Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Stoors Prophecy - Conlan of Brunfield

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I've used the ideas that came to me while out walking a couple of days ago, to write this episode that introduces one of the main characters from The Stoors Prophecy my humorous fantasy.

Conlan of Brunfield is a bounty hunter and wannabe hero. He travels the countryside doing his best to promote his image, but unfortunately he carries a lot of 'baggage'...

Please understand that this is a draft piece, cobbled together over a couple of hours last night and this morning, so there's probably grammar and structure errors in there, but I'd like you to read it anyway and give me your impressions.

What I'm aiming for is a fantasy tale with a vein of humour throughout, but still with a certain level of action and adventure.

It's quite a long piece, but I'd appreciate it if some of you could stick with it and give me your comments once you've read it.
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Conlan rode slowly along the path. He smiled to himself. He had come a long way, both on his journey and in his career. Conlan had a vocation. He was determined to become a hero. One day his name would be sung in ale houses. One day people would tell stories about his exploits and adventures. One day.

For now though, Conlan could only concentrate on his image. Though his ambition was to be a hero, he knew that a great part of it would be in what people thought of him and it was a long process to build up a reputation. While all that was going on, he had to earn a living, and the jobs he chose, were not seen as heroic in many people’s eyes, so he promised himself that he would at least look the part.

There had been harder days. He’d started out learning his trade as a mercenary, but that was a dangerous job, and since nobody ever thought of paid heavies as heroic, and because it’s very difficult to even look heroic when you’re covered with the blood, mud and animal shit of battle, he’d decided to get out of that line of business as soon as he could.

Conlan now worked as a bounty hunter, and that suited him fine; well almost. It served his purpose to travel to destinations far and wide, and he always made sure that the people he met remembered his name, though often they’d remember it for the wrong reasons. Some of them remembered him as the man who’d dragged their father away for non payment of fines incurred long ago in some foreign land, or the thug who’d tracked down their husband and taken him away to face his creditors in court. But people still saw him riding past, wherever he went, and though he said so himself, he did cut a dashing heroic image. He’d seen the look of awe on the faces of the people in the towns and villages he’d passed through; he’d heard them whispering things like “Who is that man?” and he made sure that they knew his name, though he wasn’t sure that handing out flyers as he passed was a particularly heroic thing to do, but ‘needs must’.

He certainly did look the part: riding high atop his magnificent charger, accompanied by his faithful wolf, and followed by his hawk, though right at this moment, Conlan knew that his image counted for nothing.

His horse was black, and since it was late at night and there was no moon at all, he doubted that anyone would have seen his mount from much more than a few feet away. He glanced to each side: nothing! “Ardolph!” he called. A low growl sounded from a few feet to his right. Wolves were particularly good at not being seen if they didn’t want to be. As for his hawk, as usual it was flying free, probably high above him, but he knew that a sharp whistle would always bring it back to its perching place on his left arm.

As it was, all he had for company was his horse; he’d talk to it as he rode, but of course he never got an intelligent response. Occasionally something he’d say would be met by a low whinny from the front of the horse or a fart from the rear, and sometimes it would be opportune enough to sound like the horse was expressing an opinion of its own, but those times were few and far between, and it hardly counted as conversation.

Of course there was her. She was always with him, though she was surprisingly muted when there was nobody else but him around, even though it was only him that could hear her. She’d been like this ever since she realised that he’d trained himself to resist her suggestions, to not be influenced by her taunts, to not let himself be goaded by her remarks at all.

But now she spoke: Someone’s coming! Who’s that? Be ready. He’s probably armed!

The voice sounded from somewhere close to Conlan’s left shoulder, rousing him from his thoughts. He looked up and saw the short squat figure approaching him, illuminated by the flaming torch he carried in his left hand. In his right he bore a dangerous looking sickle.

Conlan dismounted. He whistled: one long sharp high pitched tone, and his hawk swooped out of nowhere to land on his left arm as he extended it. He nodded to the bird and it climbed up onto his shoulder. A glance to his right and he saw Ardolph’s eyes glowing in the approaching torchlight.

He is bloody armed. Don’t take any chances my lord. Kill him now. Go on: kill him. I’m ready!

The man approached. Conlan could see now that he was a middle-aged man, slightly overweight, and certainly not dressed for travelling. He wore a long nightshirt over his rough trousers, and a pair of work boots, that looked like they’d been donned hastily since the laces were still untied.

“Greetings sir,” said Conlan, “May I introduce myself? I am Conlan of Brunfield, adventurer and hero. I assume these are your lands that I’m crossing?”

“Aye, that they are,” answered the newcomer, “What brings you here good sir? I trust your aims are honourable. I am a poor farmer and have nothing worth looting.”

“Worry not sir, I am merely passing this way in pursuit of my quest,” Conlan reassured him, then added: “Though the night is cold and dark and I would appreciate the chance of a place to rest my head. I can pay you.”

Sod that. You can’t trust him. Kill the bugger. Go on! Have him! Conlan was glad the stranger couldn’t hear the words.

“I have little, but there’s room in my stable for your horse, and I can make you up a bed in my meagre hovel, though your dog will have to stay outside.” He nodded toward Ardolph.

Dog? DOG? The cheeky bastard. Go on my lord, Stick him. Stick him now.

Conlan ignored the outburst that came from over his shoulder, instead saying to his host: “This is no dog sir. This is the last of the Cursed Wolves of Deepwood.”

The plump man looked a little taken aback. There was fear in his eyes as though he was having second thoughts about offering to share his abode. He hesitated a little then said: “Well that’s as maybe. He’ll still have to stay outside though, and in the yard, not in the stable. I have the safety of my livestock to think of.”

“I thank you sir,” replied Conlan, “that is acceptable to me.”

“You and your budgie are OK though,” added their host, “You’re welcome in my house.”

Conlan was a little confused. Budgie? He must be talking about his hawk. Conlan was the first to admit that it was quite a small hawk, but a hawk it was. Nobody had ever mistaken it for a budgie, even in the dark.

Budgie? Bloody BUDGIE? How dare he. This cheeky git is really asking for it now. Go on. Just chop his head off and have done with it!

Conlan held his tongue for a short while. The landowner turned and led the way; Conlan walked at his side, leading his mount. Ardolph lurched along unseen, somewhere behind them.

“This here is the northern field of my smallholding,” said the farmer, “It isn’t much but it provides me with a living. I’m saving what little money I earn, and who knows: one day I might be able to afford to buy myself a wife?

They walked a little further; the hawk shifted a little on Conlan’s shoulder and the farmer turned to it and said “Who’s a pretty boy then?”

“It isn’t a budgie. It’s a hawk, a bird of prey,” said Conlan.

He’s getting on your nerves a bit isn’t he? Go on: top the fat old bugger!

“Well it’s a very tiny one then,” said the farmer, “I didn’t think they came that small.

