A gloomy and very routine Tuesday morning on the motorway turns into something very, very different for businessman Ben Richardson.
Second place in the 2009 Grace Dieu Writers’ Circle Competition and published on site; also later in Issue 23 of Gold Dust magazine. http://www.golddustmagazine.co.uk
Published in 2013 Bruce Harris anthology, First Flame, (SPM Publications) ISBN 978-0-9927055-0-3
Neither Kate nor Ian are very enthusiastic about ‘speed dating’, but something seems to happen between them anyway.
Third place in the 2011 Fylde Writers’ Short Story Competition, and subsequently published in Out of Season Competition Anthology, ISBN 978-1-4466-0481-6
Published in 2013 anthology First Flame
Drag artiste Paul Stanmore, experienced in self-defence, is recruited by a diplomatic policeman in the quest to track a persistent sex attacker.
Listed to the last 100 of 4,500 entries to the 2015 Bridport Prize; commended in the 2015 Earlyworks Press Competition and published in the competition anthology Journeys Beyond, ISBN 978-1-910841-37-2
Published in 2017 Bruce Harris anthology, Odds Against, (Earlyoworks Press),
Phyllis Harmston, the feisty owner of the Cute Cuisine restaurant, is dealing with a standard Saturday night – a chef who drinks too much and bullies his assistant, a 50th birthday celebration, a Golden Wedding anniversary and a young man proposing to his girlfriend.
Short-listed for the 2014 Rubery Short Story Award.
Published in 2017 anthology Odds Against.
Senior diplomat Simon Harrington finds himself having to rescue his journalist elder brother Philip from a hostile African regime, and remembers previous occasions when his brother managed to put him in a perilous situation.
Published in 2018 Bruce Harris anthology The Guy Thing, (Linnet’s Wings),
Half gypsy Danior defiantly wears his grandfather’s silver earring gift, but finds prejudice against him continuing even into his career as a professional footballer.
Listed in the 2015 Homestart Bridgwater Competition and in the final ten of the 2015 Ifanca Helene James Competition.
Published in 2018 anthology The Guy Thing.
Christelle’s mother takes her and her brother Jean-Claude to Cannes, hoping to boost Christelle’s prospects of becoming what her mother wants her to be, a fashion model. But Christelle and Jean-Claude have other plans, and an unforeseen ally.
Published in 2018 anthology A Collection of Words – 5, (Words Magazine),
Grand families have grand ancestors, though in the case of this family, their 17th century patriarch was a stable boy, though no less worthy as a result.
First published in Vintage Script, Issue 9, Spring 2013 and subsequently in 2018 A Collection of Words anthology.
A dull, windless, smelly November morning; a man in a suit and a big Audi gazing blankly out of the window in an M4 layby.
Ashamed, confused, disorientated, like a child after a tantrum. Road rage, that's the name for it; there's a name for everything, he thought, a convenient label for pinning on. Identify, classify, neutralise. Not so long ago, a youth called Ben Richardson, who didn't look exactly like anyone else and didn't like, think or do the same things, or so he thought, was romping a highly individualistic progress through his life, though in reality he was doing much the same things as all the other youths were doing, in much the same way. Now Ben Richardson is a man with uniforms, husband, father, manager, employee, who gets up, puts one on and whirrs into action like a programmed android performing all allocated functions.
For God's sake, he thought, it's Tuesday morning. This stuff is for Saturday night, after about the seventh glass, with similarly afflicted thirty somethings facing the bleeding obvious, as if it was any kind of discovery, that they are not going to be rock gods, tycoons, media divas or whatever teen delusions have even now still to be finally flushed away. Tuesday morning is about quietly cursing this sodding road and the innumerable deranged morons allowed to drive large, dangerous vehicles on it, opening the store, finding out who's on sickies today, then the usual inadequate plastering over the cracks without adequate resources. Walking the Company's profit margin tightrope in the knowledge that one really bad slip will mean redundancy and problems, one more screw-up heading inexorably in the direction of middle-aged maladies.
He scowled out of the window on his right at the sound of another would-be Lewis Hamilton vroom-vrooming past at about a ton. It's half-dark, there might just conceivably still be a bit of road ice here and there, and still they do it, boys with big toys, dumb, empty-headed cowboys willing to risk every neck as well as their own to wave their supposed virility in the world's face. It made him angry, but not like it used to; once it was a kind of tutting resignation, head-shaking detachment. Now it made him insanely angry, scarlet in the face angry, a screaming orgy of utterly futile noise and gesture, so much so that he found himself weeping tears of frustration and had to pull into a layby, there to waste time on some kind of gob-smacked self-indulgent life review like a bewildered kid looking to Find Himself. Something appeared ahead which seemed to be demanding his attention and he dismissed it impatiently; how dare it cut across his self-castigation processes, it was a car, for God's sake, this is a motorway, how difficult can this be. Then two points registered, or rather reverberated in his head as if someone had smacked his earhole hard to wake him up. It was a car with no lights on; it was driving down the wrong side of the motorway.
For years afterwards, he could never properly understand why the most vivid recollection he had was that brief period of denial, ten seconds at most, including the incredible number of twists and turns he managed to go through; the refusal to believe such a thing was really happening, the dismissal of it being not really real, like a television report, the possibility of some mad illusion, the notion that he'd dozed into a bizarre day-dream.
Then what happened happened with a gruesome predictability, anything and everything he'd always been afraid of happening on a motorway, all of it happened. Someone going too fast in the slow lane recognised what was coming at them much, much too late and swerved wildly into the middle lane, where someone overtaking at speed couldn't get out of the way in time and the momentum of the great thudding crunch the two of them made carried both across into the fast lane where a long, lean car hit them so hard its tail went up in the air as its front concertinaed in with a kind of long grumbling metallic groan.
At this point, he closed his eyes, don't acknowledge it and it'll go away, but the noises were too menacing and too many. When he opened his eyes, his detached consciousness, the remaining rationality in the back of his mind cringing away like a child in darkness, understood what he saw as a visual definition of hell even though he'd never before tried to define it, and visual was only part of it. Smoke, grey and brown, pungent, choking, everywhere, and where and when it lifted, a few dim figures moving around in the near-darkness in insane, aimless fashion, some so badly
bloodied and walking in such grotesquely distorted ways as to suggest savage, terminal hurt.
A mess of metal and organic unidentifiable bits and pieces, a medley of extremities of noise, screams meaning real happening pain, the discontented mumble of fire, the creaks and twists of material and flesh trashed or being trashed. And smells, everywhere, intimidating, dangerous, sickening smells, some recognisable, some, worse still, not.
And still, a faint residue of absurd indignation about Tuesday, all this, life braking to a halt and then blowing up in his face, on a bloody common cooking Tuesday, routine half-lit November drudge.
But from somewhere, with an illogical, painful suddenness like the thump after a fall, he was able to click into a short sequence of simple conclusions. One car had finished on the edge of the hard shoulder just below the grass bank, on its right side, the left side about six feet in the air and the door swung madly open on a single hinge, the car with its tail in the air right next to it, and the bottom part of the upended car was burning, already too strongly for anything but a fire hose to stop it.
Click, click, in his mind like dropping skittles; that fire was seven feet, at most, from the petrol tank of the car on its side, and in probably no more than five minutes, anyone still in that car would be incinerated, burnt alive, quickly or slowly, depending on how big the initial explosion was.
Now a focus and a linear sequence, combining like a rescue kit; he climbed out of his car; a young man, probably not more than mid-twenties, was sitting with his back up against a car about ten feet away, with his head in his hands weeping; Ben could see blood under one hand.
No time, something said from somewhere, a remote control which had arrived with the rescue kit. He ran over to the car on its side, grasped it with both hands and heaved, hoping his weight would crash it back down and dreading what might happen if it did; the flames, he could see, were seven feet and closing. He had to move quickly to stop the swinging door clashing shut on his fingers; with a mixture of infuriation and strength, he clashed his elbow hard into the door and sighed when it clattered off altogether, crashing down onto the road.
Now he could see into the back seat; two small bodies, a bit of blood but not much, one unconscious, a boy of nine or ten, pressing a wide-eyed girl of about five against the side, now the base, of the car. She seemed awake. He hauled his whole torso up, still hoping the car would crash back down, but it just creaked in a whingeing kind of way and settled back where it was.
He pulled the boy, still unmoving, from her with one hand and held out his other hand. He nodded and smiled a couple of times and she responded; she moved and he pulled her to him, letting go of the boy for a minute so he could give her a hug; he could feel her heart beating wildly against him and her whole body trembling. He jumped backwards with her in his arms, and grimaced as his
feet hit the concrete and a calf muscle pulled.
He pointed away to the grass bank. She started crying and he knelt down.
'Please, sweetheart, go and sit away from the car. I'll get your brother out, but please do this for me'. In the corner of his eye, he saw the flames beginning to lick at the car from the other side.
To his intense relief, she moved away, still sniffling, and he went back to the car; the heat was intensifying and something seemed to have stabbed into his back. He reacted with such a startled, violent convulsion that the car did come crashing down at last, spinning him away down the hard shoulder until he fell backwards and cracked his back painfully against the concrete. As he staggered up again, he saw blue lights approaching from both directions; the young man he'd spoken too was standing now, watching him from the grass bank.
He got back to the car and now it was easy to pull the boy away; he seemed unmarked until his head moved and a huge bump on the side of his head was revealed. The boy was waking slowly; Ben half carried, half dragged him up the bank.
The car's right rear tyre was now ablaze. Ben heaved and heaved at the passenger front door, weeping now himself and trying not to see the dark, amorphous mass inside. Something touched him on the back and he turned, the sensation electric at that moment; the young guy stood behind him and immediately seized the car door himself. Between them, they wrenched it open and he forced himself inside with a deliberate self-blinding exercise; the stench and stain of blood was everywhere, and every place he tried to put his hand, another spot of cold wetness and sometimes what he knew well enough was flesh made him flinch away.
The flames had reached the car's boot. Two figures needed to be separated, a man and a woman, and the woman suddenly began to moan in a deep, animal-like noise from inside her throat. Ben and the young guy heaved frantically at the two people, knowing that, even if they weren't in a state to be moved, they would be doomed in seconds in any case. Somehow, without Ben being able to remember exactly how, they got the people out and were still dragging them up the bank when the car exploded, almost blinding them with the spectacular glare of fuel fire and forcing them, exhausted as they were, to drag their charges further up the bank.
Ben looked across to see the young man comforting two weeping children, the boy wide awake now. The woman was still moaning and was clearly badly hurt; the man remained ominously silent and most of the loose blood, in the car and on the bank, seemed to be his.
Sitting on the bank holding his head, Ben heard a different quality of sounds, more of them familiar and recognisably human. Heavy boots and running footsteps were coming towards him.
Somewhere, he remembered, an age ago, he'd been desperately worried, even despairing, about something. To feel more content, sitting in this carnage and misery, was as ridiculous as this being Tuesday, but oddly enough, he seemed to. As he blinked open his eyes to look up the road and two ambulance men closed in on him, he fancied he saw a little gaggle of Tuesday's demons, tiny, green and malicious, running cackling away up the hard shoulder.
© Bruce Leonard Harris 2013
I keep fixed images in my mind of something even when I've never done it. No need to bang your head against a steel door to know it hurts. I suppose my ideas of speed dating were like that; sitting down in a state of terror talking rubbish to some poor woman for the two minutes it takes for you to realise she's no oil painting and her to understand that she's in the presence of an idiot. It's like an interview, except worse; interviews are only about work. Dating is more personal, challenging stuff, like whether she can visualise you nude without hysterics or nausea and how far beyond boyhood your social skills have reached. Blindfolding themselves to have sex and being unable to talk about anything beyond Formula 1 and the offside laws are not the ways ladies want to live.
We're supposed to sit and talk for three minutes, all the guys moving on when the bell rings. After enduring three painful sessions, I reach the fourth without much hope or will to live left I say, 'hello, do I go first, I don't know what to say', and then shut up. She looks at me either wistfully or contemptuously, I'm not sure, but something about her, those calm brown eyes, perhaps, or the shy way her head is slightly turned, suggests this one may be more sympathetic soul than gorgon ice queen. Fingers crossing.
Kate has been on at me to have a go at this for so long now that I eventually agreed to do it just to shut her up. It's Kate and her now stuff all the time; Anne, sweetie, speed dating is now, as if the entire past was all a sad mistake which needs immediate, total reform. Dating as of now, says smart Kate, convinced that my current partnerless state is about some innate frigidity which only drastic action will overcome.
So here I am, feeling trapped in some insane teenage party game where whoever I'm facing when the music stops will somehow claim me as his prize, like a soft toy at the fair. Three so-so specimens in, the fourth appears to be an incredibly nervous young man about to either scream or cry. Not, however, bad looking or badly built; quite nicely put together, in fact, even if the present tomato complexion does let him down a little. He says something about him going first and doesn't, and groping for a line, I panic into an item from the royal repertoire.
'Hello, what do you do?'
Yet another cringing pause, and then she asks me what I do. I'm not sure how to read this – what I do when, where, how? How many Kama Sutra positions have I mastered? What's in my sexual and romantic repertoire? I'm startled and no doubt showing it, thinking this quite forward for an apparently shy young lady, when I realise she probably means work.
'Oh, do? I'm a journalist. Not the tabloid kind, you understand, not the nationals. Local paper. WI meetings, crown courts, people arguing about hedges, you know. A bit parish pump, really'.
I make myself shut up at this point, thinking any further professional denigration will have me reduced to the tea boy delivering brews to each and every colleague on my knees. Same old, isn't it, impatiently summed up by my mate Mark in the days when he tolerated me going along on his so-called 'totty hunts'. 'Chutzpah, oomph, perzazz, Ian, that's what they're after. 'Umble pie is all out of date, mate', says Mark, hunter in chief, and I suppose he ought to know.
I wait graciously – regally - for an answer to my question, controlling the desire to scream loudly and run out of the room. Firstly, his eyebrows shoot up and he goes, if anything, a bit redder, as if I'd asked him whether he can somersault naked onto beds from wardrobe tops. Then he realises I mean work and tells me about it, understating it rather charmingly. While counting my blessings that I'm not dealing with another Premier League footballer or trainee astronaut, I notice that, while I suppose not classically handsome, he has eyes which are green, intelligent and quite interesting.
