Category Archives: Stories

The Silent Highway

‘You can bugger off! I’m not getting out of here until you tell me what you did with it.’

Joey Garlick changed his stroke from breast to crawl and the world disappeared as he swam alone along the silent highway, half submerged in the water, Silent highway: Joey liked that phrase. Some journalist from the New York Times had written it about him back in ’93 when he’d won the mile. It was just him and M’Cusker in that race: two hundred and fifty pounds a side and Joey had won the lot in world record time. If he had the money now he wouldn’t be swimming round the mill pond, that’s for sure. He’d be far away from here, where there was sunshine to ease his aches and clean water to swim in.

Each time Joey turned his head sideways to take in air he could hear Annie berate him from the bank. Her shrill voice mingled with the swish of the water to form part of the rhythm of his strokes.

‘Out…death of cold…people think…ridiculous.’

Joey didn’t mind the din from his daughter’s voice; he often swam through it, much to her disgust. As he settled into a steady pace, Annie’s calls became the roar of the crowd lining the banks of Hollingworth Lake and the cheers that greeted him at his testimonial gala in 1925.

Joey was far away, winning the three miler in Rhode Island, when the jab of Annie’s umbrella in the side of his head brought him home. The shock of the blow made him break stroke and he trod water while he looked mournfully at his daughter.

‘What did you do that for?’

‘I want you out of there now father, you’re not staying there to die of cold. I don’t want that on my conscience.’

Annie looked out of place in her best coat, kneeling on the lodge bank. Strangely Joey felt honoured that she was wearing the coat as it was normally reserved for chapel and trips to town. Still, she looked wrong kneeling there, as if the unaccustomed contact of the woollen cloth with the ground lessened her authority.

‘If you had a conscience you’d tell me where my cup is.’ Joey said.

‘I’ve told you. I don’t know where your blessed cup is and care less.’

The cup was Joey’s last relic, stored with a few photographs and press cuttings from the old days. He had a picture of himself, dripping wet and shaking hands with the Prince of Wales after winning the quarter mile at Regents’ Park. The inscription on the small gold-plated cup said:

Presented by His Royal Highness

Edward, Prince of Wales

to Joseph Garlick Esq.,

Undisputed World Swimming Champion

26th of May, 1894

On market days, when Annie was out of the house, Joey would reach under his bed and fetch out the battered cardboard box that contained his memories. Sometimes he’d sit there alone, reading the press cuttings out loud to himself. On school holidays he’d sit with his grandson and tell him stories of his forty year-old victories.

‘There are not many mill hands that have met the Prince of Wales’; he’d tell the admiring boy.

Then, one market day, only the press cuttings and pictures remained: his cup was gone. Joey was convinced that Annie had taken it, when her coldness towards him had turned to anger. But she remained tight-lipped, only breaking her silence to deny Joey’s increasingly frantic accusations.

Now, today at the pond, Joey wasn’t going to let things lie.

‘Deny it all you like lady,’ he said, ‘and jab at me with that gamp all you want. I’m not shifting, no matter how much you prod and prattle on.’

Annie puffed up her rounded cheeks and looked offended

‘You can’t stay there forever, no matter how much you say you can. But I’ll tell you this father: if you’re not home before dark you’ll find the door locked and you can sleep on the doorstep.’

‘You wouldn’t dare, I’ve still got friends here you know. They still call me Champ in the village, so someone would take me in. Besides, you’d not live down the shame of seeing me beg for a bed.’

Annie reached out for Joey with her umbrella, trying to hook him round his neck with its crook and drag him into the bank. Joey laughed and dodged away easily, sculling backwards just out of his daughter’s reach.

‘You old beggar,’ she said. ‘You wouldn’t behave like a spoiled child if our Ted was here. You’d show him some respect.’

‘But here’s not here is he,’ replied Joey. ‘You’ve sent your husband away. ‘Cotton trade’s dead’, you said. ‘Go and look for a living wage’, you said. So he’s gone, and all you ever see of him is a thirty shilling postal order every fortnight.’

Annie struck out in anger with the umbrella, churning up the water, but missing Joey by a yard. He turned and swam away from Annie.

‘Give over and go home,’ he called over his shoulder. ‘You’re not needed here.’