Conlan told the farmer the story of how he’d gone to the falconer’s store and how the proprietor there had explained how the do-it-yourself method of obtaining a hawk worked out much cheaper. He’d showed Conlan his stock of eggs, explaining that the expense in feeding and rearing the chicks was saved by selling an egg instead, and that he was quite happy to pass part of those savings onto the customer. Conlan had been a little limited in his finances at the time, and he’d noticed that one group of eggs was much cheaper, though much smaller than the others. The falconer had assured him that the bird that hatched from one of those eggs would grow just as well as those from the larger eggs, and so it was that Conlan had bought and reared a merlin, the smallest bird of prey he’d ever seen.

“Aww, he’s cute though,” said the farmer, “I’ll give him some seed when we get home, and I think I have an old cuttlefish bone somewhere.”

“He doesn’t eat seed. He’s a bird of prey. He eats mice and such”

“Oh, perhaps we should put him in the barn then. I have an awful problem keeping down the rats in there.”

“Ah, well. A rat might be a bit much for him,” replied Conlan. He saw the farmer raise one eyebrow. “Oh, I’m not saying he couldn’t handle a rat,” he pointed out, “It’s just that he’ll only kill what he can eat, and to be honest, there’s too much in a rat. He just can’t manage to eat a whole one. You could put Ardolph, my wolf in your barn. He’ll soon clear the rats for you.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you about him,” said the farmer, “About the curse and all that. Tell me, what happened to the rest of them?”

“The rest of them?” said Conlan, “The rest of who?”

“The rest of the Cursed Wolves of wherever. You said he was the last of them.”

“Oh, they’re all still living in Deepwood,” replied Conlan. “He isn’t the last of them alive, he was just the last one of them to be cursed.”

“What about the curse then?” inquired the farmer.

“The way I’ve heard the story, they just started out as ordinary wolves, doing the things ordinary wolves do: keeping pretty much to themselves, except for on a full moon when their howling would keep the whole neighbourhood awake all night. But one or two of them were a bit mischievous. They’d get up to things that people really hate wolves for; you know the kind of thing, sitting up in bed, disguised as old ladies, just to scare little visiting girls.

“Then one day one of them went a little too far. It blew down a pig sty owned by a witch and gobbled up three of her little pigs. She was furious and went around the wolves cursing every last one of them. Ardolph hid as well as he could, but eventually she found him and his fate was the same as each of his brothers.”

“So what is the curse, exactly?” asked the farmer.

“They were all transformed into...” Conlan paused for the sake of suspense, “Weremen!”

The farmer looked very frightened. “Well I have no idea what weremen are, but it certainly sounds frightening. Perhaps I’ll let him in the barn to handle the rats, but I wouldn’t want to let him into my home.”

“You wouldn’t say that if tonight was a full moon,” said Conlan.

“Why?” asked the farmer, “What happens? Does he become even wilder and more violent? Would he tear my home apart and me with it?” He seemed to be shuddering now, more from fear than from the cold.

“No, not at all,” Conlan replied. “In fact he’d be more likely to tidy up your home than to bust it up. That’s the point of the wereman curse. Every full moon he turns into a man. Pretty much just a regular bloke really, and he’s filled not with rage, but with overwhelming guilt for all the things he’s done while he’s a wolf. To be honest I don’t look forward to those times. I don’t really get on with the human Ardolph: he’s such an annoying little prat.”

Minutes later Conlan and the farmer were settled in the farmer’s little one roomed home. Conlan’s steed and hawk were in the stable, and Ardolph was curled up outside on the porch. Conlan had been telling the farmer tales of his exploits, embellishing them a little, he had to admit, but he had to consider his image and saw his exaggerations as merely a public relations exercise.

“More bread my lord?” asked the farmer, “and I have another cask of ale put away if you’d like some more.”

“Thank you, but I’ve had my fill,” replied Conlan, “I’d like to sleep now, in that armchair if I may.”

The farmer waved his hand toward the armchair as a sign of assent and Conlan rose from his place at the table. He unbuckled his belt and dropped it by the side of the chair, he then carefully unfastened his baldric and gently laid his sword and scabbard upon the table.

His sword caught the attention of the farmer: “That’s an uncommonly fine weapon you have there, my lord,” he said as he reached out as if to touch the hilt.

“DON’T touch the sword!” Conlan barked at him. The farmer jumped up in shock, toppling his own chair.

“I was merely admiring it,” he said. “The craftsmanship is incredible, the beauty of the castings on the hilt make it almost irresistible to me. I only want to hold it though, nothing more. Pray sir, will you draw it, so that I can see how fine the blade is?”

“Sorry no,” replied Conlan, “I cannot. It is an enchanted sword, possessed by a magical spirit. It has served me well, but if I let my guard down for but a moment, I may find myself serving it. It must remain sheathed tonight.

The farmer shrugged and went to his bed. Conlan settled in his armchair and slept.

It was almost morning when Conlan was awoken by the sound of the farmer’s voice.

“You’re right, he is a cocky bastard. He comes here from out of nowhere with tales of his exploits just to frighten me. Why should I put up with that?”

Conlan half opened one eye. The farmer was standing at the other side of the table, with the sword in his hand.

“And then he has the effrontery to eat all my bread and cheese and to drink nearly all my ale. Yes, I think I’ll slit him from gullet to groin.” He walked around the table toward the armchair where Conlan was seated.

Conlan opened his eyes, lifted two fingers of his left hand to his mouth and whistled long and hard. At that his hawk flew through the window toward the farmer, who swung at it blindly with the sword. Suddenly the door burst open and Ardolph stood there, framed in the doorway, snarling and growling at the farmer. The farmer turned his attention to the wolf.

“And as for you,” he said, “I’ve had just about enough of you. I’ve hardly slept a wink all night for fear of you outside my window. Well I’m not afraid of you now.” He swung the sword as he approached Ardolph.

From his place in the armchair, Conlan stuck out his leg as the farmer attempted to pass. He caught the farmer in the shin, causing him to fall full length across the farmhouse floor.

Conlan arose from his seat immediately and as the farmer hit the floor, he stamped with all the force he could muster, down upon the old man’s hand. The farmer yelled out in pain and released the sword, which Conlan grabbed and swept up in his own hand immediately.

Conlan struggled to contain his own rage as a familiar voice came from the sword: That bastard tried to kill you! Don’t let him get away with it. Kill him now!

Conlan ignored the voice and managed to control his own anger long enough to call his wolf: “Ardolph, yield. Don’t hurt him.” The wolf backed away. Conlan looked down at the unconscious form of the farmer. He hadn’t fallen hard enough to knock himself out. The poor old sod had probably fainted away in terror once he was free of the influence of the sword.

Why do you let him live? He would have taken your life. He had it in mind to kill you.

