Some you win

One of the blessings of maturity is that you realise that winning is not the be-all and end-all of life. Sometimes trying too hard to win can cost you a high price. This short story tells how Damien and Gill, Sue and Tim, compete in the College tennis tournament. The prize for winning is a trophy. But what might you lose if you pursue it ruthlessly?

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“Did you manage those problems for our physics tutorial next Monday?”

Sue and Gill had brought folding chairs into the quad so they could enjoy the sunshine of a glorious early June morning while they studied. Gill nodded.

“Yes, I think so.”

“I suppose you couldn’t go through them with me? I’m struggling to do even one of them.”

Gill looked up from her book. “Do you mind if I just finish this section?”

“No, of course not. I’ll go and fetch the work I’ve done so far.” Sue jumped to her feet and bounded up three flights of stairs to her room, gathered an untidy armful of papers from her desk, and scuttled back down.

Gill looked through the assortment of pages until she found the first problem.

“Look!” she said. “You’ve almost finished this. You’re using the right equations, you’ve just made a mistake in the arithmetic.”

Sue scanned the paper.

“Oh, yes!” She took the paper from Gill and corrected the error. It didn’t take her many minutes to finish the problem. Meanwhile, Gill glanced through the others. ‘Sue seems to have completely misunderstood the concept’ she thought. Carefully she talked her friend through the work.

“Oh, wow! Thank you so much, Gill!” Sue hugged Gill warmly.

“Is this a private hugfest, or can anyone join in?” Gill jumped. Sue laughed.

“Hi, Tim!”

He leaned forward, and she kissed him tenderly. They’d been dating for a couple of months, and she could still hardly believe her luck. She gazed at him, eyes shining. Smiling he took both her hands in his, moving even closer. “Tim! Look out! You’ll have the chair over!”

“I’d better be off,” said Gill. “I must take this book back to the library.”

“Get off, Tim!” Sue pushed him away. “Gill, I’m really grateful for your help. Would you like to join a few of us punting on Saturday? We’re going up to Grantchester.”

“For a liquid lunch,” added Tim. “You’d be very welcome. Bring a friend if you like; there’s room for another one in the punt.”

“Yes, I’d love to join you.”

On her way to the library, Gill paused at the College notice board. The advertisement for the College tennis tournament was still there, and she looked to see whether Sue had signed it yet. She’d been talking about it for ages.

“How about teaming up for the tennis this afternoon?” Gill jumped. She hadn’t heard Damien approach.

“I’m not very good,” she said.

“No problem. I’m no good either. But I expect it will be fun!”

Gill smiled shyly at him. “As long as you’re sure you don’t mind if I’m useless.” Her blue eyes, with their long dark lashes, peered up at him from beneath a heavy fringe of blonde hair.

Damien fished a biro out of his pocket. “Damien and Gill”. His handwriting was neat, even on the vertical surface of the notice board. He grinned, teeth creamy against his short, curly beard. “Got a lecture now. See you at the tennis courts at a quarter to two!” Gill looked again at their two names, paired on the notice board. She stared at them for several long seconds.

Sue came panting up.

“Phew! Just as well the notice is still there. Tim would have killed me if we weren’t in the tourney. I said I’d sign us up last week!”

Hastily, she scrawled “Sue and Tim” onto the notice.

“Damien’s partnering you? Wow! Lucky you! What a hunk!”

“I just hope I don’t let him down.”

“Don’t worry. It won’t matter how badly you play. It’s not the tennis court where he hopes you’ll be brilliant!” Thus, the wisdom of a twenty-one year old to a nineteen year old. Gill blushed crimson.

As luck would have it, Damien and Gill were drawn against Sue and Tim in the first round. They were on Court 3, a pretty court a little distance from the pavilion. The grass was smooth, short, and scarcely worn. The lines were fresh and bright white. There were birch trees to shelter it from the prevailing wind.

Damien tossed the ball high and opened the match with a clean ace. Fifteen-love. Tim shook his head. He should at least have laid a racket on the service. Sue moved from the net to receive Damien’s next delivery.

“Go back a pace,” suggested Tim. “The ball came high off the ground.”

Sue retreated well behind the baseline. The service was fast. She poked at it, connected, and the ball plopped invitingly over the net, ideally placed for Gill to hit a winner. Gill swung hard, and despatched the ball heavily into the net. Fifteen all.

Tim was ready for the speed of Damien’s next service, but not for its direction. The ball swung fiercely and landed just the right side of the centre line. Tim’s attempt at a backhand return missed completely. Thirty-fifteen.

Sue stood well back again. Damien slightly mishit his serve, and Sue returned it straight down the line. Damien was left flat-footed. Thirty all.

