005 Orders From Above: Episode 5 ‘Nigel gets a new client’

To read previous episodes click on the links: Episode 1 / Episode 2 / Episode 3 / Episode 4

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Episode 5: Nigel gets a new client

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It was Friday afternoon and Nigel and Amelia were sitting in the office at the pine kitchen table, a replacement for his desk taken during the last bailiff’s visit. No new business had come in and they were whiling away the too-quiet hours with The Daily Telegraph cryptic crossword.

“13-across”, said Amelia, “‘Certainly, I start to notice every innermost thought’. Three words, two, three and ten letters.”

“What letters have we got?”

“First word is something-N, so it could only be ‘in’, ‘an’ or ‘on’. Second word A-something-something. Then in the third word we have C-something-N-something-C-then four blanks and it ends with an E.”

Nigel scribbled this down on a scrap of paper, saying, “What’s the clue again?”

Amelia repeated it and he gnawed the end of his already-chewed biro as he pondered.

“Got it!” He was triumphant, as it was usually Amelia who got cryptic clues more quickly than he did. He was better at general knowledge, though, he had to admit, Amelia was usually better at that too. “It’s ‘In all conscience’.”

“Oh yes, so it is. Right, let’s try 3-down as we have a few letters for that. Er … are you OK?”

Nigel had jumped up, rubbing his shirt-sleeved arms. “Did it suddenly get really cold in here? I’ve got chills all over.”

“Someone stepping on your grave?”

Nigel frowned with distaste as he sat back down. “I’ve never understood that expression. How can someone step on your grave when you’re still alive?”

Laughing, Amelia said, “Aha, dear husband, I know the answer to that one! It’s an expression from the Middle Ages meaning that someone has stepped on where your grave is going to be. Rather morbid, but there you go.”

They both froze at the sound of the outer door opening and closing, then they exchanged wide-eyed, hopeful glances as Amelia rose and went to see who had come in.

She entered the tiny reception area as if she had all the time in the world, and was back in a few seconds, quietly announcing that a gentleman had arrived for his 11.30 appointment. Her puzzled expression matched Nigel’s – they were not expecting any appointments today. Or any day in the foreseeable future.

He riffled through his diary, fully expecting that day’s page to be blank, muttering quietly so only Amelia could hear, “But I don’t have an appoi … Oh, wait. There is something …” He turned the diary towards Amelia. “You didn’t put that in there, did you? And I certainly didn’t. How mysterious! Well, you’d better show him in, Amelia.”

Amelia paused for a second, then she squared her shoulders and widened her mouth into her warm, professional smile before returning to the visitor. Nigel heard her say brightly, “Please do go in. Can I get you a drink of anything? Tea, coffee, or would you prefer something cold as it’s so hot today?”

Whoever she was talking to murmured a reply that Nigel couldn’t make out. He just had time to do up the top button of his shirt, tighten the knot of his tie and shrug on his navy-blue jacket, which almost but did not quite match his trousers, before the visitor strode in. Tall and imposing, oozing confidence and authority, his presence filled the room. Behind him Amelia made wide eyes and a shrugging motion, miming that she had no idea who this man was.

Nigel swept his eyes over the stranger, easily recognising sharp dressing when he saw it. He’d worn couture clothes himself not so long ago. But he could tell that the garments this man wore were in another league entirely and Nigel’s teeth ached just being in such close proximity. He longed to know the identity of the man’s tailor, clearly a genius with cloth and cut. And, surely, only a master craftsman with a lifelong love and deep understanding of leather could have made those highly polished, soft-as-butter shoes, not to mention the burgundy briefcase?

He thought with a sharp pang about the bespoke suits and shoes he’d once owned. All of them, as well as his cashmere sweaters, silk ties and handmade shirts, had been cruelly and horribly vandalised by his ex-wife with bleach and scarlet nail polish, slashed to ribbons and left in a tragic pile on the thick cream carpet of his walk-in wardrobe. He’d had to recover his shoes, belts and underwear from the ornamental fishpond.

As he rose to greet the visitor, Nigel’s nostrils caught the unmistakable scent of Amouage Gold Pour Homme, the same brand of aftershave Tansy had bought him for their first Christmas together. That had ended up in an explosion of lead crystal, inaccurately aimed at his head. It had smashed against the bathroom wall, showering him with bits of broken glass and the potent amber liquid. The glass he’d been able to wash out of his hair, but the Amouage clung onto his skin for days afterwards.

The visitor smiled and spoke in a deep, melodious voice, “Good morning, Mr. Hellion-Rees. How do you do?” He clasped Nigel’s outstretched hand and shook it, once up and once down, very firmly, but he did not give his name and Nigel’s brain churned trying to phrase the words to ask it. After all, what would the man think if he were to admit he had no recollection of this appointment? He’d lose the job before he even knew what it was, and he couldn’t afford to lose it. Really, he couldn’t. He just had to hope that things would become clear once the meeting was underway.

He beckoned the stranger to be seated on the one decent piece of furniture, and glanced again at his diary, trying but still failing to read the name scribbled there in a bronze-coloured ink he was quite sure came from none of the office pens.

The visitor sat down and Nigel’s eyes caught the gleam of a scarlet silk lining as the man undid the buttons of his exquisite jacket. He was wearing a tie of deepest midnight blue, patterned in various shades of deep orange and red that seemed to flicker like flames in an open fire, and Nigel found himself transfixed by it as the man settled himself. It’s just a trick of the light, he told himself, and tried to concentrate instead on the bright white shirt that would do a washing powder commercial proud. Nigel saw a glint of gold and rubies in the cuffs, and his teeth ached some more.

A deep voice, tinged with amusement, whispered somewhere by his left ear: “Tut, tut, thou art coveting!” Nigel’s skin instantly contracted into a thousand goosebumps, just like it had moments before the stranger arrived, and he shivered and blinked in bewilderment. He had distinctly heard the words, but the visitor’s lips hadn’t moved.

He was the most strikingly handsome man Nigel had ever seen, and he could well imagine how women would swoon and blush and act all silly when they met him. The stranger, a knowing smirk on his face, stroked his fingernails with his index finger one by one, first the left hand then the right. The nails were short and manicured smooth, buffed to a soft sheen, yet the image of long, pointy talons came unbidden to Nigel’s mind and he had to give himself a mental shake. The self-satisfied smirk widened to a grin.

Nigel was immensely relieved when Amelia came in with two cups of coffee, for her arrival seemed to break some kind of spell. Nigel watched to see if she simpered at the visitor when she gave him his cup. He felt cool grey eyes on him, and their expression made Nigel’s scalp tighten and prickle. It was as if he knew exactly what Nigel had been thinking, as if, indeed, he’d taken his full measure and found him wanting, in an amusing kind of way. He again desperately tried to remember how this appointment had come about, but all he encountered in his perplexed brain were vacant pockets where the information should be. Maybe, he consoled himself, he was coming down with flu. Or something even nastier.

He pulled a pad towards him and picked up a pen, giving himself some time to gather his scrambled thoughts. He cleared his throat to speak, intending to take the initiative and regain some sense of control, but the potential client beat him to it.

“I am here to hire you to do a job in Wiltshire. We wish to purchase a disused mill there, which you will renovate and convert to a top-class restaurant.”

For a moment, just a teeny tiny moment, Nigel felt like jumping up and dancing round the room. A construction job! A chance to get back into the work he loved! But reality hit him with a cold splat and he sputtered, “But, sir, you need an architect, and although I-”.

The words dried in his mouth as the man held up his hand, palm towards Nigel, in a gesture of complete authority.

“I haven’t finished!” The man paused, visibly reigning in his temper, and continued in a more conversational way, “While you are project-managing the work, you will also be using your PI skills for getting to know the locals – their hobbies and talents, likes and dislikes, their relationships, things like that. Easy enough, I would have thought. However, the first thing we need to do is secure the mill. It belongs to a woman called Violet Cattermole. She doesn’t have it on the market, but she’ll sell it to us once you put the proposition to her.”

“I see,” said Nigel slowly, though he didn’t see at all. His mind raced, knowing how much he needed the job, but knowing, too, that he’d have to turn it down. “Sir, this sounds like a job I would truly love to do, but you see there are problems and, for reasons I do not wish to go into, I am unable to take on work of this nature.”

The man leaned back and regarded Nigel for a long moment. “Mr. Hellion-Rees. Or may I call you Nigel? Good. So, Nigel, let me lay it out for you. You need this job. You were a highly respected and extremely well paid architect and property developer, work you loved and were exceptionally good at. You married the boss’s daughter and she gave you the run-around, but would only grant you a divorce if you took the blame. This you graciously did, so her daddy fired you from his firm believing that you had mistreated his daughter.”

Nigel sputtered, “How do you know all this?”

The man ignored the question and went relentlessly on, “Despite your agreeing to her terms, your ex-wife vowed that she would make your life an utter misery. Her lawyers proceeded to take you to the cleaners and they continue to make it virtually impossible for you to even make ends meet. And on top of all that, her father used his considerable influence to make sure no other architectural practice or construction firm would take you on. How am I doing so far?”

Speechless, he could only stare at the man who seemed to know far too much about his predicament. And he hadn’t finished.

“The divorce agreement – if you can call something so blatantly one-sided an agreement – ensured that not only were you stripped of practically everything you owned at the time of the divorce, you are now locked in to handing over a percentage of your earnings, or any items of value in lieu, until your ex-wife remarries.” He tapped the pine table and said, “Do you know that your fine desk is gathering dust in a warehouse? Your leather chair is there too. As are all the items she has taken instead of money she doesn’t need. Your ex-wife is doing this out of sheer spite.” He grinned, real amusement twinkling now in his grey eyes. “But, hey, Hell hath no fury and all that.”

Nigel felt helpless. His swivelling, reclining leather executive chair had indeed been taken and his case files were now piled in a corner because they had also robbed him of his filing cabinets. But how did this stranger know all this? Stunned by the conversation, he pinched the bridge of his nose and said, “It’s somewhat ironic, but it seems you have had a private detective investigating me.”