“It was not the poor farmer’s will that caused that attack” Conlan said as he looked at the decorative hilt of his sword. The image of the naked woman cast as if to be standing on the guard, still seemed to be draping herself around the hilt, still seemed to be reaching up with one arm to caress the pommel, but now her head seemed to be turned to look directly at Conlan and she had a definite frown of annoyance on her face.

My lord, do not be so angry with me. I exist only to kill. You rarely make use of me, and then only by your own will, never by mine. It was refreshing to have a less well controlled mind in my grasp. I weakened under my own blood lust for a little while, but you must believe me, you alone are my only true master.

“Only for as long as I own you though,” he replied. “I’d better just make sure I don’t let you out of my grasp again.”

Conlan had contained his anger fully by now. He sheathed the sword, fastened the scabbard back over his shoulder, picked up his belt, then prepared to leave the house. He looked down on the prone figure of the unconscious farmer, thought for a moment, then walked over to the table and left a small bag of silver there. As he departed he smiled and nodded to himself “That’s what a hero would do.”

Friday, 22 July 2011

A Prior Appointment

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I walked out into the summer sunshine from the gloomy interior of the transport station.

It had been a few years since I'd last been here: that had been back in the days of 'trains' when the journey here had taken hours, rather than the quick ten minute hop I'd just made from the city.

I wasn’t surprised that the place hadn’t changed much. Recent developments in transport aside, most of the modern day conveniences we’d grown used to hadn’t made it as far as rural areas like this. I looked around; it still looked very much as I remembered it from my youth: mostly stone buildings, some of them hundreds of years old, with only the occasional modern structure of chrome and glass peeking out from amongst them to remind me that it was the middle of the twenty first century, and not the twentieth, nineteenth or even the eighteenth.

Even parts of the transport station behind me, the parts at ground level at least, seemed to have been built around the original single platform railway terminus that had been here when I was a young man. Looking around though, the one thing that stood out was that there were no longer the ranks of taxi cabs waiting in line for  train passengers to arrive, like there always used to be.

I strolled across the ornamental gardens that I remembered had once been a car park and glanced at the surrounding buildings. They mostly looked like private houses now; though in my younger days almost all of them would have been restaurants or bed and breakfast establishments. There were one or two restaurants still, but I couldn’t see a single place to stay, apart from the large hotel up the hill from the station. That was fine: I was only planning on staying for the day. That’s what most people did these days; when you could get just about anywhere in the country within half an hour, tourism didn’t have to involve sleeping away from home as much as it used to.

I reluctantly took my lens case from my pocket. I hadn’t wanted to use my lens today; I had really looked forward to dispensing with technology for the day, not relying on modern contraptions like that, but I had to get down to the lake somehow, and it was a little far for me to walk. I’d have probably enjoyed the six mile ‘stroll’ the last time I’d been here but now, in my late fifties, it didn’t seem such an attractive proposition.

I took my lens from its case, put it into my right eye then blinked three times quickly to activate it. The lens manufacturer’s colourful logo appeared in the air in front of me. I hate that, so I waved my hand in front of my face and it disappeared. I continued to wave my hands around in front of me. Passers-by didn’t even seem to notice. I’d thought at first that a heads-up AR personal lens computer would have appeared strange to them, but of course, I was forgetting that even country people weren’t tied to rural areas anymore, and most of them would have seen this kind of thing being used in the cities they visited. Hell, most of them probably even possessed one.

Eventually the application I was looking for appeared in the air in front of me: local transport for the area. With a series of blinks, finger prods, nods and waves of my hand, I eventually received a confirmation message that my taxi was on its way. I’d leave my lens in place until it arrived, just in case there was a delay, and I had to contact the taxi company again, but hopefully, when my cab arrived, I could put it away for the rest of the day and finally feel like I was really getting back to nature.

My taxi arrived in just over five minutes. It crossed my mind that my 200 mile journey from the city had taken almost the same time as my wait here had taken. I remembered that rural taxis, back in the old days had tended to be sleek saloon cars, rather than the big black box-shaped cabs of the cities. This one didn’t look too dissimilar from the ones I remembered, apart from the fact that it dispensed with wheels and tyres, instead hovering silently, just over a foot above the ground.

I removed my lens, popped it back into its case and then into my pocket as I climbed into the cab. As the driver turned to speak to me, the tell-tale purple glow in his right eye told me that he was still wearing his.

“Where to mate?” He asked.

“I want to be at the lake please,” I answered, “But don’t take me to the pier. I need you to find a little path that leads down to a particular quiet secluded area I remember from years ago. I’ll give you directions as we drive.”

“How long ago is it since you were last there?” asked the driver, “You sure your path is still there?”

“I haven’t been there for nearly 40 years,” I replied, “but I checked the aerial video online last night, and it was still there then; so unless it’s disappeared this morning, it’s still there.”

“You’re paying,” shrugged my driver, “You tell me which way to go and I’ll go there. You realize though that a lot of places here aren’t as well visited as they used to be, so it could well be that your path will be overgrown. Would you recognize your beauty spot from the water? I could always go directly to the lake and approach it over the water if you like.”

“I’d rather use the path if possible,” I answered, “Drop me there and if I have trouble getting along the path, we can try the approach from over the lake instead.”

I directed him to drive south west from the village and he frowned as I did. Of course he would at least know which general direction the lake was in. Once we were out onto the country roads, I told him to drive due south for at least three miles.

“So if you haven’t been here for such a long time,” he asked, “what brings you back here now? And why to such a specific out of the way location?”

“I’m meeting someone,” I said, “Or at least I think I am: if she turns up. Perhaps I’m being over-romantic, a little na├»ve and even a bit stupid to think she will.

“Did you arrange to meet there?” he asked, “Did she say she would?”

“We both promised we would,” I said, “but we made that promise forty years ago as of yesterday, and who knows what might have happened?”

“Forty years!” he chuckled, “That’s a hell of a long time in the future to make an appointment. I was only a baby on my mum’s lap forty years ago. I’d be surprised if she’ll have remembered, I’m amazed that you have.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” I replied, “Maybe I’m just fooling myself, but I have to be sure. If she doesn’t turn up, then she doesn’t, but I don’t want to be the one who breaks the appointment. I don’t want her to end up waiting there, and be as upset as the other lady was.”

“Other lady?” said the driver, “What other lady? I’m getting confused. Do you want to tell me about it as we drive?”

And so I sat back in the passenger seat and began to tell my story to this man I’d never met before. It wasn’t that my tale was in any way something to be embarrassed by, but it was personal, and it felt strange opening up to a stranger…


“I was sixteen when I met Holly. She wasn’t my first girlfriend, but she was my first serious girlfriend. I thought we’d spend the rest of our lives together, but Holly was a lot more practical than I was: she told me that the future held lots of possibilities and though some of them may lead to us sharing our lives, others may somehow cause us to be parted after a time. That thought made me miserable to begin with, but Holly told me that for now at least, we were together and regardless of what might happen, we should make the most of the time we spent together.

