Swim Wild, Swim Free

poster swim wild swim free

This poster was inspired by the Art Deco movement. One of my passions in as a young man was to swim wherever I could. Rivers, lakes, outdoor lidos, even a river pool in the Kakadu National Park in Australia. There is a rock pool at the top of Victoria Falls in Africa, but it was closed due to the river being in flood when I was there. I saw it, but wouldn’t have ventured in even without the warning sign.

This poster is available to purchase in four sizes from A1, A2, A3 and A4. All prints are made to order snd produced on a silk matt 170gsm paper.

For those who are not familiar with all the ‘A’ paper sizes, a visual guide to these is shown below:

poster sizes
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A Date for Geoffrey

book cover for short story

Marcus sat on the edge of the bed and stretched his arms. He enjoyed a shudder that rippled through his shoulders. His body slumped, and his girlfriend emitted a grunt, turned over, and returned to her sleep. 

On the opposite pavement he saw the woman from number thirty-two taking her two miniature elephants for a walk. He checked his watch. She was more punctual than the old clock in the hall downstairs, which only then chimed seven times.

People used to be content with traditional pets. There had always been a few who kept snakes, lizards, spiders, but they never paraded them on the street. There were certainly no giant ants with gem-studded leather collars being taken for a walk in the park. He shuddered at the memory of one he had seen a few days before and a chill ran through his body.

It was Saturday. No real need for him to be up so early. He picked up the clothes he had worn the previous evening and crept out of the bedroom. The sun was already streaming through the bathroom window. He leaned both hands on the sink and assessed his reflection in the mirror. Forty-two tomorrow. The first flecks of grey were showing in his hair and he wondered whether he should dye it or let himself age gracefully. He sighed, aware that his life was drifting past and nothing ever changed.

Sally would probably stay in bed until noon if he didn’t wake her. At least he could have the place to himself for a few more hours, but first, Geoffrey had to be fed.

Sally and Marcus had drifted into living together after they graduated. She had made it clear that she never intended to have children and didn’t believe in marriage. At twenty-two Marcus had shared her enthusiasm for a life fulfilled by a career and travel. Twenty years later they both recognised the hollowness that was never mentioned.

Geoffrey was calling from the garden. He hadn’t proved popular with their neighbours because he liked looking over the fence at them. Marcus had no idea why that would bother them as Geoffrey was completely harmless. Sally had set her heart on a miniature giraffe from the day she decided they should get a pet.

“They’re incredibly intelligent,” she told him. “And the new breeds can even vocalise their thoughts.”

“But they don’t really talk, do they? You shouldn’t believe the ads.”

Marcus offered half-hearted objections. He would have preferred a cat that might curl up on his lap in the evenings.

“Don’t be so boring,” Sally had said. “Cats shed hair everywhere and you have feed them meat. I don’t want any of that stuff in the house.”

“But they say giraffes need a partner. They pine if they’re alone.”

The morning air tasted like crisp lettuce when Marcus opened the back door. Geoffrey’s head was poking over the top half of the makeshift stable door on their garden shed.

“Morning Geoffrey, I bet you’re excited today?”

“Yeth,” came the clumsily voiced reply.

Although Geoffrey could talk, his vocabulary was severely limited, and his long tongue tended to spray saliva whenever he responded.

“Don’t fret, we’re not meeting her until later this morning, so plenty of time to get you looking your best.

Sally had made all the arrangements through an app she had downloaded. Petter – the dating app for animals. For someone so intelligent Sally often acted on impulse without thinking of the consequences. They had both tried to include Geoffrey in the selection process, but he had turned out to be too easy to please and wanted them to right-swipe every profile they showed him. Sally finally lost patience and judged his enthusiasm by how far his tongue hung out when she showed him a picture. On one occasion he had even tried to lick the screen. That was how she made her final choice.

Marcus hooked back both sections of the stable door and Geoffrey picked his way out into the garden, stretching his head up to its full extent and nuzzling Marcus’s neck.

“Why don’t you have some breakfast while I clear out your hay.”

“Kay,” he said, dampening Marcus’s collar with his tongue.

Geoffrey looked around the garden as if seeing it for the first time. His joy at noticing fresh young leaves on a favourite tree never failed to bring a smile to Marcus’s face. Over time Marcus had become quite good at recognising Geoffrey’s expressions and rather enjoyed the monosyllabic conversations they had. He felt that Geoffrey paid more attention to him than Sally.

Geoffrey was not much bigger than a dog, not counting the length of his neck, and easier to handle than an elephant would have been. Their garden backed onto the park and small gate gave them direct access. Marcus had finished clearing out Geoffrey’s shed and put all the used straw on the compost heap when Sally appeared at the back door. She was already dressed, in jeans and an old baggy sweatshirt. A mug of coffee held in both hands.

“We need to talk Marcus.”

“I’ve got to put some fresh hay down for Geoffrey then I’ll be in for breakfast.”

Sally didn’t say anything. She turned and went back into the kitchen. When he had finished, he found her sitting at the kitchen table, staring at the mug still encased by her hands. Marcus saw that she was holding it so tightly her knuckles had bleached.

“You okay?”

“I’m leaving. Today actually.”

Sally travelled quite a lot in her job as a corporate lawyer, but rarely at such short notice. 

“But it’s Saturday.”

“I’m leaving us, leaving you, leaving the house.” She barked a short laugh. “In fact, I’m leaving the country.”

“I don’t understand.”

Sally sighed and looked at him. She had her serious, professional face on, the one she used to explain aspects of her work that he could never quite grasp.

“You, me, it’s not been working for years. We’ve grown out of each other. You have a closer relationship with Geoffrey than you do with me.”

“That’s not fair. Geoffrey was your idea. You can’t blame me just because you got bored with him.”

Sally looked down at her mug and mumbled under her breath. “It’s not Geoffrey I’m bored with.”

She spoke so quietly that he almost missed it.

“That’s it then? No discussion, no…” He couldn’t think what to add. 

“I have a taxi coming in half an hour. My bags are packed, they’re in the spare room. You can have the house, the furniture, and Geoffrey. I’ll sort out the legal side when I get to New York.”

“New York?”

“I’ve been head hunted. Somebody wanted me. It’s all happened very fast. I had to decide what was best – for both of us.”

“Don’t I get a say in this? Don’t I get to put my case for the defence?”

“I’m not that sort of lawyer Marcus. You should know that after twenty years.”

Sally was looking over his shoulder, her face impassive. Marcus turned to see Geoffrey in the doorway. He wasn’t allowed in the house.

“Go. Now. Pleath.”

“You need to take him on his date.” Sally said.

“And I suppose you’ll be gone when I get back?”

Sally pushed an envelope towards Marcus. She put her house keys on top of it, complete with the penguin key ring he had bought her.

“I thought about leaving without saying anything. I didn’t want a scene.”

Marcus turned to tell Geoffrey to tell him to wait at the gate. He heard Sally’s chair squeak against the floor as she stood up.

“Goodbye Marcus.”

“So that’s it?”

Sally walked out into the hall, closing the kitchen door behind her. Marcus heard her carry her bags downstairs, it took two trips. The front door barely made a sound other than the latch springing back into its keep.

“Park. Pleath?”

Marcus distracted himself by brushing Geoffrey’s coat, who giggled in his throat every time the brush crept down the back of his spindly legs. Despite the shock of Sally’s departure, Marcus still found himself smiling at Geoffrey’s ticklishness. Maybe he hadn’t put up much of a fight because he knew, deep down, that she was right, their relationship had run its course. Maybe he was feeling disgruntled because she had been the one to act.

The hall clock struck eleven and Marcus checked his watch. He was late, only by a few minutes, but he hated being late. Quickly checking the front door was locked, he grabbed Sally’s keys off the table and fastened a collar round Geoffrey’s neck.

“Come on Geoffrey, or we’ll be late for your date.”

Geoffrey was straining at the leash as they left through the garden gate. He kept looking back at Marcus who was, by that point, jogging to keep up with him.

“Kwik. Pleath.”

The meeting was to be by the boating pond. Marcus was cursing that they would be late, hoping for Geoffrey’s sake that the other person would wait. He had left in such haste that he had forgotten his phone, but she should be easy to spot, not many people would be loitering in the park with a miniature giraffe in tow.

A woman was sitting on a bench by the pond, leaning back, head tilted up to the sun. A retractable lead allowed the object of Geoffrey’s desire to drink from the pond. Geoffrey made a low, sustained humming noise and the other giraffe looked up immediately. Marcus walked Geoffrey towards the bench and let go of his leash. He was pretty sure Geoffrey wasn’t going to run away.

