Behind closed doors

This story is about 1600 words long, and will take about ten minutes to read.

Behind closed doors

Making a break for it 180220

Milly enjoyed housework, even ironing. She especially liked cooking. It was how she nurtured her husband and her daughter. The thought that she was providing what they needed was almost as good as the cuddles that she longed for so much. Still, she was luckier than some of the women she used to know, who were divorced, or never married. No man to take care of them. She looked at her rings: the engagement ring with its large sapphire set between two diamonds – “Each diamond is a whole carat,” Gideon had boasted, “You’re a lucky woman” – and the thick band of twenty-two carat gold that was her wedding ring.

She polished the dining table first, so that Gideon wouldn’t notice the smell of lavender and beeswax at dinner; he was fussy about that. She gazed at the mirror finish with satisfaction. Even Gideon would struggle to find fault, she thought.

Before going into the lounge to dust it, she trotted upstairs, and rummaged in the chest where she kept spare pillows. There, at the bottom, was a photograph of Abigail in last year’s school play. Milly’s breath came fast, and her face flushed as she took the photo into the living room.

She hesitated a moment at the door, looking at the picture currently in pride of place at the centre of the mantelpiece. It was a professional portrait of Gideon standing very tall between Abigail and Milly. She slid it to one side, and set the battered frame holding Abigail’s picture in its place. It would have to be hidden away again before Gideon returned, of course.

Over her bread and cheese lunch, she pulled out a much-folded letter from the school, an invitation for Abigail to visit Italy in the summer. They planned to rehearse a play for performance in Milan. Milly looked again at how much it would cost.

“£750,” she murmured.

She had no idea how much Gideon earned, but she thought they could probably afford to send Abi. So why had Gideon been so much against the trip?

Milly had quaked when she had rung the school and made an appointment for a meeting with the Head of Drama. She had known Gideon wouldn’t be happy.

He hadn’t been.

“You stupid woman. Of course she can’t go. She’s far too young. That teacher probably wants to take advantage of her when she’s vulnerable, and we won’t be able to do anything to stop him.”

Greatly daring, she had ventured, “Is that really likely, dear?”

Gideon’s eyes had narrowed.

“I hope you’re not questioning my judgement, Milly. You know where that leads.”

He frowned.

“We’ll have to go, of course, now you’ve made the appointment. It would be discourteous if we didn’t. But you must tell him that we’re concerned that she’s too young, and we’ve decided that she would be better not going.”

“The Head of Drama’s a lady teacher, dear.”

Gideon raised his hand. Milly flinched.

“Just do as you’re told. And try not to get tongue-tied. I know you’re not the sharpest knife in the box, but there’s no need to show us both up.”

As Milly turned the school’s letter over and over, she thought carefully about what she would say. Gideon was right; she did stumble over her words; she got all worried and flustered, and somehow what she wanted to say just wouldn’t come out. She blushed as she remembered one occasion when all she’d been able to manage was “Er…er…er.” How scathing Gideon had been! This time, she had to be clear – for Abi’s sake if not for her own.

She was thinking about Abi and the meeting all afternoon, as she washed clothes, scrubbed floors and prepared dinner. She didn’t forget to remove Abi’s photo and hide it, but before returning it to its place in the chest she kissed it and hugged it to her bosom.

“Whatever’s best for you, my darling,” she whispered, “no matter what.”

The Head of Drama was tall. Her hair was dark and cut long, with a fringe. Mid-thirties, she looked somehow anachronistic, a hippy from the sixties perhaps.

“Good evening, Mr and Mrs Sharpe. I’m Cathy Thomson, the Head of Drama. I’m glad you were able to come in to talk about Abigail. She’s so very talented! I hope she’ll be able to come on the trip – it would be so good for her.” She looked from Gideon to Milly and back again.

Milly cleared her throat. “We, that is, I, um.” She slithered to a halt, clenched her fists, and tried again.

“Could you tell us a little more about the trip, please?”

Gideon looked at Milly with hard eyes.

Cathy was only too happy to share details of the trip; it was her initiative, and she felt that Abi would benefit enormously.

“What are you…are you doing…to make sure the children are safe?”

Gideon gave a tiny nod of approval. A few more minutes, and he could draw matters to a close. The teacher would know that Abi’s absence from the course was down to her parents’ natural concern for her welfare.