“I apologise if I have embarrassed or shocked you, but you must understand that this project is of global importance; we had to be sure we had the right man.”

Global importance? Converting a derelict mill into a restaurant? I don’t understand.”

“You don’t need to understand at this stage, just do as we ask and all will become clear in good time.” He sat back in his chair and brushed a non-existent piece of lint from his thigh, then he leaned forward and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “And I promise you, you will be very well rewarded.”

He named a sum just as Nigel took a sip of coffee to relieve the dryness in his throat. When Nigel, eyes watering and deeply embarrased, had recovered from his choking fit and mopped up the spilt coffee, the man repeated it and slid a bulging brown envelope across the desk.

“And to show our good faith, here’s a little something to get you started. Hard cash, so you can buy all the equipment you need to draw up the plans for the mill without your ex-wife knowing about it.”

Nigel eyed the envelope but didn’t touch it. He would be delighted to go out and buy stuff, but Tansy’s henchmen would simply take it all away again when they came the following month and saw it in his office. The thought was unbearable, and he wished for the thousandth time that some other idiot would take her on and so set him free.

“Ah, yes,” said the man, clearly and disconcertingly reading his thoughts, “You’ll have to keep any new equipment well-hidden, won’t you? We’ll put our minds to the situation and see what we can do about that.”

The way he said it sounded so sinister, Nigel started to object, but he was silenced by the expression in the man’s eyes. His mind danced with images of carnivorous creatures like wolves and hyenas and vampire bats. OK, the man had white, even teeth and charming dimples, but there was definitely something a little … dangerous about him. The wolves and bats disappeared from his fevered brain, only to be replaced with visions of sinister men in fedoras and heavy overcoats, machine guns hidden in violin cases.

Of one thing he was certain: this was someone you didn’t mess with.

The new client took a slim folder from his briefcase and handed it to Nigel. “Everything you need to know is in here.” He rose from his seat and buttoned up his jacket. The tie still flickered. He put his hand out to seal the agreement, and said, “So, Nigel, please apply your finely honed skills to the matter straight away and we will sort something out so you can work in complete privacy. We are most confident that you will do an excellent job.” He paused as Nigel didn’t speak or move. “I take it you are going to do the job?”

Like a robot, Nigel clasped the hand in his own and so sealed the deal.

“Good man!” The client’s perfect white teeth gleamed. “Here’s my card. You will be so kind as to contact me only when you’ve got something useful to tell me. I shall not expect to hear from you until then.”

Nigel nodded and took the thick white card. At last, he would know the man’s identity and the name of the outfit he worked for! Nigel would have some clue as to what type of business he was about to get involved in. He glanced down. There was certainly something printed on the card in fancy raised copper-coloured lettering, but, try as he might, he couldn’t read it.

When the stranger reached the door, he turned back, his hand resting on the handle, and said, “It was a pleasure meeting you, Nigel. And your charming wife.” Then he was out of the office and Nigel could hear his and Amelia’s voices as they talked.

The building renovation sounded simple enough, and it was, he admitted to himself, something he’d be thrilled to do. No, it wasn’t that that bothered him. It was the snooping around the people of the village for an unknown reason, and it was also the nature of the man sitting in front of him. Something about him deeply disturbed Nigel, gave him the creeps in fact, though he couldn’t articulate why. Some instinct told him he should have refused the job, but the pound sign and the number written after it on his notepad were circled again and again, and he knew he couldn’t possibly let this opportunity slip away. More importantly, he rather thought that this man simply would not accept a refusal. He pictured himself wearing concrete shoes and being thrown over a bridge. Then an even more horrifying image came to him, of Amelia, bound and gagged, held captive until he agreed to do their bidding.

The air in the office felt supercharged, and Nigel felt … peculiar. Had the meeting lasted half an hour or half a day? His workaday watch, bought to replace the Patek Philippe the bailiffs had taken some time ago, told him it was 12:05. He felt distinctly tired and even a little sick. The business card was still clutched in his hand, but he couldn’t make out the words printed on it no matter how hard he squinted. He held it up to the light, but although he could see what he thought was a series of letters, they seemed to shift and change as he stared, until he could swear that what he was seeing were tiny ants criss-crossing the card.

He most definitely had the flu.

He jumped when Amelia suddenly came angrily stalking in and slammed the door. She stood in front of him with her hands on her hips, making her displeasure obvious as she demanded, “Whatever possessed you to tell that man that I’m pregnant?”

His mouth moved but nothing came out.

“Before leaving just now he took my hand and congratulated me, he even asked if I knew whether we were having a boy or a girl. How could you, Nigel, we haven’t even told mum and dad yet?”

“I … I didn’t tell him! You didn’t come into the conversation at all!”

“Then how did he know, huh? How?”

Nigel came round the desk and tried to pull Amelia into his arms. She kept herself stiff and unyielding, but Nigel held her firmly and kissed her cheek. “I didn’t tell him, Amelia, I swear I didn’t. But he knows an awful lot about me and the situation with Tansy, so maybe … well, I don’t have an explanation, but he knows far more than I’m comfortable with.”

“OK, so he has supernatural powers, is that how he had an appointment that we knew nothing about?”

“I really don’t know how that happened, either, Amelia, believe me.”

As she opened her mouth to speak, no doubt with more sarcasm, at which she was extremely talented, Nigel showed her the number he’d written on his coffee-stained pad and the envelope stuffed full of ten, twenty and fifty pound notes.

“Amelia, look at this. Whoever they are, they certainly have money to throw around.”

“Wow! Well, we really can’t turn this down, can we?” Her face softened as she looked at him, and she said, “You’re very pale, darling. Shall I get you some aspirin?”

Relieved that the storm was over, Nigel nodded and sat down again. He noticed that the stranger had not touched his coffee, so he downed it himself, hoping a hit of caffeine, albeit tepid, might help him think. Sweetness hit the back of his throat, making him sputter once again; he didn’t take sugar, and he reckoned he’d just swallowed at least three heaped spoonfuls.

He slowly swung the typist’s chair, salvaged from a roadside skip the day after his executive chair had been taken, and faced the window to gaze through the dirty glass at the wall of the decaying warehouse opposite. The sight of the familiar brick wall was strangely comforting, because somehow, and it was an uncomfortable feeling, Nigel wouldn’t have been surprised to find that the view had changed. A spooky mist hovering over Highgate Cemetery maybe, or moonlight glinting eerily above the ruins of Machu Picchu.

Amelia came back with the tablets and asked him to fill her in about the man who’d just left. “Sexy chap, I must say. So, I ask again, how did he get an appointment without either of us knowing about it?”

“I really don’t know. I thought you’d made the appointment until I saw the look on your face. I certainly didn’t.” He turned the diary so she could read it. “Look. That isn’t my writing.”

Amelia leaned forward. “No,” she agreed, “And you know full well that it isn’t mine either. I can’t even read what it says. Who is he?”

“I’ve no idea. Didn’t he give his name when he came into the office?”

Amelia shook her head. “I know this sounds crazy,” she ventured, “but is it possible that someone just walked unnoticed into the office and wrote the appointment in the diary?”

Nigel exhaled noisily, “How could someone possibly manage that? Either you or I are here, or the door is locked. And all it takes to make an appointment is a phone call.”

“But there was no phone call,” Amelia pointed out. “There’s no sign of forced entry or we would have noticed, and neither of us wrote that in the diary. But anyway, putting aside the odd way this came about – and I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation – we have a new client, he’s offering pots of money, so what does he want us to do for it? An investigation into a wayward wife?” She laughed, “Though I can’t imagine any woman playing around if she had him for a husband!”

Nigel scowled and she leaned across his desk with a saucy smile to pat his cheek, “Don’t worry, my darling husband, you know I want no-one else but you.” Then the expression in her hazel eyes changed from flirtatious to thoughtful. “Actually,” she said, “I felt there was something not quite right about him. Something that made me a little … uneasy.”

Nigel was relieved to hear it, as it confirmed his own misgivings, but he didn’t want to mention words like mafia or some other terrifying criminal organisation to Amelia, although he was sure he was on the right track. He outlined the content of the meeting, showed her the dossier – in which there was no mention of any names, company or otherwise, to tell them who they’d been hired by, and finished by asking, “Are you sure we should take this on? We both think there’s something a bit suspect, don’t we?”

Amelia nodded, “Hmm, maybe, but, Nigel, we need the money, especially with the baby coming, and they are offering an awful lot of it. I suggest we at least make a start, and see where it takes us. You go to – what’s the place called again?”

Nigel searched for it in the documents. “Ham-Under-Lymfold.”

“What a pretty name. I wonder if it’s as quaint as it it sounds? Anyway, I suggest you go there on Monday and get things underway. At least you’ll be doing something you love, hmm?” She stood up, then exclaimed, “Oh, Nigel, is that a business card? Why didn’t you say he’d given you one?” She held out her hand for it. “Now we can find out about our new client, and if anything looks at all dodgy or dangerous, then we’ll withdraw.”

It made sense to Nigel, but then Amelia always saw things so clearly. He gave her the card.

“What is this? I can’t read what it says!”

“Neither can I, it’s just like the writing in the diary, same colour and illegible.” He shook his head. “This is really weird, Amelia.”

Amelia brought the card close to her eyes then squealed and threw it on the floor. “Ugh! It’s like tiny ants are crawling all over it. Oh … wait a minute … I think I can read it.” She picked it up again and held it at a distance, squinting until her eyes were almost comically crossed. “Yes, it says … ‘De Angelo Corporation’. There’s more, but I can’t make it out.”

Nigel winced at the Italian name, thinking again about the possibility that they were dealing with the Mob.

Amelia came round and sat on his lap so she could tap out the name on the computer keyboard. The flimsy chair creaked but held their weight.

The search engine found De Angelo Corporation, but ‘website under construction’ was printed in dark blue across a picture of an ultra-modern building. Its frame was silvery steel, it had acres of mirrored glass, and the tall, thin upward-pointing icicle shape reminded Nigel of The Shard, the London building with an amazing 95 floors. But there were marked differences: the building was rounder, the glass appeared to be black, and there was a silvery ring around the building about three quarters of the way up. Nigel was puzzled that he didn’t recognise it because it was the sort of construction that would make the cover of most if not all of the architectural magazines he still read.

