. Or crying. Or moved by something in the beauty of the world.
“So?  You know where we are.  That’s a relief.”
“It proves it!”
“Proves what?”  Shirley can exasperate.
“What Ma Perigo says.” She can exasperate alright.   Perigo – Old Ma Perigo - is Head of English at the Sixth Form College they attend.
From the front of the tandem Shirley imitates Ma Perigo’s fluting tones.
“English falls naturally into pentameters, girls.  Listen! Gargrave. Giggleswick. Stainforth. Long Preston. The lowing herd wades slowly o’er the Wharfe.”
“Lost! Lost, after all!” he wails. “They’re all the other side of the county.”
He loves her sharp, inventive mind.  He loves the way her short fair hair peeps through the slots in her helmet. He loves the summer smell of her, Blue Grass and sweat coming at him when he leans close to her back.  He lets go the rear handlebar and puts his hands either side of her neck and draws them across her blue lycra top to her shoulders.
“No fondling on voyage!” she yells without turning her head. “Get back on the treadmill. I can’t hump this bike along all on my own.”
Up ahead now they see Kilnsey Crag, called the Lion Rock, looking out across Wharfedale. “Lovely beyond any singing of it,” she once said. They had stopped, straddling the bike. Stopped just to look, at the green and gold land, the white stone walls going pink as the sun set, white dots of sheep on the fells across the dale, while from the other side of the river – campfire singing or a choir practicing, clear on the quiet evening.
“Listen Jeremy. That lovely, or what?” She reaches round from the front of the bike, presses her hand on his where it rests on the handlebar.
He remembers these things as he leaves Kilnsey behind and follows the grass road called Mastiles Lane that rises and falls between dry-stone walls, heading west. 
He is looking for a spot not easily seen by walkers or mountain bikers making for Gordale Scar and Malham Cove along these unmade roads.  And today he is riding a solo which is not his own.  The bike is a bit small for him.  In fact it is Shirley’s bike.    He does not ride the tandem with Shirley now, because Shirley is dead, and before she died she said he was to have her bike.  He has not ridden her bike before today and after today he will not ride it again and perhaps no one will, though he cannot be sure of this.

On the first day of their last year at the College she was made Head Girl, which everyone had been expecting.  At First Break on that first day she signed to him to stay behind when the other students went for their coffees. 
In the empty classroom she commanded - “Kneel, Oaf!” He played along, knelt. You never knew with Shirley. She laid her hands flat on his head. “I appoint you Head Churl to the Head Girl.  Henceforth you are to defend me from my enemies. Now hear this.”  She knelt in front of him and put her arms round him and said “Jeremy Stopes, I think I love you.”  She held his face between her hands then, and when they drew apart from this first experimental kiss, said “But maybe stand closer to your razor tomorrow, eh? Or maybe I mean next week?”
To classmates they were now an item.  They both came to College on bikes, and one morning early in December as they stowed their helmets in their lockers she said, “You’ll never believe this. Tell it not in Gath etcetera but I’ve come into a pile of cash.  My Gran gave me a ten pound Ernie bond on my first birthday.  It just won me five K.”
“Mint!” he said. “Lucky you.”  He heard envy in his congratulation.  “What’ll you blow it on? I’d like a flat screen telly, please.  Like, window size.”
“Got a wicked idea,” she said. 
They christened the tandem Ernestine. “Ernie” she said, “would be appropriate but bikes are always female.  Well known fact.”
She sighed. “Dear Oaf, one day the penny will drop.”
Ernestine became their bike of choice, the Dales their velodrome.   Weekdays they studied for the year-end exams that would get them into University. This was serious business.  Weekends they biked on the tandem, “Growing closer”, Shirley said, “by talking to the back of each other’s necks. You can’t really have a row with the back end of a bike helmet.”

She won the Physics prize. As she left the dais she high-fived their physics teacher to cheers.  In July she heard she had won a scholarship to Cambridge.  She would go up in September. 

“I’ll lose you,” he said. They had stopped in Kettlewell, in a late summer heat wave.  They sat outside the Blue Bell, helmets laid aside, legs stretched out, leaning against the bench back, comfortable in each other’s company.  They had booked into the Youth Hostel in the village for the night.
“I’ll lose you to some physics genius from Ghana or Birmingham or somewhere.”
“Stop moping!  Too hot for moping. Just stay there a sec.,” she said and got up and went into the hotel to return minutes later with lager glasses and two bottles.
“We’re in luck,” she said. “They’ve a room.”
“But – the Youth Hostel?”
“Close your mouth, Jeremy!  You’ve got to stop being a virgin sometime. And I think I’ll be an old soul going about on a mobility scooter if I wait for you to do something about it.”

The weather broke, turned blustery and wet. She went up to Cambridge and he took his place at Leeds to study control engineering. He would live at home. He envied her freedom, living in a shared room, in Hall.  They phoned, swapped emails. They looked forward to Christmas and each other.  On a mid-October evening she called him at home.  His mother picked up, listened but said nothing, handed him the phone.
“That Shirley. Again,” she said and left the room.
Shirley’s voice, sounding edgy. “There’s no easy way to say this, Jeremy.”   This was it then.  The physics genius had displaced him after all.  Or – he dropped the handset, snatched it up again – he’d got her pregnant! Not that not that not that!  He waited.  But it was neither.
“I’m diagnosed with leukemia.”
He couldn’t help himself.  “That’s ridiculous, Shirl!”
“Sadly not.”  He could hear her fighting tears. “I didn’t want to tell anyone till they were sure.”  She went through the symptoms; sudden weight loss, fatigue, nose bleeds. The visits to the Student Health Centre, then the University Hospital, the oncology lab, blood tests, bone marrow tests. He hardly heard. How could this be happening to Shirley, to such a young woman – to this, this athlete?
She was saying there was no match in her family close enough.
“For what?’
“Bone marrow transplant . .”
“Hold on, Shirl.  I’m coming to Cambridge.”

He was not a match.  Six of their classmates volunteered when they heard the news.  None were close enough.  “Told you I was a one-off,” she said. To the end he could not believe she was dying. 
She was brought home.  Her parents, as much in denial as he, asked him if they had talked about - “You know, Jeremy.  What she wanted.  At the end?”
She wanted him to have her bike. She wanted him to look after Ernestine.  She wanted one more run at the unforgiving climb out of Kettlewell over to Aysgarth.   He did not know what she wanted because who talks about the end of life at the beginning?  She wanted just to live.  In the haze of their grief her parents opted for cremation.

