In the Keukenhof Gardens

This story is a fictionalised account of an actual experience I had in the Keukenhof Gardens. These gardens are in Holland, close to Amsterdam. They are absolutely magnificent, and are open to the public for eight weeks every year, a ‘must see’ if you’re visiting Amsterdam.  You can read and see more about the gardens here: https://keukenhof.nl/en/discover-the-park/open-2018/

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In the Keukenhof Gardens

Orange, scarlet and golden blooms sing softly beside the dark lake. Silver light reflects peacefully from ripples in the lake’s waters. The scent of thousands of flowers glows in the air.

I walk, slowly, along curved paths. Gravel scrapes under my feet. April sunshine lies warm and weightless across my shoulders. A gentle breeze strokes me, like feathers, like silk, like the tender fingertips of a lover.

Faint and distant music hangs like wood-smoke in the air, tickling, teasing, and I follow. The tuneless tune allures, rousing me, and I follow. The tone becomes harsher. There are others on the path. Still I follow.

The path broadens, the music loud now, raucous dance-music on a mechanical organ rasping out the joys and sorrows of the world. People talk, laugh, shout, and the dance sweeps up their voices into harmonious dissonance. It booms in my head like brass and tinkles like crystalline snowflakes.

All the emotion in all the world shrills through those organ pipes, crashes with those cymbals, the drum beats driving the dance before me and after me. I sing beside the deep waters; I dance beside the orange and scarlet blooms. Silver tears ripple silently down my cheeks as I see my part in the dance – and rejoice that it holds so much of the gold of love.

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Short Story – First Meeting

Not flash fiction this time, but a short story. It’s about 600 words long, so it won’t take long to read! I welcome constructive criticism, so if you have suggestions as to how I could improve it I would be very grateful if you would comment.

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First Meeting

The cobbles were wet and slippery.

Susan skirted the edge of the market and paused at the butcher’s stall. She wondered whether she could afford their bargain offer of two rump steaks for £8. She shook her head. No. Too much Christmas shopping still to do and not enough money.

She was completely unprepared for the sudden shove and went flying, arms flailing, scattering packages all around.

“Oh, gosh! I’m terribly sorry. Are you alright?”

He was tall, about thirty, slim and dark-haired.

Susan sat on the cobbles and rubbed her right arm, wincing.

“Can you move it? I mean, is it broken?”

Susan flexed it gingerly, and grimaced.

“Just bruised, I think.” She glared at him and started to pick up her packages, ramming them into her bags. She stood up and tried, unsuccessfully, to carry all the bags with her left hand.

“Do you live close?”

“About a mile.”

He hailed a taxi, talked briefly to the driver, handed over cash.

“Give the driver the address. Once again, I’m really sorry.”

All she wanted now was a cup of tea.

It wasn’t until she was at home waiting for the kettle to boil that she realised her pendant was missing.

Sunday came. Jonathan wasn’t a regular churchgoer, but he woke early, the weather was fine, and it was, after all, nearly Christmas.

The sun brightened the east window and cast patches of light on the stonework above the choir stalls. Jonathan thought of how the light had gleamed from the corn-gold hair of the woman he had so unfortunately barged into on Friday. She had worn it in braids wrapped around her head. The colour was that of a schoolgirl; the style that of an elegant woman; but she was neither.

And he had her pendant, which was a lovely piece. How could he return it? He’d found the taxi that had taken her home, but the driver ‘couldn’t remember’ the address. Jonathan had the unpleasant feeling that the man had thought he was a stalker.

He’d probably never see her again.

He sighed, stood up – and there she was, right arm in a sling, hair covered by a headscarf. Her eyes opened wide. Jonathan suddenly realised how very much he wanted to know her better.

“Oh. You.” she said.

Jonathan looked at the sling.

“I’m so sorry. Was it broken after all?”

“Yes.” She looked hostile.

Jonathan fished in his pocket.

“I found this under the market stall. Is it yours?”

She reached out and grasped it. She pressed it to her cheek.

“I suppose I should say thank you,” she rasped.

“My pleasure,” murmured Jonathan.

He hesitated – and walked away.

Even though it was Sunday, the Christmas market was open. As he left the church, Jonathan could hear the mechanical organ of the carousel. He mooched, hands in pockets, towards it.

What on earth had possessed him last Friday? The raucous music had stirred him, lured him onto the ride, set his feet dancing as he dismounted – and sent him spinning into a young woman with golden hair and grey-blue eyes, knocking her headlong.

And now he knew that the accident had broken her arm. It was hardly surprising that she didn’t want to see him again.

He watched as the brightly painted horses, with their gilded manes, raced in endless, futile pursuit. There was no exhilaration left in the day. The sun had disappeared and a fine drizzle was slowly soaking him.

He felt a tap on his shoulder.

She stood, looking apologetic.

“I’m sorry I snubbed you in the church. You took me by surprise – not that that’s an excuse! I’m Susan, by the way.”

“I’m Jonathan”. He smiled. “Shall we have coffee together?”