“I’m sorry,” Marcus said to the girl on the bench. “I don’t know your name. My partner made all the arrangements.”

“Jenny,” she said, smiling. “You must be Marcus.”

“Yes. I don’t really know how this works, with Geoffrey and..?”

“She’s called Chelsea.”

Both of them looked at the two giraffes who had their necks almost looped round each other, bodies leaning together. Jenny looked back at Marcus.

“I guess we just see if they get along.”

“Well,” he said after a moment or two. “I think we know the answer to that one.”

Jenny sighed, and Marcus looked sideways at her. She was watching Chelsea and Geoffrey. Her eyes were dark pools of liquid. She was close to tears. Sally had often accused him of being over sentimental. He knew Jenny was upset about parting with Chelsea and his instinct was to give her a reassuring hug, but he didn’t know her well and feared offending her.

“You can come and see her whenever you want,” he took a breath, “or Geoffrey could maybe live with you and Chelsea?”

Marcus didn’t want to lose Geoffrey, he was the only stable thing in his life right now.

“Thank you for offering but it’s not possible right now. I have to move.”

“New job?”

“No,” she swallowed hard. “New life.”

Marcus nodded even though he wasn’t sure what she meant.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t want to burden you with my problems.”

“No, it’s okay. I have plenty of time if you want to talk. And those two seem happy enough for the moment.”

“Thanks.” Sally took a deep breath and sighed. “I’ve had a shit month. I’ve split up with my boyfriend, or rather he split up with me.”

“Ah, I know that feeling.”

“I have to move to somewhere smaller, can’t afford the rent on the house by myself. So, it’s find somewhere cheaper, or move back with my parents – and at thirty-five that would not be a cool choice.”

“You could look for a house share.”

“I’ll put an ad in the local paper shall I?” Sally laughed and her face lit up. “Recently dumped woman and small giraffe looking for a bedroom and share of a garden.”

Marcus didn’t think before speaking.

“I’ve got a spare room.”

Geoffrey and Chelsea were looking at them. Both hummed softly.

The Last Train

book cover for short story

I first started commuting on the 8:31 some thirty years ago. They were an older style of commuter carriage then. Not the type you walk through from one end to the other, not even the type with a corridor connecting individual compartments. You entered each compartment by stepping up from the platform and there would be a bench facing the direction of travel, seating six people, and a corresponding one facing backwards. The four window seats were prized. Securing one of those meant you could stare out of the window and pretend that nobody else was there. You were also close to the door. I nearly always managed to get a window seat because the train was usually sparsely populated when it arrived at my station. Nowadays it’s different, always crowded, always a challenge.

Now there are open carriages, individual seats, tables shared by passengers and so much irritating noise. I no longer have a preference for where I sit, but I do try to avoid being near anyone with headphones. And when the train rattles into a tunnel, the lights come on – not always the case in the past. You could be thrown into darkness for what seemed like an eternity.

The vast majority of my fellow passengers don’t even notice me, I am invisible, just another lost soul on their daily commute.

There are two regular travellers with whom I am particularly familiar. We have been taking the same train for years. We nod, acknowledging each other, rarely smile, rarely engage in conversation. What would we talk about now? The man is quite a lot older than me. When we did talk, in the early days, I was too nervous to ask his age, it would have seemed rude, intrusive. The other, a young lady, not much more than a girl really. Her name is Harriet and she always looks sad and lost. I would like to comfort her but I can’t breach the space between us and I fear a bond might be reestablished which I would only have to break again.

There was a woman knitting this morning, no more than thirty years old I would guess. Once this was a common sight, more so with older women. It has recently made something of a resurgence and her needles fascinate me in their complex repetitive dance.

The train will travel through eight stations before I disembark, at the third station, Falconwood, we never stop. I suppose there was once a wood there, where birds of prey were abundant. Now the ghosts of those birds only have a canopy of red, clay-tiled roofs to swoop and dive amid.

Just before the ninth station there is a long curving tunnel, after which the train bursts out of its artificial light and into the commotion of a platform crowded with grey people. I never travel as far as the ninth station, but I remember it well and have no reason to suspect that it has changed in any significant details.

It was fear of that sudden influx of people, of bodies pressed so close that you could smell the warmth radiating from their overcoats and every-day suits, of the knowledge that I would be trapped whether I remained seated or rose to offer my place to someone older, someone more deserving. It was fear of the small things in life that edged me towards my decision. 

Harriet is staring at me. I try to ignore her and study the woman knitting. I concentrate on the tapping of her plastic needles, the background rhythm to her journey. I can sense Harriet’s eyes on me even though my back is turned to her.


Her question is so simple, stark. It hurts me more than anything I have ever experienced. Maybe the fact that she has waited nearly a year to ask me has made it even more impossible to answer. Any answer would demand more words than I have, more words than she probably wants to hear. She needs a simple answer that I can’t supply, that doesn’t exist. I turn to her and see the sadness in her eyes.

“I had no choice.”

“I don’t understand. How you could leave us like that.”

“You are here too.”

“Only because of you.”

The train lurches. My stomach heaves in empathy. I move towards the side of the carriage. There is nothing I can say today, there is no time. The tunnel looms. Neither of us can see it but we both know it’s coming.

Harriet has moved too. We stand on opposite sides of the carriage facing each other. I have watched her leave me over two hundred times. I lost track of the precise count at some time and am grateful I did. It looks like she is leaning against the window, but her body turns and she falls through the glass and steel walls of the carriage. Nobody except myself and the old man see her depart.

He shakes his head slowly and looks at me, knowing the sequence of events. I used to wonder what had happened to that elderly man with his slightly soiled, wing-collared shirt and worn black suit. I have never asked him, maybe I will tomorrow. But then some things are best left unknown. I turn to face the window, waiting, but not for long. The carriage lets me through the present and in to my past.

Harriet is late for the the 8:31. She is always late, but always arrives before the train leaves. If she had only been later that day, late enough to miss the train, might things have been different? She looks straight at me and today I don’t turn away.

“Why?” she asks again.

Today I will search for the words, try to explain to my daughter why I left, why I had to do it. Time is on my side.

The Way Back

book cover for short story

Headlights were approaching. Emily stayed where she was, in the middle of the road. Under her bare feet the dark tarred surface was still warm from the heat of the day. If she didn’t move, if she kept still, maybe the car would hit her.

A sharp piece of stone cut into her heel. She scraped her foot against the ground. It wouldn’t shift. The car slowed, its lights dazzled her as it drew near, forcing her to lift one hand to her eyes. She turned her head to the side. 

“Are you all right miss?”

The words were for her, but the man didn’t get out of the car. She knew that her dress must be covered in Simon’s blood.

Emily sank to her knees. She lay down, closed her eyes and let the tension seep from her body. She had learned to do this many years before, to detach herself from the present. Someone touched her shoulder.

“Are you all right Miss?”

It would be the man from the car. She kept her eyes closed and let the darkness take hold of her, disappearing within herself.

Occasional muffled words seeped through the protective mist that surrounded her. ‘Appears healthy, late teens, steady pulse, no visible injuries’. She knew those words were describing her, but not describing who she was.

“My name is Alice. Can you tell me your name?”

The voice came from close by. There was a name, one that was buried in her past. It hadn’t belonged to her for some years.


Answer simply. That was the best way to let the mist protect her.

“How old are you Emily, do you have parents or relatives we could contact?”


Emily closed her eyes and withdrew again.

When she opened her eyes, it was morning. She must have been gone for hours. Emily turned her head to one side, away from the glare of a fluorescent light. The room was curtained, a curtained room in another larger room. There was the sound of other distant voices. A sharp scrape of metal on metal made her wince. She was used to silence. 

“Can you tell me where you live Emily? You did say your name is Emily?”

Where did she live? How do you describe where you live? “With Simon. In a house.”

Another voice. A man this time. “It might be better to wait, to allow Emily to rest a little longer.”

“Is Simon dead?” Emily asked, turning to look at her interrogator and the man dressed in green scrubs. She’d seen people like that on television. She was in a hospital. 

Alice, the woman asking questions, was sat close to her bed, leaning forward, her fingers resting on the sheets. She had short black hair and was wearing a white shirt with black strips on both shoulders. She was a policewoman. She was pretty.

“Who is Simon? Is he your father?”

Emily didn’t answer, she frowned, wondering if that could be true.

“Can you tell us where Simon lives?”

“One hundred and twenty-seven steps.”

Alice’s thought for a moment. “Do you mean one hundred and twenty-steps from where you were found?”

Emily nodded. She wanted Alice to like her. “Is he dead?” she asked again.

