Book review – “The Memory Stones” by Caroline Brothers, published by Bloomsbury

The memory stones, from CB

BUENOS AIRES, 1976. Osvaldo Ferrero and his wife Yolanda escape the city’s heat with their daughters, Julieta and Graciela, who is madly in love. On their return, the military junta stages a coup, and Osvaldo is forced to flee. Graciela is abducted and becomes one of the ‘disappeared’. Yolanda fights on the ground for some trace of their beloved daughter, while Osvaldo can only witness the disintegration of his family from afar.

Soon Yolanda and Osvaldo realise that Graciela was expecting a baby when she was snatched; perhaps they are fighting for an unknown grandchild as well.

This is a great novel, in the sense that ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by Steinbeck is a great novel. It is driven by passionate indignation that men should do such wicked deeds, it tells the story through believable characters, and it is written with quiet words that nevertheless sing.

Caroline writes beautifully, and uses some vivid metaphors. There is, for example, a three page story of the travails of a letter through the streets of Buenos Aires. It tells the reader of the appalling crime that has been committed against Graciela with a forcefulness that description could never achieve on its own.

It’s difficult to bear the sadness and loss of the central characters. There were times when, despite the enthralling writing, I picked up the book with reluctance because it hurt so much. In reading the novel, I learned that the regime’s rule of terror took more than the lives of most of those who disappeared; it also took fulfilment from the lives of those whose families and friends were taken.

I was glad that I persisted in reading. Osvaldo and Yolanda are people of integrity, determination, and, above all, love. By the end of the story, love has won some victories to set against the evil of wicked men, and those victories are important. When you read this book – and you really should, for it is a deeply enriching experience – summon up your own integrity, determination and love, summon up your courage, and immerse yourself. It’s well worth it!

You can read more about the novel at https://www.facebook.com/MemoryStones1/

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.

Happily ever after

For many students, university life is a time to acquire the qualifications for your career while drinking large quantities of alcohol. Others are more single-minded, pursuing a special interest or a marriage partner. A few feel called to the academic life. What happens when the worlds of love and scholarship collide? And what are their relative values?

It’s strange how you can overlook people, isn’t it?

I’d sat in lectures with Justin for six months. He was tall, with a neat, crinkly beard and moustache, and he usually wore a sweater and jeans. Other than that I could have told you nothing about him, not even his name, except that his presence in the same lectures as me meant that he was in his first year reading Natural Science. And knowing nothing about him didn’t bother me at all.

I had, after all, come to Cambridge to study, and for the first term and a half I did little else. In Queens’ College, though, you are obliged to dine in Hall occasionally, and there I met Alison. She was tiny, with dark curly hair and a smile that could light up a room. Whenever I became too intense about my work, she would drag me out to the college bar, or a theatre. She even persuaded me to try a disco one evening; not a place you would usually find me!

It was March, and for several weeks now Alison had been talking about white-water kayaking. We were sharing coffee together in my room and I was only half listening. She’d knocked on the door when I was in the middle of trying to complete work for my physics tutorial, and my mind was still on the problem we’d been set.

“So you’ll come then, Nicola?” she asked.

“Yes, okay,” I said, still not listening. Which is why I was surprised when she came to see me on Friday to make sure I hadn’t forgotten that we were going white-water kayaking the following day. Ah!

It sounded like a sport that was everything I hated. Above all, it was cold and it was wet. But Alison was my best friend, and I didn’t want to let her down.

She and I sat near the front of the coach for the two hour journey to Derbyshire.  When we arrived it was grey, and raining with an air of persistence. I was standing near the coach door wondering whether to ask the driver to let me stay in his nice, warm vehicle for the day, and who should climb down the steps but Justin?

He smiled happily at me. “Hello, Nicola! I didn’t know this was your scene?”

What a lovely resonant voice! It gave me goosebumps.

“How do you know my name?” I demanded.

“I thought you looked nice, so I asked around until I found someone who knew you. My name’s Justin. Have you kayaked before?”

“No, this is my first time.”

“Mine too. Should be fun!”

Already we were walking towards the reception.

The instructors were very safety conscious. We had an hour-long lecture, followed by two hours of exercises on dry land before we were allowed near the water. Somehow, Justin and I always seemed to be near each other. His cheerful grin more than compensated for the cold, wet river.

I was tired out after the day, and Justin shepherded me into a window seat on the coach. Oh, how pleasant it was to be back in the warm! As soon as the coach started moving I drifted off to sleep. I didn’t wake up until we were back in Cambridge, when I came to with a start to find my head snuggled onto Justin’s shoulder. He didn’t seem to mind, and, as we climbed off the coach, he said, “Would you like to come to a concert on Wednesday? I just happen to have two tickets.”

To be honest, he could have invited me to the circus (which I loathe), or church (which always makes me cross about peoples’ gullibility) – even to go kayaking again – and I would have said yes. Anything to enjoy that lovely smile beaming at me. I could hardly wait for Wednesday.

There was still work to be done, though, and I poured my energy into that. Being happy seemed to release something inside me. I found I could solve problems that had previously been beyond me. Every time I completed a piece of work I allowed myself five minutes of delight imagining Justin, his merry face, his laugh, and that lovely warm strength that I’d felt cuddled up to him on the coach.

It was a concert of classical music, a string quartet. I don’t know much about music but I think the performance must have been very good. In one piece, the quartet were joined by another cellist, and the piece that they played had me in tears. It was so sad, and yet so beautiful. I never knew such music existed. It felt like heaven imagined by the bereaved for their loved one. I soaked my hankie and Justin lent me his.

We went out for a meal afterwards, and then back to his room. We talked and we talked. And then we kissed. Our first kiss. You’ve kissed people, I’m sure. You know what it’s like. But that first kiss. That was so special. I was trembling by the end, and I think Justin was too.

“It’s two o’ clock. Heavens! I have a lecture in seven hours! Justin, I must go! Thank you for a lovely, lovely evening.”

“Can I see you again? Please?”

For the first time he looked apprehensive, so apprehensive that I stopped and thought properly about my answer. Eventually I said, “I’ve enjoyed tonight more than anything in my life. And I like you more than anybody else I know. I’d hate not to see you again. So why don’t we go out the evening after tomorrow? I’ll think of something, and book it and let you know. You’d better give me your mobile number.” We kissed again. It felt so right…I cycled back to college in a haze of endorphins.

It wasn’t long before our friends referred to us as ‘an item’.

We didn’t see each other over the Easter vac; my parents always went abroad at Easter, and this year was no exception. I took my Kindle loaded with textbooks and my laptop and spent most of the time studying. I felt I had the capability to achieve a first class result, and I didn’t intend to fail through lack of effort. By the end of the vacation I was on course provided I kept working hard. It was a satisfying feeling.

As soon as I’d dropped my suitcase in my room in college, I rushed over to Justin. As he held me close, it felt as though I could relax for the first time since we’d parted. I pressed my face hard against his chest, and luxuriated in his scent. He smelled – reassuring, somehow.

“Did you miss me?” he asked.

“Of course I missed you! Did you miss me?”

“Horribly,” he said. “Every day. Even though you were in France, and I couldn’t touch you, I longed to see you and to hear your voice, but you seemed to be very busy. I would have loved to talk more on Skype.”

“We did talk on Skype,” I said, rather indignantly.

“Twice. In three weeks. I was a starving man, hungering for his beloved’s voice! But, seriously, Nicola, couldn’t you have managed to talk a bit more? I missed you so much.”

“I’m sorry, Justin. I was working hard, you know? Ten hours a day, every day. And Mum and Dad wanted to drag me out to museums and things, too.”

“I understand. I’m ever so proud of how bright you are. I just missed being close.”

“Well, I’m close now.” I lifted my face to his, and we kissed, softly at first, then fiercely. I was caught up by his passionate desire, and wanted nothing more from life than perfect unity with him.