“Well, their office is impressive, but this doesn’t help us much, does it? Hardly professional not to have a working website.” He looked up at Amelia.

“You know, I’ve just had a crazy thought,” she said, “It sounds ridiculous, but do you think it could be something to do with espionage? You know, MI5 or MI6! A top secret mission, and they need us to do this thing as a cover for something?”

Although it was alarming, Nigel liked Amelia’s speculation a whole lot better than his own. “It’s a possibility, I suppose. It would certainly explain a few things, wouldn’t it? I’ll go to Wiltshire on Monday. Let’s hope we find some answers there.”

Episode 6: Nigel on the case

I hope you enjoyed this episode. My dream is to this story made into a TV series, so I’d really appreciate your ‘likes’ and ‘comments. Thank you.

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004 Orders From Above: Episode 4 ‘The Plan’

To read previous episodes click on the links: Episode 1 / Episode 2 / Episode 3

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Episode 4: the plan

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“Oh, look, the watercress in my sandwich is absolutely wilting. Why are we out here in this heat? It’s much more comfortable inside.” Gabe looked at his brother when there was no response. “Nick! I said,-”

“I heard you! Why don’t you go back inside, then?” Nick, irritated, flapped his hand. “Scurry back to your air-conditioning. You’re such a wimp, Gabe! Even in winter you moan that it’s too hot for you.”

“And it’s never hot enough for you, is it? Even the fires of Hell-” Gabe’s whingeing was interrupted by the appearance of a short man in the dark green uniform of a company messenger scurrying towards them.

“You’d think,” Nick grumbled so the little man was sure to hear him, “that they’d at least let us have lunch in peace.”

Gabe tutted at Nick and beckoned the man over. “Hello, Herbert, what’s up?”

Herbert, eyes darting nervously to Nick, removed his cap and smoothed one small hand over the thin ginger strands so carefully combed from ear to ear over his shiny bald pate. He bowed slightly to Gabe and said, “Your presence is required on the top floor.”

“Both of us?”

“Both of you, yes, sir. Um… immediately?”

“OK,” said Gabe, “We’ll be along in two ticks, Herbert, there’s no need to wait.”

Herbert rammed his cap back on and scurried away.

Frowning, Gabe packed up the half-finished sandwiches. “We haven’t been summoned like that for ages. What have you been up to, Nick?”

“Me? Why assume it’s me?”

“Because it always is! It’s what you do!”

“Well, yes, but it’s what I’m supposed to do; trouble is my business. The more trouble I get involved in, the better my performance, you know that. And my figures have been exceptional this month. No, it must be something you’ve done.”

Gabe thought his brother might be right, but couldn’t for the life of him think what transgression he might have made. He said, “My figures are good too. My team has been working flat out, I really can’t think why he wants to see us.”

Nick tutted. “We’ll find out soon enough, won’t we. Let’s go before he gets impatient and sends another of his minions out to fetch us.”

The brothers hurried across the lush grass of the private garden and into their office building, an edifice of glass and steel that was taller and more architecturally magnificent than any other building around it. They strolled through a short, dimly lit corridor and pushed through a pair of heavy doors that led into the rear of a cool, bright, air-conditioned reception area. As they crossed the gleaming floor, Gabe saw Nick give a sly wink to the three beautiful young receptionists who sat behind the vast croissant-shaped desk. To a woman, they all simpered and patted their hair. One even giggled and Gabe rolled his eyes. If he, Gabe, smiled at a woman, she just wanted to pat him affectionately on the cheek and straighten his tie. He couldn’t understand it. He was just as handsome, with the same dark curly hair and grey eyes as his brother, they were the same height and build, they both dressed very smartly indeed. And yet …

The security guard rose from his chair and gave a faultless salute to the peaked brim of his cap then rushed ahead to summon the elevator for them.

The doors slid open with a quiet swoosh. The operator inside clicked his heels and stood to attention by the polished brass panel, chest proudly out and forefinger poised, ready to press the required button. Before entering, Nick muttered quite audibly about the necessity of having quite so many uniformed employees and Gabe, speaking over him, said they were going to the top floor.

As they ascended, Gabe tried to keep his anxiety at bay, but a summons to see the Head of Global Operations, affectionately known as The Boss, was rare, and it usually meant a ticking off about something. He racked his brain, trying to think of anything that he might have done wrong. Next to him, Nick was impassive, giving the outward impression that he wasn’t worried. But Gabe knew his brother, knew that he was afraid of nothing and nobody … except spiders and The Boss.

The doors opened and The Boss, grave-faced, was waiting for them. This was really serious, then.

“Well,” he said, putting one hand on Nick’s shoulder and the other on Gabe’s, “It’s big news, boys. The DISC has been found.”

He led the way through wide, silent corridors to a vast office with floor to ceiling windows, a trembling Gabe and grinning Nick at his heels. His personal assistant rushed to open the door into a private inner room, flicking a switch before withdrawing so that wall and table lamps flickered on as the three men entered, giving the room a soft, creamy glow.

Gabe swallowed hard. Rare as it was to be in The Boss’s office, even more rare was to be shown into this inner sanctum. The rest of the building was sleek and modern, all very 21st century, but this room … well, this was like stepping back into a gentleman’s private library within the walls of a grand house circa the Edwardian era. It was an intimate, windowless space that contained a huge bookcase filled with leather-bound books tooled in gold, an exquisitely carved coffee table, and two large sofas covered in dark red crushed velvet set either side it. In the centre of the table was a tray set with coffee pot, cups and saucers, milk jug and a silver platter of cream cakes, which in a normal situation would have made Gabe’s mouth water. But this situation wasn’t normal and his appetite, usually hearty, had totally deserted him. Suddenly feeling boneless, he sank into the cushions of the sofa nearest the door.

Nick came over and sat close beside him. “Gabe? Come on, bro, you must have been prepared for this?”

Gabe, putting as much distance between himself and Nick as the sofa allowed, replied, “Yes, of course, but it’s … it’s too soon.”

“Too soon? Oh come on now, that’s hardly reasonable, is it?”

The Boss interrupted. “Let’s not get into a quarrel. Gabe, I know you never wanted this day to come, but it has. The DISC has been found and the agreement must be honoured. This is the biggest event in our history since … well, since the very beginning of our history.”

Nick spoke, his voice steady, though Gabe could feel his brother’s body vibrating with excitement, “When was it found? How?”

“It was discovered last week, in a vil-”

Nick interrupted, “Last week! Why are we only hearing about it now?”

“Because my team needed time to investigate and to develop a strategy so that we can set The Plan in motion.”

“So where was it found?” Nick demanded.

The Boss glared at him. “If you’d let me speak I shall tell you! It was dug up in a village churchyard, by the gravedigger preparing for a burial. I had Uri on the spot within minutes and he’s now hidden in plain sight to keep an eye on the proceedings.”

“And where is the DISC now?” Nick, all hyped up, had leapt to his feet and was pacing up and down, filling the small room with his excitement.

“The vicar has it in his safe. No-one has paid much attention to it, they’ve been too busy with the funeral; the deceased was a very popular member of the village. We need to retrieve it, obviously, but for now it’s well protected and they’ll never discover what it is. What’s important now is that The Plan is put into action as soon as possible.”

Gabe looked imploringly at his brother, “I know how long you’ve been waiting for this, longing for this, but … but, Nick … I just don’t think I’m ready!”

Nick spun on his heels to confront Gabe, and his voice was sharp, bitter, when he replied, “I can tell you to a nanosecond how long I’ve been waiting, and we’ll just have to get you ready.” He closed his eyes and clenched his fists, visibly reining in his impatience. When he spoke again, his voice was soft, cajoling, “Now, come on, bro.” He glanced at The Boss, eliciting his support, “Orders from above and all that, eh? You signed up to this, so…”

“Yes, yes,” The Boss agreed, “Let’s get on with it, shall we?” He picked up a remote control and a map of the world appeared on the smooth white wall opposite the door. A few more clicks and it narrowed to one particular country, and then zoomed in further to one particular county.

“Wiltshire,” he said, as he continued to zoom in, “in England. And this is the village where the DISC is.” There were a few photos of typical village scenes – a pub, a green, a row of thatched cottages, a church. “Fortunately for us it’s a real backwater. As I’ve said, Uri is already in position there and reports he’s good to go. My scouts have checked the place out and they’ve come up with a cover to get you in, retrieve the DISC, fulfil your obligations according to the Plan, and get out with no-one the wiser.”

Gabe, dismayed by how far along things already were, could only whisper, “What do Nick and I have to do?”

“You know what we have to do, Gabe!” cried Nick, his eyes blazing with fury and frustration. “We have to implement The Plan!”

With a click the picture changed to an old, very dilapidated building and The Boss continued,  “Nick is right, Gabe. But we have never known when and how the DISC would be found, so you both need a way to actually implement The Plan to suit the time and circumstances we now find ourselves in. Here’s what we’ve come up with. He pointed to the picture on the wall. “You are to buy this old water mill under the pretext of doing it up and turning it into a restaurant. This will allow you to come and go without arousing suspicion.”

He switched off the slide show. “Nick, we’ve been through your list of suggested witnesses, and I believe we have selected the perfect candidate.” He placed a photograph on the coffee table, a headshot of a handsome but worried-looking man in his thirties.

Gabe had known about the requirement for a Witness if the Plan was ever to be executed, but not that Nick had been actively looking for one. He’d been feeling well and truly put out by proceedings already, but now he felt… even more well and truly put out!

Nick rubbed his hands together, very smug. “Oh yes! I like this one, he’s just ripe for the picking! And there’s no need to glower at me like that, Gabe. Unlike you, I’ve always made sure I’d be ready for this day.”