Cathy carefully explained the safeguarding procedures.

“Well, that sounds fine,” said Milly. Somehow the words came out clear and positive. “I think Abigail should go, don’t you dear?”

Gideon jerked in his seat, and glowered at Milly.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he began.

“It’s not as if we can’t afford it, after all. And the safeguarding sounds fine to me.”

“You’ve no idea what you’re talking about!”

Gideon turned to Cathy.

“I’m sorry. I’m afraid Milly has let herself be carried away. We won’t be allowing Abigail on the trip. That’s settled. I’m sorry.”

Cathy stared at him, and then turned to Milly.

“Is everything alright, Mrs Sharpe?”

“Yes, yes. F…fine.” Her lower lip trembled, but she held her head high.

There was silence in the car on the way home.

Later that night, when Abigail was sound asleep, Gideon thrashed Milly. Tight-lipped with fury he struck her over and over again. Desperately she fought to stay silent. This time she was in the right; Abi should go on the trip. She wasn’t going to cry out, or beg. She bit the pillow. Her fingers clawed at the bed covers.

“Don’t you ever disobey me like that again!” snarled Gideon, eventually. He slammed the door of the spare bedroom behind him.

Eventually, stifling a groan, Milly pushed herself up from the bed. She turned on the light on the bedside table, and looked at herself. Her clothes were bloody; they’d have to be soaked straight away or they’d stain. She stripped, took them into the en-suite bathroom and dumped them in cold water. She sponged herself with warm water. It stung.

Reaction had set in. She was shaking. She swallowed two paracetamol tablets and huddled under the duvet.

She woke early next morning, and crept down to the kitchen in her dressing gown. She made a cup of tea and took it up to Gideon.

“Don’t let Abigail see you like that,” was all he said. Her wounds stung as though with acid as he watched her dress.

She cooked him breakfast, and sat with him while he ate it, and then, by seven o’clock, he had left the house.

Milly sat at the kitchen table. She felt exhausted. The door creaked.

“Mum, can I have a cup of tea, please?”

Milly stood up. Her legs buckled, and she sat down with a bump.

“Are you alright, Mum?”

As Milly slumped back in the chair, Abigail ran over to her.

“Mum!”

Milly opened her eyes with difficulty. “I’m alright, love. Just a bit under the weather.”

“I’ll make us both that cup of tea shall I, Mum?”

Abigail put a mug of tea in front of Milly. It was the mug with a picture of a giraffe on it; her favourite. She smiled, and took a sip. A few more sips and she was starting to feel stronger.

Suddenly, Abigail said, “There’s dark red marks on your blouse, Mum. What are they?” Then she leaned forward and pulled up Milly’s sleeve. There was a gash and a long purple-black bruise right up her forearm. Abigail looked up at her mother, concern and horror mixed on her face.

Milly looked back, half defiant, half relieved.

“Your dad didn’t like what I said at the school last night.”

“What?”

“Your dad hit me last night.”

“No. He can’t have! I mean, he’s Dad, he doesn’t hit people.”

Milly pointed to the bruise on her arm.

“He did that, and more on my back.”

Abigail gazed in silence at Milly. Great tears welled up.

“That’s awful!”

Milly held her close and let her weep for several minutes. Then Abigail pulled away.

“What are we going to do, Mum?”

“What can we do, dearest? This is just how things are. It’s not like this most of the time.”

“Well, I don’t think we should stay here. He shouldn’t hurt you like that.”

They stared at each. Slowly resolution crystallised between them.

“I want you to go to the same school.”

“Mum, I don’t need to if we have to go far away so he…” Abigail stumbled over the words, but pressed on, “so he can’t find us.”

“We could go and stay with my brother for a few days.”

Abigail nodded.

“Good idea. And we’ll go to the police.”

“The police?”

“Yes. Look what he’s done to you. That must be against the law.”

“Well, I suppose so, but he’s your dad, Abigail.”

“He shouldn’t have hurt you like that. It’s alright, Mum, I’ll come with you and give you moral support.”

Milly looked at her left hand. She pulled off her rings and looked at Abigail. Abigail looked back. Tentatively, tremulously, they smiled at each other, the first smiles of their new life of freedom.

“I shall sell the engagement ring,” declared Milly.

