Short Story: Never Alone.

This ghost story by Pat Rogers has a powerful emotional charge. Read it a second time and you’ll find depth and subtlety.

Patricia Rogers' Weblog

It began as a presence. There was nothing to see or hear, nothing to feel even, yet she knew that it was there. She was being watched. When other people were around her she found it harder to sense, but as soon as she was alone again it was there. Watching. Listening. For a time she could shake it off by turning her head to reassure herself that there was nothing there, and she could carry on with what she was doing, but slowly the conviction grew in her that the presence was waiting for a response. It wanted her to say something. She told nobody, if her mind was wandering then it was best kept to herself, so she went to work, cooked, met friends, did the school run, slept, and told herself that nothing was wrong. After all, if she could see nothing, hear nothing, what could possibly…

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The Big Win

John Garrett knew that he was a boring man. A fifty year old accountant, he lived in an average semi with his wife Sue, who had been his first (and only) love. If he could have managed it, he would doubtless have had two point four children, but as fractional children don’t happen, he’d settled for two. He was boring, but he was comfortable and that was enough for him.

He felt, therefore, a profound shock, a sense of disbelief, and an emotion that he belatedly recognised as terror, when he saw one Saturday morning that his lottery entry had won the jackpot. He checked the numbers on the screen. He checked the numbers on his ticket. He double-checked the dates on both. Everything matched. His eyes kept straying to the figure at the top of the screen. “Jackpot £18,279,317”.

His hands were shaking.

“Darling. Would you come here a minute, please? I want you to look at something for me.”

Sue came into the room. Her smile changed to a look of concern as she saw his face. “What is it, love? You look quite pale.”

He pointed at the screen and the ticket. She examined both. She ran her tongue over lips that were suddenly dry. Hesitantly she said, “We seem to have won? Is that it?”

“The numbers match. I bought the ticket for last night’s draw and the dates match. That means we’ve won.”

They looked at each other. Abruptly things had become different. There were – possibilities.

Suddenly Sue grinned. It was a feral expression, showing all her teeth. “John, we’ve won. We’ve bloody won.” She grabbed him, kissed him, pulling him close, rubbing against him. “Fuck me, we’ve bloody won. Eighteen million bloody quid. Fuck me.” She pushed him away. “Well get on the bloody phone to them, then. What are you waiting for?”

John picked up the ticket. He felt a little calmer, less tremulous. Now that Sue had seen the ticket and confirmed it matched the draw, he could start to allow himself to believe that maybe they really had been ridiculously, unjustifiably, lucky. Maybe they really had won.

It was John who insisted that they should remain anonymous; he said that otherwise they would receive a flood of begging letters. This thought attracted rather than repelled Sue, who would have enjoyed wielding the power of patronage as she flaunted their new-found wealth. But John was firm, and this was so unusual that Sue capitulated. It was nice to have an assertive husband, as long as he confined it to matters that didn’t really matter too much to her. And in return for anonymity, she extracted a promise that they would move to a bigger, better house; she knew that John, as soon as he’d considered it, would have argued in favour of staying where they were.

Sue handed in her notice at work the day after the money was safely banked. John didn’t. He liked the routine, and his secretary was an attractive brunette. In fact, now that he was rich she seemed even sexier. Wealth brought an expanded horizon. He had been used to suppressing thoughts of luxuries; now he could afford them.

Sue didn’t mind him continuing with his job for a while, as she didn’t particularly want him under her feet at home, but there were limits. After a few months, she felt demeaned by his continuing to work, undervalued. Didn’t he want to spend time with her?

It was evening, several weeks after they had moved to their new home. John had just returned from work. Sue poured them each a drink, then snuggled up close to him on the over-stuffed sofa.

“Do you remember what it was like before we married?”

John smiled, and slid an arm around her. “Oh yes,” he said. “I remember very well. What plans we had!”

“Do you feel that maybe – now we have money – you might like to do some of the things we dreamed about?”

“Which things did you have in mind?” John took a mouthful of single malt scotch and savoured it. How delightful that he could drink it every evening without considering the expense! He ran his hand over the inside of Sue’s thigh. She kissed him, hard.

“You remember how we always said we’d go to Africa, and see elephants and lions, and the migrating wildebeest? I sent off for details of a safari and they came this morning. Would you like to look at them? After dinner perhaps?”

“Mm, maybe.” He kissed her. There were better things to do than look at brochures…

When John opened his briefcase at work next morning, he found an envelope full of glossy publicity for Safari DeLuxe Tours. There was a quotation for a six week holiday. John winced automatically when he saw how much it was, before he remembered that it no longer mattered. He could afford it.

He read the brochures at lunchtime. Although it was expensive, and many stays were in comfortable hotels or game lodges, he counted seven nights under canvas, and twenty-three days when they needed to be in a 4×4 vehicle by 6 o’clock in the morning. That was definitely not his idea of first class travel.

His secretary, Dawn, came in; he’d never managed to persuade her to knock before entering. He would have been embarrassed to shuffle the brochures into his case, but he surreptitiously slid the itinerary with its tell-tale price under some other papers.

“Ooh! Are you going to Africa?”

“We’re thinking of it. It’s Sue’s idea; it’s not really my cup of tea.” He smiled at Dawn.