“Forty years ago, in 2012 when we were seventeen, we spent our first holiday together. It wasn’t that our parents allowed us that kind of freedom at seventeen, to go off on vacation together, but Holly’s family were spending a couple of weeks up here in a rented cottage; Holly and I didn’t relish the idea of being separated at all, and since they had a spare bedroom, they asked me along to join them for the fortnight.

“We spent some of the time with Holly’s family, but there were times when we wanted to be alone, so we’d go for long walks in the country almost every day: up in the hills or beside the lake. It was on one of these walks that we discovered a partially hidden path leading away from the road toward the lake. It wasn’t marked on the map, and at first we thought it might be part of a private entrance, but there were no buildings in the vicinity, so we risked it and wandered along it.

“What we found at the end of the path was beautiful: when we finally passed through the last of the trees, as the bracken and the long grass finally thinned out and the lake came into view, we were presented with what seemed like the most gorgeous view either of us had ever seen. As we reached the lake shore, we found an old wooden bench, on a small shingle beach overlooking the water. Sitting there we could see up and down the lake and the views in both directions were incredible.

“The place was so attractive, quiet and secluded, that we decided that we’d make it ‘our place’ and almost every day for the rest of the holiday, we spent time there, mostly just sitting on the bench, kissing a little and embracing each other as we took in the view, and talked about the future.

“A few days before the end of the holiday though, we arrived at our bench, to find someone else sitting there. It was a middle aged woman. Remembering back, even to my teenage eyes, she looked very attractive, though looking back with an older man’s more mature view, I realise now that she was really beautiful.

“We thought at first that it may be her place and that we might be trespassing, but she actually apologized for being there, as we approached. She said that she felt bad about encroaching on our privacy. We told her it was ok, and we sat beside her on the bench.

“Every so often, she’d stand up and wander over to the path and then return, with what looked like tears in her eyes. I thought something had upset her, but occasionally I noticed that her eyes became even moister when she glanced toward Holly and I, but when she did, I noticed that despite her tears, she was smiling.

“We got talking to her after a few minutes, and she asked us what we thought of the place. We told her we loved it and thought it was beautiful, and I asked her out of courtesy if it was hers.

“She just laughed and said that it wasn’t, though she’d felt like it was once. She said that just like us, she once used to come here with someone she loved. But that they’d separated since and they’d lost touch a long time ago.

“She told us how they’d arranged to meet here again forty years later, and that the reason she was there that day was because she hoped to meet her past love. She shrugged then though and told us that he hadn’t been here, and he’d obviously forgotten her after all these years.

“Holly and I could see that she was upset and we tried to comfort her. I suggested that he may have just got the date wrong, and Holly pointed out that anything could have happened to prevent him from turning up. There could have been an emergency to keep him away. Holly jokingly pointed out that they were a little bit careless in not considering that when they’d made their arrangements, that they should have arranged to meet again in forty years, and also to both be here in forty years and one day, just in case.

“The lady said that perhaps she’d return tomorrow, just on the off chance that her friend had got his dates mixed up. She shook our hands then and left us alone, making her way back up the hidden path to the road.

“Holly and I found ourselves alone then, but couldn’t avoid talking about the lady and how she’d been so upset to have missed the chance of being reunited with her lover. That got us talking about our own future again, and about what might happen, with the result that before we left, we made our own pact that whatever happened in our lives, that we too would arrange to meet in that very spot, at noon in exactly forty years time. Holly jokingly said that if I didn’t turn up, that she’d make sure that she'd come looking for me somehow.

“The holiday came to an end, and it turned out to be our first and last holiday together, so we never visited that spot as a couple again. Holly went to University the following year. I didn’t and though we kept in touch for a while, gradually we drifted apart. Our relationship ended up as the kind where we just exchanged greetings cards every Christmas, but eventually even that habit died out.

“I came back up here on holiday myself a couple of times in the years that followed, and once I walked back down to that spot and sat on the bench. It was only then that I realised how much I missed Holly, and remembered how much I had loved her. I felt devastated that I’d lost her and let her drift away from me, and I wished I could have had another chance to be with her again."



“And that chance is here now,” interrupted my driver, sensing that I’d come to the end of my tale, “but hold on: didn’t you say that it was forty years yesterday?”

“I did,” I replied, “And yesterday I thought about coming here, but got cold feet. I thought I’d be wasting my time. Anyway, why on Earth would she even consider keeping the promise herself? She has her own life now and probably hardly remembers me at all.

“But you’re here now,” my driver pointed out.

“Yes, because late last night, I remembered the tears in the other lady’s eyes, remembered the sadness she’d felt because she’d remembered, and her man hadn’t. I didn’t want Holly to feel that way. If there’s even a remote chance that Holly turns up, I want to make sure that I’m there too.”

“But you’re a day late.”

“I know. I’m hoping Holly remembers about what we told the other lady, and how she said she’d come back the day after, just in case. I’m hoping Holly will do the same.”

“I hope she does,” said the driver.

“Wait,” I said, “slow down. This place is beginning to look familiar. I think we’re almost there. Yes, just pull over to the right here, will you?”

The car moved to the right hand side of the road and then hovered silently onto the grass by the hedgerow. I got out and walked over to where I knew the start of the path used to be. I lifted a couple of branches and peered down it, and saw that though it was a little more overgrown than I remembered it, it was clear enough to allow me access.

“The path is still here,” I called out to the driver, “and it looks like I can make my way to the lake.”

“Do you want me to wait,” he said, “Just in case?”

He was making it sound like he meant ‘just in case you can’t get down the path’ although his smile and his eyes said ‘just in case you and your lady need a lift back to town’ though both he and I knew that he meant ‘just in case she isn’t there’ equally as much.

“It’s ok,” I called back, “I’ll call you when I’m ready to go back. Whatever happens, I intend to spend a little time here, for old times' sake.”

He nodded, turned his taxi around and glided off almost silently to the north again. I walked down the path, occasionally having to push back bits of the undergrowth or trample down brambles then use my foot to prevent them from springing back at me. Eventually I reached the edge of the shingle beach.  The view was every bit as stunning as I remembered it, and I looked a little to the north and noticed that the bench was still there. Sitting quietly on the bench, looking out toward the lake was a solitary figure.

I walked toward her and as I approached, despite the forty years that had passed, I recognized her. She'd changed a lot over the years, but when she heard me approaching and turned to face me, I knew for sure that it was Holly's beautiful bright eyes I was looking into, They were moist with tears, and she was still gently crying a little, though it seemed more that she was crying with relief at seeing me there, because she was also smiling just like I remembered she always used to. It was only then, when I saw the shine in those familiar blue eyes that realisation finally dawned.

I found myself looking at the face of the attractive middle aged woman we’d met for the first time forty years and one day ago. She stood and moved closer to me, holding out both her hands toward me.