I'm taking this in and he's probably thinking he's having a date with a deaf mute, but he manages to say, 'And you?'
I suppress the more facetious urges, pole dancer, perhaps, or full-time MP's mistress, inspired mostly, I admit, through curiosity about hearing the laugh and seeing the crimson face relax. But I don't know if his reaction would be laughter; play it straight, girl, says Kate, breathing over my shoulder like she's looking at my cards.
'I'm a pharmacist', I say. 'Fully qualified now; not long ago, but fully qualified'.
His mouth makes an O and for three dreadful seconds I wonder whether I'm going to have to explain what a pharmacist is; it's difficult to look forward to dating someone if you discover they need to double their vocabulary before you can have a conversation. Then I see his face is forming itself into a smile, and I see that it is quite a warm, sympathetic expression, just as I had imagined it would be.
I think on my feet, which I can do at times, whatever Big League Mark might say about it. We could spend the remaining time talking about how she got qualified, all that sub-careers education stuff, or I could risk a humorous thought, test the water. The GSOH does matter, after all; dates with a woman who sits there with her wet weekend face on are not a lot of fun. Don't ask.
'Pharmacist? Like Agatha Christie? Love 'em or poison 'em, type of thing?'
I grin and launch into a brief guffaw, then it registers that she hasn't exactly crumbled into tears of mirth and rapid features re-adjustment is required. I see Mark in the background, shaking his head sorrowfully, his eyes peeping through the covering hands. As the whole brief-lived stack of cards is about to tumble around my ears, I notice she is, in her own way, a pretty girl, which sounds almost like a put-down, but I mean not like one of these girls who spend hours in front of mirrors to announce to the world I AM A PRETTY GIRL. Delicate, sensitive. Not all that sure of herself with this kind of thing, but confident and capable everywhere else. And friendly, easily so, in those peaceful hazel eyes. I've loved and lost. Again. In just two minutes, this time.
Then, long after the sad little joke, she suddenly dissolves into giggles, like a kid losing it.
The joke is feeble enough, but it's a brave attempt to keep everything light, because somehow this experience isn't me and I don't intend to repeat it, whatever now Kate has to say about it. It feels like we are all puppets randomly dragged on to the stage to dance to the strings. In another few minutes, one more anonymous stranger at a table, one more mutual embarrassment session coming from nowhere and going nowhere. I wonder whether to go right now. Then his face suddenly collapses from laughter to anxious seriousness in a sudden wiping movement better than any professional comedian could achieve, and it's so instantly, irresistibly funny that I absolutely corpse right there in front of him. Maybe this is as good a way as any to finish this business.
Talk about delayed action. I'll hardly dare tell her any punch lines in the future, in case she starts giggling girlishly about three hours later at some vital amorous moment. I suddenly realise there isn't a future, and something like a spasm of pain hits me as I realise I would want there to be, even just a week or two, even, I suppose, 'good friends'. I lean over just as I see that bell about to count me out.
‘Look', I say, 'can we talk? I mean, go somewhere, just for a drink, whatever, and a chat? No strings, no agendas. Yeah?'
He is leaning across at me; his blushing has faded, or rather changed, suddenly, from embarrassment to urgency. He is asking me, seriously now, for a date, a real date, and this whole experience transforms itself in that moment from a teenage game to something vaguely like real life.
I have to look at him properly now. I can't pretend, to myself or anyone else, that I haven't a little mental bruising, disjointed affairs with men who seem to read quiet natures as submissive or who start as partners and want to turn into controllers. But there's something in the shape and bearing of him, and in the face and eyes, which I can now see have a quota of pain of their own, that suggests that he's been to similar places – not exactly the same, but similar, a generous nature turned sometimes against him, an intelligence not prepared to twist itself out of shape to be entirely what either sex wants him to be. A lot of silly conclusions to jump to, I suppose, like some sadly deluded boss who thinks he can arrive at a complete character assessment in one brief meeting, but enough, for me, to justify a meeting which isn't quite so hopelessly brief as this one.
That expletive-deleted bell goes again and she hasn't said anything; perhaps dissolving into hysterics might give me a clue, being more about me as a date than my attempt at humour. I stand up, thinking of something bravely polite to say to show her I leave with dignity intact, then I see she is standing up as well. The guy organising this do is signalling at her frantically, mouthing something about the men do the moving, but she doesn't give a whatever for him; interesting to see the jut of that little chin and the brown eyes glazing a little.
'I know somewhere near here where we can go for a drink and a chat, if you'd like to', she says.
For a moment, I gaze blankly at her and think I can see Mark doing his despair routine yet again. Then two points pop rebelliously into my head about Mark; one, he's just finished with his current girlfriend, on his say-so, though the grapevine says she has a different story; two, she is/was his seventh that I know about. Maybe Mark doesn't actually do what it says on his tin, neat and good-looking at his tin might be; maybe basing your woman knowledge on Mark is actually a bit like taking hairdressing lessons from Sweeney Todd. Point noted and absorbed. I smile the biggest, beamiest I've got at the little lady.
'I certainly would like to. Ian Drummond, ace reporter, how do you do?'
Some silly man is gesticulating at me; I ignore him, as I would a tantruming kiddie. Kate is there in my mind again, urging me to sit down, going out of her tiny mind that I'm not doing what everyone else is doing. As I give him an invitation to a quiet tete a tete, no more, I wonder whether when Kate talks about now, what she actually means is that everyone else is doing something and she just hasn't got the gumption to disagree. Past, present and future are all linked together, like sensible climbers on a mountain; one off is probably all off. No more speed dating, perhaps, just perhaps, I think, as those intriguing green eyes light up and he accepts handsomely, partly because it’s just possible that I might not need to meet anyone else ever again.
© Bruce Leonard Harris 2013
Things went on very late at the Club that night, I remember. Nothing particularly unusual about that; more than once, I’ve staggered back to my dressing room and fallen asleep on the couch I was benevolently allowed – eventually. Nice enough man, Dave Sorrell, if fat and overly inclined to cigars; he will come in at times whiffing like an ashtray.
‘What’s it for, Rox?’ he says suspiciously.
‘Listen, David, it’s a little couch about five feet long and a foot wide. I’m a drag act, not a contortionist. Rest, David, that’s what it’s for. And somewhere for my visiting admirers to sit, of course. They come to pay their respects to one of London’s leading drag artistes and they’re stood there holding bouquets like spare pricks at the fair. It’s just not polite’.
So I got my couch, and sometimes, by the time I’ve had a shower and changed sex, I just drop off until daylight and wander home past the coughing winos, the maniacal joggers and the bleary-eyed dog walkers. Or I drop off during the de-dragging process and wake up with one stocking on and one stocking off and mascara running down my face like the Bride of Frankenstein.
I needed to get home not too late on this night, because I was due a visit from my brother Tom, who’s one of the good guys. He’s married now, to a sort of Gorgon called Ellen who gives me her death stare whenever she sees me in drag, mainly because I look better in women’s clothes than she does. She’s got small boobs and big feet; whatever she puts on, she looks like a duck with an identity crisis. What Tom sees in her, I don’t know, but there you go. You can love your relatives to bits, but you can’t edit their taste in people.
Tom’s an easy-going guy, a few years younger than me. Thirty’s a recent trauma for him and a fading horizon for me. I’ll have to move on from femmes fatales to distinguished ladies soon enough, I dare say, but the long legs are still up to the mark. ‘A Monroe voice and the legs to match’, said the Evening Revue, not that long ago. ‘Roxanne aka Paul Stanmore must put in some gym hours’. Well, yes, I suppose gymnastics is one word for it.
X years ago, when I was fifteen and he was thirteen, Tom walked in on me trying on two of Mum’s dresses. I normally took precautions, but Mum had picked up this slinky backless thing which I just had to see myself in, and I didn’t hear him come in.
‘You big puff’, he said, but not in a hostile way. Live and let live, has always been Tom. He kept my secret for as long as I needed him to, bless him. He would even tell me what my bum looked big in, if perhaps not in quite those words.
Anyway, the Gorgon sometimes goes off to get her snakes checked out or something, and we brothers do the town for a day or two, catching up with each other’s lives. He works in TV now, some digital lot, and it can all be quite fascinating.
So, this night, I woke myself up with a cold shower – I’ve done that from school onwards, when it was a reliable way of not getting a bonk on after P.E. with naked boys in every direction. I went towards the stage door, a shorter way than the front entrance, and I could hear some kind of trouble going on. Life around the Club can get a bit lively at the weekend, with kids off their face on booze and whatever else is their fancy.
Stage door to main street is seventy or so yards of side street alley which normally takes me about twenty seconds, once I’ve got the sensible shoes back on. I’d only gone half way along this night when two youths, both about nineteen, by the look of them, suddenly appeared in front and beside me.
‘I’ve seen his picture without his slap on. God, it’s Poxy Roxy, the drag act’.
He seemed to be addressing his mate as God, though settling for a deity with bad breath and jeans which look like they’ve been shat in seems to me to sell yourself short. God then says, ‘how would you like us to kick the shit out of you, Roxy, you sad old queer?’
I took the question to be rhetorical, because action followed immediately, his mate with an arm around my neck, him fixing to punch me in the guts.
Maybe they were just being playful, and since I knew the police hovered around the Club on weekend nights, I wasn’t too bothered, and I was even less so when a policeman appeared at the end of the alley. All the same, they were being very rude and unpleasant. Boys being boys is all very well, but I’ve had this stuff since schooldays and know something about taking care of myself. I’ve also taken self-defence classes with a gym instructor called Kevin.
Both the classes and Kevin turned out to be worthwhile investments.
‘We need to achieve mastery of a series of difficult positions’, said Kevin, and I thought how absolutely I agreed with him. Once on to the more advanced stuff, self-defence that is, it included what he called ‘simultaneous counter movements’, one of which was a quick succession of elbow and fist. The boy behind me was still trying to lock his arms around me, bless him, but I am always aware of any male genitalia in my vicinity, and swinging my right elbow into his with some oompty behind it made him temporarily lose interest in the proceedings. Elbow immediately followed by fist, as my left one swung round and connected right between God’s eyes. He sort of went cross-eyed, exhaled a rancid, beer-sodden gasp and fell to his knees, presenting an irresistible opportunity to bring my other fist into play by banging it straight into his earhole.
By the time the policeman decided to make a token effort and started sauntering towards us, Boy 1 was being sick, one hand on his throat and the other between his legs, another quite neat simultaneous counter movement, I thought, and God was having a snooze on his back and gurgling now and then.
Someone shouted ‘George?’ and a second policeman appeared, though in plain clothes; I could tell he was a policeman because he knew the first policeman’s name was George. You don’t go round shouting ‘George’ at policemen on the off chance that their names might be George. They both stood looking at me, and I was debating whether or not to do a little tap dance, when the uniformed one spoke.
‘These two toe-rags were setting about this gentleman, it seemed, sir. I was about to offer assistance when it became plain that assistance wasn’t required’.
‘You obviously know how to take care of yourself, sir,’ said plain clothes. Relaxed, even voice. Very un-rozzer like. ‘Do you want to press charges?’
‘No, I don’t think so, officer. Lot of time and fuss. Just tell the breath monster when he wakes up that I recommend Listerine. And a new pair of jeans’.
And off I wandered, to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for our Tom in the morning, thinking no more of it, until Dave the boss came into my dressing room a few nights later, bringing with him that subtle ashtray aroma.
‘There’s a policeman here wanting to see you, Rox’, he says. ‘What have you been up to, you naughty girl?’
I was stripped down to my knickers and socks, and I was just about to throw a wobbly about knocking on bloody doors before coming through them when a quiet voice sounded off-stage, just outside the door.
‘Mr. Stanmore isn’t in any trouble. I’m here to ask for his help’.
That unhurried, laid back voice again, which still carried authority, like he knew what he was talking about without having to shout it out. I knew immediately that I’d heard it before, and curiosity overcame indignation.
‘O.K., Dave, send him in, that’s if he can cope with an artiste in his knickers’.
I was removing a difficult eyelash when he appeared in the mirror behind me, and I recognised the shape of him, which is most of what I saw that night. The full on facial revealed a thirty-something guy, clean shaven, with calm brown eyes and an intelligent, thoughtful face. For a policeman. Nuff said. I’ve had dealings with a few in my time, and not always harmoniously. He was slim built, one of these bantam weight guys who can run all day and do something else all night, if you know what I mean.
‘Detective Inspector Sam Warren’, he said. ‘Are you O.K. after the other night, or were there any afters, aches and pains, what have you?’
I turned and we shook hands. My instinct was to like him, but I’ve been around a while, and I always reserve judgement.
‘No, I was alright. My brother was visiting, which is always a morale booster. If you can squeeze a place on that couch among all my debris, sit down, Inspector’.
‘Sam’, he said, and if that didn’t impress me enough, he shot such an unfeigned, natural smile at me as he sat that I could feel a heartstring or two tweaking away. I had to remind myself that this guy was a policeman. He reached into his coat pocket.
‘I made them write this to you, when they’d sobered up in the morning. One of them was quite a soft spoken, decent lad with an apprenticeship and desperate not to lose it. One of these kids who just shouldn’t drink because they can’t take it. He went out on someone’s stag night, lost the rest of them and then met up with the one you called a breath monster, a kid not long out of a Young Offenders’ Institution. The place did what they do sometimes, and sent him out in a bigger mess than when he went in. The apprentice did the letter; the other one just signed it’.
I read the letter, written in a sort of semi-kiddie scrawl, with mistakes like ‘appology’, ‘stag nite’, ‘stupidness’. Undertaking to do ‘anything’ to make it up. One or two ideas occurred, but I’ve never been much of a twink fancier, personally, and then there’d be that halitosis. I remembered some dreadful old joke about the asthmatic rent boy who came in short pants, and I felt a bit queasy for a minute. Then the absurdity and pathos of it got to me, these two nearly-kids rampaging around, out of their minds on booze and pretending to be thugs, and the silly boys succeeded in touching me more effectively than they did on the night. I came over all moist-eyed and silly for a minute. My new mate Sam the policeman didn’t do what most men do in the company of tears, look at their shoes and pretend it’s not happening; he just watched me patiently and uncritically until the weepy moment had passed.