“You know what?” she said. “You’ve been quite different the last couple of months. Ever so cheerful and nice.” John glanced at her suspiciously, but her face was candid. She gave him a grin. “I suppose I’d better give you these letters for signing and get back to this month’s sales figures.”

John stuffed the details of the African holiday into his case. Perhaps he should suggest that Sue went by herself? Possibly he might – but no, he didn’t want to cheat on Sue. He shook his head firmly. Sue wouldn’t be happy if he said he wasn’t coming with her.

She wasn’t.

It was their first row for years, and ended with Sue locking herself in the main bedroom. John sat and drank scotch. She was being an unreasonable bitch. Who’d bought the lottery ticket anyway? When he woke up at 5 a.m., he was sitting in an armchair, cold, and with a pounding headache. He took ibuprofen, and black coffee, and tried to settle himself in the guest bedroom, but it was no good; he couldn’t sleep.

He gave up trying at seven o’clock, and went into the kitchen. Sue was already there. She looked at him, stony-faced, but spoke quietly.

“I’m sorry, John, but I was extremely disappointed. I know you’re not as keen on travelling as I am, but last night was as though you’d trampled on our dreams together.” She sighed, and then added, “Can I make you a coffee? You look terrible. I’m sorry if you had a bad night.”

John felt contrite. He was just about to apologise to Sue, and say that he would go with her to Africa, or indeed, to the ends of the earth if it would make her happy, when she placed her finger on her lips to silence him.

“No. Don’t say that you’ll come. You’ve spoilt the dream; that’s gone now. It’s my dream, but not yours. I’ll go alone. Perhaps we’ll find somewhere else that you’d rather visit.”

“I’m sorry,” he managed, as she handed him a mug of steaming black coffee. She nodded.

“Let’s just drop the subject. Do you fancy some breakfast? Some bacon, and a couple of fried eggs?”

It was several weeks before Sue left for Africa. John waited a couple of nights, and then invited Dawn to come for a drink. They were enjoying themselves, so it seemed completely natural that they should go from the cocktail bar to a restaurant. John relished Dawn’s uncomplicated delight in the deferential service and the elaborate cuisine. And if he kissed her when he’d taken her back to her flat in a taxi, it was chastely on her cheek.

You couldn’t in good conscience say that Dawn led him on; she let him set the pace. Had John been disposed to stay faithful to Sue, Dawn would have been disappointed but no worse. She enjoyed life, and saw no reason to deny herself life’s pleasures. If she thought of Sue at all it was to consider that taking a six-week holiday without John was just asking for trouble. Presumably sex no longer interested her.

Sue wasn’t able to keep in touch every day – not all the lodges had wifi, and, of course, there were those nights in tents that had dismayed John so much. However, she called him several times a week, on Skype where possible. She looked fit, bronzed and sleek. Despite the drying effect of the sun and the wind, her face looked less lined, more youthful. John was glad she was finding the holiday satisfying despite his absence.

It was four weeks after her flight out, Saturday morning, nine o’clock, when the doorbell rang.

“Do want me to go?” asked Dawn.

“No, it’ll only be the postman. I’m not expecting anything. They’ll go away.”

Dawn chuckled. “You randy so-and-so!”

The doorbell rang again. John levered himself out of bed.

“I suppose I’d better see what they want.” He pulled on his dressing gown.

The doorbell rang a third time. Dawn looked irritated. “They’re a bit of nuisance, this time on a Saturday!”

It was a tall gentleman in a smart suit at the door. His expression was serious.

“Mr Garrett?”


“My name is Mark Cornforth. I’m the General Manager of Safari DeLuxe Tours. May I come in please?”

They seated themselves in the lounge.

“I’m very sorry, Mr Garrett, but I have some bad news for you. As I’m sure you’re aware, we can’t make our safaris completely safe – we are, after all, working close to large, powerful and dangerous creatures. Sometimes there are accidents.

I’m afraid we experienced such an accident last night. For some reason your wife left the tent and wandered away. One of our guides noticed and followed quickly to bring her back, but he was too late. There was a lion close by that attacked her, and killed her before we could shoot it. I’m extremely sorry.”

John shook as though feverish. “Are you sure?”

“I’m afraid there’s no doubt. The tour guide identified her for the Kenyan authorities.”

John covered his face with his hands. His pulse was racing. Dead! And he’d been…the thought nauseated him.

“We’ve made arrangements for the body to be returned to the UK. I imagine that the police will want you to identify it, just as a matter of routine you understand.”

John nodded. His cheeks were wet with tears. He ushered Mark Cornforth out of the house, and wept.

“What’s happened, John? What’s the matter?”

“It’s Sue. She’s been killed.”

Dawn covered her mouth with both hands. “Oh, no! Oh, John! How can I help you?”

“I think – if you just go, and leave me on my own for a bit. Do you mind?”

“Are you sure?”

John nodded.

The body arrived in England about a week later, and sure enough, John was asked to identify it. The pathologist drew back the cover and John looked down at the still features.

His head spun. The buzzing in his ears rose in a vicious crescendo. As his legs buckled and the whirling blackness claimed him, he croaked, “But this isn’t my wife!”

