A Good Day’s Work

Just the contents of my tool-bag could earn me a prison sentence. ‘Going equipped’ the police call it – and what an apt description it is. I’m equipped to force windows, pick locks, and snip wires. I even have a little electro-magnetic gizmo to neutralize some of the latest digital alarms. Not that I expect to need that this afternoon.
This is my favourite sort of property, a big, detached house at the end of the village, high hedge surrounding the garden and no alarm system. Both adults work and the kids are at school. Easy. Virtually risk-free.
I reverse my battered white van with the recycled number plates through the gate and park just inside. Nobody from the street can see past the van; it’s as good as being invisible.
Just in case, I ring the doorbell. I’m dressed as a workman, white overalls, white gloves, even a fake identity badge. No answer. Let’s get cracking then. I score along the edges of the glass pane nearest the lock, cover the glass with sticky paper and give it a sharp knock. It falls out, sweet as a nut, and leaves no jagged edges on which I could cut myself. I put my hand through, turn the handle of the Yale and the door swings open. I don’t know – some people just invite crime; no deadlock, no security bolt, nothing.
I’m not malicious in the way that I search a property, but I am thorough. Drawers out and upturned and not just to inspect the contents quickly – you’d be amazed at what people tape underneath drawers. Most of what I find is in desks and dressing tables, but every so often there’s a waterproof package in the cistern or a neat little envelope of cash in the drawer under the bed. I don’t bother to lift creaky floorboards; if you go to that much trouble you can keep your money as far as I’m concerned. Cash, jewellery, cameras, watches – small, high value items, that’s all I take
The last place that I look is always the kitchen. I check the biscuit tins and the tea caddy even though I’ve never found anything there. You can call it sentiment or superstition if you like, but my Gran in South Wales used to keep her savings in the caddy, and it would feel wrong, almost impolite, to leave without checking.
The kitchen here is at the back, and it‘s while I’m looking through the cupboards that I hear footsteps crunch across the gravel towards the front door. Crucial question number one; is it the family or neighbours? Family will come in, neighbours may not. Crucial question number two; can I get out of the back door, sprint to the van and get out of the drive without being seen clearly? I congratulate myself on my cautious habit of always parking the van facing outwards.
The footsteps have stopped. Whoever it is, they’re examining the door, realising that a burglary has taken place and wondering whether the burglar is still inside. “Indeed I am, madam,” I think to myself. The humour galvanises me, and I slide noiselessly across the kitchen towards the back door.
Hell! Two big bolts and a mortice lock. I strain up to the top bolt and try to slide it silently back. Silently! The only reason it makes no noise is because it doesn’t move. I put my full force behind it, heedless of any disturbance. It won’t budge, and I can’t get any leverage because it’s too high.
I hear somebody clear their throat. It is a young male cough, the sort that means “I’m scared stiff but I’m coming for you anyway”. Hell!
I don’t do violence, I do flight. As the footsteps stride up the hall to the kitchen, I’m on the work surface opening the catch of the window, pushing it and – it doesn’t open. It’s security bolted. I sprint for the door to the dining room, just as the kitchen door bursts open.