Tim grinned. “Nice shot.”

A double-fault. Thirty-forty.

Damien’s next service was gentler, as he sought to recover his accuracy. Sue stepped in and hit the ball hard towards Gill, who squealed and dodged. Damien ran across court behind her and just retrieved the ball. Hit at full stretch, his shot rocketed down the line leaving Sue stranded. Deuce.

Damien’s next service was fast and accurate, but Tim returned it.

“Yours!” yelled Damien to Gill, inviting her to take the volley.

Gill turned. “What?” she asked. The ball bounced between them, neither of them touching it. Advantage Tim and Sue.

Trying to conceal his exasperation, Damien walked across to Gill.

“I’m sorry I distracted you,” he said. “When there’s a ball that either of us could hit, I’ll shout “Yours” if I want you to play the shot. And will you do the same for me, please?”

“Yes. Silly of me. Sorry.” She felt as though her blush extended right up to her hairline.

Damien double-faulted, and the game was lost.

After a while, Damien stopped trying to coach Gill. He tried to cover her, so that when she missed a shot he was able to keep the ball in play. For a while the strategy succeeded. They were ahead three games to two after Damien’s second service game.

Tim was next to serve. Damien won the first point with a blistering return. Tim served to Gill. The sun was in his eyes, and the ball went into the net. His second service was slightly mishit, and bounced well for Gill. She gritted her teeth, opened her shoulders, and swung with venom and frustration. The ball flew between Tim and Sue, bouncing just inside the baseline.

Tim put down his racket and applauded. “Good shot!” he called. Sue ran up to the net, beckoning to Gill to come close.

“Don’t let Damien get you down,” she whispered. “Play for yourself, not for him.”

Gill tried to take the advice, and she did, indeed, play a few more good shots. But all the time she felt that Damien was watching her, covering for her, trying to win the match for both of them by his own efforts. Her shoulders slumped, and the corners of her mouth turned down. She trudged from place to place on the court, wondering what she was doing there, and longing for the ordeal to be over.

Slowly the first set slipped away from Damien and Gill.

Sue and Tim were starting to show their quality. Tim played hard. ‘The quicker we win, the less embarrassing it will be for Gill,’ he thought.

Sue became very cross at her friend’s humiliation. When one of her shots hit Damien in the face, she was hard pressed not to show her delight. Sue and Tim won the second set six-one, and with it the match.

As soon as they’d all shaken hands, Sue grabbed Gill, and walked back to the pavilion with her. Damien watched them go. He’d begun to half-realise that Gill was upset. He watched as Sue passed Gill a tissue to wipe her eyes.

‘Shit!’ he thought. ‘You stupid so-and-so. You’ve totally blown it!’

He looked at Tim, who shrugged. “Not clever, Damien. Not clever at all.”

Damien looked towards the pavilion. Would it be worth trying to apologise? No. That would just make matters worse. He chucked his racket into his bag and slunk away to sit and sulk in his room.

Tim sauntered back to the pavilion. Perhaps tomorrow he would invite Damien to the punting party, give him a chance to recover his position with Gill. He’d better check that with Sue first, though. He couldn’t be completely sure, but he thought she’d deliberately tried to hurt Damien in that second set…

Santa’s Problem – a Gwendolen story

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

Shock News

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bella looked up, a little smile on her lips.

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

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

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

“The Hopbinders in half an hour?”

“Sounds good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hi, Bella!”

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

“Great dress! Who are we meeting?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben looked across at her.

“My God,” he said.