From a liberal point of view – December 2016

Health warning

This is my personal view, as a liberal with a small “l”, of one aspect of our current political situation.

*       *       *

The resurgence of populism

2016 has been an annus horribilis for us liberals. We have been stunned, first by the Brexit referendum, and then by President-elect Trump’s victory in the USA. When we look at Europe, we see a surge in support for populist far-right parties. Why? And what can we do about it?

Let’s start by thinking about the differences between progressive economic policies, and progressive social policies.

When I say progressive economic policies I mean policies that tend to reduce inequality in wealth and/or income; traditionally called left-wing policies.

When I say progressive cultural policies I mean policies that tend to make society more tolerant of difference (for example, by being in favour of immigration, by championing women’s rights, gay rights, BAME rights etc).

You might imagine that people who advocate progressive economic policies would also support progressive cultural policies, but sociologists have found that this is not, actually, the case. Some do, and some don’t. There is no correlation between the two at all.

This is important.

Think of people suffering poverty as a result of the way business and government interact. People on zero hours contracts, for example, or people on the minimum wage in London.

Now, suppose nothing is done to reduce their poverty, but progressive cultural policies are implemented.

In the first place, because nothing has been done to help them economically, they will all be unhappy, and many will be angry.

For some of them, perhaps about half, socially progressive legislation will be welcome but far from sufficient (remember the maxim “It’s the economy, stupid”). The remainder, who oppose socially progressive legislation, will feel that it adds insult to injury. The harsh fact that they are still in poverty will exacerbate the feeling that the progressive legislation is “Political correctness gone mad”. This means that policies that deliver progressive social results but don’t deliver progressive economic results will not satisfy those who are experiencing economic hardship, and will outrage some.

This unhappiness and outrage will be fruitful ground for unscrupulous politicians to exploit by blaming the economic hardship on the minority groups. “You’re poor, because immigrants are stealing your jobs,” for example.

“Political correctness gone mad”.

Are we liberals guilty of that?

One supporter of Brexit to whom I have spoken made the point that until they won the Brexit referendum, people like her couldn’t speak out and argue their case. They were vilified as ‘racist’ and ‘xenophobic’. After the referendum she felt that she could argue for tight controls on immigration because she knew that many people felt as she did.

She has a point. It is democratically legitimate to argue the case for tight controls on immigration. There are all sorts of arguments that can be made, from the strain on infrastructure such as houses, schools and healthcare provision, to the change in our national culture and identity that high immigration levels bring. Not everyone who makes such arguments is a racist or xenophobe. How dare we, the very people who should champion tolerance, instead use ridicule and insult to silence people who want to make these arguments? No wonder they’re angry. No wonder they’re hostile.

And, while we’re at it, let’s think about those who genuinely are racist and xenophobic. Internet memes often refer to such people as assholes. But, guess what? All they’re doing is what humans have evolved to do; be wary of the stranger. For nearly all the history of the human race this has been a survival trait. Of course, it’s no longer helpful and could be disastrous given modern weapons technology, but it’s human and natural. The only way the attitude will change is by education, not by hostility and ridicule.

So, how do we move forward?

Firstly, the issue of massive – and growing – inequality of wealth must be tackled. There really is no way round this.

Secondly, while continuing to make the case for socially liberal policies, we must remember that our opponents’ views are democratically legitimate. We must be respectful, and we must be open. Almost certainly some of their arguments could contribute to policies that will lead to a happier, more stable and harmonious society.

Thirdly, while racism and xenophobia are anathema and have to be opposed, the only way to eliminate them is by education.

*       *       *


I would imagine that, as you’ve read this far, you have been stimulated by this blog post. If you have, I would be grateful if you would click ‘Like’. If you feel that it is a worthwhile contribution to political debate, I invite you to share it or reblog it.

Thank you for visiting ‘Autumn Leaves’, my blog.



Winter by Wendy Pratt

This is a tender, optimistic poem. Let’s all pass on the baton of love!

Abegail Morley

Sheena1Artwork: Sheena Clover

Dog walk on Christmas day

First light, there is the sunrise;
a thin lip of white, warming to colour
in the grey lane. And my dog knows
no difference between this day
and any other. The sheep rumble
in their woolly world, or lay
like granite ghosts along the hedgerows
and the stars fade to blue in a sky
pink enough to warn shepherds.

On main street the delicate magic
of Christmas lights blink against
a new dawn. The village Christmas tree
bows gently in the breeze. The pub
and church are sleeping still,
but some houses are waking,
some children are up, some parents
are bleary, bolstered by coffee.