‘You said you wanted to ask me something, Inspect- er – Sam’, I said.
‘Yes’, he said. ‘But sit down for a moment; are you sure you’re O.K.?’
This was my kind of policeman. I swivelled my chair round to face him.
‘Yes, I’m fine. Being a soppy cow occasionally helps me get into the part. What did you want to ask me?’
‘You probably know that some of the street girls round here have been attacked recently. It’s happening now almost every week’.
‘Yes, I know’, I said, and I did. ‘Some of the girls get in here. They’re very concerned, to put it mildly. One or two have decided to stop trading for a while, though I know for a fact that they’ll struggle without it’.
‘Well, I’m determined that I am going to catch this guy’, Sam said, leaning forward, and the glint in his eyes spoke of something rather personal. ‘He’s a bastard, and a cunning bastard with it. So far, he’s stopped short of rape, though not by much; his attacks are both physical and sexual assaults and he might well rape yet. He suddenly appears behind the girls without them having seen him, which suggests to us some connection with one of the buildings around here. We’ve never yet seen an escape car or a pursuit from the scene of the crime. Some of the girls think he gets off mostly on their fear of him, their willingness to oblige to avoid further violence. A demented sort of mastery, I suppose’.
‘So how can I help? I’d like to help; those girls are my friends.’
‘We’ve given the girls alarm buttons which connect to us and we’re running a car through the areas, mainly Darrington Street round the back of this Club, to tell you the truth, at least three times a night. I haven’t got the resources to just leave a car here every night. But every time it happens, the whole thing’s over by the time we get to the girls, and he’s disappeared again. We’ve got descriptions, and by now we know pretty well how he dresses and what he looks like. We’ve checked on local work places, but a lot of them are pubs and clubs and we can’t trace their entire weekend clientele. I need someone who can batter him about enough, or at least hold him up enough, to give us time to get to him. He won’t go anyone near a man. But a man who can credibly look like a woman, and handle himself. That could be different’. He looked me up and down, practically naked me, and that sent little currents of electric right through me. Not all guys who like dressing up as women are gay, that’s true enough, but this one is, and interest is interesting. I’m currently not spoken for; I rarely am. I’ve never really got the hang of monogamy; millions of guys out there, and just one of them for the rest of my life? It’s like a thirsty man allowing himself three drops a day. I just can’t do it.
But, of course, for Sam this was about physique, not sex. Ho-hum.
‘You’re a fit guy, Mr. Stanmore –‘
‘You’re a fit guy, Paul; a fit, well built guy with no flab. For what we have in mind, it’s you or a female police officer. At the moment, I’ve got two women in my team; one’s in her forties and the other’s in the early stages of pregnancy. I need a public-spirited citizen like yourself, as capable of laying out two guys in a few minutes as he is of looking like a beautiful woman, to aid the force. I need someone who can hold the guy up long enough for us to get to him. How about it?’
I looked at my face in the mirror. I’m a good looking guy; I have to be for the feminine thing to happen. Having my face rearranged would put the whole act on hold; having my face seriously rearranged would finish it. Two kids so far gone they can hardly throw a punch, is one thing; a clever, ruthless guy, sober or on something – that’s another.
Sam looked at me looking at myself, and for once misread the clues.
‘O.K.’, he said. ‘Thanks for hearing me out. I can understand you’ve got a living to make, like we all have’.
‘No’. I faced him again. ‘I just needed a moment. Like I said, those girls are my friends, and as you don’t sound in the business of making judgments, I’ll tell you that I used to do a little sex work myself. That’s part of how I got to know how to protect what I need to protect. And I did come across the occasional type who wasn’t just about a bit of SM, but got off on random violence. I generally don’t mind what people get off on, but getting off on hurting and terrifying people isn’t right. I’ll do it, Sam. I’ll talk to the girls, pick up a few tips and tell them to pass the word round so no-one thinks I’m some newbie trying to muscle in on them’.
Sam the policeman’s hand on my bare shoulder; volts passing through me again. The last policeman’s hand wasn’t so friendly. I thought of asking what reward he had in mind, coming over all camp and suggestive. He might be amused, but that’s all he’d be. So be it. I stopped thinking I could make the world the way I wanted it round about the age of eight.
We worked on it for the next three weeks. I talked to three of the girls who’d been attacked; same thing in every case. He’d suddenly come at them from behind, with his clenched fists and opened palms in combination; fusillades of random, indiscriminate blows, enough to be seriously distressing and cause injury. One of the girls – let’s call her Jo – a tough Scouse lass, did attempt to fight back and ultimately fought him off, but she was bruised and out of action for a while. She said the answering back seemed to intensify his anger, but she at least wasn’t sexually assaulted – humiliating, painful assaults, not enough for permanent damage, maybe, but as bad as it can get short of out and out rape. The girls said that the guy got off, visibly so, when he knew he had them in his power and they were submissive to him.
‘His kicks are about being in charge’, said young Adele, probably no more than eighteen. ‘The stupid thing is if it was just the kind of fiddling about he goes in for that he wanted to do, he could get it by paying for it; it’s the taking it by force which is what it’s about’.
‘No, he’s not a customer I’ve ever had’, said Jo. ‘The other girls say the same. You remember something about each of them, usually the smell; the ones who smell bad, you don’t do at all, but you remember the others all the same. Some of them are repeat trade, too, so you get to recognise things about them’.
We sweated away at it, with everyone sworn to secrecy. I haven’t worked so hard since I last updated the act. I worked with the girls at a safe house the police had, and Dave Sorrell, who of course had been listening to my first conversation with Sam, was told to button it or have people looking into his let’s say flexible interpretations of the licensing laws. And the dealers in his clubs, come to that.
The girls dressed me in street fashion, mostly clothes practical enough to prevent them from freezing to death which still being enticing for the punters, which is not an easy combination. We worked on walking – the megaqueen way the drag artiste parades is not the way a working girl strides the streets; there are a lot of differences, some obvious, some subtle. I confessed that I already knew something about working the streets, and of course they all knew a few rent boys, so we kind of bonded in the sex workers’ union.
Eventually, I was on for doing my patrol up and down Darrington Street, not so many yards away from the Club where I did my act, though I was pretty much unrecognisable from it. I went out for three nights, spread over a week, and I had to tell several generally very polite guys looking for ‘trade’ that things weren’t quite what they seemed; one started getting mouthy, but he moved on when I signalled towards the police car passing on its check up.
It wasn’t looking as though the thing would happen, and I thought he would almost certainly have smelt a rat by now if he’d been watching what was going on. From the start, Sam and I had had the kind of relationship which allowed both of us to speak our minds, and I told him I thought the moment had gone; for all our efforts to keep the ‘project’, as he called it, quiet, I felt sure that our target man had somehow got wind of it, which wouldn’t be surprising if he was a local guy, as we thought he was. It was noticeable that no more attacks happened during this time. Sam argued for one more try and then let it rest until and unless the guy tried again, and I reflected that we might at least have frightened the bastard off, though he might just have moved territory.
So, like a late night matinee when you’re already knackered, the show went on. I became a lady of the street with my usual professional care for detail – I’m a bona fide drag artiste, not a slap and mince karaoke queen, thank you very much. I patrolled Darrington Street with a carefully observed air of strolling about, while occasionally leaning up against a back wall and watching the world go by.
I was just meditating on whether boredom or hyperthermia would drive me indoors first when the most enormous clout took me across the earhole, so hard and vicious that it made me stagger for a moment. I tried to turn and face the source of it, but there were more and more slaps and punches, slaps to the head, punches to the body. I did what I’d done ever since school in similar situations, and put my arms over my head to take what was coming until the strategic moment came for me to strike back, but I was conscious of being a bit groggy. I had the impression of a powerful but not particularly tall man, and for all he seemed to be wearing both scarf and cap, the cap pulled down, I saw a flash of grey at the temple which suggested this was no kid.
I had an idea – made a plan is far too grand a term for thinking quickly in such circumstances – that going down on my knees might encourage him to come closer so that he could get on with doing what he wanted to do. It worked, in so far as he was hovering above me in seconds, and his crucial area was right in front of my forehead. The fact that he was getting off on this was visibly obvious. I pulled my head right back away from an intended big slap to the temple and then drove my forehead directly into his doodahs with a good deal of force and intention; like I said, I’d been here before, and these are not fights by Queensberry Rules.
He sank down as I was getting up, which enabled me to swing a knee round into his head.
There we both paused for a few seconds. I’d pressed my alarm as soon as I felt a blow, and I knew several guys would already have emerged from well-concealed parts of the street; this wasn’t a time for ‘dah-dah, dah-dah’ sirens driving him off.
He was gasping and spitting a bit; he looked up at me with fire in his eyes, though still I could see the little flecks of grey under his cap. I could see in his eyes that he’d worked out that something was badly wrong, from his point of view, from the size and strength of my blows. Somehow, he got to his feet and started making himself scarce, and now I could see why he could suddenly appear on the street; an open manhole, which at night no-one would see because it was well-shadowed by the side of a tall brick building, and who noticed closed manholes anyway? He’d had enough of me; he somehow got half way up and started for it, and I thought, how appropriate is this, he’s like a rat from the sewer.
I knew if he made it down there, he’d be away again, and he only had about twenty feet to go. Even if I fancied the idea of following him down into the sewers, which I didn’t, it was presumably territory he knew, or at least knew a lot better than I did. It was time to bring my rugby skills into play, and I dare say a few eyebrows will be raised at that –‘rugby, Rox, really?’ You bet your ass really; you tell me any other activities in school life where you can wrap your arms right round naked male thighs, fondle male bums and even give and receive a little doodah squeezing in the scrums, and they would have been on my extra-curricular list as well. Another form of bare thigh fondling is the tackle, and though this guy’s thighs were currently trousered, I was ready to give it a go.
I launched myself over at him, my head and torso still feeling distinctly battered, and brought him down about six feet short of his precious escape hole. I could hear loud footsteps getting close. We both managed to get up as far as our knees, then we started swinging fists and arms at each other like two kids having a pillow fight. He caught me with some force just next to the chin; the world went blank, I closed my eyes, and I thought that was that for me, and then a fast, slim figure went past me on my left and I forced my eyes open again to see Sam the policeman fetch the guy one of the finest right hooks I’ve ever seen – Sam had been storing that one up for a while, I reckon.
The guy’s name was Eddie Latham, variously known to his workmates as Ed Case or the Drain Brain, and he’d worked for years down in the sewers, cleaning, maintenance, engineering, taking every opportunity he could, through grills, windows, glass roofs, whatever, to peer up at women and even take some footage on his mobile. Bit of a joke amongst the guys down there, until women were starting to complain and some of Ed’s management team, two of them also women, got wind of what was going on and Ed was on his bike. Like guys do who get themselves into deep doodoo over women, or more accurately their attitudes to women, Ed turned his victims into his oppressors, and even though he was in his forties, he got himself into a security outfit and worked out to keep in shape, mostly so that he could lay about the women who he considered had caused him to be sacked. He had the same exhaustive Knowledge of the sewers as city taxi drivers have of the streets; he knew where to go in and where to come out, how he could get about without being waist deep in muck and water, and which parts of the system would be quiet and when. An educated rat, prowling underground to burst out on the attack when it suited him.
The last attack before mine had given him jitters, and he’d left the area for a while, but the temptation to have another go was too strong. With countless witnesses against him, including me, he went down for long enough to make sure he wouldn’t be bothering our girls again.
Witnessing meant that it couldn’t be kept away from the media, of course. So I became an official hero and the act went even better; I started getting a few acting parts and panto work on the strength of it. It’s a strange irony that it took a toerag attacking women to break me into something like a serious acting career, but that’s showbiz.
What blew me away even more than my new found heroism was when Dave Sorrell came and told me I had a new dressing room. At first, I was thinking, if it’s a cubicle in the men’s loo, I’m going to pack in drag and head off for my first Oscar, but then he took me to one of the Club’s basement rooms, mostly dark and dusty and used for storing stuff, and I walked in to find myself in a big room the size of an upmarket bedsit, and I’ve done a few of them in my time – the bedsits, not the upmarket. Walk in shower, huge dressing mirror, wardrobe, and even a decent-sized bed.
‘Rox’, he said, ‘we don’t ever want you to ever have to wonder out into the night again after your performance. I heard about the boys, and the grapevine says it wasn’t the first time. Sleep here, shower here, dress here, have your fans in, whatever’.
I was almost blubbing by this stage, and he went on to cover both of our embarrassments.
‘We had to tank it’ – I hadn’t the faintest idea what he was talking about, but it sounded impressive – ‘drain it, ventilate it, what have you, but we got there’
A curious thought stopped me blarting for a moment. Very sweet, yes, absolutely, but Dave Sorrell was legendarily as tight as an amphibious creature’s posterior.
‘This can’t have come cheap, Dave. All out of your pocket?’
‘Some’, he said, looking a bit shifty, like he does. ‘But the girls chipped in, and there was a handsome contribution from – well, let’s call it the Police Benevolent Fund’.
So there it is. Sam comes round now and then for a chat, the act continues and might even continue me into a real acting career, and Rox is the talk of the town. You can say what you like about manholes, decent and otherwise. Personally, I’m all for them.
© Bruce Leonard Harris 2016
It’s 7.45 Saturday night, at the Cute Cuisine, up here at the better end of the High Street, as far as possible from the George Inn, where the furniture is likely to be flying about before the night’s out. All’s well, more or less; Joel in the kitchen is still just about sober. He usually manages to at least remain vertical until the end of his shift, even if last orders might include a Crème Brulee bruleed to cinders or a Rogan Josh fit to take a tonsil out. He hasn’t thrown a stainless steel gravy boat at little Duncan yet, like he did last weekend, but the night is young.