Most of the students and teachers attended. Ma Perigo dreadful in black.  Their physics teacher, Ozzy Hampton, looking drained of his usual bonhomie.  The Head of College gave a brief eulogy.  Irreplaceable loss.  Talented young woman.  Bright future shorn away.  The Head Boy - her final year oppo - got half way with his memories of her, broke down.  He wasn’t alone among her former classmates to cry.
Jeremy fell in beside Ozzy Hampton as they left the chapel.
“My dear boy.  My poor, dear boy.” Ozzy’s big hand on his shoulder.  Ozzy, too wise to say that he didn’t know what to say.  Old enough to know that grief is the price we pay for love, that his student, too young for this, was in an abyss there seemed no climbing out of.
There was to be a wake in the college Assembly Hall.  On the way, in Ozzy’s car, he said, “I can’t get my head round burning her, sir.  Her parents . . why did they burn her?”
“Is a burial any less final, Jeremy?”
He could not tell the older man that he imagined the process, the consuming heat, her compact, mobile body oozing, shriveling and cracking.  It sickened and frightened him.  Would a burial have been less final?  He thought about this, and knew what one day he would do.
Afterwards, at home he told his parents as little of the service and the wake as he could get away with.  Even so, his mother had plenty to say. 
 “All that money she won!  I don’t know. Spending so much on that tandem when you both had bicycles anyway.  I don’t know what her parents thought.   That money would have paid for the funeral.”
He heard himself yelling. “The College paid. They had a collection. And the Governors have some sort of Trust Fund.  The school paid because everybody loved her. Except you.  You didn’t love her because I did.”
As he slammed out of the house he heard his father, fury in his voice,  arguing with his mother and his mother, plaintive, wondering what she had said now.

Ozzy Hampton persuaded him to stick with his University course, without saying he would adjust, would get over it, would come to forget in time.
Shirley’s parents made no objection when he wanted to sell the tandem.  He gave the money to the College.  Ozzy and the Governors would look after the use of it; a memorial plaque perhaps, or a carrel in the Library.

Her bike hung in the back of the garage.  He could scarcely bear to look at it and when he did he saw Shirley, sitting upright, freewheeling down to the river, or maybe stretched out, low, her forearms on the tri-bars, her face shining with exertion, or again, standing on the pedals, her body rocking side to side as she punched the bike along dale lanes where steep, short climbs seemed suddenly to stand the road on end.

     On a warm May afternoon he feels ready. He lifts her bike down, wheels it out of the garage.  He raises the narrow seat and the handlebar a couple or three inches to suit his height. He straddles the bike, settles into his riding position. But these are surely Shirley’s hands on the brake hoods, not his? Shirley’s feet twisting to lock her shoe cleats to the pedals and Shirley’s voice as he settles onto the seat and pushes off, saying, “Tell you what I think, Oaf, – there’s only one thing in this world better than the feeling of riding a bike.”
     He makes Kilnsey in two hours where he leaves the tarmac road and follows the grass road called Mastiles Lane that rises and falls between dry stone walls, west into the National Park.  It is a weekday, and quiet, and he meets no one.  He follows the lane for five miles.  The way is mainly across sheep pasture but as he gets further from the dale it skirts the edges of limestone slabs known locally as pavements. In places these are cut by deep fissures – pitfalls for the unwary walker.   The lane fords one beck, then another. The becks are full after winter rains. He comes to a third ford where the lane crosses Gordale Beck, a bigger stream that meanders before plunging into the steep sided valley of Gordale Scar. Here he dismounts. Now he must wheel her bike cautiously, following the beck till he comes to the gloomy cleft, loud with the roar of water.  In places he has to shoulder the bike and carry it, scrambling over limestone scree, loose stuff dislodged from the crags by frost and thaw.  There are stretches where the scarps to his right cast shadow, cutting out the sun.  A hundred yards or so into the gorge he finds what he needs – two limestone slabs separated by a fissure a little wider than the handlebars, and deep enough.  He lowers Shirley’s bike into it. The bike stands upright, very nearly, wedged between the slabs.  He collects chunks of limestone and drops them into the gap, carefully, to avoid damage to the machine, first on one side then the other until the fissure is full and nothing of her bike shows. It is the best a Head Girl’s churl can do, the nearest he can give her to a burial. This done, he finds the biggest pieces of stone he can manage and heaves them onto the grave that will need no tending and will have only his memories for flowers.
He does not linger.  He has brought trainers and a track suit in a back-pack.  He puts these on, stows his cycling shoes, and heads back to the grass lane. He will walk back to Kilnsey, get the bus to Skipton, the train to Leeds. 
In the May evening with shadows lengthening, the bus passes by Conistone, Grassington, Threshfield and Linton and Cracoe.  These small, lovely places are the road-map of his times with Shirley and he will never see them again, never come here again and knows he will not want to. 

November 22, 2015


(December 2015,   3080 words)

