The Hunt

Fox hunt 170512

The Queen’s Arms was quiet mid-week, and the landlord was only too glad to make his lounge available to the Bentham Hunt. Without their custom it would scarcely have been worth opening at all on a Wednesday.

Jack Greenwood, the MFH, was cheerful and inebriated.

“So that’s it then. Theresa May has confirmed there will be a free vote to repeal the Hunting Act 2004. Her substantial victory on June 8th …” Hoarse cheering and a banging of glasses on the table interrupted him.

“As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted, her majority in Parliament means that the Act should be gone within months and we can resume our activities. I propose that we hold our first meet in three weeks time.”

“Hang on a mo, Jack. The Act’s not going to be repealed that quickly.” Arthur Clownes looked worried; but then, he always looked worried, thought Jack.

“No, but the CPS would rule that a prosecution wouldn’t be in the public interest. Besides, what Chief Constable would be brave enough to start criminal proceedings knowing that Parliament were to consider the matter?”

“Sounds good to me.” Brian Hall spoke up. He was a small man, with a fierce expression. You didn’t mess with Brian.

Arthur sat back in his seat with resignation. He supposed Jack would be proved right; he always was. Arthur preferred to be on the right side of the law.

Next morning, at breakfast, Brian had a hangover and was more than usually surly. As Fiona, his daughter, cleared his plate, he grunted, “The Hunt’s riding out in three weeks time. Get my jacket cleaned, will you? And make sure you’ll be presentable too.” He handed her a ten pound note.

“Dad, I don’t really want to come.”

“Don’t be so wet. Of course you’re coming. Our family’s always ridden to hounds, and we always will.”

“I’ve got something else arranged.”

“Then bloody unarrange it!” He slammed the door behind him.

Fiona quietly continued the housework. When she was confident her father wasn’t coming back, she pulled out her mobile and dialled.

“George?”

“Hi, Fiona.”

“Dad’s told me the Hunt is starting up again.”

“That’s bad. Any idea when?”

“Three weeks time. On the Saturday.”

“So it’ll be illegal then?”

“I suppose so.”

“Well, thanks for the tip-off. I’ll tell Edwin.”

As soon as she’d rung off, Fiona collected her father’s jacket from his wardrobe. It was muddy and stained. She would have had it cleaned earlier, only he wouldn’t give her the money. As it was, she’d have to raid the housekeeping; ten pounds wasn’t going to cover the dry-cleaning, not with the bus fare into town as well.

George hesitated before calling Edwin. He found him aggressive and frightening. Still, he was an effective organiser of protests, and he needed to know about the planned hunt.

“The Bentham Hunt are meeting in three weeks,” he told Edwin.

“I know. Hardly a surprise. You going to be there?”

“Yeah, as long as you’re not planning any violence.”

Moi, violence? How could you even think it! No, it’ll just be placards. We’ll try and get pictures and video, of course. That sometimes leads to a… heated exchange of views.” He laughed.

George winced at the enthusiasm with which Edwin appeared to welcome the prospect.

The day of the hunt dawned fresh and clear. Brian was cheerful. He hummed as he buttoned up his jacket, in front of the mirror. “Not bad,” he thought, “not bad at all.” Perhaps he’d stand a chance with that newcomer to the village, the woman with the blonde hair and the big tits.

Fiona dressed with resignation. Her father had made it clear that she was expected to ride. She didn’t imagine for one moment that she’d succeed if she pleaded a headache. Still, her spirits lifted as she climbed into the saddle; it was a beautiful day. She’d enjoy the ride, and stay as far back from the kill as possible.

“Woah! Behave yourself, Prince!” The stallion was large and strong, but that didn’t worry Fiona; she’d been on horseback since before she could walk. Prince stopped tugging at the bit. Only his twitching ears as they left the yard betrayed his excitement.

The sunny day had also lifted the spirits of George’s wife, Clare, as she drove him to the protesters’ rendezvous.

“I’ll leave the car here, and take Liz in the carrier. We could walk over to the common. Take care of yourself, George! Love you!” Liz gurgled and smiled as her mum popped her into the carrier. George was hesitating, fiddling with the laces of his boots. Clare put her arm around him. “I’m ever so proud of you, standing up for what you believe in.” She kissed him gently on the lips. He smiled and stood up straight.

“I’d best be off then. Don’t want to be left behind! See you here at midday.” He set off to cover the quarter mile to where the protesters were assembling.

Edwin thrust a placard into George’s hands.

“Make sure the bastards see it.”

Edwin turned to the other protesters. There were thirty or so, a mixed bunch, from the smart to the squalid, from the dainty girl with flowers on her wellies to the gnarled man in filthy cords and battered army boots. Edwin himself looked like a paramilitary in a dark-green sweater, camouflage trousers and a balaclava. He carried a camcorder on a lanyard round his neck.

“Listen up, everybody. Hold those placards high. We want the Bentham to see them. I’ll try and get them in shot as I video. And remember – no violence! This is a peaceful protest. If you’re assaulted, move away.” He looked round the group. “Right. Let’s go.”

They followed him along the road, turned right, and entered the village of Bentham Manor.

The riders were assembling outside The Queen’s Arms.

“Uh-oh. Looks like we’ve got company,” Arthur muttered to Jack.

“Do you want me to see them off?” Brian looked eager, combative.

“No. Let’s not ask for trouble. I’ll go and talk to them. Walk on, Shadow.”

His magnificent grey walked forward towards the oncoming protesters, and stopped several yards short of them. They halted.

“Can you all hear me?” Jack had a loud and carrying voice. A few of the protesters nodded.

“I’m the MFH for the Bentham Hunt. Speaking on their behalf, I tell you that we have seen and noted your protest. If you wish to assemble on the verge there,” he pointed at the roadside, “we will be riding past in ten minutes, and we will have plenty of chance to admire your artwork.

Please don’t come any closer to the Hunt. Horses are strong and heavy, and are sometimes capricious. I don’t want an accident and I’m sure you don’t either.” He tipped his riding cap to them. “Good day to you.”

He turned his horse very deliberately, giving the protesters plenty of time to observe the intimidating size of the beast, and walked slowly back to the Hunt.

“Nice touch with the cap, Master.” Brian was grinning.

The protesters stayed put, irresolute, looking to Edwin for a lead. He beckoned them close, and spoke softly.

“I want photos of all of them, and I want video footage showing the Hunt assembling. I need to be closer. I want us to split into two groups, half on that verge, and half on this, and then walk towards them. Stop when you’re about five metres away. Don’t go any closer than that, and don’t make any sudden movements. Don’t yell. That ponce in the pink is right about horses being dangerous.

Right.

Come on.”

Edwin walked along the crown of the road, the protesters straggling after him. Some of the riders turned their horses to face the group. Fiona held Prince on a tight rein, moving to the edge of the group. She kept his head turned away from them as much as possible, but he tugged and pulled, his eyes rolling. The scent of aggression was strong in his nostrils.

George was close to Edwin, on the same side of the road as Fiona. He kept a wary eye on Prince, as he raised his placard high.

“I thought I warned you to stay clear?” Jack’s anger was plain. “Here, put that thing away!”

Edwin had raised the camcorder, and was panning across the hunt. Hearing Jack’s voice, he grinned and pointed the camcorder straight at him.

“That’s illegal!” yelled Jack. “Stop recording – now!” He walked Shadow forwards, leaned out of the saddle, grabbed the camcorder’s lanyard and tugged hard. The lanyard bit into Edwin’s neck, half choking him. Edwin lashed out at Jack’s hand, to make him let go. He didn’t. Edwin took hold of the lanyard himself, and pulled hard. Off-balance, Jack toppled forward in the saddle, and released Edwin, who stumbled backwards into Prince, and fell to the floor.

Prince reared, lashing out with his hooves. Using all her skill, Fiona controlled him within seconds, but the damage was done.

Edwin lay on the ground, motionless.

Jack was out of the saddle immediately, kneeling beside the fallen man.

“There’s no mark of hooves and he’s breathing, thank goodness. We’d better call an ambulance. Arthur, would you? Brian, give me a hand getting him onto his side.” Quickly, they placed Edwin into the recovery position. His eyes started to flicker open.

“Fiona, back Prince a little, would you? Give us a bit more space.”

Fiona edged Prince back, away from the fallen man. Suddenly, she gasped and pointed. George was slumped against the granite gatepost.

He was still unconscious when the ambulance arrived. The paramedics assessed him rapidly, and called in the air ambulance to take him to the nearest specialist neurological unit. The police took statements.