50th birthday in the corner, eight of them, tables 15 and 16 pushed together, left of the bay window. 50th’s name is Alan, nice eyes but too big a nose, and if he carries on banging down that Malbec like it’s orange juice, I wouldn’t bet on him making it to his 60th. One of those dos where the men are all red meat and the women all fish or chicken, except for one teenie girl, his niece or something, making a stand with a mushroom risotto. Alan’s had a 16 ounce sirloin, and Mrs. Alan, Beth if I remember rightly, is looking at him nervously because she doesn’t like the way he’s looking at her. Middle-aged men shouldn’t go berserk on meat and Malbec, because it gives them ambitious ideas; he keeps leering at her with a ‘wait till I get you home, sexy’ expression, though my guess would be that an amorous encounter is a good deal less likely than a chunder in the taxi and a passing out on the sofa.
Birthdays are fine, though, especially the more mature ones; nice atmosphere, good-natured but not boisterous. No teams, like last Saturday, local men’s hockey club. Charlene says she didn’t realise at first that they were a sports team when they all marched in; I said, table for 12, all male, they’re not going to be the Bide a While Knitting Ensemble, are they, Charlene? I nurse her as best I can, Charlene, and she’s generally quite efficient, but she can be just a little naïve. Wanted to design her own waitress outfit a few months back, and I thought why not, encourages initiative, saves me money. She turns up in this thing which she’s only just in and probably won’t stay in every time she’s bending forward, and while my male customers would be only too happy to be boob-viewing, they might not be quite so chuffed to have one dropped in their soup. I had to fetch an emergency blouse out from the back. Which, of course, finished up with a stain on it, indelible turmeric, I’d say, since it still has a presence after two machine washes.
‘We’re getting along famously’, she says about the hockey team, charging into the kitchen just as Joel was telling little Duncan to hurry the sauce along if he didn’t want Chef’s boot in his backside. ‘They’re all very friendly and convivial’. She realised the conviviality was getting a bit out of hand when a couple of pommes allumettes went whistling past her left ear and she saw the jolly hockey boys were pinging things off their forks. I had to intervene, of course. Any bother, fearsome Phyllis to the fore. ‘Listen, fellas’, I said, ‘if you want to throw food about, get a take away, take it into the park, and you can pelt yourselves with chips and peas to your hearts’ content. Just don’t do it in here. This is a high class establishment, not the George Inn bog. Behave yourselves or push off’.
‘If they’d been rugby, I’d have understood’, says Charlene. ‘Hockey players are supposed to be a cut above, aren’t they?’ ‘They’re young guys, Charlene’, I said, ‘with lots of beer and no women. Think yourself grateful they’re not swinging off the candelabras’.
8.35 and I’m in my usual strategic position, where I can see both the back car park and the front high street, and hear what’s going on in the kitchen. I deliberately took on Hayley from the catering college even though three of them’s stretching the budget; she’s good, if a bit slow, and I thought she might calm down Joel’s persecution of little Duncan. But she’s a self-contained creature, is Hayley; lots of these girls are, now. Career, not marriage; mortgage, not men. He tried to come on to her once and she told him, one, his breath smelt of shallots, which it probably did, and two, he was old enough to be her dad, which he is. End of. He goes back to persecuting little Duncan, but at least now there’s a witness.
Birthday Alan is off the Malbec and on to the brandy; he’ll be sliding slowly under the table any minute now. Still a nice atmosphere, though. We’ve got a golden wedding anniversary in, ten of them, no less, all lined up down the right side wall, the happy couple top right, proud as punch. I’m all for them; as long as no-one actually pegs out on the premises, it’s fine with me.
And, of course, our star lad Malcolm is playing a blinder as usual, flirting with the ladies – jokey smile when they’re ordering their wines and telling him they want big ones – and man-to-man with the guys, diamonds and route ones, all that footie gibberish they go in for. So slim and handsome in his dickie bow and dark trousers. I would have had both of them off him by now if I didn’t know well enough the perils of fraternising with the staff. Charlene’s our third waitress in four years, and the last two were mostly about Joel, whose hands in the kitchen are not just all over the food. I’d get shot of him tomorrow if I didn’t know full well the George would snap him up and then be splashing Cute Cuisine specialities over their menus before a week’s out. The donkey they’ve got up there at the moment hardly knows how to mash a spud, but then what’s the point of getting fancy, when it’s just as likely to finish up splattered against the back wall?
9.57, and birthday Alan is getting into a taxi in the car park at the back, or rather being helped into it. It’s Beth who’s got the ‘wait until I get you home’ expression on now, though I’m not sure she would be putting a ‘sexy’ on the end of it. Charlene just emerged from the kitchen about five seconds before something metallic hit the door when it closed behind her, presumably a missile intended for little Duncan, though it didn’t sound more serious than a tablespoon. Malcolm just went past with a half a pig sized pork chop on the plate, which is a sure sign that Joel’s now pretty well oiled. Stone cold sober, his portions of peas are unlikely to make it into double figures; last orders, everything’s slopping over the edge of the plate.
I’ve tried to nag portion control into him, but he just glowers and gets as near as he thinks he can get away with to calling me Mrs. Scrooge.
The golden wedding’s going along fine. Nice family, though one of the sons, fortyish, blue suit, looking down his nose at everything, is shaping up to make a speech and I’m never too sure how that stuff will go down with the rest of the clientele.
Then, suddenly, the night’s big surprise. Unobtrusive young couple in the left hand corner, table three, hardly said anything since they came in, him playing around with a baked potato and Goulash and her poking listlessly at a Caesar salad. Red-headed boy with a face to match at the moment; she’s a blonde, pretty as a picture. She startles everyone by leaping to her feet, and I’m thinking he’s been groping her knee under the table and we’re heading for flying pommes allumettes again when she shouts ‘Yes, yes Mark, I will!’
I spend a few seconds wondering what she thinks she will and determining she won’t while I’m around, until I realise that the boy has only just gone and proposed, hasn’t he, right here in my restaurant, bless him. Good strategic timing, too; Blue Suit’s lost his audience before he’s even started, arrested half way up and glowering at the poor kids like they’ve pinched his rattle. I’m over there and ordering up the champers – glasses not bottles, there’s congratulations and there’s extravagances. Malcolm’s using their mobiles to take photos of them – competent boy, as ever - which they will then flash round all their friends, showing the restaurant to full advantage. I may stretch to two glasses each and take a photo for the wall near the entrance.
Now everyone’s happy, and there’s a really pleasant ambience about the place, which, of course, is what I’m after. When I sometimes sit the staff down to tell them what this business is all about, they usually all looked bored or frightened, so I get right to the point.‘We have to have an ambience’, I say, and of course, on Charlene’s first time, she got to her feet, panic-stricken, and I say, quickly and automatically, ‘an ambience, Charlene, not an ambulance’.
There’s always one.
‘Ambience means the atmosphere in the place’, I explained. ‘The feel good factor. The feeling that this is a good place to eat, drink and enjoy themselves. And spend money’.
Now last orders have been taken and dispatched, Joel’s out of the kitchen to help toast the happy couple, and even little Duncan is allowed to participate for about thirty seconds before Joel’s ordering him back to the clearing up.
‘This is a very special moment, the kind that this job is so much about’, says Joel, while I silently hope it’ll be special enough to him to remain conscious for a bit longer. Blue Suit is sulking, because his missus has told him to put a sock in it, or words to that effect, and Mr. Golden Wedding has got to his feet and hoped the kids will be ‘as happy as my Mabel and I have been’, toasting them with such a big slug of Boddington’s that I’m worried about him toppling over backwards, but the old boy recovers his balance and the ambience stays intact.
11.43 and I’m back in my own living room on top of the shop, with the premises well sealed off below. Charlie McCann, the police inspector I knock around with a bit, after I met him on the High Street once dealing with George Inn kick outs, keeps saying I’d be better off not living on my own, but I’ve done marriage, thank you. I ran a nice pub with a man called Michael or Mike or Mickey, depending on which bookie or poker school he was talking to,
only to find he’d bunged most of the pub up the spout through his addiction to having a flutter here, there and everywhere. That’s the first and last time Phyllis Harmston is going to trust her fortunes to a male of the species. Charlie’s fixed me up with an alarm button connected to the police station in case of anything going off on the High Street, which it sometimes does, and he’s a poppet, Charlie, divorced, like me, so who knows? But it’s going to take me a while to ever get beyond just good friends again, and he’s the same, being as his ex-missus ran off with a con man. And, whatever happens, my business stays my business.
Up here, in my place, fixed up the way I want it, the ambience is mine. Peace, quiet, no card schools, no lock-ins. Ambience the way I like it.
© Bruce Leonard Harris 2016
The door to the pilots’ cabin is slightly ajar, to enable immediate communication if it becomes necessary, and I am only a few yards behind them, so any crisis arising can be dealt with. At last, that sense of events hurtling rapidly out of my control has subsided a little. I have even occasionally managed something like dozing in the last twenty minutes, a rest for my aching body and mind.
The big air ambulance has one patient centrally placed and medical equipment, including monitors, on both sides. Incongruous as an armed ambulance may be, we are still in dangerous country and we do have a few sophisticated armaments, including machine guns and even a few small missiles, the airborne equivalent of mortars. My sister in law Ellen, along with Olawale and Kebe, a doctor and nurse respectively, are in the centre with me; at the back, in front of a complex dashboard, a thin young guy called Peter Gibson is keeping a careful eye on what’s happening on the ground and in a twenty mile radius around us.
Though he looks only recently emerged from adolescence, Peter has already demonstrated his considerable tracking and hacking abilities and he has had a lot to do with our success so far. Olawale and Kebe are Nigerian, as are the pilot and co-pilot; Olawale is once again checking his patient to ensure he is moving as little as possible, even though the best of pilots cannot avoid some movement.
The unconscious figure on the bed is my brother Philip. My name is Simon Harrington, and Philip is my elder by two years. We are by no means away yet from the possibility that the second ‘is’ in that sentence might shortly become ‘was’. However, I am so tired now that I do not have enough physical or emotional strength to dwell too closely on the possible loss of my brother, to whom I have always been devoted, if in a sometimes critical and exasperated spirit.
I glance across at his wife Ellen, who shares both devotion and exasperation, even if her devotion is of a different nature – they have never made any secret of their passion for each other - to see how she is. Ellen is bright eyed, good-looking in a clean cut, outdoor girl way; she is generally effervescent, thirty something and full of life, curiosity and energy, but now she is pale, streaked with sweat and exhausted. At last, she's asleep, propped up against the side of the ‘copter, her head fallen forward and her breathing more regular.
I look up again at Olawale, who is very tall and very thorough in his constant checking of monitors and life signs. He doesn’t look at me, and I wonder if my constant questions and anxiety are irritating him. Kebe, a more naturally communicative soul and a pharmacist as well as a nurse, is putting ingredients together to make the medicine required; she manages to grin and nod at me. Philip is so bereft of life and colour that I cannot be other than anxious. But the doctor has noticed me again.
'No change, Simon. I will say if there is, I do assure you’, he says, loudly enough to register over the noise of the ‘copter. I nod and close my eyes to try and doze again. I am so used to Phil’s animation, his careful, assessing eyes turning to me, his head tilting as he prepares to listen. And he is – that dubious present tense again - a good listener, assimilating and reacting. This statuesque, pallid body is difficult to associate with the multi-faceted being of my elder brother.
I move carefully towards the rear, where Peter is watching the terrain below us sweeping by, as well as checking his various contacts. Once again, he seems to detect my arrival without looking round, but his voice is as steady and sympathetic as ever.
'You’re looking to check on where the hell we are, I take it,’ he says, ‘and whether anything is coming up to follow us or tracking us from below. As far as I can see from the second two, the answers are ‘no’ and ‘no". As for the first, we will shortly be well clear of the West African coast, and heading rapidly for Gibraltar, where we can whip your brother straight into hospital and hopefully soon see him up and about again'.
Hopefully. The crucial word which serves to throw cold water over his reassurance. I am still feeling pangs of anger, directed mainly at Philip. I keep my words inside, but they are words I feel, and they are directed at my brother. While they are still inside, they will remain unspoken, though I can’t say how long that will be for.
You never have been too good at taking into account the consequences of your actions, Phil. An African President, ruling a small country which most of your British readers probably haven’t heard of, is spending his time busily disposing of anyone who crosses him and making life a misery for his people, some of whom are resisting as best they can. He says no Western journalists are allowed in to cover the election he's rigging. For most media people, it’s enough to leave it to the diplomats, isn’t it, rather than get your head shot off for a far off country which isn’t and never has been yours. But not for you, brother, eh?
Not for you. You have to steam in there, filming undercover, sending live dispatches, helping the resistance, until one of the big man's hoods puts a bullet in you, predictably enough. Or, more accurately, two bullets. As soon as I heard headlines about a shot British journalist, I knew who they were talking about. Day after day, sublimely settled in my diplomatic office, for once home based and not subject to ambassadorial demands, I find myself getting panic calls from Ellen, who I love almost as much as I love you, you mad bastard, for help in trying to get people to take your situation seriously and do something about getting you out of a place I didn’t even realise you were in, her voice desperate. As usual, you choose to work freelance, meaning, yes, you can give your work to the people you judge best able to use it, but also that no-one will take responsibility for you.
So I find myself having to drop everything, including preparations for a crucial foreign ministers’ conference, and temporarily desert my own understandably nervous family to help you save your crazy skin. I am off out to Nigeria, the easiest place within striking distance where Ellen, Peter and I could hire a suitable helicopter and make the kind of contacts we need to get Phil out.
Firstly, his messages to Ellen stopped, which started ringing Ellen’s alarm bells, but not too loudly to begin with; the kind of places Phil goes to does mean he has to cut off contact from time to time. However, after four days, she started to get very worried and ask some of the people he reports to; eventually she and they track down a message, initially vague and jumbled but soon sorted out, saying that Peter had been shot and had two bullets in his thigh. We knew from an earlier message that he had been with a section of the rebel army, who had been so impressed with the way this Englishman, the only western journalist in the country at the time, had got word of what was happening through to the outside world that they were prepared to do whatever they could to get him out of the country to carry on his work before the Government troops had another go.