As I dodge through, I hear my pursuer’s steps slither as he changes direction abruptly to follow me. I sidestep through into the lounge and head across the room towards the hallway, the front door and freedom. I get as far as the middle of the room when fourteen stone of muscle takes me round the legs and I crash down, luckily falling onto a heavily padded sofa rather than the highly polished wooden floor. Even so, the impact and the fact that I stunned myself on the arm of the sofa leaves me feeling groggy and in no condition to run. I give myself a few seconds breather.
A forceful arm grabs my shoulder, and a triumphant voice snarls, “Right, let’s have a look at you then.” There’s no way I can resist and I’m turned over.
My captor’s grin of satisfaction fades rapidly.
“Ruth?” he enquires hoarsely. Oh my God, he’s a student on the same course as me. What are the odds against that?
“Alan! I didn’t know you lived in this part of the country.”
“What the hell are you doing in the house?”
“Burgling it, of course. You really ought to get your parents to upgrade their security. It was laughably easy to get in. Now, would you mind letting me sit up? This is hardly decorous. I won’t try running away, I promise.”
Alan moves away – a shame really, he’s quite cosy close to, and he smells very nice. His eyes are warm and brown. I gingerly sit up and straighten my overalls and try to tidy my hair.
“Well, you’ve put me in a tricky position haven’t you?” he grumbles.
“Oh, I don’t know. You call the police, hand me over and receive the applause I would have thought. What’s tricky about that?”
“You know perfectly well that I’m not going to do that, Ruth. How am I going to explain the busted glass in the door to my parents if I’m covering up for you?”
Alan’s such a sweetie. Six foot one, broad, athletic and tender-hearted. Pity he’s so stupid.
“Yellow pages. Glazier. They’ll do an instant job probably. Listen, if you’re letting me go, I’ll pay for the glass to be replaced.”
“Damn right you will. Hey, you didn’t – well, pinch anything before I got here did you?”
I point to the rifled drawers of the desk.
“You’ll have to give it back.”
With a show of reluctance I open my bag and take out two cameras, an iPod, a handful of jewellery and a rather nice Rolex. A pity; it would have been a good haul, at least a couple of grand even from the villain with whom I deal.
“Right, go and put it back and tidy up, while I arrange for the door to be mended. Then, would you like a cup of tea?” Tender-hearted? Daft as a brush, more like.
I’m almost as quick and neat in putting things back as I am in searching them in the first place, and it’s not long before I’ve finished. Alan solemnly hands me a cup of tea.
“Why do you do it, Ruth?” Now that the excitement of the chase is over he looks pained.
“I’ve got to pay my way through college somehow, Alan, and it beats hell out of bar work.”
“Yeah, but there’s student loans and things”. He sounds peevish.
“Start my career with a great big debt of twenty grand? Do me a favour. I bet that’s not how you’re doing it!”
“No, you’re right. My parents are being very generous. Are you really hard up, then?”
“Pretty short.”
“Look, don’t worry about the glass; I’ll sort that.” Taking candy from a kid.
“Alan, you’re a real sweetie,” I assure him earnestly, gazing into his eyes. I let my lips barely brush against his, feel the sparks fly, and pull away slowly, gently, with seeming reluctance.
“I must go now. Thank you. Thank you for being so understanding, Alan. See you next term!”
I leave him standing in a haze of endorphins, walk through the front door – still swinging open – and drive away.
I park the van in the yard – the scrapyard from which I recycle my number plates – and pull out the water-proof package. Nobody who hides things in a cistern is likely to report them missing…..
I open it neatly, and turn the contents over and over in my hands. A stack of fifty pound notes, no fewer than one hundred of them. Not such a bad day’s work after all!