That evening, the local superintendent of police called on Jack Greenwood. While he couldn’t give a categorical assurance, it was unlikely that any charges would be brought. Jack had warned the bystanders to keep back, and, although there’d been a scuffle, it hadn’t involved George. It seemed that Prince, as he reared, must have backed into George, knocking him into the gatepost. The whole thing was just an unfortunate accident.

  *          *          *

Afterword

George survived, but his injury was life-changing; he was permanently disabled.

Fiona cried herself to sleep that night, and many following nights.

Clare was too busy looking after George to allow herself the luxury of weeping. Liz grew up wondering why her Dad was in a wheelchair. His slurred speech and distorted face frightened her, and his drooling repelled her.

The Hunt continued to meet.

 

A walk on the moor

Those who venture on foot onto Dartmoor fall into one of two categories; walkers – and ramblers. I am unashamedly in the latter category. My rucksack rarely holds more than my lunch, a map and some waterproofs, and I set out only when the weather forecast is favourable. I do not yomp.

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Today is September 9th. The sky is that very clear mid-blue of early autumn and there is just a hint of coolness in the breeze. I feel invigorated. The weather refreshes my spirit as a sorbet cleanses the palate. As I descend from the bus I experience a glow of anticipation for the solitude and purity of the open space.

I haven’t reached it yet, though. The first mile is along a lane between two high Devon hedges; pleasant enough walking, but asphalt underfoot and only the occasional glimpse of the moor proper. Mixed with my enjoyment is a little tension. This is the big one, the walk I’ve been building up to over the summer, seventeen miles during which time I shall be as isolated as it’s readily possible to be in England. I’ve left details of my route at the shop by the bus stop, and with friends at home. I have my mobile phone with me. There’s no real danger.

Gradually the stone walls peter out. The road is flanked by grass, and water hurries in the leat on my left. The scenery is beautiful but very familiar to me, and my daily concerns, unprompted and unwelcome, insinuate their way back into my consciousness.

What am I going to do about my mother? I must face facts; she’s definitely gaga. I could see it start during those horrible last days of my dad’s cancer. We were all distraught, but she – well, she seemed to retreat from reality. One evening she spoke about going on holiday. Dad was next door, choking on his own flesh as the tumour in his throat swelled, and she was inviting me to join them in Como in a few months time. I’m afraid I yelled at her. I feel so bad about it now, but I was half mad with the strain of the death-watch. She looked at me, and then began sobbing softly. I think that was last time that she really understood what was going on around her.

I can safely leave her at home during the day while I go to work, but for how much longer? I try to avoid overnight business trips as much as possible because she worries so much. When I can’t avoid going away, I ring her early in the evening and talk for at least half an hour, but even then I feel guilty. Last time, every five minutes she was saying, “I don’t like it when you’re not here, Patricia. I get all in a tizz.”

This is not what I came out here for. I look around, to appreciate consciously where I am and what I am doing. The road bends in a slow curve around the tor. Skylarks pipe their magical songs at the limit of human hearing. It is easy to imagine that they are merely the mortal manifestation of an unheard symphony of surpassing loveliness. And there ahead of me is a patch of moorland that is sometimes a passport to the immortal; the mires. How deceptive that verdant green! What a trap for the unwary that level land! An incautious step and you can be caught and held, sucked down, your struggles only causing you to sink more quickly.

Still, it’s safe enough as long as you stay on the track, which picks its way through the treacherous ground. Never, never try a shortcut here! At least I’m now off the tarmac and onto the moorland proper.

Past the mires the path climbs steeply, and at ten o’clock in the morning it’s in the shadow of the tor. Out of the sunshine the breeze feels noticeably cold, but my exertions are keeping me warm enough. I don’t need to put on a jacket; I’d only have to take it off at the top.

And what am I going to do about that job offer? My employer wants me to do a two year secondment in London. It’s a very generous package. In fact I could hardly believe the proposal. As well as a substantial salary increase, they’re prepared to pay the rent on a flat there for the whole period. My boss explained, “We need your lobbying skills there, Trish, but you’ve got to be on the spot; you can’t do this one at a distance.”

He’s absolutely right, of course. You have to be there to take advantage of every opportunity to make your case to the people who matter. And that’s usually in the evening over dinner and a drink; or in the early morning at a ‘power breakfast’; or even at lunchtime in the gym. No question about it, working from Devon I couldn’t accomplish even a tenth of what’s needed. If I’d imagined that sort of lifestyle when I was a student, I’d have gawped and said “No way, José.” Now, I’d love the assignment. What could be more intoxicating than to influence policy at the highest level? But what am I going to do about Mum?

My brother Tom says that she should go into a home. “She’s got pots of money since she sold her house and moved in with you,” he says. “That’ll be more than enough to cover the costs. She could afford excellent residential care from the proceeds.” Residential care; a nice euphemism.

It’s not that Tom is heartless. He’s an excellent dad, and he and his wife Mary have been happily married for two decades. He just lacks imagination. Of course, he hasn’t been close to Mum over the last two years, as I have.

“Promise me you’ll never put me into a home, dear.” It’s been a constant refrain. I never promise, naturally, but the weasel words to avoid the commitment sometimes stick in my throat. She plays on my feelings of guilt, but like a child would. It’s deliberate, but almost as though it’s no longer under her control. I can’t imagine the strong woman who brought me up being anything other than scrupulous in leaving others to make their own decisions. Perhaps this should tell me how terrifying she finds the idea of dependency?

The path has passed its apex and swung around to run almost directly due south while I have been musing. South, into the sun. The golden bracken flames in the noonday brightness. A buzzard hovers, and then stoops. It’s too distant for me to see whether it catches its prey. The walking is easy, and I swing along. I remember a performance of Bach’s ‘Italian Concerto’ that I heard a year ago in St Martin in the Fields church. Walking through this landscape feels like that music, exuberant, embellished, affirmed. Life snatches me up, lifting me high, soaring joyfully. The path runs down, down to a stream, and when I reach it I leave the track to splash the chill water on my head, as much for exhilaration as the need to cool myself.

About halfway there. The way climbs again, but gently and I’m heading eastward. I cross the brook on the stone clam bridge, marvelling that this primitive human structure should have stood since before history. Up the hill I go, to join the old trackway along which the miners’ railway once ran. Gravel crunches under foot, until I decide that it’s pleasanter to walk on the grass beside the way.

It’s lunchtime, and I’m feeling strong. I leave the track and climb steeply until I’m standing at the very top of the tor. Looking to the south-east I can see right down the valley, clear to the edge of the moor and beyond, to the rich, rolling South Hams. I open my pack and pull out the food. Sandwiches. A round of prawn with mayonnaise in granary bread. Half a round of rough paté and lettuce. Is there any pleasure more visceral and intense than the pleasure of food?

Over my head there is a deafening buzzing of insects. It’s as though I’ve sat myself under their equivalent of Spaghetti Junction. Where are they all going, so busy, expending such energy in getting there? The horizon looks a bit misty. Nothing to worry about, though. The weather forecast was unambiguous. “A glorious day over the whole of Devon and Cornwall” was what the man said. No problem. I set the alarm on my phone and doze for twenty minutes.

It’s such a pleasant dream that I don’t really want to wake up, but I suppose that I must. There’s still eight miles before I reach the end of the route. Yawning, I sit up, take out the vacuum flask, pour myself a coffee and look down from my perch on the tor. It’s much mistier below, and I can’t see more than a hundred metres or so; I’d better get moving.

I pack my bits and pieces into the rucksack, pull on my jacket and trudge down the slope. Sleep has enervated me and my limbs lack strength. Never mind. The coffee and the movement will soon revive me.

Walking into the mist is sinister, stepping into a shadow world. My senses feel more acute but perceive less. At first I can make out the sun as a bright patch against the grey, but as I descend it disappears and colour drains from the landscape. The grass is dull, the bracken mud-brown and dripping damp. It’s cold, colder than I’d expected. Lucky I have my waterproof over-trousers in the rucksack; I may need them.

All I need to do now is climb over this mound and descend the far side and I’ll rejoin the track. Then it’s just follow the path all the way to journey’s end.

My feet skid on the grass and I slip onto my bum. There’s no harm done apart from a damp patch on my trousers but I need to be careful. It wouldn’t be funny if I were to turn an ankle. It’s quite eerie in the fog.

I keep descending. The downward slope is gentler than I remember, and I haven’t struck the track yet. I’m walking fast, getting hot. Is that sweat on my face or moisture from the fog? Slow down, girl! Panicking will not get you anywhere.

“I’m not panicking.” I say the words out loud, annoyed with myself, and moderate my pace. All I have to do is go downhill until I reach the path, turn left, and keep walking. The miners’ track will see me home.