I phoned and messaged through the diplomatic services, Peter tracked and hacked, Ellen contacted known press and television associates of Phil, and in a couple of days, we managed to track down the airfield the rebels were taking Phil to, just across the border in the adjacent country, though we knew that wouldn’t necessarily stop Government troops crossing the border if they thought they could get away with it. Philip had been a very large thorn in their side for some time, and the country’s hard man knew very well that what he was up to might have gone largely unnoticed but for Phil’s efforts.
By calling in a few favours and doing a little judicious diplomatic arm-twisting, I got the authorities in the adjacent country, which is a member of the Commonwealth, to dispatch a few armed tropps as extra guards at the airport and Peter even managed to contact the doctor with the rebels who’d patched Philip up; the bullets were out, we understood, but Philip was weak with loss of blood and shock and it was still not certain whether or not the leg would be saved. The idea of a man like Philip maimed for life was so appalling to me that I charged around getting matters sorted out as quickly as possible.
Just over three hours ago, we flew into the airfield, and field about sums it up; the stretch we were to land on was half concrete and half what looked like running track, and the only building we could see was a low slung hut on the edge of the field. There were a few armed men dotted around the perimeter of the runway, and our pilot was initially reluctant to go in both because of them and because of the state of the runway. However, I’d made it my business to know what the uniforms of both countries looked like, and I was able to demonstrate to him that the men, about twenty of them, were this country’s troops, not the Government troops from next door. I also flattered him with talk of how he had been hired because of his exceptional abilities, which wasn’t entirely untrue, though his exceptional abilities hadn’t come cheap.
So we touched down, not without a bit of bumping and bruising. There was a period of about twenty five minutes which seemed like several eternities, when nothing seemed to be happening. The soldiers around the runway were shifting from one leg to the other and exchanging nervous glances, while the officer in charge kept clicking away on his phone and wouldn’t offer anything in our direction but a few terse words about being patient.
Eventually, a van with a red cross on it and a big white flag flying on the roof came clattering from the surrounding greenery on to the runway. We could hear shots in the distance, and the officer ordered his men to move behind the plane to give themselves cover if enemy troops should appear. But as the van pulled right up to the door of the plane, the guys with Phil said the Government troops had stopped at the border about a mile away and were just letting off steam in their general irritation. Someone, they said, in a high position in our refuge country had issued a very uncompromising warning to their neighbour not to invade their space, and since this country’s military were both superior and more numerous than the Government army next door, the would-be pursuers ultimately hadn’t dared. At that, both Ellen and Peter looked in my direction; they knew who the guy was I’d phoned. After a few warm hand shakes with the rebel guys, we carefully edged Phil’s stretcher on to the plane. The pilot didn’t waste a single second and the ‘copter rose rapidly, as we did our best to keep Philip still. As we headed off, his eyes opened for a second and my face happened to be right in his eyeline. He mouthed the word ‘Simon’, and pulled an expression intended to be a smile, but then his eyes closed again and he fell unconscious even before he’d had time to see Ellen on the other side of him.
As motion steadied, I glanced out of the side windows to see that men who came with the van were not going to return to their own country and almost certain death. They were leaving with the host army’s soldiers, suggesting the asylum arrangements made have also been respected. I must not wait too long before calling my high-ranking contact with profuse thanks and gratitude. That’s the way the creaky diplomatic engine keeps itself fuelled and ticking over.
Since take off, Olawale and Kebe have checked Phil constantly, and while they have confirmed that the bullets are out, his improvised bandaging has been breaking down and he has lost so much blood that transfusion is going to be a long and difficult job. Ellen, fortunately, knew his blood group, so we have the right stuff and plenty of it. But he has clearly been jolted and bumped about, and he has still not regained consciousness.
‘He has used all his considerable resources of toughness and durability to make it as easy as possible for his companions to get him to the plane’, Olawale commented. ‘I suspect many lesser men would already be dead, but nevertheless -’ with a quick smile, first at Ellen and then at me – ‘I think there’s a good chance we may have got to him in time. Even the leg might survive’.
And now, there is nothing for Ellen and I to do but wait and hope, while Peter covers our rear and Olawale and Kebe do what’s necessary for Philip. Soon we will be in Gibraltar, where it will be possible to treat Phil with all the facilities of a large hospital to hand, and it looks increasingly likely that my brother will hold on until at least that point.
I glance from him and the world passing by us and back, and once again he gives me a familiar cocktail of pride and irritation. Yes, there is a nobility about it, bringing outrages into the light of day to help the oppressed and make life difficult for the oppressors; yes, it is spirited, brave and good in the deepest sense of the term. But what about Ellen and what she must have to go through, every day he’s out of the country? What about his three kids, the youngest, Martin, only just entering his teens? He is not old, by any standards; he’s forty three, and I can remember his teasing delight to see me pass the big four-o not long before this latest expedition of his. But how long can he carry on doing this stuff for? And how old will he need to be before something – ageing reflexes, misplaced confidence, tiredness too great for making the right decisions (which might have been what happened this time, I don’t know) cause his luck to finally run out?
I don’t know exactly how many near death experiences he has been through altogether – he is notoriously cagey about discussing work like that. He will send evocatively descriptive accounts and reports for publication and broadcast, but the detail of how he got to and from the venues of his reports is usually kept quiet, sometimes for very obvious reasons, such as not incriminating the people who are helping him. But one of his earliest dangerous experiences put my life at much at risk as his.
He was seventeen and I was fifteen at the time. I’ve sometimes wondered where he gets his lust for foreign travel and experience from, because it certainly wasn’t from our parents,
who were both deeply suspicious of foreign places – ‘over there’, our mother called it – and almost invariably took their holidays in Devon, with one or two in Dorset and once, highly exotically, on the Norfolk Broads.
This particular holiday, in between Phil’s A level years, was in south Devon, in a little place near a cove, with a lot of swimming and walking available, if not much else. As usual, we hadn’t been there before; my parents were enterprising enough when it came to different British venues.
The relative quietness of the holiday was enhanced by the absence of our elder sister Joanna as in Jo, who had started university the previous October and set up a flat share nearby. Jo had got the A level grades she needed, as everyone knew she would, but while she was academically very competent and well organised, she was also a lot of fun and could bring anywhere alive with her infectious, wicked grins and her easy wit. She was also, though neither of her brothers was about to tell her, very attractive, with her large hazel eyes and unblemished outdoor girl complexion. We suspected there was a guy in her life, which she’d hinted at to us now and then, though with awful threats concerning what she would do if we so much as breathed a word to Mum and Dad, who were jittery enough as it was about her heading off to a flat share in a big city.
Phil had about four friends to every one of mine, and I knew he’d had several offers to go off with some of them, but he didn’t have the heart to push the rest of us even further down in the dumps than we already were, having lost Jo for the holiday. Jo and Phil were the live wires of the family, having been made in a different mould from the other three of us. They were both, my mother used to say, like her mother, the grandmother none of us could remember very much about, since she died when we were six, four and two respectively. Mum’s family could never talk about her without pursed lips and quiet smiles, and it seemed the lady was an adventurer and an one-off character.
I knew Phil was going to miss Jo on holiday, and I knew I would be an inadequate substitute. The two of them always made things happen and my role was usually about going along with it, though at fifteen I had put my foot down a few times, including occasions when Phil wanted to try cigarettes (I was eleven) and Jo got hold of a few cans of beer (I was twelve). I had also, at the age of thirteen, refused point blank to accompany Phil on a holiday camp expedition when he proposed to peer through some peep hole at the back of the women’s shower block. He, of course, went ahead and did it anyway, though it turned out a group of six or seven girls had come out of the block and found him. What happened then he simply wouldn’t go into at the time, though he confessed years later that it wasn’t the girls who finished up having their naked selves examined, with one or two afters to follow, which wasn’t, I suppose I should say, all that surprising. Phil has always been almost as good-looking as his sister, and he started the adolescent growth spurt early. His sporting and fitness activity had made him very fit and he looked it. He didn’t really need to go peeping at girls, who seemed interested in him anyway; it was just part of his general devilry. I think part of my moral outrage, then and subsequently, was jealousy. At fifteen, without being so devoted to the outdoors, I was right in the middle of the whole adolescence business, and was still more boy than man, if a bit less of the pale, skinny squit of a kid than I’d been.
But something about Phil worried me deeply and set him apart from Jo. For Jo, the sport and the cavorting were fun to have when she wasn’t working; in a sense, they were her antidote to work, her safety valve which kept her doing the work. But for Phil, the sport and cavorting were about all he did; academically, he was failing badly and he already seemed to be getting fatalistic about it.
And he had a kind of craziness about him. The cigarettes and the peep hole were classic examples; once they arrived in his head, he had to do them and, unlike Jo, he didn’t do such things just for a laugh, he did them because of some kind of compulsion. For Jo, they were giggles to enliven the day; for Phil, they were dares which would leave him inadequate and defeated if he didn’t try them.
We limped on through that holiday fortnight, both of us feeling bored and let down. Phil was convinced he was already too far behind to get decent A levels, and Mum and Dad made unsubtle comparisons between him and Jo and even, to his mounting fury, him and me, because while I lacked Jo’s barnstorming approach to life, I was already starting to emulate her academic success. Phil was observant enough to see that, as we got older, Jo might be more prepared to have a fool about with him, but when she actually felt like talking about something, it would more than likely be me, baby of the family or not. I remember, not long before Jo got her offer of a university place, we were in the kitchen together, having a conversation about the ups and downs of studying different historical periods. Phil came in half way through it, and though we didn’t mean to exclude him, we were too taken up with our subject matter to pander to his thin-skinned ego, and after ten minutes or so, he went out again, his face like thunder.
By the penultimate day, Phil was regretting not holidaying with his friends and told me so, though he held back on saying it to Mum and Dad. Our parents had gone shopping, which they seemed to spend inordinate amounts of time doing, perhaps, looking back, to get away from us. We sat in our poky holiday cottage on an unpleasant grey day, August or not, and as soon as the day started improving, it rapidly became clear that Phil wasn’t going to sit in it for much longer. He never did stay indoors for very long anywhere.
‘It’s perking up’, Phil said, his face relaxing from the scowl of recent days. ‘Let’s have a run along the beach, Si; maybe a swim, if we’re lucky’. Both Phil and Jo were already fitness fanatics in those days, and I was very much under their influence. In any case, it seemed a better idea than sitting doing nothing.
We set off down the coast in running kit, including shorts which we could swim in if need be, and he seemed to have a lot of energy to get rid of; we’d covered a lot of ground within twenty minutes, and moved much further down the coast than we’d been before. His need to lose the boredom and inactivity of recent days was very apparent. But by the time we’d been running for almost half an hour, the day was reverting back to its former greyness; in fact, it was deteriorating quite badly, and the growing waves and spitting rain were already making the swimming idea unfeasible. I had had just about enough; this was, after all, supposed to be a holiday. I slowed down.
‘Is that it, then, Phil?’ I said. ‘Should we head back?’
‘To do what? Sit inside? Watch TV?’
My rebellious instincts, still rare, resurfaced again.
‘I haven’t come on holiday to spend my time shagging myself out on marathons, Phil. This is a summer holiday, not the bloody S.A.S’.
It was the wrong thing to say. His frustrations finally transferred themselves to me.
‘You’re a pain, Simon, you know that? You’ve had a face on you for most of the holiday, you’re no fun to be with, and you never want to do anything much but sit around on your backside. Go back if you want to. Just stop moaning all the time’.
He started running again, and of course, still largely his lap dog, I ran off after him, trying to bring him back from his angry silence. All the same, my anxiety was mounting; the incoming tide, along this unexplored bit of coast, was now very obvious, and I felt we needed to be moving back.
At last, my temper finally snapped. I stopped dead and yelled at him.
‘Phil! We should be going back, and I mean now, and if you’re not, I am!’
He turned right round to me, and I have rarely seen a facial expression change as rapidly as at that moment. His face was initially contorted with anger, and for a few seconds, I thought I was going to be treated to a demonstration of the width and depth of his vocabulary. Then he looked over my shoulder rather than at me, and the blood drained from his face.
I swivelled round to look in the same direction, and immediately felt the same fear. The headland we’d ran round ten minutes ago, making our way as best we could through the rocks, was now covered with water. It would be impossible to go back that way now. We both turned at the same time to look in the other direction, and saw that the quite distant headland we were moving towards would very shortly be the same. We were cut off. Preoccupied with our arguments, we’d forgotten and ignored the repeated warnings of our parents about how easily this can happen on the Devon coast. Perhaps the repetition of the warnings had somehow caused us to switch off.
For a moment, we looked at each other in panic. The direction of the water and the power of the wind and waves would make it impossible for us to swim away. Then he pulled himself together; whatever else he was or is, he’s no coward. He started looking towards the cliffs forming the cove we were in, his eyes searching for some steps, some path, however steep or rudimentary. There looked to be nothing but solid rock, rising for what must have been nearly two hundred feet, with the top third so smooth and sheer that not a single hand or foothold was available.
While we were looking at the cliffs, a wave hit us forcefully at shin height. How fast and how high this tide came in was already obvious. Phil ran towards the cliffs and I followed him.
‘We have to climb, Si. There’s no other way’.
We looked up. Such ledges as we could see were thin and precarious, with little more width than a single shoe, but behind us the beach was diminishing fast. The base of the cliff was the only part of it which offered any possibility of ascent; we scrambled up it as best we could. Phil had done some climbing on one of his outdoor pursuits things, and he managed to find a ledge just thick enough to stand on, and by edging his way along, he came to a brief crevice in the rock which allowed him to burrow his way a little further in. I made my way up to him as best I could, and he somehow managed to reach an arm down towards me and bodily haul me up beside him, while I wondered at his sheer physical strength.
The wind continued to rise and the waves were now closing in fast on the rock. It was clear enough, from looking at the headlands on either side of the cove, that the tide here came a long way in, far enough to almost obliterate the cove altogether temporarily. We clung awkwardly on to the cliff. I was angry, both with myself and Phil, but it became more urgent with every second that we should try to think of something, anything, which we might do.
I shouted above the rising wind, hoping the terror inside me was not showing too much in my voice,’it’s only going to rise so far before it starts going down again. If we can just keep our heads above long enough, tread water on the rocks or something –‘
‘Maybe’, he said. ‘But the force of wind and water might knock us off the cliff, and then batter us into the rocks underneath’.