A few stiff-shouldered strokes later Joey was travelling smoothly along the silent highway again. This time the silence was undisturbed by Annie’s voice and Joey guessed she’d given up and gone home. Now he was alone it felt like the old days, when only the swimming mattered. He understood the water and felt at home in it: better to stay there, out of reach.

Joey was powering home in some bygone hundred yard dash when he felt the push of water as a heavy object fell into the pond. He didn’t need to hear the splash, although it had been a loud one, because his body was trained to feel the surge of a rival swimmer. Joey felt small waves lap against his face. Whatever had fallen in was alive and struggling, sending the waves out, but they became feebler so Joey swam towards the far end of the pond where the disturbance came from. He couldn’t see the cause, because this was the deepest corner of the lodge and the water was too murky to see to the bottom, so Joey held a deep breath and dived down, reaching out with his hands. He felt nothing at first but groped around until his fingers touched something soft. It was the thick wool of Annie’s coat.

Joey lit a fire in the small grate in Annie’s bedroom that night. She was chilled and shocked, the doctor said, but nothing worse. Once she was settled in bed with a glass of warm milk and medicinal brandy, Joey left Annie to rest and went downstairs to reassure his grandson. An hour later he crept back upstairs to look in on Annie one last time before bed. She was half-asleep, her greying hair spread out across the pillows and a white linen nightdress buttoned up primly round her neck. Joey glanced down to the milk glass and smiled. Every last drop was gone.

‘You pulled me out.’

Annie’s voice was weak, but in the firelight, Joey could see some colour in her cheeks.

‘Of course I pulled you out you daft bugger. What else would I do?’

‘I don’t know; leave me there for the lodge keeper to find? It was an accident you know, I fell in.’

‘I guessed that. You wouldn’t choose to jump in: never were much interested in swimming.’

Joey couldn’t think of anything more to say so he just stood there awkwardly, waiting for Annie to speak.

‘I fell in because I was angry with you,’ Annie said. ‘I was trying to catch up with you so I could tell you some home truths, and I slipped.’

‘You should be careful round that pond; it’s easy to slip on them banks. What home truths did you want to tell me about?’

Annie looked away.

‘I pawned your cup. Ted’s postal order was late and we needed the money for food.’

‘I thought as much,’ said Joey. ‘Did you get a good price?’

‘Fifteen shillings.’

‘Bloody hell, the price of fame. So what were you angry about?’

‘It was what you said about Ted and the postal orders. Thirty shillings isn’t much, but it’s like the widow’s mite to him.’

‘So why be angry with me?’

Annie looked back at Joey, her hard stare piercing him.

‘So how much do you reckon you made from swimming years back?’

‘I dunno, a fair bit.’

‘And how much of it did you send home to mum when I was little? How much of the prize money that came with that bloody cup did we see?’

Joey mumbled in reply.

‘I sent back…’

‘…Oh, go to bed dad. It’s too late for this. Just go to bed.’

As Joey lay in bed that night he thought about his cup. At least he knew where it was and maybe, when Ted’s next postal order arrived, he could fetch it back from the pawnbroker’s. Just before he slept doubt briefly washed over him: was the Silent Highway the road he should have taken? But he knew the answer even before he’d asked the question.

Edward and Edith Annie

My parental grandparents, Edward and Edith Annie, lived all their married lives in the same two-up, two-down stone terraced cottage. As a young boy I spent most Saturday afternoons there and I found the house stifling and gloomy. The furniture was old, massy and dark-wooded; the household ran to the pace of the slow-ticking mahogany cased grandfather clock; and there was nothing to do. The cottage matched the mood of only one of its inhabitants. Edward was a kindly cap-wearing pipe smoker with a sense of humour. Every year while on holiday in Morecambe, he sent my mother a saucy McGill postcard. It was their shared joke and I still have several postcards in a shoebox in the attic. By contrast Edith-Annie was as austere as her surroundings.

Early photographs of my grandmother show a substantial woman: handsome rather than pretty and with an imposing Edwardian bosom. By 1963 she was elderly, stern and stout. A working class Victorian upbringing and bleak non-conformist religious beliefs helped make her dour and humourless, but life’s experiences had really created her. In the nineteen twenties, Edward and Edith Annie worked in the cotton mills. She was a weaver and he a cotton printer, then a highly paid job. They had been affluent enough to employ a village girl to keep house for them: I have a press cutting reporting how she stole Edith-Annie’s wedding ring. During the depression of the nineteen thirties they both lost their jobs and Edward had to earn a living as water man tending the small reservoir at the top end of the village. Edith Annie stayed at home, made ends meet and brooded.