Susan smiled back. “I’d like that. Thank you!”

 

 

 

Friday Fictioneers – Close to the Wind

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

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PHOTO PROMPT © Roger Bultot

Close to the Wind

“Gonna wipe you out today!” Sue grinned at Adrian in the next dinghy.

“Get away! Women can’t sail!”

The cannon boomed. The race was on.

A gentle breeze blessed the sapphire water of the estuary with diamond waves. Golden brown cattle grazed peacefully on the lush pasture of the south bank. Woods on the north bank perfumed the air with pine.

Two boats converged, too close, for the first turn.

“Keep away!” Sue yelled at Adrian, as he drew level on her windward side. Her dinghy shuddered as it lost speed.

“You bastard, you stole my wind!”

Adrian just laughed.

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 4

Here is Episode 4 of my fantasy serial, “The Bridefarer’s Choice”.

If you missed any of the previous episodes, you can find them here

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 1

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 2

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 3

 

The story is proving longer than I expected. I will publish successive episodes every Monday (except for next Monday, of course, which is Christmas Day).

I very much hope you enjoy it!

The bridefarer's choice - part 3

The Bridefarer’s Choice – Part 4

I wondered who was tolling the church bell, and who had died.

I wondered who was sitting so heavily on my chest, until I could hardly breathe.

I wondered why I felt so cold, so icy cold, as cold as death, and yet my right arm burned as though in fire.

I forced open my eyes to the sight of mud. I was lying in it. The tolling of the bell became quieter as I realised that it was my pounding head. There was nobody sitting on me, but my ribs ached all round.

Carefully – very carefully – I raised myself so that I was propped on my left arm. The pain made my eyes water.

Wait! What’s this?

There was a note tucked into my belt. Slowly I edged around until I could lean against the wall, freeing my left hand to hold the note. My right hand was useless; just too painful to move.

“Dear Bumpkin,

In a fight, a good man with a quarterstaff will beat a master swordsman every day of the year. There is no charge for this lesson.

However, you know what to do. I suggest you’re quick about it.”

With the note to remind me…

I cringed with embarrassment. I hadn’t come anywhere near him, and he had toyed with me. He hadn’t even bothered to disarm me, simply used the staff to – hell, yes, there’s no other word for it – he’d used the staff to chastise me. And when he grew bored, he lured me into a rush and clipped me behind the ear as I lunged. No wonder my head was throbbing!

My pride suggested I shouldn’t allow the beating to drive me out of Merrydown. Groaning, I forced myself to stand. ‘Which is worse,’ I asked myself. ‘Limp out of town in humiliation, leading my horse because it’s too painful to ride, or stay here and take another beating with perhaps an even worse ending.’ Put like that, it wasn’t a hard choice to make.

I didn’t cover many miles that day, or the next, but the pain in my right arm was gradually easing. When I came across an inn on the second evening, I started to hope that my luck had changed.

It was pleasant to eat hot food after a diet of bread and cold meats. A glass of wine eased the discomfort of my bruises. There were a few sidelong looks from men at the bar, and I wondered whether word had reached them of my business.

A small, wiry man with grey hair approached my table, and asked if he might join me.

“Be my guest.”

“Perhaps you will instead be my guest? I hope so anyway. Let me buy you another beaker of wine.” He gestured to the serving man at the bar, who brought two beakers.

“Sláinte mhaith”

“Sláinte agad-sa”

The wine was good, much better than I’d received with my meal. What would this stranger want in exchange?

“You go bridefaring I hear?”

“What is that to you?”

“Ho! I rush in too quickly. My wife always says so. My name is Cieran.”

“And mine is Diarmid.” I took the hand that he extended and shook it, trying not to let him see how painful the action was. “Yes, I’m bridefaring. I ask you again; what is that to you?”

“Let me tell you a story,” countered Cieran. “There was once a man, a poor man, who came into possession of a magnificent jewel, worth ten thousand times the value of the whole village in which he lived. A lucky man, yes?”

“Most certainly.”

Cieran nodded approval of my answer.

“That was what he thought too. He hid it somewhere very secret and very safe. He told nobody, not even his wife. He was a patient man, and for several years he gloated over his great good fortune but did nothing.

Then, one day, a nobleman came to the village with a dozen soldiers. He asked questions, many questions. With a shrinking heart, the peasant realised that the nobleman was trying to find the jewel. He thought, ‘I shall take it to the town and sell it.’ And then he thought, ‘But which town? Who will buy such a gem? How could I spend the money, even if I could sell the stone?’ He shuddered with terror, hid the jewel even more secretly, and cursed his evil fortune.

The nobleman toured all the villages, and, not finding the jewel, came back to the village where the peasant lived. He took five elders of the village, and announced “Tomorrow I shall flog these curs until they are half dead, unless whoever holds the jewel brings it to me before midnight tonight.”

The peasant dug up the box holding the jewel, opened it, and gazed at it for a long time. It was so beautiful. He wanted it more than anything in the world. But it wasn’t worth the torture of his friends. At last, he wrapped it in a kerchief and took it to the nobleman.