The Boss produced a sheet of paper and scanned the closely typed lines on it, saying “To fill you in, Gabe, Nigel Hellion-Rees is an intelligent, honest, decent man trapped by a punitive divorce settlement. He’s an architect, but thanks to his influential and very rich ex-father-in-law he cannot get work in that field and is currently working as a private investigator, a job he hates. He deeply loves his current wife, is about to become a father, and he desperately needs a helping hand to get his life back on track. That will be his reward for being our Witness.”

Nick interjected, “I’ll go and see him, shall I? Get the ball rolling?”

“Yes, of course, the sooner the better.” He put the typed sheet and the photograph into an orange manilla folder, thick with other sheets of paper, and handed it to Nick. “The full strategy is in here. You will tell Hellion-Rees to purchase the mill on your behalf and draw up the plans for its conversion. He will then project-manage the build, and observe you two as you initiate The Plan.” The Boss, his brows lowered, looked from Nick to Gabe and back again. “I leave it up to you to decide the right time to inform him of what it is he is witnessing and what his role will be when it’s all done. Just be careful how you do it.”

Gabe looked at the folder in Nick’s hands, his eyes blurring as he read the large white label on the front with despair. He couldn’t believe it, but this was really happening and he had no choice but to acquiesce. As Nick had said, he had signed up to The Plan a long time ago, and just like Nick, he knew it inside out and back to front. It’s just that he’d never thought they’d ever actually have to implement it. His whole body slumped and he had to swallow hard as he felt ridiculously near to tears.

Nick, on the other hand, was quivering with joyous expectation. He poured himself a cup of coffee and added milk and three sugars. Then he selected the largest, squashiest éclair and licked the cream from its middle before devouring it in two large bites.

There were times when Gabe really, really disliked his brother, and this was one of them. Thanks to The Plan, Nick was about to get everything he wanted, while he, poor old Gabe, felt like he was going to Hell in a handcart.

Which wasn’t too far from the truth, actually.