“Will you excuse me a minute Emily. I just need to talk to someone.”

Emily heard Alice’s personal radio squeaking and stuttering the other side of the curtain. She knew they would find Simon. She was fairly certain that if he wasn’t dead when she left, he would be by now, although she didn’t know how long you could bleed and still survive. Alice came back to sit beside her again.

“We’re getting some people to see if they can find Simon. Is there anything you can tell me that might help us locate him?”

“He has a beard.”

He hadn’t always had a beard, but since he had been living in her part of the house he had grown one. A strange straggly, patchy thing. But at least it had partly obscured his pink fleshy lips.

“How long have you lived with Simon?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Is he a relative, boyfriend, just someone you know?”

Emily needed to get everything in the right order – in case Simon was alive. She knew she had done something very bad.

“I didn’t know him until I lived with him.”

“How long ago did you meet?”

“I was six I think, I had a birthday party the day before, but it wasn’t actually my birthday.”

Alice’s fingers touched her arm and Emily flinched, pulling it away.

“I’m sorry Emily.”

“I’m not supposed to be touched without Simon’s permission.”

“I won’t do it again if you don’t want me to.”

” I don’t mind you touching me.”

Alice paused for a moment before resuming her questioning. Emily had never answered so many questions, never had to think so hard.

“So, you have lived with Simon in his house since you were six?”

“No. Simon lived in the house. I lived in the basement. I had a small garden too.”

“Where did you go to school?”

Emily didn’t answer immediately.

“Simon taught me. He said we were home schooling.”

Alice’s radio beeped and squawked again.

“Hang on a moment,” Alice said. She smiled at Emily and told her she needed to talk to the team, but that she wouldn’t be long.

Emily returned Alice’s smile. It was several minutes before Alice came back into the room.

“I’m sorry about that.”

“Have they found Simon?”

Alice hesitated and bit her lip.

“They have found him, haven’t they? Is he dead.”

“You said you’ve lived with Simon since you were six?”

Emily nodded. Alice was sounding more serious than before. She didn’t lean forward when she took her seat again, didn’t extend a hand towards her.

“What was your relationship with Simon?”

“He took care of me.”

“Did you go out anywhere with him? Shopping maybe?”

“No. Simon did everything. He chose my clothes for me, cooked for me and he taught me too.”

Alice had taken out a notebook and was writing in it. She didn’t look up when she asked her next question.

“Can you tell me what happened before we found you?”

Emily looked down. Her hands were holding the sheet tight and her knuckles had turned white. When she spoke, it was so quietly that Alice leaned closer to hear her.

“He fell down the stairs.”

“That was today?”

“No. It was forty-three days ago.”

Emily explained how Simon had been bringing her lunch and somehow stumbled and fell on the stairs leading to the basement.

“He broke his leg,” she said. “I had to go upstairs to get painkillers for him. I was scared.”

“About going upstairs or about his leg?”

“I never go upstairs.”

“But you did this time?”

“He said we couldn’t call a doctor as he wouldn’t understand. Simon told me how to make a splint. He took painkillers and drank some whiskey and I made his leg straight.”

“And that was forty-three days ago?”

“Yes. I had to go upstairs a lot after that.”

“But you didn’t go outside?”

Emily shook her head.

“And Simon got better?”

“Yes. But I did all the cooking and Simon ordered food to be delivered. A man came with it.”

“Did he see you?”

 “I kept behind the door, made him leave it on the mat. He told me to sign my name with my finger. I’d never done that before.”

Alice kept writing things in her little book. When Emily glanced at her Alice was biting her lower lip so hard that there were small white patches where her teeth made dents.

“I watched television while I was upstairs.”

“Didn’t you have a television in the basement?”

“Simon recorded things for me on a tape cassette and I watched those. I liked being upstairs. There were so many things to watch on television.”

“Where did you sleep while Simon was recovering?”

“I slept in his bed. I liked the way the sun shone through the windows in the morning.”

“But you didn’t go outside? You didn’t try to escape?”


Alice looked up and the two of them studied each other in silence.

“I meant that you didn’t try to get away from Simon?”


Alice’s radio beeped. She glanced down at it and made a small grunt of exasperation.

“It’s my boss. I’m sorry, I have to talk to him.”

When Alice left it was quiet. The noises from earlier had faded away, other than an occasional distant cough. She could hear Alice speaking but very little of it made any sense to Emily as she could only make out the odd word from whoever Alice was talking to. When Alice returned she paused at the foot of Emily’s bed.

“They’ve found Simon. He’s alive.”

“Is he going to be okay?”

“They can’t say. I don’t think we’ll know more until they get him here.”

“They’re bringing him to me?”

“Not to you, just to this hospital.”

“I didn’t mean to kill him, not even to hurt him.”

“I’m sorry Emily, but I’ve been told to caution you.”

Another policeman came into the room, he was thin and young and wouldn’t look directly at Emily. Alice then said a whole lot of stuff about writing down whatever Emily said, but she had been doing that already.

“Do you want a solicitor?”

Emily didn’t know what a solicitor was or why she would want one, so she said no. Her room was too crowded already.

“Now, can you tell me exactly what happened yesterday?”

“Simon was better, well, almost better. He used my broom as a crutch and was going to go upstairs again. He said we would be able to go back to how things were, to normal he said.”

“And you didn’t want to?”

“I liked being upstairs. I could look out the windows at people walking past and they couldn’t see me.”

“And that’s when Simon fell again?”

Emily dropped her head. Her fingers had pulled the bedsheets up under her chin and her voice was slightly muffled.

“I brought lunch down to him, tuna sandwiches. I put it on the table and when I turned around he was on the first step of the stairs. I asked him if I could come up too, but he said no, we had to go back to how things were. I grabbed the broom.”

“The one he was using as a crutch?”

“Yes. He pulled it away from me. I begged him to let me come up, but he said people would think I was a freak and it was better for me if I stayed downstairs.”

“So, he went upstairs and left you?”

“I didn’t want to stay down there alone. He was on the ninth step when I grabbed the broom again. I pulled it and got it away from him, but he grabbed the handrail and kept going.”

Alice was concentrating on writing and didn’t look at Emily. If she had, Alice would have seen a tear running down Emily’s cheek.

“I hit him, but he just shouted at me. I didn’t do it on purpose, but the broom got hooked around his ankle. He said he’d made a mistake bringing me home in the first place. He said I should have been my sister. I pulled on the broom. It was his good leg. He fell down the stairs. There was blood coming out of his head. I didn’t know what to do so I started walking.”

Alice stopped writing and looked at Emily.

“Emily, do you remember the name you had before you met Simon?”

Emily knew that person had disappeared many years ago but there was still a faint memory of another life. She whispered her reply hesitantly.

“John,” she said. “John Wells.”

Alice pushed a button on her radio and spoke quietly to whoever was there.

“Sergeant Alice Walker. I can confirm the patient’s identity as John Wells. If you inform his parents, I’ll meet them here?”

First Love

book cover for short story

Mary moved to a small village on the coast within a year of Vernon’s death. Her friends told her it was too soon, that she ought to wait and not make decisions so hastily but, if anything, she had waited too long.

They never had children and Vernon hadn’t been interested in identifying the cause or seeking a solution. In later years she was convinced that he thought more of his garden than he did of her. He treated the lawn with the attention he had conferred on her, when they were first wed, and fussed over his chrysanthemums with a tenderness of touch she had once enjoyed.

The town house was sold within days of putting it on the market and, once settled in her new cottage, Mary decided to take up painting again. She had the time, the freedom, and no one to belittle her attempts. She was free to express herself in ways that would previously have been criticised as frivolous.

Never having considered herself as particularly talented, despite two years at art college, Mary found the courage to contact a local art group. They met twice a week in an old chapel, now the community centre. The first time she walked through the doors she felt comfortable. The group was comprised mostly of women, but there were also three men there. They were quiet, almost apologetically so, and didn’t command the space as some men seemed to have done during her life.

The teacher, Sam, the woman Mary had spoken to on the telephone, welcomed her and made cursory introductions to a few of the other members, but soon excused herself in order to set up a still life on a central table. 

Only a few members of the art group positioned themselves to attempt to capture the rather dreary assembly of apples and pears spilling off a glass dish. Mary tucked herself away, near the back of the room, and turned the cover on her new pad of cartridge paper. The room had a high vaulted ceiling with dark beams against white plaster. The lower half of the walls were clad with rich pine planking, polished to a rich lustre by generations of women. She wondered whether it had always been women who gave rooms a sense of welcome and of cosiness.

