A New Song

I’ve been very busy editing my novel, so I thought I would give this old story another airing. It’s a little under 6,000 words. I hope you enjoy it!

A New Song

It was a Friday evening in January, and the voices of the choir resounded in the shadows of the fan vaulting of St Michael’s Parish Church. Thomas Sibson, the Director of Music, winced as the sopranos sang their semiquaver passage too slowly. It was untidy and unnecessary; he was, after all, conducting them. Rapping his baton on the music stand, he stopped the singing.

“Sopranos, you were behind the beat.” He scanned the rows of faces, making sure he had everybody’s attention. “How many Musical Directors does it take to change a light bulb?”

The choir knew the answer, and chorused it. “Nobody knows, because nobody was watching.”

He nodded. “Geoff, from the top again if you don’t mind.” The assistant organist obliged, and the choir tried again. Tom looked at each of them as he conducted.

Gill was staring earnestly at him as always. Fay didn’t seem to be watching, but she was exactly in tempo; he didn’t know how she managed that. He could hear her voice, which was beautiful and true despite her three score and ten years. The basses were, at last, concentrating. They were the weakest part musically; only Ralph and Jeremy had any formal musical training. Tom didn’t know how he’d manage if either of them left. And John, in the tenors, seemed to be worried about something. He must talk to him later.

This time the music met Tom’s exacting standards, and he was satisfied.

“Well done everybody. That’ll do for tonight. If you sing like that on Sunday we’ll wow them.” He drifted in John’s direction, gently delaying him so they could talk privately.

“Thank you for your contribution tonight, John. I could hear you inspiring the tenors – as usual.”

“You’re too kind, Tom. In fact, I wanted to talk to you about my voice. I’m eighty, you know, and I’m losing it. The top notes have almost gone; I can’t go above G, and even that’s a struggle, and as for stamina…” He shook his head. “Still, I mustn’t grumble. I’ve sung here since I was eight years old.”

“As long as that? Well done! Look, I don’t want bully you into singing once it stops being a pleasure, but at present you’re an asset to the choir.”

“Well, I’m not sure about my voice, but if you say it’s good enough…”

“Shall we agree that I’ll audition you when you’re eighty five?”

John grinned. “Sounds fair enough to me. Thanks, Tom.”

They walked together down the chancel steps, through the darkened church towards the vestry.

“Good evening, Tom. I hope you don’t mind; I eavesdropped the last fifteen minutes of your rehearsal.”

Peter Wright, the new vicar, left the place in the pews where he had been sitting and approached Tom with a friendly expression. He offered his hand to shake.

“I know you’re a busy man, Tom, but could you spare me a little time now? I’d like to hear your thoughts about the parish’s musical life.”

Tom glanced at his watch. It was already eight forty. There was a television programme he wanted to watch at nine o’clock. Never mind. The music must come first.

“Of course, Vicar. I am at your disposal. I’ll just disrobe.”

“Oh, please! Call me Peter; everybody else does.”

Peter followed Tom into the vestry. Most of the choristers had left. Gill was chivvying a couple of the youngsters about putting away their robes properly. “Watch how Mr Sibson hangs up his robes,” she instructed.

Tom kept a straight face, and tidied away his cassock with particular care.

“I thought we’d have our chat in the vicarage. That way we can have a coffee and stay warm.”

The diocese had sold the old vicarage some years earlier, replacing it with a smaller, modern house that occupied a part of the original large garden. It was easier to heat, more convenient, and had raised much-needed cash. A few of the oldest parishioners regretted the change, but even they agreed that it made sense. The vicar’s study, where Peter and Tom sat with their coffee, was comfortably warm and pleasantly furnished.

“You have a fine choir, Tom. You must have worked very hard with them.”

“Thank you. The choir will be pleased to hear that you appreciate their efforts.”

“I expect you have something special planned for Holy Week?” Peter smiled. “Or do I presume too much?”

Tom returned the smile. “We usually sing a Bach chorale between each of the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. We always sing a substantial anthem on Easter Sunday, of course. It’s not chosen yet. Do you have a favourite that you would like?”

“Thank you. I’ll leave it to you, though; I’m sure your choice will be better than mine.”

Tom bowed his head in acknowledgement. Of course his choice would be better; how could it not be? He knew the repertoire, the choir and the tastes of the congregation.

“Actually, what I wanted to talk to you about was more general than the Easter services. I wondered what your view was on contemporary liturgical music?”

Tom was silent for a minute or two. “I take it that you mean guitars and noise rather than Lauridsen and Whitacre?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not a fan.”

The vicar stayed silent, and eventually Tom spoke again.

“This congregation is…pretty traditional. I think guitars would drive many of them away. And, if you want my personal opinion, I think almost all such stuff is entirely devoid of musical merit.”

“I won’t debate the musical merit; I’m not qualified to argue with you over that, Tom. But, you know, it is the musical language of today. It forms the backdrop to peoples’ lives. They understand it, and respond to it.”

“I’m inclined to think that we should offer our best and most beautiful music to God. People will listen to that and respond to it, whatever their daily experience. We have an opportunity of lifting their souls above the mundane towards the transcendent.”

Peter contradicted him gently. “I’ve seen popular music used very effectively to draw in young people, and we badly need to do that in this parish. You’re the Director of Music, Tom. Will you help me do that? No, don’t answer now; take it away and think about it, please.

Perhaps read a little about it, too. Here, borrow this; it’s quite a good description of how contemporary music can inspire a congregation. If you have time, I’d like to discuss it again with you before the next PCC meeting; we’ll be focussing on evangelism, and music will be an important part of that.”

February’s PCC meeting was well attended, despite wintry weather and an FA cup replay live on the television. The members of the PCC wanted to see their new vicar in action. He seemed a nice chap on Sundays, but Tom had muttered about guitars in church, and Nigel, the Treasurer, had spoken darkly of ‘unacceptable changes to church furnishing’.

Tom and Nigel sat next to each other, Tom flanked by Ralph, and Nigel by Peggy Latimer, the formidably organised lady who arranged distribution of Bible reading notes, and who ruled the flower arrangers with a rod of iron. All four had arrived early. Sue Smart, the Vicar’s Churchwarden, looked pained by the way Tom and Nigel seemed to be ganging up. Her friend, Cheryl Unwin, the PCC Secretary, was too busy making sure that everybody had copies of the minutes of the previous meeting to notice the seating.

Just before 7:30 p.m. the vicar entered.

“Ah, Nigel! You’re Treasurer. I need you up here at the front, please, with me, Sue and Cheryl.”

Nigel raised one eyebrow but complied.

After the routine business, the Vicar stood up and said, “I don’t want to keep you for too long, but I want to share with you the vision that I have for St Michael’s Parish Church.” His manner was open and friendly.

“I’d like to start by saying how impressed I’ve been with the expertise of the church’s officers, and the commitment of the volunteers whose efforts enable our work and our worship to proceed so smoothly. In my first month here, I’ve noted particularly the spotless building and polished furniture, the wonderful music, the beautiful flowers, the timely delivery of bible study notes, the fact that we’re solvent and pay our Parochial Share, the weekly prayer meeting and the crèche for the Sunday Sung Eucharist.”

He smiled again. “It’s usually a mistake to mention groups by name, because you always leave someone out. If you feel you’ve been missed out, please accept my apologies. I’m sure I haven’t been comprehensive.” He glanced down at the notes in his hand.

“I want us to build on your achievements. You see, we’re none of us growing any younger – even I am forty-eight, and I’m younger than most of the congregation. We cannot escape the conclusion that if this church is to survive, we need to bring in more young people. We have a crèche. Wonderful. But we could have a Sunday School covering all ages from toddlers to teenagers. They are the future of the church.

More than that, on the new housing estates that have sprung up around us during the last eight or nine years, there are people who are suffering spiritually. We have the answer to their needs; we have Jesus; we need to go out and tell people about Him.”

He spoke fluently. He spoke briefly, fifteen minutes in all, and concluded, “I don’t want any response now. I would like all of you, please – all of you – to think and pray earnestly about this. I’ve spoken about flexibility in how we use our facilities. We will need flexibility from our congregation too, especially from you, the members of the PCC. Over the next week or so, I shall speak to each of you again. It would be lovely to think that you will be full of bright ideas as to how, without compromising what we already have, we can reach out to all those people who need our message of hope.”

There was silence, broken by Nigel.

“Thank you, Vicar, for addressing us so eloquently. I’m sure that we’ll all be praying hard about your vision for our church.” He paused for emphasis. “I take your point about not making an instant response, however I think I must say that those of us who are officers of the PCC must make sure that our responses are practical. We won’t be able to let our hearts rule our heads.”

“Well, is there any other business?” exclaimed Cheryl, brightly. “No? Then let’s close with the Grace.”

*       *       *

A few weeks later, the vicar started a House Group. It would be agreeable but mistaken to imagine that all those who attended the first meeting were solely motivated by a desire to study and pray together. Nigel and Peggy were there, and Fay, Sue Smart and a new young couple, Martin and Linda Grant, and Ralph; with the Vicar leading them. Ralph had offered to host the meeting, and the vicar had asked him whether he had a piano.

“Yes, Peter. I’ve got quite a decent upright.”

“I wonder, Ralph, if you would be willing to play a few choruses for the meeting?”

Ralph hesitated. “I’m afraid my playing isn’t very good, and I’m not used to the idiom. I’ll give it a go if you like, but don’t expect miracles.”

Peter clapped him on the back.

“Good man!” he said.

Martin and Linda were the first to arrive.

“I’m so glad you could come this evening,” said Ralph. “I’ve noticed you in church for a couple of weeks now. Which church did you attend before you came to us?” Martin beamed at him, “It was another St Michael’s, in Stockwell.” His West Indian accent was pronounced. “It was a lovely congregation but not such a beautiful church as this one.”

Ralph had set out twelve chairs. When everybody had arrived he served coffee and biscuits, and then sat himself next to Martin. The seat beside Linda was vacant too.

Linda leaned across her husband. “We just adore the choir! You sing with them, don’t you?”

Ralph felt pleased. “Yes, I do. We’re very lucky in our Director of Music, Tom Sibson.”

“Those high voices! I’d sure like to hear you all sing some gospel!”