The nobleman took it, examined it and declared himself satisfied. He gave orders for the release of the elders. Then he drew his sword, and lopped off the peasant’s head, as casually as a young boy knocking conkers from a tree.”

I looked at him, trying to understand what he was telling me.

“Some more wine?” he asked.

I held out my beaker and he filled it.

“You see,” he said, “in our village we have the priceless jewel, and already the nobleman is searching.

Ten years ago, in the dead of night, a woman all clad in silk and velvet came to the Oldest in our village. She brought her daughter, nine years old, a beautiful child with hair the colour of the morning sun, and eyes that changed like the northern sea. The daughter of the King of Denmark, she told us, who had been driven out of his kingdom by his brother. She begged that we would look after the girl, keep her safe and keep her hidden.

For ten years, Freya – for that is her name – has been cared for by our Oldest as though she were her own flesh and blood. She has guarded her, and taught her the virtue of purity. But now the young men are watching her, courting her.”

He shook his head.

“A Danish thane and his warriors came to our village two weeks ago, asking questions. We kept Freya hidden, for the thane owed fealty to the old king’s brother; he meant nothing good to Freya, we felt certain.”

He looked at me, with a wry smile. “You begin to see my problem, I hope?”

Indeed I did. If Freya married within the village, either she would draw the Danes like hawks to a lure, or she would have to take her husband into exile with her.

“You come from over the mountains,” said Cieran. “That is far from our village, far from the danger of the Danes. You could safely take her home and make her your wife.”

“If she’ll have me,” I laughed. “I’ve not been lucky in love so far.”

Even as I said the words, I thought of Mairin. Had I really not been lucky, or had I made a poor choice when I passed by her dwelling on my bridefaring?

“Oh, she’ll have you. Our Oldest has the Sight, and she told me where to meet you, what you looked like and what your name is. She says that Freya will go with you out of love and bear your child.”

A rage of ambition boiled up within me. A king’s daughter, beautiful, more beautiful than I could imagine! Why, if I could offer my sword to her father, who knows what I could win?

“Where is your village, Cieran?” I demanded.

*       *       *       *

 

Trapped! (long version)

Recently, my Friday Fictioneers post “Trapped!” left the main character covered in blood and stuck on a mudbank in the middle of the river. Several readers asked what happened next – so I have extended “Trapped!” into a 2000 word short story. And, right at the very end, you will discover what happened to the man who was trapped!

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Trapped! – long version

All the teachers knew they had to keep Donald and Lee apart in class. Donald would whisper taunts at Lee, until Lee lost his temper and lashed out. Lee would steal Donald’s things and hide them, and then deny, face open and innocent, that he knew anything about them. Oh yes, those two boys were trouble alright.

As they passed through their teenage years, matters became worse. The two fights they had were only the most obvious symptom of their animosity. Lee broke Donald’s ankle with a sliding tackle on the football pitch. Donald knocked Lee out with a bouncer on the cricket pitch, concussing him and putting him in hospital.

Even so, as they matured they learned to conceal their dislike. The teacher who ran the Cadet Force claimed the credit. ‘Army discipline,’ he bragged, ‘make ‘em understand there’s something bigger and more important than both of ‘em.’ And perhaps he was right, for when Donald was made sergeant, Lee was an exemplary corporal under him.

When they both fell in love with the same girl, everybody expected the worst. Sue’s long, wavy hair was fair, with coppery tints, her eyes were large and cornflower blue. Her smile, warm, open and friendly, nevertheless hinted at secret delights. The two lads courted her assiduously.

Donald, whose parents were well-to-do, dressed smartly and took Sue to expensive restaurants. Heads turned as they entered; waiters were attentive; they were a power couple.

Lee, unable to use wealth as a lure, shared his knowledge of the countryside with Sue. They crouched by the river at dawn to see otters play, and Sue was dazzled by the brilliant blue flash of a kingfisher. One magical evening, they watched silently as a vixen raided a duck’s nest, swimming back and forth from island to shore carrying the eggs carefully in her mouth, bringing them one by one to her cubs.

By the time Donald went to university that autumn to study engineering, he had lost. Lee and Sue were engaged.

On the day of the wedding, Lee’s dad took him on one side.

“You’ll need a better wage than I can pay you now, lad. Had you thought you might need to change your job?”

Lee shook his head. “I’m sure we’ll manage. It wouldn’t seem right to leave you to cope with the business on your own.”

“It’s about time I retired, son. Do you fancy taking on the business yourself? I’ve money put by, and your mum and I would enjoy having some more time to ourselves. Anyway, you think about it.”

It wasn’t a difficult decision. Lee took over the business.

It was tough, trying to make enough profit from a small car repair business. At Sue’s suggestion they specialised in four wheel drive vehicles. As their reputation grew, customers came from miles around, but it still wasn’t enough.

He heard through the grapevine that Donald had started his own civil engineering business.

“Making a packet, he is,” said the man in the pub.

Next day, one of his customers, Mr Coombes, asked “I wonder if you could handle the sale of my car?”