Mary hesitated, not sure whether to attempt to draw the two people immediately in front of her, their backs hunched in concentration, or try to capture the sense of space in a room which was taller than it was wide. She knew she needed to make a mark, to break the spell that a pristine sheet of white paper presented.

No paint today, just pencils, soft pencils that would glide over the paper and react with the subtle texture of it. A line appeared, as if by its own volition, and she began to retreat from her surroundings, not really aware of what she was drawing, lost from the present to a place in her past where life had held promises, mysteries and passion. The spell was broken by a voice at her shoulder

“That’s excellent Mary?”

The voice of the teacher made her start. Mary hadn’t been thinking about what she was drawing, but on the paper in front of her was the face of a young man, one she recognised even though something about the nose wasn’t quite right.

“It looks very much like Peter Duncan. Have you bumped into him at the pub?”

Mary didn’t know who Peter was. The face before her had been buried in her memory for fifty years. It was David, a boy she had dated and fallen in love with when she was sixteen years old. He moved away with his parents when his father was offered a promotion. For a few months they had exchanged letters, but the interval between each communication lengthened. He never replied to her last letter. She had enclosed a drawing of him and a pressed flower, a silly gesture from a teenage girl that had probably made both him, and his new friends, laugh. What would a boy do with a dead flower and a sketch drawn by a teenage girl.

The comment from Sam drew others to her drawing. Mary wanted to cover it with her hand, but she hesitated, and then it was too late. She let her fingers rest on the table.

“It does look like Peter,” said a woman she thought was called Anne. “You must have met him?”

“It’s just a face I imagined,” Mary whispered.

Everyone agreed that it was an astonishing likeness of Peter and someone said that she must show it to David.

“David?” She repeated. Her breath snagged.

“David owns the Three Ducks. Peter is his son, he’s around at weekends sometimes with his partner. You must have seen him there.”

Mary hadn’t been in the village pub. She had no objection to alcohol and enjoyed a glass of white wine, but Vernon had not been one for socialising and the idea of going into a pub by herself was unthinkable.

“Oh, I couldn’t. I don’t even know him.”

“Come with me,” Anne said, “We can pop in today. I often go there for lunch after class.”

Mary wasn’t sure but found herself accepting.

She put the drawing to one side, thinking about David and where his life might have taken him. Would they have stayed together had he not moved away? Might they have married, had children? 

After a cup of tea and biscuits, Mary made an attempt at capturing the still life, but it didn’t offer inspiration and her efforts were stilted and awkward. The portrait she had half-finished remained tucked in the back of her pad.

Four of them headed for the pub at lunchtime, after the class has disbanded. Anne had given her no chance to refuse and Martin and Jayne were equally enthusiastic to see David’s reaction. All were certain that there was a striking resemblance to Peter in her drawing. 

“Has David owned the pub for a long time?” Mary asked.

“He was there when I moved into the village,” Jayne said.

The other two confessed to being incomers too later additions to the village than David.

“There’s not that many locals left,” Anne said. “David’s not from round here either, but I know he must have bought the place over twenty years ago, because Peter went to the local primary school.”

“And Peter’s mother?” Mary asked.

“As far as I know they split up when Peter was quite small, but neither of them ever mention her. I don’t think she moved here with David.”

When they entered the Three Ducks there was a man with thinning grey hair behind the bar. He had his back to them but had heard the door open and could see who it was in the mirrored glass behind the bottles.

“I’ll be with you in a moment ladies,” he called cheerfully. Only when he turned did he notice Martin. “Sorry old chap, didn’t spot you there amongst the lunch brigade.” 

It wasn’t the boy Mary remembered and had drawn, but the man he had become. Behind his shoulder, propped on a shelf, was a small frame that held, behind glass, a pencil sketch and a dried flower. So many years had passed, but the flower had retained some of its colour, hinting at a life that might have been or, hopefully, one that had merely been delayed.

Late Male

book cover for short story

My phone pinged with a message. I expected it to be a friend, checking in after David’s funeral.

‘Hello Lauren. You think you’ve got away with it, don’t you?’

It was David, but it couldn’t be, we’d just cremated him. Someone had hacked his account.

‘Who is this?’

‘Did you really think you could murder me and not be caught?’

Nobody knew what had really happened other than me and David, and he was dead.

‘David’s death was an accident. Stop this cruel joke now or I’ll report you to the police.’

They police had questioned me, maybe suspected me, but I claimed never to have taken the tiller before, that I was confused, that I was trying to stop the boat. Putting it into reverse was judged by the coroner as an accident. 

‘I saw you looking at me, you knew what you were doing.’

‘You’re not David. Please stop this.’

‘Would the police have believed you if they knew you spent every childhood holiday on a canal boat?’

My stomach lurched. My childhood and my father’s abuse was a closed book. I spoke to nobody about it, other than David, I had trusted him, until he made a joke of it that day, one he paid for with his life.

‘Whoever you are you’re crazy.’

‘Not crazy, but I am angry. And you’ve made one mistake.’

‘You can’t be David, you’re dead.’

‘You still have those photographs.’

I should have burned them. Photographs of me as a teenager, at the tiller, threading my father’s narrow boat into a lock.

I’ve emailed Detective Connery. He knows where the photographs are.

There was a knock on the front door. I looked through the window and Detective Connery was outside, with three other officers.

“Open the door please, Mrs Baker.”

The Girl outside the Regal Cinema

poster of the regal cinema 1960s

An illustration of an Regal cinema in Barnstaple, North Devon with a girl waiting for a friend outside. This actual building still exists but sadly is no longer a cinema. The period I chose is the mid 1960s so the four advertising posters outside the cinema are all from around that period, being: Marnie, My Fair Lady, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Mary Poppins (they weren’t released in the same year so that is slightly fanciful).

This poster is available to purchase in four sizes from A1, A2, A3 and A4. All prints are made to order and produced on a silk matt 170gsm paper.

For those who are not familiar with all the ‘A’ paper sizes, a visual guide to these is shown below:

buy on etsy button


book cover for short story - sisters

I was seven years old when I decided that it might be better if my parents died, probably in an unfortunate accident. I, of course, would be distraught and everyone would gather round to comfort me. It wasn’t that my parents were cruel or neglectful; in their own way they were perfectly adequate. But I was convinced their lifestyle was going to be an embarrassment to me when I was older.

The year I made that decision was 1974. We lived in a small hotel in a declining seaside town. It was not the most thriving of businesses when my mother inherited it from her grandmother and, in truth, the hotel was little more than a bed and breakfast. Few guests took their evening meals there.

The Temperance Hotel – that was its name – was a rather dreary place for a child. In the summer holidays, when I had no school to distract my imagination, I would invent stories about our guests. I wrote them all in a journal which I kept hidden under my mattress. Quiet, apologetic couples were bestowed with important jobs from which they were escaping, often for an illicit affair. It was simply too dull to believe they were all boring married couples. It was more entertaining to recast them as masters of industry, or important civil servants, and the women as lovelorn secretaries harbouring dreams and living in bland bedsits. Occasionally I would have a spy staying with us, secretly exchanging information with a super intelligent scientist, who had been overlooked simply because she was a woman.

Even at that age I was well aware that husbands and wives didn’t always adhere to their solemn wedding vows. The reason for that enlightenment was my own parents’ behaviour and that of their friends and acquaintances. During the winter months, when there were no guests in the hotel, my parents held parties, the sort people talk about in hushed voices when they think little girls are not listening.

What I understood about those evenings, or rather what I now understand but then only sensed, was that everyone at those parties was rather friendlier with each other than one usually observed in public. 

My bedroom was on the fourth floor, accessed by a narrow set of stairs. It was essentially in the roof, but there was a turret with a balcony, which I thought magical at the time, putting me above and beyond the reach of adults and their unfathomable ways. It was my own private world. I had a small sink in my bedroom, but shared a bathroom with my parents on the floor below. We lived in those top two floors during the summer with the first and second floor bedrooms reserved exclusively for guests.  

In the winter, during those gatherings, I would sit on the bottom step of the flight of stairs to my room and listen to the music and laughter. There was occasionally the sound of footsteps approaching from below, but they never reached our private apartment – as my mother called it. Strange noises of people in pain would sometimes echo up to me, muffled by closed bedrooms doors. Any concerns I had for their safety would soon be assuaged by giggles, or outright laughter, emanating from behind the same closed room.

I didn’t realise at the time exactly what was happening, but instinctively knew it to be wrong. The Sisters at my school could not, or chose not to, explain what was happening. Even when I described the events in as much detail as I could, they pretended an ignorance worthy of their calling.