Ralph grinned sheepishly. Gospel! Tom would have a fit!

Peter brought them to order, and started the meeting.

“Welcome, everybody!” I’ve prepared a study on Micah, chapter 6 verse 8.”

There was a quiet ‘A-men!’ from Martin, and everybody jumped and looked at him.

“Oops, sorry people! I guess you’re not used to that here!” He grinned.

“That was lovely, Martin,” said Fay. The others stared at her. She wriggled and hunched her shoulders. “Well, it was!” she exclaimed.

“Martin, do you know that verse?” enquired Peter.

“Sure. It’s one of my favourites. ‘He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?’”

“A-men,” said Fay, quite loudly, looking with shining eyes at Martin.

“A-men, sister!”

“Good,” said Peter. “This week, we’ll be looking at ‘to do justice’; next week we’ll consider ‘to love kindness’; week three we’ll think about ‘walking humbly’; and in week four we’ll discuss how the three actions fit together.”

The study went well. Peter was assiduous in encouraging everyone to speak, and Nigel and Peggy found they had plenty to say about ‘doing justice’. And then Fay spoke up.

“I don’t want to be argumentative. That’s not me at all. But doesn’t Christian justice include quite a lot of mercy? There’s that story in – John, isn’t it, Vicar?” She turned towards Peter.

“Do you mean the story of the woman taken in adultery? ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her’? Yes, that’s John, chapter 8.”

After the study came the choruses. Martin and Linda gave a strong lead, and Ralph discovered that the music in front of him was slightly different from what they were singing. By the end of the third chorus, he was red-faced and perspiring with embarrassment.

At the end of the meeting, Peter lingered to talk to Ralph.

“Thank you ever so much for your hospitality.”

“My pleasure,” murmured Ralph.

“I really appreciated your playing the piano for the choruses tonight. I think next week, if you don’t mind, we could try practising them together for a few minutes at the start. Would you mind doing that?”

“Well, vicar, I…”

“That’s settled then. Thank you, Ralph. Music is so important in worship, isn’t it? I’m deeply grateful to you for your efforts.”

Tom’s phone rang at 10:30.

“It was a long meeting then, Nigel?”

“I’m only just home.”

“Was it as bad as we feared?”

“A mixed bag. Quite a good Bible study; Peter knows what he’s doing there. Some rather odd moments, too. Fay exclaimed ‘A-men’ out loud during the study!”

“Fay?” Thomas’s tone was incredulous.

“Yes, indeed. And I suppose Ralph told you that he was going to play the piano for some choruses?”

“No, he didn’t, but of course he’s under no obligation to tell me, Nigel. Nothing says that the choir has exclusive rights to his talent!”

“It’s the thin end of the wedge, Tom. Before you know it, we’ll have guitars in the Eucharist. Electric guitars!”

“Over my dead body.”

“On the other matter, I managed to have a word with Peggy about the pews. She’s solidly with us on opposing their replacement, and she’s going to make sure that Cheryl toes the line on that one. There’s nothing we can do about Sue, though. She’s right behind Peter.”

“To be fair, Nigel, she is the Vicar’s Warden.”

“Oh, I don’t blame her, Tom; I just wish she would see reason. It would cost a fortune to replace the pews with decent chairs – at least twenty thousand pounds – and what would we gain?”

As Tom replaced the handset, he stroked his chin. He was disappointed that Ralph had played this evening; he felt betrayed. He knew it was irrational. The vicar had asked him whether he would play, and he had declined. He should have realised that the vicar would simply find someone else. ‘On the other hand,’ he thought, ‘I am the Director of Music, and the vicar has no business changing the whole direction of our music without my agreement. We’ve a choral tradition that dates back four hundred years, for goodness sake!’

Tom dropped by Ralph’s house the following evening.

“Do you fancy a beer?”

Ralph glanced at his watch. “Okay, as long as it’s a quick one. I want to be back for ‘Masterchef’”

The White Horse was only fifty yards away, and tonight, as it was early, they were the only occupants of the lounge bar. Tom bought the beer.

“How was the House Group meeting last night?”

“Pretty good actually. Peter led it very well. That new couple, the Grants, were there.”

“I don’t think I’ve met them; what are they like?”

“Very pleasant. They seem to know their bible. They weren’t afraid to join in, either, despite being new. I think they’ll be a tremendous asset to the church, provided they stay.”

“Is there some doubt about that?”

“I think they’re used to a rather more informal style of worship than we offer. Although Linda did say how much she enjoyed the choir’s singing.”

“And how did the choruses go? I hear you played the piano for them.”

“Ah, yes.” Ralph took a swallow of beer and looked appraisingly at his glass. “Do you think they’ve flushed the line properly after cleaning? I think this beer tastes slightly off.” He looked again at the glass, and shrugged. “Yes, I played the piano for the choruses.”

“What do you suppose people see in them, Ralph? I don’t see their attraction at all myself, but plenty of people do. I read an article about them the other day. It seemed very…emotional. Did you enjoy them last night?”

Ralph shook his head “Not really my cup of tea, Tom. Besides, I played them abominably! Even Peter noticed!”

“I have a problem with them beyond my personal taste. If we’re realistic, most of our congregation don’t properly appreciate the music we provide. They don’t understand the value of what we’re preserving here. I mean, think about it. We have records of a four-part choir here in Henry the Eighth’s time. We were still singing when Henry Purcell was composing. Charles Villiers Stanford came here and performed with the choir. I can go to the church archives and read handwritten notes by my predecessors of one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago. If we let guitars into the Eucharist, that will all go. It’s happened in other places.”

“I wouldn’t want to lose that, Tom, any more than you would, but it’s early days. I think there’s probably a place for them in House Groups, and perhaps in less formal services – maybe in the church hall.

Anyway, I think these House Groups are a great idea. They could invigorate us. I want to support Peter with them; I think he’s working on the right lines.”

“Fair enough, Ralph. By the way, if you would like any help with sorting out the rhythm of those choruses, I’d be happy to run through them with you after choir practice. If our church is going to use this music, we might as well make sure it’s right.”

“Tom! Come and play for the meeting! It would be so much better than my efforts, and I really think you’d enjoy the study and fellowship.”

Ralph shook his head and glanced at his watch. “Masterchef in five minutes, Ralph.”

*       *       *

The evening of the June PCC meeting was glorious, the sun streaming in through the stained glass windows. Peter had taken to holding the meetings in the Lady Chapel, a reminder to all the participants, especially himself, that their work was for the glory of God.

“You’ve probably all noticed; attendance is up again this month. Thank you, Peggy, for organising the delivery of over two thousand laminated sheets carrying a map of where we are, the service times, and the contact details of the pastoral team. Every household in the parish has had one. We hope that most of these sheets will be pinned on corkboards or held on the fridge with magnets!

Possibly the best news of all is that twenty children are interested in taking part in Sunday School, which will be launched with an ‘Adventure Week’ at the start of the school holidays. Martin and Linda will be running this. There are still opportunities to help, if you’re keen. Please see Linda to make sure that your safeguarding training is up to date.”

He paused and mentally said a very quick prayer.

“There is another thing we could do to make our church more welcoming towards newcomers and that is replace the pews with chairs. The big advantage that they have is that they can be used flexibly. For a formal sung Eucharist, we put them in rows and they emulate pews. For a family service we could place them in concentric circles, so that people could see each other better.

For a smaller service, perhaps a monthly meditative prayer service, we would put away most of the chairs. For the Stations of the Cross, they would all be put away. I have it strongly in mind that we will need to have services for recent Christians, where they can feel relaxed. I don’t feel we can achieve that at the moment. A dozen people scattered yards apart in the pews is not relaxed!”

Peggy raised her hand. “Vicar, is it true that it would cost twenty thousand pounds?

“Yes, it is, Peggy. We would need a major fund-raising effort. But it should be possible. I’m told we raised £30,000 to refurbish the organ only three years ago.”

“We did, Vicar, but that was essential. The tuner told us that without the work our organ would deteriorate rapidly. We’re very proud of our musical tradition.”

Sue was looking agitated. “These chairs are essential, too. It’s not our tradition that matters; it’s our outreach to others. I organise the Greeters, and they all think that the pews put off people who aren’t used to coming to church.”

“Greeters!” muttered Nigel under his breath. Until recently they had been called sidesmen; he wished they still were.

“We can’t spend money we don’t have,” persisted Peggy. “I don’t think you’d find people had the same appetite for fund-raising that would replace the pews with chairs. We grew up with pews; we like them. What’s wrong with them?”

“I think we should look at this from the positive side,” said Peter. “It’s not that there’s anything really wrong with pews, it’s just that chairs would improve the way we use our church. I am personally convinced that they would help our missionary effort.”

“We must consider the practicalities as well, Peter,” said Nigel. “Removing the pews and installing chairs instead would require a faculty from the diocese. I had a word with my contact in the Diocesan Advisory Committee. He was not sanguine that a faculty would be forthcoming.”

Peter’s face paled and his lips set thin and narrow, but he responded mildly, “We won’t know if we don’t try. My discussions with the Archdeacon,” – and he emphasised the word – “were altogether more positive.”

Cheryl, the Secretary spoke out. “We seem to be divided on this issue. I propose that we postpone further discussion until the July meeting, by which time we’ll have had chance to think more about how we move forward.”

“Thank you, Cheryl, but I would like the PCC to vote on the matter at this meeting. It is my strong and positive recommendation as your vicar that we should seek to replace the pews with chairs. A show of hands in favour, please.” The vicar and Sue raised their hands, and, after a slight hesitation, so did Cheryl. There were nine contrary. Motion defeated.

“Thank you, everybody. We’ll close with the Grace, please.”

As the members were picking up their things ready to go home, Peter said quietly to Nigel, “A word, if you please. In my vestry.”

The vicar sat himself behind his desk. “Please sit down, Nigel.”

Nigel sat.

“You are, of course, entitled to talk to whom you please, when you please, about what you please. But if that discussion is designed to deliberately undercut my position as your vicar, that is, in my opinion, an abuse of your right, and damnably rude into the bargain.”

“I’m sorry you see it that way, Peter. It seemed useful to me to have the opinion of the Advisory Committee.”

“But you didn’t have their opinion, did you, Nigel? I found that the Archdeacon is in favour. In future I would ask you, as a matter of courtesy, to discuss with me beforehand any contacts you intend to have with the diocese.”

