The importance of others

On a frosty autumnal morning, the sun rose in a pale blue sky over the small village of Kirby Leverdale. Arthur Pogdale, a stolid, middle aged villager, all tweed coats and sturdy boots, thought he’d go mushrooming. He might catch a rabbit, and make a stew. He set off through the hazy sunshine, equipped with a mushrooming basket, and a canvas shoulder bag to conceal his shotgun, and a flask to drink and a sandwich to eat.

He strode on through the fields for a few hours, far from the village, towards the remoter hilly woodlands where roads were few. Here, people were rare, and one might find pristine woodland untouched by mushroomers, and where nobody would hear a gunshot.

Approaching the eaves of the forest, he stopped briefly to take out his gun. Entering the leafless woodland, the sun behind him, he slowed his pace. Avoiding the drifts of leaves, he advanced quietly and stopped short, hidden by a hazel copse, slowly shouldered his shotgun, aimed, and fired. The rabbit fled. Birds and beasts for a mile around hid. Arthur philosophically shouldered his shotgun, and patiently resumed his steady progress.

The forest grew thicker here, and the light faded, and fell down towards damper ground, where mushrooms grew between the thick trunks of ancient oaks. He saw a big pale puffball mushroom sticking out behind a hollow trunk. Arthur grunted, and bent down, and gave a muffled oath.

“A boot!”, he muttered, and pulled.

It resisted. He braced himself, gripped the heel, and tugged with both hands. It came away with a soft, sucking sound, spattering Arthur with droplets of a foul smelling liquid as he went flying, landing on his backside in a drift of leaves. Slightly winded, holding the boot in his left hand, he gazed at the foot, wrapped in a sodden, greyish sock, protruding from the rotten tree trunk. It looked like a lone tooth in an aged wooden mouth, and it dripped slightly.

He got to his feet, and peered about the gloomy underwood, and around the tree, and in the branches. There was nothing to be seen. There were no traces of violence, or any other explanation for this foetid foot sticking out between the tree roots.

The shock subsided, and a matter of fact practicality took over. “Right, let’s report this” Arthur thought, peering over the foot, into the dark. He could make out a form there, someone huddled in some sort of torn oilskin coat, bent in a most uncomfortable position. One couldn’t accidentally fall into a hollow tree trunk like that.

He leaned against the tree. And thought of Susan Wheatleigh. Susan, a lovely, kindly neighbour, and her husband John. They had a difficult neighbour, a Mr. Spence, a man permanently offended. Arguments came and went, on topics ranging from the noise the children made, to washing lines, hedges, and parking. Mr Spence would bang his cane on the Wheatleigh’s front door and shout, and report the Wheatleighs to the council. Susan dealt with this alone, since John often away. The marriage had left her largely on her own, looking after the household.

This Mr Spence was a widower. he lived alone on a small pension, and rarely left the village, and mostly staying locked up in his house. His thin, gaunt figure would be seen most evenings in the Ramblers’ Arms with a single pint, propping up the bar in the dark corner away from the tables.

Then there came a time when Mr. Spence was not seen for a while. There was some comment on this in the Ramblers’ Arms, but since he had no friends, the comments were short.

Susan, a woman with common sense, decided, reluctantly, to make sure the old man had not passed out or dropped dead. So over she went, when the kids were at school, and John away again, and knocked on the old man’s door. It was open, so she stepped in, and called. There as no answer. She found Mr. Spence dead in the kitchen, and in her shock, picked up the heavy bloodstained mallet lying by his side. When the shock subsided, she called the police.

The rest of the story was one of those wonderful, tragic tales of gore and mystery. It was told again and again in the village pub, with many a gloomy sigh, and a call for another round, as people mulled over the foolishness of getting involved in murders.

Susan was immediately suspected, and swiftly convicted. Character witnesses from most of the village were no help. A crime of passion, a neighbourhood dispute, old grudges festering and erupting in homicidal rage and brutal murder, the prosecutor thundered. The defense was baffled. Unable to counter Susan’s bloodstained fingerprints on the mallet, it weakly tried to bring the case back, again and again, to a character issue. She was so nice, really, and this Spence now, had hardly been a nice man, as the stream of character witnesses confirmed.

But there was no other suspect on the horizon, given the lonely life of this bitter old man. The jury conferred, and concurred with the prosecution, and convicted the pleasant, unassuming Susan. Under this pressure, the Wheatleigh marriage fractured. Her husband John, hardly a steadfast man, abandoned his family and emigrated to Norway to work as a labourer on oil rigs, and the children were put into care. And Susan, her family incomprehensibly broken, partly lost her hold on reality, and became one of the many absent jailbirds, with undiagnosed mental health conditions. In time, her harmless, absent nature saw her moved to a low security open prison. Parole was raised, but the board decided she was too feeble to fend for herself. So she remained, haunting the open prison, another innocent broken by circumstance.

In the local pub, the Ramblers’ Arms, people said “She can’t possible have done it. Wouldn’t harm a fly. Mind you, it’s always the good ones, that you’d never suspect, isn’t it ?” But the overwhelming opinion was a miscarriage of justice. Nobody who knew Susan could see her battering her neighbour to death.