It was a very busy term. I extended my reading on the syllabus to include related topics, so that I knew the context of the subject matter in the curriculum. I made sure that if a topic rested on calculation, I could do the calculation even where the curriculum treated it only qualitatively. At first, Justin and I tried to study together. He never interrupted me, but he would work for an hour and then tiptoe out of the room, spend half an hour in the bar and then tiptoe back. I found it desperately distracting, and after about a week we agreed to study separately.

And then, at last, the exams were over and we could relax. Justin and I went to Queens’ May Ball! We danced. We ate and drank. We listened to a jazz concert. We danced some more. The skies lightened and we breakfasted in the dawn, before taking a punt onto the Backs. The sun shone nearly horizontally, so we were in shade until we reached King’s College. Justin steered us to the west of the river, and used the pole to secure the punt to the bank. And there, in the glory of that summer morning, Justin asked me to marry him.

I looked across at King’s College. Its stonework, normally honey-coloured, was black against a golden sky. I looked down river at Clare College bridge, starkly limned by the sun, with the shadowy river beyond.

The gentle breeze fanned my flaming cheeks without seeming to cool them. I wanted nothing more than to be Justin’s wife; my body yearned for the reassurance of being totally his. But what did he want from marriage? And what would I be able to give?

I tried to say something of this. But, in the face of his desire and commitment, his single-minded love, I was clumsy. I wanted to shout “I love you! Yes! Yes! YES!”, fling myself at him, and live happily ever after.

“But this is the real world, not a fairy tale,” I found myself saying, while thinking ‘How can I say that? What am I doing?’

He looked so hurt. And nothing could have hurt me more than that.

“Have I any grounds for hope?” he asked, “or should I just chuck the ring in the river?”

“Oh, Justin I do love you. It’s just that, well, we haven’t even talked about marriage, or what we want from life.”

“I love you more than anything,” he said softly. “Nothing matters beside that. I just want to be with you for the rest of my life.”

“Can you give me some time to think, please, Justin? And can we talk about it?”

“I would wait for you until the stars fall from the heavens, Nicola, with your love as the prize.”

When I spoke to my mum that evening, I needed to take my courage in both hands.

“I’m afraid I can’t come with you to the States next week.”

“But, darling, we’ve bought your tickets, the hotels are booked; everything’s booked.”

“I’m sorry, but I need to be here.”

“Is it that boy? I knew he was a bad influence on you!”

“Justin has asked me to marry him.”

“Don’t be silly! You’re much too young. You’re only nineteen!”

“That’s what I told him.”

“Oh. Good. You haven’t lost all your common sense then.”

“I also told him that I love him. And I do. You must see that I can’t just wave bye-bye and go to America for six weeks.”

“Six weeks really isn’t very long, darling.”

Six weeks is an eternity! It’s only eight hours since I kissed him goodbye at the station and I’m already miserable with loss.

“If it’s alright with you, I shall come home tomorrow and stay at home over the summer. I expect I’ll visit Justin, and I hope he’ll visit me. Would you mind that, Mum?”

Do come with us to the States. It won’t be nearly as much fun for me if you’re not there.”

“For goodness sake, Mum, don’t do this whole guilt-trip thing. You’ll have a great time without me.”

“But I shall be worrying about you the whole time.”

“Now you’re being silly. I’ll see you tomorrow, Mum. Bye!”

There was no more talk of marriage over the long vac; I think we both realised that we needed to wait until we were back at uni. We visited each other’s homes, and I met Justin’s parents. I liked them. They were warm, friendly people, and I could see why Justin was so empathetic. And when we were apart, I made a point of talking to Justin on Skype every single day.

The best day of the vacation was the day the exam results came out. Justin was staying with me for a week, and we checked the results together. I had the first that I’d worked so hard for, and Justin, to his own astonishment, had an upper second. I treated us to a visit to the best local restaurant and a bottle of champagne.

As we went home by taxi afterwards, Justin was rather quiet and thoughtful.

We sat drinking coffee together, and he said, “Your parents are quite well off, aren’t they?”

“I suppose they are. I don’t really think about it. So what?”

“We’re…poor, I suppose, really. Mum and Dad have made sacrifices for me to attend Cambridge. I don’t know how much that matters to you?”

“Not. One. Tiny. Bit.” I kissed him, over and over again, until we both got the giggles.

So the long vacation passed pleasantly, and also productively because I read as much as I could about theoretical chemistry. The more I studied, the more I felt that this was my metier. This was the field in which I was going to make my mark. I was delighted to read a number of papers by a Fellow of Queens’ whom I knew supervised second year students.

Consequently, I was deeply disappointed when my Director of Studies told me that someone else was going to supervise me in chemistry. I asked, politely, whether here was any chance that this could be changed? Apparently not.

“Doctor Snell is a specialist in theoretical chemistry, Professor. I’ve been studying that over the long vac, and I’m really keen to follow the subject. I did pass with first class honours, Professor. I know that doesn’t entitle me to any privileges, but I really had hoped…”

“The supervisor to whom we have allocated you is a very able scholar. I’m sure he’ll be more than capable of supervising even someone as overwhelmingly talented as you are. Now, if there’s nothing else?”

I was furious. I was livid. I went straight round to Alison.

“Is he taking any more students this year? After all, there are all sorts of reasons why he might not be taking students. It sounds as though he’s a prolific researcher. Maybe he just doesn’t have time?”

True. I hadn’t thought of that.

“Why don’t you make a few discreet enquiries in the department?” suggested Alison. “Or if you’re feeling particularly brave, talk to the man himself. Who knows? You might be able to persuade him to take you on.”

It was good advice, but I’m not very brave about just walking up and talking to somebody I don’t know.

Justin was incensed on my behalf. “How dare he be sarcastic about your ability? You’re brilliant, Nikki, way better than a second-rater like him.” It was very agreeable to have such fervent support, but in all fairness I had to point out that my Director of Studies was a very distinguished scholar whose publications placed him firmly in the front rank of scientists in the UK.

“Anyway, I shall ask around and see what I can learn about the other students he’s supervising.”

It was only a few days later that he said, “I found out something very interesting about Dr Snell. He has no female students. As far as anybody can remember, he never has had. Apparently, one of his current students says that Snell has said that the female brain can’t cope with a high level of abstraction and that women should stick to organic chemistry, which is like cooking.”

Alison chipped in at this point, and we all had an emotionally satisfying rant about sexism and legal redress and the iniquity of the University authorities employing such a man – although even in the middle of our denunciations I made a mental reservation for Dr Snell; I mean, he was just so brilliant.

I suppose that thought was what spurred my imagination. If I approached the matter as sexism, I certainly wasn’t going to be supervised by Dr Snell. The only way of accomplishing that would be to convince him that I was capable. I’d read his papers very carefully, and it seemed to me that there were areas of weakness. You don’t win hearts and minds by exposing weakness, though, so I needed to find the points where the theory could be extended. Then I would have to do some intensive work to show more clearly how this could be achieved, and find an opportunity to talk to Dr Snell about it.

Alison looked doubtful. “You’re only a second year student. Do you think you can contribute original work in such a difficult field?”

“Nikki’s brilliant!” said Justin. Lovely man! I smiled at him.

“I may be good enough. I shall certainly try. But I don’t have to produce original work; I just need to be able to ask good questions that will show that I am capable of understanding the subject.”

Alison pulled a face. “I guess. But misogyny runs deep.”

But at the beginning of November, my Director of Studies informed me that Dr Snell had asked to supervise me. Joy and delight!

Occasionally during that second year Justin and I discussed marriage.

The first time he described a vision of a family, with several children, and with me as some sort of idealised figure, halfway between a fairy who could grant every wish and an earth-mother nourishing the world with the milk from her breasts and the cooking from her kitchen. That was one of the rare occasions on which we quarrelled…

He was a lot more realistic during our second discussion. He agreed that scholarship was my vocation, ahead of family commitments. He agreed that maybe children weren’t necessary for a happy and fulfilled marriage. I, in my turn, conceded that children weren’t necessarily out of the question provided we could make adequate childcare arrangements.

“All this discussion about the practicalities rather takes the romance out of it,” he grumbled.