But where is the track? Surely I set out in the right direction? And I’ve kept pretty straight, haven’t I?

I steer well clear of a pond on my left; the ground around it looks wet and treacherous. As I turn away from it, a gentle breeze rolls thick fog up the valley, engulfing me. It’s cold. I pull on my waterproof trousers.

The pause gives me a chance to pull myself together. When I left the top of the tor I could still just see the sun through the mist, and I walked slightly to the left of it. The time is 14:45, so the sun would have been almost south-west, and I would have been moving more or less south. I look at the map and see the pond I’ve just avoided. There should be a path to the west of me. I need to cross that and keep walking downhill. Where’s my compass?

Once more, I delve into my backpack, feeling for the familiar plastic rectangle that houses the compass. I can’t feel it. I unpack everything from the bag. It’s not there.

“Come on, Trish! What kind of halfwit walks on Dartmoor without a compass?”

I check my pockets. Not there. I’ll just have to wing it. If I walk away from the pond, I’ll cross the path and strike the miners’ track. Where’s the pond? I can’t see it; it’s hidden in the fog. I think it’s over there.

I’m filled with doubt about my exact orientation. It takes an effort of will to turn ninety degrees to my right and walk forward. I move carefully, because I can’t see more than about five metres. “So much for the weather forecast,” I think. I try to relax, because I can feel tension in my legs and that will tire me quickly.

The ground is rough, tussocky. I must have walked several hundred metres and I still haven’t crossed the path shown on the map. Is it approaching the time to phone for help? I check my mobile. No signal. “You’re on your own, girl,” I tell myself, firmly.

Aha! What’s this? A path, as I live and breathe. Unless it’s a sheep track… I shall define it as the path I’ve been looking for. I don’t want to follow it, because it bends around to take me in the wrong direction. I must cross it.

It feels wrong to leave the relative security of the little track, and plough my way across lumps of grass and reeds, but that’s what I must do. I acknowledge to myself that I’m frightened. It helps to admit the feeling.

It’s soggy under foot. Every step squeezes water out of the ground. I must be careful not to step into a bog. According to the map there shouldn’t be one, but am I where I think I am? I squelch onwards. Thank goodness for proper equipment; at least I’m dry, and not cold. I wish I’d remembered to check I had the compass, though. What a stupid thing to forget!

I think of my mother, and hope that Tom is coping alright with her. I said I’d be back by six o’clock at the latest. It’s now half past three.

At last! A grassy ditch full of water, and beyond it a stony track. This is the miners’ track! I’m safe!

I hitch my backpack into a more comfortable position, relax my muscles and stride out.

Now that I’m confident of where I am, it seems lighter. In fact, it actually is lighter; there is a patch of brightness in the sky. I walk about eight hundred metres and the sun is warm on my right cheek. The moor is familiar; I’ve walked this stretch several times. I’m tired, more tired than I should be after the distance, but I suppose that’s down to the tension when I thought I was lost.

The walk is no longer the intense pleasure that it was when I set out, but I feel satisfaction at being within sight of completing it. I follow the track, putting one foot in front of the other, ignoring the fatigue.

So, what am I to do about Mum?

She’s lost in a worse fog than I was, and she doesn’t have any way of helping herself. I would have been mightily relieved to have had someone alongside me when I was lost, even if they were only saying “Yes, you’re heading in the right direction, you don’t need to worry.”

I’m going to have to turn down that job offer.

It’s after five. I can see the gate at the edge of the moor. Is there a signal yet for my mobile phone?

I call Tom. Back in thirty minutes, I tell him. Put the kettle on – I need coffee!

 

 

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Matters of life and death

There are always secrets in any marriage; little ones, usually, trivial things, whose revelation may be embarrassing or awkward, even upsetting, but no worse. Helen and Geoff’s marriage, though, held a huge secret, a matter of life and death. When chance brought it to light, it threatened everything. Can love conquer all? Or are some concealments unforgiveable?

Matters of life and death

“Come on, Miles, you’re twelve now. You can give me a hand with the tents.” Geoff was already manhandling the first bag out of the boot of the silver BMW.

“I’ll bring the other one, Dad.”

Geoff concealed a grin as he watched Miles wrestle with the heavy pack, but didn’t offer to help him.

“Good man!”

“Give us a shout when you’re finished, and we’ll come and do the beds and start cooking dinner.” Helen wandered down the field towards the sea, with Sophie skipping beside her. As they neared the path to the beach, Helen stopped. Later in the evening she hoped to photograph the sunset above the path, and she needed to calculate the best place to set up her tripod. It was a shot she’d long wanted to make but weather or season had never been perfect before. Perhaps this time would be better.

“Can we go down the sea, Mummy?”

“Not just yet, love. Later.”

She turned. Geoff was waving, and the tent and its awning were standing proud and colourful by the hedge.

“I think we could let the children go to the beach on their own this year,” suggested Geoff.

“Sophie’s only ten, dear.”

“Miles?”

“Yes, Dad?”

“Can I trust you to look after your sister on the beach? You’d both have to promise not to let the water go above your knees – that’s the crest of the waves, Miles, not the trough. Would you do that?”

“Yes, of course, Dad.”

“Off you go, then.”

The children ran off, helter-skelter towards the path.

Helen sat down at the table under the awning, busy with diced beef and vegetables. Every minute or so she looked at the path where her children had vanished. She wouldn’t feel completely comfortable until they were both back with her. Her gaze shifted to Geoff, perfecting his golf swing with a nine iron and a seemingly endless supply of plastic practice balls. She smiled and waved to him. He grinned and waved back. Geoff at forty was still fit, with endless stamina. She loved the feel of his hard body against hers. Perhaps the children would go to sleep quickly tonight. Helen was glad they’d bought a large tent, with separate sleeping rooms.

It was a pleasant, relaxing weekend.

*       *       *       *

As always on Monday, Geoff had an early start, driving from Gloucestershire to Leeds for a ten o’clock meeting. Helen felt full of energy. Bedroom curtains came down from the windows and were thrust into the washing machine. All the floors were vacuumed, and all the furniture dusted. Helen slipped a CD of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony into the music centre in the kitchen as she sat down to a salad lunch. ‘What shall I tackle next?’ she wondered.

Geoff wasn’t keen on her going into the study. Without ever saying so he’d conveyed an impression that he wanted it to be his private space, in the same way that the music room was, by default, Helen’s space. She’d hoovered the study and dusted it, but that was all. It could do with a thorough spring-clean, she decided.

It was while she was delving down the sides of the two-seater settee – they were full of biscuit crumbs – that she found the photograph. Intending to return it to the correct album, she glanced at it. It was old and dog-eared, a snapshot. Half a dozen young men in camouflage, holding what she took to be automatic weapons, were grinning broadly at the photographer. In the background were damaged buildings; it was plainly a village. ‘Africa?’ wondered Helen.

She looked more closely. The man on the left of the picture seemed familiar. Her stomach lurched. He looked very like Geoff. She took the photo to the kitchen, and tucked it into her handbag before she finished cleaning the room. She wanted to consider before she asked him about it.

There were still forty minutes before Sophie was due home. Helen went to the piano, but the image of Geoff in combat gear obscured the music. Well, if music couldn’t console her, perhaps she could banish her worry by making the room smarter. She fetched beeswax and cleaning cloths, and polished the piano until she could see her reflection in the lid.

Geoff was cheerful when he returned. Sales for the quarter were ahead of target, and there were two major contracts that he thought they could win. He’d brought Helen some flowers; he kissed her, and asked her to open a bottle of wine to enjoy with dinner. Then he took the glass of sherry she handed him, and went, whistling, upstairs to the study, until Helen called him down for dinner.

“May I have some wine now I’m twelve, Dad?”

“I don’t really think he should, Geoff.”

“Quarter of a glassful won’t hurt him, Helen. In most African tribes he’d be considered a man now.”

“We’re in Europe, Geoff. Miles, there’s Schloer. I bought it specially for you.”

Miles looked first at his Dad, then at his Mum.

“Cool,” he said. “I like Schloer.”

The children were in bed and settled by nine-thirty. Helen brought in coffee.

“So what do you know about African tribes, Geoff?” Helen tried to keep her voice neutral.

“What about African tribes?”

“You told Miles that most African tribes would treat him as a man now he’s twelve.”

“Oh, that. Reader’s Digest last month.”

“It didn’t have anything to do with personal experience, then? From that time in your life that you’ve never told me about? When you were ‘knocking about the world’?”

“What’s this about, Helen? You know – you’ve always known – that there’s a part of my life that I don’t like to talk about.”

“Is that because you’re ashamed of it?”

“No, not really. If you must know, it might make it more difficult for me to do my job if it were generally known, so I don’t talk about it at all.”