“That could happen to anyone”, thought Arthur, leaning on the oak over the decomposing corpse, the beige boot still clutched in his left hand. “Best leave this quick, let some other mug find it, I’m off.”

Impelled to leave things undisturbed, he tried to put the boot back on the decaying, bloated foot, but the stench was unbearable. He threw the boot into the hollow trunk onto the corpse. Wiping his hands on his coat, and wrapping up his gun, he set off through the woods in the fading sunlight, intent on putting this out of his mind with a pint of stout or two with all possible speed. He stayed under cover, taking a circuitous route through rocky terrain where surely nobody ever went. An hour and some miles later, he felt safer. “Not far now”, he thought, “wonder who’s down the Ramblers’ Arms tonight?”

He heard a yapping off to the right, and a terrier came into sight, barking ferociously, followed by a shadowy figure holding a rifle.

“Down, Brython, down ! Arthur, is that you ?”

“Dave ! Alright ? I’ve been mushrooming. Brython, down! What’s wrong with him?

The dog subsided, wagging his tail.

Dave sniffed. “You smell something else, Arthur. Did you fall in a landfill site or something?”

“Aha, very funny, no, I’ve just, I fell in that boggy patch in the woods, on the hill. No, not there, I mean, I mean, I fell by the river there, you know, it’s boggy. I fell. Not the hill. I was mushrooming.”

“Mushrooms, down there Arthur? That patch by the willows? Mushrooms ? Go on, you’re having me on. What’s that you’re carrying? You can tell me if you want a rabbit, you know. Anyway, I heard shots this afternoon. That was you, go on” he laughed.

Arthur forced a chuckle, “Alright, no mushrooms, nor rabbits either. Not the best day.”

“Look, I’m not a gamekeeper. Anyway, you stink. Phew. It’s getting dark, let’s go and warm up down the Ramblers’ Arms.”

Down in the pub, there was a good fire going, and good company. The firearms passed with no more comment than “evenin’, Arthur, Dave, get anything today ?” answered by a shake of the head. Arthur’s smelly coat caused some discussion, rapidly left aside, however, as conversations turned to more interesting things than hygiene. And after a few hours in the pub, and a few pints, Arthur forgot the day’s events, and forgot about his coat. The next day, the smell subsided. Anyway it was never washed, except by rain, now and then, in an incidental way.

And so the next day, life in the village carried on.

And a year went by, and another cool, pastel coloured, sunny autumn came by again, and Dave woke up one morning, and thought he’d go mushrooming in the hills, up there, where few people go. Where good morelles were to be found in the oak forests a little above the stream there, in those deserted rocky dales.

So off he went, with a gun, suitably concealed, in case of rabbits or birds, and something to eat and drink for sustenance, and a basket for the mushrooms.

And he walked for a few hours until he reached the eaves of the woods. Then he progressed more slowly, rifle at the ready, keeping a sharp eye out for tasty wildlife for the family pot. And despite a pot-shot or two at rabbits and birds on the way, he had no luck this day. He progressed into the darker, thicker woodland, and started to think of mushrooms. Looking carefully in the cool shade around the massive boles of the ancient oaks, he had some luck, and his basket started to fill. This would not be a wasted walk after all, he thought contentedly.

A bright white stick poking out of a hollow tree trunk caught his eye. Intrigued, he approached, and saw skeletal bleached toes, a foot, a tibia, and more bones. It was a bent skeleton, bare but for scraps of clothing left by scavengers. It looked like a doctor’s prop, like a model in a pharmacy shopfront.

He leaned against the tree and touched nothing. He remembered Jane, that poor woman, the one who’d checked up on her awful, argumentative old neighbour. Convicted for murder, she’d gone a bit funny in the head, and was in that open prison now. And he also remembered, curiously, the day he’d met good old Arthur, confused about where he’d been – wasn’t it here? – who’d made Brython go crazy, he smelt so funny.

These thoughts in his mind, he set off, basket of morelles in hand, back to the village, to see the police constable, and tell him of the bones found in the bole of the old oak. First, he passed by the house, gave the mushrooms to his wife, and put away the rifle. And then on to the police station.

The case caused quite a stir. The village of Kirby Leverdale was a hotbed of murder and intrigue. “Who could forget poor old Mr. Spence, battered to death by that nice Mrs. Susan?”, asked one at the bar in the Ramblers’, one with a taste for prosecution.

“Not at all”, said others, defending “She was set up, and now look, she’s gone ’round the bend. That proves she’s innocent!”

“Aha! So she’s a mad killer, that’s all that means” rejoined the prosecution, “she probably did this skeleton man too. You’ll see. A close call for the rest of us.”

At first, nothing came of this. Arthur, slightly uncomfortable at first, was somewhat when relieved when nothing further happened. The corpse in the hollow tree had been a weight on his mind. He’d wondered who it was, and who would be the poor sap who’d find it. Just as well steady, dependable Dave had been the one, and nobody suspected him of anything, it seemed.

But the steady, young policeman, Detective Constable Smithers, in charge at the police station, took his time. At irregular intervals every few weeks or so, he would spend hours quizzing Dave at the station. This went on for a while, and led to talk in the village.