Other dog walkers raise a gloved hand,
touch their hats, smile and wish
the Christmas day upon us. Any ill will
is drained away with the dark. It is like
love being passed hand to hand in…

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Santa’s Problem – a Gwendolen story

Several readers enjoyed ‘The Wonky Wand’ which introduced Gwendolen the fairy. I felt like contributing to the festive mood, so here’s another story about her. After all, as Lynn Love commented, everybody loves a sweary fairy!
As a practising scientist I hadn’t believed in fairies – until I met Gwendolen. Eight inches tall, dumpy and pasty-faced, with lop-sided iridescent wings, she was undoubtedly real. Meeting her had been entertaining as well as an eye-opener. And, of course, I couldn’t forget that she had arranged the introduction to Paul, my husband.
I had never expected to hear from her again, but one December evening, when Paul was out, I heard a crash from the bedroom.
“Oh, bugger.” I heard a ripping sound. “Oh, BUGGER!”
There was Gwendolen, red-faced and with a comprehensively torn dress. “Misjudged the landing, and got caught up in your bedside lamp,” she explained. “I’m glad you can see me. I thought you might have lost the gift; you know, with Paul and all that. Physical satisfaction tends to make discernment less acute. I hope you are enjoying life with Paul?” She peered at me a little doubtfully.
The subject seemed to embarrass her, and I was tempted to tease her by asking her to explain what she meant. But she looked worried, so I just nodded, smiled and said, “Yes, thank you.”
She had plainly made an effort. Her hair was brushed. The star on her wand twinkled quite prettily. It was a shame about the torn dress.
“It’s Santa,” she said. “He has a big problem.” She looked hopefully at me.
“Santa. Um. Gwendolen, are you telling me that Santa is real?”
Gwendolen eyed me up. “I do sometimes forget that you’re not eight years old. Yes, Santa’s real and, yes, he does deliver presents.” She folded her arms, daring me to disbelieve.
“But Gwendolen, love, surely Santa couldn’t travel fast enough to deliver all those presents in a single twenty four hour period?”
“Well of course, he couldn’t. D’uh! How could you run a business like that? A factory geared up to producing for delivery on a single day of the year? Bonkers. What would you do with the elves the rest of the time? No, production takes place steadily throughout the year, and parcels are despatched every day on time-lapse delivery.”
“Elves, Gwendolen?”
“Yes, well let’s not say too much about them. Some of us are very concerned that Santa will lose control of them, and then where will we be? He claims that elfin safety is his top priority, but I’m not convinced.”
“And time-lapse delivery. It sounds neat, but how does it work?”
“You pop the package into the despatcher, the computer attaches space-time co-ordinates, and the delivery system then transfers the package to those co-ordinates. That’s where the problem lies. The despatcher uses a quantum computer and Santa’s wife, Mary,…”
“Not Mary Christmas?” I breathed.
“No, don’t be silly, she’s Mrs Mary Claus, anyway, she spilled coffee on the computer, and the qubits decohered and, well, there’s going to be some disappointed children this Christmas. Unless you can help.”
“If Santa’s really using a quantum computer, I doubt I can help. We humans only have experimental models, and I would never be allowed to use one.”
“Santa’s head of IT said it could be done by ordinary human computers if we could link enough together.” She screwed up her face in thought. “Massively parallel computing, I think he said it was.”
“How many would we need?”
“About a thousand.”
“Whoo! That’s a lot of computers. The only way we could do that would be with a botnet, and a big one at that.”
Now, I’m not a computer scientist, but I know one or two. There’s Chloe, who’s studying computing and there’s Amanda, who’s up for anything that looks like fun. They might have access to a big enough network.
“Where will the data come from, Gwendolen?”
She pointed at the floor. A DVD was lying there. “That’s why I hit the lamp,” she explained. “It’s a big thing to carry while you’re flying.”
“And how do we return the processed data to Santa?”
“Same way. One of those pretty, shiny discs.”
“It will take time, Gwendolen. I’ll have to ring my friends.”
“That’s alright. Paul’s never back from the Golf Club committee until eleven o’clock.” Her voice died away as I looked at her.
“How do you know about Paul and the Golf Club? Have you been…” I wondered how to ask her politely whether she’d been spying on us.
Have you ever seen a fairy looking shifty? Gwendolen looked at the floor, shuffled her feet, gave her wand a guilty twirl. “Well, you always feel interested in the people whose wishes you’ve granted. You want to know how they’re getting on. And I haven’t been here while you’ve been…you know.”
I didn’t altogether believe her. In fact, I didn’t believe her at all. “Oh, Gwendolen,” I sighed.
Amanda thought the whole thing was a great joke. I don’t know whose computers she hijacked, but the following day she rang me especially to tell me to watch the evening news. Apparently Russian computers had hacked the CIA. I didn’t want to know. All I needed was to download the data and burn it onto a DVD.
Gwendolen came back for it the following evening. I was sitting at the computer in the study when I heard a cough. There she was, sitting behind me. Wordlessly, I passed her the DVD.
“Christmas is saved,” she murmured. “Thank you so much. I won’t stay. I can feel Paul coming.” Her little face softened. “I’m really glad your marriage is working out so well,” she said. “You know, your wish was only the start; all the rest, you’ve managed for yourselves. Good-bye – must fly!” She vanished just as Paul came in.
“Is that a new perfume? Nice!” He nuzzled his face into my neck.
Gwendolen, don’t you dare!