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Pie on Friday

They always had pie on Friday. Usually it was chicken and ham, or chicken and mushroom, using up what was left of the previous weekend’s roast. Or, if they’d splashed out and had roast beef, Cheryl would buy some steak and kidney and make the pie from that. “I like a bit of pastry with my dinner,” said Rob every Friday.
Cheryl was fed up with pie.
It was Thursday, coming up to one o’clock and the end of Cheryl’s shift on the till at the Co-op. She put the ‘Checkout closed” sign onto the belt just as he walked up with a half-full basket. It had been a difficult shift, and a difficult morning. Rush, rush, rush, too few staff, and customers complaining. But he looked friendly; she’d noticed his charming smile several times in the previous week.
“It’s alright, love. Put them on the belt.”
It only took a minute. He was very quick to pack his groceries, and had his Co-op card and credit card handy. Cheryl completed the transaction, handed over to her replacement, and set off to collect her coat; only he was in her way.
“Am I right in thinking it’s the end of your shift? Forgive me – that’s not as creepy as it sounds! – I asked your colleague.”
Cheryl laughed, and he continued, “Do you fancy joining me for a coffee? I’d like to know you better. I’m new in the town and you’re a friendly face.”
Cheryl grimaced. She was aware of two of her friends watching her sidelong. People gossiped. Then irritation got the better of her. ‘Fuck ‘em,’ she thought. ‘They can mind their own business.’ “Why not?” she replied.
They sat at an outdoor table to enjoy the early May sunshine and listen to the river. The trees on the riverbank were clothed in new green leaves, which were just stirring in the gentle breeze. At Eric’s suggestion they ordered lunch rather than coffee. As Cheryl ate her tuna salad and listened to Eric telling her about some of the countries he’d visited, she thought what an agreeable, what a civilised man he was. And his smile was, indeed, charming.
Cheryl had meant to pay her share, but Eric had settled up almost before she realised.
“Oh, let me give you the money,” she flustered, opening her purse and spilling change all over the table. Eric went down on his hands and knees and recovered two pound coins that had rolled under it.
“No, really, the pleasure was all mine, believe me. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about your son, Jeremy. You must be very proud of him.”
“Yes, I am. When Rob and I went up to Cambridge last summer and saw him graduate, I think that was my best day ever.”
“Rob is your husband?”
“Yes.”
Eric gave her hand a quick squeeze and said, “I expect you need to be getting on with your day. You’ve been very kind joining me for lunch. You’re a good listener.”
“Gosh it’s half past two! You’re right – I’d better dash! Thank you so much for lunch.” Blushing, fumbling with her handbag and coat, Cheryl left Eric sitting at the table and hurried home.
There was football on the telly that evening. Cheryl cleared up after dinner, and joined Rob on the sofa.
“Can I get you a beer, love; or anything else?”
“Beer would be nice.” Rob’s eyes didn’t leave the screen. Cheryl went and poured a beer for Rob, and another for herself. She didn’t really like beer. She sat beside Rob on the sofa and snuggled up against him. Occasionally she sipped at her beer. It was too bitter for her taste. She almost spilled it when Chelsea scored and Rob erupted from his seat in delight.
At full time it was still one – nil, and Rob was cheerful. When they went to bed, Cheryl kissed him, sexily, and stroked his back in the way she knew he liked. “Sorry, love, it’s an early start tomorrow. I’ve got to finish the wiring in Southfields so as to be ready to start the Plympton job on Monday.” He was snoring within minutes.
The alarm sounded at six on Friday morning. Cheryl made Rob a cup of tea which he drank as he got dressed. As they ate breakfast together she said, “I thought I’d cook us something special this evening, Rob. Something a bit different. You love Chinese food, so I thought I’d have a go at a stir-fry.”
Rob looked at her in consternation.
“It’s Friday!” he exclaimed. “We always have pie on Friday!”

From a liberal point of view

This morning I shared a Facebook posting of two young women singing a very rude song. It showed evidence of hours of diligent research using the Urban Dictionary. It was funny. It neatly encapsulated some of the reasons why those of us who hold liberal values feel that the world has been turned upside down. Above all, it made me think.
Has the world been turned upside down in 2016?
No, of course it hasn’t. The election of Donald Trump, the farce that is Brexit, the rise in far-right political parties in mainland Europe, the tragic reality of hate crime, these are trends that were already present. They have always been there in our society. The reasons for them have always existed. The political events of 2016 have merely made them more visible. More people are prepared to speak out, and to act, because they have role models legitimising their feelings; but they had the feelings before they had the role models.
What can we do?
Above all we mustn’t give up our advocacy of liberal ideals. Looked at in the long term, liberal ideals have made great progress. Slavery is no longer legal. Genocide, while far from eliminated, is widely recognised as an abhorrent crime. Minorities have greater rights, and are better tolerated.
We have lost a few skirmishes, not the war.
Nobody said that holding liberal ideals is easy. It isn’t. We are all going to need to gather our courage to maintain them in the immediate future.
Then we must make a very clear distinction between rejecting people’s political views and rejecting people. There are two reasons for this.
Firstly, if we are offensive to people, they will not listen to our arguments. If you shout at someone, what do they do? Shout back – or thump you. And who can blame them?
Secondly, if we reject people, or ridicule them, we are not listening to them. Millions and millions of people voted for Brexit, voted for Trump, will vote for far right parties. We believe that they have the wrong answers, but what questions are they posing? What grievances are they holding? What is wrong with our society that they feel as they do?