“They’ve been questioning Dave an awful lot, don’t you think?” some said, adding “there’s no smoke without fire. I mean, nobody ever goes up the hills there, mushrooming, as he says he did, it’s too far. Suspicious. It’s suspicious, I’m telling you.”

In fact, Smithers had questioned Dave again and again on the same points. The death was at least a year old, so he asked him when he’d been there over the year, and why went to that out of the way hilly woodland. The corpse had died of gunshot wounds from a shotgun, which was bad luck. Rifles leave a rifling mark on bullets, but shotguns scatter gunshot anonymously.

He asked him repeatedly about all the people he had met in the area, and who else might go up there. And there were many, this stretching over an entire year, and Smithers asked about every single one Dave could remember.

Yet Smithers discretely paid most attention to that meeting with Arthur, while careful not to emphasise this, and risk Dave broadcasting accidental warnings. The barking dog, and the confusion over Arthur’s story of mushrooming by the willows, these elements gave grounds, in time, for a search warrant.

And on a warm August morning, the sun rose in an azure blue sky over the village. The day was likely to be hot, even very hot, and Arthur was awoken by a gentle but insistent knocking on the front door. Curious who this might be, he opened the door, in a dressing gown, and saw Smithers, and two officers on his doorstep. Taken aback, he immediately felt a non-specific guilt, as does anyone unexpectedly visited by the the law.

He opened the door wide and asked “Hello officer Smithers, fine day, isn’t it, now, what can I do to help? Is this for the widows and orphans fund? Isn’t it a bit early? I remember my old dad said …” he rambled as his mind raced, trying to make sense of this.

“Good morning Arthur, I mean Mr. Pogdale, we’d like you to help us with some enquiries we are conducting. Could we come in ?”

“Of course”, said Arthur, “I’ll put the kettle on, sit down, here, there’s chairs for all, always happy to do my bit for the officers of the peace, now, breakfast? Or something else?”

“Shut up Arthur” he told himself.

They sat down. Arthur poured the tea, and spilled some. Officer Smithers explained the thing that was troubling him. That Arthur was seen behaving suspiciously around the time of the suspected murder in the hilly oak forest, some way from the village.

And the constables armed with the warrant searched the house. And took away evidence in the form of boots, an old coat, long unwashed, and a shotgun found in the outhouse.

Arthur was advised not to leave Kirby Leverdale without informing the constabulary.

And a short while later, examination of the unwashed coat showed traces which matched the skeleton in the tree trunk. And the shotgun was found to be not inconsistent with the gunshot wounds still visible on the bleached bones.

And testimony in court from Arthur’s old friend Dave, extracted by the prosecution, could not deny the story he’d told of that day. And the drinkers in the Ramblers’ Arms couldn’t deny the strange smell that had accompanied Arthur into the pub. And so Arthur was convicted, and sent down, for the murder of an unknown man, who’s decaying body he’d hidden in a tree trunk, some weeks after shooting him with a shotgun, the prosecution said. Arthur protested his innocence to the last, but was jailed, like the amiable Jane, for a crime he was unlucky enough to wander past. The conviction left him confused and slightly broken. A quiet, absent figure, he was moved, in time, to the same low risk open prison as Jane. Sometimes, they’d be seen playing scrabble, but they did not seem to recognise each other.

And now, in the pub, everyone remembers that day Arthur came to the pub, smelling of corpses. Or if they don’t, they say they do. “I knew there was something fishy. That smell! And he looked funny. Hunted. And he’d got no mushrooms at all. Mushrooming? Don’t make me laugh. A serial killer in our midst!” they gasp dramatically. They always conclude that if you see something suspicious, walk the other way. And your curiosity is unbearable, then make sure you’re with in good company before you look more closely.

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Once upon a time

Darren on the United Words writers suggested writing 2000 words por so starting “Once Upon a Time”. This produced the following which, though written in the first person, and despite being so convincing, is not autobiographical (except for having a big family and liking books):

 

“Once upon a time” makes me think of princesses, monsters, and night-time wrapped up in bed with a book. I’d be facing the wall, generally, with the dim little night-light perched at the corner of my bunk. I had to be careful, because my sibling in the bunk-bed beneath me would reach over and unplug it, if the tiniest glimmer of light disturbed them. I’d discretely reconnect it, wait a bit, angle the lamp to hide the light better, and go back to this deliciously secretive reading in the dark.

We are a big family, with Emma the biggest, surly, silent one, except she sang in the local gospel choir. Then Julia the second, my favourite because she was always full of beans, and never short of something to do. She just focussed on having fun. Then there is Tom, who is to this day a stern loner, self controlled, focussed, and athletic. He spent lots of time outside running up and down the canal. Timothy is the fourth’s name, which is problematic.. Shouting Tom, or Tim, always brought Tim and Tom both running. Tim, also sporty but more gregarious than Tom, spent lots of time out with the football club and his dream was to catch someone’s eye and be signed one day. The last of us was little Joyce, the youngest, we gave each other some protection against the two sporty brothers, and against the bouncy and ever enthusiastic scout guide sister.

And there was me, Jules, that being my name, the bookish and nosey one. I read a lot, and nosed about everywhere I could. This was mostly about by the nearby canal. I’d try to catch frogs and fish, and poke about in the bushes. I knew to tread carefully in the ragged, filthy inner city undergrowth, littered with sharp discarded beer cans, broken bottles, and more dangerous detritus from the druggies who haunted the area at night.