“Holly?” I said as I took her hands in mine and drew her closer. I put my arms around her and we embraced, for the first time in almost forty years.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Mary's Boys

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(Introduction & notes are at the end of this piece. Please read the story first to avoid prejudging it.)
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Jude sat by the small fire at the edge of the encampment, laughing with his companions. The three of them, Jude, his cousin Simeon and his friend John often spent time together, probably because they were the three youngest in the movement.

He listened with interest and amusement as John told yet another of his tales. John had a way with words; he had a particular knack for telling stories. Jude noticed the way that Simeon regarded John; it seemed to Jude that it was almost like hero worship, but he understood that. It was all part of John's talent: like most people Simeon would likely take every word John spoke as being the truth....

Simeon was the oldest of this small gathering, though only by a couple of years over Jude, but despite the family relationship with Jude, despite the fact that it was Jude and Simeon's family who led the movement, both of them saw John as the natural leader of the three of them.

Jude looked around the encampment. Over by the big fire most of the rest of the family were sitting and talking: deep in discussion as usual. Of all the family, except for himself and Simeon, only Elisabeth and Joshua were sitting apart. They were by the river. It was a cold night and anyone with any sense would be warming themselves by one of the fires or tucked up in their tents, but Joshua was playing in the water, with his friend Mary and Jude of Kerioth, while Elisabeth looked on.

Elisabeth and Mary were the only women in the camp, and they spent most of their spare time with Joshua, probably it was their maternal instincts that made them feel responsible for him. Though Joshua was in his late twenties and a number of years older than Jude, his manner was that of a child, and he was only here with them because he was family.

Jude looked over to the other fire again. It was too dark and too far away to see facial features and the light from the big fire made the whole group appear as little more than silhouettes, but was that his uncle Jude he saw? People often asked if he'd been named for his uncle Jude, but he always explained that wasn't the case. Jude was only 10 years older than him and it was hardly likely that James would have named his only son after one of his baby brothers.

It was Uncle Jude. He recognised him more by his stature and demeanour than by anything else. "Simeon," he said, "Uncle Jude has returned."

Simeon looked toward the main fire with a mixture of worry and anticipation showing on his face. "Oh I hope it isn't bad news. I bet it will be bad news. I should have gone with him. I knew I should."

Simeon was standing now, as they noticed a figure breaking away from the family group and walking toward them. It wasn't Uncle Jude though; it was Simon, their other uncle. Simeon started to walk to meet him, but he continued toward them until he arrived at the smaller fire.

"Simeon, Thaddeus," he said, and nodded toward them in turn. The rest of the family often called Jude 'Thaddeus' to distinguish him from his uncle. It meant 'little friend' or 'younger brother' and had started out as a nickname and a joke as Jude was an only child living among his uncles, but by now, many of their colleagues used it as though it were his real name. "You need to join the family. Jude has returned with grave news." He placed his hand on Simeon's shoulder and squeezed it affectionately, then turned away and walked toward the river. Jude and Simeon followed him.

"Jude has returned," he said to Elisabeth when he arrived, "We have family business to discuss, sister. Will you join us by the fire please?"

"Didymus?" said Joshua as he stopped playing his game with Mary, "Didymus is back?" Jude Kerioth helped Joshua out of the stream as Mary fetched a towel for him.

"You can stay here Joshua," said Simon, "We have things to discuss, and bad news to relay; there is no need for you to join us. Didymus and our sister will explain everything later."

"Is Joshua not our brother too Simon?" asked Elisabeth. "Should he not be involved in our family discussions?"

Simon lowered his voice to a whisper. "Sister, you know that he is with us as part of our family not due to our cause. He contributes nothing to the movement, and is here by the insistence of our brothers and of Thomas in particular. How useful is he truly to the movement?"

"He's your brother Simon, and mine too. If this is merely family business then we should include him; if it also concerns the movement, then what harm can it do? Whatever we discuss will mean nothing to him and you know you can trust him with whatever he does happen to understand."

"It doesn't matter Elisabeth," said Joshua, "I think I know what the bad news is anyway. As for the cause Simon, I want to help. You know I do. I'll do anything for the family, anything the rest of you ask me to."

"Then stay here with your friends, my brother. Everything will become clear soon."

Joshua looked toward Elisabeth who had her eyes lowered. She sensed her brother's eyes upon her and looked up. She gave him a half smile and nodded. The group turned and walked toward the big fire as Mary and Jude Kerioth comforted Joshua.

Joshua was the youngest of Thaddeus' uncles and aunts, though he was the same age as Uncle Jude who was probably the most intelligent and determined of the brothers; in contrast Joshua was a little slow, and didn't have the drive and determination of the others. He did however, have great insight and could even tell how the others were feeling, even when they tried to keep it to themselves. His loyalty too was beyond question. Even though he didn't fully understand what the movement was about, he was as devoted to it as the rest of his family were, because to Joshua, family was everything.

They gathered around the fire. Thaddeus' father James looked around to ensure that everyone was present, and then turned to Jude and said "Everyone's here Thomas. Do you want to relay your sad news or shall I?" 'Thomas' was another nickname. There were so many Judes in camp that to avoid confusion, each of them was given another name. Thaddeus as the youngest among brothers, Jude of Kerioth was often called 'Iscariot' meaning 'man of Kerioth' and Uncle Jude, being the older of twins was also known by 'Thomas', the Aramaic for 'twin'; sometimes others, particularly Joshua, would call him 'Didymus' which meant the same in Greek.

Thomas went to stand by Simeon, and spoke gently in his ear. Simeon's eyes closed and his shoulders dropped. Thomas put an arm around him then turned to face the others.

"As you all know," he began, "I have just returned from a trip to Galilee to visit our sister Mary. Her husband, Simeon's father, our brother and our uncle, Clopas has been gravely ill these past weeks, and I regret to inform you that some four days ago, our Uncle Clopas died. Simeon will leave tonight to be with his mother, to comfort her in her grief. Please show him your support. The rest of us have lost an uncle and a brother, but Simeon has lost his father. Remember how you felt when we lost our own father Joseph, some years back, and offer your brotherly love to Simeon."

It was a blow for all of them, though due to Clopas' age it was hardly a surprise. Clopas was Thaddeus' great uncle, being the brother of his late grandfather Joseph, but was also Thaddeus' uncle by marriage to his aunt Mary, the eldest of his father's siblings. It wasn't common for a girl to marry a brother of her father in Galilee but it happened at times, so Clopas had been a patriarch of their family for a long time, both before Joseph's death and since.

There were offerings of condolence from all present and various hands reached out to touch and comfort Simeon. After a short time, he thanked them all, and left the gathering to start his journey. He tried to show an appearance of strength, but Thaddeus could see that he was clearly upset.

When he'd gone, James spoke: "I know it's late, but I would like you all to remain here for a while longer. We have other things to discuss. Simon, will you summon Peter, Andrew and the other James to join us?"