He stood thinking for a few minutes while the panic mounted in me; the waves were coming in higher, the wind was intensifying, and yet he could stand there calmly analysing the situation. Not for the first time, but perhaps most emphatically yet, I saw his qualities, his courage, his ability to face a crisis and act, even if it’s a crisis of his own making.
He looked carefully to his left and right, and saw, about five yards to his right, something of a recess in the rock, presumably where some rock had fallen away. There was a gap, no more than about eighteen inches wide, and the recess fell back a couple of feet. But though five yards doesn’t sound much, the thin ledge we were on didn’t go all the way across; there were spots where we would have to stretch our legs across. We were only six feet or so above the water, and losing balance and falling in might not matter too much, but if we struck rock, it would, and we would also have the problem of having to find a way back up. He started edging to his right and threw his hand out towards me; for an awful second, I thought it was some kind of dismissal, some contemptuous farewell, then I realised how absurdly that would fit my brother, and I put my hand into his. We edged, inch by inch, towards the recess, having to stretch across as much as eighteen inches of bare wet rock at times; I almost lost my footing twice, and each time his grip tightened and helped me regain the ledge.
Eventually, we wedged ourselves into the recess and felt more secure; we could stand securely and had at least some protection from the weather, getting steadily wetter and windier. The water looked as though it had risen another foot, and we had absolutely nowhere else to go; moving up, down or sideways would be completely impossible, but we had at least some breathing space. I looked at his face and saw a pallor there, and an unusual level of what looked like self-hatred. We were very close to each other, and we could speak in normal voices.
‘I’m sorry, Si. I’m really sorry. Both you and Jo – you deserve better than the pig-headed burke of a brother you’ve got. This is my fault, all of it’.
‘I’m a free creature, Phil. I did what I did because I chose to. It’s as much my fault as it is yours’.
He shook his head sadly and looked down at the water, still rising steadily. His hand closed around my arm, one of his few displays of physical affection towards me. Almost at that exact moment, I heard a noise to my right, something like an angry bee, but a very angry bee, a bee loud enough to be heard over the wind and the water. I looked to my right and saw a small plane, probably a private hire job, making its way across the front of the cove from west to east. I pulled my top off and waved it over my head; the shirt was almost entirely white, and I thought bound to show itself against the darkness of the cliffs and waves.
Phil was examining the cliff face to his right, and he looked at me as I was mad for a few seconds, then he realised what I was trying to do and joined me, waving his own top. We were town boys, and our skins were still fairly pale even allowing for the amount of holiday time we’d spent outdoors; the weather hadn’t been too good for much of the holiday, and sunbathing had few attractions for either of us at the best of times. So hopefully the pilot would see several splashes of pale against the dark rock, even in this weather. We both stretched up as well as we could and shouted and screamed at the top of our voices. The plane was much too far away for us to see whether anyone was looking in our direction, and our shirts and our spirits slowly lowered as the plane continued its steady and apparently unconcerned way out of sight past the eastern headland.
We put the shirts back on – it seemed to be getting colder by the minute, and even a few bare-torsoed minutes had left us with our teeth chattering. The plane’s total lack of reaction seemed to amount to a final defeat. The desperation of the period which followed, however long it was – even to this day, I find it impossible to estimate it – was a living nightmare, and it has recurred as an actual nightmare more than once since. Only Phil held me back from wild panic. The water came nearer and nearer, until it had reached our feet, and as it mounted my calves, I started occasionally losing my footing – the power of the water was increasingly difficult to resist. We were hand in hand again, and every time one of my feet gave way, Phil’s arm went taut and his strength helped me regain the surface.
By the time the water had reached waist height, it seemed clear enough that we would soon be washed into the water, and under those turbulent waves, it would be too dark and confused to avoid the rocks. We would both drown slowly or be battered to death against the hard rocks. Phil’s hand held tightly on to mind, and he kept saying, ‘stay with me, Si’, ‘stay with me, please’, ‘hold on, Si, hold on’. Gasps and sobs kept leaking out of me, in spite of my best efforts at stoicism; kicking and struggling under water, it could be a long and painful death
I looked across at Phil’s face as the water kept on rising and the wind battered around our ears. Yes, he was pale, almost deathly pale, but his expression showed complete determination, an undefeated defiance that this would not end in killing us, even if we had to cling on here being smashed about for hours until the tide started going down again. When the water had reached our chests, an odd and initially unnoticed big black dot appeared around the eastern headland, seemingly moving not far above the sea. Phil saw it first; he nudged me and pointed; I couldn’t see anything, but after a few seconds, I got it. It flashed through my mind, anxious and terrified as I was, that perhaps it was some big vicious bird of prey like an eagle which had seen a main chance and was about to make things even worse, impossible at it might seem.
But no bird I’d ever seen moved like this thing, steadily, remorselessly. It took both of us several minutes to realise what it was – a helicopter – and two more heart-stopping minutes to firmly acknowledge to ourselves that its course was aimed directly at us. If it, too, had headed right across the cove and out of sight on the other side, I think we might have jumped in and had done with it.
But it didn’t. The following magical, incredible minutes were the pinnacle of my boyhood, as it dawned on us that this really was rescue, that these guys weren’t going to give a stuff for any cliffs and tides; they had the aircraft and the know how to get us off there and then.
And they did. And for all we’d already been through, the moment which stays with me most, to this day, is Phil saying, to an incredibly large guy descending on a very firm harness and swinging towards him, ‘My brother first, please. Get my brother off first’.
Staving off unconsciousness was proving difficult as I rose slowly in the air, wrapped around my rescuer; he’d harnessed me in pretty securely, but I was holding on tight for dear life and steadfastly not looking below me. Even laying down on the stretcher, I couldn’t give way to my fatigue until I knew Phil was back in there with me, and only after he was and we’d shared the first uninhibited bear hug that had ever passed between us did I pass out. I knew nothing at all, not even dreams, until I woke up in a hospital bed and saw Phil stretched out on the bed next to me, snoring quietly.
After their anxiety had subsided, my parents were furious, in the quiet, injured way they could be, for days, even weeks, on end. Jo came to see us in hospital; we were only in there for a couple of days, so it was a sign of how alarmed she was and how quickly she reacted. She embraced Phil for a long time, and then me for a long time, and then she stood between the beds and spoke loud and clear, like she does.
‘If either or both of you ever pull a stunt like this on me again, do you know what I’m going to do?’
Jo then told us, in her own initimable way, in words of one syllable, what she would do, while the other men in the ward stretched their eyes or grinned. Then we all relaxed a bit; she wanted to see such bruises as we could decently show and she made a nurse tell her what our charts were saying. She even tried to get Mum and Dad not to be too cut up about it, and gradual efforts on behalf of all of us did restore some family harmony.
However, the family holiday was over from that year onwards. Jo was now firmly locked into her university routine anyway, working out her summer in the university city. Our parents, while they had unwound a good deal by then, booked another Devon venue, but made clear enough they thought it was time we looked after ourselves, which it was. Phil went off on another of his Outward Bound things, and I surprised all of them by being the first member of the family to holiday abroad, on a school camping trip to France.
Peter Gibson turns round from his computers. ‘Gibraltar in fifteen minutes’, he says. ‘Our pilot’s in radio contact; we’ll be going down shortly. Ambulance already arranged’.
Still remembering that experience way back then, he startles me, and I have to make an effort to remember where we are and what we’re doing. I am a little hesitant about questioning Olawale and Kebe yet again, as sooner or later their professionalism will resent it, but the memory of Phil, standing pale but firm on that Devon rock – ‘stay with me, Si’ – has returned powerfully to me, and I have to know for definite that he will make it into Gibraltar, even if still unconscious.
But Peter, it seems, hasn’t finished.
‘Your brother’s revolution has been successful, Simon, it seems. The President, or rather ex-President, is now on a helicopter of his own, heading away from the country at a rate of knots. If Phil ever goes back there, it will probably be to a hero’s welcome’.
More of the tension seeps out of me, and I have to remind myself that comparisons with the seventeen-year-old Phil are, in some ways, deeply unfair. An occasional miscalculation still, no doubt, but he has a much firmer and more sophisticated idea of what he’s doing than he had then.
The reflection makes me all the more anxious that he should make it, and as I glance at him for the first time in a while, I am gratified to see Olawale looking back towards me and smiling. Kebe has her back to me, preparing some liquid medication, but when she turns, she is smiling too.
‘He may well wake before we land’, Olawale says. ‘His life signs are stablising very rapidly now. Perhaps he has some inner instinct about when he’s reached safety’.
Ellen is leaning forward in her chair, her head down almost as if in prayer, though I have never known any overtly religious side to her. I edge across to sit beside her, putting my arm around her. Her face raises, and her eyes are masked with tears. Then she rests her head on my shouder, and at that moment, we hear a crackling from the pilots’ cabin of full contact with Gibraltar air traffic control. Ellen hears it, and a kind of half smile passes slowly over her face.
That Devon experience had a lot to do with setting the patterns for our future lives for Phil and I. For me, it meant looking out for trouble and dealing with it before it arrived, and if it did arrive, finding the most pragmatic and straightforward ways of dealing with it. Diplomacy was a logical development, especially after my exam results put even Jo’s in the shade, a development which surprised me almost as much as it surprised everyone else.
But for Phil, it was the first blast of the trumpet, the first call to arms. Meeting the danger head on, getting the adrenalin rush, daring the world to defeat him, especially when he’s sided with a good cause, became his meat and drink. I heard, read and saw in his articles and broadcasts where he was and what he was doing, and I knew from other sources that he only ever told the half of it. Every new crisis, every new war or natural disaster, were christened in my mind as Philip’s beaches; I slowly counted them as the years went on. The sense of immediate, crushing disaster served only to bring the best out of him, as it did when we were stranded on the Devon rocks waiting for the English Channel to wash us away. That was his first beach, his first edge of danger, looking out on the great threatening mass readying itself to engulf him.
As expected, he didn’t do very well in the exams, and he started on his first paper, a local weekly, more or less as a teaboy straight out of school, but it didn’t take them long to realise what had landed amongst them. By the time I came out of university with a First and headed straight into the Diplomatic Service, Phil was working for one of the London dailies.
As we see the Rock looming up at us, Olawale grins over at Ellen and I again. He moves to one side; Phil’s eyes are open and there’s an exhausted smile on his face.
I turn away while he and Ellen kiss and embrace as much as his immobility will allow. I don’t want to mess up their moment, and I stay as I am until a voice comes at me from the bed. Phil’s voice.
Ellen has moved to the end of the bed and is carefully mopping his brow. I walk over to him and take his hand.
‘Stay with me, Phil’, I say quietly. ‘Stay with me’.
For a moment, he looks blankly at me. Then he remembers, and the grip on my hand, cold but firm, tightens. As the ‘copter touches down, he speaks to me for the first time since the rescue mission started, his voice hoarse and cracked.
‘No more beaches, Si. Home and kids now’.
I nod. There is still, inside me, more hope than belief, but I nod anyway.
© Bruce Leonard Harris 2017
My dad was a gypsy, and that was the universal word in his time; nowadays it’s usually travellers. My mum wandered into a camp down beside the river one summer day; she was a brave and tolerant person, my mum, more so than her parents, for sure. She'd met my dad around town and she liked him. She just wanted to see him again, gypsy or no gypsy. Her family said those romany women ‘charmed her in’, as if it could only be enchantment for a local woman to fall for a gypsy man. My dad was good-looking, dark-eyed, tanned and fit, so there's nothing there that's so surprising. Anyway, one thing led to another, as it does, and as soon as Mum had a babe on the way, me, her family booted her out. In those days, people did that.
So I grew up as a traveller kid, though we didn't travel for long. Something about my dad didn’t really suit the life anyway, and then there was my mother’s influence; she meant a lot to him from the start, whatever her family thought about it. Dad got into the scrap business, like traveller guys tend to do when they get fed up with travelling, and by the time I was ten, he'd done well enough for us to move into a terraced place, to the relief of my poor ma, who didn’t care very much for wandering around the country. Not long after that, my grandad died, but before he did, he gave me the earring he’d worn most of his life, which his old grandpappy had given to him. Male jewellery then wasn’t worn on the head; there were marriage rings, wrist watches, cuff links and tie clips. But this ring was real hallmarked silver, and I got my lug pierced and started wearing it, because men of our people did that; it had to do with connecting with our ancestors, and being proud of them.
Of course, I paid a price for wearing it, but I’ll come back to that. My proper name is Danior, but everyone misheard it as Daniel and it soon got shortened to Dan. There were a few traveller kids in the school and we stuck together. I was already what I’ve been ever since, a lean, wiry specimen, quick and athletic, who could graft all day. Dad took me out of school when he wanted help on the van: 'sitting at desks reading fool books will never make you a living, son'. But I had no interest in scrap and I made stupid mistakes. Dad would wallop my behind, like Dads did then because they thought it was their duty to, but always sadly, shaking his head; 'you'll be good for nothing, boy, if you don't start listening and learning'.
What I could do was play football. It probably came from Mum’s line; one of her uncles had been a pro. She thought I got it from him, and I probably did; the attitude of footballing lads then was that it all had to come from their fathers, but it didn’t in my case. I played it inside and outside school, whenever and wherever I could. I had a decent man as a games teacher, Mr. Farrelly, a huge guy who often looked like he wanted to murder someone, though I can never remember him actually losing his temper; teachers could pretend like that. He finally persuaded me not to wear my silver earring in school. Some teachers would frown and tut at the earring, but I told them it was mine, I wore it in memory of my grandad, and there wasn’t a cane in the world which would stop me wearing it. They didn’t know what to do; I almost felt sorry for them. But Farrelly came up to me one day before P.E. in the gym and said, ‘Now, Dan’ – and he very rarely did that, call a boy by his first name, none of them did – ‘I know why you wear that, and it’s fair enough, but in gyms or on fields, you could hurt yourself or someone else badly with it’, and then he explained some ways that could happen, and he was a common sense man talking common sense. I took it off and we shook hands on it. Then I realised that, as we did games or P.E. four times a week, like kids did in those days, I’d have to keep leaving it in the changing room or somewhere. I decided I’d just wear it outside school rather than risk it being nicked.