“I’ll leave you to deal with the Diocesan Treasurer, shall I?”

“You’ll do your job and you’ll do it properly and courteously, or you can resign. Right at this moment I would prefer the latter, but it’s up to you.”

Without a word Nigel rose and left the vestry.

“Shit!” exclaimed the vicar, sotto voce, after the door closed. “I made a right mess of that!”

*       *       *

The church hall was full. Children climbed over parents, ran around, and shouted with excitement. Some of the parents knew each other and tried to chat, shouting to make themselves heard above the din. Ralph nervously checked his musical forces; one guitarist, one bassist, a drummer with a set of drum pads, and the keyboard that he himself would play. It was five to six on the Sunday evening at the end of the Adventure Week.

“Okay,” he mouthed, “On four. One, two three, four!”

The chorus ‘Praise Him on the trumpet’ began. The enthusiasm of the musicians exceeded their competence; there were wrong notes in handfuls; but the liveliness gradually penetrated to the congregation. One by one they stopped speaking; some joined in and sang.

As they finished, Peter stood up. He was beaming.

“Have you all enjoyed yourselves?”

“Yes!” chorused the children.

“Shall I tell you a story?”

“Yes!”

He told them the story of the Good Samaritan, which had been the theme of the Adventure Week. As the story unfolded, children came forward in small groups to show their artwork, to act out a short scene, or to sing.

The service was short, only forty minutes, and was followed by coffee and cakes. People were laughing and chatting merrily. One young man, a small boy hanging on his arm, approached Ralph.

“Hi. I’m Sam. I enjoyed the music! Is there any room for another performer? I play trumpet.”

“Excellent!  There’s always room for a willing volunteer! We’re going to be having an informal evening service here in the hall once a fortnight, but we’ll be practising every week, Thursday at half past seven. As you could probably tell, we badly need as much practice as we can manage!”

*       *       *

“Tom, could I come and have a chat with you tomorrow evening about the Harvest Festival?”

“Yes, of course, Vicar. Is eight o’clock satisfactory for you?”

“That will do nicely, Tom. See you then.”

Tom replaced the receiver, and pursed his lips. He had ambitious plans for the Harvest Festival music. It would be of such excellence that thereafter there could be no question of allowing guitars into the Sung Eucharist.

Peter, for his part, sighed and picked up the things he needed for the House Group meeting. Why were people so resistant to change? Thank goodness for Ralph!

The House Group went particularly well that evening. There weren’t enough seats for the eighteen people who attended, and Ralph distributed cushions so those sitting on the floor could be comfortable. They were soon going to need to start a second group.

Although Ralph was the host, it was Nigel making the coffee for them that evening, and Peter joined him in the kitchen.

“The music was lively tonight, I thought,” he said.

“Yes, I enjoyed it. You gave a good Bible study, too, Peter.”

“It always goes well when people are prepared to join in.”

“Can you put some biscuits on a plate, please, Peter?”

The vicar obliged, and said, “Have you seen the attendance figures for the Sunday evening informal service, Nigel?”

“I have. They’re impressive. I went to the last service, as you know, and there was a real buzz. And most of the people there were people I didn’t recognize! The difference shows up in the offering, too. Our finances are looking better than they have done for some time.”

“Nigel, I would really like to get some of that ‘buzz’ into the Sung Eucharist. Do you think we’ll ever win Tom round to that?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think so. I, personally, would be in favour, and you’re welcome to tell Tom that if it would help. Now, we’d better take coffee through to thirsty people. Would you mind bringing in that other tray please, Peter?”

Although Nigel was often the last to leave, tonight he excused himself as early as possible. He wanted to phone Tom and it was already late in the evening.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Tom. It’s Nigel. I’m sorry to call you so late.”

“Nothing wrong, I hope?”

“No, nothing drastic, it’s just that the vicar spoke to me about having choruses in the Sung Eucharist. I have a feeling he plans to talk to you about them.”

“Ah!”

“Tom, would it really be so bad to have some of this modern stuff in the Eucharist? It’s not as though Peter wants to do away with our traditional style of worship. He wants to keep mostly classical music but have some choruses as well. The informal services are drawing people in. It would be great if we could do the same for the Eucharist!”

“Nigel, you may be keen to dilute our heritage, but I am not.”

“Tom, what are you going to do if the PCC expresses a view in favour of modern music in the service?”

“Are you threatening me, Nigel? Is that what the Vicar told you to say?”

“No, Tom, of course not! You and I have been friends for decades; you know I wouldn’t do that. But I think the vicar might ask the PCC’s opinion, and I’m just forewarning you.”

“And where will you stand, if this opinion is sought?”

“Well, I have to say, Tom, that I can see benefits from doing it, and very few downsides. I’d have to speak in favour.”

“Traitor!”

Tom slammed down the receiver and stood shaking with rage. How dare they? How dare they? All his work. All the work of generations of musicians, going for nothing!

Needless to say, his meeting with the vicar did not go well.

*       *       *

The weather was cloudy on the evening of the August PCC meeting.

The committee quickly completed the routine business and then the vicar rose to his feet. He was pale and tense. He knew what he was about to do and he hated it.

“Over the past few weeks, you’ve all attended at least one of the informal evening services. You’ve seen how the style of worship there is accepted and welcomed. You’ve seen that we have gained many new members and that they are actively participating in our outreach.

I’ve proposed to our Musical Director that we should experiment with a less formal style of worship in the church, not abandoning traditional music but augmenting it with some in a more modern idiom. He does not believe that this would be a good idea.

I ask him now to put his point of view to the PCC, and when he has done so I am going to ask the PCC for their decision as to how we proceed. There will be no further discussion – this issue has already done enough damage – there will simply be a vote. The choice will be do we retain purely classical music? Or do we introduce some chorus-style worship with appropriate instruments? I will abide by the result of the vote without complaint whichever way it goes. I hope that everybody else will do likewise.

Tom.”

Tom stood. He spoke of tradition. He spoke of beauty. He spoke of how the very best music could inspire the soul to look beyond the finite to the mystery of the spiritual. He was not eloquent, and yet his clumsy words were probably more powerful than eloquence. Nevertheless, it was not enough. He could see on the faces of the PCC that it was not enough.

The vote was thirteen to two against him; only Peggy had backed him. He held his face stiff and struggled not to weep.

“Then I must tender my resignation with immediate effect,” he said. From his leather music case he pulled out a smart cream envelope containing a hand-written letter. Its calligraphy was immaculate. His self-control wavered, and nearly cracked. “I cannot work in a place where my professional expertise is disregarded. I’ve spoken to Geoff. He will hold the fort until the PCC is in a position to make a permanent appointment. If you want my final recommendation, you should appoint him; he’s a fine organist and musician.”

He turned, handed the envelope to Cheryl, and walked out. As he passed her, Linda Grant stood up and went with him. “I am so sorry you feel like this,” she said, taking his hand. Gently, Tom detached her hand from his. He took out a handkerchief, wiped his eyes and blew his nose.

“Thank you,” he said, and left.

*       *       *

That year, the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass was packed; people were standing at the back. The choir’s ensemble was a little less good than hitherto, but only Geoff noticed; he made a mental note to be quite sure that he recruited a deputy as soon as possible so that he could conduct whenever necessary. The music group were noisy and lively; the congregation joined in with enthusiasm.

It was the end of the service, and time for ‘O come all ye faithful’. The musical forces combined. The choir sang a descant for verse five, and, during the chorus, the flute from the music group played an obbligato. The last verse started a little more quietly. High over the melody, two trumpets sent their silver tones into the fan vaulting. Then, for the last line, Geoff used full organ, and Ralph turned up the amplification.

“O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord”.

The building shook!

Infidelity – 300 word version

Infidelity

It was dark in the wings. I should have been in the Green Room but I wanted to watch the performance.

A strong arm slipped around my waist. It felt so right that I couldn’t help myself. I turned towards Frank, tilting my face up to his. He kissed me. I yielded, as I would have done for Jim, and then thought, ‘No, I don’t need to pretend…’ and kissed back enthusiastically.

How long is eternity? Two seconds? Three seconds? That is how long the kiss lasted, but it brought its own sort of eternity.

And then it was over.

Frank stepped back.

“Liz, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that. I’m so sorry. You’re a married woman.” Even in my swirling Arcadian haze of arousal I noticed that he didn’t say that he was a married man.

“Don’t be sorry, Frank. Don’t be sorry”. My right hand stroked his chest feverishly. The quartet on stage was reaching its climax.

“Oh, Liz, you are just so…Liz, I love you’.

Why did Jim never speak to me like that? Why did he never kiss me like that?

I felt guilty that night as I went to bed. Jim didn’t seem to notice anything. He kissed me goodnight, rolled over, and was snoring gently within a minute. Normally I liked Jim’s snores. They weren’t loud, they just rumbled gently and reminded me that my man lay beside me; a comfortable knowledge of security. That night, though, they grated.

‘Liz, I love you’. The joy of that knowledge! And its guilt. Lying there beside my sleeping husband thinking of another man’s love.

And then, knowingly and deliberately, I imagined Frank’s embrace, the look of bewildered joy on his face, his tender words. I allowed the joy to seep through me. I went to sleep.

 

At First Sight – Part 8

Jon and Vikki fell in love the day before Vikki returned permanently to Australia, leaving Jon in London. He books a flight to visit her. Meanwhile, Vikki’s abusive former partner, Guy, has tracked her down. Vikki disappears. Jon, and her childhood sweetheart, Dan, pursue Guy. There is a showdown, in which Vikki is rescued, Guy is killed, and Jon and Dan both critically injured

At first sight 8 - Manor on High 170715

Jon’s head was aching. He couldn’t remember a worse pain, except for…his mind shied away from an explosion of agony that he couldn’t quite recall. Instead, he opened his eyes. The ceiling was white. The light hurt his eyes.

“Jonathan?”

“Dad?”

“Thank God. You’re back with us. Praise the Lord!”

“Where am I?”

“Hospital. The Royal Melbourne Hospital, to be precise.”

Jonathan closed his eyes again.

“Where’s Vikki? Is she…is she alright?”

“Yes, she’s fine. She just popped out for a bite of breakfast. She’ll be back.”