 Jeremy Stopes, driving fast in his metallic-maroon VW Polo, came up behind a black Transit van.
“The hell did he come from?” he said – to himself, there was no one else in the car.  He’d been following a truck, a forty tonner, wondering if its speed-limiter was on the blink or perhaps the trucker knew how to cheat it. It was over its legal limit for sure when the Transit appeared, slowing down so that vehicles in the outer lanes passed him, passed the Transit and slotted in between it and the truck.
Stopes was wondering what these drivers would do with the few seconds they saved when the Transit’s hazard lights came on and in the same moment brake lights showed in all four lanes, then more hazard lights. The van slowed and stopped dead, still in his lane.  He stamped the footbrake, hearing his tyres shriek, bracing for the inevitable impact, shouted “This is it!”
Bodywork crumples; the engine smashes through the bulkhead into the saloon; plastic skulls burst when the flailing dummies fragment against the windscreen; the steering column drills into the driver’s chest  . . .
 But there was no collision and when he dared look he saw his VW had stopped, a shred of time before it rear-ended the van, a hair's breadth from smashing into it.  “How - ?” he said, shaking with relief, his heartbeat audible. “No way I could stop. The van must have moved on a few metres. Must have! Unless there really are guardian angels.” A sticker on the Transit’s rear door advised “Back off! You were too close'' 
“Very funny! Wonder where he got that one from?” 
He checked his rear-view mirrors.  No one had run into him – another surprise - but drivers on both sides of his VW had been less lucky.  They were getting out of their cars, checking damage, making exasperated gestures, thumbing their phones.
Up ahead, a dozen vehicle lengths away, smoke billowed, lit red and orange.  The “woomff” of an explosion, then another, shook the car. The Transit rocked and righted itself, and he muttered “That's us here till the end of time.”  But as he dug out his phone to call the lab the black van moved on, jinking from lane to lane, finding an escape route through the tangle of cars, gaining the inside lane and onto a service station slip-road. Seizing the chance he dropped the phone back into his pocket and followed the Transit, acknowledging with a raise of his hand the drivers who had let the Transit through. Busy with their calls, they did not notice him.
The slip-road sloped up, curving across the motorway to the services complex on the far side and from the overpass he saw the inside lane traffic on the motorway below taking to the hard shoulder to creep past vehicles impacted into each other and scattered across the outer lanes; a flatbed on its side; a car on fire with its front end wedged and flattened under the rear axles of the forty tonner which was slewed across three lanes. The truck had run into and over some wreckage he could not see, the tractor unit lifted off the tarmac by the impact. For most drivers the incident was a nuisance, disrupting their day, but for some, the reckless or the unlucky, it could be a funeral pyre.  He shuddered. “Don’t think. Just don’t. It wasn’t you and it wasn’t your fault.”
Cars had stopped on the slip-road, blocking a lane, the drivers standing at the concrete balustrade to gawp at the disaster below.  Drivers on the other side of the motorway were slowing, hoping for a glimpse of carnage, risking more shunts. He heard sirens seeking a way through the tail-backed traffic to those in need of help, to those beyond help.
He kept going, into the service station car park. He spotted an empty space and drew into it, surprised to find himself behind the Transit again.  Its rear windows were tinted, black as the bodywork.
 The van driver got down from the cab, reached inside to take something from the passenger seat – a bowler hat, Stopes saw with surprise - locked the vehicle and made for the service station cafeteria. A professional man, wearing a suit, black like his van. As he walked away he put on the bowler hat and, black suited, black hatted, a stockbroker perhaps, or a Circuit Court judge, headed with straight backed dignity seemingly unaffected by the accident towards a lobster thermidor, or chips with lashings of ketchup, who knows?  Stopes pushed these incongruous thoughts aside. He got out of his Polo, intrigued. Stockbrokers and judges drive Porsches or silver BMWs or gigantic FWDs, not black Transits. Transits are usually white and grubby and their drivers wear paint-spattered overalls and caps or hard-hats, not bowlers.  As he passed the van he noticed bold yellow lettering on the driver’s side. It startled him. He walked round the van to check the other side. The lettering was repeated. He read, dumbfounded.
“Trabb's  Environment Friendly Coffin and Casket Services"
'After the first death, you'll need no other'
"How's that for tasteless?" he said. He recognised the line - a misquote from Dylan Thomas. It jogged a memory he couldn't place and as he rounded the back of the van he saw a sticker in the rear window telling him there was a ‘Baby on Board.’  But the eye can be deceived and reads what it expects to read. When he looked again he saw the notice actually said ‘Body on Board.’ Tasteless and then some, he thought. He was tall enough to peer into the tinted window, shading his eyes with one hand but he couldn’t see into the load space.
But as he looked, the memory clicked in . .
He'd studied the poem at school.  Old Ma Perigo, Head of English, is pointing out how in Thomas's rolling cadences it's easy to miss the rhyme scheme.  It's a co-ed school. He  dates a girl in the class called Shirley Bradshaw. No. That's not quite how it was.  Shirley Bradshaw dates him.
"Now Shirley," Perigo says. "How many ways can you construe the last line . . .”
Shirley's answer takes three or four minutes. She works through the line's various possible meanings.  Shirley is smart alright.
His mother doesn't like Shirley.
His mother says “You're always off somewhere, the pair of you when you should  be studying. She's distracting you, my lad. You'll never get anywhere if you let a girl get her hooks in you.”
Then, as if the Transit's window was a TV screen suddenly switched off, the memories are gone and when he steps round the van he sees that the driver has turned, and is watching him, as though waiting for him to catch up, his silhouette black against the early morning sun, keeping quite still until he sets off, when the driver turns back towards the services.
“Weird!” Black vehicle. Black suit. Black bowler. Coffins. Body. It all hung together, sort of. “Perfectly - if he’s stopped for a black coffee . . .”
He followed the driver into the cafeteria, collected a tray from the rack and came up behind him in the queue.  The driver did not remove his hat as he considered the chalk-board menu.  He asked the assistant for the mushroom and broccoli quiche and, half to himself, half to the assistant and turning slightly to Stopes, said “I cannot eat dead flesh. I will admit egg, if free-range, but only narrowly.”
Stopes considered escaping. He could pretend to be a foreigner, or deaf. But he was intrigued so he ordered the same quiche with apple juice. Why risk offending this peculiar driver who would not eat dead flesh but seemed to have some sort of business connection with it, or with the disposing of it.  They left the pay-point with their trays and collected cutlery and when the driver said, “Perhaps we might share a table? You are quite safe with me,”  he assented and the driver added “Trabb. Joshua Trabb.”  Stopes introduced himself and they found seats facing each other. He took out his phone, placed it on the table.
“What did you mean, I’m safe?” he asked.
“Were you not right behind me? In a red VW?”  Trabb’s voice was deep with a grating undertone.
“I was. But how do you know that was me?”
“Did I not slow you down? If I had not slowed  . . .”  Trabb left the remark hanging. He removed his hat. It had left a discernible imprint across his forehead.  He placed it with care on the vacant half of the table. “No one will sit here now,” he said.  “Hats discourage intruders.  Another technique is to place a cynical – I beg your pardon. I mean a clinical thermometer in one’s mouth and, if anyone asks if the other seats are taken, mumble something unintelligible.  More effective than ‘Sorry, my friend will be back directly. She has just gone to the toilet.’ When they see the thermometer intruders positively scuttle away. You’d be surprised.”  Stopes wondered why he was not surprised.  Trabb was busy now, cutting his quiche into small triangular pieces, impaling each triangle on the tines of his fork and examining it, turning the fork this way and that – to see if any dead flesh had contaminated it perhaps - before using his knife to deposit it back on his plate.
Another memory came to him - of his mother telling him not to play with his food – bolognese sauce with penne.
Nine, was he? Ten? Sitting in the cramped dining room; the check tablecloth his mother insisted on; her narrow, watchful face. He liked to collect each mouthful by manoeuvering the outer tines of his fork into two of the pasta tubes. They must then be transferred to his mouth without dropping any. His father saying “Leave the lad alone, Jen.  He won’t mess about like that when he’s eighteen and taking girls for an Italian.”
Eighteen! His mother vetting his girl friends and finding then unsatisfactory in unspecified ways. “Who is this Shirley, then? That’s an old fashioned sort of name, Jeremy. I don’t think much of her. Where did you find her? All airs and graces, that one. She’s only after your money.”
Protesting that she was in his sixth form and sixth formers had no money didn’t deflect her.
Shirley! Cropped hair, small, always smiling. Shirley who came to school on a bike; cleat shoes, twenty one gears, disc brakes, purple helmet, the works. Shirley aiming a smack at his backside as they stowed helmets in their lockers and calling out “Miss! Miss! Jeremy Stopes is assaulting me!” For a moment the cafeteria no longer existed. He was at Shirley’s front door, pressing the bell, Shirley opening the door, smiling but saying nothing, pointing to the closed kitchen door to tell him her mother was home, then seizing him, burying her tongue in his mouth.
“Airs and graces, Ma? But some kisser! Phew!”
Trabb was talking again. “Phew, did you say, Mr. Stopes? For a moment I thought you had left us.”  Trabb was well-spoken, his diction clear and unhurried - like their sixth form physics teacher Ozzy Hampton . . . In the instant he was back in school again –
The tannoy for Period One sounds and Ozzy hurls the door open and surveys his 9 a.m rabble.
“Don’t sit on the radiators, boys and girls. You’ll end up with piles.”
“Piles of what, sir?”
Ozzy smiles and goes to the whiteboard and writes in red marker “Archimedes Principle" and turns to the class and says “Now my darlings, suppose you had only my portly carcass and a big barrel of water?" He throws out his arms barrel-wide. "How would you test Archie’s Pr?” and waits for the inevitable “I don’t think Archie’s got a Pr, sir” and Shirley pipes up “He has so. Well, sort of,” and the “How do you know!”s and the “Saucy!”s  subside and the lesson gets under way.
Ozzy was a great teacher. He took physics seriously but never took himself seriously at all.  Shirley went on to win the Physics prize. On Prize Day she high-fived Ozzy as she left the dais. She won a scholarship to Cambridge. She went up in the September.  She contracted leukemia during the first term.  By the Christmas she was dead.
“Mr. Stopes? Is anything wrong?”
Before she died she said he was to have her bike.
“Sorry.   For a minute there I was miles away. You were saying?”
Trabb was still driving table trespassers away. “Best of all – I have never tried this myself, though I know someone who swears he has – is to hide behind a newspaper and when newcomers approach, lower the newspaper and eye them squarely and say ‘How dreadful!  I read here that the Titanic has sunk - again!’  That panics them.”
And they rush for the lifeboats, he thought . . .
and Shirley, leaving the cinema into a freezing night, says, "That's the second time I've seen that ship sink and it's still as sad.  After all their narrow escapes Rose survives while Jack drowns. There weren't enough guardian angels that night, Jeremy."
"Or lifeboats," he says, and they walk to the bus stop in silence and when she links his arm and gets closer to him, he knows she is crying because he’s Jeremy only when she’s upset, other times he’s “Oaf.”  He squeezes her linked arm with his.
He must change the subject.  “I noticed the trade signage on your van.  It's . . well . . "
“Novel?” said Trabb. “Novel is the word I think you’re looking for.”
“Unusual, Mr.Trabb.  And if I may say so . . “
“Revolutionary?  A break with tradition?  A sign of the times?  The financially hard-pressed and the Greens looking to save their pennies or the planet depending on their particular mindset.”
He thought, “How is it everything he says kick-starts a memory?”
Like - Shirley was green.
She was cremated in a wicker coffin.  He wasn't the only sixth form boy who cried.  Grief, or the missing of her, or just being too young for this, was an abyss it seemed there was no climbing out of, where Thomas's line ran mantra-like in his head. "After the first death there is no other."
Was it the coincidence of the misquoted line on Trabb's van that had woken these memories?
Was it some truth in the line's ambiguities that explained why he had not grieved for his mother, who just hadn't got it when Shirley died.
"So many flowers Jeremy. And pretty well the whole school in the chapel. And now I hear the governors want to dedicate a lab to her!"
"The Shirley Bradshaw Sports Physiology Memorial Laboratory, Ma. She was ace. There'll be exercise bikes, oxygen uptake monitors, heart rate monitors, the works."
Her hand on his chest. "Oooerrr, Oaf! Your heart's going like a steam-hammer. What have we been up to?"
Maybe Ozzy got it, knew what to say, what not to say, hand on his shoulder - "My dear boy.  My poor, dear boy.”  That was when he broke down,
“Bad enough she’s dead, sir. But did they have to burn her, her folks? Did they have to?”
Now, as if coffins were not to be further discussed over lunch, Trabb began to eat, spearing the triangles of quiche, chewing quickly then spearing the next triangle.  Stopes started on his own quiche.  Nothing about Joshua Trabb, he thought, would surprise him now, so he was not surprised when Trabb, finishing his quiche in short order said “What do you do,  Mr. Stopes?  You’re not – heaven forbid – another mortician?”
So right!  Trabb really was in the dead body business.  Just that he had a strange way of promoting himself.
“No, Mr. Trabb. No, no. I work at the vehicle crash-testing laboratory.  Near Nuneaton.  We smash cars into concrete blocks or into each other  - head-ons, rear-enders, side impacts . . ."
"Don't stop there, Mr.Stopes. This is very interesting."
"Sorry . . I just remembered something.  I . . I . ."
In the University long vacations the lab took on students for work experience. One such, a droll Ghanaian lad with astonishingly white teeth, made a cardboard notice that he stuck on one of the concrete blocks. It read -
"Back Off! You were too close" and calling out "I done told you, Man!" whenever a test vehicle wrote itself off.
He thought, "That what the sticker on the back of Trabb's van said! This is weird." 
"You were saying?" Trabb prompted, his smile humourless.
"I analyse the slow-motion footage that shows how cars crumple and disintegrate and how the passengers inside get flung about. Never neglect your seat-belt, Mr. Trabb.”
His partner Jill who became his wife, who bore the twins, Nancy and Bethany, used her belt with reluctance saying she didn't fancy being trapped in a burning car because she couldn't release her seat-belt.
"How many car fires have you seen compared with head-ons? C'mon, Jill. The other driver won't mind you going out through your windscreen but he won't like you coming in through his." 
She "hmmm'd" his point, but buckled up, saying "Safer than a bike, I guess," and he remembered Shirley.
Mention of bikes always did that, even now, years down the line.
Trabb was speaking again.  "Ah, yes! The road traffic accident. A vehicle appears out of nowhere. A lorry travelling too fast. Perhaps its speed-limiter is not functioning correctly or the driver knows how to circumvent it so it can travel over its legal limit A situation where you have no say in your own fate. When it turns out there are no guardian angels after all. Time seems to slow down. One's life flashes before one's eyes. Or so it's said. Though perhaps in your case . ."  Trabb looked thoughtful, regarding him impassively.
   "What?" he said.  He knows what I’m thinking. He knows my memories. He knows my life!  Who is he?  What the f . . ?
   "You say you film your passengers in slow motion in their doomed and disintegrating cars? Perhaps their lives unroll in slow motion rather than flash before their eyes as when one's parachute fails to open? Frame by frame, so to speak. Memory by memory.  Would you agree, Mr. Stopes?"
He stared, his mouth moving but finding no words, at last managing –
"Mr. Trabb . . they're not real, the passengers. They're dummies . . "  thinking "It's been one memory after another since . . ."
"Anyone who travels too fast in a steel and glass box could be considered a dummy, Mr. Stopes . .  "
He blanked as he stared at Trabb, and saw himself back on the motorway.
The truck he is following, a forty tonner, is surely over its speed limit. Maybe its speed limiter isn't working or the trucker knows how to get round it to save a few minutes.  His VW is just under its seventy miles and hour limit when brake lights come on in all four lanes and the truck in front slows and bucks and stops dead as if the tractor unit had hit something in front.  He yells something he doesn't hear. He stamps on the footbrake, glances in his wing mirror.  Where's the Transit?  A black Transit should pass him and get between him and the truck and slow them down. Where's Trabb and where's his bloody Transit . . .
"What's the matter, Mr. Stopes?  You have the look of a man who's lost something."
Trabb, he sees, wears the expression of a man very pleased with himself, his gaze unblinking, his smile sardonic. 
He must get away. He didn't find Trabb odd any longer. He was suddenly frightened of him.
"Talking of dummies - I must call the lab. Tell them why I'm late."
"And your family. Don't forget your family.  If the pile-up is reported on the television news they will want to know that you are still all in one piece."
How does he know I have a family?
"Exactly.  I think I left my phone in the car.  Better be going." A porky, but it got him away from Trabb.  Trabb, who had started  odd, had graduated through weird to unnerving and then some.
He left the cafeteria, fumbling for his phone.  It wasn't in the usual pocket.  He felt in all his pockets, even the inside breast pocket where he never put his phone.  He was still searching, frown deepening, when he remembered putting it on the table.
"Oh Jees!  Bet Trabb put his bloody hat over it. Need to go back - "
He had reached the car park, found the bay where he had left his car.
"Where the  . .  ?"
The black Transit was no longer there. Neither was his VW.