Shock News

“Joshua, get a move on. We’re going to be late!”
Maureen called downstairs as she tried to wrestle her daughter’s reluctant arm into the sleeve of her raincoat.
“Ow, Mummy, you’re hurting.”
“I’m sorry, Hannah, but can you try and help rather than just squiggling about? Look, here’s the armhole, you do it.”
Solemn-eyed, little Hannah tried.
“It doesn’t reach, Mummy. I told you.”
“Joshua, what on earth are you doing? Come up here and put your coat and shoes on.”
Maureen seized Hannah’s arm, tucked it just a little further back, so that the hand went into the sleeve. “Push,” she said. Hannah pushed and her arm slid into place. She looked at Maureen and her lower lip trembled. “You hurted me, Mummy.”
Joshua emerged from his bedroom holding a model fighter plane, and ran up the stairs. “And the F-16’s chasing the MiG in a seventy degree climb. Eeeeeeoww!”
“Joshua!” She snatched the plane from his hand, popped it down on the table in the hall. “Shoes. Coat. Now!” Joshua scowled, but did as he was told.
It was raining. It was cold. They were late. She chivvied them into the car.
“Mummy’s going to drive you to school now. If you make a fuss I shall probably run somebody over and kill them, so BE QUIET!”
Maureen knew shouting at them was unwise, but at least they shut up. She turned the key in the ignition. The engine coughed once. She turned the key again. Nothing. Third time for luck? Nothing. She took a deep breath.
“Right. We’ll have to walk to school. Out you get, Josh. Hannah! Climb out the same side as Josh, so you’re on the pavement.”
“I don’t want to walk, Mummy. I’m too tired. Can I go in the buggy?”
“Joshua, I told you to leave the plane at home. Go and post it through the letterbox. Hannah, if I push you to school in the buggy, all the other girls will think you’re a baby.”
Hannah pouted. “I could get out down the road and you could hide it,” she suggested.
They had walked about a hundred metres down the road when Sally pulled up in her bright yellow Fiat. She grinned at them.
“Do you want a lift, Mo?”
“Gosh, thanks, yes. You’re a life-saver, Sal!”
As Maureen scrambled out with the children, Sally said, “I’ll wait and give you a lift to work if you like, Mo.”
Maureen shook her head. “Thanks, but I must go back to the house to pick up my stuff before I go in.”
“That’s okay. I work flexi, remember?”
“Thanks. That’s really kind.”
Maureen knew that it was her fault they were late. She’d been worried about her doctor’s appointment this afternoon, and (stupidly) she’d delayed making arrangements for the children to be picked up after school. That had meant frantic phone calls to friends before school, until Pat had saved her bacon – but by then they were late.
It was a busy day. Maureen felt wrung out by the time she left work to visit the doctor. And he confirmed what she’d thought.
“Yes, Mrs Rogers, you’re definitely expecting a baby. Number three, isn’t it? The others are Joshua and Hannah, yes?”
‘How am I going to tell Nigel?’ she thought. ‘Only last week he was saying how nice it was that the children were growing up and we could enjoy some time together again.’
“It’s tough with three, isn’t it? Are you happy that you’ll be able to cope? I mean, there are steps that can be taken…”
“Are you suggesting I have an abortion?”
“No, no. That’s a decision that only you can make. But you would need to decide fairly quickly if you wanted to consider the possibility.”
“Yes, well I delayed coming in until I was sure, because you fitted me with the coil six months ago and I thought everything was taken care of!”
“No form of contraception is perfect I’m afraid, and you had been on the pill rather a long time.”
“Anyway, I don’t want an abortion. Absolutely not. Not a chance. In fact, I’m outraged that you should even suggest it.”
Dr Thomson did his best not to shrug. Maureen glared at him, and stormed out, bumping into someone as she rounded the corner into the waiting room.
It was Sally. And in tears. Maureen stretched out a tentative arm. Sally collapsed against her and sobbed. Maureen held her, then hugged her and stroked her hair, as she would have done Hannah.
“Do you want to come and have a coffee with me, Sally? I’m sure Pat will look after my two for a bit longer.” She crossed her fingers as she spoke; she knew that Pat normally went to Pilates on a Thursday, and was always rushing to feed the family before she left. Sally lifted a woebegone face to her.
“Can I really? Oh, thank you, Mo.”
While Sally drove zigzag up the road, Maureen rang Pat. “I’m so sorry, Pat, but something’s come up. Could you be an angel, and look after my two for another hour, please?” There was a brief silence, and then a reply. Maureen listened carefully. “Yes. Yes, Pat, I’ll take Simon to football on Saturday at nine o’clock, and Ellen to ballet at eleven. I really appreciate that you’re putting yourself out for me. Thank you so much.” As she ended the call, she puffed out her cheeks with embarrassment. Still, at least now she could give Sally the attention she needed.
When they were home, she sat Sally down in the comfy armchair, gave her a box of tissues, turned on the electric fire and made them each a coffee. Sally had wiped her eyes; she tried to look her usual bright self.
“I’m sorry, Mo, to impose on you like this.”
Maureen gave Sally a hug. “It’s no trouble,” she said.
“It was just such a shock, what the doctor said. And I don’t know what I’m going to do. What’s Peter going to say?”
“Surely he’ll support you, won’t he? We all will!”
“It’s just what he said last week, Mo. He said, ‘I don’t know what I’d do if you became pregnant. Leave you, I expect!’ He pretended he was joking, but I just don’t know. And anyway, I’m not sure I want to have a baby. I don’t feel grown-up enough.”
“You’re going to have a baby, Sal?”
Sally glanced up quickly. “Yes. Yes, I am. Didn’t I say?”
Maureen shook her head.
“Sally, of course you’re grown-up enough! You’re much more organised than me!”
Sally huddled into the armchair, as though cold.
“How do you feel about having a child, Sal, I mean if it was just your choice? You know, they’re quite fun to have around. And I reckon Peter would be a jolly good dad.”
Sally looked thoughtful. “A bit of me feels really excited at the thought. But I’m so worried about Peter. You’re right, though, he’d be a brilliant dad. He’d be down on the floor playing with them straightaway!”
“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but are you another casualty of the coil? I’ve heard that the health centre has had more than one person unexpectedly pregnant.”
“I didn’t know that. Gosh! No, I’m on the pill. But you remember Pete and I had a weekend in Cardiff a couple of months ago? Well, I forgot to take them with me, and I thought, ‘Well, missing one won’t matter…’ So it’s my own fault I suppose.”
“You know what I think, Sal? I think you should tell Peter tonight. But tell him it’s good news, and remind him of all the things you’ll enjoy together as a family.”
Sally sat up straighter. “I think I probably shall. You know, Mo, I’ve sometimes envied you, with your two lovely kids. You always look happy together. Even this morning, when you were late and walking to school in the rain you were cheerfully pointing something out to Hannah, and Josh was skipping along.”
Maureen smiled.
“Actually, Sally, I’m in the same boat as you. Doctor Thomson confirmed that I’m expecting just before I bumped into you.”
“Wow! Number three. Are you pleased? No, don’t answer that – I can see! You look delighted!”
“Nigel doesn’t know yet. I shall tell him tonight. I bought a bottle of wine on Saturday as my secret weapon!”
“Good idea. I might try that with Peter.”
There was a ring at the front door. Maureen went to answer it. Sally, in the lounge, heard the clatter as Josh burst in and grabbed his plane from the hall table, heard Hannah’s voice lifted up yelling “Mummy, we had fish fingers and chips for tea. Special treat!”
She smiled.