A Good Day’s Work

Just the contents of my tool-bag could earn me a prison sentence. ‘Going equipped’ the police call it – and what an apt description it is. I’m equipped to force windows, pick locks, and snip wires. I even have a little electro-magnetic gizmo to neutralize some of the latest digital alarms. Not that I expect to need that this afternoon.
This is my favourite sort of property, a big, detached house at the end of the village, high hedge surrounding the garden and no alarm system. Both adults work and the kids are at school. Easy. Virtually risk-free.
I reverse my battered white van with the recycled number plates through the gate and park just inside. Nobody from the street can see past the van; it’s as good as being invisible.
Just in case, I ring the doorbell. I’m dressed as a workman, white overalls, white gloves, even a fake identity badge. No answer. Let’s get cracking then. I score along the edges of the glass pane nearest the lock, cover the glass with sticky paper and give it a sharp knock. It falls out, sweet as a nut, and leaves no jagged edges on which I could cut myself. I put my hand through, turn the handle of the Yale and the door swings open. I don’t know – some people just invite crime; no deadlock, no security bolt, nothing.
I’m not malicious in the way that I search a property, but I am thorough. Drawers out and upturned and not just to inspect the contents quickly – you’d be amazed at what people tape underneath drawers. Most of what I find is in desks and dressing tables, but every so often there’s a waterproof package in the cistern or a neat little envelope of cash in the drawer under the bed. I don’t bother to lift creaky floorboards; if you go to that much trouble you can keep your money as far as I’m concerned. Cash, jewellery, cameras, watches – small, high value items, that’s all I take
The last place that I look is always the kitchen. I check the biscuit tins and the tea caddy even though I’ve never found anything there. You can call it sentiment or superstition if you like, but my Gran in South Wales used to keep her savings in the caddy, and it would feel wrong, almost impolite, to leave without checking.
The kitchen here is at the back, and it‘s while I’m looking through the cupboards that I hear footsteps crunch across the gravel towards the front door. Crucial question number one; is it the family or neighbours? Family will come in, neighbours may not. Crucial question number two; can I get out of the back door, sprint to the van and get out of the drive without being seen clearly? I congratulate myself on my cautious habit of always parking the van facing outwards.
The footsteps have stopped. Whoever it is, they’re examining the door, realising that a burglary has taken place and wondering whether the burglar is still inside. “Indeed I am, madam,” I think to myself. The humour galvanises me, and I slide noiselessly across the kitchen towards the back door.
Hell! Two big bolts and a mortice lock. I strain up to the top bolt and try to slide it silently back. Silently! The only reason it makes no noise is because it doesn’t move. I put my full force behind it, heedless of any disturbance. It won’t budge, and I can’t get any leverage because it’s too high.
I hear somebody clear their throat. It is a young male cough, the sort that means “I’m scared stiff but I’m coming for you anyway”. Hell!
I don’t do violence, I do flight. As the footsteps stride up the hall to the kitchen, I’m on the work surface opening the catch of the window, pushing it and – it doesn’t open. It’s security bolted. I sprint for the door to the dining room, just as the kitchen door bursts open.
As I dodge through, I hear my pursuer’s steps slither as he changes direction abruptly to follow me. I sidestep through into the lounge and head across the room towards the hallway, the front door and freedom. I get as far as the middle of the room when fourteen stone of muscle takes me round the legs and I crash down, luckily falling onto a heavily padded sofa rather than the highly polished wooden floor. Even so, the impact and the fact that I stunned myself on the arm of the sofa leaves me feeling groggy and in no condition to run. I give myself a few seconds breather.
A forceful arm grabs my shoulder, and a triumphant voice snarls, “Right, let’s have a look at you then.” There’s no way I can resist and I’m turned over.
My captor’s grin of satisfaction fades rapidly.
“Ruth?” he enquires hoarsely. Oh my God, he’s a student on the same course as me. What are the odds against that?
“Alan! I didn’t know you lived in this part of the country.”
“What the hell are you doing in the house?”
“Burgling it, of course. You really ought to get your parents to upgrade their security. It was laughably easy to get in. Now, would you mind letting me sit up? This is hardly decorous. I won’t try running away, I promise.”
Alan moves away – a shame really, he’s quite cosy close to, and he smells very nice. His eyes are warm and brown. I gingerly sit up and straighten my overalls and try to tidy my hair.
“Well, you’ve put me in a tricky position haven’t you?” he grumbles.
“Oh, I don’t know. You call the police, hand me over and receive the applause I would have thought. What’s tricky about that?”
“You know perfectly well that I’m not going to do that, Ruth. How am I going to explain the busted glass in the door to my parents if I’m covering up for you?”
Alan’s such a sweetie. Six foot one, broad, athletic and tender-hearted. Pity he’s so stupid.
“Yellow pages. Glazier. They’ll do an instant job probably. Listen, if you’re letting me go, I’ll pay for the glass to be replaced.”
“Damn right you will. Hey, you didn’t – well, pinch anything before I got here did you?”
I point to the rifled drawers of the desk.
“You’ll have to give it back.”
With a show of reluctance I open my bag and take out two cameras, an iPod, a handful of jewellery and a rather nice Rolex. A pity; it would have been a good haul, at least a couple of grand even from the villain with whom I deal.
“Right, go and put it back and tidy up, while I arrange for the door to be mended. Then, would you like a cup of tea?” Tender-hearted? Daft as a brush, more like.
I’m almost as quick and neat in putting things back as I am in searching them in the first place, and it’s not long before I’ve finished. Alan solemnly hands me a cup of tea.
“Why do you do it, Ruth?” Now that the excitement of the chase is over he looks pained.
“I’ve got to pay my way through college somehow, Alan, and it beats hell out of bar work.”
“Yeah, but there’s student loans and things”. He sounds peevish.
“Start my career with a great big debt of twenty grand? Do me a favour. I bet that’s not how you’re doing it!”
“No, you’re right. My parents are being very generous. Are you really hard up, then?”
“Pretty short.”
“Look, don’t worry about the glass; I’ll sort that.” Taking candy from a kid.
“Alan, you’re a real sweetie,” I assure him earnestly, gazing into his eyes. I let my lips barely brush against his, feel the sparks fly, and pull away slowly, gently, with seeming reluctance.
“I must go now. Thank you. Thank you for being so understanding, Alan. See you next term!”
I leave him standing in a haze of endorphins, walk through the front door – still swinging open – and drive away.
I park the van in the yard – the scrapyard from which I recycle my number plates – and pull out the water-proof package. Nobody who hides things in a cistern is likely to report them missing…..
I open it neatly, and turn the contents over and over in my hands. A stack of fifty pound notes, no fewer than one hundred of them. Not such a bad day’s work after all!