“I think you’d better start talking, Geoff, at least to me.” Helen laid the photo on the coffee table as though presenting evidence.

Geoff stared at the picture.

“Have you been going through my stuff?” The skin over Geoff’s knuckles tightened as he clenched his fists.

“No, of course not. I found it down the side of the settee in the study.”

“And what were you doing poking around there?”

“Cleaning. That room needed a proper cleaning. I found the photo while I was doing that.”

“Well, now you can forget it again. It’s nothing to do with you.”

“I beg to differ. What were you doing in that picture?”

“Helping the legitimate government of Sierra Leone re-establish the rule of law in their country. I’m rather proud of that, actually. Sierra Leone could have been a failed state, and it isn’t. I played a small part in that, and I think that’s a good thing.”

“You were a soldier? Why haven’t you told my dad? He’d love to yarn with you.”

“When I was in Sierra Leone, I wasn’t part of the British Army.”

“You were a mercenary?”

“You say that like it’s a dirty word, but I was fighting on the right side.”

“Did you…did you ever kill anybody?”

“That’s what soldiers do, Helen. Yes, of course I killed people.”

“God! I’m married to a killer. The father of my children is a killer!”

“If I hadn’t killed, I would have been killed.”

“You didn’t bloody need to be there in the first place! Nobody made you go!”

Geoff stood up and moved to the drinks cabinet. He poured himself half a tumbler of scotch.

“Do you want one?”

“No, thank you.”

Geoff sat down beside her. Helen hitched herself away. She couldn’t control the aversion she felt.

“Let me tell you a few things, Helen. The most important is that I love you. You are the most important person in my world, you and the children, that is. I left soldiering behind many years ago. It was something I did as a young man; it’s not something I would ever do now.”

He paused, picked up his glass, put it down without drinking, seemed about to say something, picked up his glass again and swallowed half the contents.

“The main reason that I don’t talk about it is that I was involved in an…an incident that escalated and became – illegal. If the police were to find out, I could face trial. I am putting all my trust in you, Helen.”

“What happened?” she whispered.

“We entered a village. There were three of us Europeans who had some idea of what we were doing, and a couple of dozen locals. We lost control of them. It wasn’t entirely our fault; the local fighters were involved in a feud with the village, and we hadn’t been told. Anyway, they went berserk. They killed indiscriminately. In the end, to bring them under control, I shot one of our local fighters in the head. It stopped the others, but by then it was too late. We were surrounded by dead and mutilated civilians. We got the hell out and got the lads back to barracks, but the damage was done. Newspapers picked up on it, and reported it as an atrocity.”

“How do you live with yourself, Geoff? How on earth do you live with yourself?”

“Arguably I saved lives. I shot one man to end a massacre.”

Helen stood up

“I’ll keep my mouth shut, Geoff. But this changes everything between us. I mean, keeping this secret for fourteen years, never saying a word. Why, when we met, this had only just happened!”

“Two years earlier.”

“I’m sorry. I’d never have married you if I’d known; I wouldn’t even have gone out with you.”

“And look what you would have missed. We have a good marriage, Helen. Let’s not wreck it. We can work through this.”

“I shall sleep in the spare room tonight. No! – don’t touch me!”

*        *        *        *

Geoff rose early and returned from work late every day that week.

“Where’s Dad?” asked little Sophie.

“Busy at work, silly,” said Miles. “That’s because he’s a man. He has to earn money to take care of us all.”

“Women earn money too, Miles.” Helen didn’t mean to sound snappy. When her back was turned, Miles shrugged and pulled a face at Sophie. She giggled.

That Friday, Geoff came home early and helped Miles with his homework. Helen had cooked cottage pie and, as usual on a Friday, the whole family ate together.

Helen spoke only to Miles and Sophie. When Geoff asked her a question, she gave a non-committal grunt; he didn’t try again.

“Is something the matter, Dad?”

“Your mum and I have had a hard week, that’s all. Sometimes being grown-up is hard work.”

“Ha-ha,” muttered Helen furiously, but under her breath.

“I’ll settle Miles, if you like?”

“No!” Helen was vehement. “I’ll do it.”

The air was muggy. It felt as though a storm was brewing. Sophie’s bedroom, at the top of the house felt stuffy.

“We’ll leave your window open tonight, love, otherwise you’ll cook.”

Sophie snuggled down under her duvet.

“There’s a draft,” she complained.

“Never mind, love. You’ll soon be asleep, then you won’t notice.”

“Night-night, Mummy. Love you!”

Helen left the door ajar and the light on above the little attic staircase, so that Sophie felt reassured and safe.

The air grew heavier and heavier. By the time Helen went to the spare room to sleep, she was sure there was going to be a storm. Even though the curtains were open, no light came in from outside. The darkness there was absolute.

Before climbing into bed, she went to the window. Lightning flickered on the horizon. There was no sound; it was too far away. She counted “37…38…39” There was a faint rumbling.

She was fast asleep when the storm broke in earnest. A bolt of lightning lit up the room; Helen stirred. The crash of thunder that followed a few seconds later woke her up completely. There was another dazzling flash, and another crack of thunder.

Helen stumbled out of bed. Sophie hated thunderstorms. Even though she was a deep sleeper, violence on this scale would probably wake her. Helen shrugged on her dressing gown, slid her feet into her slippers and went out onto the landing.

The world lit up. She felt a shock as though somebody had struck every part of her body a stinging blow, and she fell into darkness and the stink of smoke. The burglar alarm was shrieking. Helen fought to move, fought to breathe. Her body felt paralysed. The darkness was less. There was light flickering on the staircase up to Sophie’s room. It was orange and yellow, and showed up the clouds of dark smoke roiling up the stairs.

Helen tried to shout, but, as though in a nightmare, she was mute. Her voice wouldn’t obey her. The tingling was passing off, leaving an ache and a sensation of burning. She levered herself up on an elbow. The staircase was alight!

She forced herself to her feet, swaying, gasping, coughing and staggered forwards towards the stairs and the fire. The flames reached for her. She tried to run past them, but she was too slow. Her dressing gown was alight as she reached the door.

But her strength and her wits were returning. She threw off the robe and slammed the door on the fire. The room was hot and smoky. She threw open the window as wide as it would go, breathed deeply, then turned to Sophie.

“Mummy, I’m frightened. What’s happening?”

“You’re all right now, darling. Mummy’s here.”

The room was hot, but not unbearably so, and the smoke was already dissipating in the draft from the window. Helen blessed Geoff’s forethought for insisting that the door to Sophie’s room should be a proper fire door.

“We’ve got to go out of the window, Sophie. That’ll be an adventure, won’t it?”

Rain was hammering down outside.

“I don’t think I like adventures, Mummy.”

“Come here, Sophie. Climb up here. You must sit on this bit, and then we fasten the belt, and you’re good to go.” Helen smiled and patted Sophie. “When you reach the ground, undo the buckle, and shout so that Mummy knows you’re ready. Then move well away from the house – ten steps away – and Mummy will come down the same way.”

Helen took hold of Sophie, and, with a silent prayer, launched her out of the window.

“Mummy!” the little girl screamed.

The mechanism of the fire escape rattled as the line paid out. There was a bump from below, and a wail. ‘Thank goodness,’ thought Helen, ‘that means she’s alive!’

She waited. The room was becoming stifling. The soles of her feet were burning on the floor.

“Undo the buckle, Sophie. Take off the harness. Mummy needs it.”

“It’s stuck, Mummy.”

She was going to die here. At least Sophie was safe. She wished, though, that she’d had the chance to be reconciled with Geoff.

“Helen? Helen!”

Thank goodness! It was Geoff!

“Sophie, here, let me undo that buckle. Helen? Are you okay up there? Sophie’s clear. Wind up the harness!”

Helen pulled frantically on the cord. The ratchet mechanism seemed to take an age to retract the saving line. At last it was ready. She climbed into the harness. Her feet were hurting abominably. She fastened the buckle, and pushed herself out of the window. The ratchet whirred, faster this time under her greater weight. She thumped into the ground, and felt an acute stab of agony in her right ankle.

Geoff grabbed her, lifted her.

“Miles is in the car. I’ve sent Sophie to join him. God, I thought I’d lost you.”

Tears were rolling down his cheeks, she realised. She patted his back as he carried her towards the car.

“It’s all right, Geoff. It’s all right. I’m okay. Just a busted ankle and a few scorch marks.”

“We’ll call an ambulance, just to be on the safe side,” he said.

“Geoff, I’m sorry about this last week. When I was trapped in Sophie’s room but knew she was safe, the only thing that really mattered to me was the thought that I loved you and I had been horrible to you. I’m really sorry.”