'The other James' was John's older brother. There were a number of years between the two of them, but as brothers they still looked remarkably alike. Some people said they couldn't tell them apart, so John had started referring to his brother as 'James, the greater'. A number of their colleagues had adopted James the greater as his name, though this didn't please Thaddeus' father very much, because in jest, many had started referring to him (though not to his face,) as 'James the lesser' which was obviously not a welcome label for the leader of the movement. James had heard about it, and as a result he made certain to always refer to his namesake as simply 'James' or 'the other James'

"Judas, my son," James continued. Thaddeus didn't respond right away; people had been calling him Thaddeus for so long. Only his father regularly referred to him as Jude, and hardly ever used the longer form.

"Judas!" his father called. This time Thaddeus responded. "A visitor arrived with Thomas. I sent him to stand over by the river until we were ready for him. Will you summon him to join us now? His name is Levi, son of Alpheus.

Thaddeus wandered back to the river. Joshua was sitting on the bank, and Mary was helping wash the mud off his feet. A man still wearing his travelling clothes was standing nearby, observing him. Thaddeus walked over to him. The stranger turned to him as he approached.

"A remarkable resemblance," he remarked, "That boy and Thomas, I mean. They must be brothers, twin brothers even?"

"Yes they are," Thaddeus replied, "They're twins."

"Strange that I'm comfortable referring to him as a boy," he turned again toward Joshua, "I would never consider his brother a boy, and yet they are of the same age and look almost identical, but that one there has an innocence that Thomas doesn't possess. They are like light and dark: two aspects of the same person."

"Are you Levi ben Alpheus?" asked Thaddeus.

"Yes," the man replied as he turned to face Thaddeus again, "Though I prefer to be called Matthew now. I once worked for Herod Antipas, collecting taxes, an occupation I regret and that I hope to put behind me. The name of Levi is well known to some from those times, and I wish to put that behind me too."

"My father James calls you. Will you follow me please?"

The man picked up a bag full of scrolls and other documents and they walked back toward the fire. This Matthew was clearly a well educated man.

When they arrived, James and Thomas were standing awaiting them; the others were sitting in a row at the fire's edge. Thaddeus glanced to see who else was present: Uncle Joseph (known as Joses), Uncle Simon, Aunt Elisabeth, the brothers Simon (known as Peter) and Andrew, and James the greater.

As they approached, Thaddeus heard Thomas saying to James: "So with the passing of Clopas, you're now the head of the family as well as head of the movement."

James replied: "Head of the movement perhaps, though you know I value the guidance of all of you, but be honest brother: when was Uncle Clopas ever leader of our family?"

Thomas nodded, gravely, but still with a half smile on his face.

"Though he should have become such when father died all those years ago, but if truth be told even before Joseph died, there was only one true head of our family. We have always been Mary's boys."

Thaddeus sat down, joining the others. His father began to introduce their visitor. "This is Levi, also called Matthew, son of Alpheus. I hope you will welcome him as one of our movement. He joined us back in Galilee a number of weeks ago, but I requested that he remain there for a time and join us later. I set Matthew a task, and tonight he brings us the evidence of his toils.

"As you all know, our movement is doing well; as we travel from town to town we gather more and more followers to our cause, but the ultimate aim of driving the Romans from our land, or more realistically of persuading them to leave, is a long way off. Our first aim must be to depose Herod Antipater and replace him with a ruler who is both sympathetic to our cause, and acceptable by both the Romans and the people.

"It is in the Romans' best interest to accept a leader chosen by the people, since they see the position of King of Galilee as merely a puppet to keep the people in line, and a popular king therefore would be an advantage to them in their eyes. But a king of Galilee seen by the people as a true descendant of David could easily become a King of all Israel, Israel as it once was. That would be the first step toward overcoming this Roman rule. Matthew, would you like to explain?"

Matthew walked toward the edge of the fire. "James asked me to research your family line, your ancestry, to verify his belief that you are all descended from King David. I have done that, and not only can I confirm the theory, but I am pleased to tell you that your descent from David is by two different lines."

Thaddeus looked around; most present were looking puzzled. Matthew continued.

"Your late father Joseph was a direct descendant of David, through Solomon and down through the line of Kings, but Heli, the father of your own mother Mary, was also descended from David, through his son Nathan. I would say that your family have more than a claim to be of the royal line of Israel."

"There must be many who can claim as much," said Thomas, "Over hundreds of years, I wouldn't be surprised if almost everyone in Galilee and Judea could trace themselves back to David."

"But unlike us, not everybody has done, Thomas," replied James, "and the people will accept our claim, if we are the first to claim it. Whatever Antipas and his followers do, however they dispute it, they cannot disprove our claim."

"I'm a little uncomfortable with the idea of using mother's line," said Joses, "The scriptures tell us that the female line isn't relevant."

"The entire line from Nathan down to Heli is via the male line though," Matthew pointed out, and Heli had no sons, only daughters. You are grandsons of Heli and that would be acceptable to the people."

"I fear however, that our father's line would not be." It was Thomas who spoke up now. "If we are descended through our father from Solomon, then are we not forgetting Jeremiah's curse?"

There were mutterings around the campfire. Thaddeus wracked his brains to remember his scriptures. He'd heard of Jeremiah's curse, but couldn't quite remember what it was about. He was relieved when his uncle Thomas continued. "The prophet Jeremiah cursed the ungodly king Jeconiah and the entire line of Solomon with him. He said that no descendant of Jeconiah would ever again reign on the throne of Israel. That curse has held true from that day to this. Don't you think Antipas would use that against us?"

"So we keep quiet about Joseph's line then," said James, "We show ourselves to the people as true descendants of David through Nathan. That way we are immune to the curse of the Solomonic line."

"And what if our enemies should discover our father's line?" argued Thomas, "Do we deny our father? Do we claim that our mother lay with another? Do we sully our own mother's name for political gain?"

"We do whatever has to be done for our cause," shouted James.

"You said yourself, but moments ago: 'we are all Mary's boys' Are we not all Joseph's boys also? Are you suggesting our father had no part to play in the conception of any of us, or are you proposing that our dear mother had only one indiscretion and gave birth to only one of us without Joseph's help?"

"It would be a way...," began James, but Thomas interrupted him.

"And who do you propose as a candidate James? Yourself? Would you be King of Israel so much that you'd disown your whole family, save for a mother whose name you would disgrace? And if not you, would you call for volunteers amongst us? Or will you order one of us to betray our mother and our true father too?"

There was silence for a while. Elisabeth calmed Thomas down and forced him to be seated. Thaddeus could see that his father was angry too, but also that he'd been upset by the argument with his brother. Thaddeus arose and went to comfort James. He looked around and noticed that the others in the encampment had wandered over. John, Bartholomew and Philip stood to one side of the fire while Judas and Mary stood to the side by the river, and standing between them was Joshua.