A paramedic is talking with a traffic police sergeant.  Blue lights come and go, come and go, lighting their hi-vis jackets.  The car under the truck's rear axle is covered in foam.  The foam turns blue, white, blue, white . . .
The paramedic says "Nothing we can do for the guy in the burnt out VW under the truck.  Didn't have a chance. Looks like the airbag saved him from the impact. But then he couldn't get his belt undone or he was knocked out, whatever. He's a mess, alright. Fried, poor sod." He indicates the road surface. "See the tyre burn? Must've slid thirty feet."
The sergeant says "We checked his reg. with PNC.  It's a fleet car. You'll love this."
"I'm sure I bloody won't."
"The registered keeper is the Vehicle Crash Testing centre at Nuneaton. Ironic or what?"
"I’m still not laughing.  O.K. Better we haul the car out before we cut him out.  Accident Investigation will want the car.  Coroner'll want him."
Following a road traffic collision, clearing the road to keep traffic flowing is the police priority after checking injuries, breathalysing anyone suspicious, taking statements, noting who called the emergency services etc . .
"Who did call, anyway?" the paramedic asks.
"Some guy on the overbridge to the services.  Says he witnessed it all. Trapp or Trabb or something. Seems he's left the scene, though. We traced the phone he called from.  On contract to someone called Stopes.  Shouldn’t be hard to find him."
 A tow-truck backs up to the VW and the crew get down, looking for anchor points for their chains, their hooks.
The police sergeant and the paramedic move away to talk to the truck driver who leans, shaking, against the central reservation barrier.  Their conversation is drowned by the tow-truck revving and the grim sound of the black and mangled VW being hauled out.  The driver, a shriek still contorting his face, slumps like a broken doll. He wears his melted airbag like a shroud.  “This is it!” he could be saying. “This is it!”