One Saturday a month Edith Annie’s sister, Aunt Ethel, made the two-bus journey from the mining town of Leigh for a visit. When seated together it was hard to tell the two sisters apart: it seemed as if their father, a miner, had hewn them from the same coalface, and they shared the same coal-black outlook on life. Both women dressed for the visit in their smartest clothes –  the only time I ever saw Edith Annie without her apron in the house – and they had identical iron-grey shampoo and set hairstyles. The visit was surprisingly formal. On arrival Aunt Ethel gave Edith Annie a small present, usually a tin of salmon, and they would exchange small talk. Around three they had afternoon tea: Ethel’s tinned salmon, salad and bread and butter. They drank strong tea and finished the meal with ‘fancies’ – small iced cakes. Apart from the small talk the visit was conducted in almost silent communion until, at three thirty, the atmosphere changed.

In 1960 a television had become a surprise addition to the cottage. The set was hardly ever used except for Saturday afternoons, when ITV showed an hour of all in wrestling. In the nineteen sixties wrestling was a popular, earthy, affair. Its fighters were heroes and Ethel and Edith Annie were in thrall to them. This hour was sacred so, with measured haste, the women cleared away the tea things whilst Edward turned on the slow warming television set. This was no place for a man, so when he’d found the channel and set two mahogany Queen Anne dining chairs out in front of the television,  Edward beat a hasty retreat. Sometimes I went with him while he walked round the village, but if it rained I was reluctantly allowed to stay for the wrestling. Tucked away unregarded in a corner, the most attention I got was to be ‘shushed’ if I was noisy.

At exactly four o’ clock the commentator, Kent Walton, gave his customary greeting ‘Good afternoon, grapple fans’, and the two old women settled down on their chairs. They sat attentively through the first couple of sporting bouts, but became tense when the Master of Ceremonies announced the final brutal fight between good and evil.

‘In the blue corner, the man you love to hate: Mick McManus’

The crowd booed McManus, who had black trunks and short cropped black hair, and he snarled back. Edith Annie and Ethel tutted their disapproval.

‘And in the red corner, all the way from Canada, Billy Two Rivers.’

Billy, a genuine Mohawk Indian, got rousing cheers from the crowd and raised eyebrows of approval from my relatives. He always entered the ring in a full feather war bonnet, and had a Mohican haircut that Edith Annie would have crossed the road to avoid on any other day of the week. On Saturdays, however, she revelled in the exotic.

The bout started warily as the two wrestlers circled each other. Billy went for a stranglehold but McManus slipped past and gave Billy two of his trademark forearm smashes, sending him into the ropes. Aunt Ethel winced at the pain, but Billy launched himself from the ropes catching McManus with his own forearm smash that made Edith Annie suck in air sharply. While McManus was recovering Billy went for a half-nelson but, unseen by the referee, the bad guy tried to gouge Billy’s eye with a knuckle, an illegal move that made Edith Annie and Ethel tut loudly. As Billy staggered round the ring rubbing his eye, McManus capitalized by kicking him on the knee, sending him face forward to the ground. Then McManus dragged Billy by the leg into the middle of the ring and got him in a painful looking knee lock.

‘Oh no.’ Ethel cried in dismay, while Edith Annie looked pained.

But Billy was strong. Slowly he crawled towards the edge of the ring and managed to grab hold of the bottom rope. McManus should have released him but he pretended that he couldn’t hear the referee’s request.

‘Let go of ‘im.’ Edith Annie called with the crowd.

Luckily the bell went for the end of round one and McManus reluctantly released Billy, who crawled back to his corner.

Billy limped out to start round two but it was a ruse. As McManus went for another kick on Billy’s weakened knee the Canadian deftly sidestepped him, grabbed his right arm and swung him hard into the corner post.

‘Go on’.  Edith Annie’s voice rose to a muted shout of encouragement, while Ethel nodded her head violently in support, threatening to dislodge her shampoo and set.