“It was my fault, Helen. I should have found some way of telling you before we married. I was dishonest. Can you forgive me?”

There, in the light of their blazing home, they kissed and gave thanks. They had saved everything that really mattered.

Nepal 71: Three Hundred Dollars

This is a thought-provoking conversation between someone trekking in Nepal and one of the local guides. If you’re interested in what it’s like to trek in Nepal, this is an excellent blog to follow. The discomforts and hazards, as well as the satisfactions are all vividly described.

thisisyouth

The conversation between Sol and I drifted off as a hailstorm rolled into town. Watching from our table by the window, we saw hail start to fall. A few excitable young kids ran outside, screaming “snow!”

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Survivor

survivor-blog-170211When Diane set off in bright sunshine to camp in the mountains and experience the wildness of nature, she gave no thought to the wickedness of man. A happy, successful student, she meant to enjoy to the full her last week of freedom before starting a career. But the power of nature almost overwhelmed her; and the malice of man was worse…


Mrs Reeves looked doubtfully at the computer screen where, courtesy of Skype, she could see her daughter, Diane.
“I’m still not happy with this idea of you hiking off into the woods on your own for a week. It’s bad enough you’re in America all those miles away without thinking of you unprotected and defenceless.”
Diane sighed. “Mum, it’s one of the reasons I came over here, remember? There’s no real wilderness left in England, and I want to go somewhere where it’s just me and nature. It’s not really dangerous, you know.”
“You’re an attractive young woman, Diane. I wish you’d let Howard go with you. He could take care of you.”
Diane covered a smile. Bookish musicologist Howard, six foot four and a scant ten stone, wouldn’t even be able to keep up with her, never mind look after her. She loved him for who he was, and she jolly well didn’t need a protector anyway. Besides, Howard was in LA at a conference.
“I’ll be fine, Mum.”
“Just phone me every night, Diane. I’ll be worried sick.”
“Okay, Mum. Provided my cell phone has a signal. You look after yourself, too. Love you!” Diane broke the connection. She shook out her wavy, auburn hair, and her face gradually cleared. Six years of university study had been fulfilled with the award of a PhD; in two weeks time she would start her career with a merchant bank in the City. For the next seven days she would be freer than she had ever been, probably freer than she would ever be again.
She hardly noticed the fifteen kilograms of her pack when she set off the next morning. The gentle air buoyed her up. The sun made the distant peaks seem close. She breathed deeply, and exulted in the sense of freedom as she set off from the hotel along the Storm Valley Trail. A man in the car park looked up from his pick-up, and grinned at her. He was wearing a camouflage jacket and trousers, and a hint of ginger hair showed under his military-style cap. Diane wondered whether he was a hunter; her guidebook had warned her to be cautious when she entered wooded areas.
She walked steadily, with no sense of haste. After an hour she paused to remove her jacket, and have a drink. The day was warming up. The river flowed broad and strong beside her. As she sat completely still and gazing at the water, she saw a flash of blue. A kingfisher dived and reappeared with a small shiny fish in its beak. “Oh, wow!” she exclaimed, under her breath, and watched as the bird flew upstream with its catch.
Diane walked on. She could smell the warm grass, the damp riverbank, and her own sweat. Sometimes she passed grazing cattle, and even at a distance she could detect their sharp, sweet scent. The riverbank was alive with the buzz of insects.
At midday she sat down in the shade of a tree. The knobbly bark massaged her back, and the grass was soft beneath her. The triple-decker club sandwich had looked intimidatingly large when the hotel had delivered her packed lunch; now it seemed an ideal size. Diane devoured buttered wholegrain bread stuffed with mayonnaise, salad, turkey and small crunchy pieces of salty, smoky bacon.
Satisfied, she sat quietly and thought of Howard. No good imagining him out here in the countryside; you would never catch him more than a hundred metres from civilization. So she thought of him instead in the Conference Centre in LA, arguing animatedly about the music of Geminiani and the significance of a recently discovered manuscript in Dublin. She loved his passionate enthusiasm; she loved to hear him perform. Mentally, she conjured up the sound of a recorder consort, with Howard playing a virtuoso sopranino part. She chuckled.
Still, there were miles to be covered before she could camp up for the evening. She smeared on more suncream, put on her hat and pack, and set off again.
By five o’clock she had arrived at her intended destination and pitched her tent. She sat late that night, and savoured the stars. There was no moon, and yet the sky was ablaze. Mingled with the familiar twinkling crystals were swirls of faint light like milt in a rock pool, the whole forming a great arch across the sky. Diane had never seen the Milky Way so clearly before, and she was filled with awe and delight.
She woke early, five o’clock. She was a little stiff from sleeping on the ground, but her sleeping bag felt luxurious.
“Oh, bother!” Suddenly she remembered that she hadn’t called her mother as she’d promised. She reached out of bed for her cell phone. Wait a minute. What time is it in London? One o’clock. That’s okay. She dialled, but there was no reply and she was transferred to voicemail.
“Hi, Mum! It’s only me. Just letting you know I’m alright – sorry I didn’t call yesterday. Bye!”
The second morning’s walking was harder. The path became rough, and climbed slowly but persistently. The river on her right was noisy and fast, the brown water breaking over boulders, churned to froth, a cappuccino river. A precipitous rocky slope rose on her left keeping her close to the water; she couldn’t avoid the tumultuous noise of the rapids. She looked wistfully across the river, at the grassy meadow on the other side and the woodland beyond. Could she somehow cross? No, the torrent would wash her away in a second. And what was that at the edge of the trees? It looked like a human figure; but when she looked again it had merged into the background as though camouflaged.
She felt a sense of relief as she crested a slope and saw that the land in front of her opened out. She lost no time in walking away from the river to a place where she was less battered by its sound. Lunch was a frugal meal. Bread, cheese and an apple. She filled a one litre water bottle from the stream and dosed it with a chlorine tablet.
Clouds were gathering, and the wind was rising. She checked the weather forecast on her cell phone. The storm that had been due to strike sixty miles south of her had changed course; she was going to have the worst of it. ‘Still,’ she thought, ‘provided I pitch up properly I shouldn’t have any problems. The tent’s advertised to stand up to Force 10 winds.’ She walked on.
That evening she stopped early. The sky was solid grey, and the air was gusty. She chose a small raised plateau well above the river as her campsite. There was just time to heat her meal before the storm broke. As she ate, she sat at the entrance to the tent looking through the lashing rain. This time she had no doubt. There was a man in camouflage on the far bank, and he had pitched camp about fifty metres from the river. Was it the man she’d seen in the car park? She shook her head. Whoever he was, and however irritating it was that he should encroach on her solitude, he was on the far side of a fast, deep stream. He was no threat. She was peacefully asleep in bed before nine o’clock.
The crash of thunder woke her abruptly. She lay still, heart pounding, not sure what had disturbed her. The rain was still hammering on the walls of the tent, which were bellying out to one side like sails. They flapped and clattered in the gale.
“Ouch!”
The tent was lit brighter than day for an instant, and within a heartbeat came the crash of thunder. Diane buried her head in her sleeping bag. It didn’t help. The flashes of lightning were so bright that she could see them with her head under cover and her eyes closed. It was like being on a battlefield.
The quilted sleeping bag muffled Diane’s laughter.
“I wanted adventure,” she said to herself, “and it looks like I’ve got my wish. Ow!” LA would have been more comfortable and definitely safer…
The electrical storm gradually receded, but the rain continued relentlessly. Diane dozed.