Outside school, I wore it all the time, and there were plenty who had stuff to say about it being girlish or soft in the head, but it was about honouring and remembering my grandad and I would fight about it if I had to. And I did have to sometimes, until I fought my way to respect and even the stupid kids realised it was just something that traveller boys do.
Farrelly knew I could play and would work hard at it. I was a defender, not a glory boy; I suppose being half-traveller, I knew that steady and determined defence is what I would always need. With my ability to run all day and all night, instilled in me by my father, I suppose, plus some natural fitness and the skills Farrelly taught me, I became a very good player.
But, if Farrelly had a bit of time for me, the Head, Nichols, didn't. He caned me a lot, but one has always stuck in my mind, when I was thirteen. I can’t even remember what I was supposed to have done wrong, not that anyone needed to do anything drastic for Nichols to be wielding his stick. He had little natural authority, so he had to work hard at trying to demonstrate it.
I was standing outside his office having a crack with Ben Michelson, a mate of mine, when Nichols emerged. He had pinched, weaselly features, more or less permanently locked in a sneer of disapproval, and he literally looked down his nose at me as Ben scuttled off.
'There's words for boys like you, Dickinson'. I knew by then what he meant. Heavy footsteps were approaching down the corridor.
'Half-breed, that would do. Mongrel, would be another one'.
His tone was pure hatred. I blushed and felt more pain that his canings had ever managed to inflict.
'Worthless product of worthless stock. Inferior is the best word, Dickinson. Inferior'.
The footsteps had stopped, and I glanced behind me. Farrelly stood there, all six feet two of him, narrowing his eyes at Nichols with a cold stare of hostility unlike anything I'd ever seen between two teachers. I remembered that face while I was being caned, and it hurt even less than usual. It’s a strange thing to say at this distance of time, but school canings, compared with the kind of wallopings my father went in for, were a bit something to nothing anyway. But knowing some teachers were on my side made me kind of braver inside.
After school, I carried on playing football, just for a local side to keep expenses down – my dad wouldn't pay for it – and not long after my seventeenth birthday, we were playing our league’s leaders when the buzz went round that a scout for a professional side was watching. I wasn't impressed; stuff like this was common enough, usually lads' wishful thinking, and I had my hands full anyway. They were a better side than us, more agile and more skilful, and giving us the run around on our own pitch. I had to work and move almost non-stop, organising players around me as best I could.
We fought our way to a goal-less draw; I came off the field exhausted. Leaning against the changing room door pulling my boots off, I saw this guy in a neat blue overcoat gazing over at me. I noticed him because he wasn't a dad or one of our few fans, and I recognised him immediately when he appeared on our doorstep three nights later.
What followed was mostly a one-sided conversation; my dad seemed so gob-smacked and disbelieving with the whole business that he couldn't speak. It turned out this guy was from a local league club, in the fourth division as it was then, and he was following up on several reports from scouts who'd been watching me for weeks. They wanted to sign me. My dad found his voice at last.
'You want the boy to play? Who's going to pay for everything, then, his travel, his kit, all that?'
Then the man, whose name was Armitage, told Dad precisely what his club were prepared to pay, first to sign me and then for my wages. By modern standards, not that much; by our standards then, a small fortune, and enough to shut Dad up again. He took me to the pub afterwards for a celebratory pint – we’d been pretending I was eighteen for at least three months, as I remember - and he sat there, shaking his head and smiling, his eyes going from me to his beer and back again.
So my life picked up and I thought it would all be O.K. from then on. Not quite. Yet again, no problem with the football man, a Scotsman called McDonnell – Don, they all called him – a right tartar if you got across him, so I didn't. We got on well enough, and even before I was out of my teens, he'd started consulting with me about tactics and teams. The problem was with the chairman, local businessman William 'call me Bill' Dugdale, self-styled rough diamond who regarded the club as his own little empire.
At first, everything was fine; in fact, I heard he was pleased they'd found me locally, using me as an example of 'good sound youth policy'. Then, one Saturday night in the club Select Bar, members and players only, he and Don were standing beside me at the bar. And yes, as usual, it was the silver earring he was looking at.
'What’s that about, Dan, the ear thing?', he said. ‘You got gyppo in you, or something?’
He laughed, that coarse laugh of his like an engine trying to start. I just frowned and turned back to the barman. By the time I'd ordered the drinks, he and Don were sitting in a corner and Don was leaning forward the way he did when annoyed, a kind of controlled, immobile aggression.
After that, my relationship with Dugdale went downhill; remarks were passed which I was meant to hear and challenged to ignore. I knew from the papers and the grapevine that I was attracting interest from bigger clubs; eventually, heavy-heartedly, I went to Don and requested a transfer, thinking he would hit the roof. He looked long and sadly at me, then just said, 'well, I can't say I blame you, son, and I've not got much chance of hanging on to you anyway. Money doesn't just talk in this business now, it shouts from the rooftops'.
Just over a month later, near the end of the season, I was out. The club threw a do to see me off and Dugdale turned up. Of course, he had to make a speech, even though he'd obviously had a few; he was rocking on his feet.
'We'll be sorry to lose you, Dan, no doubt about that, but this club's always been straight John Bull, English through and through, not really set up for boys like you. Straight John Bull, this club is'.
But by now, I wasn’t a boy anymore. At the age of 21, I hit the football big time. At 25, I met a girl called Jackie in a night club in Nottingham, where it was so dark you could hardly see who you were talking to. When the lights went up, she still didn't know who I was, footballer or otherwise, but we were chatting away happily by then. She liked the earring and said so, which endeared her to me from the start. I'd sown the wild oats by then, and I was ready for something steadier. The kids, Ben and Marie, followed not long after the marriage.
Though I never actually played an international game, even if there were people who thought I should have done, I made good money and old Dad had taught me well enough to be careful for me to stop the sharks getting their hands on it. When my playing days ended, Jackie and I set up a sports and leisure club, Jackie on the catering, me on the sport and coaching. It worked, well enough for another club and another after that.
By the time I was fifty, things were going very well. I had an urge to do something in football from an ownership point of view – not any of the big clubs, of course, I didn’t have that kind of money, but the lower or minor leagues, perhaps. Jackie and I talked it over. If the right deal came along, was more or less what we decided. I put out feelers through my many football contacts about the club where I’d started my career. Dugdale, now in his seventies, still ruled the roost as Chairman, but the club had dropped leagues and there were dark hints about going into administration.
My leisure company bought the club. It was rumoured that Bill was still blustering on about over his dead body when his bank informed him that if he didn't sell and quickly, they would be calling in a few outstanding loans.
At the board meeting which changed the ownership, Sir William Dugdale sat at the non-chairman end of the table, a greyer and smaller man than the one who made that farewell speech. I said a few kind words, then I placed the earring on the table.
‘Meet the new club mascot, Bill’, I said. His mouth opened and closed like he was about to make another speech, but by that time, business had already moved on to the items on the agenda, and the earring stayed in pride of place at the head of the table.
It’s now in a case in the board room, right over the top of the chairman’s chair. On a businessman in a suit, which is what I have to be for some of the time now, it looks ridiculous, and I don’t want it to look ridiculous. The club’s doing well, making money rather than losing it. I look up at the earring sometimes and reckon my Romany ancestors and Mum’s family are channelling good luck through it, this day and every day.
© Bruce Leonard Harris 2017
My mother took my brother Jean-Claude and I to Cannes. ‘To see and be seen, Christelle, my darling’, she said. I was sixteen and Jean-Claude was seventeen. We sat in front of a mirror together. I had deep blue eyes, delicate high-boned cheeks, a perfect neck, an aquiline nose and long light brown hair; Jean-Claude looked almost exactly the same except with shorter hair and darker skin; he spent more time outdoors than I did.
‘If I am beautiful, Mother, is Jean-Claude beautiful too?’
‘Boys have no business being beautiful, Christelle. A boy’s face cannot be his fortune. Yours can, my sweet girl’.
In those days, my mother controlled my life and time totally. She vetted everything I ate, and I ate very little, because everything meant guilt.
‘Just a few minor transgressions’, she would say, ‘and the whole diet is compromised. If you are to be a top model, Christelle, you must become used to rigid discipline; only the most balanced and controlled individuals make it to the very top’.
We settled in Cannes for a couple of weeks before ‘all the English and Germans descend on the place’, said Mother. We had a comfortable apartment just back from La Croisette, provided, as usual, by some contact of my father’s. I once asked my mother why, if she was so set on a modelling career for me, she couldn’t get my father to drum up a few contacts in that area. She looked at me silently for a while, wondering whether to answer me or squash me; she decided on a bit of both.
‘Modelling is not your father’s area of expertise, Christelle. Why would it be? And please do not persist in your attitude that modelling is purely a choice of mine’.
I think the truth was that there were areas of our lives which she had decided would not include Father, so that any progress made would be all to her credit. She was, then, a remarkable combination of determination, obstinacy and breath-taking naivete.
My father made his customary show of self-sacrifice that he had to attend to ‘wearisome business’ in Paris, while we were ‘living the Riviera joie de vivre’. I was already able to work out that his real concern was to get us, especially my mother, out of his hair so that he could enjoy the Paris spring in his own inimitable way, wining and dining his ‘contacts’, with a little flirting and chancing with the female ones.
I spent a long time in front of mirrors, trying to believe in the beauty which my mother seemed to see as an end in itself, trying to be the silent mannequin she seemed to want me to be. Jean-Claude was freer; he had no need for elaborate make-up sessions before setting foot outside the house, aimed at ‘an aspect just natural enough to convince everyone that you’ve hardly made up at all’, which made me wonder why I needed to bother in the first place. I looked at my face, my dolly face, I called it, pale, perfect and porcelain, and tried to use my ‘rigid discipline’ to keep the beautiful me uncompromised. Jean-Claude said my best move would be to leave a mock-up of myself in the bedroom, then see if Mother noticed I’d gone.
‘We will walk La Croisette in the early evening’, my mother said, ‘paying special attention to the boardwalks beside the big yachts, where producers, impresarios and entrepreneurs come and go. That visual impact could do in a few minutes what days of trawling poky little offices in Paris might never achieve. In Paris, everyone is anonymous. Here they will see you, standing out like a beacon amongst all these fake tans and optimistic bikinis’.
‘And what is Jean-Claude to do while we are parading up and down La Croisette?’
She did her elaborate shrug, as if she’d been watching Truffaut and compiling classic French gestures, palms spread eagling out, shoulders concertinaed in.
‘Find girls. Sow his oats. Chase girls. He’s a youth of seventeen; what else is he going to do?’
‘Oh, Maman. Surely you must know by now it isn’t girls Jean-Claude’s chasing? Do
you only ever see what it is you want to see?’
‘Don’t be a madam with me’, she said, a stock response. ‘It’s a phase he’s going through. Know your own kind before you move on. Perhaps a little disgusting, but necessary. Be guided by me, child. I’ve been around a lot longer than you have’.
We were sitting in a ludicrously expensive bar right on the sands; she had just flourished father’s credit card again. I wondered what my father would consider a tolerable price to pay for his liberated Parisian spring. She was wearing some headscarf-like thing which she considered high-spirited, ‘gay in the old sense of the term’ and an odd straw hat affair from a Cannes milliner some nominated film starlet had mentioned. She was beautiful herself, in her own way, but the doggedness in the firm chin and the studied assertion in the eyes – blue, again, all the family through – intimidated people as much as attracted them.
Half way down La Croisette one breezy evening, we scored, or so we thought. A man, sitting on a promenade bench in a light suit almost as silver as the huge yacht behind him, stopped in the middle of reading his paper as if he’d been suddenly turned to stone. It seemed theatrical to me, but my mother picked up on it immediately. After some seconds, his stare became embarrassing. I wanted to walk rapidly on, but Mother would have none of it.
‘The man is staring at me as if he would have me for dinner’, I whispered.
‘Darling’, she said, taking me by the elbow gently, ‘with that breeze taking your hair behind you, and the evening sun picking you out, every man on the Croisette is staring at you. He is only human’.
The man got up off the anchor or whatever it was and moved towards us. My mother smiled, vaguely and a little questioningly; her grip on my elbow tightened. The man was, at least, neat and presentable, dark-haired but for a few distinguished grey streaks. He spoke, interestingly if infuriatingly, to my mother first.
‘Madame, this exquisite young lady is related to you, surely? Your sister, perhaps?’
I remembered Jean-Claude’s pantomime of putting his fingers down his throat and pretending to retch when unctuous men paid compliments to Mother or me, and I nearly giggled. Then, as the man spieled on to Mother as he was always going to do, I saw Jean-Claude himself, no more than three yachts away, his long golden body as naked as anyone can be without actually being, a tiny pair of trunks just about covering his growing bulge and his perfectly proportionate tight little bottom. A tall, neat man’s brown arm was slung across his shoulders like a cobra’s caress.
I tried to point him out, but Mother was, by now, already watching her baby strut for the paparazzi of the world, or doing long, lucrative photo shoots in the Jardin de Luxemburg or below the Tour Eiffel.
‘For a modest investment, I can present you with a portfolio which will leapfrog the girl into the very top echelons, Madame’, he said. ‘I am not known for big mistakes’. He nodded complacently at the huge boat behind him, which nevertheless seemed to me to have a sleepy, unused air about it.
‘You would not even have to leave Cannes, I do assure you’, he said, as my mother was momentarily threatening to interrupt him. ‘This place is teeming with investors and entrepreneurs, Madame, who know a winning proposition when they see it. But enough of this al fresco chatter, and the evening is too brisk for the yacht to be at its best’. This time, it was Mother’s elbow being gripped. ‘We will perhaps visit a café and talk over a little glass of something? Will you allow me that much time? Say you will, please say you will. I have never seen such a vision, such an opportunity!’
‘Come, Christelle. We can afford ten minutes to hear what the gentleman has to say’.
This moment was what I shall always remember as my ‘trigger’. Someone turned the safety switch off and I wasn’t afraid any more.
‘No, Maman. I am feeling a little unwell and I will walk in the breeze for a while’.
She moved closer to me while the man stood to one side, fawning and smiling.
‘We need to talk to this fellow, Chantelle. It could be of great benefit to both of us’.