“Breakfast. I’ve been out overnight, then?”

“A bit longer than that, I’m afraid.”

Jon’s eyes opened abruptly.

“Dad! What the hell are you doing here?”

“I flew out last week when the hospital told us you might not pull through.”

Jon said nothing.

“I’ll be able to help you travel home, too.”

“I have something to do before coming home. In fact, I may not come back to the UK at all.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. There’s your PhD to finish…” James Hall’s voice faded as he looked at his son’s pale face and the turban of dressings round his head. The doctors had warned him of possible brain damage; maybe Jon wouldn’t be capable of completing his studies.

The door opened quietly. Jon looked and smiled.

“Vikki!”

“Oh, Jon, I’m so glad!” Her tears welled up, and poured down her cheeks, even as she beamed with joy. She swabbed at her eyes with a tissue. “Drat this crying. Anybody would think I was sad!”

Jonathan stretched out his arms towards her. As she moved into his embrace, the door opened.

“Now then, Mr Hall. Lie still and don’t get excited. You’re still a very sick man.” But the nurse’s face was cheerful, and her manner light.

“I’ll… er… go and phone your mother, tell her that you’re back in the land of the living.”

“Yeah.”

Little fragments of memory were flashing before Jon. He held onto Vikki’s hands.

“You’re safe!” he said. “I was so afraid of what Guy might do to you.”

Vikki frowned. “Best leave that for the moment. Some other time?”

Jon went to nod, and realised that his head was restrained. Instead, he made a circle with his thumb and forefinger, and smiled. His eyes closed, and he drifted off to sleep. He looked happy, Vikki thought.

The nurse spoke quietly to Vikki. “I know I told him to keep still, but it’s an excellent sign that he was able to move his arms. There didn’t look to be any weakness. We have to wait for the consultant’s say-so, but it looks good. You’re a lucky girl, I think.”

Vikki coloured. She gazed at Jon. What was it about him that made her desire him so much? She stroked his arm with her fingertips. The muscles were relaxed in sleep, but she could feel their tight definition. The hair on his skin was downy and fair, hardly more than a fuzz.

She looked at his face and remembered the last ten days, and the tears came again. At first the doctors had thought he would die; you could tell from their faces, and from the nurses’ refrain, “He’s receiving the best possible care,” which so often becomes, “We did all we could.”

But now he was out of danger.

The door clicked as James Hall came back into the room.

“Ah, good. He’s asleep. That’s what he needs.” He looked at Vikki, who half-nodded. “I wonder if we could talk together for a few minutes?” he asked. He held open the door. Vikki stared at him, set her lips and walked into the corridor.

“Well?”

“I wanted to talk about Jon, and his future.”

“I didn’t think you wanted to talk about the weather.”

“Vikki. Please don’t be hostile. There’s no need. We’ve both got Jon’s best interests at heart.”

“Say what you want to say.”

“Jon’s a very bright young man, you know. He has a great future. He could become a professor.”

“Your point being?”

“He needs to come back to the UK to finish his PhD. His academic network is centred in the UK. It will set back his career unless he returns and stays in England.”

“Do you suppose he doesn’t know that?”

“I’m sure he does. But I want to be confident that you understand. I’m sure you want to act in his best interests.”

“Of course I do. But I think that Jon can perfectly well decide his best interests for himself. Don’t you?”

“I’m concerned that he may not see them clearly while he’s infatuated.”

“I’d prefer to say that he’s in love. Look, Mr Hall, Jon’s big enough to make his own decisions. If he asks me to marry him, I shall say yes like a shot. And – I’ll be blunt – that is none of your business. It’s about time you recognised that he’s a man, now, not a little boy.”

“I see. Thank you for making your feelings so clear. Perhaps you’d like to rejoin him? I shall go and find something to eat. Good day to you.”

Cheeks flaming, Vikki went back into Jon. She moved quietly across to the bed, and slipped her hand into his. He didn’t wake, but his fingers closed gently around hers. She sighed, and the hostility she’d felt for Jon’s father melted away. Sitting here, with Jon safe, was all she wanted. It was a moment of perfect calm and happiness.

*       *       *       *

It had been the first day Jon had tried walking since his injury. He’d been okay; the doctors were pleased, but he was exhausted. The door clicked. He looked up, hoping the nurse had come to adjust the bed so that he could sleep, but it was Dan. Jon sat up a little straighter and greeted him cheerfully.

Dan dropped into the chair by the bed.

“Glad we did it, eh?”

Jon nodded.

“Your doing mostly, Dan. I didn’t stop him; you did.”

“Team effort, mate”

“You’re too generous.”

Dan gave him a sideways look. “Only a Pom would say that!”

Jon grinned.

“Look, I’ve got something serious to say,” went on Dan. “It’s about Vikki. I’ve seen how she’s been with you the last couple weeks.”

He paused and thought a little.

“If you ask her to marry you, she’ll say ‘Yes’, you know. I just wanted to say there’ll be no hard feelings on my part. I love her, yeah, I have done as long as I can remember, but, well, she loves you and I want her to be happy. That’s what matters. I’m a big boy. I guess I’ll get over it.”

Jon was briefly silent, then he held out his hand. Dan grasped it.

“Thank you,” said Jon.

They sat like that for several minutes, then Jon said, “I shall ask Vikki this evening. If she says yes, would you be my best man at the wedding?”

“I’d be honoured. Provided I’m not in gaol on the day.”

“Gaol?”

“Yeah. They’ve charged me with manslaughter for killing Guy. My brief reckons with the extenuating circumstances I’ll probably get a couple years.”

“But – you saved my life!”

“Yeah. That’s the extenuating bit.”

“Dan, I’m so sorry.”

“The law’s the law, I guess. I tell you what, though. I’d do it again tomorrow. We got Vikki out. You’re still alive. And Guy’s dead. Good riddance. Vikki’s told me some of what he did. He was a piece of shit. I’m bloody glad I shot the bastard.”

He looked at Jon.

“Here, you’re looking a bit peaky, mate. Do you want me to call the nurse?”

“I’m OK. First day out of bed today, that’s all.”

The door clicked open.

“Out you go now!” The nurse was brisk. Dan winked at Jon, and loped out. Jon fell asleep even before the nurse had finished reclining the head of the bed.

*       *       *       *

Jonathan Hall, newly minted PhD, sat next to Dan in the Regency Room of the Manor on High in Melbourne. In his room in Vikki’s mum’s house was the letter offering him a post at Melbourne University, together with confirmation from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection that he qualified for permanent residency.

Dan was quiet, self-controlled; calmly cheerful; on parole.

Carolyn Hall sat behind her son, but her husband, James, was absent, unable to reconcile himself to Jon wedding an atheist.

The string quartet drew their music to a close at the registrar’s signal, and then struck up Pachelbel’s Canon.

Vikki entered, on her mother Margaret’s arm. She was heartbreakingly beautiful. Her honey-coloured hair was put up in a French Pleat, emphasizing her classic features. Her amber eyes seemed to glow.

Jon and Vikki exchanged vows, and rings; the registrar pronounced them man and wife.

The reception afterwards was joyful and lively, but Margaret made a moment of seclusion to speak quietly to Jon. “Do you remember what I said at the yard gate? ‘Find my girl, Jon. Bring her back to me.’ You did that, Jon, and I am eternally grateful to you and Dan”. She hugged him close for several minutes, and then added, “She’s told me things, Jon, things she’ll probably never tell you. Be gentle with her, won’t you?”

And that is where this serial stops. It would be nice to say that ‘they all lived happily ever after’, but that never happens to real people, and it doesn’t in my tale either. But whether you ever hear of what happened later will depend entirely upon the caprice of the author!

 

 

At First Sight – Part 7

As I’m taking part in NaNoWriMo, which requires me to write 50,000 words of a novel in the 30 days of November, I’m afraid I have no time to write original material for my blog. Instead I’m repeating a serial I first posted in 2017, one episode per day. I hope you enjoy it!

At first sight - camper van 170708

Jon and Vikki fell in love the day before Vikki returned to her home in Australia – leaving Jon behind. Her abusive former partner, Guy, is tracking her. Her childhood sweetheart, Dan, has proposed marriage to her. Jon flies to Melbourne and learns that Vikki has disappeared. The police are dismissive, but Dan hacks computer records and discovers Guy’s whereabouts.

“Are you nearly finished with that – what did you call it? – that witness statement? Because we’re about five minutes away from the campsite.”

Jon pressed ‘Send’ on his tablet.

“All done. Can we pull off for a minute, to work out what we’re going to do?”

There was a halt half a mile ahead, and Dan pulled in.

“I’m worried that confronting Guy may cause him to harm Vikki. The last thing we want is for him to use Vikki as a hostage,” said Jon.

“Yeah. What do you suggest?”

“Do you know the registration number of his camper van?”

“C-A-M-P-3-7. He shouldn’t be difficult to spot in any case. It’s the low season. There won’t be many campers.”

“I guess we go in and see if the van’s there, and see whether he comes out?”

“I can’t think of anything better. I’ll park just inside the entrance. We might need to block his way out.”

Jon touched his nose gently; it was still slightly swollen and sore. “He’s quite a handy brawler. Better than me. What are you like?”

“I reckon the two of us can take him, don’t you?”

“I think so. Only be careful; he fights dirty”

Dan nodded, and put the car into gear.

“Got you.”

The campsite was two miles down the road. As they pulled into the entrance, a man came over.

“You got a booking?”

“No. You got any vacancies?”

“No. Cabins are all shut for the winter. Unless you got a tent in the boot?”

“Yeah, that’s it”

“How many nights?”

“Just the one.”

“That’ll be twenty-five”.

Dan pulled the notes out of his wallet.

“You can pitch up through there, straight ahead, ‘bout three hundred yards.”

“You got somewhere we can freshen up before we settle in?”

The man jerked his thumb in the direction of the wash-house, a low, block-built structure.

“Happy camping, fellers”. He disappeared behind the building.

Dan pointed. A camper van stood barely one hundred yards away facing the exit.

“I guess this is it.” Dan leaned across and removed the automatic from the glovebox.

They had barely started moving towards the van when Guy emerged from the wash-house. He glanced casually in their direction, and his eyes opened wide. He sprinted towards the camper van, pulling keys out of his pocket as he ran.