I should have said that we lived in a lonely high rise tower. It was set apart from terraced rows of houses, regular as clockwork, which faded off towards the river and the city centre. The tower rose, an ugly black and silver concrete plank twenty stories high, with a huge double elevator shaft off the side. Its feet practically stood in the canal, and there was a little patch of greenery at its foot, and a winding path which gave an odd feeling of walking through the countryside for about a minute as you walked towards the bus-stop in the morning. We lived towards the top of this tower in a three room apartment. The six of us were crammed into one small room with six bunk beds in two sets of three, and I was on the top because I was one of the small ones and that was that.

The living room was the biggest room, and had a narrow terrace, just wide enough to dry the washing on, and a chair for Dad to sit in the evenings and look out. And Dad had a room to himself, which was bigger than ours, because that was that too.

Our dad was a quiet fellow. When we were younger, he used to read us stories of princesses and monsters, which is why “Once upon a time” rings those bells which it does. He looked after all of us alone, except that Emma, quite grown up now, did a lot as well it must be said. Dad was alone now because, as I barely remember, our mum had left us.

I didn’t understand this very well when I was younger. Dad had a very talkative and funny friend called uncle Joe, who used to come over when mum still lived with us. They used to stay up in the living room after sending us to bed, and they all got along famously. In fact, they got along so well that one day mum decided to go and stay with uncle Joe, but dad preferred to stay with us, he said. In fact, mum liked it more with uncle joe, and didn’t come back any more. And nor did uncle Joe. I used to think dad would like them to come back, although he’d removed all mum’s things from their bedroom. When I grew up, I realised mum had left dad, and learned Joe was the postman, and not an uncle, and had been Dad’s friend. I never saw my mum again, I hope she’s done alright.

The world outside my big family was mostly the school, which we’d go off to on the bus in the mornings. The school was a ramshackle affair, out on the western outskirts of the city, and most of the classes were held in temporary builder’s huts, made of wood, with fuel oil heaters in winter, and a lovely smell of hot tar on hot summer days. This was a brilliant place for us because in school breaks we had the run of the place. The monitors, who were just four young things in their twenties, were supposed to keep an eye on us but were too busy gossiping to pay attention and couldn’t follow all of us anyway.

So me and my best friend Dave used to go and hide behind the huts overlooking the motorway, and what we did was have competitions about who know most about books. We were obsessed with legends, though I preferred the old Norse legends while Dave was always re-reading the old Greek and Roman stories. We’d have quizzes on these, and delight in setting traps for each other and howl with delight when winning a point by showing greater knowledge of some obscure and really boring detail. We were very competitive.

While the other boys were completely uninterested as a rule, some of the girls, on the other hand, poured scorn on this.

“You’re stupid”, would cry Marjory in particular, jumping around the corner from where she’d been listening, “Jules and Dave, the fairy tale boys!”

“Oh yeah? Well, you’re stupid too” I’d say haltingly “and anyway, you don’t even know, myths aren’t fairy stories !”

I would never admit it, but I liked Marjory.

“Yeah, we know stuff, at least!” said Dave before adding “anyway, what are you doing?”

“Oh, nothing”, said Marge, “come, I’ll show you, if you’re finished with fairy tales, Dave.”

“Jules, see you later” Dave said, and they went off. This reminded me of mum and dad and uncle Joe, but I got out my book and read about the norse legends until the bell rang.

This pattern continued, since I was of a curious nature, as I’ve said, who spent more time exploring and reading, to the detriment, probably, of spending time with my classmates and siblings. This was probably a bit anti-social, but we’re all different after all.

I became ever more bookish, and spent most of my nights at home reading books through the nights into the early hours. The source of these was the library a short bus ride away, but you could only borrow four. And with reading came irresistible desire to own the books, to see them on my shelf. in time, part time jobs, and a wonderful second hand bookshop run by an ancient Greek couple let me discretely start my own little library. Discretely, because of the small space in our flat.

Dad did not say anything, because he never did, and it was Emma who martialled my collecting, until she left the house. Whenever the shelves in the lounge over-flowed to small piles on the dresser in our bed-room, she’d sit me down and force me to choose a few to return to the greek bookshop. This painful exercise, repeated too often, and every time costing me hard earned cash, nevertheless honed and sharpened my book collection as time went by.

Inevitably, my elder sibling started to fly the nest. Emma was the first to go, to shed the shame of still living in a single room with five brothers and sisters, aged twenty. And then there was more space. And then, little by little, the others left to make their way in the world.

I’ll also leave, in time, though for the moment I stay with my dad. We have much more space than we did, and I have far more books, since Emma is no longer there to martial my book buying habits. And there is no need. Since the Greek couple retired, I keep their shop for them. Dad’s pension, and my small income is enough to keep us in the flat, which has now become quite spacious.

And sometimes I think I won’t ever leave. I’m not a writer, nor a doer, and will probably continue to read and observe, and let others do the writing.