It is not good enough for us to ignore their opinions.

Sad story – an apology

Yesterday I published a short story, “The Attack”, on here. One reader suggested that I should have tagged it as a sad story, and I think that’s an excellent idea. In future when I write a story that I know is particularly dark, I shall tag it as such. You’ll find the tag to the left of the Blog post title. I’ve edited “The Attack” in that way, so if you want to know what the tag looks like, view the post and have a look.

I’m sorry that what I posted yesterday caused some people distress that they didn’t want.

It occurs to me, too, that there are other things that I shall be writing about and posting that people may not want to read. These could include, for example, same sex love; politically controversial topics; use of bad language; and no doubt others. I would welcome suggestions for other tags to help readers avoid things they would rather not read about.

Have a great day, everybody, and happy reading! Thank you for following my blog!

The Attack

Damien Grant was a happy man. His career was blossoming, he was married to the woman he loved, and in his leisure time he played guitar in a Ska band. What’s not to like? And, best of all, he had a son, little Noah, just started school.
He whistled cheerfully as he strode down the street. This was one of his rare days off. He’d been rehearsing all morning with the band, ready for a gig at the weekend; that always left him fizzing. The sun was shining, and the early promise of spring was stirring all around him. There were tight leaf buds on some of the trees; daffodils glowed in flower-beds and on grass banks. Life was sweet.
He pushed open the door of the Golden Lion. The faint tang of woodsmoke tickled his nostrils. He beamed. There was Coral, in the cosy corner close to the open fire. He hurried over and joined her.
“They’ve got both our favourites today.” He loved the Jamaican lilt in her voice, a characteristic she had from her parents who had come to Britain in the late eighties, when she was just a little girl.
“Whitebait?”
Coral laughed. “And tomato and red pepper soup for me. They must have known we were coming!”
They chattered pleasantly, inconsequentially, as they ate. They enjoyed a glass of wine. The publican liked them. They were regulars, polite, never any trouble. He didn’t mind them lingering over the meal. They had a dessert, then a coffee. It was a holiday for them, and they were enjoying it.
At last Coral looked at her watch.
“Oh my gosh, look at the time! We’d better hurry – we don’t want Noah to be on his own in the playground!”
“We’ll be fine. No problem. I’ll just settle the tab.”
*       *       *       *
Daacad sat in his bed-sit and gazed at his battered laptop. Most of the screen was filled with a photograph of a date processing factory in Lebanon, posted on the Asian Speciality Foods website. He wasn’t looking at that. He was looking at the brief message below it.
“High Street, Shirley, Solihull. 15:00 8th March 2008”
That was it. He’d known it would come. That was his call to martyrdom. “Allahu Akhbar!” he thought, with a chill in the pit of his stomach. It was an honourable calling, but a difficult one. He was frightened.
He had a suicide vest. It was a top quality one, with commercial plastic explosive. There were ball bearings around the charge.
“Do not worry too much about being in a crowd of people. You only need to be close to a handful. You are a messenger to the infidels, that we will seek them out and punish them even in the places that they feel safest.” That is what he had been told.
That is what he would do this afternoon. His mortal life would be over. He would no longer be troubled by this corrupt society, he would be in Paradise, in the world as it should be. But he was frightened. He honestly didn’t know whether he could go through with it.
He put down the laptop and crept over to the wardrobe, from which he removed a large and heavy package. He opened the box, took out the vest and put it on. His breath came short and fast. It wouldn’t hurt, he knew. He would be instantly in Paradise. He fastened the buckles, slipped his hoodie on over the top and studied himself in the mirror. Nothing seemed to look out of place. The hoodie was a loose garment and you couldn’t see he was wearing a bomb.
He tried to imagine himself on the street, looking out for a cluster of people. He would walk up to them, close the switch, and the bomb would detonate. “Allahu Akhbar,” he whispered again.
*       *       *       *
People smiled as Damien and Coral passed them. Although Damien was tall and Coral was tiny, they walked briskly, hand in hand, perfectly at ease with each other.
“I wonder how Noah’s ‘Show and Tell’ went today? I love the way he copies you on that toy guitar of his!” They both laughed, imagining their son standing in front of the teacher solemnly strumming the pink plastic toy.
The world about them exploded.
Damien struggled up from the blackness. The pain was astonishing, outrageous. He could hear nothing. He lay on the pavement, cheek resting against the tarmac. He could see Coral. She wasn’t moving. Her wounds were terrible, her clothes saturated with blood. She couldn’t be dead? She mustn’t be dead! He struggled to reach her, but he couldn’t move. His vision was dimming. His strength was ebbing. “Coral,” he thought, and then “Noah…”
In the playground, a very small boy waited. Where were his mum and dad? He clutched a pink guitar. His friends had all met their waiting parents, but his weren’t there. He started to cry.
“No mummy yet, Noah?” He ran to the teacher and buried his face against her. She held him gently for a few minutes, and then took him indoors while she tried to find out why there was no-one to collect him.
In the High Street, amid the blare of sirens and the bustle of paramedics, a mobile phone rang unanswered in a beaded handbag.