 

 

 

 

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What Pegman Saw – A change of perspective

“What Pegman saw” is a weekly challenge based on Google Streetview. This week’s prompt is the Palisade Rim/Ute Petroglyph trail in Colorado. This is the same story as I originally posted but with crucial details changed that will, I hope, change the balance of sympathy between the two characters.

WPS - The end of an adventure 180217

A change of perspective

Alan blew smoke towards the end of the bed.

“Why do you always do that?” pouted Ruth. “I like to smell you, not cigarettes.”

Alan shrugged.

“Dunno. Habit? Anyway, it’s time we moved. We’re visiting the Ute petroglyphs today.”

He wanted a lie-in, but Ruth had been keen to see the rock paintings. He rolled out of bed.

Ruth parked at the trailhead and demanded water. She popped a couple of Tylenol. “Bloody period’s started,” she moaned.

“It won’t kill you. Let’s hit the trail!”

As they saw the view, Alan grinned. “Glad you came now?”

Ruth stumbled.

“Ow-ow-ow! Turned my ankle!”

Alan looked at her with concern; he knew she hated seeming weak. “Do you want to wait here, while I finish the hike?”

Ruth nodded.

Later she called his phone.

“The petroglyphs are fantastic! I’ll be a bit longer…”

“I’m going back to the car. Hurry – or you’re hitching!”

What Pegman Saw – The end of an adventure

“What Pegman saw” is a weekly challenge based on Google Streetview. Using the location provided, you must write a piece of flash fiction of no more than 150 words. You can read the rules here. You can find today’s location on this page,  from where you can also get the Inlinkz code. This week’s prompt is the Palisade Rim/Ute Petroglyph trail in Colorado.

WPS - The end of an adventure 180217

The end of an adventure

Alan blew smoke towards the end of the bed.

“Why do you always do that?” Ruth snuggled more closely against his midriff. “I like to smell you, not cigarettes.”

Alan shrugged.

“Dunno. Habit?” He scratched. “Anyway, it’s time we moved. We’re visiting the Ute petroglyphs today.”

He rolled out of bed and pulled on his pants.

It was hot as Ruth parked at the trailhead.

“Give me the water, will you?” She popped a couple of Tylenol. “Bloody period’s started.”

“It won’t kill you. Let’s hit the trail!”

The views from the trail were spectacular. Alan grinned. “Glad you came now?”

Ruth stumbled.

“Ow-ow-ow! Turned my ankle!”

“Do you want to wait here, while I finish the hike?”

Ruth nodded.

An hour later she called his phone.

“The petroglyphs are fantastic! I’ll be a bit longer…”

Ruth cut across him.

“I’m going back to the car. Hurry – or you’re hitching!”

Friday Fictioneers – For those in peril on the sea

Every week, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields (thank you, Rochelle!) hosts a flash fiction challenge, to write a complete story, based on a photoprompt, with a beginning, middle and end, in 100 words or less. Post it on your blog, and include the Photoprompt and Inlinkz (the blue frog) on your page. Link your story URL. Then the fun starts as you read other peoples’ stories and comment on them!

FF - For those in peril on the sea 180214

PHOTO PROMPT © Dale Rogerson

For those in peril on the sea

“Please don’t go, Tom.”

“I must. The lads are depending on this catch.”

Everything was smothered in snow, after the worst storm for years. Mary sat by the fire, snug at home, fidgeting with her cell phone.

At sea, the wind howled, blasting spray which froze onto the boat’s superstructure. Tom, at the helm, was relying on instruments; visibility was almost nil. Although strong and fit, he was exhausted by the continuous struggle against the elements.

Mary breathed a prayer for Tom’s safety. A log shifted in the grate, sending sparks heavenward.

Her phone rang.

“Hi, Darling. We’ve made port!”

What Pegman Saw – The First Sunny Day

“What Pegman saw” is a weekly challenge based on Google Streetview. Using the location provided, you must write a piece of flash fiction of no more than 150 words. You can read the rules here. You can find today’s location on this page,  from where you can also get the Inlinkz code. This week’s prompt is Terni in Italy, the birthplace of St Valentine.