“We don’t sell cars, just maintain them,” replied Lee.

“But you have contacts. I bet you know everybody within forty miles with a four-by-four. I’d make it worth your while.”

The documentation seemed in order, and Coombes was prepared to pay ten percent of the selling price. Lee shrugged. “Why not?” he thought. And it was easy. He sold the vehicle within hours. Money for old rope.

A few weeks later, Coombes told him that he’d recommended Lee to a friend with a car to sell.

“Same terms?” confirmed Lee, and they shook hands on the deal.

The Old Manor House came up for sale. Way out of Lee’s price range, of course, but he heard a rumour that Donald was making enquiries.

It was when Coombes brought him a third vehicle ‘from a friend’ that Lee felt misgivings.

“Look, are these things – well, ‘dodgy’ in any way?”

Coombes winked.

“Ask no questions and you’ll be told no lies. You’ve got the documents, and what they say matches the VPN and the licence plate.” Then the man stroked his chin, and said, “Obviously I have a source for these cars, and of course I’m making money out of the deal. Just to set your mind at rest, they’re repossessed vehicles. They fetch much more sold like this than at auction”

Lee looked him in the eye.

“I want fifteen percent. It’s not worth the risk for less.”

They made the deal. There were plenty of cars. Lee had a showroom added to his premises and took on a full-time salesman. After two years of this, Lee felt financially secure enough to take a holiday.

And then Donald showed up. He was looking over a nearly-new Range Rover.

“Good afternoon,” said Lee, baring his teeth in something that was almost a smile.

“You seem to be doing well. Congratulations.” Donald smirked like the small boy who had goaded Lee twenty years before.

“Thank you. From what I hear of your business, you hardly need to buy second-hand vehicles.”

“I need something for my personal assistant. This looks like a good deal. Is it kosher?”

“All my vehicles are meticulously inspected and maintained before I offer them. I’ve built my reputation on it.”

“Ah, but are they yours to sell? That’s the big question isn’t it?”

Lee nodded in the direction of his office.

“I’ll show you the documentation.”

“Documents can say anything, old lad. Tell me does the name ‘Coombes’ mean anything to you?”

Lee froze, then nodded once again towards his office.

This time, Donald walked with him over to the office. Lee closed the door.

“You see, I know Geoff Coombes rather well.” Donald looked down at his solid gold cufflinks, fiddled with them, admired them. “He’s told me some very interesting facts about the provenance of your cars. Facts that would interest the police rather a lot, I fancy.”

“I have acted in good faith in all my business dealings.”

“Oh, I very much doubt that. Acting in good faith would surely require you to show a little more interest in where your stock originates, wouldn’t you say? Besides, good faith or not, those cars are stolen and can be reclaimed by their original owners. How are you going to recompense the poor people who bought and paid you for them?”

“What do you want?” Lee ground out the words through gritted teeth.

“Well, for starters, five hundred pounds a month, in cash. And don’t be stupid enough to take it out of the bank; use cash that people have paid you – we don’t want regular transactions alerting the police.”

“Five hundred a month is nothing to you. Why are you even bothering?”

“It’s less than nothing to me – but not to you.” Donald’s smirk grew broader. “It will give me pleasure to think of you working hard in order to pay me something I don’t need. And I want something else as well. Something that you have, that should have been mine, should always have been mine. I want Sue.”

“She won’t go to you.”

“Oh, but she will, Lee, she will. She’s smart. When I tell her about the shaky foundation of your business, she’ll know exactly what her refusal would mean. Prison, probably, for you. Penury for her.”

He glanced around the office. “Nice furniture. What about a scotch from that handsome drinks cabinet? No ice, please.”

As Lee poured the drink, Donald continued, “It’s not as though I want Sue full-time. The Honorable Fiona Tremayne – whom I marry in the New Year – would object, I fancy.” He chuckled, slack-jawed. “No, all I require is that she makes herself available sexually when I require her.”

He drained his glass.

“You’ll pay me the first instalment next Monday, and you’ll bring me a letter from Sue confirming that she wants to make love with me.”

Lee’s face went white. He balanced on the balls of his feet, and his hands rose a little. The vileness of Donald’s proposal to degrade his wife, the woman he loved, choked him. He would die before he allowed that.

Abruptly, Donald said, “Enough of this. You know this area better than I do. Where and when can we meet discreetly?”

Lee thought for a few minutes.

“You know out on the Fernicross road, that old building on Convicts’ Creek?”

Donald nodded.

“Well, nobody goes there; we’d be completely safe. Make it 4:30 in the morning, and we’ll meet nothing on the roads.”

Donald drained his glass, and held it up to the light.

“Nice,” he observed, squinting at the crystal tumbler. “OK. Don’t be late.”

It was misty at 3 a.m. that Monday, as Lee drove down the lane on the bank opposite Convicts’ Creek. He parked out of sight of both road and river. The backpack he took from the trunk was nearly empty, and he slung it onto his shoulders. He left he suitcase containing a change of clothes where it was.