Joses spoke. "As you know, I have studied the scriptures more than most of you, and it's correct what Thomas says: Joseph's descent from Solomon could be used against us, as much as our mother's descent from Nathan could be used in our favour. However, we all know of the scriptures telling of the coming of a messiah to lead us, and that he will be born of the line of David. Now that alone should be enough to get the people on our side as the messiah is promised by God himself. But what if we were to extend that teaching for our own purposes? What if we were to twist the story a little and perhaps add to it? Surely if the messiah is sent from God, then it shouldn't be too much for them to believe that the messiah is born of God himself, that he is indeed God's own son."

James stared in bewilderment. "Are you mad? Who in the world would believe such nonsense?"

"Wait though," said Matthew, "Truth is only what people believe, and once enough of them believe it, it will become the truth. But how could God's son be born of a mortal woman?"

"Exactly," said Thomas, "The whole idea is preposterous."

"People will believe anything if the persuasion for them to believe is strong enough," said Joses. "We have here young John and Matthew. What they write, people will believe; yes, some will dispute the truth of it, but there will be just as many who will receive it as a gospel. The people will read John and Matthew's stories and believe them."

Matthew went on: "There would have to be no possible suggestion that a mortal man could be the true father. The woman chosen by God would have to be a virgin." It sounded to Thaddeus as though Matthew had not only accepted the plan already, but had started to believe it himself.

Thomas laughed out loud. "How could our mother be a virgin? She has given birth to seven of us. Even if the first of us had been born of God, It is our sister Mary who is the eldest, and can you really see her as a queen of Israel, as the leader of our people?"

James spoke up again "It would be preferable to us darkening our mother's name," he said almost to himself, as though deep in thought, "Yes, that would work."

Thomas stood and approached his brother. He lowered his voice and spoke privately to him: "What do you have in mind, brother?"

As quietly as they spoke, Thaddeus still heard them from his place beside his father.

"It would mean almost every one of us denying our mother AND our father," James replied, "but before you rage at me again, we only need to keep our own parentage secret, or assume a false identity and with it a false parentage. Only one of us remains loyal to our mother, as her only issue, as the child of a virgin birth designed by God himself."

"And that one becomes the leader of our movement? The messiah promised to the people?"

"Yes, or at least the figurehead of our movement. The real leadership wouldn't have to change; the true power would always stay with the ones best qualified to lead us."

James didn't have to say as much in words for Thaddeus to know that James was speaking of himself and Thomas.

"It might work," said Thomas, "It's the best chance we have anyway, though our movement will have to appear to be a little more spiritual and less military than it is now."

"It can be as spiritual as you like," answered James, "Providing it serves our purpose."

Thaddeus looked up as Joshua appeared beside them all. "Didymus," he said, "Why were you and James fighting?"

Thomas looked up. "We weren't fighting Joshua," he said, "It was just a disagreement, an exchange of ideas. Everything is fine now."

James turned to face the others. "We have much to think about," he said, "and things we should each consider privately for now. Retire to your sleep, and we shall talk again in the morning"

Thomas put his arm around Joshua's shoulders and said "Come Joshua, let Thaddeus and I walk you to your tent."

Thaddeus and Thomas escorted Joshua away from the fire. Judas Iscariot shared a tent with Joshua so he walked with them.

"Didymus," Joshua asked, "When you were shouting at James, you said something about him wanting volunteers. Is it something I could do, something I could volunteer for?"

Thomas laughed, "I don't think so Joshua," he said, "Don't worry about it."

"But if there's anything I can ever do for you, you know I will don't you?" said Joshua. "You know I'd do anything for the family."

"I know Joshua," said Thomas.

Suddenly, Joshua started chuckling. "Look," he said, "I have my three Judases around me. Judas my friend, Judas my Didymus and Judas my little brother."

"I've often wondered," said Thaddeus, "You always call Iscariot 'Judas' and you sometimes refer to me as Jude or Judas too, but you always call Uncle Jude 'Didymus', never Jude, never Judas. Why is that?"

"Because he is my Didymus, my twin." Joshua replied, "I can't understand why everyone else calls him 'Thomas'."

"It means 'twin' the same as 'Didymus'," Thomas explained, "Only it's Aramaic. Everyone else calls me by my Aramaic name, but you call me by my Greek name."

"I'd like to be called by my Greek name," said Joshua, "Is there a Greek version of Joshua? If there is, I want you to call me that." 

Thomas, Judas, and Thaddeus all chuckled. "All right," Thomas said, "From now on we'll all make sure we call you 'Jesus'." 
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I'd normally include this introduction and these notes at the beginning of a post, but I've tucked them away, here at the end so as not to spoil the story. Their inclusion is necessary, since they explain the point behind this particular story, and also provide some backup so that you know that what you've just read isn't just a result of my wild and out of control imagination, (well not entirely, anyway.)

Having just read a review of Philip Pullman's controversial book 'The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ' it sparked memories of many theories I'd read a long time ago, of the possible siblings of Jesus Christ, and in particular about references in the bible that imply that Jesus had a twin brother.

I remember putting together my own theory when I'd read all that stuff. I'm no theologian, but it struck me as being an interesting, entertaining and thought provoking story even then, so what I came up with was never meant to be anything other than fictional, though it was also meant to be possible, practicable and believable. So today, I decided to dig out my notes and put my own little tale down on paper, or on my blog at least, before I've read the Pullman book and before everyone starts talking about it. After all I don't want to be accused of plagiarism.

The story itself is fictional, as are each of the characterisations, but all the references to characters and relationships within my story are supported by biblical records or accepted interpretations of passages from the bible, with the exception of:
  • The existence of Jesus' sisters: They are never named, though I thought that Mary after their mother, and Elisabeth after her mother's cousin, were reasonable ideas.
  • The marriage of the elder of the sisters to her own uncle, Clopas, Joseph's brother. I have no evidence of this, though the practice wasn't unheard of at the time, and it gave a meaning for Simeon of Jerusalem, son of Clopas to be referred to in the bible as 'Brother of the Lord'
References to names and to characters having multiple names may appear confusing, but these are all borne out in passages from the various books of the new testament:
  • 'Thaddeus' is known to be a nickname meaning 'close friend' or 'little brother' and it is mentioned in the bible as an alternative name for Jude the apostle, son of James
  • 'Didymus' is Greek for 'twin' as 'Thomas' is Aromaic with the same meaning. Both were names given to Thomas the apostle, who was elsewhere referred to in the bible as 'Judas, who is also called Thomas'
  • 'Joses' or Joseph is referred to in the bible in Mark 6.3: 'Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?'
  • Antipater II, the son of Herod the Great, was the ruler of Galilee and Perea in the 1st century. His nickname was 'Antipas'.
  • The Hebrew name 'Joshua' (Aramaic 'Yesua') meaning 'God Delivers' or 'God Rescues' has a Greek equivalent 'Iesous' which, through transliteration via Latin becomes 'Jesus'

Thursday, 19 May 2011

TOAST!