‘You must talk to whoever you please. You can tell me later about the benefit, or not, as the case may be. In the meantime, I will walk’.
I strolled away before any further elbow-grabbing could be attempted, in the opposite direction to Jean-Claude. Then, when I was sure that my mother and the man were walking up to a café behind the seafront, I turned around and walked back, standing next to the yacht where Jean-Claude was still talking to his admirer. Jean-Claude was perched on the side of the boat with the man close to him on a lounger; at any moment, I thought, he was going to take Jean-Claude on to his knees and juggle him like a baby.
I felt wretched, somehow abandoned, clutching the silly hat Mother had wanted me to wear limply in my right hand. I coughed, and Jean-Claude must have recognised my voice just from that. He looked up, glanced quickly away, and then looked back again. He could see how I was feeling. He always could.
The man was standing up by now, smiling pleasantly towards me. He looked very different from our recent friend. Hatless and open-shirted, slim and elegant, he had graceful, deliberated movements like an actor for ever on duty.
‘Mademoiselle? Can we help you?’
‘My sister’, Jean-Claude said quickly. ‘My sister Christelle’.
‘Oh, goodness, yes. Of course,’ He looked from Jean-Claude to me and back again, in a beautifully observed mime study of discovery and delight.
‘Such stunningly lovely young people. How delighted your parents must be’.
At which point, I burst into tears. Jean-Claude was immediately at my side – some brothers may be dull and unfeeling, but not mine – and at close quarters, I sensed his sun tan lotion, something like after shave, with a frisson of sweat and fear.
Now we were both sitting on the edge of the boat, and Jean-Claude’s friend was watching us with real concern.
‘My name is Alain, Alain Descoteaux. That lady with you, she was your mother?’
I nodded. Jean-Claude looked annoyed at the intrusion, but the man ignored him.
‘I have to say to you, Christelle, and I hope it isn’t why you are in tears, that man she was talking to, he is – how can we best say it – a fraudster, a con man’.
‘He was standing in front of his very expensive boat, Monsieur’, I said.
‘No, he was standing in front of a very expensive boat, Christelle’.
He saw us both staring his way, probably with our simple young mouths open, and almost laughed, though his control was much too absolute for that.
‘We call them Silver Men, because they dress like that and it’s what they’re after. They promise anything and everything, and people believe them because they are rich – supposedly. To be rich is to no longer have anything to prove’.
As if to demonstrate his own bona fides, he nodded to someone in the front cabin of the boat and mouthed something, with a reverse sign of two fingers. Two iced cokes appeared almost immediately, and Jean-Claude and I supped at them like bribed children being good.
‘Why don’t you stop them? You and the other real boat owners?’
‘Stop them from what, Christelle? They are talking to people; it is not against the law. You will never hear them specifically claim ownership of the boats. If they are challenged or doubted, or the real owner appears, they simply melt away or, if they think they are on to something, protest that their boat is some distance away and try to regain the ground in the walk to it’.
My brother and I sipped moodily at our drinks.
‘We must rescue Mother before she makes a fool of herself, Jean-Claude’, I said.
He raised his eyes to the heavens but nodded.
‘At a price, however,’ I said, and they both laughed.
There were no conclusions; there never are. But that was the evening when my mother finally began to lose ground. Food became the battleground between us, with my interest in it, at first a simple rebellious assertion, turning slowly to professionalism. I did not, as Mother predicted, begin to bulge in all the wrong places, but I did build to a healthier weight which put the final nails in the coffin of the emaciated zombie she would have made me. She came to accept first my competence, and then my expertise, and ultimately, my talented Italian husband and the Parisian restaurant we made successful together – helped by a few of Father’s contacts.
But I suspect, even now, that she sees me as having missed my true calling. Jean-Claude’s affair with Alain allowed him to discover his true direction, the dalliance which my parents had so thoughtlessly dismissed as an unsuitable hobby – designing clothes for men. Alain was a producer, at home with film and TV, and he had contacts of his own who helped Jean-Claude to adapt his work to the demands of particular media trends and programmes.
My brother met an English male model called Michael Carrington – Michael, not Mike and most certainly not Mick – a hauntingly beautiful man with disturbing light grey eyes, who quite disarmed Mother with both his looks and his immaculate manners when they first met. They made an English civil partnership together in London in 2011.
We have riotous nights at the restaurant, birthdays or just family get-togethers, and we still poke some gentle Silver Men fun at my mother when she has a flute of champagne too many and talks of the great Face of Fashion I might have been.
‘You must still hear the tongues of the Silver Men, Maman’, I say. ‘Calling to you in your dreams’.
‘Christelle’, she says, ‘behave’. But we both smile.
© Bruce Leonard Harris 2018
There are families who descend from kings and dukes; there are families who descend from mistresses and concubines. In the case of one particular branch of the Vernon family, the crucial ancestor was a stable boy.
His name was Luke Astle, and he was the eldest son of Matthew Astle, head groom for Sir Edward Vernon. In 1644, he was sixteen years old, an intelligent and promising boy; his remarkable gift with horses was clear from an early age and he took to literacy and numeracy very easily at a time when many struggled. His father and Sir Edward had plans for his further education, until the Civil War intervened.
Sir Edward found himself in a difficult situation. As an MP and associate of John Pym, he felt bound to support parliament, but his Oxfordshire home became entrapped when the King moved his headquarters to Oxford. Their neighbour, the prominent Royalist Sir Charles Holroyd, was essentially a decent man, who recognised Sir Edward’s right to make a choice according to his conscience. However, he was often away on duty with the King, and in his absence, family affairs were handled by Lady Holroyd’s brother, Silas Camwell, a violent, ruthless man.
By 1644, the Royalists were heavily defeated at Marston Moor, and York surrendered to the Parliamentary Army two weeks later.
Luke is approaching Vernon House from the south side; he has been working in the stables and is returning to his family’s modest lodge behind the main House. At a distance, he sees his father, on foot, faced by three horsemen, the leading one undoubtedly Silas Camwell; Luke knows well enough that ferret like profile and the dark leather clothes, having suffered Camwell’s whip on one unforgettable occasion. The men are holding unlit torches. Luke ducks behind an oak tree.
‘It is time, Matthew Astle, for all to come to His Majesty’s aid. Marston must be avenged; recruits are needed. You are Sir Edward’s servant; your boy is not. His precocious horsemanship will be of value. Bring him to us’.
‘I will not’. Luke smiles at his father’s implacable tone. ‘As my son, he also serves Sir Edward who, as you well know, Camwell, espouses Parliament’s cause. Sir Edward would not consent –‘
Camwell points his drawn sword directly at Matthew’s neck. He nods at his torch; ‘This is no time for traitors, Astle. Deliver the boy to us, or we will burn your lodge with your family in it. If your son will not serve, you will not live’
Luke knows well enough the increasing desperation of the King’s men and the sadistic nature of Camwell. He is debating silently with himself what he must do when a rough hand clamps down on his neck and he realises he has been foolish enough not to listen to the sounds of the wood. In no more than a few minutes, he finds himself tied across his own horse, and the tall, evil-smelling larger of the two men who have taken him shouts across to the group in front of his father.
‘We have the whelp here, Mr. Camwell, sir! Skulking behind a tree!’
Gagged and bound hand and foot, Luke can see nothing but the forest bed passing before his eyes. His last confused memories of his home and family are his father’s indignant shouts and the thundering of countless hooves on all sides of him.
Ten deeply unhappy and difficult months were to follow for Luke. He had expected Holroyd to curb his servant, but the war had taken its toll on Sir Charles Holroyd. Nine of his troop had died on Marston Moor, and he himself had suffered a deep, crippling wound to his leg. Recruiting men was now very difficult, and he knew the Astle boy’s remarkable equestrian ability. When Luke refused to do anything except attend to injured horses, Holroyd turned a blind eye to Camwell and his whip. Luke resisted the pain and indignity of his beatings, and some men began to argue that Luke’s ability with the horses should allow him fairer treatment. The whippings stopped, but Camwell insisted on keeping Luke bound when not working with the horses, to be released only when he accepted a full quota of duties.
One wet October afternoon, Sir Charles received a furious letter from Edward Vernon protesting at the boy’s abduction, and conscience finally stirred. He went to speak to Luke, currently in rags and tied to a tree.
Sir Charles looks down on the thin, pale face before him; its dark eyes glower defiance. He sees the wretched state of Luke’s clothes. Sir Charles sighs.
‘Luke, must you be so infernally mule-like, boy? Weapons practice, hunting and gathering, all everyday work – are they so much to endure?’
‘I owe you no duty, sir. Your devilish servant may whip or bind me, but I will not yield. Rest assured that Sir Edward will avenge me’.
Sir Charles’ leg flares again and his arm raises in anger. Not a muscle flinches on the boy’s face.
‘Don’t threaten me, boy, if you value your hide!’
The arm drops suddenly, and Sir Charles sits heavily on a fallen trunk, holding his leg.
‘Oh, very well, damn you. I need your gift with our poor remaining horseflesh. Give me your word, in your father’s name, not to escape, and you will be decently treated and dressed, and your duties confined to the horses. You will serve with us until the next battle – not too long, I fear - and then you can return to your father. Now content yourself, obstinate child.’
As Luke agrees and is released, the men make clear their pleasure and their contempt for Camwell. Sir Charles calls Camwell to him in his tent.
‘Silas, I need a soldier to ride to the main army; it is massing near Newbury, but I will not move until I know our strength and theirs. We are now too few to risk rashly. Please go and report back the army’s dispositions’.
Camwell’s face falls and his eyes flicker downwards.
‘The woodland is teeming with rebels, Sir Charles. It will not be easy’.
‘No’. Sir Charles clamps a hand on his painful leg. ‘That is why I am sending you, Silas. Please, now, post haste’.
As Camwell saddles up, broad grins are being exchanged amongst the men. Sir Charles fills himself a goblet of wine. He takes little pride in his actions, but the prolonged and uncompromising war has gradually eroded his peacetime scruples. He knows now that he should never have allowed Camwell to seize Luke Astle in the first place. The silent, dispassionate voice which is now his constant companion whispers its poison again.
‘I have tolerated him for Jane’s sake, but he has become a liability, and one day soon I will have to live beside Vernon again. Camwell must face his fate’.
Two days later, Sir Charles’ leg wound turned gangrenous, and the troop was halted for several days, well short of Newbury, until he finally died.
The second Battle of Newbury of the Civil War was fought on October 27th 1644. The armies fought themselves to a standstill before limping away to winter quarters.
Silas Camwell was captured by parliamentary troops only hours after leaving Sir Charles’ camp. He convinced them that he had tired of his royalist master and was riding to join Lord Fairfax, and, with an irony typical of the Civil War years, he died fighting for the parliamentary cause on the field of Newbury.
After Sir Charles’ death, leadership fell to his younger brother William, an altogether more amenable character. He told Luke that his brother’s undertakings would be honoured, and Luke worked on recovering the ailing and exhausted horses.
In May 1645, the Parliamentary general Lord Fairfax laid siege to Oxford and Prince Rupert stormed Leicester to draw Fairfax away. It was clear enough that the King could not hold Oxford for very long and the decisive battle was not far away. William called Luke into his tent in the army’s headquarters near Leicester and told him that the Holroyds would now honour their part of the bargain.
Luke set off to return to his family, obtaining some simple woodman’s clothes along the way. His skill in concealing himself and his horse in utter silence ensured that he reached home territory within a few days.
The late spring afternoon is warm and disturbed by a breeze enough only to wave the leaves gently in the trees. About a mile and a half from Vernon House, at Wharton Hollow, a small natural lake formed by two river tributaries converging, where he has swum many times before with the local lads, Luke trots his horse Thunder, a once-temperamental stallion only he can ride, into the trees behind the river bank. He is still wearing the basic clothes of a trooper, with colours in his saddlebag to identify him with whatever side becomes necessary. Luke has determined that he will only shed his military identity when he feels finally restored to home territory. He steps to the edge of the water, strips off, and spends half an hour swimming luxuriantly up and down the Hollow, enjoying the cool caress of the water and a rare sensation of cleanliness in the remorseless daily military life.
Finally, bathed and relaxed, he steps up on to the bank, grabs his remaining military clothes and throws them into the water. He stands naked on the bank, taller, leaner and more broad-shouldered than he was, and watches his army life drift off down the river as he resumes the simple clothing of the woodman.
On June 14th 1645, the Battle of Naseby finally destroyed the Royalist cause; only 4000 escaped the field. Sir Edward Vernon returned in July 1645, unhappily without either of his sons, John having fallen at Marston and Edward at the second Newbury. Victory for the parliamentary cause had been at a terrible cost.
He took Luke Astle into his service as secretary in 1646; the boy was literate and had become useful. Luke’s father Matthew, still living an uncompromisingly open-air life, caught pneumonia and died in 1650, and Luke turned effectively into a substitute son for Sir Edward. His mother Ellen, initially unsettled, decided not to oppose the arrangement in her son’s interest. Luke married Mary Gunning, a childhood sweetheart and the daughter of a local lawyer, in 1651.
Sir Edward’s health never recovered from the war, and by 1653 he was fading fast. On a cold and stormy day in late December, he called Luke to him.
Sir Edward can hardly manage to sit up in bed; Luke goes immediately to his side.
‘Just listen, Luke’, the older man says, with some difficulty. ‘I have little strength left. The lawyers have done what they needed to do. If you will accept such a fate, you are to be my heir, Luke. You been so much like a son to me that I have determined to make you so, with your mother’s acceptance. But you, of course, have a mind of your own. Will you be Sir Luke Vernon, my dear boy?’
Sir Edward’s eyes were glazed with pain and tension. Luke took the older man’s hands.
‘Yes, sir. If it is your wish, it is my wish. God bless you’.
And so, in early 1654, Luke Astle, born a groom’s son, became Sir Luke Vernon, beginning a Vernon line which has survived to this day. Some of his descendants have tried to deny his humble origins; others, more secure in their family identity and sense of personal worth, take pride in them, as rooted securely in the spirit of old England. And most would concede that Luke Astle the stable boy is probably a worthy enough ancestor for any family.
© Bruce Leonard Harris 2013