“If I marry you, Justin, you’re stuck with me. We have to sort out whether we’ll be able to make it work. And, in any case, there is no way we’re going to marry before we’ve completed Finals.”

He looked at me with big, brown, soulful eyes. “I just love you so much,” he said.

At the end of the second year, I achieved another first; Justin had slipped to a lower second. He wasn’t particularly worried. When we talked about his plans, he said, “I thought I would apply to Addenbrooke’s Hospital to train as a physiotherapist. That will be handy for living near you when you’re doing your PhD. It’s something I rather fancy doing. I think I’ll be good at it; better than at the academic stuff, anyway!”

It was on November 28th that I had the first ‘blanking’ incident. It had been a particularly busy week. It was one o’clock in the morning, and I was looking at how modern numerical methods aligned with molecular orbital theory when I suddenly realised that I hadn’t understood anything on the page. I went back to the beginning and started again. I caught the fringe of meaning, but I couldn’t grasp the core.

“I must be exhausted,” I said to myself. There was dread in my heart as I went to bed. Not finishing that work meant I was starting the next day with a deficit.

I rose at five, made a coffee, and started working immediately. The relief! I understood the paper, and could criticise and develop its arguments. It was as though I had been drowning and then discovered, just in time, that I could swim. By the end of the day I was back on schedule.

Justin wanted to see me the following day. I was rather short with him. There was so much work to do. He kissed me and looked concerned.

“Are you eating properly?”

“Of course I am!” I tried a laugh, but it emerged more aggressively than I intended.

“Will you let me fetch us both a takeaway? You could work while we eat. I’ll just sit quietly; I won’t interrupt, I promise.”

I was hungry, I realised. I’d started without breakfast, and it was now – seven o’clock in the evening? Surely not!

The Chinese meal that Justin brought was delicious, and I felt much better afterwards.

“Here, have a glass of wine,” he suggested.

I hesitated. I was only just in line with my schedule. Could I afford to slow myself down with alcohol? Justin’s face gradually changed, from encouraging to worried. He lowered the glass.

“Are you sure you’re okay, Nikki love?”

“Just because I’m not having a glass of wine? Really, Justin!” I took the glass from his hand, and downed it in one. “All okay!”

Four days later I passed out in the gatehouse. I wasn’t aware of it. As far as I was concerned I’d woken up to find myself in a hospital bed with a drip in my arm and with no memory of how I’d arrived there.

“Nurse! Nurse!” I yelled.

“It’s all right, Nikki. There’s nothing seriously wrong.” Justin was beside me. Thank goodness!

I buried my face in his sleeve and sobbed. “I’m frightened, Justin!”

“I’ve got you, Nikki. Everything’s going to be fine. The doctor says you’ve just been overdoing things. You need rest.”

“But I must study or I’ll fail my Finals!” I struggled to be free of his embrace, and to tear the cannula from my arm.

“You leave that cannula exactly where it is, Miss Hammond. If it’s going to come out – which it isn’t – I shall be the one to remove it.” The nurse was severe. “You’re dehydrated and malnourished. The drip will rehydrate you and give you glucose for energy, and we’ll gradually re-introduce you to proper food. Starting with some soup in five minutes.”

“Am I going to die?”

“Die? Good heavens, no! You’ll be back on your feet in a few days. The nutritionist will see you tomorrow, and give you some advice about proper eating habits.”

“Are you sure I’m going to be okay? I feel so strange.”

“I’m quite sure. Now, here’s Staff Nurse Joy with your soup. I want you to eat it all up, please!”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Not a problem. You eat it anyway.”

I looked at the bowl. Fawn soup, indiscriminate texture. It didn’t tempt me. I looked at Justin. I looked again at the soup. I looked back at Justin, and the corners of his mouth twitched.

“I know how you feel,” he said. “But eat it anyway.”

I took a spoonful. It was savoury, and better than it looked. My tongue remembered that food could sometimes be pleasant. I took another spoonful. When it was finished, I asked if I could have some more.

“Let it digest for an hour or so; your body must become used to food again. You can have another portion at eight o’clock.”

“I’m not sure whether you’ll think this is good news,” said Justin, “but your Mum’s on her way here. She said she’d be with us by about nine o’clock.”

“I must be properly ill then?” I said, doubtfully.

“I’m afraid so. You frightened the life out of poor Alison who was with you when you keeled over.”

“Justin, are they telling me the truth? I am going to recover, aren’t I?”

“Yes, of course you are, love. You shut your eyes, and I’ll hold your hand until your next bowlful of soup comes.”

“I just feel frightened. Hold me tight.”

Justin hugged me, and then gently helped me to be comfortable on my pillow. Soon I dozed.

I won’t go into details of my recovery. There were physicians and nutritionists and physiotherapists and psychiatrists. I was astonished at how weak I had become, and how timid. Justin was a rock. Night and day for the first three days he sat in that chair next to me, comforting me, encouraging me, helping me to understand what was happening to me. I don’t know how I would have coped without him.

My mother helped too. She used her contacts to discover the best psychiatrist for treating anxiety neurosis, and then paid for my treatment by him.

By March I was back at college, but with a strictly limited workload. I stuck to it rigidly. The alternative was a breakdown, I had been told.

I found the exams easy, although I chafed at every question. I knew how much better my answers could have been if I’d been capable of working harder. I also knew enough not to beat myself up over it. To my astonishment I was awarded a starred first. Dr Snell was quick to offer his congratulations. Even better, he offered me a place on his team to work for my PhD.

The real delight, though, is Justin. He achieved a lower second, and has already started training as a physiotherapist.

We’re going to be married in October! I’ve insisted to Mum that it will be a small wedding – but it will be a good one!

 

That special place

Jim and Liz Nightingale, have just become ‘empty nesters’. This gives them more freedom, of course, but how do they want to use that freedom? Will they enjoy it together, or will they drift apart? And then they holiday together in Greece, in the small city of Nafplio. They bring turbulent emotions to that special place. What will they take away?

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On their first evening in Nafplio, Liz and Jim Nightingale entered Plateia Syntagma, Constitution Square, from the passage beside the archaeological museum. They walked under the majestic plane tree at the entrance to the square, and looked along the row of cafes and shops that stretch the entire length of the north side.

Children played in the square, chasing footballs, riding bicycles and launching ingenious flying toys, whose coloured lights, red, green, and blue, flashed in the dark and silken sky.

The cafes were packed.

A couple stood up to vacate a table right under the plane tree.

“Quick, Jim,” said Liz, nudging him in the direction of the empty seats. Jim resisted.

“Hadn’t we better check out the other cafes before making up our minds?”

Liz pushed past him and sat down firmly. She smiled at him and said, “Nothing could be nicer than this, Jim.”

As the waiter wiped the table, Jim sat down grudgingly in the seat opposite Liz.  She ordered two coffees, in Greek. The waiter smiled and asked, in Greek, whether they would like anything to eat, ice-cream or fruit salad perhaps? Liz declined.

“I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the dinner very much, Liz.”

“Oh, it wasn’t that bad, Jim. I was tempted because the taverna seemed much less crowded than the others. I suppose that should have been a giveaway really. But fancy that waiter lecturing you because you didn’t finish your meal, as though you were a naughty child! I admired your restraint!”

Jim slapped at his arm.

“Bother these mosquitoes.”

“Just ignore them, Jim. Have you been bitten yet?”

Jim unbuttoned his sleeve and inspected his forearm.

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Good. I shouldn’t like to think we’d put up with the smell of that awful repellent for nothing.” She stretched back against the cushion on the wicker chair. “Isn’t it blissful to sit here warm and comfortable at half past ten in the evening?”

Jim grunted. His shirt was dark with sweat under the armpits.

The following morning, Liz woke early, as usual. She slipped out of bed quietly, not wanting to wake Jim. She looked at him with tender concern. He worked so hard during term-time, and was tired out by the time of the holidays. And now that he was nearing fifty it took him longer to recover.

She dressed, and went lightly out into the sunshine. Her brightly patterned sun-dress fluttered in the breeze.