Review – My Husband Next Door

Author: Catherine Alliott
Enjoyment rating: 6/10
This is a literary novel; I think. It’s a love story (definitely a love story) but not a romantic love story (on the whole). You may by now have noticed that I find it difficult to categorise…
As the plot is important, and there’s something of a twist at the end, I shan’t provide any spoilers. Without giving away anything essential, I can say that the story is about Eleanor (Ella) who lives in a ramshackle farmhouse with her two teenage children. Her husband is a famous artist, Sebastian Montclair, who is now struggling to finish any paintings at all. He lives in a converted outhouse of the farm. Ella’s parents have a dysfunctional marriage, which reaches a critical point at the start of the novel. The story explores how the combination of circumstances affects Ella.
Ella is written in the first person. She is a maelstrom of disorderly emotions and the writing evokes this very well. In fact, at times I had to stop reading for several hours to calm down. She is by a long way the most believable character in the book.
Her husband, Sebastian, doesn’t feature very much in the action, but he’s very much at the heart of the story. The author uses great skill in showing how all the characters are aware of his presence, and how they respond to it.
The other characters are to a certain extent caricatures, although they permit some entertaining comedy. I particularly enjoyed one scene where Ella is receiving acupuncture treatment from her best friend (Acupuncture? What could possibly go wrong…?). Not all the comedy is successful, unless you like the ‘cringe with embarrassment’ school of comedy (which, personally, I don’t).
The reason I describe this as a literary novel is that it attempts a psychological rationale for the characters’ fates; it’s not simply about the outcome, but the way the outcome is achieved. There is a sense of negative actions and attitudes prompting further negativity in a downward spiral, and positive actions and attitudes similarly prompting a virtuous upward spiral. I’m not sure I found it convincing for these particular characters in their specific situation.
Even more importantly, I wasn’t convinced by the psychology of the painting, and the inability to finish. Never mind, it doesn’t spoil the read. This is definitely worth borrowing from the library!

Who Am I?

This is a poem by my friend, Patricia Rogers. It hurts.

Patricia Rogers' Weblog

I come when you least expect me.
I watch and wait.
I take without warning.
I keep, without a backward glance.
I have no pity.
I have no mercy.
I have no thoughts.

You may cry as much as you like,
send out your salt tears
into the bleeding heart of the sea,
I will not hear.
Scream out at the injustice
of a broken world,
I will do nothing.
Your sorrow will be carried on the wind
and pass straight through my heart,
leaving no trace.
I will not reach out.
Your anger will slip over the waves,
swirling around my feet
while I stand, silent and unknowing.
I will not hit back.

While your memories slip away
into the cold, clinging mist,
I shall remain.
I shall endure.
You will bow to me.
You will succumb.