Review – The year I met you

Author: Cecelia Ahern
Enjoyment score 7/10
This book is about Jasmine, a young woman who is (unwittingly) on a journey of self-discovery. She travels from a place where she’s falling apart but doesn’t realise it, towards a destination where she is once more enjoying life. During this period, her struggles affect the lives of those close to her, principally the man who lives opposite her (Matt Marshall, the ‘you’ of the title), her older sister, Heather, (who has Down’s Syndrome) and an über-sexy recruitment consultant.
The story is told by Jasmine in the first person, and it’s told powerfully. It has the same effect in places as someone shouting in the reader’s ear, which can be off-putting, but we go on listening because we want to know what happens next. And there is a twist. The narrator consistently refers to the man who lives opposite as ‘You’, very rarely mentioning his name. So, even as the reader is busy living the turmoil that is the narrator’s emotional life, we are also being urged to identify with the neighbour – for who is the narrator addressing if not the reader?
Jasmine’s character is well drawn. The author has used her actions to demonstrate who she is. Just to make sure that we don’t miss the way Jasmine is harming herself, the author describes the coping strategies used by Jasmine’s sister, Heather, to live a fulfilling life despite her disability. We are given a clear feeling for Jasmine’s inner life. It’s well worked out, and has a depth that repays exploration.
The characters of Heather and Matt Marshall are adequately described; the other ‘characters’ are plot devices.
I must confess that this book rather baffles me. When I started reading I was irritated by the central character, who is self-destructive in an erratic, hyper-emotional fashion. By the time I finished, I was wondering just how many of her characteristics I shared…

Autumn

Audrey left Sybil asleep in the chair and went quietly into the back garden, bathed in October sunlight. She had known for nearly two years that her mother was passing into the desolate winter of dementia.
First, she had forgotten little things; names and places; she had lost track of the day of the week.
Next, it had been, “What’s that on my ham?”
“It’s mustard, Mum.”
“I don’t like mustard.”
“Mum, you’ve had mustard on your ham for ever. You love it!”
Sybil had given her such a look.
“I don’t like it.” And she had scraped it off, until there was no trace of it on the ham.
Today was the first time that Sybil hadn’t recognized her. She hadn’t been distressed, just puzzled. “Who are you, dear? I don’t know you, do I?”
Holding back tears had been hard. Now that her mum was safely asleep, Audrey let them spill down her cheeks. She sat herself on the wall of the fishpond and gazed at the four koi and the single goldfish.
The koi, red, black, white, metallic gold, slipped through the water, their paths traced by slow ripples that rolled across the pond, making a panelled lattice of silver through which the fish slid, now visible, now hidden by light and movement. A vine’s reflection, leaves hard-edged against the black and silver water, seemed more solid than the plant itself as it strove sunwards from the same root in the bank. The moment of reality shimmered. Red, black, white, metallic gold, appeared – and vanished.
Audrey devoured the image, fattening her spirit with its beauty as an animal gorges before winter to survive the cold and hunger.
There was a wail from the house. “Audrey. Audrey?”
She sighed, gently, and went indoors.