WPS - The first sunny day 180210

The first sunny day

Italy in August is supposed to be hot and sunny, but for the first week of my holiday it had been cold and rainy. I might just as well have been in Wales. Mind you, the weather hadn’t deterred the mosquitos. Worse, one bite on my ankle had become infected and swollen, and I’d had to pay for treatment.

When the sun eventually came out, the heat was sultry, heavy, enervating. I was strolling up the street, wondering half-heartedly if I could allow myself a beer, when I heard a peculiar sound.

“Huffa-huffa-huffa…” I looked right and left. Nothing.

“Huffa-huffa-huffa…”

And there, in the porch of a house, I saw him, a dog mounted on a bitch.

“Huffa-huffa-huffa…”

He looked at me with world-weary eyes, as though to say, “A gentleman must pass the time somehow.”

“Huffa-huffa-huffa…”

I gave him a grin, and strolled on to buy myself that beer.

Friday Fictioneers – Playing Hard Ball

Every week, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields (thank you, Rochelle!) hosts a flash fiction challenge, to write a complete story, based on a photoprompt, with a beginning, middle and end, in 100 words or less. Post it on your blog, and include the Photoprompt and Inlinkz (the blue frog) on your page. Link your story URL. Then the fun starts as you read other peoples’ stories and comment on them!

FF - Playing Hard Ball 180207

PHOTO PROMPT © JS Brand

Note

The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, is an international body charged with investigating and prosecuting serious crime in Guatemala. It is particularly concerned with rooting out corruption.

Playing Hard Ball

Lilian, immaculate in white blouse and cherry-red pencil skirt, sat waiting as Hilmar Benitez crossed the bar of the Hotel Henry Berrisford to join her.

She slid a business card across the table.

“’Personal Assistant to the Interior Minister’? I want the organ-grinder, not the monkey.”

“This is not a negotiation. Have you spoken to CICIG?”

“No. But without we reach an agreement, I certainly will.”

“That wouldn’t be wise.”

“I know enough to gaol the minister for life!”

Lilian rummaged in her handbag. There was a muffled report.

Hilmar slumped back, crimson trickling from the hole between his eyes.

The meaning of life

Today’s story is an excerpt from the draft of my novel “Mrs Nightingale’s Song”, slightly edited to ensure that it makes a standalone short story. It’s about 2,000 words, and takes about 15 minutes to read. I would be very grateful for any comments! (PS please don’t think the novel is about religion, because it isn’t!)

DSC01343

The Meaning of Life

The church was gothic, not unpleasing in silhouette, the tower thrusting heavenwards above the town. Immediately inside the gate a notice board proclaimed that this was the Parish Church of St Luke, Rector Reverend James Malton (Cantab.).

As she entered the churchyard, Liz Nightingale noted approvingly that the board gleamed with freshly renewed paint, that the grass was neat and properly edged, and that the path to the south door was free of moss and weeds. Her spirits rose further as she heard cheerful, if amateurish, music from inside the building. She didn’t recognize the melody – it was one of those new pop hymns with guitars – but the enthusiasm of the singers struck a chord in her.

The misgivings she had felt about coming to church receded. She wasn’t going to have to defend her stance as a non-believer (well, that had been her position since she was a teenager, hadn’t it?). She was here to discover whether the teachings of the church could shed any light on the mystery of her life and death (‘because I am going to die soon,’ she reminded herself, and that in turn reminded her that the mystery was not so much her imminent end as the astonishing fact that she was alive and suddenly, desperately, wanted to understand why). She pulled off her gloves decisively, put them into her shoulder bag, and walked through the porch into the back of the church.

The woman who greeted her was charmingly plump, and in her forties. Liz noted that she wore a warm smile, a neat knitted top with a plain skirt, and flip-flops on her feet, and was immediately disposed to like her.

“Good morning. Welcome to St Luke’s. I’m Sue. This is your first time here, I think?”

Liz smiled back. “It’s certainly a long time since I last came. The Reverend Overbeck was the Vicar. It must be, oh, fifteen years ago, I suppose.”

“We’ve changed quite a lot since then. I hope you like it?”

Mrs Nightingale looked approvingly down the nave. “It’s the chairs,” she said. “They’re so much better than those old, dark pews. It looks much lighter – and more friendly.”