It was broad daylight when she woke and the rain had stopped. She looked at her watch. 06:15. Should she go on, or go back? She took a biscuit from her pack.
“Breakfast in bed!”
The sleeping bag was surprisingly comfortable, and after her disturbed night, Diane was tempted to go back to sleep. But the wind had dropped, and the light coming in through the wall of the tent was golden. It would be a shame to waste a beautiful morning. She levered herself up onto one elbow.
“That’s odd.” She could feel vibration through her elbow, vibration that was intensifying. She began to feel a pressure in her ears, which became a rumble, which became a roar. She scrambled out of the bag, unzipped the tent door, looked out and gasped.
The whole mountainside seemed to be moving, rocks, mud, trees, cascading helter-skelter.
A fir tree that had stood a hundred feet high drifted past her, canted at a ludicrous angle like the mast of a stricken sailing vessel. She looked uphill. The edge of the mudslide wasn’t approaching her any more closely, and the flow seemed to be slackening. Just to be on the safe side, though, she grabbed her protective jacket and boots and moved away from the avalanche. She glanced again up the slope, wondering uneasily whether the area directly above her was stable.
When all movement had stopped, Diane packed up her kit. Time to go home. She looked more closely at the mudslide, to see whether it would be possible to cross it. She shook her head. No. It would be far too hazardous. She looked up to the top of the landslip. There was solid rock up there, but it was at least a thousand feet higher than where she was standing. She could see new streamlets spurting out of the scar left by the landslide. It didn’t look like an easy passage; it might well be impassable.
It was starting to seem as though she would have to follow the original route, up to a point where she could cross the river and then hike down the far side. She glanced across to the far bank. The river, in spate from all the rain, had been dammed by the mud and debris. It was pooling, and rapidly spreading and deepening. She saw the man again. He wasn’t looking at the pool, or the landslip.
“He’s looking at me!” realised Diane. And the man made a lewd gesture.
Suddenly the route across the top of the landslip seemed a great deal more attractive.
As quickly as she could, Diane shouldered her pack and set off diagonally up the mountainside, away from the fallen hillside. The ground was very wet. Every careful step squeezed water out, little runnels that trickled downhill. Sometimes the soil slid backwards under her tread. Her boots became turgid with mud. She turned upstream, at an angle to the fall line, trying to find solid ground that would not be likely to slip. Reaching a line of rocks, she followed them up into the trees.
Once inside the woodland and out of sight of the stalker, she breathed more easily. She took out her map and identified the plateau where she’d camped. She estimated how far she’d come, and in what direction, and marked the place on the map. So, if she was right about the exact location of the apex of the mudslide, she needed to travel north-north-west and climb steeply.
The woods were dense, and there were no visible landmarks. There were many obstacles that stopped her from following a straight path. It was exhausting work. Almost, Diane turned round to follow her original route, but her fear of the stalker was too strong. She paused at midday. As she sat down on a rock, she remembered her mother and pulled out her cell phone. There was no signal. The battery was nearly spent, too. With a sigh, she zipped it up again in her pocket. She ate a few biscuits, and drank some water, pulling a face at the taste of chlorine.
Although the day was bright, under the canopy of the wood it was twilight. Diane felt tired. Surely she should be close to the mudslide? Or had she climbed too high? She wished she could see a landmark, or preferably two, and take compass bearings. Never mind. Moping wasn’t going to take her home. She slogged on.
After another hour the light ahead brightened.
“The trees must be thinning out, thank goodness,” she muttered.
Not knowing whether she was above the unstable ground or not, she went forward cautiously. She could see rock ahead; that was a good sign.
Suddenly, her breath caught in her throat. Surely that was a figure there, just outside the wooded area? She slipped behind the trunk of the closest tree and peeped round it. Not a hundred metres away stood a man in camouflage, looking into the wood. Hardly daring to breathe she backed away, keeping the tree between her and the stalker. When she had placed another hundred metres between herself and the man she paused. There was no sign of anything but trees, no sound of anything but the wind in the canopy and a single bird singing.
She trotted, at a measured pace she knew she could maintain for hours if necessary. The stalker must know the mountain very well, she reasoned, and he must be fit and fast to have overtaken her. She tried not to think of him. The rising sense of panic interfered with the rhythm of her running and her breathing. She reached the south-eastern edge of the wood. No sign of him. She looked over the valley. Was that a place where she could cross?
Now she ran like a sprinter, heedless of the risk of falling. If she could just cross the river and reach the woods opposite without being seen, she had a chance. She skidded on scree as she neared the stream, almost sliding into the torrent. She climbed onto a rock. It was wet and slippery. The water looked very close and fierce, a lion waiting to pounce and devour her. She stepped onto the next rock, and nearly slithered off. Another step, and another.
With a yell of defiance, she made it to the penultimate boulder. Even as she tensed to spring over the last gap she heard a shout from behind. Her legs weakened, the jump fell short and her feet slipped back off the rock. She hurled her upper body forward, winding herself, bruising her chest and gashing her face, but falling clear of the water.
Desperately, she hauled herself to her feet, struggling to breathe. Her vision flickered and greyed, and she fought to stay conscious. The stalker was close to the water’s edge, he was at the water’s edge, he was on the first rock. At last Diane forced some air into her lungs, and her sight cleared a little. Bending down, she grabbed a large stone.
“Stop!” she croaked. “Stop, or I’ll throw this at you!”
The man laughed, and took another pace. Diane hurled the rock. The man swayed to one side and the projectile missed. The man snarled. Diane bent down, grabbed another missile. The man was only metres away. She hurled it, fiercely, and it struck him full in the face. He wobbled, but advanced relentlessly. Diane bent to gather another stone as the man took the final pace over the torrent. Blood was streaming down his face as he lurched across.
Diane hit him in the face with the rock, as hard as she could. She pushed him, toppling him back into the stream. His head caught a boulder, and then he was whirled away in the spate.
Diane shrank back, horrified. She wondered whether to run downstream and try to help the man. But he couldn’t have survived the rapids? Could he? Perhaps it had been her final blow that had killed him. Certainly she had caused his death.
She sat down a little away from the stream, still gulping in air, still dizzy. She ached in every part. She rubbed her face where it stung, and was amazed at how much blood there was on her hand when she took it away. After a few minutes, she stood up and walked unsteadily down the path by the stream. She looked intently at the torrent, dreading that she would see the man’s corpse, and dreading that she wouldn’t see it, that he would be waiting for her downstream, waiting for revenge. She wept as she walked.
It was only a mile downstream to the site of the landslide. The pool had already overtopped the dam and was carving itself a new channel. Even as she watched, debris from the mudslide toppled into the water draining from the lake, and the flow speeded up. Floating face down in the lake, a figure in combat fatigues spun gently in an eddy.
Diane wondered about her cell phone. Would she have a signal here? With clumsy fingers she pulled it out. Thank goodness. There was a signal. She dialled the emergency services, described where she was.
“And there’s a man here,” she told them. “He’s in the river. I think he must be dead. He must have fallen in. He’s not moving.”
They were very quick.
Within an hour, Diane was seated in a helicopter. Beside her, on the floor, lay the corpse of the man in fatigues, a wisp of red hair, dark with mud, across his brow. Water trickled from his clothing and spread like a bloodstain across the floor.