 

Getting ahead

The sun rose bright and early over the cream cake towers of the Brighton beachfront hotel. In the back garden, conference breakfast was laid out on tables discretely spaced under the trees. As the garden slowly filled with delegates, a sharply dressed man sitting alone reading his paper was approached by a ordinary looking woman in plain clothes.
“Dr. Wilshaw? Mind if I join you?”
“Of course, we’ve met, have we ?” He put down the paper.
“Yes, I’m Susan Binks? Bovine TB specialist?” she said, “We met at those lectureship seminars a few years ago. The one you won.”
“Oh yes, of course!” They shook hands and she took a chair.
“Any luck yourself? Or are you still on contracts ?” he asked.
“I am. We’re not all as talented as you, Dr. Wilshaw. People should retire more.”
He chuckled, “Oh nonsense. Call me Ben, what is it you’re doing nowadays?”
They talked until an official clapped and called people to the opening sessions.
Susan got to her feet. “So, we do a lot in common, still, I see. Except you mostly teach, and I still mostly spend my time in slaughterhouses.”
“Experimental work is essential” Ben said, “from what we’ve just said, tell you what, can you send me your details? There may be a position, if that’s alright?”
“Alright, I’ll do that” she smiled.
The sessions wore on until the early evening. While most participants retired to their rooms, Susan went to the the bar. Seeing Ben, she went over and handed him a folder.
“Hi Ben, a piece of luck, I had my dossier with me.”
“Luck ?” he chuckled, “I’ll bet it’s organisation. I’ll have a look, and we’ll talk tomorrow. What’ll you have ?”
“I best not, I’ve things to finish. Not as organised as all that.” she laughed, and left.
The following sunny day, attendance thinned as a fair few delegates deserted seminars to sit on the beach. At lunch, Ben joined Susan, sitting with two others in the garden.
“Hi Susan, space for one more ?”
“Sure, Andy, Jane, this is Ben Wilshaw, he got my lectureship a few years back.”
“’My lectureship’ ? The cheek of it!” Ben protested, “However, I’ve had a think, and I can offer you two years postdoc. Is an autumn term start alright? I’ll send you a formal offer.”
“Well well” exclaimed Susan, beaming, “what do you think of that, Andy, Jane? First, my job, and now, my boss? Ben, it’s the right topic, and the right place, so I’ll say ‘Yes’. The only thing is, term starts in just a few months. Could you make it a January start?”
“You wouldn’t be avoiding teaching would you?” he chuckled, “alright, I’ll see what I can do.”
“So, Susan, tell us all about it !” said her friend Andy. Susan obliged until the afternoon sessions were announced.
“I’ll leave you to it”, said Susan as they got up, “I’ve got things to do, I’ll have to miss the afternoon session.”
Susan set off. She paused by the buffet to pick something up for later, and slipped upstairs.
That evening was the gala night, with a feast followed by a blues band playing on the dance floor by the bar. The bar filled, and some danced. Ben felt his phone buzz. It was a text from Susan, wanting to go over a few details in the back garden.
He tapped out “Yes, fancy a drink ?” A few minutes and a text message later, he took two pints and wandered out the back door. In the darkened garden, small lamps hung from the trees cast pools of light, occupied by just a few couples. Ben settled and waited at a table. It was past ten, and he hoped this wouldn’t take long, there was an early start in the morning.
He saw an elegant figure in a light dress appear at the door and come towards him. She wore a dark wide-brimmed hat, her long hair gave off reddish reflections in the faint light, and she nodded at tables as she passed them by.
Ben was intrigued and half rose, “Hello, are you …”
The figure seemed to wave at him. A knife flashed through the night and stabbed his chest. As he fell silently into the dark, she deftly slipped the bloody knife into a handbag, knelt, and after some searching, took his phone, and dropped the bag.
She walked through the tables towards the hotel in her pale red stained dress, nodding at the seated figures. She passed through the bar, out the front door and towards the beach. Her elegant figure disappeared under the left pier. Susan emerged from the shadows under the pier, carrying a travelling bag. Slipping into the hotel, she went to the bar and found Andy.
“Susan, unwinding a bit at last ? Bravo for the new job!”
Laughing she explained “Unwinding is right, I’ve been frantically organising…”
She was cut short by a shriek from the garden.
It was all over the papers the next day. An academic murdered by a well dressed red-haired woman who then walked out, bloodstained, in full view of many witnesses. Police found the murder weapon, a carving knife from the lunch buffet. A thorough search of the hotel, the beachfront, the sea yielded nothing more, no red haired woman in bloody clothes seen anywhere.
The meeting was cut short, and Susan shared a cab to the station with Jane and Andy.
“What a story”, exclaimed Jane, “what’s your guess, crime of passion? Hardly a mafioso was he?”
“Susan, what bad luck, that postdoc, gone is it ?”, said Andy.
“Right”, said Susan, a travelling bag balanced on her knees. “There will a lectureship going now, I suppose.”