He had a small dinghy with an outboard moored nearby. He didn’t use the motor, though – too noisy; he rowed, with the rhythmic stroke of a man who was used to it, albeit a little tight with tension, a little hurried. The mist was patchy in the pre-dawn greyness. The tide was just starting to ebb, but he’d have no problems returning; there was a channel meandering from the creek that would take a dinghy like his at any state of the tide provided the helmsman was careful.

He ran the dinghy up beside the building, and glanced at his watch. 4 a.m. He’d best go cautiously, although Donald wasn’t the kind of man to enjoy the early morning. Lee grinned, mirthlessly.

No. There was nobody there. He settled himself close to the entrance, checked the plane tickets and passport in his backpack, and took out the knife. It was a wicked implement with a nine inch blade, one edge razor sharp, the other edge serrated. His breath came fast, in little spurts. He listened intently.

4:30 came – and went.

A blackbird started to sing.

Lee wanted to go and look at the road, look at the water, see if Donald was in sight. “Stay put,” he told himself. “Surprise is essential.” He tried breathing deeply and rhythmically. It helped a little.

A robin, and then a chaffinch joined the dawn chorus.

Five o’clock came. The light had grown pinkish; it was almost sunrise. “Damn Donald!” thought Lee. The tide ebbed fast.

Footsteps! Crunching on pebbles! Why hadn’t he heard the car approach?

The door swung open, and Donald’s smirking face confronted him.

Lee hesitated for a moment; only a moment, but he saw Donald’s eyes widen with shock as he spotted the knife. Rage reared inside him, like an out-of-control stallion. Snarling, he hurled himself forward, burying the blade in Donald’s abdomen, then pulling upwards with all his might, sawing with the serrated blade.

Blood gushed from the wound. Panic bloomed on Donald’s face, and then faded. He tried to speak, but only blood came from his mouth. Lee saw Donald’s eyes go dim, then roll up into his head. He pulled out the blade, looked with consternation at the damage it had done – and then ran.

It was pointless, Lee knew, but he paused to wash his hands and the knife before climbing into the dinghy.

He tugged at the cord to start the motor. Nothing. He swore, and tried again. A splutter, but that was it. He looked to the heavens, rosy with dawn, in supplication. He tried once more, and the motor started, misfiring at first, and then speeding as he wrenched the throttle wide open.

Lee’s heart stammered and raced like the outboard motor of the dinghy. The clean, dawn air was polluted by the stench of petrol and blood.

All he needed to do now was get back to the car, wash, change clothes, and drive to the airport.

There was a thud, and the boat stopped.

Hell! He was trapped by the falling tide!

*       *       *       *

Sue reported Lee missing that evening. The longer he was absent, the more distraught she became.

Donald’s colleagues reported him missing a couple of days later. Police found someone who’d seen his car near Convicts’ Creek, and it didn’t take them long to find the body.

They found the bloodstained dinghy, too, and traced it to Lee. They discovered his car on the far bank, with the suitcase.

The police dragged the river, but without much hope; the estuary’s mudbanks were notorious for being quicksand. They found nothing.

At Donald’s inquest, the coroner recorded a verdict of ‘Murder – by person or persons unknown’.

And that was that.

Sue sold the business, and the house, and lodged with Lee’s parents.

Twelve months later, she transferred all her money to a bank in Panama, and flew there discreetly.

Waiting for her at Tocumen Airport was a familiar figure.

“My dear, sweet love, how I’ve missed you!” sighed Lee, as he kissed her. “Welcome to our new life!”

 

The Big Win

John Garrett knew that he was a boring man. A fifty year old accountant, he lived in an average semi with his wife Sue, who had been his first (and only) love. If he could have managed it, he would doubtless have had two point four children, but as fractional children don’t happen, he’d settled for two. He was boring, but he was comfortable and that was enough for him.

He felt, therefore, a profound shock, a sense of disbelief, and an emotion that he belatedly recognised as terror, when he saw one Saturday morning that his lottery entry had won the jackpot. He checked the numbers on the screen. He checked the numbers on his ticket. He double-checked the dates on both. Everything matched. His eyes kept straying to the figure at the top of the screen. “Jackpot £18,279,317”.

His hands were shaking.

“Darling. Would you come here a minute, please? I want you to look at something for me.”

Sue came into the room. Her smile changed to a look of concern as she saw his face. “What is it, love? You look quite pale.”

He pointed at the screen and the ticket. She examined both. She ran her tongue over lips that were suddenly dry. Hesitantly she said, “We seem to have won? Is that it?”

“The numbers match. I bought the ticket for last night’s draw and the dates match. That means we’ve won.”

They looked at each other. Abruptly things had become different. There were – possibilities.

Suddenly Sue grinned. It was a feral expression, showing all her teeth. “John, we’ve won. We’ve bloody won.” She grabbed him, kissed him, pulling him close, rubbing against him. “Fuck me, we’ve bloody won. Eighteen million bloody quid. Fuck me.” She pushed him away. “Well get on the bloody phone to them, then. What are you waiting for?”