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The Saboteurs

“DON’T FRACK OUR FOREST”.
Paul nodded approval of the banner as he entered Edwin’s bedsit.
“Like it!” he said. “Is that for the demo on the 28th March?”
Edwin grunted.
“Have you persuaded anybody else to sign the petition yet, Paul?”
“Yeah, I talked a couple of colleagues into it. One of them might come on the 28th too. It’s a bit difficult, though, as most of them are engineers.”
“Then they ought to be used to decisions based on evidence. Put your back into it, Paul; this is important.”
“Hi Eddie; hi, Paul!” Liz came in cheerfully, and kissed Edwin on the mouth. “All ready for tonight? I can’t wait!”
“Did you make the banner, Liz? It’s really eye-catching!” asked Paul, grinning, and kissing Liz on the cheek she offered him.
“No, that was Eddie. He’s a dab hand with a sewing machine. I just made the coffee.”
There was a knock at the door. “I’ll get it,” said Liz, as she opened it to let Nick join them.
Edwin sidled over to Paul.
“Don’t even think it,” he said.
Paul looked down at him with resignation. “What am I supposed not to think, Eddie?”
“You know what I mean. No funny business with Liz while you’re on this mission. She’s my partner.”
“That’s not a very enlightened attitude to women, my friend.”
“No friend of yours, you posh git. Liz is free to make her own mind up. I wouldn’t hurt her; I love her. But that doesn’t mean I’ll stand by and see someone else mess with her. So keep your hands off.”
“I’ll make my own decisions about that, Eddie. I’ll be quite happy to beat the living daylights out of you, if that’s what you want.”
“In your dreams.”
“Don’t take any notice of Eddie,” exclaimed Liz to Paul. “He’s just wound up about tonight’s operation.”
Edwin, mid-thirties, ex-army corporal, called them to order.
“Right. Listen up. Paul and Liz, you’re the Away Team. You set off in ten minutes to the exploratory fracking site. Here’s the grid reference.
The place should be deserted but put your balaclavas on before you leave the car; cover up that blonde hair, Liz. Check that there’s nobody there by throwing pebbles at the portakabin – not big ones; we don’t want to break anything needlessly. Throw at least five, with one minute gaps between them. If nobody responds you can assume there are no security guards. Cut the fence and enter.
Check for things that could damage the environment, like diesel in an unbunded tank, or chemicals stored on open ground, and photograph them. Use the stencils and spray paint to write ‘DON’T FRACK OUR FOREST’ on the portakabin. Photograph that, too. Then come straight back here.
Nick and I are the Home Team. We’re here to send in the cavalry if there are problems, and we’ll post the pictures on social media when the Away Team return. It will blow that company’s environmental credentials right out of the water.
Remember. If you need to phone, use the pay-as-you-go phone, not your personal phone, so the call can’t be traced back to you.”
Are there any questions?”
Paul, Liz and Nick looked at each other.
Paul shrugged.
“Sounds straightforward enough. Come on, Liz, let’s go! See you, Nick!”
The shelves, the furniture, even the floor of Edwin’s bedsit were covered with books, pamphlets and old takeaway cartons. Nick stacked up enough of them to be able to sit on the grubby sofa, and shuffled a space for his feet so he wouldn’t be treading on any of them. It would be at least three hours before Paul and Liz returned. Ed uncovered the keyboard of his computer, and brought up a page of Inside Climate News. He maintained a steady and profane commentary on what he was reading.
Nick fidgeted. He picked up a leaflet and glanced through it. Contamination of water with methane in Pennsylvania. The evidence supported the claim, but how relevant was it to the proposed drilling in the forest? He said as much to Ed.
“Pennsylvania is where they’re drilling into the Marcellus shale. There’s a raft of evidence of leaking gas well casings in the Loyalsock Forest. I wish you’d make an effort to keep informed.”
“Shall I go and buy us pizza?”
“Already sorted; due to be delivered at half past ten. I hope you’ve got twenty quid in your pocket to pay for it.”
“Do you mind if I use your loo?”
“Go ahead.”
Nick went down the corridor and occupied the lavatory. With the door safely bolted, he drew out his mobile.
“Hi. It’s Nick. Everything’s going ahead. They should arrive in an hour.”
He put the phone away and washed his hands ostentatiously.
The heavy shove as he left was completely unexpected and jolted him into the edge of the door. Even though he anticipated the subsequent blow to his midriff and tensed his muscles, it knocked all the wind out of him. Then he was being held, Edwin’s enraged face thrust towards him.
“So who was that then? Eh? Eh?” Edwin tugged at Nick’s collar repeatedly, each time banging his head painfully against the door.
“My Dad. I’ve arranged delivery of a takeaway for him.”
“Liar! You’re a grass. Here, let’s see that phone!” His forehead smashed into Nick’s nose, and his hand reached for the phone in Nick’s pocket.
Last number redial.
“Hallo, Nick. Didn’t expect you to call back. Is there a problem?”
“Is that the police? I have an emergency with one of your colleagues. He’s haemorrhaging. He gave me this number to ring.”
“OK. Place him in the recovery position – you know what that is? – and we’ll get an ambulance round straightaway. Is he fit to speak?”
“Nah, don’t bother with an ambulance. He’s okay after all. Just a bit of a nosebleed. Nice of you to confirm who you are, though. By the way, did he tell you he’d been sleeping with one of our members? That’ll taint his evidence a bit I should think. Bye-bye!” Edwin almost sang his farewell.
As he ended the call he could hear sounds of consternation from the other end.
“Now that your undercover role is compromised, you’d better go and meet your buddies somewhere. I suggest you tripped and broke your nose when you fell. It might be less embarrassing than standing up in court and admitting what a pig’s ear you’ve made of things.”
Nick dabbed at his nose. The bleeding had already almost stopped, but it felt very sore. He picked up his cagoul and slunk out of the building.
Paul had driven relentlessly quickly on the motorway. Once in the forest he drove like a rally driver. Liz clutched the sides of her seat, and sometimes closed her eyes. She was exhilarated. They were within two miles of their destination with thirty minutes to spare. Stars sparkled in the ribbon of black sky left between the trees.
“We’d better stop for a bit,” suggested Liz. “You’ve been way faster than Ed. You’re much smoother, too.”
With a screech of tyres Paul pulled off the road into a fire-break between the trees. Liz’s hand slipped surreptitiously onto the inside of his thigh.
“You’d better turn off the phone; we don’t want Eddie interrupting, do we?”
Liz grinned. “Already done,” she said, holding up the phone and displaying its dark screen.
Edwin dialed the Away Team’s number. No answer. He frowned and looked at his watch. They’d be in the forest, but not at the fracking site. Possibly there was no mobile coverage where they were. But they should have coverage when they arrived; he knew, he’d checked. He sent a text, and worried. While he was confident that Nick wouldn’t say anything about his assault, if Paul and Liz were caught after they’d cut the fence they could be prosecuted for criminal damage. It might even mean a custodial sentence. That would be tough; he knew from personal experience.
There was no reply to his text after ten minutes. Either the phone had a fault, or Liz had forgotten to charge it – but surely, even Liz wouldn’t have been that scatty? – or they’d switched it off. His gorge rose and his fists balled. Perhaps he could get through on Liz’s personal mobile. He’d need his own phone for that; he hadn’t memorized her number.
He never carried his personal mobile in his pocket; it was too likely to fall out. Mostly he kept it on his desk. It wasn’t there. He looked in the other likely places, on the sofa, down the side of the sofa, on the television stand, on the middle bookshelf.
They must be at the site by now, unless…if they’d had an accident, the mobile could be broken. In Edwin’s opinion, Paul drove like a maniac. In any case, there was no reply. He kept searching for his phone.
In the forest, Paul and Liz straightened their disheveled clothing. “Oh-oh. We’re nearly late!” Paul released the clutch, and the car shot out onto the lane.
“Just slow down a mo, so I can turn on the mobile.”
Paul grinned. “Don’t be so wet. There won’t be a message. We’re late. Here we go!” The car roared down the road, and there was no way Liz could enter the correct PIN.
There was a different ring tone.
“That’s my personal phone,” said Liz. “I wonder who it is? I’m not going to answer it, because it won’t be Eddie.”
It went to voicemail.
“Nearly there. Yee-hah!” Paul punched the air with his left fist.
The phone rang again.
“Who on earth can that be at this time of night?” Liz pulled out the phone, and looked at the screen. “It is Eddie! What on earth is he playing at? Eddie? What’s up?”
Paul swerved off the road into the entrance to the site, sending up a shower of grit that tinkled against the gate. “You have reached your destination,” he announced.
Liz spoke in a little voice. “That was Ed. The mission is off. Nick was a police informer.”
They looked at each other.
“An informer? Nick?”
Liz nodded.
They stared apprehensively at the dark trees. Who was hidden in the shadows?
Paul engaged first gear and drove away, slowly and very carefully.

Note on fracking
Fracking is a technique by which sub-surface rocks are broken to recover the natural gas, mostly methane, trapped inside it.
Burning methane contributes less to climate change than burning coal, but it is not zero carbon. Putting fracking infrastructure in place will commit us to burning the gas to recover the investment.
There is a good deal of evidence that fracking can cause contamination of groundwater. There is also evidence that methane can reach the atmosphere; when it does, it is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
There are several sites in the UK where exploratory drilling has been proposed, including Sherwood Forest.

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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!