“Block him with the car, Dan!”

Jon raced after Guy. He hoped Guy would fumble the keys in the door, but he didn’t. As Jon arrived, Guy was sliding the keys into the ignition. The van’s engine roared. Jon grabbed the door handle but he was too late. The van shot forward, dragging him off his feet. He let go, toppled sideways, and rolled on the ground, winded.

There was a crash and the van lurched sideways as Dan rammed it with his car. The van’s wheel caught Jon on the head, stunning him. He fought to stay conscious, forced his eyes to stay open, saw Guy leap from the camper van swinging a baseball bat. Jon saw the blow coming, tried desperately to dodge, heard a sharp crack, and then an overwhelming pain that plunged him into blackness.

At first sight - baseball bat 170708

Dan rushed around the van and saw Guy lying, a large red stain spreading through his shirt, a pool of blood on the floor. Beside him lay Jon, face white, still as death, a bloody dent in his skull. Dan pulled out his mobile phone, called for an ambulance and the police. Then he  removed the keys from the ignition, and ran to the back of the van. His chest was hurting where he’d hit the steering wheel in the crash.

He flung open the doors. Vikki, bound and gagged, lay on the floor of the van, struggling to breathe. Swiftly, Dan tore the tape off her mouth, and she took great gulps of fresh air. He pulled out his knife and cut her bonds. Sobbing, Vikki clutched him.

“Oh, Dan, thank goodness you’ve come. I knew you’d find me.”

“Jon’s outside,” he said, grimly. “Badly hurt, I’m afraid. Ambulance is on its way.” Blood welled up into his mouth. He turned and spat it out of the back door.

“Dan, you’re hurt!”

“Hit the steering wheel when I rammed the van. No airbags in my old wreck. Cracked rib or two, I reckon.” He brought up some more blood. “Sorry,” he said, and toppled forward.

Vikki screamed.

“Help! Get an ambulance! Somebody help!”

She scrambled to her feet, pushed past Dan’s unconscious form and jumped clear of the van. The campsite owner was some twenty yards away, too frightened to approach closer.

“Please,” called Vikki, “they’re all out cold. Please help me.”

“This one first,” panted Vikki, leading him to Dan, who was choking. Bloody froth streaked his chin. “Help me get him into the recovery position.”

Together they lifted him out of the van, and laid him on his side. A trickle of blood ran out of his mouth. He groaned, but breathed more easily.

They moved around to Jon. He lay perfectly still and silent, the blood from his head wound already coagulating. Vikki let out a howl of despair. “No!”

She knelt down and leaned over him, feeling for the pulse in his neck. It was faint, but regular. She clutched his hand.

“Stay with me, Jon. Stay with me!”

There were flashing blue lights, and sirens. Vikki hardly noticed, until a policewoman laid a hand on her shoulder.

“Come on, madam. You’re obstructing the paramedics. Let them look after the casualty. Come with me now.” Gently, talking, cajoling, guiding, she led Vikki away from Jon.

The senior paramedic shook his head at the severity of the injuries, even as he busied himself with the task of stabilising the patient’s condition.

“Can you spare a minute to look at this feller? He looks bad.”

Dan was wheezing, and his legs were jerking.

“Get him on oxygen right away. He’s got a perforated lung. Let’s get him into the wagon; we might need to insert a drain.”

Police had cordoned off the scene. Guy lay still, his corpse already cooling, while the pathologist did her job. Not that there was any doubt about the cause of death; a bullet through the heart is unambiguous.

Dan and Jon were loaded into the ambulance, which set off, sirens blaring, for the hospital.

“Please, can I go with them?” Vikki begged.

“We’ll take you in a few minutes. The officer in charge needs to talk to you first. Both your friends will be getting the best possible care.” The policewoman handed Vikki some tissues. “Here. Dry your eyes. Everything will be okay, I’m sure.”

 

 

At First Sight – Part 6

This month I’m participating in NaNoWriMo, which requires me to write 50,000 words in the 30 days of November. I’m afraid that leaves no time for writing original material for my blog, so I’m republishing my serial “At First Sight” one episode per day. I hope you enjoy it!

Jon and Vikki fell in love the day before Vikki returned to her home in Australia – leaving Jon in London. Her former abusive partner, Guy, is tracking her. Her childhood sweetheart, Dan, has proposed marriage to her. Jon must move fast. He has scraped together the air fare and flown to Melbourne. Dan meets him at the airport and tells him Vikki has disappeared…

At first sight - Great Ocean Road 170701

“Missing!”

“Yeah. She set off to the bakery this morning early and never came home. Here, do you need to sit down? You don’t look too good.”

Jon shook his head.

“Did she leave a note?” he asked

Dan took the handle of Jon’s luggage.

“Here, let me. Car’s this way.” He gestured. “Note? No, she didn’t. Margaret – that’s her mum – told me to bring you straight to the house.”

“You’ve told the police?”

“Yeah. They can’t list someone as missing until they’ve been gone twenty-four hours.”

“Where might she have gone? You know her well, don’t you?”

“The only place I would expect her to go would be home. I’ve never known her go walkabout, and I’ve known her since we were both little kids.”

Dan dropped the luggage into the boot of the car.

They sat in silence as he drove, slickly, as though he thought of himself as a racing driver.

“Here we are.”

A short woman, with dark, curly hair, burst out of the front door, and ran down the path. She was at the yard gate even before Dan had applied the handbrake.

“You must be Jon!” She grabbed him, as he climbed out of the car and hugged him fiercely. “I’m so glad you’re here. Did Dan tell you about…?” She looked up at him.

“About Vikki going missing? Yes.”

“Come in, come in! I’ll make you a cup of tea – that’s what you English drink, isn’t it? Dan, be a love and bring his case would you? No, Jon, you’re staying with us. I insist.” Her voice was unemphatic but decisive.

“I’ve been through Vikki’s stuff with a comb,” she announced, as they sat in the kitchen, Margaret at one end of the long table, Dan and Jon on her right and left. “There’s absolutely nothing to suggest she was going to run off. All her clothes are there.” Her voice quavered; her lip trembled. Dan put his arm round her shoulders.

“Keep your spirits up, Ma,” he said quietly. “We’ll get this sorted.”

“Did she tell either of you about the man she used to be with?” asked Jon

“You mean Guy? Yes, she did.” Margaret’s face became pinched and hard.

Jon moistened his lips.

“Did she tell you that he had taken a flight for Melbourne? He would have been here a few days ago.”

Dan and Margaret glanced at each other.

“She didn’t tell me. Did she tell you, Dan?” Dan shook his head. “How do you know, Jon?”

“The police told me. I was burgled and they thought it might have had something to do with Guy. When they checked, they found he had flown to Melbourne. I wrote and told Vikki.”

“If that bastard does anything to Vikki, I’ll kill him.” The words were a shocking contrast to the quiet voice in which they were uttered. Both Jon and Margaret stared at Dan.

“Now, Dan, there’s no need for threats. Our job is to get my girl back.” Margaret put an arm around both young men.

“Jon. You say the English police are investigating Guy? That gives us enough to go back to the police here and insist they take Vikki’s disappearance seriously. Will you two boys do that for me?”

At the station, the desk sergeant was anodyne.

“Do you fellows know how many people officially go missing in Australia every year? Thirty-eight thousand. That’s more than one every fifteen minutes, every day of the year.”

Jon leaned forwards.

“Look, sergeant. One,” he raised a finger, “Vikki has been the subject of threats from a man in the UK. Two,” he raised a second finger, “He has a record of violence. Three, he made it plain he was determined to obtain her address in Australia. Four, he’s flown to Melbourne, and five, Vikki’s disappeared. How much more do you need? With every moment that passes it will be more difficult to trace and catch him, and rescue her.”

“We’ve heard nothing from the English police. If she’s still missing tomorrow morning, you know what to do.”

As they trailed home, a fine rain started. The droplets made halos around the streetlights. Jon walked with his fists clenched in his jacket pockets.

Dan strode freely.

“Looks like we’ll have to go unofficial then.”

“What do you mean?”

“Better you don’t know the detail. Like I said, unofficial. Do you know Guy’s surname, and roughly where he lives?”

“He’s Guy Northcott. I think Vikki said he had a house in Luton.”

“Okay. Might be enough. You see, if I were going to kidnap someone and I didn’t live here, I’d rent a camper van. We might find him that way.”

Dan stopped, and Jon realised that they were back in front of the house where Vikki lived.

“I’ll be round in the morning, about eight,” said Dan. “We’ll go and see if we can stir up some action from the police.” He drove away. His car was dirty, and one of the rear lights had failed, Jon noticed.

Margaret welcomed him warmly, fed him, chatted to him about Vikki, but it was a melancholy evening. She was troubled at what Dan might be planning.

“He’s very fond of Vikki, Jon. He always was, even when he was an age when boys don’t like girls. I’d always thought Vikki would probably marry him. So did he, I think. This is hitting him very hard. I’ve never heard him threaten anybody like that. I hope he doesn’t do anything stupid.”

Jon excused himself early, and went to the bedroom Margaret had prepared for him. It wasn’t large. There was a single bed and a bookcase filled with novels, all well-worn. He sat on the bed and phoned home.

“I’ll see if I can help,” offered his father. “I have one or two senior contacts in the police. They might be able to encourage liaison with the Australian force. Call me in eleven hours and I’ll let you know if there’s anything useful.”

“Thanks, Dad. I appreciate that. I’ll put a reminder in my mobile.”

“Yes. Yes, I suppose you would. Okay. Chin up, Jonathan. Chances are that everything will work out. Till this evening, then.”

Dad always knew someone. And never knew how people felt inside. “Irritating old bastard,” Jon said to himself.

Despite the fatigue of the journey, and the comfortable bedroom he slept badly.

Dan was early next morning, and Jon was still on the phone to his father.

“So I need to email Bedfordshire police, and complete a witness statement for them, and then they will contact Melbourne with a formal request for help with tracking Guy?”

“That’s it. I should give the locals twenty-four hours after you submit the witness statement before you contact them.”

“Thanks, Dad. I’ll let you know how it goes.”

Dan greeted him with a wolfish grin. “Maybe we won’t need the jacks after all. I found something last night. Come on; I’ll tell you about it in the car.”