Now, where was the minimarket? Down this street? And then left. Yes. She bought bread, butter, milk, croissants and oranges. That should do. If Jim fancied a fry-up they could go to one of the cafes later.

As she walked, she thought about the argument she’d had with him a few days earlier, when he’d told her that he wanted to try for a post as deputy head-teacher. ‘What a mess!’ she said to herself. ‘I wish Jim didn’t want this job up in Macclesfield! I’m desperately worried for him. He’s so conscientious, and I’ve seen what the strain of being a head of department has done to his health. But I daren’t tell him that, or he’ll go for the job just to prove that he has the strength for it.”

As they sat eating breakfast, Liz said, “I went into the bus station. There’s a bus to Mycenae at ten o’clock. Shall we visit the archaeological site today, do you think? It was one of the places you particularly wanted to see.”

Jim smiled at her. “Organising me again? You really enjoy finding your way round new places, don’t you?” Liz bit her tongue and said nothing. If she didn’t arrange trips when they were overseas, they wouldn’t do anything at all; and she’d told Jim so only a few days before the holiday.

“Yes, let’s go to Mycenae then.” Jim hesitated a moment, then added, “I do appreciate you doing the planning, you know.”

Jim made an excellent companion for a visit to the antiquities. He was a history teacher with a gift for bringing the past to life. As they strode up the ramp to the Lion Gate his words clattered like armour, and tramped like foot soldiers marching behind their gold-encrusted king. Liz listened intently; she was very aware that the roots of her own discipline of mathematics were largely based on the works of the Ancient Greek philosophers. It was such a pity, she thought, that so much of history was about rulers, wars and battles rather than ideas.

That evening they dined at a taverna away from the seafront. The tables lined a passage between two buildings, and were covered by awnings. Bougainvillea spilled from balconies, making the walls gay with their blooms. Jim seemed preoccupied, then, while they were sharing a Greek salad, he suddenly said, “Can we talk about that possible new job without getting angry, Liz?”

“I’m sure I can. I’m not sure you can, Jim.”

Jim laid his hands on the table, palms down, fingers spread, and looked fixedly at them.

“You see, Liz, when I was passed over for the deputy headship last year I felt hurt, badly hurt.”

Liz laid the fingers of her right hand lightly on Jim’s left hand. “I know, Jim. I know you were.”

“I felt resentful that somebody younger should be given the post, after all the work I’d done for the school. This opportunity that I’ve been told about gives me a chance to put that right.”

“But it’s up north, Jim. I don’t want to leave Sussex, I don’t want to leave our beautiful home, and I don’t want to give up my job. I know I’m only a class teacher, but I love what I do. I turned down an offer of promotion when you were a new head of department so that I could support you. Don’t you think my professional career deserves consideration too?”

The waiter appeared with their main course. Jim was silent. Liz thanked the waiter in Greek, smiling. He smiled back. “You speak good Greek!”

“Just a few words. I’m looking forward to enjoying my meal!”

They ate in silence for a few minutes.

“This is so much better than yesterday’s food,” exclaimed Liz.

“Yes it is, isn’t it? You know, Liz, I really want this job. It’s the best opportunity I’m ever likely to have. It would give me the chance to put some of my ideas into practice instead of just proposing them in staff meetings and having them rejected. Do you grudge me that?”

“Of course not, Jim. But I’m just saying that when we make a decision about it, we must consider everything. It’s not just your job, it’s our lives. There’s the house, and our friends, and the things we do. Don’t these matter to you at all?”

Jim laid down his cutlery.

“Well, of course they matter, but the job is so important, Liz. I don’t think I would be exaggerating if I said that my work is what gives meaning to my life.”

There was silence. The waiter, from his station by the door, looked to see whether they were ready for him to clear the main course.

Liz spoke quietly. “So what meaning do I have in your life, Jim? What about Clive and Susan our children?”

Jim gestured impatiently. “You know I didn’t mean that, Liz!”

“Clive is newly married. Sue is expecting her first baby – our first grandchild, Jim – and you sit there and tell me that your work is what gives meaning to your life. I’m astonished. I’m astonished and deeply disappointed.”

The waiter approached. “Have you finished. Didn’t you like the food?”

“I’m sorry. The food was very good, but we’re – thinking of other things, I’m afraid. Jim, have you had enough?”

Jim waved away the plate.

”Well, I want a coffee. How about you?”

“I suppose so. Yes. Thank you.”

“Two coffees, please. No sugar.”

“So what do you want, Liz? If you don’t want me to try for promotion?”

“I just want to see more of you, Jim. Let’s have some fun in the evenings. Play bridge with friends. Go to the pub.”

“And when would we do that, Liz? You’re always with that chap Frank, fund raising for your precious operatic society.”

“I’d be happy to do less of that if I could see more of you, you know. And I’ve been trying to persuade you to find a date for a romantic dinner ever since you cancelled our anniversary dinner!”

“You’re still holding that against me?”

“I’m not holding anything against you. I’m just pointing out that I’m trying to see more of you. I would prefer you to be giving less time to your work rather than more. And a new job would demand more of your time for years. What’s in it for me, Jim?”

“You were very attracted to Frank once, weren’t you? And he moved down south a few years after we did. Don’t tell me he didn’t choose where to live with no thought of you!”

Liz went white.

“How dare you. How dare you! I have never been unfaithful to you. Never! Now go away. And don’t imagine you’re sharing my bed tonight. You can sleep in the spare room. That should suit you; you can have the air-conditioning on all night and bolt and bar the windows against those mosquitoes who terrify you so much!”

Jim stood up.

“You’ve got the cash to settle up?”

Liz nodded, lips pressed tightly together.

Jim gave her one final look, and pushed his way between the other tables. Liz sat still. The waiter came over to collect the cups.

“I’d like another coffee, please.”

“Straightaway.”

A little away from her, the staff had arranged tables to accommodate a party. It looked like four generations of a family; a young couple with a toddler and a babe in arms; four adults in middle life, and an old lady, dressed in black, but laughing heartily, and downing glassfuls of retsina in a single draught.

‘Why can’t our life be like that?’ wondered Liz. She shook her head.

She wandered to the seafront, sat down at the cafe ‘Napoli di Romania’, and ordered an ouzo, without ice. The small boats rocked and bumped against the harbour wall, bouncing on the waves. It was breezy and some of the locals were wearing cardigans, but Liz didn’t feel cold. She looked across at the Bourzi, the island fort, illuminated by floodlights. She looked beyond, and saw the lights of shops and houses and cars a few miles away on the far side of the Gulf of Argos.

She took a large swallow of ouzo. The taste and the warmth filled her mouth and spread down into her stomach. Had she been rather hasty in assuming Jim was accusing her of infidelity?

“Oh, bother the man!” she said.

The couple on the next table looked round, and she realised she’d spoken out loud. She didn’t know whether to feel irritated, embarrassed or amused; so she took another gulp of ouzo.

It occurred to her that there were things she’d never done on holiday, feeling herself constrained by Jim’s preferences.

‘Stuff him!’ she thought, being very careful not to open her mouth this time. Even so, she glanced at the couple next to her as if they could somehow have overheard.

The cocktail bar on the main street was packed with youngsters, young men in tee shirts and dark, tight jeans; young women dressed as though for carnival. Liz, using a blend of tenacity and charm, found herself a seat and ordered a Manhattan.

About one-thirty in the morning the music became more rhythmic and louder. Liz had nearly finished her third Manhattan, and was chatting in Greek to a man in his mid-forties.

“Come on,” he said, suddenly rising to his feet, “Let’s dance!”

Liz looked up at him, startled, then she smiled and stood up.

She was a good dancer; and so, she realised, was he. Deducing that some of his steps were from traditional dance, she copied him. Some of the young folk started to cheer and clap. She suddenly understood that some of his steps were meant for the man, and looked at him for a cue as to what she should do. With hand gestures, he indicated appropriate movements. She attempted them, laughing out loud with delight.

People stopped in the street to watch. The bar staff joined in with the clapping. Onlookers took up the dance.