Episode 5: Nigel gets a new client

I hope you enjoyed this episode. My dream is to see this story made into a TV series, so I’d really appreciate your ‘likes’ and comments. Thank you.

~~~~~

 

003 Orders From Above: Episode 3 ‘introducing the good citizens of Ham-Under-Lymfold’

To read previous episodes click on the links: Episode 1 / Episode 2

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Episode 3: introducing the good citizens of Ham-Under-Lymfold

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Hartley Cordwell, Vicar of St. Peter’s Church in the village of Ham-Under-Lymfold, passed through the lych gate and strode up the gravelled path with a speed that belied his years. He’d hoped to be safely inside the church before Stanley arrived, but there he was, just outside the porch, his foul odour getting stronger with each step Hartley took. The black and grey shaggy dog by Stanley’s feet rose to his four huge paws, calmly regarding Hartley’s approach with his extraordinary golden eyes. Eyes that Hartley was sure could see right into one’s soul.

Old Stanley respectfully bowed his head and rasped, “’Ow do, Your Reverendship, sir, ’ow do!”

The vicar had given up trying to get Stanley to address him in any other way. He replied, “Good morning, Stanley,” trying not to inhale through his nose. “I see you have a new hat.”

Stanley touched the bobble hanging from the left earflap of his knitted hat. “Aye, Olive Capsby gave it me, said it were to keep me warm come winter.”

Hartley indicated Stanley’s overcoat, worn year-round, and said, “Well, it’s far from winter now, Stanley, aren’t you a bit, er, warm?”

“I’d say I be comfortable, Your Reverendship. Now then, what do you think on this?”

In but a moment, Stanley had pulled his home-made sandwich board over his head and settled it on his shoulders.

“It be a new message, d’ye see?”

Hartley couldn’t help smiling as he read Stanley’s latest offering, scrawled in garish green paint: Wen you get run over by the buss of life, call for Jesuses ambulunse.

“That’s a very nice sentiment, Stanley.”

“Well, seems ter me everyone these days has summat to worry about, don’t they, Your Reverendship, I’m just offerin’ ’em summat to think on that might help.”

“Oh, yes, indeed, well done, Stanley. Will you be joining us for the service?”

“Nay, sir, nay. I won’t be a-comin’ in. I’ll just pay my respects from out ’ere, and ’ope I don’t cause no offence by it.”

Hartley assured Stanley that no-one would mind if he stayed outside. In fact, he thought to himself, Stanley would cause far more offence by taking his pungent bodily odours inside the church than by keeping them outside in the fresh air. No, better that he stayed by the porch, as he always did before and after every service, be it funeral, wedding, Christening or Sunday Service. He greeted everyone by name and furtively pocketed with hands encased in greasy fingerless gloves any loose change that was offered. Sometimes he was given tins of dog food, too, which he accepted with good grace on Digby’s behalf.

Digby, who clearly thought he’d waited patiently long enough, took a pace forward and pushed his long nose into Hartley’s hand, insisting that his rough head and velvety ears be thoroughly scratched. Hartley, remembering when he’d been a tiny puppy, a scrap of a thing, thought he’d grown yet more since the last time he’d seen him. Where or how Stanley had acquired the dog he’d never said, but it was hard to imagine one without the other now.

Stanley chuckled and rummaged in the pockets of his overcoat – really, how he could wear it in this heat Hartley had no idea – and produced a large, bone-shaped biscuit,  which the dog accepted and ate with the utmost dignity.

“I must get on, Stanley. I’ll see you later.”

It was blessedly cool and peaceful inside the church. Hartley, keen to wipe the smell of Stanley that clung to his nostrils, breathed deeply the familiar aromas of incense and fresh flowers mingled with medieval stone, brass polish, wax candles and damp wool. How he loved his little church, every stone, every gargoyle, every nook and cranny of it. In six centuries it had witnessed so many events, and now it was ready for yet another, the funeral of old Jack Heavysides.

It was time for Hartley to get himself ready, it really wouldn’t do for the mourners to arrive before he was appropriately dressed.

His mind was so entirely absorbed with the imminent funeral, a sudden tap on his shoulder made him jump in fright. Hartley wheeled around, one trembling hand over the region of his thumping heart. “Oh, Topps, I didn’t hear you come in.” His eyes travelled down to the gravedigger’s feet, which were usually encased in muddy steel-capped boots, but he had taken them off and was standing there in his socks. Thick red ones, with holes in both big toes. His flat cap was clasped to his chest with both hands.

“I’m going on holiday.”

Hartley raised his eyebrows in genuine amazement. “A holiday, Topps? You? You haven’t taken a holiday in all the years I’ve known you, despite my begging you to do so.”

“Aye, but I’m taking one now.”

Hartley peered closely at the man; his eyes seemed a little glazed. “Is everything all right, Topps?”

“It’s just a little holiday. Don’t know how long for. My cousin will stand in.”

“Your cousin?” Hartley was having trouble processing this conversation. It was not only astonishing that the handyman was going away, but that he already had a replacement lined up. “Don’t you think I ought to meet him first? I mean, what is his name? And does he have your experience?”

Topps’ expression didn’t change, and he spoke as if he was half asleep. “I will introduce you after the funeral, Reverend. His name’s Uri, and there’s no need to worry about his credentials, I can vouch for him right enough. He’ll stay in my cottage and he’ll do all my jobs just as I would.”

“Right, right.” Hartley’s mind continued to race. These were probably the longest sentences Topps had ever uttered, but Hartley knew from experience that he’d get no answers to his questions. And if he was going to be away for some time, a stand-in would certainly be needed and Topps had saved him the trouble of finding someone. “So when will you be going? And where, if I may ask?”

“I’ll be going today, if you please, to my sister’s in Cornwall. After I’ve seen to Jack’s grave, of course. My cousin is already here.”

He turned on his heel and Hartley could only watch, perplexed and worried that something was amiss, as Topps pulled his boots back on and stomped outside. He certainly didn’t seem like a man going on a jolly holiday, and this was the first time Topps had ever mentioned having a sister. In fact, now he came to think of it, Topps had never mentioned any member of his family.

But moments after Topps left the church, a crowd of people came flowing in, pushing all thoughts of the taciturn handyman out of Hartley’s mind. Soon every pew was packed, about five times as many people than attended regular services these days. Hartley was not surprised, as the late Jack Heavysides had lived all his long life in the village, and had once been the jovial proprietor of The Blacksmith’s Anvil. If only, Hartley thought, he got as many regulars in his church as the Blacksmith’s Anvil did, he would be a very happy vicar indeed.

He couldn’t help but smile as he waited for the colourful congregation to settle. Everything had been arranged according to Jack’s own wishes, which had been written in heavy black biro on pale green beer mats and thrown carelessly into the top drawer of his kitchen dresser. One mat stated that everyone was to dress in their loudest, most colourful clothes, another listed the hymns he wanted, a third gave instruction that every person who attended his funeral be given a pint of ale at the wake, which was, of course, to be held in the Blacksmith’s Anvil.

The slow crunch of car tyres on gravel heralded the arrival of the hearse, and the congregation fell into a respectful silence. Heads turned as the coffin was carried in on the shoulders of four burly, grey-suited, top-hatted undertakers. When it was settled on the bier the four men had bowed their heads before respectfully withdrawing to the back of the church.

Hartley welcomed everyone and announced the first hymn, “We begin with ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. Please turn to page 138 in your hymn books.”

There was a loud rustle as pages were hastily turned. A quietly weeping Olive Capsby played the opening notes on the organ, then tremulous voices began to sing, quiet at first but growing louder and surer until the church was filled with glorious sound.

The small coterie of regular worshippers was there, dotted amongst the rest of the mourners, and Hartley sought them out as he sang, thinking how he had seen more than a few of the village’s inhabitants through from Christening to wedding with, sometimes, a funeral or two in between.

The hymn came to a shaky end, with Olive keeping her fingers on the keys a beat too long so Hartley have to repeat the opening words of his carefully prepared sermon.

As he spoke, he gave a gentle smile to Carmen, Jack’s daughter, resplendent and elegant in a fuchsia-pink dress with a dainty matching hat, its little spotted veil covering the top half of her face. She was a sincere and devout worshipper who never missed a service, and, what’s more, arranged the weekly cleaning and took care of the flower arrangements. He would miss her when she and her husband left the village to join their son in Australia, leaving The Blacksmith’s Anvil in the care of their daughter, Cynthia.

Cynthia sat pale-faced beside her mother in a sleeveless dress of emerald-green and sea-blue swirls with a necklace of large green and gold beads and matching earrings like chandeliers. In her thirties, she had never shown any signs of leaving home, and certainly wouldn’t go anywhere now that she had charge of the Anvil. Hartley knew that the villagers had some misgivings about this, because they loved their traditional, family-owned pub and Cynthia seemed determined to ‘Introduce New Things’.

In the pew behind Jack Heavysides’ immediate family sat the very unpopular Violet Cattermole, a woman who had never been heard to say a good word about anyone. She had plenty of money, but she was mean with it, and wouldn’t even pay for a set of dentures that fitted her mouth. When she spoke her false teeth clattered like Scrabble tiles in a cloth bag. She was glowering at Carmen’s back, who she had more than once referred to spitefully as ‘Amen Carmen’. Sour as she was, though, she had perhaps the finest singing voice in the village.

He searched the sea of faces for Hilda Merryvale, Violet’s kind and gentle younger sister – the very opposite of Violet in every way imaginable – and found her several rows back. She was gazing up at Hartley with her big friendly smile, which he acknowledged with a gentle incline of his head. Whenever he read a sermon he would see her lips moving as she repeated his words a split second after he’d uttered them. Hartley was flattered to know it was because she simply relished every word. She loved all the hymns too, and sang them loudly and jubilantly, having no need to glance at her hymn book for she knew them all. Unfortunately, she was tone deaf.

Behind Hilda sat the Fordingbridge family. Freddie, the son, was a very clever, cheerful, extremely polite, skinny, spotty, 21-year old who looked more like 14. He had an amazing memory, never forgetting anything he saw or read. Ask Freddie what day of the week a certain date was and Freddie would tell you without hesitation. His dream was to become a television celebrity, so he applied for all the game shows on all the channels. While he waited for the call that he was certain would one day come, he worked stacking shelves in the out of town supermarket.

Hartley’s eyes continued to roam, and he was pleased to see his lovely niece, Lorelei Dove smiling back at him. Despite the family connection, Lorelei was not, sadly, one of his flock. Indeed, he would classify her as a bit of a New-Ager, and they’d had fierce debates about their respective beliefs. But Hartley forgave her her quirks because she was a wonderful human being. The only thing he wished for her was that she would meet and fall in love with a decent man – her last two romances had been short-lived and disastrous and she’d been left utterly broken-hearted both times.

Next to Lorelei sat Glen Perkins, owner of the bakery and café, resplendent in an orange and sky-blue Hawaiian shirt. His wife Gwen was gripping the hand of their pretty, very shapely, 18-year-old daughter, Debbie.

It was time for Hartley to call Jack’s best friend, big-hearted Arnold Capsby, husband of Olive and owner of the Post Office and General Store, to come up and deliver his eulogy. He’d been sobbing uncontrollably into a large white handkerchief from the time he’d entered the church, and now he stumbled to his feet and staggered forward like a man going to the gallows. Olive rose from her seat at the organ to stand behind him, her hand rubbing his back, whispering that he could do this. But Jack couldn’t do it. For twenty minutes he howled, hiccuped, snivelled and stuttered and through his speech in a manner that made it impossible for anyone to understand a thing he said. By the time he’d finished, practically the whole congregation was sobbing with him. Violet, Hartley noticed, was openly sniggering.

When Arnold finished with “J-J-Jack was m-my best frieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeend,” the last word ending in an anguished wail that seemed to echo round the stone walls, Olive led Arnold back and sat him down, providing him with a fresh handkerchief, before she returned to her place at the organ to play for the last hymn, ‘Angels From the Realms of Glory’.

It seemed odd to be singing a Christmas hymn at a funeral and in the middle of one of the hottest summer’s on record, but it must have been one of Jack’s favourites because it was listed on the beer mat.  It was certainly one of Hartley’s favourites, but most of the members of the congregation were now too choked up to sing it well, so he belted out the words in his fine baritone to encourage them. Carmen to give him a grateful, if watery, smile.

At last, the service was over, and the four burly men in top hats, their grey suits making them look like pigeons in a crowd of peacocks, reappeared to heft the coffin onto their shoulders and carry it out to its final resting place.

Hartley spotted Topps over by the yew tree, well away from the grave, leaning on his spade and staring, slack-mouthed, into space. Beside him stood a tall, well-built man, looking like a model in a fieldsports magazine. Seeing Hartley looking at him, he raised a finger to the brim of his flat cap.

Episode 4: the plan

I hope you enjoyed this episode. My dream is to see this story made into a TV series, so I’d really appreciate your ‘likes’ and comments. Thank you.

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one blog two books flash

 

002 Orders From Above: Episode 2 ‘be careful what you wish for’

To read previous episodes, click on the links: Episode 1

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Episode 2: be careful what you wish for

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Perched at his desk, hands busy turning steel paperclips into straight pieces of wire, Nigel grew irritated by the buzzing of a couple of fat bluebottles beating themselves to death against the grimy window. “You got in, so why can’t you get out the same way?” he grumbled. “I can’t open the window for you.” He wished he could, both to rid the office of flies and to let in some fresh air, but they had long been sealed shut by grime and layers of sloppily applied gloss paint.