In the mornings I would often be the first to breakfast. Sometimes a number of party guests would have stayed overnight and, having finished my cereal and milk, I would make them toast when they arrived in the kitchen. It was interesting that the couples arriving at breakfast together were not necessarily in the same pairs in which they had arrived the night before.

I didn’t murder my parents, not then, not ever, at least not directly. That would have been wrong, a cardinal sin as I came to understand.

It was not until I was in my teens that I fully comprehended these matters. I was in one of Sister Eleanor’s classes at the Convent School I attended. She instructed us in botany and moral science. Although not much older than us, she was fascinating in her joyous explanations of the plant kingdom and steadfast in her resolve to educate us in the matter of morality.

Her constant edict was that everyone has wickedness in them, but that we should all strive to rise above it. Sister Eleanor was the youngest of the Sisters and hinted quietly to me that she ‘knew’ my parents from before she took holy orders. She said the word ‘knew’ in a half whisper, almost as though scared of the sound it made. She never specifically said she didn’t approve of my parents, but she always took a deep breath before she spoke their names and I occasionally heard her whisper, ‘Those who have fallen we pray for’, just after we had spoken of them.

Of course, I didn’t remember Sister Eleanor from when I was young, but she later revealed that she had attended one, or maybe more, of my parents’ parties. Dressed now in her habit, scapula and cowl she bore no resemblance to when I might have seen her.

We were taking a break together one Saturday morning, both sitting on a bench in the Convent garden, on the occasion that she first mentioned her past. I had that year started to help the Sisters with their vegetable plot. My parents were rarely interested in what I was doing, so they never enquired as to where I was. They might have found my choice of company strange, but I doubt they would have curtailed my meetings.

During the break from our weeding Sister Joanna, the Reverend Mother, brought a tray with two mugs of tea for us.

”You were a very polite young girl,” Sister Eleanor said when we were alone again.

She said she had seen me once at my parents’ hotel and that she was concerned for my safety even then.

“You were one of the reasons I recognised the foolishness of my ways.”

“Were you a Sister then?”

“I had sisters, two in fact, but no, I hadn’t taken Holy Orders at that time.”

I asked her if she had been a guest at the hotel and she paused before saying that she wasn’t exactly a guest and that it had been during a rather chilly February.

“Were you at one of my parents’ parties?” I whispered conspiratorially, and she appeared to shrink in front of my eyes as though she were a snail retreating into its shell. “It’s just that the hotel is closed to guests during February.”

Sister Eleanor admitted that she had attended one of ‘those’ parties. The word ‘parties’ contained a hint of venom that I had never heard before in her voice. She shuddered and tipped the last cold dregs of her tea onto the bare earth.

“It was a previous life, I shouldn’t have mentioned it.”

I was surprised but tried not to show it. “They are unusual parties,” I said, in an attempt to draw more information from her. I was curious to know more about her involvement.

She claimed it had been an error of judgement at the time, a gross error of judgement. But she had been very young and said she had been confused about many things in life, including the very nature of that party.

“You made me breakfast the next morning. There were just the two of us and you made me feel comfortable and normal again.”

I did remember her when she told me that. She had come to breakfast alone and still in the dress she had worn the previous evening, which wasn’t that unusual. She hardly ate anything. Most of the people I met on those mornings were jumbled in my memory, but Sister Eleanor had been unusual in that she was alone.

“My parents haven’t changed very much.”

“I have to say I’m not entirely surprised. You have to be very careful. Do those… parties still take place in the winter months?

I nodded and sipped my neglected tea, which was already cold from the cool spring air. I didn’t want to finish it as Sister Eleanor might continue to talk if we remained on that bench.

“You didn’t like mushrooms,” I ventured.

“I still don’t, we don’t cultivate them here.”

Sister Joanna reappeared to collect our empty mugs. I drank mine quickly, albeit cold, as the conversation had dried my mouth.

Sister Eleanor taught me a lot about tending to and nurturing vegetables on those Saturday mornings. She instilled a curiosity in me, and an enthusiasm. I asked my parents if I could have a vegetable plot at home.

The gardens at the rear of the hotel were very long and at the far end there had been a vegetable garden, probably in my great-grandmother’s time. It was overrun with brambles, but my youthful vigour and a lack of friends to distract me, meant I could make headway quickly. I continued to help at the Convent garden, but was rarely alone with Sister Eleanor. Whether that was by her design, I could not tell.

There were, however, a few moments when we were close enough to communicate without being overheard.

“When I was young I wished for something terrible to happen to my parents so that those parties would stop.”

Sister Eleanor paused in pulling a parsnip from the earth.

‘Wishing for something bad to happen to someone is a sin my dear. Have you confessed these thoughts to the Father?’

“No I haven’t. It was a long time ago. Could I confess to you Sister? Does it count telling you now?”

I knew that the Sisters were not in a position to hear confessions, but I didn’t much like the Father, he was supercilious and smelled of boiled cabbage.

She shook her head, kept her eyes trained on the parsnip and spoke quietly.

“I wished much the same for your parents at one time, but I have since repented for that sin.”

I should have been surprised, but I wasn’t. There was no reason why someone else shouldn’t have seen them as I did or harboured the same thoughts, albeit for different reasons.

“But you never planned to do anything?” I asked.

Sister Eleanor lifted and brushed the earth from two parsnips, placing them carefully in her trug. She didn’t answer my question immediately. I heard her exhale slowly and for longer than seemed possible without her deflating like a pricked balloon.

“I found God,” she said, with the last of her breath.

There was nothing I could say in reply. I may have attended a Catholic school, may have been a regular at the church on Sunday mornings, but I didn’t ‘know’ God. He was, and has always remained, a stranger to me.

We didn’t speak of my parents again after that morning. My own vegetable garden grew and demanded more of my time. I visited the Convent on only the occasional Saturday and Sister Eleanor took care to ensure we were never alone.

It was in the autumn of the following year that I decided to steer my life in a different direction. Even though my examination grades were excellent, and the Sisters encouraged me to take a degree course, I explained that I was more interested in horticulture than academia. My vegetable garden had, by that time, surpassed all my expectations in terms of productivity. Some of the yield was used in our kitchen and I donated the surplus to the Sisters at the convent.

With some objections and a certain amount of sniggering, which I thought was even below their basic level of decency, I persuaded my parents to offer vegetarian evening meals to non-residents. They indulged my whim, obviously believing it would be a failure and that I would move on to some more sensible career. I managed to speak to Sister Eleanor about my plans and she suggested I explore the possibility of going to horticultural college.

“But I can grow all the basic vegetables I need now, why do I need years of learning Latin names for plants?”

“There is somewhat more to it than that. And I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Lowborough College.”

“You studied horticulture?” I asked, never having thought very often about Sister Eleanor’s life before she became attached to the convent. I had never dwelled on how she met my parents. They attracted a strange assembly of friends and acquaintances.

“I did. Just like you I had a flare for gardening. A talent I thought. But life changed. I changed. I took the wrong path in God’s garden.”

Her voice dropped as she said that and I wondered if it had anything to do with my parents. I asked her as much and saw her face colour. The set of her mouth and narrowing of her eyes suggested that her reaction was caused not so much by embarrassment, but by anger.

“Maybe it would have been better if my childhood dreams and wishes had actually come true.”

She knew exactly what I meant without me expanding on the thought that still resided in the back of my mind.

“You can’t say that my dear. You need to concentrate on your own life, your own wishes and desires, your own future. You should not be harbouring such evil thoughts.”

I told her about my idea for the restaurant, to distract her, and she showed genuine interest, asking me details about the menu I had in mind and my parents’ reaction. She nodded thoughtfully when I explained that they hoped I would fail, but weren’t actively standing in my way.

“I hope they don’t. It would be a shame if you don’t at least get the chance to try.”

“They will let me try, but I can’t start until next spring. They said that running a restaurant when the hotel is closed would be too disruptive to their winter recuperation.”

Sister Eleanor asked me if they meant the parties, which they held during those months. I told her they did, but that now I would go to stay with my aunt on those occasions, finding it far too noisy and disruptive. She nodded and, picking up a soiled rag, concentrated on cleaning the fork she had been using. 

“I understand,” she said.

October of the following year brought heavy rain, interspersed with days of bright, clear skies and almost summer warmth. November was a shock when the weather turned suddenly to winter, with frequent mists and hoar frost decorating the windows each morning.

My parents were once again planning their parties and in particularly good spirits, while I was in my lofty bedroom, planning my ever-expanding vegetable garden. The vegetarian options had proved popular and even the number of outside diners had slowly grown over the summer. My parents were indifferent to my success, claiming it was merely a novelty with which people would soon lose interest. 