“Hang on while I grab my tablet. I can do the witness statement on that while we drive. Are we going far?”

“Couple hundred miles maybe.”

“We’d better tell Margaret.”

“All done, mate, while you were chatting to your dad.”

And even as he spoke, Margaret entered the room with a large bag.

“Breakfast, lunch and probably dinner too if you’ve not been able to stop.”

She hugged them, first Dan, then Jon. As she held Jon close she whispered, “Find my girl, Jon. Bring her back to me.”

Dan had been driving for about ten minutes, and Jon had been typing on his tablet. He pressed send.

“Okay. I have to wait for a reply before I can do anything more. So. What did you find out last night, and where are we going?”

“Guy Northcott rented a camper van in Melbourne. He picked it up two days ago. Last night he was booked into a site about a hundred miles up the Great Ocean Road. And that’s where we’re going.”

He paused, and added, “We’re going ready for trouble. Look in the glove pocket, but don’t touch anything.”

Jon opened the glove pocket. Lying on an oily cloth was an automatic pistol. It had a long barrel, and a large magazine. It looked, to Jon’s inexperienced eye, to be very deadly.

At first sight - pistol 170701

“Is that legal?”

Dan laughed.

“No, of course not. Do you have a problem with that? Because if you do, now’s the time to say so. I’ll drop you off, and you can take a taxi back to Margaret. I’m sure she’d understand.” His scorn was obvious.

“Don’t be stupid. I’ll do whatever it takes.”

The two of them drove on in silence.

 

 

 

At first sight – Part 5

As I’m participating in NaNoWriMo this year I have no time to write original material for my blog. Instead, I’m reblogging a serial that I first published in 2017. I hope you enjoy it!

If you’ve missed the earlier chapters,  you can read them here

At first sight

At first sight – part 2

Short Story – At first sight – part III

At first sight – part IV

 Jon and Vikki fell for each other at a party in London – the day before Vikki returned home to Australia. They have been writing to each other, and Jon has arranged to visit Vikki in Melbourne within the next few months. But Vikki is settling back into her familiar life, and renewing old friendships. Meanwhile, her abusive ex-partner, Guy, is trying to trace her…

At first sight - Qantas plane 170624

It was the second morning in a row that the postie had let her down. There was no letter from Jon. It was windy, cold and raining. She shook herself. “Come on, woman! Pull yourself together!”

“Hi, Vikki! Fancy a movie this evening?”

“Dan! I didn’t hear you come in.”

Dan grinned. He and Vikki had been in and out of each other’s houses all the time as kids.

“Sorry! I should have knocked. Anyway, what about this movie? La La Land!”

“Sure, yeah, I’d like that.”

On the way home from the cinema, Dan stopped his car at the kerbside a few streets short of Vikki’s home. She turned to him, ready to tease him, ready to defuse any threat of intimacy with humour. His face, though, was too serious.

“What is it, Dan? What’s the matter?”

“Can we talk, Vikki? I mean talk properly, not joking.”

“Go ahead.” She still sounded flippant.

She saw the fine lines deepen on his forehead. There was pain in his grey-blue eyes. She had always liked his eyes. As a teenager she used to imagine him as a Viking, facing the terrors of land and sea without fear.

“I’ve got to say this, Vikki, or I won’t be able to live with myself. I love you. Will you…will you marry me?”

Marry you, Dan?” There was a little quiver in her voice.

“Don’t bloody make fun of me, Vikki. You don’t owe me much, but you owe me the respect of taking me seriously.”

“I am taking you seriously, Dan. I’m just flabbergasted, I guess. I hadn’t expected this.”

They sat together in silence for a few minutes.

“You haven’t said no, at least.”

Vikki turned to him. She put one hand on his shoulder, and with the other, stroked his blond hair across his forehead.

“No, I haven’t. And I haven’t said yes either. Oh, Dan, this is just so difficult. Because I’ve loved you as a friend for years, and I find you sexy as hell, but…well, there’s somebody in England who’s special to me.”

“Not that Guy fellow, I hope?”

“As if!” Vikki stopped stroking Dan’s hair. She took hold of his right hand with both of hers, and squeezed it, as though to convince him of her earnestness. “He’s called Jon. I can’t explain it, Dan. It’s a mystery, but it’s very wonderful. I’m so sorry.”

Gently, Dan removed his hand from hers.

“I don’t want your pity, Vikki. If you won’t have me, I reckon I’ll have to go away.”

“I haven’t said no, Dan. But I’m not saying yes either, not yet.”

“So, what the hell are you saying then?”

“Don’t be angry, Dan. I know it must look like I want to have my cake and eat it, but it really isn’t that. Can you give me a minute just to think how to help you understand?”

Dan nodded.

Vikki gestured at the two of them sitting in the car.

“This is kind of reality, Dan. The two of us sitting here; you loving me; you asking me to marry you; and me sitting here wanting to say yes, because I love you too, Dan, I do truly. But then there’s this thing like magic that happened the day before I set off home; this – connection I suppose you’d call it – between me and Jon.

Look, he’s coming out here soon. Next letter I get, I’m expecting him to say when he’s coming. Suppose I said yes to you tonight? And then saw him, and this thing between us boils up and I change my mind about what I said? That wouldn’t be fair for either of us, would it?”

“I don’t think you’re being honest, Vikki, not with me, not with yourself.” There was an angry edge to Dan’s voice. “You want to keep me in reserve in case it falls through with this – Jon. Well, that’s not going to happen. What kind of basis would that be for a marriage?”

Vikki took both Dan’s hands in hers, and looked him full in the face. In the moonlight, her amber eyes were dark, almost black, and luminous with unshed tears.

“Dan. If you want me to – if you want me to – I’ll say yes to you now. I’ll say yes, and I’ll stick to it. I’m sure we could make it work, be happy together. I’ll write to Jon and tell him –  it was just – it was just a… beautiful dream. And not to come.” A single tear escaped, glinting and leaving a silvery track as it trickled down her cheek.

Dan shook his head gently.

“No, not now, not tonight, Vikki. But I will ask again, and then I’ll insist on an answer.”

He turned away from her, and started the engine. Neither of them spoke for the remainder of the short journey home.

*       *       *       *

“Dear Jon,

I’m thrilled that you’re going to be here next week! I can’t wait! I’d thought it wasn’t going to be until September!

I know we’ve written before about this in our letters, but you’d be more than welcome to come and stay with us. My mum thinks you must be “A real, old-fashioned English gentleman” because you’re planning to stay in a hotel for at least the first few days!

Now, there’s something I must tell you.

When I was little, I was a bit of a tomboy, and my best friend was a boy called Dan. He’s still my best friend now, Jon, and he’s very dear to me. You’re the person I cleave to, but Dan is close too.

The problem is, he proposed marriage to me this evening. I didn’t say yes, but I couldn’t make myself say no.

I must be completely honest with you, Jonathan. It feels to me that the bond between you and me is so special that it demands honesty, perfect honesty, or at least as close to it as I can manage. So – if I hadn’t met you, Jon, I would have accepted Dan’s proposal, and been very happy.

There. I’ve said it. If that changes your mind about coming, then I accept that. Oh, but I so hope it doesn’t! I just want to be close to you!

With much love

Vikki xxx”

Jon read the letter, frowned, and read it again. Then he picked up his pen and wrote.

“Dear Vikki,

Thank you for your honesty in telling me about Dan. I shall see you at Melbourne Airport at about 5 p.m. on July 10th. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to it. I love you more than I can say.

With my whole heart.

Jon

xxx”

He took the letter to the post straightaway. It would, with luck, arrive before he did.

*       *       *       *

Jon was smiling as he tugged his suitcase into the Arrivals area. Where was she? He scanned the waiting faces, the family groups, husbands, wives; the people greeting men in suits who’d flown from England with only a briefcase and laptop; the taxi drivers displaying handwritten signs. There was no Vikki.

Jon frowned. Surely Vikki hadn’t stood him up? She must have been delayed. Perhaps her car had broken down?

He noticed a tall fair-haired man, who appeared to be waving to him. When Jon acknowledged the wave, the man beckoned to him. Stiff-legged, frozen-faced, Jon complied.

“Jonathan Hall?”

Jon nodded, curtly.

The tall man stuck out a hand.

“I’m Dan,” he said. “We have an emergency. Vikki’s disappeared.”

At First Sight – Part 4

As I’m participating in NaNoWriMo this year I have no time to write original material for my blog. Instead, I’m reblogging a serial that I first published in 2017. I hope you enjoy it!

What do you do when you first meet your true love the day before she flies back to Australia? For Jon, the answer was simple; you follow her as soon as possible. One small problem – PhD students like Jon have very little money. For Vikki, his beloved, the answer was more difficult; handsome, clever, surf-hero Dan has carried a torch for her for years…

Jon rang his mum and chatted; about his work, her work, and the latest news from his dad’s parish; before raising the subject that was uppermost in his thoughts.

“Mum, I need to borrow some money. It’s rather a lot, I’m afraid.”

Carolyn Hall thought for a moment. It wasn’t like Jon to ask for money. He’d managed on his own since his first term at university.

“How much do you need, love?”

“About two thousand pounds, I’m afraid.”

“You’re not in any trouble, are you?”

“No, and I should be able to pay you back quite soon; within about six months, I think.”

“I’ll have to talk to Dad first.” She hesitated for a moment, and then added, “I know it’s none of my business, but Dad will want to know why you need it.”

She waited for the explosion. Jon had always made it very clear that he needed to be independent; that he was going to live his life without interference from his parents. She sighed. It must be difficult for him, being James’s son.

“It’s a bit tricky. And it sounds as though I’m going bonkers. All I can say is that it’s very real to me. I’ve met this girl.”

“Oh, Jon, I am pleased for you!”

“The trouble is, she lives in Australia. I met her just before she went home, and now she’s there and I’m here.”

“What’s her name? What’s she like?”

“Vikki; that’s with two kays and an i. She’s beautiful, Mum, just beautiful. And clever; she’s just finished a master’s degree in education at Cambridge. I knew the instant I saw her that she was the right girl…” His voice trailed away as he relived the moment.

“Oh, Jon, you’ve got it bad, haven’t you?”