The printer continued to spit out copies of the photographs he’d taken during the previous night’s surveillance. There was a ‘ping’ and Nigel groaned to see a warning flash up on the laptop screen informing him that the printer was running out of ink. He just had to hope and pray that there would be enough to finish this job, because he didn’t have any more cartridges.

He loosened his tie, undid the top two buttons of his shirt, and wiped his face with a tissue. It shredded into tiny flecks on a patch of stubble on his left cheek, and, not for the first time, he wished he’d remembered to put a proper handkerchief in his pocket. Would this heatwave never end?

He uncapped a black felt-tipped pen to write the name ‘Bingley’ across the front of a grey folder. The pen had dried up. Less than half an hour into the day and he wondered if things could get any worse. A new felt pen he could just about afford, but print cartridges, essential for his job, were so blasted expensive. The water and electricity bills would arrive any day, as would the rent demand. His credit card was racking up ridiculous interest fees, and, worst of all, the monthly maintenance payment to his ex-wife was a week overdue.

“Damn it,” he said out loud to the room, “So much for a new start. I hate this heat, I hate this job, I hate not having any money-”

“But you love me, I hope.”

Nigel gave a rueful grin as his wife of one glorious year and one month strolled in, a vision of fresh loveliness in her strappy lime-green summer dress and white sandals, her dark-chocolate hair swept back in a glossy, swinging ponytail. Her flawless skin positively glowed, and if he weren’t so horribly sweaty he would cheer himself up by taking her slender body in his arms and kissing her oh-so-kissable lips.

“I bring iced lemonade to cool your fevered brow.”

“Are you going to throw it in my face, then?”

“Ah, wry humour! That’s good. You were looking so gloomy I was worried you were beyond help.” Amelia set the glass of lemonade down and watched Nigel spread out the newly printed photographs. The last one was a bit stripy.

“Mr. Bingley, I presume?”

Nigel nodded. “You know, it’s one thing having to take pictures like these, at least then I’m concentrating on getting the light and the camera angles right rather than on the subject, but it’s quite another having to study them in full-blown colour. This poor chap’s soon going to be in very deep doo-doo with the terrifying Mrs. Bingley.”

He shuddered as the image of Mrs. Bingley wormed its way into his head, her flabby face a deep, mottled red, chins wobbling with indignation, her mean, mud-brown eyes piggy with righteous rage.

“Still,” said Amelia, picking up one of the pictures, “it looks like he had a good time last night. She’s a stunning woman, I must say; goodness knows how she can even move in those heels and, and … goodness, what is that she’s wearing? I bet she charges quite a bit for her services.”

“She does. And that’s how Mrs. Bingley got suspicious, because she checks the bank statements and noticed how much cash was being taken out every Tuesday.”

Truth was, Nigel felt rather sorry for Mr. Bingley, because his wife truly was a frightful woman, with no social graces whatsoever. However, it was Mrs. Bingley who was paying him and he desperately needed the money, so he gathered up the evidence of Mr. Bingley’s adulterous escapade, scribbled a quick note about hours worked on the case, and put everything in the file.

The phone warbled and Amelia reached across him to answer it, pressing the loudspeaker button so Nigel could hear both sides of the conversation.

In a bright, musical voice that made him smile, she said, “Good morning, Hellion-Rees Detective Agency, how can we help you?”

A woman answered with equal brightness, “Good morning, dear, it’s Dora Dash. I’m just calling to tell you that you can stop following my husband. This time I caught him red-handed myself!”

“Oh, Dora, what happened?”

She chuckled, “The silly sod had too much to drink at the Hunt Ball and bragged to everyone about his latest conquest. I had to save face, of course, so I hit him over the head with a champagne bottle – vintage Dom Perignon, naturally. He promised never to stray again and to replace the practically priceless Aubusson rug that was covered in blood from the gash on his forehead, and I get a brand spanking new Mercedes.”

Nigel rolled his eyes as Amelia replied, “Um, well, we’re glad that’s all sorted out, Dora.”

“Now be sure and send me your bill, and I’ll be in touch the next time some daft floozy catches the ever-roving eye of Mr. Dash. I hope it won’t be too long, because I need to replace my entire wardrobe. Goodbye now, dear, and do please give my warmest regards to your husband.”

Nigel leaned forward, wincing as his shirt stuck to the back of his chair then peeled away to damply and unpleasantly reaffix itself to his skin. “We really needed more money from that one, Amelia, we’ve got nothing else coming in. It’s just getting worse and worse.”

“I know. But Dora will settle up quickly, she always does, and she’ll probably include a small retainer for next time, so it’s not a complete loss.”

Nigel pushed both hands through his hair, and blinked with irritation as it flopped forward again into his eyes. “Do you remember when we first met Dora? She swept in here, swathed in furs and jewellery, that tiny little dog peeking out of her handbag, stopping dead in her tracks because she hadn’t known we’d taken over the business.”

“I’ll never forget it. You know, I asked her why she didn’t divorce her husband if he couldn’t be faithful for longer than a week.”

“Oh? You didn’t tell me. What did she say?”

“She said that she had no intention of leaving him, only of enjoying herself with his money. I was appalled at her mercenary attitude, but she said-” Amelia paused while she puffed out her chest and raised her chin before continuing in a voice that was a perfect rendering of Dora’s breathy, little-girl voice, “It may sound callous, my dear, but it’s all a game with me. When I was young love broke my heart and poverty almost broke my spirit, so I decided that it’s easier not to be in love and to have lots and lots of money. You know that song that says diamonds are a girl’s best friend? Well, believe me, sweet girl, they certainly are, and I’ve got lots of them!”

Nigel laughed, but he couldn’t stop himself giving a wistful glance at his wife’s engagement ring, its tiny diamond chip the one and only precious stone she owned. It couldn’t even begin to compare with the lowliest of the many rings that adorned Dora’s fingers, nor with the enormous square-cut emerald chosen by his first wife even before he had proposed. His shoulders drooped and he said, “Perhaps you should divorce me and marry a rich man.”

“Oh, Nigel, really! I won’t even grace that stupid comment with an answer.” She marched out, closing the door firmly behind her.

Nigel knew he’d have to apologise. Amelia hated it when he went on about how he couldn’t give her the things he’d been able to give Tansy. He knew absolutely that she loved him regardless, and he was damned lucky to have her. But just for a minute, maybe two, he wanted to wallow in self-pity. He pictured Dora Dash swanning around the showroom picking out her new car, the salesman fawning over her, as she demanded every extra gadget and gewgaws available. Maybe even gold cup holders and a mink-lined bed for her puffball of a dog.

He’d had a Mercedes once. Silver. With dark grey leather seats, walnut dashboard, rain-sensitive headlight wipers, a roof that folded majestically up and down at the touch of a button …

He stopped the thoughts in their tracks. What was the point in going over what he no longer had? What was the loss of a mere car compared to the gain of the most wonderful woman in the world, who in about seven and a half months time would be the mother of his first child?

Shame-faced, he went to Amelia’s desk and said he was sorry.

She smiled and his heart skipped a beat as she laced her slender fingers with his. He raised her hand to his lips and kissed each finger and the underside of her wrist. Her skin smelled of vanilla.

“Do you have any idea how much I love you?”

She nodded. “Yes, Nigel, I do. And you know I love you too. More than anything. But you really hate this business, don’t you? I know you thought it would be more about searching for missing persons than chasing after cheaters and thieves. If there’s anything else you’d rather do, you know I’ll always support you.”

“But what else can I do? The only career I want is closed to me, at least until Tansy remarries and her father stops using his money and influence to keep me out of property development. I’m an architect, Amelia, I want to design buildings and then see them get built.”

Amelia wiped the bits of tissue from Nigel’s cheek and affectionately brushed his floppy fringe out of his eyes. “Well, according to the gossip columns, your ex-wife has someone very firmly in mind, doesn’t she?”

“Yes, but we’ve been there twice before, remember? No, I’ll believe I’m rid of her when she actually has another man’s wedding ring on her finger. Just think, Amelia, I’d be able to get a job that would actually pay the bills. And there would be no more maintenance payments!”

As if on cue, the door crashed open and there was a cheerful “Hellooooooooo there!” as a large man barrelled into the office, followed by two even larger men in brown overalls.

“Greetings from the ex-wife, Nige, me old mate! You’re a week overdue; I don’t suppose you have the money?”

This was a monthly ritual that always played out the same way. Nigel shrugged and the big man shook his head in mock sadness. “Dear oh dear! So what shall we take in lieu this time, eh?” He looked around the tiny reception area, and then signalled to his cohorts to follow him into Nigel’s office.

Nigel and Amelia stayed where they were until the men trooped out again, the burly man wishing them a cheery goodbye until same time next month, the other two grunting under the weight of Nigel’s desk.

Standing together in the doorway of Nigel’s office Amelia said, “We could always bring in the kitchen table.”

“And, what, eat off the floor?” With a resigned sigh, Nigel dropped to his knees and started to gather up the files, papers and general detritus from his desk drawers that the men had strewn all over the grubby, worn carpet. The laptop had been unplugged and lay in one corner with the printer next to it, the digital camera perched on top. Nigel supposed he should be grateful that they could take nothing that would prevent him doing his job.

“This is ridiculous! I can’t keep on like this, we’ll soon have nothing left. She only takes it out of spite. And it’s high time we had a bit of cash to spend on ourselves.” He stood up and took Amelia in his arms. “I want us to have a decent house, Amelia.” He raised her left hand “I want to give you a proper engagement ring.”

Amelia laughed and said brightly, “Oh Nigel, all that will come in time, you know it will. And don’t you dare try and replace my precious ring, do you hear me?”

She covered it up well, but Nigel knew that she was dreadfully disappointed that the aftershocks of his short, disastrous marriage to Tansy just kept on rumbling, affecting her as much as it did him. And soon they would be a family of three.

He sighed. “We won’t be free of her until she finds herself another husband, and she seems in no hurry to find one, does she? Two broken engagements in less than a year! How many more, I wonder?” Nigel pushed his fringe out of his eyes; it flopped straight back down.

His ex-wife was ruthless and her father even more so. Nigel had begged for a clean break settlement, but he could not afford to hire a lawyer savvy enough to take on his father-in-law’s legal team and win. When they’d been married, Nigel had had to work longer and longer hours designing exclusive health complexes and mansions for multi-millionaires to earn the money to pay for his wife’s extravagant spending. When he’d discovered that Tansy had been unfaithful to him with her personal trainer, their gardener and the young chap who mucked out the stables where she kept her horse, he had, with some relief, demanded a divorce. She’d agreed on the condition that Nigel allowed her to divorce him on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour so that her reputation would be untainted. If he’d only known what giving Tansy her own way meant for his future, he would have fought her tooth and nail, and told her doting daddy the truth. He would still have lost his job, most likely, but his integrity would have been intact.

The only good thing to come out of the whole mess was Amelia, who had been his PA at the time. She had known the whole sorry story and had resigned in support of Nigel on the day he was fired. They’d ended up in the nearest pub together, two cardboard boxes of their personal effects from their desks on the floor at their feet. It had been her cousin who’d sold his PI business to Nigel, assuring Nigel that he’d make pots of money just like he had. However he’d made his money, Nigel soon learned, it hadn’t been through honest means. In the early days after he’d taken over and had his own name painted on the door, Nigel had had to turn away some very shady people. The cousin, meanwhile, had fled to a country that didn’t have extradition arrangements.

He’d had some very frightening moments, but those were forgotten every time Amelia popped in to see how he was getting on. He had eventually won her heart, and for that he’d be eternally grateful.

He forced his mind back to the present and looked at her. “I’m so sorry, Amelia, I seem to have made rather a mess of things.”

“Oh, don’t go all maudlin on me.” She kissed him and stroked his fringe out of his eyes. “We’ll get there, you’ll see. Now, I’m going to fetch a pair of scissors and cut that blasted fringe of yours.”

Nigel picked up a paper clip to unbend while Amelia went to fetch a pair of scissors. Truth was, in career terms, he was broke, trapped, bored and terrified. He loathed having to follow adulterous husbands and wives with his camera and recording equipment at the ready, writing reports about their seedy goings-on. This rundown office and his second-hand suits and worn out shoes depressed him. Not being able to buy for Amelia all the things he’d so easily and thoughtlessly bought for Tansy depressed him even more. And now there was a baby on way, and he was terrified that he’d fall short as a father just as he had in everything else. Tansy had taken everything from him, everything, and even though she didn’t need a bean from him she was still determined to bleed him dry.

Amelia returned and told Nigel to sit down. As she snipped at his fringe, Nigel closed his eyes tight and said, “I just wish something would happen to take us away from all this.”

Episode 3: introducing the good citizens of Ham-Under-Lymfold

I hope you enjoyed this episode. My dream is to see this story made into a TV series, so I’d really appreciate your ‘likes’ and comments.

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Reason to Believe Episode 12: the dog with the golden eyes and a troubled mind

In my previous blog, Reason to Believe Episode 11: the dog with the golden eyes, I describe how a dog called Donut came to be adopted by us from Battersea Old Windsor and renamed Darcy. Now he’s home with us and an unexpected battle begins…

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Darcy did not settle. He reminded me of a caged bear, pacing endlessly from end to end of whichever room he was in. He did not respond to the most basic commands and if we left him in the house we returned to mayhem and a distressed, exhausted dog. He chewed and destroyed so many things – including my treasured recliner chair! No more could I come home from work and settle in that chair with a cup of tea before making dinner!

In an attempt to alleviate the anxiety issues we bought a large dog crate and covered it with blankets, hoping he would see it as his safe haven. He hated it even if we left it open, and if we closed it he whimpered and gnawed at the wire until the top of his nose was raw and sore again.