As Billy followed up with a kick to the knee, McManus dodged and managed to wrestle Billy into a headlock. Billy’s head was twisted round savagely and McManus shouted for him to submit. His muffled refusal was echoed by the two old women. Then McManus edged round until he faced away from the referee and, for the cameras, punched Billy in the face four times.  Aunt Ethel’s reserve broke first and she half-stood, screaming at the television.

‘You dirty beggar, geroff ‘im’.

Worse was to come. McManus stopped punching Billy and, still maintaining the headlock, reached his free hand down and grabbed hold of the edge of Billy’s trunks. He twisted them savagely while Billy writhed for the viewers. Edith Annie was indignant and she turned to Ethel.

‘Did you just see what he did?’ Then she began to move her lips silently while Ethel nodded in agreement. Modesty forbade them to voice the unmentionable words, so they resorted to the lip reading they had learned when they worked in the noisy weaving sheds.

Somehow, Billy managed to get a hold on McManus’s fingers and prize the headlock apart. Then moving swiftly he caught McManus’s arm and swung him into the ropes so hard that McManus went over the top rope and out of the ring.

The old women became even more excited, because they knew what was coming next. Billy was angry and when he was angry he stoked it with a war dance. The crowd screamed as Billy stomped around the ring, ululating loudly. McManus was a marked man and knew it. He had to be pushed back into the ring.

Now Billy went for a headlock on McManus and paraded him around, shouting to the crowd.

Should I? Should I?

‘Go on, do it’ they replied.

‘Yes, yes’, shouted Ethel emphatically.

Go on’, bellowed Edith Annie, the loudest voice of all. ‘Get ‘im gelded!’

McManus knew what was coming: he had one weak point and no bout was complete until the crowd heard him cry:

‘Not the ears, not the ears’.

Billy theatrically waved his open hand at the crowd and then ground his palm into McManus’s left ear, while the hated one screamed to be set free. Billy obliged him, but only so that he could grab McManus by an arm and leg and hoist him into the air for an aeroplane spin. Billy spun round three times and then threw McManus to the ground.

McManus stayed put while the referee counted to ten. He made one feeble attempt to stand but didn’t make the count. The crowd roared as the master of ceremonies shouted

‘The winner, by a knockout, Billy Two Rivers.’

Edith Annie pointed to the screen, stared at Ethel and shouted triumphantly:

‘See, see, see that’.

At that moment Edith Annie was at the ringside baying with the crowd, then on cue, Edward returned from his walk and she returned home. Neither woman spoke about the wrestling or acknowledged the release it gave them, and shortly afterwards Aunt Ethel left to catch her bus. Perhaps there was a knowing look in the half smiles they bestowed each other on parting.

Jack

‘Nobody’s been married longer than me. Nobody.’

Jack hit the bar of the Miners Arms with his open hand, sending bitter slopping over the top of his glass. He picked up the pint and drank half of it down without swallowing, while the other drinkers standing close by eyed him warily. They’d suffered his ‘marriage’ routine at least twice a week for years and didn’t want to hear it again. But the Landlord, who enjoyed winding Jack up, couldn’t resist.

‘How long have you been married then?,’ he asked.

‘Twenty eight years and every one of the buggers counts as double.’

Only Jack laughed at the joke, while everyone else smiled wearily. No one would be able to stop Jack now he was on his favourite topic.

‘I deserve a medal, I do,’ Jack said bitterly. ‘Nobody’s put up with what I’ve had to put up with. That’s for sure.’

‘And what was that?’

‘Oh please don’t,’ moaned one of the regulars as the Landlord stoked Jack’s fires.

‘Neglect lad, sheer bloody neglect on a grand scale,’ Jack replied, pointing to his substantial beer belly as evidence. ‘I don’t know how I’ve managed to keep body and soul going. I’ve worked damn hard all my life and she’s had it all. I can barely afford the pennies for a pint every now and again. I’ve been mistreated and no mistake.’

‘T’other way round, if you ask me,’ muttered Pam, the landlord’s wife, who was busy stacking soft drinks behind the bar.

Pam’s judgement of the customers was harsher than her husband’s: he liked to keep his regulars happy and spending money.

‘What do you mean?’ Jack asked.

‘From what I’ve seen it’s your Sheila that’s had to do most of the putting up’

‘I don’t get it,’ said Jack.