Too late

‘Aniljaphur is so beautiful’ mused Rani, as she gazed across the bay towards the headland. The morning light seasoned the beach like saffron, and sparked and glinted from the ripples of the sea. The sand was virgin, unmarked, refreshed by the gentle scouring of the tide. The awnings under which a few tourists enjoyed an early breakfast were festive, their colours glowing in the sun.
“Like a wedding feast,” thought Rani, smiling to herself. It wouldn’t be long now, just eight days. She scanned the buildings along the sea-front, trying to catch sight of her husband-to-be, Faroukh. He was usually there first thing in the morning, making sure that everything was smart, that the staff were ready, that nothing would interfere with the comfort of his customers. Rani hoped that he would pause on the terrace, glance at her house and wave; he had often done so since they were betrothed. She would recognise his build, his stance, and imagine the smile on his face – although he was too far away for her to make out his features.
“Not that he’s perfect,” she added hastily to herself. Modern businessman though he was, Faroukh held some rather traditional ideas about the role of women. ‘Well, he’ll learn,’ she thought, and giggled quietly to herself over the shock he was going to have when he saw her on the beach later with his five year old cousin. “You can’t expect me to take care of Sanjay on the beach in anything other than a bathing costume. I need to be ready to fish him out of the water if anything goes wrong.” Thus she rehearsed her excuses.
Panjit Engineer was less enraptured by the day – and a great deal less by Faroukh Patel. He had spent a sleepless and angry night. For months he had worked long hours, completing his routine tasks as the local government engineer, clearing time in his schedule for the project closest to his heart, the culmination of years of scheming. He had planned carefully, cajoled suppliers for components, sweet-talked local businessmen into sponsoring the work and finally persuaded his bosses to support the extension of the tsunami early warning system as far as Aniljaphur. Today he had intended to start work on it. And now Faroukh….
Panjit had many legitimate calls made upon his time. He did not view tarting up the town for Faroukh’s nuptials as one of them. “This has nothing to do with jealousy of Faroukh,” he told himself – and, indeed, others. “It’s a matter of the public good. Life or death,” he muttered furiously, as he marched to the engineering depot to issue paint, brushes and overalls to his staff so that they might brighten the civic buildings.
Faroukh had come to him bright-eyed, smiling with camaraderie, seeking to persuade him that it would enhance the reputation of the town with the tourists if the town hall and police station were smartened up. Panjit had demurred; such jobs were best done out of season. He would have to cordon off areas of the town square, hindering the visitors.  “Then you should have done it last year,” Faroukh had said, nastily. “Our public buildings are a disgrace. I shall complain to the State Chief Engineer.”
“Do as you wish,” Panjit had shrugged. “I have my priorities given to me by the Chief himself.” Two hours later he had received a phone call, not from the Chief Engineer but from the Third Assistant, brusquely ordering him to attend to the painting of the buildings without delay – and informing him that the Chief Engineer was displeased that civic amenities had been allowed to deteriorate to the point at which they brought complaints.
The day wore away. Late in the afternoon Panjit went to check what progress had been made. The window frames of the Town Hall, now stripped of paint, showed areas where the wood had rotted and flaked. “We can’t paint over that.” He whistled through his teeth, then clucked with irritation. “You’ll have to fill the gaps and sand down before you can paint,” he told his crew.
“Quite right, too. I don’t want a shoddy job. But I know you’re a professional, Panjit.”
Faroukh. Patronising, bloody Faroukh. Panjit toyed with the idea of taking a swing at him. It would almost be worth losing his job to see Faroukh flat on his back. But then, Faroukh would probably duck and hit back. Panjit remembered from childhood just how hard Faroukh could punch. Sometimes life could be a real bitch.
Panjit grunted and turned his back. He imagined a sneer on Faroukh’s face, and his fists balled. “One day,” he thought furiously. “One day.”
The beach was still packed with tourists. Rani yawned. Looking after little Sanjay was fun, but there were things she would rather be doing. Still, he was enjoying himself splashing in the warm, shallow water. She waved and smiled at him from her seat under a brolly halfway up the beach.
She blinked. Her eyes seemed to be playing tricks. The horizon looked dark and fuzzy. “How strange,” she thought, trying to focus. She shook her head, as though to clear it. The fuzziness remained, indeed it intensified. Was that a roaring in the air, or was her hearing playing tricks on her?
No, she was alright. Everything else seemed clear and sharp to her vision, and the music from the nearby café tinkled with its normal tone.
People in the sea were waving their arms and shouting. Some of them were running back onto the beach.
Suddenly Rani realised. Her face and fingers felt icy, and her heart pounded. She leapt to her feet and ran towards the water, calling out to Sanjay as she went. Sanjay was staring out to sea. The wall of water was clear enough now, and racing towards them like an express train. Rani ran as fast as she could, banging and barging past terrified tourists as they fled from the wave. She snatched Sanjay into her arms and gasped as the tumult engulfed her.
It was black, and her ears were deafened by the silent cacophony of rushing water. She held Sanjay desperately tightly. She would not lose him, she wouldn’t let go no matter what. Holding him was the only action she could control as the force of the cataract spun her, accelerated her, tossed her from side to side.
Then her head was clear of the surface. She gasped a lungful of air and tugged Sanjay as high out of the water as she could. She heard him cough and felt him heaving, trying to rid himself of the water he’d inhaled. She caught sight of some buildings. Why, that was the supermarket! But that was two hundred metres inland! And still the wave drove on, still she was powerless to resist. She twisted over onto her back, with Sanjay above her so that his head would stay in the air. She could hear him shouting “Rani! Rani! I’m frightened!” Thank God. He was still alive. She would never have forgiven herself if he had drowned.
The blow to her head as the tsunami smashed her into a tree was shocking and final.
Panjit, senses dimmed by fury, only realised something was amiss when people came pounding up the hill towards the Town Hall. Then, amid the shrieks he heard the word “Tsunami”. Faroukh grabbed his shoulder. “You incompetent bastard, this is your fault. You should have installed that warning system. Rani’s down there with Sanjay!“ He gestured theatrically.
Panjit started to run downhill and then, as he rounded the corner, stopped. A great tide of mud raced past him. Tables and chairs from the beach cafes tumbled in the maelstrom. Bright awnings, like coloured sails, gave a macabre gaiety to the scene. “Mother of God,” he gasped as an entire shop floated stately before him.
He saw a struggling form, close to the edge. Holding tightly to a tree, he leaned out to try and grab it. The torrent tugged at him, wrenching his arm, but he caught the man’s hand. Every muscle strained with exertion, he fought to drag the man to safety. He could see the man’s face, desperate. A white face, a tourist.
The man sank from view. Panjit pulled harder, and then, like a cork from the bottle, the man came free of the flood as he found his footing.
“Get up the hill, up the hill,” gasped Panjit. “Don’t wait here; the water will rise higher.” The stranger stumbled off, climbing to safety.
Panjit looked back down the hill and crossed himself. The entire lower part of the town had been swept away. The last buildings had been demolished even as he had pulled the survivor clear. And still the water was pouring inland, as though it would never stop.
Panting, ears singing, Panjit followed the course of the wave, keeping as close to the edge as possible. Where was Rani; where was she?
The great tide seemed to be slackening a little as he made his way inland. There! There was another figure, a woman in a bathing costume, so fouled with mud that it was impossible to tell whether she was local or a tourist. She wasn’t moving. The current held her fast against a tree, caught in its branches.
Panjit couldn’t reach her. If she was alive, only God could help her; she was beyond the reach of man until the torrent subsided. Sobbing, Panjit struggled onwards.
About fifty yards ahead a small figure spun in an eddy. Maybe he could be saved; the current looked less fierce there. A tourist came pounding down the hill with a rope. Panjit pointed. The man with the rope nodded and together they ran towards the child. Panjit grabbed the end of the rope and knotted it around his body. His helper wrapped the rope around a tree trunk twice, then braced himself. Panjit gestured approval and plunged into the race.
God, it was strong! Even here where the full force was broken it had immediately swept him off his feet. Pointless to fight it; he must work with it and edge his way towards the youngster. But he must be quick; the lad was face down and not moving. Inch by inch, Panjit manoeuvred closer until at last he could grab the form.
In a sudden rage of strength Panjit plucked the youth bodily from the water. His stomach heaved. It was Sanjay, his sister’s child and Faroukh’s cousin. He prayed aloud as he fought his way towards the water’s edge.
As he struggled ashore, his helper grabbed the inert form and expertly began trying to resuscitate him. Panjit watched helplessly. He shuddered continuously. The other man looked up at him and shook his head.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m afraid we were too late.”
“Keep trying. Oh, please – keep trying.” The words were a whisper, but the man heard them. He couldn’t meet Panjit’s eyes.
“It’s no use. I’m so sorry, but he’s beyond our help. I know – I’m a doctor” Then, shamed by Panjit’s grief he bent to the task once more. For several minutes he laboured. The body didn’t stir. The doctor stood up. He reached out to Panjit, took him in his arms and held him as he wailed.
Behind Panjit the sea had started to retreat, gurgling as it swirled and eddied. Panjit bent down, picked up Sanjay and cradled him.
“I must take him home,” he said.
The doctor nodded. “I suppose there’s a local hospital? They could probably use my help.”
“Yes. Yes, over there.” Panjit nodded to indicate the direction. “About half a mile.“
He trudged up the hill with his burden. As he reached the square he saw Faroukh at the centre of a bustling crowd. He had commandeered ropes, ladders, even lifebelts, and was organising groups of men to rescue those who could be saved. Ignoring the sight, he continued his desolate progress to his sister’s house, to lay his burden to rest and to grieve.
But even the bitter consolation of shared grief was to be denied him. As he wept with his sister that evening, there was a knock at the door. Two police officers stood there.
“Mr Engineer?”
Panjit stared stupidly at the men. “Yes?”
“Mr Engineer, I have a warrant for your arrest for obtaining money by deception.”
Panjit stared blankly at the senior officer who had spoken.
“Deception?”
“Yes, sir.” The officer’s face hardened. “We have had complaints that you solicited money from local businesses for a tsunami early warning system that was never installed.” For a moment the man’s professionalism wavered. “My wife was down there, you bastard,” he gasped. Then he straightened up, and stood very tall.
“You must come with us to the police station.”
The smell of fresh paint taunted Panjit through the whole, long night.