The music stopped. The crowd applauded. Liz’s partner seized her round the waist and held her tightly against him. His face pressed against hers, as he sought her mouth with his.

Liz was very tempted. Her body throbbed. Excitement filled her in a way she’d completely forgotten. Nevertheless, “No,” she said. The man looked at her in surprise and disappointment.

“I’m sorry,” said Liz. “I don’t want anything more than the dancing.” She looked him very directly in the eye, and hoped that her ability to maintain discipline in the classroom would be sufficient to keep him at arm’s length. For a few seconds longer he held her, then released his grip.

He bowed.

“Then I must respect your wish, madam. You are an excellent dancer; thank you! And you are very beautiful.” He sounded wistful.

He strolled away. Liz watched his trim figure become lost in the throng.

‘Liz Nightingale, you are a little drunk. It’s time to go home.’

Despite the neatness with which she had danced, Liz found it difficult to walk steadily. The streets became narrower and darker. Liz was not a nervous person, but it crossed her mind that walking alone in the back streets of a foreign city at two in the morning was possibly not the wisest thing she had ever done.

The steps up to the apartment were steep and uneven. She stumbled and bruised her shin.

“Ow! Ouch! Bugger!” The exclamations were (more or less) sotto voce. Then she giggled, and sat on the step rubbing her leg until the pain eased.

She fumbled with the key as she tried to insert it in the dark. “Don’t drop it, Liz,” she muttered. Even when she finally had it in the lock, it didn’t want to turn. “If Jim’s locked the door, I’m going to make a lot of noise!” Then she remembered that she had the key to the side door, not the front door. She was giggling again as she sneaked in.

The door to the second bedroom was closed, and she could hear the air conditioning running. She went into the main bedroom and switched on the light. The empty bed was a melancholy sight, with her half-unpacked suitcase sitting on it. Jim’s suitcase had gone. Liz looked into the wardrobe. His clothes weren’t there. “Sulking. How childish.” She enunciated the words very clearly, but they still sounded slurred. She moved her suitcase onto his side of the bed, pulled off her clothes and lay on the bed. She was asleep within seconds.

“Jim. Make me a coffee, love, would you…” She opened her eyes. Jim wasn’t there. She was curled up next to her own untidy suitcase. It was hot, the sun outside was brilliant. Her mouth was dry and sticky, with an unpleasant taste. Her head throbbed. She fumbled in the case for her dressing gown.

As she ran herself a glass of water she noticed that the door to the second bedroom was ajar, and the air conditioning wasn’t running. Jim had gone out.

She was on her second coffee and third glass of water, just beginning to feel that some dry toast might stay in her stomach, when Jim returned. He looked at her, slumped dishevelled and pasty-faced at the dining table.

“I packed some Alka-Seltzer. Would you like some?”

“Mmm. Horrid taste, but yes, it would probably be a good idea.”

As she sipped the Alka-Seltzer, Jim said, “Can I make you some toast? Perhaps with a little honey?”

“No honey in the cupboard.” She massaged her throbbing temples.

“I’ve bought some. And some peaches.”

Liz looked up. Peaches were her favourite. Jim held one out for her to inspect. It looked delicious, and felt perfectly ripe. She took the fruit and bit into it. The sweet juice dribbled down her chin; the perfume of the fruit filled her mouth and nose.

“I’ll make the toast,” said Jim, handing Liz a tissue, and laying a plate on the table in front of her.

“There’s a bus to Argos every half hour,” he said. “It goes from outside the booking office. I thought we might go there today, if you’re feeling up to it?”

Liz wiped her mouth.

“Jim,” she said, “We’ve got to talk. We can’t just pretend yesterday didn’t happen.”

“Do you feel well enough for that?”

Liz recognised the concern in his voice.

“I dare say I’ll cope somehow.”

“Liz, I wanted to say I’m sorry. I didn’t really mean to imply that there was anything – improper – between you and Frank. But I dislike the man, and, well, I’m a bloke and I get jealous. You’re very precious to me, Liz.”

Liz folded her arms, and sat in silence. The noise of cicadas clattered in through the open window.

“That’s not actually enough, Jim,” she said at last. “You as good as accused me of being unfaithful to you. In my book that’s the worst insult of all. I try to live a life of integrity, and you tell me that you think I may have cheated you in the most profound way possible. Don’t you understand at all who I am?”

Jim sank onto one of the chairs. He looked out of the window, his gaze fixed far beyond the trees that bordered the terrace. He thought back over their life together. He couldn’t remember a single occasion when Liz had acted without integrity. And he’d only half-noticed. How could he have taken her so much for granted?

He cleared his throat.

“I’m sorry, Liz. I know there’s nothing between you and Frank, and that you’ve never been unfaithful. I should never have said what I did. Even as I said it, I knew it wasn’t true.”

They sat in silence a while longer, and then Jim said, “I heard you come in last night. I was concerned about you. I crept into the bedroom. You’d left the curtains open, and the moon was shining brightly. You were asleep, and you looked so beautiful. I’d been feeling angry, but when I saw you, and realised again how much I love you…” He stopped to steady his voice.

“Come here, Jim,” said Liz softly. She held him gently and waited for the pain to ease.

“I got very drunk last night, Jim. I went to the cocktail bar and made an exhibition of myself dancing in the street. And the Greek who’d been dancing with me tried to kiss me. Luckily for me he understood that no means no. I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have done that.”

Jim nodded. “It certainly wasn’t sensible. It could all have got out of hand.”

“Yes, I know. Still, I’m paying for it now; at least for the drunk bit. Why are hangovers so much worse when you’re older? Let’s give Argos a miss today; I don’t fancy too much bright sunlight for a while. Perhaps we could visit the archaeological museum today?”

“Sounds good. I hope you’ll be fit by tomorrow, though.”

“Tomorrow?”

“I bought tickets for ‘Antigone’ at the ancient theatre of Epidauros.”

“Oh, Jim, that’s fantastic! Thank you! Oh, wow!”

Jim grinned. “I hoped that would please you!”

They spent a quiet day. Pizza for lunch at Café Kentrikon, a visit to the museum, a siesta. In the evening they crossed the peninsular and then strolled under the pine trees, with their heavy, resinous scent, around the promontory, and out along the breakwater. As they walked back along the harbour front, they mingled with smart Greeks wearing their best summer outfits, and with cheerful Dutch families, and chic French couples. Liz led Jim to ‘Napoli di Romania’.

“Here’s where I started my binge,” she confessed cheerfully.

“I expect you’d prefer a soft drink tonight. A fresh orange juice, perhaps?”

“Actually, Jim, I would prefer an ouzo. I can drink orange juice anytime, but I don’t have many opportunities to enjoy ouzo by the wine-dark sea. Ouzo, please.”

As they sipped their drinks, and nibbled the peanuts that had come with the ouzo, the sun sank towards the mountains in a blaze of rose-gold glory. The sea was completely calm, stretching before them like turquoise-grey lacquer, highlighted with gilding.

“You know, Jim, we’re going to have to sort out this business of the job. I don’t want to stop you applying. If you decide to try for it and succeed, I will go with you and support you. But I think we should be very careful in weighing up the pros and cons. And, in all fairness, I think we should consider my career as well as yours.”

They looked at the people walking along the promenade, showing off to each other.

“Thank you, Liz. I appreciate the support. Having thought about it last night, I agree that we need to take everything into consideration.”

They reached simultaneously for the nuts, and then both laughed.

“After you,” said Jim.

“No, go on Jim. They’re more your thing than mine.”

Jim helped himself.

In front of them, the strolling crowds played out in miniature the pageant of life in all its diversity, joy and angst. Pride, love, self-regard were all there.

“I haven’t given you all my reasons for being wary of this job, Jim.” Liz took a deep breath. This was a gamble, she felt, but one that in the present circumstances was worth taking. “I think that you would make an excellent head-teacher. I admire your ideas, and I admire the heck out of your ability to inspire people. The thing is…”

She paused. The last sliver of the sun slipped below the mountain peak; the western sky glowed even as the sky above them darkened. Jim waited quietly.