 

An early draft of “How to Get Ahead in Academia”

The events took place in a Brighton beachfront hotel. The sun rose bright and early over the cream cake white towers. Delegates filtered down to breakfast, laid out in the rear courtyard. There were things with cream, tarts, all sorts of teas and coffees, because conference organisers liked to spoil the attendants. The greater the cost, the greater the profit margin. And the greater the registration fee, the classier the attendance. Only rich benefactors and five star academics need attend.
Our hero Ben sits down under a tree. He’s well dressed and young, in his thirties. Name-badge says “Dr. Wilshaw, lecturer, analogue electronics”. Takes out the paper. Breakfast and the news.
A young woman shows up, short straight hair, academic demeanour. Nametag says “Dr. Susan Binks, researcher, quantum logic”. She hovers “Dr. Wilshaw, mind if I join you ?”
He puts down the paper with a sigh, “Oh, of course, be my guest. We’ve met, haven’t we?”
“Yes, it was two years ago, the lectureship seminars. You won.”
“Oh, that’s right. So, are you, you’re not permanent yet ?”
“Oh, we aren’t all as talented as you Dr. Wilshaw”
“Call me Ben, please. What was it you do? It’s been a while”.

They have a long conversation. It ends with Ben saying “Send me your details, you’re just right for this postdoc I need to fill. It’s two years, might be renewed”
She says she’s definitely interested. She gives him a dossier over lunch.
Things happen to fill in details, possibly, I don’t know what yet.
The weeklong meeting progresses. Mid-week, at breakfast, Ben says
“Susan, I’ll delighted to say we’ll offer you a position. Can you start autumn term ?”
They sign a contract.
She says yes, looks delighted, and they exchange a few pleasantries. She says she’ll miss the afternoon and evening sessions, she must finish something in her room. Ben laughs and says he hopes she’s not in the habit of doing things at the last minute. She pretends to be horrified and exaggeratedly says “Of course not, boss!”
She takes her leave, pausing briefly by the buffet to take something up with her for later. She slips out, as the workshop continues.

In the evening, when most of the attendants are at the bar, Ben gets an text message. Could he meet Susan in the back garden, in the quiet, to go over a few things ?
In the nearly deserted garden, only a few couples sitting on benches in the twilight. Japanese lights in the trees. Ben, pint in hand, sits at a table waiting. It’s about 10pm and there’s an early start tomorrow. He hopes this won’t take long.
A elegant figure approaches him. She has brown ringlets showing slight auburn reflections in the faint light, and her Hermes scarf, made of pressed silk, in that saffron and pastel blue design they do so well, sails behind her. Her cream haute couture dress showed a youthful figure  … etc. etc. (this is a draft)
The knife flashed in the romantic light and came down. He fell into darkness, and she jumped back and looked rapidly around. She deftly slipped the bloody carving knife she had hidden that morning at breakfast into her bag, and dropped it by the corpse. The gloves she kept: there would not be a trace of DNA anywhere to be found.

She walked to the bar, passing close by couples on benches who glanced at her with irritation, and who would remember reddish stains on her clothes.
She walked out the front door, and to the beach. Her elegant figure passed under the shadow of the pier and emerged, minus wig, makeup, and back in in cheap clothes of a struggling academic. Re-entering the hotel with her travelling bag, she went to the bar and got a drink. A chance aquaintance accosted her. Laughing she explained she was celebrating her new job with Dr. Wilshaw. Contract signed this morning! She’s waiting at the bar to talk to him.
“Oh really!” said her aquaintance, “what a piece of luck! Good man, Ben.”
There was a shriek from the garden.
It was all over the papers the next day. An academic murdered by a mystery high class woman with a carving knife in full view of all.
Police investigated thoroughly. All guests had to stay for two whole days. They searched bins, corners, plants, the beach, and found nothing. The dead man’s recent recruit was a poignant footnote.
Susan delayed applying for the vacancy for a few weeks, to be on the safe side.