* * *

The poem referred to is "Refusal to Mourn": Dylan Thomas
PNC - Police National Computer.

May 24, 2015


   (June 2015.  2,100 words.)

On his bad days her father would say things like "No home should be without a pillow fight,"  or "Bless my beautiful hide!" He was nearing eighty, so his daughter looked in on him every day, or called his mobile if she couldn't visit, in case it was another bad day.
   His son-in-law said "He should be in a home."  She said "He is in a home. It's the home he's lived in for fifty something years."
  "I meant a retirement home."
  "I know what you meant."
  It was not the first time daughter and son-in-law had rehearsed their anxieties. And with good reason. Some days he got their names, Lauren and Mark mixed up, and some days he got these names mixed up with those of their children, his grandchildren, Roger and Beatrice and " - that other one. It is three isn't it? The one with red hair. The one in the photo there - " pointing to the piano. 
  Then, "Oh, Dad!" Lauren would say, "That's Mum. That's your Dorothy. Dot, you always called her."
 "Dot?" he said. "Why that's right. Now I remember. Dot. She sewed costumes for her shows. Her - thing that sews for you - what's the word - machine, was always buzzing away. They did a song  that needed six pairs of what's its. Pantaloons. What a job. Six sets."
  "Seven, Dad," she said. " It's 'Seven Brides For Seven Brothers' Not six. She had to have a pair herself."
  "That's right, Dot. You embroidered all the knees with roses, so you did. Little Lauren helped you. She was still at school. Or was it daisies. Every one a different colour. You had a lovely - thing you sing with - voice, that's it."
  "They all had lovely voices, Dad. They were a treat to listen to."

  Their younger child, Beatrice, nine, asked "Why can't Grandpa remember Grandma?"
  "Most of the time he can. Forgetfulness happens to people as they get older, Bee."
  "I remember her," Bee said. "I loved Grandma Dot."
  "Grandpa loved your Grandma Dot.  From the day he first met her. Like he loves you and always will.  He's not always forgetful. He has good days. Lots - "
  On the good days he was brisk, seeing to his own breakfast, raking their lawn for them, calling for Bee and walking to and from school with her.  He had no tremors. He knew when he needed a haircut. He used a silver topped walking cane for style, had fallen just the once, on a bad day, out of bed, and had lain curled up on the floor till morning, until Lauren made her morning visit and helped him up. "I'm so sorry, Dot," he said. "I forgot about the lavatory."
  "It's alright Dad," Lauren said, her eyes moistening, thinking maybe that home was not so far away after all.

   It was their son Roger, nineteen, studying maths with computing at University who said "Ma - why don't you set up a monitor for him? Remember the one you had when Bee was a baby?"
   "But Grandpa's in the next street! The cord's nowhere near long enough . . . "
  Roger made the sort of noise that sons reserve for retarded mothers, and turned his eyes ceilingwards. "They link through the internet now, Ma.  You get a camera and mic.  You can call up the camera's view on your laptop any time.  Grandpa has a panic button so he can let you know he needs help. You can call his landline or mobile from your computer."
   "That sounds wonderful. But isn't it spying?  Could Grandpa turn it all off?"
   "Yes, but you could override. The panic button would wake up your laptop and set off a screamer - like a burglar alarm - to alert you or Dad. These things have come a long way since you and Dad lay rigid with terror, listening on the monitor for when baby Bee stopped, you know, breathing."
   When his mother said "Now you're being silly!" Roger gave her a long I-Know-My-Ma look.

  "Well, I don't know," her father said when they brought up the monitor idea. "I wouldn't want you to watch me getting dressed."
  "You can turn the whole lot off any time, Grandpa," said Roger. "It would reassure Mum and Dad. And you'd get help that much quicker if you needed it."
  "Sound only?" his Grandpa said. "I talk to myself you know. Folk on their own do. Old folk. Talk to themselves. A lot.  Wouldn't want that recorded."
   "Rambling with Grandpa," said Roger, making Bee giggle, and then say, "You sometimes talk to Grandma, Grandpa.  I've heard you. You tell her she has lovely hair."
    "Now, Bee," her mother said, turning, hiding tears.
   "Bee - sometimes it's as if I can see her. As if she's still with us.  Other times, well - I struggle to remember her name."  And as if in saying this he understood that the bad days could only get worse, and more frequent, the old man agreed the installation should go ahead - and with two cameras, one in his sitting room, the second in his bedroom.
   "It won't stop me calling in, you know," his daughter said.
   "I know," said her husband.  "But you'll rest easier. And so will I."