“The thing is, Jim, I’m afraid of what the effort would do to you physically. Being head of department affected you badly, and I fear this would be even worse.”

Jim put his hands behind his head, and reclined in the rattan chair.

“I hate to admit it,” he said, “But I think you’re probably right. It was my only concern about the post.”

The waiters were lowering the awnings, and Jim had to bend his head to avoid the canvas.

“Liz? You won’t think I’m a…failure, if I don’t try for this post? I feel it would somehow be letting you down.”

“A failure, Jim? I would never feel you were a failure! Your example has inspired me throughout my career, not to mention our marriage. And, Jim. I want to say I’m sorry. I was horrid to you last night. I said some nasty, vicious things. I’m really sorry.”

They clasped hands. The last light faded in the west; but the whole evening stretched before them.

 

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The Promise

A young couple meet on a skiing holiday and fall in love. So far, so ordinary. But the love between Joanna and Frank is special, profound and generous. And when the time comes, Joanna gives Frank a great gift; she gives him his freedom.

london-eye
The sun was brilliant, the sky was deep blue, and the ski-lift was crowded. I had only just managed to squeeze into the gondola, pressed close to a young woman. She was tall and slender, and long, dark-brown hair cascaded from under her casquette; her dark amber eyes were merry and she was smiling.
As the door slid open at the upper lift station, I said “After you.”
“No, after you!”
“Aggressive feminist?” I wondered, and glanced at her face. We both moved at the same instant and half tripped over each other, apologising and laughing.
“Why don’t we ski down together?” she suggested.
She was a better skier than I, especially through the mogul field, but she slowed to allow me to catch up. I pointed to the mountain restaurant.
“Can I buy you lunch?”
“That would be lovely. This is my all-time favourite restaurant!”
We ate lunch. We drank wine. We talked; and suddenly it was five o’clock. We had dinner that evening. By the end of our holiday we were a couple.
Joanna lived in London, while I lived where I had grown-up, near Manchester. Within two months I had a job and a flat in London and we saw each other every day.
I asked Joanna to take June 30th as holiday, and show me round London. The day started cloudy and grey, so she took me to the Courtauld Gallery to see their collection of paintings by the Impressionists. By noon the sun was shining.
“Why don’t we visit the London Eye? It would be wonderful to see the city from above.”
“What a good idea, Frank!” she said. “I’ve never done that, even though I live here.”
“I’m glad you said that!” I grinned, and produced two tickets from my wallet. “Flexi fast track, so we can turn up any time and beat the queue.” She kissed me and squeezed my hand, and then held it tightly all the way to Westminster.
The view from the Eye is spectacular. We ooh-ed and aah-ed with the best of them as the gondola climbed high above the buildings. And at the high point of the ride, I went down on one knee in the crowded gondola, and asked Joanna to marry me. She simply answered, “Yes, of course,” but with such a radiant face. It was the happiest moment of my life.
It was during March the following year that we noticed something was wrong. Joanna had no energy. She suffered abdominal pains that sometimes disturbed her sleep.
“I’m just run down,” she expostulated. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”
But she didn’t improve. The pains became worse, and more frequent, until even Joanna couldn’t pretend she was well.
She was pale when she came back from the Health Centre.
“The doctor says it may be serious. He rang up the hospital, and they want me in for some tests. Ow!” She winced and grabbed at her midriff.
“When’s the appointment?”
“Now. I’m to pack my things and go in straightaway.”
I had never felt so frightened in my life as when she told me that.
I went with her, of course. As she sat in her hospital bed that evening, she looked quite bright. It was only then that I realised how much pain she must have been suffering; they’d prescribed morphine for her.
Tests, tests and more tests. They were extremely thorough.
When the results were available, the consultant saw the two of us together. He wrapped up the truth in medical mumbo-jumbo but the reality was still the same. There was no hope. Joanna had only a month or so to live.
She came home for a short while, just a few weeks. The pain became worse, despite the morphine. Eventually, “I think I’d like to go into the hospice for a few days, just while they work out the analgesia,” she said.
That night, as she lay in the hospice bed, she said “Don’t grieve for me too much, Frank. Promise me you’ll try to find someone else.”
Those were the last words my beloved spoke.
I held her hand, the tears flooding down my cheeks. Nobody could replace her, nobody.
“I promise I’ll try, my love. I promise.”
She relaxed. Her face was at peace, even smiling. Her long, dark-brown hair streaked over the pillow as it used to after we made love. There was a little colour in her cheeks. She was beautiful.
A few minutes later she slipped away, so quietly that I hardly noticed. One moment she was asleep, breathing very gently, the next moment she had gone. Her mum broke the stillness. She came to my side and put one hand on my shoulder, while with the other she stroked my hair.
“I am so sorry, Frank,” she said.
She held me close, and I buried my head against her and wept as though I would never stop.
“You can come home with us,” she said.
Everybody was so kind.
It must have been dreadful for Stephen and Gillian to lose their only child like that, and yet in the midst of their grief they were able to offer me love. I hated them. How dared they accept Joanna’s death? How could they not rage that she should be taken so young?
I had to escape, had to, I couldn’t bear to be here in this place, in this time. I wanted her back. I didn’t want her to have gone. She hadn’t gone.
I fled to the Alps. The high meadows were full of flowers, but snow still shrouded the peaks. It was a world of beauty from which I was excluded. I walked there until I was exhausted, day after day. Night after night I woke at three o’clock and lay sleepless and miserable until the morning.
I went down to the sea. The eternal waters washed the harbour walls; the tides rose and fell in their eternal rhythm. The sun blessed the waves with loveliness, and I spat on them in envy of their joy. I swam until my body felt wooden with fatigue and cold. How easy it would have been to have swum away from the shore, and just keep going! I thought of Joanna and my promise, and turned back. As I stumbled out of the waves, an old man looked sadly at me, and shook his head. He knew.
I went home. I took a new, ruthless edge to work. What did I care about other people? What was their hurt compared to mine?
I couldn’t bear it.
I accumulated the pills over several days. It’s possible if you try hard enough, if you know where to look. I drank some scotch; not a lot. I turned on the music system. Tavener’s “Song for Athene.” The memory of Joanna’s funeral slammed me as the music gently and insidiously filled the room.
I lined up the pills on the table. Here is a lethal dose. Here is double a lethal dose, and here is treble. And one more for luck. I fetched a pint glass of water, sat down, and took a deep breath. I listened, and remembered our shared joys. I picked up the first pill.
“I’m sorry, Joanna, I can’t do it. I just can’t. Forgive me.”
The doorbell rang, strident, continuous. I waited but it didn’t stop.
I replaced the pill on the table, and answered the door.
She was young. The curls of her blonde hair made a halo around her face.
“Oh dear,” she said, “I’m afraid I seem to have broken your doorbell. I’m awfully sorry!”
The doorbell abruptly stopped. We looked at each other. She seemed about to laugh, and then her face changed.
“I was going to ask to scrounge some milk; but there’s something wrong, isn’t there?”
I nodded. I didn’t trust myself to speak.
“Do you want to tell me about it?” she asked.
She came in, and I told her.
She took away the pills, and the scotch. She took away some of the pain.
I’m seeing her again tomorrow.
* * *

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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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Where is Europe?