A duck’s end

Murphy’s farm sat on a hill, and in it lived farmers Donal, Brigid, and family. In the farmyard, under the plane trees, were trestle tables and benches where the they sat out and eat in fine weather.
The farm mainly grew apples from the orchards stretching down to the brook. There was a barn full of chickens which smelt strongly when the wind blew the wrong way. A few ducks waddled about the farmyard, lorded over by one with big brown eyes. This large bird sat by the kitchen door at meal-times, begging for scraps. The younger children called him Fingall.
The end of the farm’s apple-picking season came on a warm sunny autumn day. For weeks, the thin, spectacled farm manager Eamonn had managed the apple pickers like a lanky mother hen, and Donal had supervised the sorting, the apple-pressing, the boxing, and packing in warehouse vans.  And now the long days were over. A few apple-pickers remained, camping in the big field for a few more nights.
Donal came came into the kitchen  and sat down in the setting sun by the back door.   Fingall waddled up, and sat outside, peering up hopefully.
“Well Brigid, that’s over. I’m finished, and I’m famished” said Donal.
“Oh, poor man, so, that’s the apples finished then. One last thing, get me a chicken, and tell Eamonn to come ’round. We deserve a bit of a feast.”
“We do ! Fine, I’ll do that now” said Donal, getting to his feet.
Shortly later he came back with a fine big bird, plucked and ready for roasting, and put it on the kitchen table.
“Brigid, here you go. Can I leave you to it? I need to put my feet up!”
“Fine, Donal. Kids ! Come and give us a hand !”
She turned around, saw the bird and gasped “Oh Donal ! You didn’t take Fingall did you? I said ‘a chicken’, not a duck. And not our duck !”
“Oh. Brigid ! It’s a duck, and we’re having a feast !”
“Well, fine, it’s a duck, but the children will be upset… it was our duck !”
“Aaargh!” he wailed, “I didn’t think. I thought ‘a duck to celebrate’, and with Eamonn coming after a hard day”.
Peering over her shoulder, he mumbled “… it’s a feast, no ?”
“Well, what’s done is done. In the oven with him. I won’t be having any though, anyway, I’ll do some fish. Get away and lie down before you massacre anything else you big oaf! That was Fingall !”
Fingall went in the oven for a few hours, and came out golden brown, and smelling toothsome. The sun set, but the evening was warm and the children set the table in the courtyard, and everyone sat down.
“Where’s Fingall?” said one of the children, “Fingall! Dinner time you greedy bastard!”
“Wash your mouth”, said Brigid, “and Fingall isn’t coming back anymore. We had a mishap, and he’s been plucked and roasted.”
“Roasted?” cried the eldest, “what do you mean ‘roasted’? Our duck?”
“When’s he coming back?” wailed the youngest.
“Oh here we go”, sighed Donal, “Right, who wants duck? Look, we’re celebrating the end of the apple crop! Hard work deserves celebration!”
“Dad, I’m alright, I’ll have veg.”
“There’s some fish” sayd Brigid, “and don’t be too hard on him, this is a farm after all. But Fingall? What a disaster !” she finished, and burst out laughing, “Donal, you really are ridiculous”.
The youngest realised the roasted bird was the pet duck Fingall, and giggled, seeing her mum laughing. “Daddy is stupid!” she crowed.
Donal, at the head of the table, studiously carved Fingall and served Eamonn and himself. “Nobody else? Well Eamonn, we’ve work to do: No waste here!”

A stormy cycle tour

On the village square, the young man stood by his bike by the sunlit floral fountain.  In an elderly suit and fedora hat, he looked fairly smart and a little old fashioned.  He carried a big yellow sign saying “Catarella Tours” in big red letters, and the pannier on the back of the bike carried sheafs of leaflets and magazines.  He looked around idly, a foot tapping on the pavement, as he waited for customers.
It was unusually quiet, he thought.  No tour buses at the bus station. Cycle tours along the Po river bank usually drew lots of  cusomers in hot weather, but there was hardly any traffic today. A car drew up across the road, by the cafe, and a girl rolled down the window. “Giulio, hey, are you still waiting there?”
“Yes !  This needs patience, Sandra.”  He snapped his fingers, “Sometimes they just appear like that!”
“Right, but what about Sandra ? Come on, come and sit down” she said and  waved at the café terrace across the road.
He took off his hat and looked at the sky.  The afternooon sun shone through gaps in thick cloud, and a light breeze was chasing leaves down the road.  It looked like rain.  He walked across the empty road, leaning his bike against the lamp-post by the café tables, and sat down.
“So tell me about Sandra then, what’s wrong ?”
She looked surprised.  “Nothing’s wrong !  She said to come over to the barge early, have a drink, help cook maybe?”
“Oh ! Damn. This evening, right? She said come ’round this evening?”
“I can’t believe it. This evening, yes.  We’re invited this evening.  So, let’s go. We can stay on the bunk, she said, because there’s a big storm coming”
“Great, that’s great.  Tell you what, now, I’ll work here a few more hours until sunset, and catch up.  I’ll bring bread.  Is that alright?”
“Giulio, you exaggerate. We planned this weeks ago because her barge  passes today. Not tomorrow. Not yesterday. Then you forget, and  now you’ll be late because you expect to be a tour guide in a storm ?”
“Well, things are just picking up. It’s turning the corner!”
She interrupted “Look Giulio, you never, ever listen!”
Other tables looked around as she raised her voice “A big storm, did you hear me ?  It’s got a name even, it’s called Henry.  Nobody is coming: Give up on this loser bike thing!!”
“Oh, loser am I? Thanks, Giulia. Thanks. You have a good night, IThis loser is going  back to work. Sometimes some encouragement would help.”
“Right! You do that! You waste your life! You never have time for me anyway!”
She stamped off to the car. The car door slammed, and the motor roared off.
Giulio paid the drinks, and went back to his post beside the fountain. Costumers at the café looked at him sympathetically.  He turned away. Well, he better go around to the houseboat not too late, and patch things up.  A man’s got to try and do something in life, just trying to get ahead, he told himself.  Just trying to stay off the dole queue dammit.
The breeze freshened, and the light dimmed.  The sun sank into banks of grey cloud, and big, fat drops of rain started to fall on the pavement. Like big fat squashed insects he thought gloomily, as he wrapped his leaflets in a plastic bag.
Throwing pride to the wind, he hopped on his bike, and cycled off to shelter in the barge.  Tomorrow would be another day.  Storms pass, and arguments would all be forgotten after a good dinner, and a good night’s rest in the storm-tossed barge. And when next day dawned, fresh and sunny, and the endless cycle started again.