‘Well,’ said Pam, ‘how many nights have you spent in here? Plenty. And how many times have you ever brought Sheila in? None, that’s how many.’

‘She won’t come to pubs, ‘cos she’s allergic to beer,’ Jack pleaded.

‘Not allowed in you mean. You wouldn’t want her in here to see you carrying on with other women.’

‘I don’t do carry on’s,’ said Jack indignantly. ‘I might like a little drink now and again, but I’ve never carried on with anybody.’

Jack finished his pint and handed his glass expectantly to the landlord, while he looked round his fellow drinkers for moral support. They all avoided his beery gaze: no one dared to side with Jack against the Landlord’s wife.

‘You tell me,’ he continued when a fresh pint was securely in his grasp, ‘you tell me when you’ve seen me carryin’ on in this pub?’

‘Well not recently, I must admit,’ said Pam, ‘but there was a time when you had a different woman in here every month.’

‘They weren’t women,’ said Jack defensively, ‘they were valued work colleagues. We came here for meetings, we weren’t carrying on.’

‘What, on Friday’s, with them dressed up for a night out? Rum meetings if you ask me.’

‘You’ve got it all wrong.’ Jack wagged a finger at Pam. ‘I’m as pure as the driven: the only thing I’ve pulled in years is my back.’

Jack drew on his new pint, and winked conspiratorially at the Landlord with a bloodshot and watery eye. A more sensible and sober man would have quit now, but Jack was stubborn and wouldn’t let things go.

‘But if you’re so sure of yourself,’ Jack continued, ‘how come you’ve never said anything to Sheila?’

‘As if she didn’t know already,’ said Pam ‘Besides, I’m not one to interfere when a man’s making a fool of himself.’

‘What do you mean a fool?’ asked Jack. I was entertaining people from work. They were new people; it was part of their induction.’

‘Rubbish. Most of them were barely out of school. I didn’t notice you bringing any middle-aged men in here for their “induction”. It looked bloody pathetic mostly.’

Jack and Pam glared at each other. The Landlord, realising he’d made a mistake, tried to ease the tension.

‘And if Sheila had found out she’d have stopped you coming in,’ he said. ‘Would have halved my profits.’

Everyone laughed, except Jack who stood there looking foolish.

‘Anyway, there’s nothing I can do about it now,’ remarked Pam ruefully. It’s ages since you dragged anyone in with you: you must be losing your touch lad.’

‘Losing my touch,’ said Jack, beginning to lose his temper, ‘I am not! It’s just that work’s…work’s different now, that’s all. Look, I’ve had enough of this, and if this is how you treat a valued customer I’ll go and drink somewhere where I won’t be insulted.’

‘You’re choice,’ said Pam, who’d heard this threat before.

‘Right, I’m going then. I don’t care if you beg me to stay. Mind you, I’d better have one more to steady myself before I go. And I’ll have a small whisky with it.’

It was late the next morning when Jack woke up. His head ached ferociously from the beer the night before, his eyes itched, and he was badly in need of something to drink. As far as he knew it was Saturday, but he couldn’t swear to it: the only thing he really knew was that he was in pain and felt sick.

Jack reached out across the bed, checking to see if Sheila was still there, but she was already up. This meant a few minutes grace where he could prepare himself to face the torments of the day ahead and try to piece together his memories of the night before. He half-remembered trudging aimlessly between pubs looking for anyone who’d sit and listen to him. Then he’d been refused entry to some trendy modern bar in town, but what happened after that was anybody’s guess.  Eventually Jack gave up trying to remember and decided that his hangover would be no worse if he got out of bed. He dragged himself upright and shambled into the bathroom where he spent a minute inspecting the image of a jowly, unshaven old man that presented himself in mirror every time he stood in front of it.  He considered shaving, but decided that this was a step too far for now, so he made do with splashing some cold water on his face, and running a  comb across his thinning hair.

Getting dressed took a while but eventually he managed it and, grasping on to the bannister for support, he made it downstairs. As he entered the kitchen, where he expected to be confronted by Sheila, he held his head very still in what he hoped was a natural looking position. The hangover hurt like hell, but he was damned if he was going to let her see it. Sheila was sat at the kitchen table, drinking tea and reading that morning’s edition of the Daily Mail. She briefly glanced up at him and brushed a strand of greying hair from her careworn face. Jack walked across the room to join her and as he sat down he prepared himself for her usual hard stare, which always managed to look both blank and frosty at the same time. Instead she smiled at him for the first time in months.