Jon tensed, and then relaxed. He laughed.

“Yes, I suppose I have! But that doesn’t make the feeling less real, you know?”

“I know, Jon, I know. That was how I felt about Dad when we first met. It’s worked for us so far! I still feel the same about him. But it wasn’t the way he fell in love with me, if you follow me?”

“Thank you, Mum. For telling me about you and Dad, I mean. Do you think it would be better for me to ring him and ask about a loan?”

“I think Dad would appreciate that, yes. Man to man, you know.”

“Okay, I’ll do that. Thanks for the advice.”

Dressing table 170617 (2)

Vikki scooped up the letter from the mat, and raced to her room. The sun struck obliquely through the window, making the wall at her bedhead dazzlingly white. The petals of the posy on her dressing table glowed translucent in the reflected light.

Vikki looked at Jon’s handwriting, with its firm downstrokes, its well-formed letters, its fluidity. Her heart sang. His voice was vivid in her memory, and she imagined him sitting beside her on the bed reading the letter to her.

“Dear Vikki,

Thank you so much for writing. You made me really happy when I read that you had ‘danced with delight’ because I planned to visit!

You’re right; we don’t know each other very well. You say that matters to you, and that you guess it matters to me. Be reassured; it does. I want to know everything about you, the big things and the little things, the essential and the trivial. It will be such a joy learning about all these from you!

Or do you mean that you have doubts about whether what we felt that magical night will prove ephemeral? Is that why you say, “We mustn’t be carried away”?

Let me tell you how I feel. I love you. You have changed me. In the past, I’ve always thought carefully before doing anything, but you make me feel so certain that we belong together that I don’t need to think about it, I just know it.

I want you to know this, Vikki. The thing I want more than anything in the world is that you should be happy. If, in the future, my love for you becomes an obstacle to your happiness, I shall let you go. It would break my heart – I can hardly bear even thinking about it – but I would do it.

By the way, there is something more practical that I need to tell you. I had another run-in with Guy. He was after your address in Australia. I didn’t tell him, of course, but yesterday somebody broke into my flat. They didn’t take anything – and there was quite an expensive laptop on the desk in full view – so I suppose Guy might have been the burglar. Take care, my dearest.

I hope so much that I shall soon see you in Australia; I should be able to suggest some dates next time I write in a few days. How I wish I was with you now!

With all my love

Jon”

Vikki held the letter against her lips, smiling.

At first sight - letter and phone 170617

“Jonathan! This is an unexpected pleasure. How are you?”

“I’m fine, Dad. How are you? And the parish, of course?”

“We’re doing nicely, thank you. The occasional hiccup. If you want the latest news, the organist has just quit. I don’t suppose you want to hear about that, though?”

They chatted casually for a few minutes, until Jon said, “Actually, Dad, I had an ulterior motive in ringing you.”

“I thought you might have.”

Jon winced. That accomplished, cultured, know-it-all, self-satisfied tone of voice had haunted his childhood.

“Would you lend me two thousand pounds, please.”

There was a short silence. James Hall waited for the explanation to be offered. Jon struggled with his pride.

“I’m in love with a woman who lives in Australia. I need to go and see her.”

There was a longer silence.

“That’s a fair sum, Jon.”

“I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t think I needed it.”

“There may be a difference between what you think you need and what you actually need.”

Jon struggled to relax, to remain calm, to remain courteous. This constant assumption that he didn’t know what he was doing, that he would screw up if left to himself…

“Dad, if you hang on a minute, I’ll explain. I met Vikki the day before she was due to fly home. It was – astonishing – stunning. I just knew immediately that she’s the one. She seems to feel the same way. I want to go to Australia to confirm what we feel.

You may think it’s a gamble. Maybe you’re right. But it’s my gamble. Your money will be safe, whatever the outcome.”

“Oh, for goodness sake, Jonathan, it’s not the safety of my money that concerns me. It’s your future, your studies, putting all that at risk just because you’ve met an attractive girl who’s bowled you over. What about your studies, anyway?”

“My professor is happy. In fact, he’s asked me to go into the University of Melbourne to establish personal links with the staff there. It’s a great chance to network.”

“I just don’t want to see you hurt, Jon.”

“Not going to Australia and losing her would hurt me more than anything I can imagine.”

“Mm. Yes, I can see that might be so.”

Jon waited.

“All right. You may have the money. I’ll transfer it to your account this afternoon. Would you be happy to repay it in twelve months?”

“I’m taking on some more tutoring. Can I pay it back monthly over six months starting in October, please?”

“Yes, that’ll be okay. Take care of yourself, Jon. I’m proud of you, son. You’re growing up into a fine man.”

Jon almost dropped the phone. He stammered goodbye.

James Hall replaced his receiver. Two thousand pounds was almost his entire savings. He would just have to hope that there was no emergency in the next ten months.

After the call, Jon put his phone on the desk and stared out of the window.

Right. Time to check availability of those cheap flights he’d found!

 

If you’ve missed the earlier chapters,  you can read them here

At first sight

At first sight – part 2

Short Story – At first sight – part III

 

 

Taken for a Ride

This is a piece of flash fiction, a little over 100 words long. The idea for story came to me over breakfast, and amused me enough to make me sit down straightaway and write it. I fear the photograph has been pinched from a used car advertisement with scant regard for copyright. In the extremely unlikely event that the copyright holder reads this story, please forgive me for borrowing your excellent photograph!

Taken for a ride 180921

Taken for a ride

“Nice car, Hector.”

Denis walked around his boss’s car, appraising its aggressive stance, its racing alloy wheels, its flawless paintwork with a shine so deep and a gloss so high that the vehicle seemed to have been chiselled out of ruby.

Hector crooked his finger as he opened the rear door (silently; oh, so silently) and pointed at the VDU in the rear of the chauffeur’s seat.

“Ultimate productivity. I can work as I’m driven to meetings.”

Denis whistled his admiration.

Hector slipped into the car, slipped a DVD into his computer.

As the chauffeur pulled out of the car park, Hector smiled broadly as, for the fifth time that week, “Frozen” started to play.

A big ask – long version

This Saturday’s prompt for What Pegman Saw was Hanoi, Vietnam. The challenge was to write a story about the location of 150 words or fewer.

I wrote a story and squeezed it into the word limit, but it seemed to me to have such potential that I simply had to write a longer version – and here it is! I hope you enjoy it.

A big ask - long 180910

A big ask – long version

“Now Vietnam’s normalising, we need a man there, open an office, build contacts. You speak the lingo, don’t you, Matt?”

Usually Matt could ignore the pain in his back that had throbbed persistently for twenty-five years, but it suddenly stabbed at the mention of Vietnam.

“You remember how I learned the language?”

“Oh, that.” With a wave of his hand the CEO dismissed the nine months of captivity, beatings and torture Matt had suffered.

“It’s a Regional Director post, Matt. You’ll be responsible for all our south-east Asia business. It’s a good job. Secure, too.” He dropped a thick file on the desk in front of Matt. “That’s the provisional analysis of the potential. Read it. Get an idea of the scale of your opportunity.”

‘Vietnam is different now,’ Matt told himself. ’Besides, it sounds like this job or no job.’  It wasn’t many weeks before he was settling into Hanoi.

And, as his months in the country passed, he found himself liking the Vietnamese – one of them in particular. Thirty years old, not beautiful but with a quirk to her lips when she smiled that he found irresistible, Nguyen Thi won Matt’s heart. They dated, danced, dined – and fell in love.

“Come see my Pa,” urged Thi.

“Sure,” said Matt. “I’d like that.”

“Next Saturday?”

“That’ll be fine. I’ll look forward to it.” Matt’s back twinged. Until he’d been captured, he’d fought against the Vietnamese of Thi’s father’s generation. He was not proud of some of the things he and his comrades had done. He hoped profoundly that the man wouldn’t recognise him and point him out as a killer.

On Saturday, Thi’s father, Nguyen Anh Dung was nervous. The table was covered with small dishes of food, spicy prawns, savoury meat, crisp vegetables, tangy fruits. He hoped the American would enjoy it. Perhaps at last his daughter would marry. He didn’t like the thought of an American son-in-law, but as he told himself, ‘Thi’s happiness comes first’.

The late afternoon sun lit the buildings, an eclectic mix of colonial and modern, elegant and utilitarian, as Matt and Thi walked hand in hand to visit.

“Here we are,” said Thi.

It was a plain apartment block, neither smart nor scruffy, but clean and in good repair. The couple were silent as they rode the elevator to the eighth floor.

At the door of Anh Dung’s apartment, Thi poised her finger on the bell.

“Ready?” she smiled. Her lips quirked. A surge of love poured through Matt.

“Go for it!”

A few seconds. The sound of shuffling feet. The rattle of a security chain being unfastened. The door opened.

The two men looked at each other.  Their eyes met. They both froze.

Pain surged in Matt’s back. Terror washed icily through his stomach. He fought to retain self-control, not to run. He glanced once, imploringly, at Thi, and then locked eyes once again with Anh Dung.

Anh Dung saw the eyes of a young GI, at first defiant, then screaming, and finally broken, abject. He remembered the contempt he had felt then, and was filled with shame and horror at what he had done, who he had been.

Thi stared from one to the other.

“What is it? What’s the matter?”

She seized her father’s arm and shook him. Gently, Anh Dung pushed her away. He bowed deeply and spoke to Matt.

“I once did you great wrong,” he said. “Nothing I do now can atone for that. Can you forgive the father’s evil for the sake of his daughter?”

He lowered his gaze, fixed it on the ground and remained silent, waiting.

Slowly, one finger at a time, Matt unclenched his fists. Slowly his panic subsided and his breathing slowed. Thi reached out to him, and he grasped her offered hand, drew strength from her.

“It’s been a long time,” he said. “I guess I can try”.

 

City Life – long version

In ‘Friday Fictioneers’ last week, I posted “City Life”, a story about a young girl who has grown up in rural India, and come to Kolkata to live with her Aunt. As I wrote, I realised that the material from which I was drawing had huge potential. So when several people commented that they would like to read more, I was only too pleased to promise a fuller version. I promised to try to post it on Monday (yesterday).

I failed! Please accept my apologies.

However, I have now finished the first part of the longer story. It’s about 2000 words, and it covers the period when Makshirani is still in the village, up to the time she leaves it.