One day, we were working in the garden so we tied Darcy to a long rope to stop him running out into the road. To say he went berserk is an understatement! You’d think the rope was burning him as he desperately writhed and bit at it to release himself. We managed to calm him down and as soon as we’d unknotted the rope he was panting, his pupils dilated with fear.

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Taking him for walks was an ordeal too because he reacted badly to anyone walking behind us, people wearing hats and backpacks, people with walking sticks, pushchairs and wheelchairs. He growled at other dogs.

As if dealing with all that wasn’t hard enough, within a very short time we were to be tested even more.

One Friday, George was away and dad couldn’t have Darcy until the afternoon so I had to take him to work with me. I was setting up a business centre for start-up IT companies on the university campus and I parked my 6 month old car in front of the small, single-storey building where I could see it from my office. Darcy was in the boot, which we’d made cosy with an old duvet, and I gave him some chews to keep him occupied. I went out every half hour to check he was OK, and I took him for walks around the large car park. All seemed fine and I was pleased with him for settling down.

When lunchtime came and I could take him to Dad’s, I strolled out to the car, smiling in at Darcy who was lying curled up in the boot.

I unlocked the driver’s door, took my seat, put the key in the ignition, started to pull my seatbelt down, and …..

Wait a minute. Why was the seat belt damp and slimy?

Come to that, why was there drool on the steering wheel and dash board? Oh good grief! Surely those won’t teeth marks on the indicator stick and handbrake?

With dawning horror I turned my head to see that the dog guard behind the rear seats was askew. Sweat prickled on my brow at the sight of one of the rear seat belts chewed almost all the way through.

In the space of half an hour Darcy had pushed through the barrier and jumped into the front of the car and wreaked havoc. Then he’d had the presence of mind to climb back into the boot and lie down as if nothing had happened!

I was too shocked to be angry, and once I’d made the barrier secure again, I drove out of the car park with my mind whirling.

He’d caused so much damage already, how could we possibly keep him now he’d done this to my almost-new car?

But we’d promised him he would not go back to a rescue centre. We’d promised that we’d do anything it took to turn him around.

A short while later an acquaintance of mine came for coffee and met Darcy for the first time. She stunned me when she said she was psychic and could ‘read’ that Darcy had been tied up in a dark place, probably a shed or a barn, when he was a puppy. He was, she said, strung up by a thick rope, which rubbed his neck sore. She said he’d been left alone, with his litter mates disappearing one one by one and his mother being taken away too until he was on his own in the dark.

I was horrified at the scenario she painted, but of course I had no way of checking if what she said was true. But she piqued my interest in the possibility of communicating with animals and I bought a book on the subject. It made a fascinating read and I got in touch with author, sending a close-up photo of Darcy’s face and eyes and asking for a reading. Her report contained the same details that my friend had given me, plus a direct plea from Darcy not to give up on him.

Two people who didn’t know each other had given me the same story, so surely it was more than a coincidence? The weekly training class was helping quite a bit, but with this information I felt we needed specific help with Darcy’s emotional state.

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I found a dog behaviourist and put in a call to him. When Simon* arrived Darcy, who would normally be barking furiously and trying to jump up at any visitor to our door, came skittering in from the kitchen and stopped in his tracks. He then came slowly the rest of the way and sat down in front of Simon, something I’d never seen before.

While Simon asked me questions Darcy’s beautiful golden eyes stayed fixed on him and I figured that he was one of those people who was shy and awkward with people but had a very commanding presence to dogs. When I’d finished describing everything that had happened, including Darcy’s reluctance to return to me on command when he was off-lead, Simon stroked Darcy’s velvety ears and addressing him rather than me, said:

“I think I know your problem. You don’t understand the hierarchy of this household and you’re assuming you’re the alpha. But you don’t want to be, do you? It’s too big a responsibility and you want to be relieved of that burden.”

The next four hours were spent leaving and coming into the house without Darcy. I was to say nothing when I left or when I came back, just behave as if all was normal and nothing was expected of Darcy.

Then we took Darcy for a walk and Simon fitted a remote-controlled collar that gave a puff of air into Darcy’s face if he didn’t respond when he was called to return. It wasn’t painful, it wasn’t punishment, it just broke Darcy’s concentration from sniffing the ground so he would hear me calling. He got it quickly, and came lolloping back happily when heard his name.

When we got home after the free run, Simon asked to be alone with Darcy for a few minutes. I waited outside and have no idea what went on between them, but when Simon called me back in, Darcy was gazing at him with adoration. I was exhausted, but it was obvious that a change had taken place in my dog. He was calm and relaxed and no longer in the ‘fight or flight mode’ he’d been in since we’d adopted him. The set of his body and even his face seemed different, softer.

I don’t know how Simon did it, but from that day on we could Darcy at home and know he would sleep in his bed until we came home. We could take him out and know that he would behave well and come back when called if he was off lead. He particularly loved visiting the beaches near my mum’s house in Wales, where we’d walk for miles on the sands and amongst the rocks.

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Everyone who met him adored Darcy. He was still wary of some people, and he loathed sticks being thrown anywhere near him, but he was a wonderful companion. My dad loved him so much he was glad when we went on holiday and left Darcy with him for two weeks at a time, and was most unhappy when we moved from Farnborough to Wiltshire because we were now an hour and a half’s drive away.

But George and I were happy to make that drive often, taking Darcy with us to spend a Saturday or Sunday with Dad.

I’m glad we made the journey as often as we did, because Dad, now in his seventies, was soon to become seriously ill and I would need all the strength I had to face the hardest decision of my life.

 

*Simon is not his real name. I was sad to learn about a year later that he’d died of cancer. 

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J Merrill Forrest is the author of two novels, Flight of the Kingfisher and The Waiting Gate and a collection of poetry, Natural Alchemy. All are available from the usual sources, including Amazon, in paperback or e-book formats.

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Reason to Believe Episode 11: the dog with the golden eyes

With my CV updated to include my newly-minted Honours degree it was time to return to the world of work. After a rigorous round of interviews with a computer company, I  was highly chuffed to be the chosen candidate. Setting aside my student-wear of jeans, sweaters and trainers, I had my trouser suits dry-cleaned, pressed my blouses and polished my high-heeled court shoes. I was now an executive with a good salary, an expense account and a company car!

I lasted precisely one year.

Having previously worked for Honeywell, 3M and Hewlett-Packard I expected teamwork and respect between management and employees, but the managers in this company preferred to divide and conquer. It was a toxic environment (maybe literally so as it was next to a large household waste centre!) with blatant instances of misogyny and homophobia. Staff turnover was understandably high. I happily took a lower salary and gave up the silver Golf GTi – throwing the keys down on my manager’s desk and telling him just what I thought of the company – to take up a new job at my beloved university. I was overjoyed to return there, with the bonus of an amazing and uplifting view from my office window.

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A year later George and I moved from our small flat to a three bedroom semi-detached house. It needed a lot of work, and we spent evenings and weekends transforming the interior of the house and landscaping the garden.

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I had a job and a home I loved, but there was a growing need in me for something else. I really, really wanted a dog! I had grown up with dogs, had always wanted one of my own, and I thought we were now in a position to adopt from a rescue centre. George wasn’t as keen on the idea as I was, but my wheedling, cajoling, pleading and downright blackmail eventually won him round – or perhaps I should say wore him down!

Battersea in Old Windsor was just a half hour drive away.

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I was so excited when we made the journey over there for the first time, but the reality of seeing so many dogs desperate to be adopted was heartbreaking. Blinking back tears, I walked along the corridors with George, thinking that I’d know the right dog as soon as I saw it. I didn’t want a small dog or a very large one, and pictured in my mind one that was the size of, say, a Border Collie.

The place was very busy, and as I trailed along with the crowd I hoped with all my heart that every family, every couple and every individual would go home that day with a new pet. At some point I realised that George was no longer with me. I retraced my steps and found him staring intently into one of the kennels, the palm of his right hand pressed against the wire, looking at a dog lying disconsolately in a plastic bed. The information sheet pinned to the door informed us that the dog was male, approximately 2 years old and called Donut. He had the black & tan coat of a German Shepherd and I almost laughed when I saw that he was a Border Collie cross! He was the right size and age for us and we liked the look of him so went to the office to get more information. “Donut is a problem dog,” the administrator told us. “He’s not the sharpest tool in the box, and he needs experienced owners to manage his behaviour.”

We could not claim to have the appropriate experience so our offer to adopt him was point-blank refused.

A little despondent at not finding ‘our’ dog we returned home, and it wasn’t until a couple of days later that George – my practical, very down to earth husband, who wasn’t particularly keen on dogs – made a revelation that completely astounded me.

Donut, he said, had locked his black-rimmed golden eyes onto him and he had distinctly heard in his mind the words, “Please take me home“. In response George had promised that he would!

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I could not credit it. It’s the sort of thing I can believe happening, but not to George. He just didn’t think that way. However, he was adamant it had happened, that he and the dog had had some kind of psychic connection, and as we hadn’t been able to bring Donut home, he felt very guilty and wasn’t interested in returning to Battersea any time soon.

I went back on my own and was really pleased to learn that Donut had been rehomed the very day we had seen him. I told George the good news and said, “Of course that dog was desperate, they all are, so maybe whoever has adopted him had the same weird psychic connection that you did. Anyway, he’s sorted but we still don’t have a dog, so please let’s keep looking.”

Convinced he needn’t feel guilty about Donut any more, George came with me the following weekend. About halfway round he stopped in his tracks, grabbed my arm, and pointed at a dog lying right at the back of the kennel. A skinny dog with the black and tan coat of a German Shepherd and the face and ears of a Border Collie. Surely it couldn’t be Donut?

It was.

On seeing George he got up and came slowly forward, head down and ears drooping, but with a slight wag of his feathery tail. His nose was bloody, probably from rubbing it on the wire of the kennel door. We couldn’t believe it; he’d been rehomed just a couple of weeks ago, presumably by someone suitably experienced. What was he doing back here?

As Donut and George locked eyes once again I asked if he still wanted to take him home. “Remember,” I cautioned, “they said he’s a problem dog. If he’s back so quickly  something must have gone horribly wrong.”

We went to the office to find out what had happened. Apparently Donut had wrecked the home of his new owners and they’d returned him because they couldn’t cope. With that news I thought George would say we should forget about him, but what he actually said was, “It’s that dog, or no dog!”

Thinking fast, I pledged there and then that we would go to training classes and get professional advice. “We will do anything and everything necessary to turn him round, because we are certain he’s the dog for us.”

We were taken to a room where we could be properly introduced to him. Despite his skinned nose and rather uptight demeanour he was a handsome boy, and his eyes were truly captivating. Within a very short time we had signed the documents and paid the adoption fee of £90.00.

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We also spent a small fortune on a new lead, collar, bed, lots of toys, treats and food. We piled these goodies in the car and sat on a patch of grass with Darcy firmly attached by his new lead to take in what we had just committed to. A problem dog. A dog who had wrecked someone’s home. And two others before that. We would be his fourth home!

“The first thing we need to do,” I said, “is change his name. Donut makes him sound stupid, so he needs a noble new name to mark this fresh start.”

By the time he jumped into our car, he was called Darcy. Why?

Well, some years earlier the BBC had shown an adaptation of Pride & Prejudice starring Colin Firth. The scene where handsome Mr Darcy emerges from a swim in the lake, his white cambric shirt made transparent by the water, caused quite a stir!

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Darcy had reacted to the news of his adoption by rolling in his own pee in the kennel so had been shampooed and wrapped in a large white towel. For some reason the Pride & Prejudice scene sprang into mind, and as we discussed a new name I remembered it again. If I hadn’t thought the name should begin with D, so the switch from Donut wouldn’t be too confusing, we might have called him Colin!

We didn’t go straight home but instead called in on my dad, who lived nearby in Windsor. Darcy ran around the garden with his new tuggy, no doubt relieved to be out of the kennel once more.

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When we told Dad what we’d learned about Darcy he thought we were crazy to take him on. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was right, but I kept that inside.

We had made a promise. No matter what happened in the coming weeks or months, Darcy was NOT going back to Battersea!

I had high hopes that because of the understanding on some strange, psychic level between him and George, Darcy would understand that he had a forever home with us and would show his gratitude with good behaviour.

How wrong I was!