* * *

     "Roger! Grandpa's talking to himself again. I know I shouldn't but I turned the sitting room mic on." Bee was outside Roger's bedroom door.
    "Go away, Bee."  Roger was in his room, studying, his girl friend Stephanie helping.  Lauren and Mark were out, a restaurant dinner, a treat for Mark's birthday.  Left on Grandpa Watch, Roger had delegated the early evening shift to his sister. Two months since the installation and Bee was as handy with the camera controls as with her smartphone, as most nine year olds are, and reliable on a stake-out, for she loved her Grandpa.
    "Only not really to himself." said Bee.  "There's a lady."
    "No there isn't, Bee. That's silly."
    "Not silly! Grandpa's calling the lady Dot.  Like he did Grandma Dot."
   "How can it be Grandma Dot? Grandma Dot's de - I mean - he often talks to Grandma Dot like she's really there. He said so, when we were, you know, talking about the system."
    "But Grandma doesn't usually answer."
   "He must have his radio on. Or the TV. Check it out. Turn the cameras on - just for a sec. There's no lady. You'll see.  I'm busy."
    "You mean you're both in there kissing I bet."  Bee stood for a moment,  a clenched fist on each hip, elbows out, her bottom lip jutting. Then she clumped back down the stairs and into the kitchen, where her mother's laptop sat on one of the worktops.  She clambered onto a high stool and from a screen menu, clicked  Sitting Room Microphone-
   - to hear a woman's voice singing about a barnyard being busy in a regular tizzy and mother Nature lyrical with her yearly miracle because of Spring or something . . in a soft, low register so that she didn't think twice before she clicked Sitting Room Camera
   She gasped, jumped off the stool and dashed back upstairs, shrieking.
  "There is a lady, Roger!  There is! There is! Now she's singing on Mum's computer and Grandpa's sitting on his settee, watching.  The lady's got long white knickers on that reach below her knees with lots of frills all down the legs and there's flowers stitched on the knees and she'd got a funny sort of bodice with laces like shoe laces up the front and  - "
     The door flung open and Roger stepped out.  "Stop this, Bee!  You're letting your imagination - "
    " - and a straw hat with ribbons and a pink umbrella and she's got the tip of the umbrella on the floor and she's holding its handle and - and she's doing little dance steps round it and singing. And it's really funny and scary, 'cos you know that photo that Grandpa has of Grandma Dot? Well, the singing lady is just like Grandma Dot in the photo."
    She grabbed his hand trying to drag her brother down the stairs but when he wrenched his hand away and she began to sob, Stephanie, from the bedroom said, "Take it easy, Rog. Can't you see she's really upset? Go see what's what, if only to calm her down," and to the child, "Come on, Bee love. Let's see this person in pantaloons singing for your Grandpa."
   They went downstairs, Stephanie holding Bee's hand.  In the kitchen they found the laptop in sleep mode. Roger tapped a key to wake it.  The screen showed Grandpa's sitting room.  From the keyboard Roger turned the camera left and right to show as much of the room as possible.  There was no one, and only silence in the room.
   "See?" he said to Bee, "You were imagining  - "
   "Then where's Grandpa now?" said Bee.
   "How would I know?" Now Roger sounded cross. "There's plenty of other places he could be."
   "They've gone into the bedroom so they can kiss like you and Steff.  Grandpa kissed Grandma Dot a lot. And I saw them, I did. Grandpa listening and the Grandma lady singing and dancing. I saw them! You don't believe me! Turn the bedroom camera on."
   "Bee, it can't be Gran," Roger began. "You know it can't. It was Grandpa playing  a CD. Or his radio. So - end of track one. Connection lost. Let's go  - "  He tapped the keyboard. The screen-saver replaced the sitting room. "And don't you go spying on Grandpa, Bee."
     "Go back to your kissing then!" said Bee. "Just wait till Mum gets in. She'll believe me!" and as Roger and Stephanie left the kitchen she woke the computer and called up the bedroom camera.
     "See!" She pouted at the closing door. "Told you!" But the others did not come back in and she fell silent as she watched the screen.
     Grandpa lay on his bed, quite still, his eyes closed. Grandma Dot in her pantaloons lay beside him, holding him in her arms, her face very close to his, her straw hat and parasol cast aside on the floor.
    And Bee, her voice suddenly much older whispered "Do you believe me now, Roger?"
   Grandma Dot said "You always loved that song. 'Spring. Spring. Spring' with all seven of us in our pantaloons. How we larked about when I was making them.  You said you could have done with seven brides as long as they were all me.  So I came to sing it for you, one last time."
   She leaned over Grandpa and kissed his forehead.  "But it's time to go now, my darling. I've missed you so much."   Then she sat up on the edge of the bed and looked straight into the camera and said "Beatrice, always remember we both loved you very much."
  "Are you real, Gran?"
 "Let's say that you can see me, my pet. But not Roger, or your Mum and Dad - Lauren and Mark. I'm afraid they're all too old."
 "Is Grandpa dead?" Bee asked, knowing the answer.
  But Grandma Dot had gone, leaving the room to Grandpa, leaving Bee to break the news through her tears, and to begin her mourning.

* * *
  One day, some weeks after the funeral, Lauren came in from a visit to Grandpa's house which she was slowly clearing out. "Bee?," she called. "You in, love? Come and see this."  Bee came down the stairs into the hall. 
   "See what I found at Grandpa's. This little straw hat. There's a note pinned to it. 'Make sure Bee gets this'  He must have kept it all those years.   Do you want it?"
  Bee took the hat and went back upstairs. She closed her door. She perched the hat on her curls and tied the pink ribbons under her chin. She did some little dance steps round her bedroom ending at her mirror.
  "Thank you, Grandma Dot," she said. "Take care of each other. And give Grandpa a kiss from me."

* * *

February 6, 2015


(February 2014.   3400 words)

    I get quite a few books from Charity Shops and over the years I've come across surprising bookmarks  - iced-lolly sticks, Tesco receipts, a beer mat, a shoelace tied in a bow, love letters with and without tear stains.  What was the story behind them, I always wondered.
    Most recently - in "Ideas in Mathematics"- a photograph of a girl, teenager by the look of. A grayscale photo, the reverse inscribed - "Spud, July 1968." Surely by a brother? Only a brother could dump that nickname on this face?  Pretty? Attractive? Pert? Trusting? Guileless? None of these makes proper tribute to Spud. The vast vocabulary of our language fails her. Better to bang your forehead repeatedly on the desk and utter "Where were you, Spud, when I was looking for someone like you?" and hope the desk doesn't think you mean glam or sexy or coquettish or the toe-curling bubbly.  You get the picture? I've scanned it for my desk-top. Boot up and Spud smiles out at me, head half turned, straight nose, straight teeth, hair you could lose your fingers in, that you want to lose your fingers in, that you ache to . .  never mind, you know the kind of hair I mean. You can't describe someone so the reader sees that someone as you do. The best you can do is state their attributes and let the reader create their own Spud; let them find their own Spud bookmark; let them scan her and boot her up each morning. Let them imagine they've fallen in love. Or would have, years ago. 
  In 1968 she was seventeen maybe. 1968 - when we headed for San Francisco, flower bedecked, wooden beads rattling, or hurled around in Minis wearing psychedelic mini dresses and faux animal skins, brushing aside our hair so we could see the gentle people there . .  July 1968! She's in her sixties now, this gentle person, this gentle Spud. But where is she?  Any clues in the book?
    I turned to the front cover and saw it had been a library book.  There was a Libraries Department stamp, the sheet for recording the return dates, the last entry four years ago. And the bar code that identifies the book, that gets scanned along with the borrower's card every time the book is taken out. Spud came a step closer, or I took a step towards Spud, and by this time I'd stopped asking myself what I wanted, what I thought I might be letting myself in for, with disappointment top of the list. So Spud borrowed a maths book. So is she a mathematician, a blue-stocking, a rocket scientist, stratospherically smarter than me, solving differential equations in her sleep?  Or does she gaze sleepless from her bedroom window, wondering where life had gone? We're all in the play together, Spud, and it ain't the dress rehearsal.