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The Discontented Vicar

I looked forward to meeting Gerald again, although my anticipation was tinged with concern. The Reverend Gerald Hall had been a student of mine a decade earlier, a good student whose comments and questions demonstrated a perceptive insight into his studies. He had also come to me, on an informal basis, for spiritual direction, and had given me the impression that he found difficulty in dealing with the usual temptations of an undergraduate. By that I don’t mean that he drank himself into a stupor three times a week, or was unusually promiscuous, merely that he held himself to very high standards, inevitably fell short, and then worried about his failure.
I had considered pointing out to him that there was a sort of arrogance about imposing higher standards on his own conduct than he expected from others, but I realised that this would only give him yet another rod with which to beat himself. We spoke together instead about grace and forgiveness, God’s grace and God’s forgiveness, which are so much more important than our own merely human endeavours.
When he graduated, he thanked me and said farewell, and I didn’t expect to hear from him again. I followed his career, though. Teachers do, you know. When you have an unusually able student, you like to know that they’re doing well and fulfilling their promise.
Gerald’s career had certainly started successfully; a curacy at Brompton Oratory followed by appointment to the living of a prominent Oxfordshire parish. And he finally married the girlfriend he’d had at University. She was a lovely girl, Stephanie, and she’d stayed with him while he vacillated as to whether he was called to celibacy. I suppose I was as pleased for her as I was for him.
We had an appointment for four o’clock in the afternoon. Prompt to the minute he knocked at the door of my rooms in college. I’d forgotten quite what a big chap he was. He loomed over me as he greeted me with a firm handshake. I noticed that there were lines on his forehead, bags under his eyes and he was pale. He came in, looked all around and I could see his muscles relax.
“It’s just the same,” he said. “The grand piano. The Jacobean desk and chair. The chintz armchairs. Just the same.”
“Unlike the occupant who is ten years older and ten years more irascible. How are you, Gerald?”
“Oh, pretty good, pretty good. Sleepless nights with the latest baby, of course. The joys of family life!”
“And Stephanie? Is she well?”
“Stephanie is in her element, thank you. In the pink.”
We sat quietly for several minutes. The gas fire popped and whistled. Several times Gerald stirred as though to speak, thought better of it, and sank back into the armchair. At last he said, “I’m struggling with the meaning of it all, Henry.”
He seemed to feel that he’d explained enough, and relapsed into silence. Having no other engagements until dinner in Hall at seven, I didn’t try to hurry him. The profanities of freshers learning to punt on the Backs drifted in through the partly open window. ‘Wanker’ seemed to be the mot du jour.
“You see, I want my ministry to make a difference. I work with all my heart and soul, and it seems totally wasted effort, because nothing changes.”
“I think I know what you mean, but I’d like to be sure. Can you give me an example?”
“How many would you like? Take hospital visits. I’m not so crass as to expect miraculous healing, but my visits seem to be counter-productive. Last Wednesday, a couple of days before I phoned you, I was visiting one of my parishioners. Lucy was a dear old lady who’d been a stalwart of the church for seventy years. She was very weak, and the end was near. I held her hand and talked gently to her. She opened her eyes and I could see that she understood what I was saying. Suddenly, her right arm jerked and her breath stopped. The look on her face, Henry! She was so frightened. She died in terror, and I had done nothing, maybe less than nothing, for her.”
He sighed and looked baffled.
“Or take prison visits. I thought I was doing so well with Roger. He was serving five years for robbery with violence after a string of convictions stretching back to his adolescence. He joined the reading group that I organised in Bedford Prison; I used to drive over there once a week. He had been one of the prison’s bad boys, but over the course of three months he changed. He became less aggressive, less antagonistic. He caused less trouble for the Prison Officers. He even repented of his past crimes.
The prison had a new governor last month. His first act was to have the cells searched. In Roger’s cell they found a well-used mobile phone, a notebook with a record of transactions involving tens of thousands of pounds, and a stash of Class A
drugs. He’d been dealing in them, not just inside prison but also outside, working through other people.”
I wondered whether to speak, but Gerald had more to tell me.
“And then there was the Community College. It took me months to persuade the head-teacher to allow me to address one of the Year Twelve classes. She was quite anti-religious, didn’t want her campus tainted by superstition. I won’t bore you with the detail, but after one lesson I was banned from the school in perpetuity.”
I felt I wanted to be bored. What on earth could dear, harmless Gerald have done?
“I think it might help me if you gave me at least a little of the detail?”
“There was a riot.”
“A riot?”
“Oh dear!”
“Henry, I feel dreadful saying this, but I’m almost coming round to that head-teacher’s point of view.”
“Don’t mince words, Gerald. Say what you mean. This whole exercise will be fruitless unless you tell me fully what’s troubling you.”
“I don’t think I believe in God any more.”
“Does that matter to you?”
He looked at me in astonishment.
“Of course it matters to me!”
Gerald was about to retort angrily when there was a splash outside and ironic cheering. It was clear that one or more of the students had fallen in the river. He laughed instead and thought about what he should say.
“I suppose it’s important to me because I’ve always lived my life with that belief. It’s guided me and motivated me. It’s why I do the work I do.”
“Work that at present is failing to satisfy you,” I pointed out.
“Yes. I suppose so.”
“Gerald, I’m going to say something that will probably shock you.” I paused a moment to let that sink in. “Religious faith is just a habit. It’s one way of thinking about the world and your own place in it. There are other ways of understanding that.
What would success look like to you? Real success, I mean, the satisfaction of your inner psychological needs?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, if there’s one thing that I know, it’s that you’re a scholar. If you’re serious about dealing with your angst, you have the intellectual capacity to imagine what your motivations are.”
Gerald looked very doubtful.
“Perhaps you’d care to join me in Hall for dinner tonight? And we can talk of happier matters. You can tell me about Stephanie and your children.”
We spent a pleasant evening together. I introduced Gerald to the Senior Common Room, where we drank perhaps one glass too many of port, and then we parted. I doubted that Gerald would be able to take the necessary action to find fulfilment. He would understand that he needed to break with his past, but would he have the courage to do it?
I heard nothing from him, although I saw that he had resigned his living.
It was nearly three years after our conversation that I met him again, quite by chance. I was touring rural pubs, and I chanced upon “The Seven Stars”. The name was a little Tolkien-esque and off-putting, but the pub had a good reputation for the quality of its beer and its food. As it was lunchtime, I entered and there, behind the bar, stood Gerald, six foot four inches of bonhomie in an open-neck check shirt.
He leaned across and clapped me on the shoulder, beaming. He insisted that my beer was on the house.
“You found out what you wanted to do then?” I asked him. “You know, I’d never envisaged you as a publican!”
“Oh no,” he said, “I’m not. I’m just helping out. Stephanie is the licensee; she had some family money and sank it into this place. I’m training to be a nurse. And, you know what? I’m loving it!”