Closing the restaurant during the winter would undoubtedly be a blow to establishing a regular customer base and to the possibility of offering private functions when there were no guests in residence, but my parents wouldn’t even consider it.

As so often happens in life, unpredictable events change your plans. That autumn my parents were involved in a motoring accident. It could probably have been predicted as a lax attitude towards their marriage vows was replicated in a similar disregard for consumption of alcohol. Their small, brightly coloured, sports car had wandered across the central reservation of the road and glanced against a minibus coming in the other direction. Fortunately nobody in the other vehicle was harmed. My mother was at the wheel at the time. She must have overcompensated when she realised what was happening. According to the accident report, read out at the inquest, their car swerved back to their side of the road, skidded and then somersaulted several times, after which it left the road completely and flew into a stand of sturdy beech trees. Only one tree gave way and my parents were both killed instantly.

I was only 19 years old and I confess somewhat confused by the position I found myself in. Although it was a situation I had pictured from a very early age, the reality was not how I imagined it would be. I had not realised how much fuss there would be with post-mortems, police, solicitors, all the paperwork, registering their deaths and arrangements for the funeral and wake. I was quite exhausted by it all. Thankfully they had both made wills and, being an only child, and of age, the ownership of the hotel passed into my hands without too much fuss.

 I found solace in planning and expanding my vegetable garden that winter and by spring I had decided to continue running the hotel, but I wanted to change the ethos of the business to something in which I could believe. My parents’ finances were in surprisingly good health and I found myself not having to worry at all about a business plan, although my bank manager constantly advised otherwise. I made a few changes to the hotel, the decor was simpler, brighter, and it had a new name. It was called the New Temperance Hotel and offered only vegetarian dishes with vegan options.

Of course I lost some of the regular seasonal guests, but the restaurant had grown slowly during the spring and the books still balanced. I had also taken on staff to help in the kitchen and kept my parents’ old cleaner. I was now able to offer her work throughout the year and she was very grateful. 

It wasn’t until late spring that I returned to the Convent, hoping to see Sister Eleanor in the garden, with a fork in her hand. There was a reticence from the other Sisters to explain why she wasn’t there and I detected an air of embarrassment in their failure to be straightforward.

“I don’t hold her to blame,” I said. “And I know I should have come to see her before now, but everything has been so busy with the hotel and the restaurant.”

“It was God’s will,” came a voice from behind me that I recognised.

I turned to see Sister Joanna there with her hands concealed in the folds of her sleeves.

“Sister Eleanor has left our order.”

“She’s left? You mean she’s gone to another convent?”

“She has been released from her vows.”

The Sisters remained unseen at church ceremonies, secluded in their own gallery. I assumed that Sister Eleanor had been at my parents’ funeral, but I never saw her then or afterwards. This news confused me. Why had nobody told me before?

“Is she still here? In town I mean.”

“She is still with us for the moment. It has been a long and arduous process for her and for us. Much soul-searching and many hours of prayer are required at such a time”

“May I see her? I’d like to talk to her, tell her that I bear her no ill will, that I know it was in no way her fault.”

“I will tell her of your wishes, but I am not sure it would help either you or her to meet at the moment.”

“Would you tell her she is welcome to visit me, that I would really like to see her.”

I didn’t want to mention the hotel because I didn’t know how much the Reverend Mother knew about Sister Eleanor’s previous life. Sister Joanna nodded curtly and told me she would pass my message on. I knew I should have gone to see Sister Eleanor before then. It wasn’t her fault that she was driving the minibus that day. The police, the passengers, everyone concerned had exonerated her from any blame.

The Reverend Mother said she would inform her, but I shouldn’t expect a response.

It was quite a surprise a few days later when Jacqui, my cleaner, told me there was a woman outside reception who said she didn’t want to come into the hotel. I was slightly annoyed to be honest because I was potting on plants at the time. I peeled off my gloves, slipped my feet out of my shoes and brushed the front of my jumper to remove a few flakes of peat. For a moment I didn’t recognise the woman against the sunshine. Her blonde hair was cut in a short bob and with a slight figure she looked young, almost girlish, but fine lines on a weathered face showed that not to be so.

“Sister Eleanor?” I asked, still not certain, but recognising something familiar about her eyes.

“Just Eleanor now, or Ellie.”

“I’m so glad you came, you must come in for a cup of tea.”

“I never apologised.”

“There was no need to.”

I reached out to take her hands, both of which were wrapped tightly around the handles of a black-nylon holdall. Her knuckles were white against sun-browned fingers.

“I don’t want to interrupt. I just wanted to say goodbye, properly, in person…. and to say that I’m sorry.”

I took hold of the handles of her bag and gave her no choice but to move forward as I gently encouraged her to enter the hotel. She reluctantly stepped over the threshold and looked around at the entrance hall, which I had redecorated. Her eyes crept up the stairs. I imagined she was thinking about the last time she had been here.

“Come through to the kitchen, I’ll put the kettle on.”

She followed me. I had taken her bag so Sister Eleanor had little choice.

“Where are you going?” I asked. “You’ve left the Convent now I presume?”

“I was going to stay with my sister.”

“But you’re not now?”

“It’s not convenient for her at the moment. I will stay in lodgings until she has my room prepared.”

“You could stay here. I have two spare bedrooms in the apartment. There’s lots of room and it would be no trouble”

Sister Eleanor, I couldn’t yet think of her as Ellie, looked down at her hands and whispered so quietly that I almost missed her reply.

“That would be very kind, but I couldn’t, not after…”

“The accident? I told you that I never held you in any way responsible. My parents led their life carelessly. Something like that was bound to happen.”

“But I recognised their car.”

I wasn’t sure what she was implying. My parents drove a bright orange, convertible sports car, one of their many indulgences. Nearly everyone in town would recognise it.

”You remember our conversations,” I asked. “I used to hope that something might happen that would end the way things were here.”

Sister Eleanor nodded. I thought I ought to try out her new name. After all she wasn’t dressed as a Sister now. Blue jeans, a little too new to look comfortable, a dull green pullover and bright white trainers were not the clothes of a religious zealot – although I had always suspected Sister Eleanor was not entirely content in her cloistered life. Her previous existence, whatever that might have been, always seemed to be not far under those sombre clothes.

“I didn’t brake.” The words burst from her lips in a sudden rush.

There was a liquid quality to her eyes when she looked at me. I could imagine them dissolving completely, running down her cheeks and leaving two empty orbs.

“I knew it was them.”

I moved to her and took her in my arms. Words tumbled from her mouth between sobs.

“It was my fault. I could have avoided them. I killed them both”

I rubbed her back gently, assuring her that it must have all happened so fast, that she couldn’t have had time to take evading action.

“It’s okay Ellie. It wasn’t your fault, they had been drinking.” 

Her name sounded slightly wrong, like a child’s name, but then I was holding her and comforting her as you would a child.

“I wanted them to die,” she whispered. “For your sake and… for mine.”

There had been no question about the primary cause of the accident at the time. The mini bus had been taking several Sisters from the convent to a conference. Nobody had really questioned their account as my parents’ car had been reported to be swerving across the centre of the road.

“I turned the wheel towards them at the last moment.”

At one time I had asked to confess my sinful thoughts to Sister Eleanor. Now she was confessing an actual sin to me. 

“And I gripped the steering wheel so hard. I don’t know what made me do it. I steered towards them, not away from them. I killed them.”

“Have you told anyone else this? Have you told the Father?” I felt Ellie shake her head. “Then it will remain between us.”

Ellie stayed for tea that day. I even persuaded her to stay the night in one of the spare bedrooms in my apartment. I gave her a tour of the garden the next morning and she was excited by what I’d achieved, and with the large conservatory on the back of the hotel. I had it constructed in a Victorian style, in keeping with the property. Ellie had brightened up considerably from the previous day and offered one or two pieces of advice on what I could do to improve yields and the layout of my plot.

I managed to get Ellie to stay a second and then a third night. She fell in love with my old attic bedroom and I helped her unpacked her meagre belongings and arrange them in the drawers and wardrobe. When I went to clear out my childhood books, I hadn’t slept up there since my parents demise, Ellie asked if I could leave them.

“I’d like to read some of them, they remind me of my own childhood room.”

Ellie never did leave the New Temperance Hotel. She helped me in the garden and with the cooking. She was a fund of knowledge with regards to horticulture and became an expert in preserving our excess crops. She even ran courses for small groups who wanted stay with us and learn more from her. She remained in the attic room, asking little in return for her board and lodging other than peace, and the occasional shopping trip for practical clothes.