Sue looked pleased. “I’ll introduce you to a friend of mine, so you’ve got someone to sit next to,” she said. And so Liz spent the service sitting next to Diane, Sue’s friend. Liz had taught Diane’s children it turned out, and she listened with interest to their progress. She was particularly pleased to hear that Matthew, whom she remembered as diligent but uninspired, was now leading a project team at CERN. Her congratulations and good wishes were heartfelt.

The Rector was a big man (a rugby player surmised Liz, correctly as it happened), and there was something quiet about him – not the furtive, faint shuffle of stealth, but a peaceful sense of being (like a great tree, she imagined). His speaking voice was beautiful. The church had a sound system, but he didn’t need it; his resonant baritone was clear in the furthest corners of the building. When he mounted the steps of the pulpit, Mrs Nightingale settled herself comfortably. ‘Even if the sermon is tosh, the sound of that voice will be a treat,’ she thought, and then admonished herself. How could she expect to make sense of the sermon, much less her life’s purpose, if she was just going to wallow in sensation?

And, in fact, the sermon was an excellent exposition of the parable of the Good Samaritan, each facet in turn being gently burnished and then illuminated for the congregation. The Pharisee was presented as a man whose sense of vocation to a high calling blinded him to the urgent needs of the world. The Levite was a man who couldn’t see the moral imperative to help an injured man because of the blinkers of human convention. “How understandable,” said the Rector, of both men. “How human. How forgivable. And yet, here they are, held up to us as a warning – almost an eternal ‘naming and shaming’. Our sins of omission have consequences not just for those around us, but for us too.”

He moved on to consider the innkeeper, the ‘forgotten character’ as he described him. “When he left, the Samaritan paid some money to the innkeeper, not just for the care already given to the injured man, but for care into the future. And with it, he gave a promise that if the bill came to more than he had left, he would settle it on his return. It’s clear that we are meant to understand that the innkeeper was prepared to accept this – an open-ended commitment to take care of the victim. And that says two things. Firstly, the innkeeper was trusting, he had faith, and because of that he was prepared to take on a task that he probably wouldn’t otherwise have tackled. And secondly, the Samaritan was trustworthy; his words, actions and demeanour had convinced the innkeeper that any debt would be honoured.

Well, as we all know, Jesus himself is the Good Samaritan; and I propose to you that we can all play the part of the innkeeper. By trusting in Jesus we are empowered to do good, that is to say, we can do something to heal the hurts of those around us. We don’t need to feel a vocation; that can even get in the way, as it did for the Pharisee. We don’t need book-learning and consecration like the Levite; again, that may sometimes be an obstacle. All we need is trust, and the willingness to care for those who come to us in our normal, everyday, humdrum lives.”

Mrs Nightingale looked narrowly at the Reverend James Malton MA (Cantab.). Did he find simplicity elusive, she wondered? Did he fear that his knowledge of theology made him less able to help others? Maybe not. It had been a simple message, simply delivered. But what did it say about her own efforts? Were they any less valid for her lack of faith, indeed, her active opposition to everything superstitious? Why was she now looking to religion for answers? Was she subconsciously hoping to be reassured of life after death? ‘Bunkum!’ she thought, but immediately the contradiction came that, whether or not organized religion was bunkum, the Christian tradition represented two thousand years of largely humane thought, and might reasonably be expected to shed some light on the mystery of life. “You’re just a woolly liberal, Liz,” she muttered to herself, as she rose to keep silence while the rest of the congregation recited the creed.

“I wonder whether I could come and ask your advice about something, Rector?” enquired Liz Nightingale, as she shook hands after the service.

“I’d be pleased to see you; although I’m not sure I’m qualified to give you advice about anything.” The little smile accompanying the words gave them a humorous emphasis, but Liz sensed that, actually, he was in earnest. She appreciated, too, that he had been tactful enough not to suggest a home visit, thereby patronising her as elderly. “Is it an urgent matter, or will it wait until Wednesday? – if that suits you, of course.”

Liz calculated quickly. The cycles of weakness that seemed to characterize her condition came about every ten days, and lasted for about two days, so her next bout was due on – let me see – Friday. “Thank you, Rector, that’s most kind of you.”

Concerned. “I could talk to you sooner, if that would help?”

“No, Wednesday will be fine. I appreciate your seeing me so quickly.”

“Shall we say two o’clock, then?”