Not even a fleeting micro-expression betrayed Bella’s irritation at Mark’s clumsy attempts to strengthen his sales pitch by his body language. As she responded to him, she was by turns animated, thoughtful, diffident, all without thinking as she observed and assessed his performance.

“My goodness you’re bad, Mark,” was all she said when he finished.

He blushed, the carmine flush an ugly contrast to his ginger hair. Bella read anger as well as humiliation in his eyes. The professional appraisal conveyed by her expression was a perfect mask for the secret pleasure of seeing him squirm, powerless despite his fury.

Bella looked down at the sheet in front of her and made a note.

“Hand your badge in at reception as you leave, please.”

She continued to write. There was a pause, and then she heard his chair scrape over the carpet as he pushed it back and stood up. She heard him hesitate, clear his throat, felt him change his mind, turn and trudge out of the room.

“Another loser, eh?” Ben stuck his head round the door.

Bella looked up, a little smile on her lips.

“Better for them to know sooner rather than later,” she observed. Ben was one of her successes. She’d spotted him three years earlier, nurtured him, showed him how to exploit his talent. It hadn’t been long before he was the company’s best salesman, topping the rankings for nine consecutive months.

Automatically she mirrored his gestures, not copying but echoing, so subtly that he was conscious only of her interest, concern and admiration. He preened himself.

“I’ve a report to finish, then how about a drink?”

“The Hopbinders in half an hour?”

“Sounds good.”

Bella arrived at the pub a few minutes late. There was no sign of Ben, and the bar was almost empty. Was Ben becoming complacent, perhaps? That thought was so unpleasant that she immediately substituted the more palatable explanation that Ben had received an urgent phone call from their transatlantic partners. Still, she would punish him anyway, just to make sure that he knew that he mustn’t take her for granted. She swung her feet irritably while sipping a tonic water. Under the circumstances there was no risk in revealing her true feelings.

Bella never watched the entrance when she was waiting for someone. Let them seek me out, she reasoned, and they will value me more. As a consequence, the first she knew of the new arrival was the sound of a handbag being placed on the bar.

“Assertive. Proprietorial almost,” Bella summarised to herself.

The voice ordering a drink was musical, clear and pleasant to hear. Bella admired the control. There were subtle undercurrents of persuasion and dominance, so discreet that the unwary listener would hear only a candid warmth. The voice sounded somehow familiar; but all great voices have similarities, reasoned Bella.

Where on earth was Ben? Could he have had an accident? The thought prompted a spasm of aggravation. It would be bloody irritating if he’d laid himself up at this crucial moment. The company needed his skills for the North American deal.

The door swung open cheerily. Bella knew without needing to look that Ben had entered.

“Hi, Bella!”

Bella stayed still and silent, waiting for him to join her. He didn’t. What was he playing at?

“Great dress! Who are we meeting?”

“What the hell’s going on?” thought Bella. “I’m in my suit, just as I was when he last saw me. And why is he standing at the bar, rather than joining me?”

She rose, and without glancing towards the bar walked towards the ladies’ toilet. She was damned if she would do more than that to attract his attention. Anyway, he was probably already past his peak as a salesman – and as a sexual partner.

As she pushed at the door, she heard a woman’s laugh. It was warm, indulgent, calculated to engulf the male ego with a numbing sweetness. Despite herself, Bella turned.

Ben stood at the bar, grinning broadly at a blonde woman in her early thirties. Her hair was shingled, accentuating the fine bone structure of her face. Her lips were exquisite, seeming to shimmer between bee-sting fullness and the merriness of a schoolgirl. Her dress was indeed great, simple but masterful. For all her money, Bella had rarely indulged herself with such an extravagant piece of couture.

Bella’s hand stole to her mouth. It was uncanny. The woman looked exactly like her.

But Bella’s complexion, though still excellent, lacked the freshness of the stranger’s. Her fine bone structure was becoming full of character. Not all the hairdresser’s art could quite capture the vibrant sheen of the stranger’s blonde hair. And how long was it since Bella had laughed with anything other than contempt?

Ben looked across at her.

“My God,” he said.