‘Sit down love,’ she said with only the slightest trace of animosity in her voice. ‘I’ve got you some breakfast ready.’

Thrown by this sudden and unexpected pleasantness, Jack drew a chair back from the table and did as he was told. He tilted his whole body downwards very slightly, to avoid having to move his head, and took in the state of the tabletop. It was completely transformed from the usual neglected state: the scratched wood was covered by a green and red checked tablecloth and Sheila had laid out cutlery and a serviette for him.

‘Thanks love,’ Jack’s voice betrayed just a hint of suspicion. ‘Is it a special occasion?

‘Not particularly,’ replied Sheila, ‘I just thought you’d appreciate something a bit different, that’s all.’

Jack’s stomach turned slightly at the prospect of food, but he wasn’t going to refuse a breakfast if it was on offer. And by the sight of the table it looked like it was going to be a good one. Not only was there cutlery, Sheila had put out his favourite sauce and there was a large tea mug waiting to be filled.

‘I’ve got most of it done already,’ said Sheila. ‘It’s been keeping warm in the oven so I just need to lay it out for you.’

She got up from the table and walked round behind Jack. He sat perfectly still for fear of making his hangover worse, while Sheila opened and closed the oven door.

‘Now are you sure you’re ready for this?’ She asked.

Jack nodded very slightly so, leaning over his shoulder, Sheila slammed a can of bitter, slightly warmed by the oven, right down in the middle of the immaculate place setting.

‘There you bastard’, she bellowed in his ear. ‘You like this so much I thought you’d want to carry on where you left off last night.’

Sheila came and sat back down at the table, her stare now restored to its usual place. But there was a challenge in her look too. Jack didn’t respond at first, but then wordlessly he picked up the can, jerked back the ring-pull and took a long swig. The tilting motion of his head and the taste of the tepid and tinny beer made him feel sick, but he was determined not to show it. When he’d drained the can Jack placed it carefully back on the table.

‘Thanks love’, he said with feigned relish, ‘my favourite. How did you know?’

Jack’s daredevil gesture gained him a few seconds of moral ascendancy while Sheila stood up and banged angrily round the kitchen. Then she came back and stood next to Jack, which forced him to look up at her, sending shooting pains down the back of his head.

‘Three this morning you came blundering into our room,’ she shouted hoarsely. ‘Do you think you could get home early just once in a while? Before midnight would be nice.’

‘What difference does it make to you?,’ asked Jack.

‘You stank of beer and then bloody well snored through the rest of the night. I’ve told you before, sleep in the other room.’

‘Buggered to see why I should’, grumbled Jack. ‘It’s my house too and I worked hard enough for it.’

Sheila leaned over Jack and shouted in his face.

‘Well if it’s your house why don’t you see to the drains? They’ve wanted clearing for weeks.’

‘I’ll do ‘em tomorrow’, Jack replied.

‘Earlier would be nice. Like tonight if you get home before midnight.’

‘Look, if tomorrow’s not good enough for you why don’t you get a man in?’

‘Might do’ mused Sheila. It’s the first time we’ll have had one in the house since our Peter left.’

Jack stood up and marched unsteadily to the back door, and took a jacket from the coat rack.

‘Right, that’s it,’ he said. ‘I’m off to work.’

‘On a Saturday. For God sake Jack. When are you going to stop…’

‘Enough.’ Shouted Jack, ‘it’s overtime isn’t it and better than doing nowt.’

‘And what time will you be home?’

‘Sometime. But why the sudden interest? You stopped asking years ago.’

‘You’ve got to take an interest in your loved ones. It says so in paper,’ Sheila said sarcastically as she pointed to the Daily Mail.

‘Don’t bother, the shock’ll kill me.

On his way to work Jack realised that walking out on arguments seemed to have become a habit of his. At this rate, he thought, I’ll have nowhere else to go but bloody work. It was quiet in the office, and Jack sank gratefully into his deeply padded leather chair. He closed his eyes with a sigh and let his hangover wash over him while throbbing pain, nausea and sleep fought over him. Sleep started to get the upper hand, but even then Jack was troubled by blurred and floating images of Sheila and Pam shouting at him about blocked drains and carrying on…

…’Where do you want these, Mr Goodall?’