    "Can you tell me anything about this?"
    I was in the branch library whose imprint was in the book's cover.  I could see the young man at the check-out would be helpful because he wore a bow tie.  I handed him the book.
     "This was one of yours."
     He looked inside the cover. "So it was. You found it?"
    "In an Oxfam shop."
    He scanned the barcode, looked at the computer monitor.  "Yes. Here it is. We gave it to Oxfam around four years ago."
      "So you have detailed records?" I said. "Can you tell me who last borrowed it?"
      "Can I ask why you want to know? You're not police, are you?"
      "At my age?"
      "Ah  . . apologies." A pause.
    "I found a photograph in the book.  I'm guessing - I mean, I'm hoping the last person who borrowed the book used the photo for a bookmark."
      "And that the photo is the same person who borrowed the book?"
      "And you want to know who that person is? So you can return the photograph?"
     I could hardly say, "No, young man! As I head for my mid-seventies I've taken to stalking seventeen year olds. That's why I need to know who she is." Sounds suspicious put like that, doesn't it? Particularly as Spud's seventeen summers have grown to sixty-something. Maybe she's a headmistress approaching retirement, married with three kids and enough grandkids for seven-a-side footie.  Maybe divorced. A drunk. A screaming termagant.  Put like that, I'm mad, deserving of all I get.  But it's Spud - a close relative of the angels - we're talking about here.
     "It's got 'Find the Lady' written on the back," I lied. "Now there's a challenge."
     He looked at me square.  "A lady, eh? A challenge? Or an invitation?"
     "I could be so lucky."
    "I have the borrower's name on the screen. I can tell you it's an address not  far from the  library here.  Unfortunately the information is confidential to library staff.  I'm really sorry. But you'll appreciate we need  . . ."
      " . . . to exercise due caution when geriatric serial killers come rampaging through the library needing help finding their next target before beating them to death with a zimmer frame."
     We laughed, and then he said "Any clues in the photograph?"
    "Not really. There's just a young woman by a window. I suppose I could print off hundreds of copies and stick them on lamp posts and community message boards in arcades and supermarkets? 'Have you seen this woman? Photo is as recent as 1968.' "
    Now he sounded interested. "Better if you scanned the photo and posted it to Facebook or Twitter. Or Flikr.  Millions would see it. Hundreds might recognise her. She could well see it herself if she's a silver surfer."
   "You're talking from the wrong side of the generation gap."  I took the photo from my inside pocket, showed it to him. "This is her."
   He looked at the photo a long time and I wondered if he was thinking of needles in haystacks. Or maybe just 'What a funny old chap,' but when he answered he said "So would I."
   "So would you what?"
   "Look for her. But 1968? She might be . . "
   I said it for him. "Dead?  Or not.  In 1968 she looks about seventeen, right? So she's not ancient. I mean - no more ancient than me. And I want to find her.  Easier if you just tell me the address? Could be an old man's last chance."
  "No can do, sorry." There was another pause while he regarded me and I sensed a doubt resolved. I got the feeling he was on-side.  He said - I think without irony or sarcasm - "We have stories on our 'Romantic' shelves less romantic than this."
   I said, "And Detective Fiction cases that are trickier?"
  "Very likely." He stopped, then said "Suddenly I find I need the Little Boys' Room and if you wouldn't mind sort of watching the desk for me till I get back - " he paused.  He actually cocked an eyebrow, he actually did.
   "Have one for me too, Champ," I said as he headed off.
   When he came back he made an aghast noise and struck his forehead with a flat palm. "Horrors! Did I carelessly leave the computer on?  I do hope you didn't . .  ?"
   "Wouldn't have even dreamed of it.  Could have got you - both of us - into serious trouble . . "
   "Good luck!" he said.


      It's one thing having information, it's quite another knowing how best to use it.  Finding Spud had been a doddle so far. Thanks to the librarian I had a name - Sandra Hardman (Mrs.), an address and phone number, which might or might not lead me to Spud, up here into the West End where the curtains are lace and the window boxes are well tended, and the streets are Avenues, Quadrants, Circuses all with many trees.  The address was a four storey red sandstone tenement, one of a crescent curving round a "Residents Only" garden where daffodils nodded in the April sunshine. A gardener was raking last Autumn from the smooth lawns. The eight flats on the tenement stair each had an entry bell set in a polished brass plate on the security door. The door was five steps up from pavement level. The plate advised me to "Ring and await reply." There was an intercom speaker. And here was Problem One. No residents' names on the plate, only the flat numbers - 1/Left, 1/Right and so on, plus the "Services" bell.  What to do now?  Guess which bell? Start at the bottom and work up till someone answers? Climb the stair and thrust Spud's photo at whoever opens whichever door and say to a total stranger "Do you know this person? The picture was taken about fifty years ago. She probably didn't live here then." Or, "Sorry to bother you. Did your brother call you Spud?" Fat chance. Lack of resolve got the better of me. Or cold feet. I retreated, leaned against the garden railings and stared up at the flat windows. Nothing moved, not even a lace curtain.
   O.K. The address comprised eight households, the phone number was unique. I thumbed the digits on the mobile I rarely use.  The call was answered by a recording thanking me for calling our voicemail service but the person can't take the call just now and leave a message after the tone. Good! Because I hadn't begun to think what I would say if the person who might once have been called Spud had answered. "Oh, never mind," I said, then realised I hadn't cut the call. I cut the call. "Brilliant!" I said. I prepared convincing voicemails in my head. "Oh hello. Yes. You don't know me but I'd like to know you." Or, "I'm leaving my number. Would you call me back when you've a minute. It's about a library book."  Really, it's no fun being hopeless. With the ladies, I mean. Librarians with bow ties eat out of my hand.

   I made a circuit of the garden and then another and then I had an idea. Try the "Services" bell. These time-limited bells open tenement entry doors to anyone - postmen, meter-readers and so on, burglars, repo men, Spud hunters. Once inside  I could tour the stairs and landings and locate Mrs. Sandra Spud-Hardman from the name plates on the flats' front doors and - Gotcha! My phone told me it was a few minutes past midday.  I pressed "Services". The door stayed closed. I'd missed the get-inside-free window. There might well be another window mid to late afternoon. I would return.
   I did - at four o'clock.  The door remained steadfast to my request for admission. "This could go on for a long time," I thought, and was on the point of giving up until the next day. But when I turned to go back down the steps a man wearing yellow Hi-Vis and plastic ID came up behind me, grunted briefly, pressed the service bell, waited, pressed again. The door opened. As he passed me and went into the close I called "Just a minute! Is that how you do it?" He turned back, stared and said "You don't know how to work a Services, Jimmy, you best not try gettin' in."
   "I - " But I didn't get far into my explanation.
   "Wait a minute. Yous was hangin' around the gardens this morning?"
   I tried to salvage something.  "And you are?"
  "Look after the gardens, me. Not that it's your bizz, Jimmy. Nice folk around here. Good customers. This is me pickin' up me money. Why not push off?" He was a big, solid bloke. He gave me a look that suggested he looked after the nice folk themselves as well as their gardens.  I pushed off. But now I thought I knew how to gain entry. Press. Wait. Press. Open Sesame! I'd wait till the Neighbourhood Watch gardener who called me Jimmy was away.  I'd wait till next day.