Mrs Nightingale nodded firmly. “Two o’clock will be ideal. Thank you.” She made her escape quickly. Making the appointment to discuss her mortality had been a little like arranging to talk to Death himself. ‘I hope that I’ll be brave enough to examine everything that’s troubling me when Wednesday comes,’ she thought.

*       *       *       *       *

Just before two o’clock on Wednesday, Liz Nightingale hesitated on the Vicarage doorstep. She felt – frightened. Of course, as soon as she realized this she shook herself mentally. “This will never do!” she exclaimed, and rang the bell firmly.

She accepted coffee and a biscuit and made small talk as she gathered her courage. James Malton smiled, nodded, and sipped at his own drink, watching her gradually relax.

“Your grandson, Oliver, sounds great fun. He must be quite significant in your life?”

If fifty years of amateur dramatics had taught Liz anything, it was how to pick up a cue.

“Ah, yes, well, significance. How astute of you, Rector.” Liz was silent a moment. “You see,” she said, “I’m not a believer – quite the reverse – but I felt that two thousand years of Christian thinking probably had some profound things to say about the human condition. And I’m puzzled, Rector. You see, my doctor tells me I shall die quite soon. Now, I’m not puzzled that I’m going to die – that seems entirely natural. Everything wears out, so why should I be any different? No, what puzzles me is why I’m alive. It just seems so unlikely, somehow, that I can consciously appreciate my own existence. The world is such a beautiful place.”

The rector paused for a moment, and then asked, “I suppose, as you’re an avowed non-believer, that neither the beauty of the world nor the unlikelihood of your conscious existence, persuade you of the existence of a creator God?”

“I don’t see how a creator answers the question. If he exists, where did he come from? If the answer is just that he exists, then why shouldn’t the universe just exist?”

“I could suggest that He might explain consciousness in a way that the physical universe doesn’t appear to, but I don’t think you’d accept that. Besides, it wouldn’t be very honest of me, as I’m aware of work being done to explore possible physical causes of consciousness.”

The rector smiled at Mrs Nightingale. “You’ve asked a big question, but is it the right question? To put it bluntly, do you have the time to even begin to make a small contribution towards its solution?”

Liz stared rather blankly at him. He waited, silent, still, alive. Then she laughed. “I’m trying to duck the issue, aren’t I? I don’t want to lose the world. I don’t want extinction – but as I can’t avoid it, I’d like to find some sort of assurance that my life has had some sort of meaning.”

“Now that’s a question which does fall within my sphere of professional competence. I’ll tell you what my faith teaches me, and you can see whether you think it helps.

Our physical universe was created by an intelligence that we call God. Part of His plan in creating the universe was that self-contained, self-aware intelligences should come into being – and, theologically speaking, evolution is a perfectly respectable way for that to happen. These intelligences would share something of His nature, and, ultimately, be able to share in His joy in His creation. He communicated with them, teaching them as much as they could accept at the time, and eventually He caused a great mystery to happen. He, Himself, came to live with His created beings in the form of the man whom we call Jesus Christ.”

Liz, listened in silence, struggling to keep an open mind – but it’s hard to quieten the scepticism of more than sixty years.

The rector continued quietly. “Jesus showed us that it is possible to lead a joyful and fulfilled life no matter what obstacles we face. He participated fully in every aspect of human life, including birth and death.”

Mrs Nightingale couldn’t resist the opportunity. “And sex?” she queried.

The rector laughed out loud with delight. “The bible is silent on that point. Church tradition inclines to celibacy but, you know, that would have been very unusual for a rabbi in first century Judea. Anyway, the bible makes it plain that He knew what human love was like by telling us about His close friendships with people, both men and women.

But I need to come to the point. The key fact of the life of Jesus was that it showed that God wants His creation to be perfected by the actions of his created beings as they follow the example of Jesus.

So our lives have a meaning in that we can align ourselves with the Creator’s purpose.”

“You put it very clearly, rector. Thank you. Unfortunately, the significance hangs on the premise of the omnipotent creator.”

“It does.”

The rector waited for Mrs Nightingale to express even the slightest interest in discovering the truth of his faith. She sat there, thinking, then “What a pity,” she said.

The Reverend James Malton (Cantab.) hid his disappointment as he said farewell to Liz Nightingale; and then wondered whether he was right to have done so.