John picked up the ticket. He felt a little calmer, less tremulous. Now that Sue had seen the ticket and confirmed it matched the draw, he could start to allow himself to believe that maybe they really had been ridiculously, unjustifiably, lucky. Maybe they really had won.

It was John who insisted that they should remain anonymous; he said that otherwise they would receive a flood of begging letters. This thought attracted rather than repelled Sue, who would have enjoyed wielding the power of patronage as she flaunted their new-found wealth. But John was firm, and this was so unusual that Sue capitulated. It was nice to have an assertive husband, as long as he confined it to matters that didn’t really matter too much to her. And in return for anonymity, she extracted a promise that they would move to a bigger, better house; she knew that John, as soon as he’d considered it, would have argued in favour of staying where they were.

Sue handed in her notice at work the day after the money was safely banked. John didn’t. He liked the routine, and his secretary was an attractive brunette. In fact, now that he was rich she seemed even sexier. Wealth brought an expanded horizon. He had been used to suppressing thoughts of luxuries; now he could afford them.

Sue didn’t mind him continuing with his job for a while, as she didn’t particularly want him under her feet at home, but there were limits. After a few months, she felt demeaned by his continuing to work, undervalued. Didn’t he want to spend time with her?

It was evening, several weeks after they had moved to their new home. John had just returned from work. Sue poured them each a drink, then snuggled up close to him on the over-stuffed sofa.

“Do you remember what it was like before we married?”

John smiled, and slid an arm around her. “Oh yes,” he said. “I remember very well. What plans we had!”

“Do you feel that maybe – now we have money – you might like to do some of the things we dreamed about?”

“Which things did you have in mind?” John took a mouthful of single malt scotch and savoured it. How delightful that he could drink it every evening without considering the expense! He ran his hand over the inside of Sue’s thigh. She kissed him, hard.

“You remember how we always said we’d go to Africa, and see elephants and lions, and the migrating wildebeest? I sent off for details of a safari and they came this morning. Would you like to look at them? After dinner perhaps?”

“Mm, maybe.” He kissed her. There were better things to do than look at brochures…

When John opened his briefcase at work next morning, he found an envelope full of glossy publicity for Safari DeLuxe Tours. There was a quotation for a six week holiday. John winced automatically when he saw how much it was, before he remembered that it no longer mattered. He could afford it.

He read the brochures at lunchtime. Although it was expensive, and many stays were in comfortable hotels or game lodges, he counted seven nights under canvas, and twenty-three days when they needed to be in a 4×4 vehicle by 6 o’clock in the morning. That was definitely not his idea of first class travel.

His secretary, Dawn, came in; he’d never managed to persuade her to knock before entering. He would have been embarrassed to shuffle the brochures into his case, but he surreptitiously slid the itinerary with its tell-tale price under some other papers.

“Ooh! Are you going to Africa?”

“We’re thinking of it. It’s Sue’s idea; it’s not really my cup of tea.” He smiled at Dawn.

“You know what?” she said. “You’ve been quite different the last couple of months. Ever so cheerful and nice.” John glanced at her suspiciously, but her face was candid. She gave him a grin. “I suppose I’d better give you these letters for signing and get back to this month’s sales figures.”

John stuffed the details of the African holiday into his case. Perhaps he should suggest that Sue went by herself? Possibly he might – but no, he didn’t want to cheat on Sue. He shook his head firmly. Sue wouldn’t be happy if he said he wasn’t coming with her.

She wasn’t.

It was their first row for years, and ended with Sue locking herself in the main bedroom. John sat and drank scotch. She was being an unreasonable bitch. Who’d bought the lottery ticket anyway? When he woke up at 5 a.m., he was sitting in an armchair, cold, and with a pounding headache. He took ibuprofen, and black coffee, and tried to settle himself in the guest bedroom, but it was no good; he couldn’t sleep.

He gave up trying at seven o’clock, and went into the kitchen. Sue was already there. She looked at him, stony-faced, but spoke quietly.

“I’m sorry, John, but I was extremely disappointed. I know you’re not as keen on travelling as I am, but last night was as though you’d trampled on our dreams together.” She sighed, and then added, “Can I make you a coffee? You look terrible. I’m sorry if you had a bad night.”

John felt contrite. He was just about to apologise to Sue, and say that he would go with her to Africa, or indeed, to the ends of the earth if it would make her happy, when she placed her finger on her lips to silence him.

“No. Don’t say that you’ll come. You’ve spoilt the dream; that’s gone now. It’s my dream, but not yours. I’ll go alone. Perhaps we’ll find somewhere else that you’d rather visit.”

“I’m sorry,” he managed, as she handed him a mug of steaming black coffee. She nodded.

“Let’s just drop the subject. Do you fancy some breakfast? Some bacon, and a couple of fried eggs?”

It was several weeks before Sue left for Africa. John waited a couple of nights, and then invited Dawn to come for a drink. They were enjoying themselves, so it seemed completely natural that they should go from the cocktail bar to a restaurant. John relished Dawn’s uncomplicated delight in the deferential service and the elaborate cuisine. And if he kissed her when he’d taken her back to her flat in a taxi, it was chastely on her cheek.