    At ten next morning I pressed, waited, pressed. The door swung open. Success! Game on again! I went into the close. The nameplate on the door of flat ground floor (right) was "Hoyle." The ground floor (left) flat was occupied by  T.Hardman.  T, not S. A trip to the upper landings seemed a good idea. One up, Left "Smithson", right "Renkovich." No initials. And when I'd completed my ascent of Red Sandstone Gully I knew why "T.Hardman" needed an initial - because top floor right was "A.Hardman." I went down the stair devising a strategy for finding out which of these Hardmen, if either, might be Spud, for the choice didn't include an "S for Sandra Hardman".  Then I thought, why should it? She's a Mrs. So "A" or "T" is Mr. Hardman. Did this mean it was time to go home? Didn't I say disappointment might be top of the list? I thought "How do you get to my age and still be a self-deluding dork?" I let myself out. Three policemen were coming up the steps. Their vehicle was at the kerb. I moved to let them pass into the close. They didn't. They stopped me getting out.
   "A word, if you don't mind, sir."
   "Yes, sir. We've had reports of a prowler hereabouts  - "
   "The gardener!"
   "No sir. He's no prowler. He's one of the callers who reported an elderly gentleman - "
   "One of the - ?"
   "Yes, sir. Several of the residents as well as Fergus have seen suspicious - "
   "The gardener, sir."
   "What elderly? I haven't seen any gently eldermen the two or three times I've been in the Crescent." The situation was unnerving me.  The Law in triplicate was not good news.
   "Precisely, sir. Two or three times. Could even be you, sir." He consulted a notebook. His colleagues looked on, impassive, while he read. "Smart. Elderly. Upright but not too tall.  Well trimmed beard almost white. Brown trilby.  Dead giveaway, that, sir. Very few men wear trilbies these days. Brown car coat but seemingly no car. Ancient mobile phone. Stares up at the windows. Leans on the garden railings. One resident on this stair reported a strange voicemail yesterday. Highly skilled - the Neighbourhood Watch around here, sir. Pros they are. Don't miss much."
   "If it's me you think's been prowling, I can explain."
   "Please do, sir. Could save a trip to the station."
   I explained. The impassive pair seemed to get interested. Every so often I reminded them they could check with the Library, hoping they wouldn't in case Bow Tie got dragged into the mess. When I had finished I expected "A likely story." Instead Lead Cop asked to see the photo. I gave it to him. He looked at it, showed it to the other two, they all looked at me.
   "It was more than fifty years ago," I said.
   "That's what puzzles me."
   "Doesn't puzzle me, " Impassive One said, reminding me of Bow Tie saying "So would I."
   Impassive One drew Lead Cop aside. They conversed quietly.  Then Lead Cop said "Constable Hughes wonders, sir, if you wait in the car, we'll check with the person you're stalk - erm - interested in. We'll need the photo."
   "That seems very reasonable."  Impassive Two led me to the car. We sat in the back seat.  "Don't know what to make of all this." he said.  "Bet you wish you could turn the clock back a bit?"
    "Not really, officer. She's always been my age if you think about it."
    "Ah! See what you mean, mate."  Mate. Less ominous that the underlined "Sir."
    Not many minutes passed before Lead Cop and his colleague came back and asked me to step out of the car.  He looked dubious but he said "Mrs. Hardman - the lady in the top floor right asked me to say - to you, sir, 'Please ask the gentleman to come up. Spud is just going to put the kettle on.' "   How to raise a loud hurrah without three policemen hearing?


  Lead Cop insisted on going up with me; fair enough in the circumstances, I suppose. He rang the bell - Spud's bell! - and Westminster chimes sounded and the door opened and I looked at her and the years fell away and the snowy hair, the rimless glasses made no matter, made no difference. She smiled and said "Welcome. Do come in," her voice deeper but as gentle as I had expected. Through my trance I heard Lead Cop saying "You're sure this is alright, Mrs. Hardman? We could stay outside in the car a while . . "  She smiled a dismissal and closed her door and went ahead of me through her hall into her sitting room, or work room, for there was a computer on a desk next to a printer-scanner. Against one wall, a full 7 octave digital piano. There was a dressmaker's dummy, a sewing machine on a broad table with paper patterns laid out. There were skeins of wool in many colours, balls of wool, a narrow glass jar holding knitting needles.  She invited me to sit, moving a pile of sheet music from one half of a settee so she could sit next to me.
   "One thing," she said without preamble, "we don't talk about the photograph."
   "Mrs. Hardman, but for the photograph I wouldn't be here."
   "No, you wouldn't. But I'm happy you are. And it's Sandra. Alexandra.  Mrs. A, you see." she said, resolving one small puzzle. So we introduced ourselves and talked. We talked until the window framed the setting April sun and I learned that Mr. Hardman was dead, that the marriage had been - to use her phrase - rather unsatisfactory. I told her that I'd never had the courage, at which point she laid her hand on mine and said, "A pity. Yes, a great pity."

  It wasn't long before we were - you could say - courting.  Less coy and more honest to say we discovered together joys we had never till then known,  in places we had never visited. In one of these, breathless, clinging together she said in answer to my question, "Don't be silly! Of course I didn't think I was too old."
   "You are - were - a good deal older than in the photo."
    "I said we weren't to talk about it."
    "That was a while ago.  And you might remember us vowing there'd be no secrets. So?"
    She heaved an actressy sigh. "Who would have come looking for me if it had been a recent photo."
   "It's pretty faces turn heads, m'dear. Not an old biddy with hair gone white and weightier than she should be."
    "I book-marked dozens once I'd got over my husband's death and got lonely. My daughter wanted me to sign up for one of those, what d'you call them - on-line dating sites, but mostly they looked pretty unsavoury. So - every time I borrowed a book I popped in a picture. I borrowed all kinds of books - biogs, thrillers, science, maths. The ones you big boys would likely borrow - "
     "Just a minute. The bookmark was a bait?" Now I was annoyed. "I wouldn't have thought this of you, Alexandra.  So  - am I just one of your catch?  Suddenly I don't think I know you."
      She wriggled closer to me. "Hush! Just hold me while I tell you this. Not only were you the first, you were the one-and-only. That's why I let you in when the police came and showed me the photo. Do you know how I danced around the flat while they brought you up the stair? I knew that a man mad enough to track down a girl in a fifty year old photo was mad enough for the girl grown up - "
     "Huh!" I said.  "Suppose I'd been like you in the photo."
     "You mean if you'd been a female?"
     "No. I mean if I'd been seventeen."
      Spud or Sandra or Alexandra has a trick for luring me out of conversations, a trick I always fall for. She used it.
     "You are seventeen," she said, softly, close to my ear. "And I think you always will be."

* * *