Latifah struggled up from the nightmare, sobbing, the taste of fear like blood in her mouth. As she opened her eyes she saw her mother. “Quickly, Latifah, quickly!”
She heard revving engines, screeching tyres and gunshots. For a few seconds she lay petrified, too frightened to move. They had come!
Her mother pulled her to her feet, thrust her abaya over her head, tied her niqab in place.
“Come quickly,” she moaned.
“Allah, do not let me fall into the hands of these men; let me die first,” Latifah prayed.
Men were pounding at the front door, battering it. She could hear her father shouting. There was a burst of automatic fire, and agonized shrieks. Her mother gasped, pushed her out of the back door, and they ran.
Behind them were screams and the flickering light of burning buildings; in front was darkness. Latifah’s mother fell to her knees. “I’m wounded. You must run, Latifah, run!” She fell forwards, face in the dirt and lay still. Latifah let out a howl of despair, and then ran.
She ran until breathing hurt, until her legs wobbled, until she could no longer hear the dreadful sounds and the flames were hidden behind a hill. And then she wept for her mother and her father and her brothers, for her friends and for her home. There was no way back.
She walked on through night and the desert and the sunrise until she reached a small town. The gunmen weren’t there; this was still a place of friends. Latifah had a little money, and she bought some bread and drank from a water fountain. “Which is the way to the sea?” she asked everyone.
It was a long walk. Sometimes she was lucky and found a day’s work, which would buy her a little food that would last a week. Sometimes she had to beg. She slept in the open, fitfully.
And she reached the sea. Her eyes grew large and round in her gaunt face. The sea was so large! It was like a desert of water! “Where is Europe?” she asked everyone.
Some shrugged; some laughed; “It’s like heaven,” said a woman. “You only get there after you’re dead.”
One good-looking young man said, “I can fix it for you to travel there. Show me your face.”
“No, that would be sinful!” she exclaimed.
He grabbed her niqab and pulled it off roughly, tossing the rag into the bushes at the side of the road. She fought him, but he was strong and she was starving,
“Allah protect me!”
She fell and felt him press hard on top of her. He smelled sweet, rotten. The stones under her were gouging into her back, and they lacerated her as she struggled. He was laughing as he forced her legs apart. And then, suddenly, he slumped. His head fell against Latifah’s, stunning her.
It was the face of a young man that she saw first as she recovered consciousness. She gasped and shrank back.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “See, I’ve found your niqab. You can put it on and be modest again.” She looked at him as a cat approaches a stranger, warily, ready to flee.
“It’s alright. Here it is.”
He held it up. Latifah snatched it, tied it in place.
“Are you alright to walk? We’d better go. I think I killed him when I hit him with the rock. He…he hasn’t moved.”
Latifah dragged herself upright, and sobbed. She hurt all over, and her limbs shook with fatigue. She looked at the young man. Why, he was a boy really, hardly older than she was!
“Thank you,” she said. “Do you know where Europe is?”
“It’s over there somewhere.” He gestured towards the sea. “Is that where you want to go?”
Latifah nodded.
“My family is going tonight. Do you want to come with us?”
“Could I?” she said, hardly daring to believe it.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I shall have to ask.”
That night, Latifah and Asif, in life jackets, and with the strong arms of Asif’s mother around them, crossed the sea and reached safety.

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The Bridge

The rain fell on the moor in torrents, in cataracts. It spilled from a dozen tributaries into the Avon and roared down the valley like a wild beast. It tore trees from the banks, trees that had grown patiently for a hundred years, and hurtled them downstream. It smashed them like battering rams into the old bridge, but the bridge held fast and the trees wedged against it, pressed intimately against the stones by the power of the flood.
For a while the trees impeded the predatory waters, but still the deluge continued and still the beast grew. The water level upstream of the bridge rose and overtopped the flood defences. It reached the parapet of the bridge and spilled over. The wall started to bulge; for perhaps a minute soil and weeds bled from the cracks opening in it, until the massive stones exploded outwards and a huge wave surged through.
The bridge was gone.
Two days later the water still ran high, swift and muddy but with nowhere near the ferocity of the spate. The road by the river was passable with care, and Lucy was always careful. She gripped the wheel of her VW Golf, and drove slowly through the sticky, slippery mess that the river had left behind. As the crow flies, she lived two hundred yards from her work at a solicitor’s office. With the bridge gone it was nearly three miles down to the next crossing, and three miles back. Lucy wasn’t complaining about the inconvenience. Her house was just far enough up the hill to have been spared. She’d spent yesterday helping her next door neighbour shovel out the worst of the filth dumped by the flood.
There was a figure up ahead, carrying a violin case as she trudged along the road. There was a large, wet, slimy patch on her coat. She must have slipped over, Lucy realized. She stopped and wound down the window.
“I’m going down to New Bridge. Would you like a lift?”
The girl was about twenty, with long, fair hair.
“I’m ever so dirty,” she admitted.
“Oh, don’t be silly; get in. The seat will clean easily enough, and you’re soaked, you poor love. Whatever brings you out today?”
The girl climbed into the front passenger seat.
“This is ever so kind of you. I’ve got to get to the train station to catch the train to Glasgow. My first class of the new term starts at two o’clock. I thought it would be easy enough to walk the six miles round by New Bridge, but this stuff’s so gloopy and slithery. I say, I’m really sorry to be making your car dirty.”
“What are you studying?”
“Violin. I’m at the Conservatoire. I’m Emma, by the way.”
“I’m Lucy. I’m only going to New Bridge to cross the river, then I’m going back to Casterton. I can drop you at the station.”
“Oh, that would be great.”
“Do you live in Glasgow during term-time?”
“Only during the week. I’ve got a flat in Casterton, and I don’t want to lose it. I sleep in my friend’s flat in Glasgow during the week, but her boyfriend comes up from Newcastle at the weekends.”
“So you’re coming back on Friday? Would you like me to pick you up from the station?”
Emma looked apologetic. “That would be ever so kind if it isn’t too much trouble. I wasn’t looking forward to the long walk in the dark. I’ll be on the train arriving at six fifteen if that’s really alright?”
“That’ll be fine. I wouldn’t want that long walk in the dark either.”
Lucy finished at four on Fridays. She wondered whether to wait in the library, or perhaps go to the pub, but neither option appealed. She drove home, put a meal into the oven and went out again to meet the train.
It was late. Lucy had to move her car from the short stay spaces and pay a fifty pence parking charge. It was cold, and light rain blew in the blustery wind.
Emma was full of apologies.
“No problem,” reassured Lucy.
“Gosh, can’t you smell the river?” said Emma.
Lucy sniffed. “I suppose so,” she agreed. She hadn’t noticed.
As Lucy drove carefully through the darkness, she realized that Emma had dozed. “Poor girl,” she thought. And when she pulled up outside Emma’s flat and woke her up, she asked, “Have you got food for tonight?”
Emma blushed. “I’ve got some cereal.”
“Would you like to eat with me? I’ve cooked a nice chicken casserole; there’s enough for two. If you don’t come, I shall have to freeze half of it.”
“Are you sure?”
Lucy grinned. “I wouldn’t have invited you if I wasn’t sure.” She put the car into gear, and drove the quarter mile to her terraced house.
The house was warm and welcoming.
“Gosh, that smells wonderful!” exclaimed Emma.
Lucy spooned rice and chicken, fragrant with tarragon, onto the Portmeirion plates. It felt like a banquet. Emma didn’t need much encouragement to talk about her studies. She was passionate about music. Lucy was glad to listen and not talk. There was too much in her recent past that she would prefer to forget.
They ate an apple each for dessert, and then Emma said, “Would you like me to play something for you?”
“That would be lovely.”
Emma took her fiddle out of its case, tuned briefly, and played. Lucy listened. The music was both sad and happy, with a transcendent serenity. Tears rolled down Lucy’s cheeks, but she sat still and made no attempt to dry them. She turned a little away from Emma; she didn’t want her to see she was weeping and maybe stop playing. Only when the music ended did Lucy take out a handkerchief, dry her eyes and blow her nose.
Emma sat in silence.
“That was beautiful, just beautiful,” said Lucy.
“It was by Bach. I love his music.” Tentatively she stretched out a hand and rested it on Lucy’s shoulder. “You’ve been so kind,” she said. Her blue eyes were very dark. Lucy felt a warmth run through her from the touch, a sense of homecoming and a delightful security.
It became routine. Lucy would take Emma to the station every Monday, and fetch her and feed her on the Friday, and after the meal Emma would play her violin. Lucy learned that Emma was in her first year, that she had a part-time job to pay her way through college, and that she had no boyfriend. Emma hardly spoke of her parents, and Lucy didn’t ask.