Vet on a bus

Mrs. Brown put down her cup and saucer, looked over at the clock, and the poodle lying in its basket.
“Trixie, time to go now, off to the vet !”
She wore a cream outfit and red cloak, matching the cream coloured dog in a red bow, red coat, and red leash. The day was warm. Too warm to walk, thought Mrs. Smith, and too far for Trixie’s little legs. They would take the bus. The bus stop was deserted, as she peered at the timetable in the bright spring sunshine.
“We’ll wait, it’s a lovely day isn’t it ?” she said to the dog.
A gaunt woman approached the bus stop, in espadrilles, with a worn sweatshirt and tracksuit, and tousled hair. Mrs Brown drew back, and stared fixedly into the distance. We should have walked, I do hope the bus comes soon, she thought. At last a packed bus drew up. Mrs Brown boarded hesitantly. The ragged woman followed.
“Where to?” the driver asked.
“Three stops”, she said, and gathered her ticket.
“Move along now”, the driver cried, “move along please!”
A big man in a good suit with a shiny briefcase got to his feet.
“Madam”, he said, and gestured Mrs. Brown into his seat.
“Why thank you” she said and sat down gratefully.
The bus pulled away from the kerb, and jolted. The big man staggered sideways, and there was a howl, suddenly cut short.
“Trixie !!!” shrieked Mrs. Brown.
The dog yelped, one leg crushed at an unnatural angle, a fillet of blood trickling across the floor. “Stop the bus!” she wailed, “he’s killed my dog !”
The driver glanced back, shrugged, and kept driving. “Can’t stop here ma’am, your stop is in a few minutes.”
The quiet woman came over, bent down, and examined the snarling dog.
“Let me look, dog is hurt. I can help.”
“Keep your hands off ! I’m on my way to the vet!”
“Madam,” the man said, “she’s only trying to help.”
“I’m a vet” said the woman, “who has something flat? Of card? A box? And handkerchiefs?”
She calmed the dog, with a touch, and a word. A piece of card was eased under the dog. The bent leg was cushioned and and bound in handkerchiefs.
“There now take to your vet, quick”
Mrs Brown mumbled indistinctly, and rang the bell. As the bus drew up to the bus stop, the big man said “Look, madam, I’ll come with you. You could do with some help. Maybe this lady can come too.”
“Funny, I go there anyway, I come with you.” said the ragged vet.
The trio disembarked, the vet leading with the cardboard stretcher, Mrs Brown fussing, and the big man following. They shortly came to a shop front with “Matuschek – VETERINARY SURGEON” in big gold letters above the door. A doorbell clanged as they entered, and a receptionist looked up.
“Mrs Brown? A checkup wasn’t it – Oh, what’s happened ?”
The big man spoke up “I stumbled, on the bus.. I’m insured, give me the bill. This lady helped” he finished, nodding at the ragged figure.
“That’s right. I have come here for the advert anyway, yes?” said the vet.
The receptionist gingerly took the patient. “Ah. Right, well you wait here, let me take the patient through”
He returned moments later. “Mrs. Brown, step this way, to the waiting room. You sir, I’ll need your details please.”
The big man got out a card. “Here you are. This vet, she was very quick. Impressive, though she doesn’t look the part. Send me the bill, I must dash.”
The door closed, leaving the receptionist studying the vet.
“So you are interested in the post of assistant vet, is this right ?”
“Yes, I am a vet, I have experience.”
“Have you qualifications and references? And, madam, you sound foreign, do you need a work permit?”
“I have copies of qualifications. I have a work permit, I am a refugee so no references, I arrived here, and have no contact with home. I can show you what I can do, instead. I have worked years at home for this.”
“Right, I see. Well, we have seen other candidates already. Do you have an address where we can contact you?”
“Yes, I am with friends that are here. I give you the address. Here, in this folder: qualifications, permit, refugee status and address.”
“I must tell you, this is a private practice, we have standards, and need references. We’ll let you know, I advise you keep looking.”
The vet stood up. “Very good, thank you” she said softly, “Do you have any other recommendations?”
“No, I’m sorry. Many people are looking, these days. We’ll write. Thanks.”
The doorbell clanged and the door closed again, and the receptionist sat back. It was really not easy, he thought, with all these people needing help. One can’t do everything, after all, and people must, first, help themselves. The surgery door opened again, and Dr. Matuschek appeared.
“Neil, where is that person, the vet? Mrs Brown tells me a passing vet fixed up Trixie on the bus?”
“Oh, she just left a moment ago. A sad case, another refugee, I told her we were full. She gave me her papers, here, but I think there’s little chance. She can give no references, anyway.”
“Neil, please don’t, wait, what did you tell her? She’s just left ? What does she look like?”
“Well, ragged, in flip-flops, a tracksuit … ?”
“Right, well Neil, go and try and fetch her back, right now, I’ll see her.”
The front doorbell clanged again, as Neil wordlessly went on his mission.
“Oh Mrs. Brown!” the doctor said, entering the waiting room, “Good news, the break was stabilised fast thanks to that stranger. You’ve been lucky.”
“Oh really? The way she looked, I really wasn’t sure.”
“Well. A refugee with a clear head, reminds me of dad. Let’s see that folder of hers now, I think we might have something here.”
The doorbell clanged again, and Neil, and the candidate vet, entered.
“Ah very good. I’m glad Neil caught you, doctor. When can you come for an interview?”