~~~

Next time: we have to call in a canine psychiatrist, and two separate animal communicators tell me the same story about Darcy’s beginnings

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J Merrill Forrest is the author of two novels, Flight of the Kingfisher and The Waiting Gate and a collection of poetry, Natural Alchemy. All are available from the usual sources, including Amazon, in paperback or e-book formats.

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Reason to Believe Episode 10: a wobbly start ends in success

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My introduction to university life was a real shock to the system. In the first year we were required to study six mandatory subjects: Approaches to the English Language, Old & Middle English, Critical Practice, Shakespeare, Rise of the Novel and Four Twentieth Century Poets. So many books, plays and poems to read, so many essays to write to deadlines, and so little time to get it all done and still do my part-time job. But I was so, so proud to be there!

My heart soared every time I drove through the main gates and gazed upon the facade of the magnificent Victorian building.

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I loved it, too, that you could look as if you had got dressed in the dark and no-one would notice! But, much as I enjoyed having multi-coloured nails and wearing Doc Marten boots, my wobbly start with the academic side of things quickly and starkly made it apparent that I was totally out of my depth. Apart from the 6 week Access taster course I had not studied at all since leaving school, and now I was being challenged to rise to a whole new level. From what I remembered of school essays the requirement was to regurgitate what had been learned, but university required in-depth critical analysis of a kind I simply didn’t know how to do.

All but one of my first essays came back with so-so marks, but the Shakespeare – my favourite subject – was handed back unmarked. “All you have done,” the tutor said, “is describe the plot. I know the plot. Everyone knows it.” She smiled sympathetically at my crestfallen expression. “I’m giving you a second chance because the way you speak up in the seminar discussions makes me believe you can do better than this. Show your engagement with the play, make sure you address the topic of the paper, and give me a new essay by the end of the week.”

She was doing me a kindness, but I had to hold back my tears as I took my sorry little essay from her. At 3 o’clock I left the campus and dashed to my office in Bracknell where I had a part-time job, wondering how I’d find the time to rewrite the essay and keep up with the incredible amount of reading I had to do.

My evenings and early mornings were now totally swallowed up in study, I wasn’t sleeping well, and it soon became apparent that something had to give.

I discussed it with George and, as usual, he offered the very solutions I needed. The next day I offered my resignation to my employer and they delighted me by saying I would be welcome to work there during the university holidays. I also found a local private tutor to give me a crash-course on how to raise my game to degree level.

The tutor was an elderly lady called Miss Durham, an Oxford scholar and retired teacher. She lived in a Victorian semi-detached house in Ascot, the front of which was almost obscured by foliage. The first time I went there I had a hard time finding the small wooden gate in a very dense privet hedge! Tall weeds grew through cracks in the path leading to the half-glazed door, the dark green paint of which hung off in strips around the unpolished lion-head brass knocker. I was led through the narrow hallway into a small room at the back, which was  stuffed with furniture, books and ornaments, and very gloomy because the back garden was as overgrown as the front. She told me her disabled sister lived with her, but I didn’t see her on any of my visits, I only heard the creaking floorboards, shuffling of feet and the opening and closing of doors elsewhere in the house. Really, it was the perfect house for a horror movie!

By the time I had my first lesson in that creepy, unlit house I had rewritten the Shakespeare essay and been given a credible mark for it, but not as high as I’d have liked. Sitting opposite Miss Durham at a small round table, a pad and pencil in front of me, I explained exactly why I needed her help. She grinned, her fierce blue eyes almost obliterated by deep wrinkles, and said, “Don’t think that you can’t do the work, because that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, think only that you haven’t yet understood what is expected of you, and that will henceforth change.” She placed a pair of tortoiseshell half-moon spectacles on her nose and looked at me over the lenses. “You’ll be studying the poetry of T S Eliot, of course, so we will spend five or six sessions deconstructing The Wasteland and that will teach you all you need to know.”

Five or six sessions on just one poem? Really?

Well, as it turned out I had five lessons with her, and to say she opened my mind to the joy of English literature is an understatement. Her gift was not to tell me, but to guide me to my own conclusions. With patience and her faultless method of teaching she made me work everything out for myself and articulate it in a satisfactory manner. For instance, she’d ask me to read some lines of The Wasteland:

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Then she would ask questions like “Why does Eliot say that April is the cruellest month? Why not December or January when it’s deep winter? Why is the snow forgetful, the roots dull?”

Now, I’ve been scribbling poems almost from when I learned to write, but I had never thought about how I constructed them, why I used certain words and not others. In just a few sessions this wonderful lady opened a whole new world for me.

She also taught me how to break down the given titles of each essay paper so I could be sure I had addressed every element of it. This would be invaluable when faced with exam questions too.

Miss Durham’s parting words to me were: “Even if your tutors don’t agree with your analysis of any of the texts you study, as long as you can put forward a cohesive and well-reasoned argument for your viewpoint they will award you top marks. If you remember nothing else, please remember that.”

I won’t say I found university easy, but I studied hard, particularly enjoying Middle English, Victorian fiction and Shakespeare, and my efforts paid off with steadily rising marks and my input during seminars being well received. I began to believe that I actually deserved to be there! I loved every aspect of being a student, I adored every brick and blade of grass of Royal Holloway, and I especially relished studying in the gorgeous library. I’ve always loved the musty smell of old books, and some of books on the shelves were very old indeed!

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The first year flew past, then the second. I did well in the end of year exams, and went into the final year with high hopes of getting at least a Lower Second degree. All too soon it was time for the last challenge: the dreaded Finals.

Each day I would take my place in the exam room with my pens in a plastic bag and a bottle of water with a few drops of Rescue Remedy in it to help me keep calm. Some of the exams were held in the Picture Gallery, a grand and beautiful hall containing 70 or so famous Victorian paintings. There is a popular myth that one of them, an Edwin Landseer painting called ‘Man Supposes, God Disposes’, would cause a student sitting beneath it to fail. It is therefore tradition to cover it up with a huge Union Jack flag during exam times, and I did indeed sit some of my finals within sight of this flag-draped work of art.

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When the day came to collect the results I drove to the college, my heart fluttering with both hope and dread. But I knew I had done my very best.

After I’d parked the car I met up with my friends, mature students like me, and we headed into the faculty building together. The lists had been posted on the board in Reception.

So many students had gathered there, and the room echoed with the shouts and screams of the successful. I waited my turn to step up to the lists. I swiftly located my name, then, hardly daring to breathe, moved my eyes to the right to read my result.

Jane Forrest …….. Pass …….. 2:1

Oh my gosh, I had an Upper Second!! With Honours!!! I would now be able to update my CV to restart my career and, if I felt so inclined, put BA(Hons) after my name!!!!

One of my friends had her expected First, the others had the same result as me. We congratulated each other and celebrated with a coffee in the cafeteria. Our three years together had come to an end, but we had the graduation ceremony to look forward to, when we would wear with pride our graduation robes and mortarboards. We didn’t know it then, but we would be awarded our degrees by Princess Anne on a gloriously sunny day.

We were reluctant to leave the campus and each other, but we were also bursting at the seams to get home and let our families know our results. They, after all, had seen us through so much, and I was mindful that a couple of mature students had left before the end of the first year because their husbands simply hadn’t supported them. It had made me doubly grateful that George had been my rock, every day encouraging me and tolerating the tantrums as each deadline loomed. When my faith in myself waned he would pick me up, dust me off, and tell me to get the hell on with it! And there was my mum, always eager to hear what I was doing at university, and Dad, who had at first been sceptical but had insisted on helping me when I gave up my job. He was not one to display his feelings, so offering financial help had been his way of letting me know how proud he was of me for grasping with both hands this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I knew my friends would be delighted for me too.

I remember so well finishing my coffee and taking my leave of my friends. Returning to my car. Driving slowly out of the dusty car park. Turning left out of those magnificent main gates onto the London Road. Stopping at a traffic light on red. Bursting into tears.

I was crying for so many reasons. Sadness that my student days were over, sadness too that it was the end of my long-held dream and now I’d need something to replace it. But mostly I was crying for the sheer joy and wonder at my achievement. The 16 year old girl who’d left school with four O Levels was now almost 42 years old and had a degree!

I really dared to believe – had reason to believe – that we can achieve incredible things if we want it badly enough and set our minds to it.

Now I could look ahead to a new job with better pay and prospects. We decided it was time to move out of our flat and buy a house with a garden. We talked of getting a dog.

The future looked bright.

Post script: Remember my unmarked Shakespeare essay? I hope you don’t mind that I end this story with a little crow about the 71% I got for my final Shakespeare essay. That’s a First Class classification folks!

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J Merrill Forrest is the author of two novels, Flight of the Kingfisher and The Waiting Gate and a collection of poetry, Natural Alchemy. All are available from the usual sources, including Amazon, in paperback or e-book formats.

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