It transpired that Ellie was only fifteen years older than me. She found a style of dress that suited her and with which she felt comfortable, but kept her hair short. When she smiled Ellie had a youthful appearance, and she smiled more often as the months passed. People even asked sometimes if we were sisters.

“Only one of us,” I would sometimes reply. Leaving them to work puzzle over that enigma.

During the winter, when we were quiet and the hotel was full of echoes of past times, I heard Ellie crying in the small hours of the night. I crept up those narrow stairs to my old room and sat on the edge of her bed, stroking her hair to sooth her.

Every time I went to leave she gripped my wrist and asked me to stay. It was a narrow bed so I lay close beside her, Ellie under the covers and me on top of them. We both went to sleep like that, but I woke first, cold and cramped. I crept out of the room, managing not to disturb her. 

We never spoke about her tears at breakfast, but on nights when Ellie was upset she would appear by my bed and slip under the covers when I drew them back.

Ellie and I were not partners, not in business, or in love, but we were bonded by a common guilt concerning a desire, which we had both harboured – and which Ellie had fulfilled.

Sometime during that first year we gave up the pretence of separate bedrooms. I had my handyman help me move one of the double beds into the loft, under the pretext of making another letting room available. Ellie and I slept together up there.

Sometimes at night the wind would whistle through the tiles, moaning and screaming like someone despised and angry and I would hold Ellie tight. We would lie quietly like that until the wind dropped and the screams died away.

Times Past

Soft summer rains falls on warm grey roads. The black stains fade as the heat evaporates the water and the smell of softened tarmac dominates his senses. He wrinkles his nose, puzzled by why he is there.

“Do you want a drink Peter?”

He doesn’t know the woman who is talking to him. He doesn’t much like her.

The smell reminds him of fresh creosote, clinging to fence panels by the bus stop. The woman is still there. She won’t leave him alone. But he is not sure it is the same one he has seen before.

A long quiet night, broken by tears and sweat. His pillow is damp and cold, his dreams uncertain.

He is waiting for faceless friends while sitting on the grassy slopes outside the lido. Summer drought has opened crevices in the sun-scorched lawns. Peter’s fingers search through the dry, baked soil, but the cracks are too deep, his fingers can’t fathom the depths of the fissures in his world. A finger snags on the bed frame, trapped by the mattress. He frees his hand and turns onto his side. The pillow is winter cold against his cheek.

Plunging into the pool the sharp-cold water of the lido refreshes and shocks him, washing off the heat and dust of the day. Other voices are drowned as he sinks below the surface. Peace in the middle of the crowded pool. A silent world where he is removed from strangers.

“Susan sent her love.”

He pulls the sheets over his head. He wants to hide from the woman, from her persistent demands on him. His breath is hot under the covers. Water, he wants water. He says it out loud, hoping someone will understand. But nobody does. They bring a glass and put it on the table beside his bed.

Clouds of vapour form from between his lips, they dampen his woollen gloves when tries to warm his fingers. He is breathing steam. Summer is an unreliable memory. Smog. Muffled signs of life. Houses hidden. Time a mystery as he walks home from school through streets without edges. The black soot has darkened his handkerchief by the time he arrives home. 

“Do you remember me? Peter?”

The voice demanding attention makes him cry. He wants to be alone again.

Winters were always quiet. No crack of iron-shod horses hooves on the hard street when the rag and bone man’s cart approached. Footfalls softened by snow, silent cars waiting patiently in driveways. Sulphurous smoke hangs low in the crisp morning air, reluctant to rise above the chimneys from where it escapes. His eyes sting and the taste the coal infused air of winter is on his lips. Whole days can pass without the sun rising above the level of the roofs. 

“How are you this morning Peter. Are you ready for some breakfast?”

The remembered, quiet tones of his father voice a haven against the demands that busy round him now.

His mind lurches to a spring morning, so long ago, so near, more real than his surroundings. Sharp sunshine with sky so blue you could dip a paintbrush between the white stencilled clouds. Days of running freely on grass, through woods, drinking warm lemonade from a glass bottle. Jars of tadpoles, released and forgotten in the water butt by the greenhouse. Butterflies briefly illuminating the edges of the garden. And still that voice he does not know, begging, pleading, wanting him to acknowledge its existence.

“Peter, your wife is here.”

The seasons of his childhood are as clear as the interlocking links of the chain that still hangs round his neck, his fingers turn the chain, feeling memories caught in its intricate loops. A record of his life. Counting the years as rosary beads count prayers. 

The voice worries him. Each request a poisoned dart striking at him. He wants them to stop. He wants to be alone, alone with his memories. He cries out in frustration and fear. Tries to push the voice away.

“I’m sorry Mrs Bishop, Peter’s not having a good day.”

There was a girl he married, he loved. She went away but he can’t remember when or why. Peter frowns, his throat catches at a breath. She was his life, the guardian of his memories. He can’t remember what she looked like, how she sounded. She smelled of flowers, always of spring.

There was music, they danced, her body close to his. Now there were only imposters, strangers, touching him, pawing over his body.

“Peter, Sally is here, your daughter. Do you remember her?”


“Sally? You should be in school? Does your mother know you’re here?”

“Mum’s here, beside me. I don’t go to school now Daddy. I’m married, do you remember Charles? And I have two children, your grandchildren.”

He had sunstroke once. It was somewhere else, somewhere they didn’t use normal words. His skin was on fire, his head so filled with fever that he was afraid he would die.

“Peter? Are you okay?”

It was Joanna who had soothed him then with a cool cloth, nursed him through the fever.

“Joanna? Is that you?”

“It’s me Daddy. Sally.”

“I’m not feeling well. I’m hot.”

He started to peel off his top, fingers getting trapped in the folds of cloth. He began to cry in frustration.

The woman, Joanna, his wife, took his hand, smoothed his clothes. He had missed her, wondered where she had been. Why was she now called Sally?

There was an older woman there too, a stranger.

“I’m Sally, Daddy, your daughter. Mum’s here too. Do you want to talk to her?”

Peter wanted everyone to go away. There was too much noise, too much confusion. Why would this young woman pretend to be his wife. She must be after something, his money. A newspaper was in the process of sliding off his bed. He grasped it and folded  in half, then in half again. He pushed it under the sheets. The newspaper was valuable, he had to hide it from them.

Both women were hugging each other. They weren’t looking at him now. He could hear one of them crying. He cried too. One of the women turned back to him, took his hand. He pulled away and felt her release him, her fingertips lightly resting on his hand until he escaped her touch.

“I want…”

Peter couldn’t finish the sentence. There was something he wanted but he couldn’t remember what it was. He was scared of the emptiness, the confusion. He went back, a long way back, back to a place he knew.

He was swimming, breaststroke, his favourite. Every time his head cleared the water he took a breath. The water cleansed him, supported him, refreshed him. He felt it rush through his fingers and he closed his eyes. The women couldn’t get to him in the water. He was safe, comfortable. If he stopped swimming he might sink, down into the cool water, all sound silenced forever.

He was better there. Nobody talked at him, nobody scared him. He would stay this time. Submerged forever in the cool caressing water.

Until Death

I fell in love with my husband when I was eighteen. Some people said I was too young for him or he was too old for me, but we had three happy years together before I killed him.

Soon after we married, Derek bought me a large four-wheel-drive car. It was more like a tractor and I told him several times that I didn’t like it, but he claimed it was safer than ‘the stupid little Italian job’ I liked to drive – his words, not mine. The beast, which was what I secretly called that car, was black and had huge chunky tyres. I was nervous every time I drove it and especially when I had to back it it into the double garage. I was never really able to see where I was going. Derek insisted I reverse ‘the beast’ into the garage as he said it looked better when the doors were open to see the front of it – so he was partly to blame for the accident.

On the afternoon it happened, I thought that I’d hit an empty cardboard box or a roll of carpet that had been left on the garage floor. That’s why I drove forward again. I had no idea I’d run over Derek – twice.

When I got out of the car to investigate, I was devastated to see Derek laying on the concrete floor behind the car. Naturally I was distraught. Within seconds tears were smearing my mascara and my fingers tore at my hair which caused it it to spill from its carefully-coiffed chignon. 

Backing a car over your husband is not something you do every day, and it’s doubly distressing when you’ve driven forward over him too. But if that wasn’t enough to upset me, I broke a fingernail as I tried to turn him over.

Obviously I was going to make an attempt to save him, to give him the kiss of life if necessary. When I saw how squished his chest was, I realised that nobody would have expected me to try to resuscitate him.