‘Where do I want what love?’

‘It’s these invoices, Mr Goodall. Mr Jackson said you’d want to check them before they were paid.’

The girl stood in the doorway of his office and looked down at the papers in her hand. She was young and confident.

‘Oh them. Just put them over there on the corner of my desk.’

Jack looked appreciatively at the girl as she walked towards him and was forced to lean over his desk to put the invoices on the spot he’d pointed to.

‘You’re new here aren’t you?’ he asked.

‘Yes, Mr Goodall. I started on Monday.’

‘Look Jack’ll do when we’re on our own: Mr Goodall’s for when we’re in company. And what do they call you?’

The girl smiled and brushed a strand of straw coloured hair from her unblemished face.

‘They call me Sheila, Mr Goodall, Sheila Marsh.’

‘It’s Jack, remember. Well Sheila, has any one told you about the company induction programme?’

Sheila looked puzzled and shook her head.

‘Well,’ explained Jack, ‘it’s usual for a more senior member of staff to help new joiners to get to know their way around better. If you like I could help you.’

Jack ran his hand through his glossy hair and smiled a blue eyed winning smile, but Sheila shook her head again.

‘I don’t want to put you to too much trouble, Mr Goo.., er Jack, you look really busy.’

‘Now then Sheila, not too busy to help new talent settle in. Always help someone on the way up, that’s my motto. Besides, I expect Mr Jackson would expect it and we don’t want to disappoint him in your first week.’

‘Well if you’re really sure,’ Sheila said reluctantly. ‘Do I need to tell Mr Jackson?’

‘No, I’ll do that for you love. Now normally I like to meet new members of staff more informally to help them settle in. How would Friday after work suit?’

‘Oh no,’ said Sheila, looking really alarmed this time. ‘I’m not sure about that. Is it proper?’

‘It’s not only proper, it’s company policy.’

As Jack looked into the girl’s grey eyes, he knew he’d won. By hell, he thought, you’ve got the touch, Jack lad.

In the middle of a prolonged snore Jack woke up in his office. It was cold and getting dark and he’d slept away another short winter’s day. In the light filtering through the grimy windows, he could barely make out the tools hanging from the walls of the shed. His hangover had nearly gone, but he had a stiff neck from sleeping in the battered leather chair, the one he’d bought for the shed on the day after he’d been asked to leave work. Reluctantly he rose and stood in the doorway of the shed looking at his dimly lit house. For a few minutes he stood considering his choices: should he go and confront his future or his past?

‘Miners Arms or drains?’ he asked himself.

The Boy Who Nearly Kissed Her

I was one inch away from my first kiss with Pauline Sidebottom when the police raided the party. If we hadn’t sat on the darkened stairway holding hands for nearly an hour we would have been alright. As it was our lips were so close and Pauline’s breath was misting my glasses when the constable kicked the door in.  This was turning out to be some first date.

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Home Time

Peter Booth sat and watched the classroom clock tick round reluctantly from three forty four to three forty five, the second hand dragging itself across the roman numerals as if each tick would be its last. Peter made the clock move slowly, of course, by staring at it instead of focusing on his work, but whenever he tried to concentrate on the pages of the old atlas he was dragged back to the second hand. Every afternoon was the same when Miss Fenton announced it was project time. ‘Projects’ consisted mainly of copying pages out of old text books onto thin paper, on which the ink from the pupils pens blotted chronically. Peter’s project this half-term was ‘Deserts of the World’ and he tried unsuccessfully to trace the shape of the Sahara from a map of Africa, which showed the British Empire edged in red. For Peter the last thirty minutes of each school day were the longest of his life. Today the minutes seemed even longer because he wanted it to be home time more than ever.

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Camel

Most people in here call me Camel ‘cos they say I smell like one, right. That’s ‘cos when I was in the Young Offenders’ Institution they beat me up every time I tried to get a shower, so I stopped botherin’. That don’t happen no more because the screws say no one will go near me after what I done. They say that they’ve never had a grave robber on remand before, even though I tell ‘em I never done no grave robbin’. I’m only in here ‘cos I tried to do Carly a favour.

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