The Wonky Wand

It’s been a difficult week with Donald Trump becoming President-Elect of the USA. So here’s a piece of total whimsy to lighten the mood!

The wonky wand

The fairy’s name was Gwendolen, and she was dumpy and pasty-faced. Her wings, although iridescent, were lop-sided and looked clumsy despite their delicacy. And, yes, she carried a wand; the star on the end not so much twinkling as flickering like a faulty fluorescent tube. I wanted to hug her, then brush her hair, straighten her wings and fix her wand; but as she was only eight inches tall and a supernatural being, I settled for smiling in a friendly fashion.

“Oh shit!” she said. “That just about wraps up the perfect day. Wrong time of the month, wand goes wonky, lost the rest of the troop and now, stone me, an adult human spots me. Shit. And bugger!” She glared at me. “You can see me, can’t you?” she said. “If I’m hallucinating as well, I might as well top myself.”
“Yes, I’m rather afraid I can. And I wish you hadn’t said that about hallucinating, because I don’t bel….”
“Stop!” Her exclamation was so unexpectedly loud that I jumped. “That Peter Pan stuff about a fairy dying every time someone says ‘I don’t believe in fairies’ is bollocks, of course, but we don’t like it. How would you like it if I said ‘I don’t believe in humans’?”
“You just did,” I pointed out. “At least, you implied that I was a hallucination.”
“Hmmph.” She glowered morosely at me. “You’ve given me a right problem. Really I should cast a spell on you to make you forget me. Or turn you into a frog. Or something. But the wand’s bust. It could turn you into a forget-me-not, or make you lost in a fog. Or nothing.”
“Really? I mean, can you really turn people into frogs?”
“Well, we don’t unless we have to, you know.”
I wondered under what circumstances it could ever be imperative to turn someone into a frog, but the look on Gwendolen’s face discouraged me from asking the question. For all I knew a fairy might consider mild curiosity by a mortal to be ample grounds for amphibian metamorphosis.

“I’m really glad to have seen you,” I ventured. “I never saw fairies when I was a little girl.”
“Well surprise, surprise! What sort of little girl sees fairies, do you suppose?”
“Some of my friends said they did.”
“Some people will say anything. Look, are you going to keep me here all night?”
“What do you mean?”
“As long as you’re aware of me, I can’t leave. Your attention keeps me here.”
“So if I stop looking at you, you’ll vanish?”
“Like a shot.”

I looked her over carefully, the golden hair streaked and in rats’ tails, the slight pot belly, the silky blue dress with a hem that had come down at one side. I wanted to remember her clearly; after all, this was a unique experience. Then I courteously turned my back.

I was just considering turning round again when I heard an embarrassed cough.
“And bugger?”
“Definitely ‘And bugger’. I seem to be stuck.”
“How d’you mean, stuck?”
She looked pityingly at me. “Have I vanished or am I still here? I am temporally and spatially stuck, and it doesn’t appear to be your attention that’s holding me here. I really can think of better places to be stuck than the bedroom of a cheap hotel.”