You couldn’t in good conscience say that Dawn led him on; she let him set the pace. Had John been disposed to stay faithful to Sue, Dawn would have been disappointed but no worse. She enjoyed life, and saw no reason to deny herself life’s pleasures. If she thought of Sue at all it was to consider that taking a six-week holiday without John was just asking for trouble. Presumably sex no longer interested her.

Sue wasn’t able to keep in touch every day – not all the lodges had wifi, and, of course, there were those nights in tents that had dismayed John so much. However, she called him several times a week, on Skype where possible. She looked fit, bronzed and sleek. Despite the drying effect of the sun and the wind, her face looked less lined, more youthful. John was glad she was finding the holiday satisfying despite his absence.

It was four weeks after her flight out, Saturday morning, nine o’clock, when the doorbell rang.

“Do want me to go?” asked Dawn.

“No, it’ll only be the postman. I’m not expecting anything. They’ll go away.”

Dawn chuckled. “You randy so-and-so!”

The doorbell rang again. John levered himself out of bed.

“I suppose I’d better see what they want.” He pulled on his dressing gown.

The doorbell rang a third time. Dawn looked irritated. “They’re a bit of nuisance, this time on a Saturday!”

It was a tall gentleman in a smart suit at the door. His expression was serious.

“Mr Garrett?”

“Yes?”

“My name is Mark Cornforth. I’m the General Manager of Safari DeLuxe Tours. May I come in please?”

They seated themselves in the lounge.

“I’m very sorry, Mr Garrett, but I have some bad news for you. As I’m sure you’re aware, we can’t make our safaris completely safe – we are, after all, working close to large, powerful and dangerous creatures. Sometimes there are accidents.

I’m afraid we experienced such an accident last night. For some reason your wife left the tent and wandered away. One of our guides noticed and followed quickly to bring her back, but he was too late. There was a lion close by that attacked her, and killed her before we could shoot it. I’m extremely sorry.”

John shook as though feverish. “Are you sure?”

“I’m afraid there’s no doubt. The tour guide identified her for the Kenyan authorities.”

John covered his face with his hands. His pulse was racing. Dead! And he’d been…the thought nauseated him.

“We’ve made arrangements for the body to be returned to the UK. I imagine that the police will want you to identify it, just as a matter of routine you understand.”

John nodded. His cheeks were wet with tears. He ushered Mark Cornforth out of the house, and wept.

“What’s happened, John? What’s the matter?”

“It’s Sue. She’s been killed.”

Dawn covered her mouth with both hands. “Oh, no! Oh, John! How can I help you?”

“I think – if you just go, and leave me on my own for a bit. Do you mind?”

“Are you sure?”

John nodded.

The body arrived in England about a week later, and sure enough, John was asked to identify it. The pathologist drew back the cover and John looked down at the still features.

His head spun. The buzzing in his ears rose in a vicious crescendo. As his legs buckled and the whirling blackness claimed him, he croaked, “But this isn’t my wife!”