I hope you enjoy it.

The girl who went to Kolkata 180417

Here are a few notes for a couple of details that may be unfamiliar to readers in Europe and the USA.

American and UK readers should note that in India you shake your head to indicate assent, and nod to dissent. Note, too, that this is only approximately correct, and the gestures seem to be used more flexibly than our simple ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

‘Tharra’ is a very potent illicit liquor.

The girl who went to Kolkata

It was already hot. A hen scratched in the patch of scrub that had grown where the village water pump dribbled after every use. The older women of the village had used the pump in the cool of the early morning; now it was the turn of the girls.

“Makshirani – could you read my letter to me?”

Shama looked imploringly at her friend.

Makshirani nodded her head.

“I’m sorry, Shama, I promised mami I would be home quickly with the water.”

“I’ll carry your water if you like, and you can read as we walk. It’s only a short letter.” Shama held up a single sheet of paper. Makshirani glanced at it. It didn’t look too hard; she might be able to read it.

“Alright, I’ll try. But you mustn’t dawdle.”

Shama beamed.

“It’s from my brother. See! There’s his name – Abhoy! I can read that!”

Makshirani hid her agitation. She took the page and handed her five gallon plastic container to Shama. “Fill it nice and full now,” she said.

Makshirani read slowly, spelling the words out in her head before saying them out loud.

“Dear Father and Mother, and dear sister Shama,”

Shama clapped her hands with glee. “He’s written to me too!”

“Keep pumping, Shama. I mustn’t be late home,” Makshirani chided.

“I am living with Uncle Pinkesh. He takes…” Makshirani stumbled over the next word, “exce… excelle… excellent care of me. I work in the factory for…” Makshirani stopped again. “I don’t understand these words. I think perhaps it’s the name of the business?”

“Go on,” said Shama.

“We make clothes for the British ‘Topshop’. It is hard work, but it pays well. I have expenses, but there is some money left so I am sending you 1,000 rupees. I hope I will be able to send more next month.

Your ever-loving son and brother,

Abhoy”

“Thank you, dear Makshirani! I felt as though I could hear my brother’s voice!”  Shama stopped pumping. “There. All done.”

Makshirani handed back the letter. “It was only short. I shall be in time. It’s alright, Shama, I’ll carry the water.” She picked up the container. “Ai! It’s heavy!”

The container bumped against her thigh as she carried it through the village to the small farm her parents owned. She switched it from hand to hand as her arms tired. As she passed Pralay’s house, she lowered her gaze. There was something about him that frightened her, that left her feeling soiled when she knew he had been looking at her. And yet he was a rich man. He had a tractor to pull his plough rather than a water buffalo. For a girl without a dowry, like herself, he would be a fantastic match. Even the thought made her feel sick.

In the early evening, the quiet time of the day, she and her mother were preparing the family meal.

“Mami,” she said. “I heard today that Shama’s family received some money from Abhoy. A thousand rupees it was. And he’s going to send them more next month too!”

Her mother, Joti, smiled at her.

“They are fortunate. Perhaps they will buy some hens and sell the eggs.”

“Mami! Don’t make fun of me. It’s surely a good thing when a son earns money for his family?”

“Oh, yes.”

Joti chopped onions, garlic, tomatoes.

“Pay attention, girl. Stir the dahl before it burns. What are you thinking of?”

“I was thinking that a daughter could go to the city and earn money too.”

Joti nodded her head.

“The city is a place of loose morals. No place for a well brought up girl.”

“Aunt Abhilasha lives in Kolkata.”

“She is rich. It is different for the rich. Do you remember the taxi that brought her from the station when she visited us? What a fine car!”

“Dark red, and shiny. And the driver was cross because it got dusty from driving the road that comes to the village.”

They looked at each other and giggled.

“Aunt Abhilasha might look after me if I went to live in Kolkata?”

Joti stretched out her hand and stroked Makshirani’s shoulder.

“Dear daughter,” she said quietly, and sighed. She remembered how she had needed to fight her husband’s family to keep Makshirani when she had been born. ‘What good is a girl?’ they had yelled. ‘We have no money for a girl. Who will she marry with no dowry?’ She had fought like a tigress until they had let her keep the baby.

“How will you make a marriage in the city? Pralay will make you a fine husband, and he has said over and over that he wants no dowry. You can live like a queen!”

A tear rolled down Makshirani’s cheek.

“Mami. I don’t like Pralay. He makes me feel…” She shuddered. “I would rather die.”

“He’s not a bad man, little honey bee. His mother is well-liked and respectable too.”

“Respectable!”

“Stir the dahl, little one, or I’ll give you the burnt crust from the bottom of the pot for your meal.” Joti pretended to make a fierce face at Makshirani. In spite of herself, the girl giggled.

“Just in time. I can hear the men coming.” Joti hugged her tightly, then pushed her away.

As she slept, Makshirani was half-aware of raised voices. ‘Why is mami shouting at papa?’ she wondered, in the space between dreams, before sinking back into darkness and peace.

Joti worked Makshirani hard next morning.

“Come on, girl, you are slow, slow, slow!”

Makshirani bit her tongue and tried her hardest. When Joti was in this mood it was the only sensible thing to do. But at last Joti said, “Enough! Let’s have something to eat.”

They sat down under the shade of the tree next to the house, each with a piece of bread and the scrapings from the previous night’s dahl, and a beaker of water. Joti sat close to Makshirani, pressed against her. Makshirani sighed and leaned her head against Joti’s shoulder. Little stirred in the noontide heat. There was silence except for the buzzing of insects and the rasping of the goat’s teeth as she grazed nearby. Makshirani wrinkled her nose at the strong smell of the goat.

“You can read a little, can’t you?” asked Joti.

Makshirani blushed.

“Just a little bit, Mami. I hope you don’t disapprove?”

Joti nodded, and sat up straighter.

“Times change. Maybe girls need to be able to read nowadays. You aren’t content with the old ways, and why should you be?”

She turned to Makshirani and looked at her intently.

“After lunch, I want you to go to the teacher’s house. He will give you a half hour reading lesson and a half hour English lesson. You must do this every day. I have made an arrangement with him. But you must promise me you will work hard, even harder than you’ve worked this morning.”

Makshirani sat still for several seconds.

“But, Mami, how can we afford it?”

“It’s the last of my dowry, little one. I had thought to keep it in case one of us was sick, but – well, it wouldn’t go far in paying for a doctor. This seems the right way to spend it.”

“I will work harder than I have ever worked, Mami. Thank you so much!” Makshirani squealed with excitement.

For the next four weeks Makshirani studied as often as she could. Her father scowled when she took out her school books in the evening, but her brother sat down with her and they worked through the exercises together. Even when the rice was sprouting in the paddies and Makshirani had to hoe in the fields all day, she found time to practise her lessons.

It was while she was hoeing near the edge of a paddy that she noticed movement near the ditch. She moved a little away, slowly, cautiously.

“Stand still!” The voice was her father’s.

Makshirani froze. A sinuous head rose above the crop, looking at her. It seemed to rise and rise until its eyes seemed almost on a level with her own. It had a hood that was puffed out. Makshirani stayed very still and silent, despite the panic that filled her until her hands and feet tingled with the suppressed urge to run. It was a king cobra. If it bit her…

Then the snake lowered itself and disappeared back into the ditch.

Makshirani released her breath, a long, quiet sigh of relief. Her arms and legs felt weak and started to shake.

“To see such a snake, that is a good sign,” said her father, “A very auspicious sign. Maybe your mother is right after all. Now, away to your lessons!”

Makshirani ran, stumbling, over the clods of earth, legs still clumsy with fright.

That evening, her father and mother sent her brother out and talked to her.

“Your mother tells me you will not do as we wish and marry Pralay. Is that true?”

“Papa, if you wish, I shall obey. But I dread what it will be like.”

“It would mean prosperity for your family. It would mean a respectable life for you.” He fidgeted. “If you refuse, you won’t have another offer. You will live life alone and childless. Folk will look down on you. Pralay will be angry. He may decide to ruin me in revenge.”

Makshirani hung her head. Silent tears trickled from her eyes.

“I will do what you say, Papa. If I must marry him, then I must.”

Joti glanced at her husband and took Makshirani’s hand.

“You are a good obedient daughter,” she said.

Makshirani’s father cleared his throat.

“Your mother has another plan. I have said ‘No’ to her, until today. But maybe she is right. To see that cobra look at you and then depart, that is a very good omen. To ignore it would be to risk the wrath of Naga, even mighty Shiva himself, maybe.”

He gestured to Joti that she should speak.

Joti stroked Makshirani’s hand that she was holding.

“We have exchanged letters with Aunt Abhilasha, and she has agreed to be your guardian if you go to Kolkata. She will arrange work for you, and you will live in her house. You must do as she tells you, just as you would do as we tell you. Will you do this?”

“Me go and live in the city? Away from you, Mami?”

“I shall miss you my beautiful girl, my busy little honey bee. But it will be good for you, and when you are settled perhaps you may send some money home.”

“Will it be forever, Mami?”

“Forever is a long time, little one. Who knows what the gods will send? But this will be better for you than marriage to Pralay. A marriage where love is impossible is no marriage at all. You will be safer away, even in the city.”

Makshirani’s father sighed.

“It is a pity,” he began, only to fall silent as Joti glared at him.

“You must go to Kolkata as soon as possible, the day after tomorrow, before anybody realises. I will take you to the train station, and Aunt Abhilasha will send someone to meet you when you arrive.”

Makshirani thought. A little tingle of excitement began. The city! What might happen there? Maybe she could even study, if she worked hard enough.

“Why must I go so soon, Papa?”

He waved away the question. “Your mami will tell you. I must see to the animals.”

He went out of the room. They heard him pick up the bottle of tharra from the shelf by the door as he left.

“Makshirani, dearest daughter. We are afraid that if Pralay learns you are going, he may try to make you his wife by force. If he did that, you would have to marry him, or be disgraced for ever. Do you understand? So you must tell no-one that you are going.”

“Not even Shama?”

“Not even Shama.”

The last thing Makshirani heard before she slept that night was her father stumbling in, dragging his feet, his breathing stertorous.

The last thing she thought was “I’m going to live in Kolkata!”