“I’m staying here,” I pointed out. “By the way, your wand seems to have died completely.”
Gwendolen looked at the star. Even though it had guttered like a wind-blown candle, the glow had given it a crystalline beauty; with no light at all it looked like a particularly tawdry piece of plastic.
“Ah,” she said.
“Might that have anything to do with your inability to leave?”
Gwendolen tightened her lips and remained silent.
“I’ll take that as a yes, then. So how do you recharge a wand?”
Her eyes flicked right then left. “It’s no good,” she sighed. “If you were eight you might be able to help, but you’re old.”
“I’m forty two, you cheeky so-and-so. How old are you?”
“Oh, er, older than that.”
“I was eight hundred and thirty last birthday. Look, what I need to recharge my wand is someone who wants something really badly, really single-mindedly. Human girls are especially good at that. We offer to grant a wish. They think ‘Oh, I wish I had so-and-so!’, there’s a great surge of energy into the wand, and we use a little bit of that to grant the wish. The rest of the charge will last a month with careful use. If you humans understood properly how to harness the power of your dreams you’d be unstoppable. I don’t suppose you know any eight year old girls locally, do you?”
“You didn’t expect me to be able to see you, did you?”
“Well, no….”
“Could that mean that I might be able to wish hard enough?”
“They’re different.”
But I could see hesitation and a dawning hope on her face. She looked almost pretty as her frown receded. “We could try,” she admitted.

“Do I have to tell you what I wish for?”
“Oh no, no, no, no, no, no, no. What small girl would do that? You oldies are so crass; you think too much.”
I closed my eyes. I wished. I felt a surge of energy cascade through me, sparkling and crackling, tingling like intense pins and needles.
“Wow!” I exclaimed, and opened my eyes.
The room was empty. There may or may not have been just the faintest hint of fading sparkle by the television, and the memory of a sweet scent. I smiled, feeling more cheerful than I had for weeks. I strolled down to the bar and ordered a G and T.
“Hi! Are you Fiona? Fiona Last?”
He was tall, dark, well-dressed. His voice was resonant, melodious.
“I shall be working with you on your assignment. I’m Paul. I thought I’d drop by and introduce myself.” His smile was warm and open.
Like an echo in my inner ear, I heard a fairy voice. “Not a very original wish, but good enough. Thanks – and good luck!”


Sue loved her garden. She loved the muted purple and green of the lavender, and the sweet buzzing of the bees mingling with the chuckle of water falling gently into the small fishpond. She loved its air of peace and serenity, even here in the middle of the city. True, it was neither as neat nor as well-stocked as she would have liked, but she had done what she could in the time left after work and looking after two teenagers.
She sat near the pond, a tumbler of gin and tonic on the table beside her, her eyes closed to intensify the feeling of the sun on her face; it was warm for a September evening. Some time she would have to finish her presentation for tomorrow, but not yet. And she’d better make sure that Guy had finished his homework. Oh, and bother, Damien had football at school tomorrow and his kit was dirty; he’d left it at school, in the kitbag, in his locker all week, only bringing it home this afternoon. Her eyes opened, the sense of peace dispelled.
Thea, the tabby cat, sat on the edge of the pond gazing into the water at the koi. She looked up and blinked at Sue, uncurled herself in a leisurely fashion, and strolled over. She stopped just beyond Sue’s reach and looked up expectantly. Sue patted her lap, and made encouraging noises.
“Come on then, Thea! Up you come!”
Thea stayed put, and raised a paw in the gesture that meant “Please stroke me.” Sue took a swallow of gin and tonic, and smiled. The ice-cubes tinkled in the tumbler, the lemon rubbed against her nose as she drank, and her hand was wet with the condensation on the glass.
Thea closed her eyes twice, slowly, and walked away. She pushed past the lavender, pausing to pat at a furry, tan bumblebee, and then leapt up the brick wall to perch on the top.
“Not bad for an oldie,” commented Sue.
Thea ignored her, sniffing carefully at her perch. Sue wondered whether a stranger cat had been into their garden. Thea waggled her haunches and sprang into the adjacent garden. Sue closed her eyes again. There’d been caterwauling last night, and Thea had raced out through the cat-flap. She’d been dishevelled when she came back in at about 11 o’clock; she’d seemed smug. You couldn’t help wondering what she’d been doing.
Sue drank the last mouthful of gin and tonic without opening her eyes, and imagined herself a cat. She crept through the bushes, staying out of the moonlight. The feeling of the shrubs against her fur helped her to know where she was. She could smell the warmth of a small mammal, and held herself completely motionless while she listened for the rustling that would tell her where it was. She was hungry, she wanted to tear through thick skin into the tender meat below, to feel the juices run down her chin.
And then she was distracted by a still more enticing scent, the musk of a tomcat. Her tail became erect with anticipation, with pride…
“Darling? Dinner’s ready. Are you cold? Would you like a cardigan?”
Sue opened her eyes. There was Clive, looking unnecessarily concerned. She smiled at him, took his hand and pulled him towards her, kissed him hard on the lips.
“I’m fine, just fine. Let’s go eat!”