The Discontented Vicar

I looked forward to meeting Gerald again, although my anticipation was tinged with concern. The Reverend Gerald Hall had been a student of mine a decade earlier, a good student whose comments and questions demonstrated a perceptive insight into his studies. He had also come to me, on an informal basis, for spiritual direction, and had given me the impression that he found difficulty in dealing with the usual temptations of an undergraduate. By that I don’t mean that he drank himself into a stupor three times a week, or was unusually promiscuous, merely that he held himself to very high standards, inevitably fell short, and then worried about his failure.
I had considered pointing out to him that there was a sort of arrogance about imposing higher standards on his own conduct than he expected from others, but I realised that this would only give him yet another rod with which to beat himself. We spoke together instead about grace and forgiveness, God’s grace and God’s forgiveness, which are so much more important than our own merely human endeavours.
When he graduated, he thanked me and said farewell, and I didn’t expect to hear from him again. I followed his career, though. Teachers do, you know. When you have an unusually able student, you like to know that they’re doing well and fulfilling their promise.
Gerald’s career had certainly started successfully; a curacy at Brompton Oratory followed by appointment to the living of a prominent Oxfordshire parish. And he finally married the girlfriend he’d had at University. She was a lovely girl, Stephanie, and she’d stayed with him while he vacillated as to whether he was called to celibacy. I suppose I was as pleased for her as I was for him.
We had an appointment for four o’clock in the afternoon. Prompt to the minute he knocked at the door of my rooms in college. I’d forgotten quite what a big chap he was. He loomed over me as he greeted me with a firm handshake. I noticed that there were lines on his forehead, bags under his eyes and he was pale. He came in, looked all around and I could see his muscles relax.
“It’s just the same,” he said. “The grand piano. The Jacobean desk and chair. The chintz armchairs. Just the same.”
“Unlike the occupant who is ten years older and ten years more irascible. How are you, Gerald?”
“Oh, pretty good, pretty good. Sleepless nights with the latest baby, of course. The joys of family life!”
“And Stephanie? Is she well?”
“Stephanie is in her element, thank you. In the pink.”
“Excellent.”
We sat quietly for several minutes. The gas fire popped and whistled. Several times Gerald stirred as though to speak, thought better of it, and sank back into the armchair. At last he said, “I’m struggling with the meaning of it all, Henry.”
He seemed to feel that he’d explained enough, and relapsed into silence. Having no other engagements until dinner in Hall at seven, I didn’t try to hurry him. The profanities of freshers learning to punt on the Backs drifted in through the partly open window. ‘Wanker’ seemed to be the mot du jour.
“You see, I want my ministry to make a difference. I work with all my heart and soul, and it seems totally wasted effort, because nothing changes.”
“I think I know what you mean, but I’d like to be sure. Can you give me an example?”
“How many would you like? Take hospital visits. I’m not so crass as to expect miraculous healing, but my visits seem to be counter-productive. Last Wednesday, a couple of days before I phoned you, I was visiting one of my parishioners. Lucy was a dear old lady who’d been a stalwart of the church for seventy years. She was very weak, and the end was near. I held her hand and talked gently to her. She opened her eyes and I could see that she understood what I was saying. Suddenly, her right arm jerked and her breath stopped. The look on her face, Henry! She was so frightened. She died in terror, and I had done nothing, maybe less than nothing, for her.”
He sighed and looked baffled.
“Or take prison visits. I thought I was doing so well with Roger. He was serving five years for robbery with violence after a string of convictions stretching back to his adolescence. He joined the reading group that I organised in Bedford Prison; I used to drive over there once a week. He had been one of the prison’s bad boys, but over the course of three months he changed. He became less aggressive, less antagonistic. He caused less trouble for the Prison Officers. He even repented of his past crimes.
The prison had a new governor last month. His first act was to have the cells searched. In Roger’s cell they found a well-used mobile phone, a notebook with a record of transactions involving tens of thousands of pounds, and a stash of Class A
drugs. He’d been dealing in them, not just inside prison but also outside, working through other people.”
I wondered whether to speak, but Gerald had more to tell me.
“And then there was the Community College. It took me months to persuade the head-teacher to allow me to address one of the Year Twelve classes. She was quite anti-religious, didn’t want her campus tainted by superstition. I won’t bore you with the detail, but after one lesson I was banned from the school in perpetuity.”
I felt I wanted to be bored. What on earth could dear, harmless Gerald have done?
“I think it might help me if you gave me at least a little of the detail?”
“There was a riot.”
“A riot?”
“Yes.”
“Oh dear!”
“Henry, I feel dreadful saying this, but I’m almost coming round to that head-teacher’s point of view.”
“Don’t mince words, Gerald. Say what you mean. This whole exercise will be fruitless unless you tell me fully what’s troubling you.”
“I don’t think I believe in God any more.”
“Does that matter to you?”
He looked at me in astonishment.
“Of course it matters to me!”
“Why?”
Gerald was about to retort angrily when there was a splash outside and ironic cheering. It was clear that one or more of the students had fallen in the river. He laughed instead and thought about what he should say.
“I suppose it’s important to me because I’ve always lived my life with that belief. It’s guided me and motivated me. It’s why I do the work I do.”
“Work that at present is failing to satisfy you,” I pointed out.
“Yes. I suppose so.”
“Gerald, I’m going to say something that will probably shock you.” I paused a moment to let that sink in. “Religious faith is just a habit. It’s one way of thinking about the world and your own place in it. There are other ways of understanding that.
What would success look like to you? Real success, I mean, the satisfaction of your inner psychological needs?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, if there’s one thing that I know, it’s that you’re a scholar. If you’re serious about dealing with your angst, you have the intellectual capacity to imagine what your motivations are.”
Gerald looked very doubtful.
“Perhaps you’d care to join me in Hall for dinner tonight? And we can talk of happier matters. You can tell me about Stephanie and your children.”
We spent a pleasant evening together. I introduced Gerald to the Senior Common Room, where we drank perhaps one glass too many of port, and then we parted. I doubted that Gerald would be able to take the necessary action to find fulfilment. He would understand that he needed to break with his past, but would he have the courage to do it?
I heard nothing from him, although I saw that he had resigned his living.
It was nearly three years after our conversation that I met him again, quite by chance. I was touring rural pubs, and I chanced upon “The Seven Stars”. The name was a little Tolkien-esque and off-putting, but the pub had a good reputation for the quality of its beer and its food. As it was lunchtime, I entered and there, behind the bar, stood Gerald, six foot four inches of bonhomie in an open-neck check shirt.
He leaned across and clapped me on the shoulder, beaming. He insisted that my beer was on the house.
“You found out what you wanted to do then?” I asked him. “You know, I’d never envisaged you as a publican!”
“Oh no,” he said, “I’m not. I’m just helping out. Stephanie is the licensee; she had some family money and sank it into this place. I’m training to be a nurse. And, you know what? I’m loving it!”