For the rest of that day I was distraught. When not in tears I was wailing, publicly bemoaning the loss of the man I loved. For weeks afterwards, no matter how much friends told me it wasn’t my fault, I was inconsolable. The police were wonderful and accepted that it was an accident, telling me not to worry. Even Karen, Derek’s mother, forgave me – and she was the judgemental type. Of course, she had to stay on my good side, even if she thought Derek’s death wasn’t entirely accidental. And she did hint to me that she had her doubts about my account of events that afternoon. But I was Derek’s widow and had, by then, turned twenty-one. I now stood to inherit the family business along with the house and the pretty cottage in which she lived. Karen had to hold her tongue as she had no evidence against me – but of course there was no evidence against me.

Unfortunately, the sushi had been in my fridge for over a week. It was remiss of me not to warn her, especially as I knew how much she loved Japanese food. I explained to both the doctor and the police that I had intended to throw it away. Somehow the matter had slipped my mind. I had gone away for a few days, to recover after the funeral, and Karen had offered to house sit and take care of my late husband’s cat. 

The doctor said Karen must have suffered the most terrible case of food poisoning he had ever known, which induced something akin to anaphylactic shock. She died right there, fork in hand, at my kitchen table. The sushi, or something, I dread to think what, stained the varnish and it required a specialist company to re-polish it.

I told everyone how guilty I felt, but they all said it wasn’t my fault and that Karen should have known better than to eat sushi of an unknown age that she had found in someone else’s fridge. Nobody blamed me. 

Her funeral was a modest affair. Karen didn’t have that many friends and there was no sense in spending money on a lavish wake so soon after Derek’s – anyway, it would have been mostly the same people attending.

I had never been fond of Derek’s cat, a long-haired Persian monstrosity – and he never liked me, as far as I could tell. He would never sit on my lap to keep me company, not that I encouraged him. That fur would have ruined my skirt. But it was a shame that he finished off the sushi. He had a long pedigree I believe and I’m sure I could have found a good home for him with someone willing to compensate me for the loss of a soulmate.

Karen’s pretty little cottage, once vacant, sold quickly. I never considered letting it out. I am not, and hope never will be, landlady material. The proceeds of the sale funded a swimming pool at the rear of my house. I had sliding glass doors fitted and a roof that opened to the sky on sunny days. 

Planning permission had been tricky to obtain. The head of the local council committee visited me on site, on several occasions. He was a very nice man, married, but his wife simply didn’t understand the constant stress he was under. I told him that I had once considered a career as a masseuse and explained the benefits of how massage can relieve stress. He was kind enough to let me practise on him. Planning permission was eventually granted.

The family business had to go. After all, there wasn’t going to be a family to inherit it with Derek’s death. He had been a shy man, never previously married, and we had been unsuccessful in having children ourselves – not that we tried that often. I suffered many headaches during that period and awful stomach cramps at night. Derek had always been very understanding.

It surprised me just how much a food distribution business could be worth. There was, my accountant told me, something of an auction over the stock and contracts alone, never mind the warehousing facilities.

I bought a villa on the Mediterranean coast. After so much stress I needed somewhere to recuperate. It was situated on the edge of a golf course and just a short stroll to the beach. I didn’t play golf, had no intention of learning, but I thought I might relate to the kind of people who owned villas there.

My immediate neighbour turned out to be a very gentle man, a widower whose only child rarely visited him. I never met her in the two years I was there. Gerald and I chatted often in my garden, over a glass or two of chilled wine. He would tell me about the round of golf he had played that day and many fascinating stories about other residents. I think he was lonely and enjoyed our conversations, but our consumption of wine did get a little out of control and his face was often quite red by the time we bade each other goodnight. He would kiss my forehead in a delightfully innocent way and I would return a kiss on his cheek before we parted.

He told me one evening, at a barbecue at the clubhouse, that he regarded me as his surrogate daughter. I cuddled his arm, stretched up to give him a chaste kiss and told him that I felt honoured and that it was such a sweet thing to say. Some of his gentlemen friends we were with smiled benevolently. They realised that we were special friends.

Within two years of my meeting Gerald he died of a heart attack. He had been arguing with his daughter on the telephone, his real daughter, or at least his biological daughter as he had come to refer to her. Gerald and I had been indulging in one of favourite wines, maybe overindulging. We were in his garden that night and, when the phone rang, he stumbled a little when he stood. I moved to help him and was by his side during the ensuing conversation. I saw his face redden more than usual and was concerned for him even before he gasped and dropped to the floor.

I did my best. I should have brushed up on my first aid skills after what happened to Derek. Gerald’s daughter was still squawking on the phone, dangling from its cord half way down the wall. She must have distracted me, driving all knowledge of what I should do from my head. By the time I picked up the receiver, Gerald had died. She wasn’t very polite.

It did come as a huge surprise to me that Gerald had included me in his will. He was rather generous, more generous than he had been in remembering his actual bitch of a daughter.

Over the ensuing days she made quite a fuss, even trying to get me disinherited. Several of Gerald’s friends at the golf club came to my defence. Her lawyer, fortunately, was the son of one of Gerald’s golf partners – who was an absolutely charming man. He spoke to his son and explained how well I was known and liked, and that I had been a good and close friend of Gerald. Sadie, the biological daughter, reluctantly conceded defeat.

My villa never felt the same after Gerald’s death. A younger couple bought his property, which he had left to me, and the wife was not overly friendly. I sold my own villa and moved back to my original house to review my situation. I was, nobody could deny, an independently wealthy woman, but I was still young and had a whole life ahead of me. Although my bank account had a healthy seven-figure balance it was going to have to last a long time, unless it was supplemented.

My mother had always warned me that you only have youth on your side for a short period. I decided to heed her advice and find a man to keep me in the manner to which I had so rapidly become accustomed. My mother hadn’t quite managed that herself, but then she always let love influence her choices. I would not make her mistake.

On an impulse, only a few days after returning, I booked a berth on a cruise to the Norwegian fjords. There had been a last-minute cancellation and the travel agent was delighted that I could be ready to depart the next day. I knew it would be predominantly older couples, taking a trip of a lifetime, but there might be someone interesting on board, someone who would appreciate my company. In any event, it would be a chance to reassess my situation and contemplate the future.

I took a short flight the following morning and caught up with the cruise liner on its first stopover. The steward who welcomed me on board told me I would be dining at the captain’s table that night. He escorted me to my cabin, which had a private balcony and was even more spacious than I had anticipated. At dinner that evening, the company was charming, but the only other single person was an elderly woman who kept making not so subtle suggestions to the captain. He was obviously used to such attention and skilfully warded off her advances and innuendos. After the main course I glanced around at the adjacent tables, wondering whether there was a hierarchy to the placements. On a table not that far away, I saw a face I knew. I recognised her from a photograph that had been on prominent display in Gerald’s villa when I first met him. It was his biological daughter. 

When our eyes met I smiled sweetly at her. There was nothing to gain by alienating her further. I wouldn’t allow her to ruin my evening or my vacation. I nodded to her and the gentleman she was with, rather attractive and very tall. I didn’t see her or her friend again. 

Later that evening there was a knock on my cabin door. I assumed it was a steward bringing the hot chocolate I had asked for. I had left the door to my cabin ajar so as not to be dragged away from the wonderful mountain view I had from my balcony. I will never know for sure, but I am fairly certain they were Sadie’s hands that closed around my ankles and lifted me off the floor, but it could have been her friend. I felt myself cartwheel over the railings and plunge into the icy water. I remember thinking that the dress I was wearing would be ruined.

Fortunately, the ship was docked and my screams as I entry the icy water were heard by several people enjoying the same view that had engrossed me. My recovery from that cold, black world was swift, but the fall had been from a great height and I hit the water awkwardly. Miraculously I survived, but several small vertebrae in my back were fractured and it was feared for some months that I might never walk again.

I was told by my doctor that full recovery from such injuries was not always possible and, even if I was fortunate, the journey would be a slow one. The cruise company wanted to settle compensation as fast as possible and avoid unnecessary publicity through a lengthy court case. The sum they agreed with my lawyer was substantial and covered the cost of a full-time, live-in carer.

My carer had trained as a physiotherapist, he was surprisingly gentle and very good-looking. He was, I learned, four years younger than me and unattached. Hydrotherapy turned out to be very effective in my healing process and I thanked my lucky stars that I had that swimming pool built. He stayed with me constantly and it was his skill and patience that helped nurse me to recover.

We married eighteen months after the day we first met and after I had a private investigation company check his history. The wedding was a modest affair with no announcement in the press. Before we wed I did make him aware of my will, which gifted most of my assets to a cat rescue centre in the unlikely event I suffered an early demise.

I still felt a little guilty over the fate of Derek’s cat and a wealthy woman has to be cautious and protect her future.