It was four weeks after Lucy had met Emma that she saw him, in hard hat and hi-vis jacket, giving orders to a group of men by the wreckage of the bridge. She shrank back into a side street, out of his sight, and shuddered. What should she do? If he saw her, it would all start again. She panted. She ached from the memories. All the bruises, all the fear.
Did he know she had fled here? He must have found out somehow! What should she do? Was she going to have to run again? Quickly, while he’s still busy! She dodged up a back street and through to where her car was parked, almost in sight of the bridge. As she sank into the driver’s seat, she gasped with relief. He hadn’t seen her. Hastily, she drove out of the car park and fled home.
The next morning Lucy thought of calling in sick. But it was Friday; she had to collect Emma. She didn’t want to let Emma down. She parked at the further car park, away from the river, and walked the half-mile to her office. He might be near the bridge so she left the main road and slunk through the backstreets. Would he come into he office and catch her? She spent the day terrified.
As she drove into the station car park to meet Emma, she saw his car. She nearly turned tail and fled. She tried not to look at the car as she passed it, just in case he was inside.
“What’s wrong?” asked Emma, as soon as they met.
“Is it as obvious as that?”
“Lucy dear, you’re trembling.”
“That car over there; the blue Range Rover. Is there anybody in it?” Lucy gestured in the general direction of the car.
Emma looked. “I can’t see anyone,” she said. “Are you hiding from the driver? Is that it?”
Lucy nodded.
“There’s nobody in it. It’s alright”
Lucy shook as she engaged first gear and moved towards the car park exit. And then there he was, right in front of her, tall, red-haired, broad. She slammed on the brakes. He looked contemptuously in her direction, and then did a double-take. A grin spread over his face. He walked up to the driver’s door and pulled at the handle. The car was locked. He pantomimed that Lucy should open the door. She sat motionless, quaking with fright.
“Don’t!” said Emma. “He has no right! Drive on!”
Eyes rigidly ahead, Lucy depressed the clutch and engaged first gear. She let out the clutch with a jerk, nearly stalling the engine. There was a yell from the red-haired man. Lucy pulled out of the car park without looking at the traffic. A white van screeched to a halt, horn blaring. She didn’t notice. Emma put a hand on her shoulder.
“It’s alright, Lucy. You’re alright.”
Emma’s quiet voice broke the spell. Lucy shuddered violently for a few seconds.
“I am so sorry, Emma,” she said. “So sorry.”
“You’ve nothing to be sorry for, Lucy.”
“I just want to drive home as quickly as possible. I don’t want him following me.”
“If he follows you, I’ll call the police. Look, I’m holding my mobile ready.”
Lucy glanced across. It was true; Emma had her mobile on her lap in her left hand. She relaxed a little.
She refused to park outside her own house, choosing to leave her car two streets away. All the way from the car to the house, she was looking about her. As she opened the door, she looked up and down the street.
“Quickly, Emma, quickly,” she said as she entered. She slammed the door, locked it, bolted it. She drew the curtains. She checked the back door, even though she knew it was locked. Only then did she draw a deep breath, releasing it in a long, fluttering sigh.
Emma took her hand. “Well done,” she said. “Oh, very well done!”
“I don’t feel as though I did well. I ran.”
“He told you to stop, and you defied him. You did what you decided, not what he decided for you. You were so brave!”
“He’ll find me on Monday. He knows I’ll be working at a solicitor’s office, and there are only three in Casterton. He’ll find me.”
“Then we must have a plan.”
“Emma, this isn’t your fight. You mustn’t become involved. You don’t understand what he’s like!”
“I’m already involved. I saw how he behaved this evening, and I can guess a little bit about what he’s like.” She paused; she seemed hesitant.
“I think I’m going to have to run again. Perhaps London would be safer, I don’t know.” Lucy spoke to fill the silence.
“I’d hate that.” Emma spoke quietly. She looked at the carpet. “I want to be near you, Lucy. I want to see you every week; well, every day actually. I want to be with you.”
“Oh, Emma.” Lucy sighed.
Emma looked up, looked Lucy full in the face. Her expression was earnest, beseeching. “Will you marry me, Lucy?”
“Marry you?”
“Yes.”
Lucy sank onto the sofa. “Marry you,” she repeated. “Emma, I’m twenty-nine. How old are you?”
“Twenty. What does that matter? I love you. I shall always love you. I know that as certainly as I know the music of Bach.”
“I love you, too. That doesn’t mean it would be wise for us to marry, Emma. There are things in my past.”
“I saw some of your past this evening. If he’s the worst we have to face, then let’s do it!”
Emma approached Lucy, who reached out to her. They clasped hands.
“I wish I could. I wish I could!”
“It’s too sudden for you, isn’t it? There’s unfinished business with that man. I’ll help you deal with that, and then we’ll see.”
“Thank you. Thank you, Emma. Yes, I think that would be the best thing. But let me just say it properly…” Lucy hesitated, and when she spoke her voice was husky, “I love you, Emma.” The two women kissed, gently, and then Emma released Lucy’s hand and sat down beside her on the sofa.
“Is your boss in the office tomorrow?” asked Emma.
“Mr Abercrombie? Yes. At least, I think he is.”
“He can probably help us. He won’t want you harassed in his office, and I’m sure he’ll want to make sure you’re safe all the time. He’ll know the right people in the police to talk to about domestic violence.” Lucy nodded. After a little pause, Emma continued, “My dad used to beat my mum, that’s how I know this. And I saw the police stop him. That man who’s threatening you, he won’t want the police involved. He’s respectable. He can only hurt you if you let him. But you don’t need him any more, do you?”
Lucy shook her head. “I hate him,” she said.
It was mid-morning on Monday that the red-haired man appeared in the solicitor’s office. His right hand was bandaged.
“You shouldn’t have driven off like that.” His voice was quiet, his tone menacing. Lucy’s heart raced, and her face went white. She pressed the panic button below her desk. As the man leaned threateningly towards her, there was a noise of footsteps clattering downstairs.
“Is this the man, Lucy?”
Lucy nodded.
“Your staff member caused me personal injury last night.”
“Yes, I’ve heard what happened.” Mr Abercrombie looked over his spectacles at the bully. “In fact I’ve heard a great deal about you, Mr Brodie. I have a sworn deposition from Lucy in my files about your treatment of her during the period August 2010 to February 2016. I may say that it does you no credit, sir, no credit at all.
Now, if any harm should come to Lucy, this statement will be placed in the hands of the police. I would advise you that our local constabulary take a dim view of domestic abuse, a very dim view indeed, sir.”
Brodie puffed out his chest, and glared at Mr Abercrombie, who met his gaze calmly. “You’ve not heard the last of this,” he snarled at Lucy.
“Oh, but she has, Mr Brodie, she has. Any further harassment on your part and the police will be contacted. As will your employer, Kielder and Company.” Brodie snorted, turned on his heel and stamped out of the office.
“Well that was fun, wasn’t it?” exclaimed Mr Abercrombie. Lucy slumped forward.
“Oh my goodness! First aider!” Mr Abercrombie called for help.
Even as they moved her into the recovery position, Lucy’s eyelids flickered open.
“Don’t disturb yourself, Lucy. You passed out. We’ve rung for an ambulance. You’ll be fine, just stay calm.”
Lucy felt cold and rather sick. The first aider fetched a blanket and covered her. She snuggled it around herself as she shivered.
A paramedic first responder reached them quickly. He checked her vital signs carefully.
“Well, you look okay now. I don’t think there’s any need for a hospital visit. If there’s somebody at home, you might be more comfortable there. You had quite a shock.”
“Would you like to go home, Lucy? That was an ordeal for you, I’m afraid.” Mr Abercrombie was concerned.
Lucy nodded. Emma had taken the day off; she would be waiting for her at home.
“You’ll take a taxi, of course. You don’t want to drive after that. Oh, the company will pay, and for the taxi in tomorrow. You’re too good an employee to lose, Lucy, far too good.”
As she slumped in the back seat of the taxi, Lucy breathed deeply. It was over. The nightmare was over. Her fear had gone. She thought of Emma waiting for her and her limbs slowly suffused with warmth. She sat up straighter. The clouds parted and the sun gleamed through.

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