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I knew they were still out to get me.

I'd been on the run for a while now and I hadn't slept for much more than an occasional snatched moment in days. Wherever I went to ground, I knew that sooner or later they'd find me. Then just this morning I'd found this temporary refuge: a quiet back street cafe; it was a long way from all of the places where I knew they'd be looking for me. It was somewhere I could sit and relax, for a little while at least, before I started running again.

My eyelids were feeling heavy as I took a mouthful from my fifth cup of coffee. I needed the caffeine to stay awake, to stay alert. My life depended on it. Any time, even in the next few moments, an assassin could appear from nowhere and carry out his or her mission to terminate me. I'd taken so much trouble to evade them so far, but I was feeling so very tired.

I looked around the cafe. I was alone; the other tables were all unoccupied. I checked the door. It was closed, but I'd have felt a little easier if it'd had one of those bells over it that alerted the staff to new customers entering. As it was, I was so weary that anyone could come in and be on me before I'd even had a chance to get to my feet.

Maybe it was the fatigue that finally overcame me, or maybe it was that subconciously, I was ready to give up, but when I heard the voice behind me, I paused. I delayed my reaction. I still had one hand in my pocket holding onto my gun, ready for me to use it; I'd made sure of that, but for some reason I didn't pull it out and shoot when I heard those words.

"So, here you are, at last! Right! You're Toast!"

No, instead of standing, turning and disposing of the potential assassin, I just sat back in the chair and closed my eyes, surrendering to my certain fate.

It's a good thing that I did.

There was no gun shot to my head, no assassin's knife drawn across my throat.

When I opened my eyes, I saw the arm of the waitress stretching over from behind me, placing my breakfast on the table before me.

"Sorry it took so long. Can I get you some more coffee too?" she said.

Friday, 29 April 2011

The Sleepwalker

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Like most people I know, I’m not too keen on driving in the dark. I try not to whenever possible, though there are times when it’s just unavoidable.

Working away from home involves a lot of travelling. Commuting’s bad enough, but when my place of work was too far away to travel to and from home every day, I spent Sunday through Thursday night in a hotel or bed and breakfast, and then did my best to get home for the weekends.

Most weeks, the best I had to look forward to was a truncated weekend, lasting only from when I arrived home on Friday evening until I set out again on Sunday afternoon, so sometimes if I’d had a particularly hard week, and I was really in need of a weekend break, it just didn’t seem worth the effort of travelling home, just for a day and a half.

Bank holiday weekends were different. The extra day made my time at home seem almost like a proper weekend; I say almost, because of course I’d have to drive back on the Monday, and would have to cope with bank holiday traffic, which would mean setting off a couple of hours earlier than usual, so my bank holiday weekend would encompass just Saturday and Sunday and a lie-in on Monday before I set off back to work mid-morning.

On one particular weekend, I’d arranged to leave a couple of hours earlier on Friday, so I was looking forward to getting home early in the evening. I’d found I could often get away with working my own unofficial version of ‘flexi-time,’ doing an hour or two extra during the week so that I could get away early on Friday. This time, I was hoping to leave around two-thirty but I’d totally forgotten about a meeting I was due to attend right after lunch. I hoped it wouldn’t last much more than thirty minutes, but it did: it went on so long that my departure was already delayed by an hour when it had ended. That was the least of my problems: while we were in the meeting, a problem occurred that just had to be sorted there and then, and since I was the only one to resolve it, I ended up not leaving work until six o’clock.

Normally, I would have reconsidered making the trip home, but it was bank holiday weekend, so I’d still have some time at home with my family and of course, I’d already booked out of my hotel until Monday night, and the chance of them having a last minute vacancy on a bank holiday weekend was very remote.

It was summer, so it was still light as I started my journey home, but I knew I wouldn’t be home until gone ten o’clock so I resigned myself to night driving for at least part of the journey home. It turned out there’d been an incident on the motorway, which meant that the majority of the bank holiday ‘going away for the weekend’ traffic was still on the road, causing tailbacks of several miles.

Looking back now, I reckon that if I’d just sat patiently in the traffic queue, it may well have cleared up after a while, and perhaps I’d have got home before midnight, but in my frustration, I decided to leave the motorway at the first opportunity. The first couple of ‘A’ roads I drove along weren’t that much better than the motorway so after a while I decided to take my chances on the country back roads.

So it was that I ended up at about eleven thirty that night, driving in the dark along a country road miles from home, knowing deep down that I was probably lost, but denying it to myself.

It’s strange how when you’re concentrating on one thing, other thoughts will unexpectedly occur to you. I remember as a child, being told that the stripes on zebras were there as a form of camouflage. I could never understand that. It didn’t seem to make sense that black and white stripes didn’t stand out against the green, brown and yellow colours of the savannah. I learned later that it was something about the stripes breaking down outlines. These thoughts popped into my mind as I suddenly found myself having to apply my breaks in the dark. I remember being thankful that the same camouflage effect wasn’t achieved by the red and blue candy stripes on the boy’s pyjamas as he stood there in the middle of the road. If those stripes had worked like the zebras’ camouflage, I would surely have failed to see him as I came around the bend, and would have ploughed right into him. As it was I braked with a screech and stopped about a yard short of where he stood.

When you realise that you’ve almost killed somebody like that, the array of emotions that suddenly hit you are incredible. The shock comes first and you find yourself shaking, then the panic over what’s happened, as though your mind and body aren’t quite convinced that the accident has really been averted: as if there’s still a chance of tragedy coming from it. It’s a while before any sense of relief is felt.

I was still shaking with panic as I got out of my car and rushed over to where the child stood in the road. Anger at being put in that situation was taking over from the panic now, then as I faced the boy, seeing him standing there in nothing but his pyjamas, not even with slippers on his feet, my feelings turned to concern. What the hell was a little kid doing out in the road in the middle of nowhere? He was only about nine or ten years old.

“Hell sunshine,” I said to him, “What are you doing standing there like that? You’re lucky I didn’t run you over.”

The boy was crying quietly. His breathing came in short spurts, and his shoulders and chest shook as he sobbed. I looked around, hoping I’d spot the house he’d maybe wandered away from, but with no success.

“Where did you come from?” I asked him. No reply except for his quiet whimpering sob. “You shouldn’t be out this late at all, and certainly not dressed like that.”

He seemed to be looking right past me, toward my car. Probably because it had almost just hit him; maybe the headlights were still scaring him. It crossed my mind that this little boy was probably a sleepwalker, that his encounter with my car was probably the thing that woke him up. No wonder he was crying: waking up unexpectedly in a situation like that was enough to frighten a grown man, let alone a little boy.

“Do you know where you live?” I asked him. As I did, I wondered how the hell he’d even managed to get outside. Didn’t people lock their doors in these parts? “I think I ought to take you home.”

At that, he stopped staring at the car. He turned to face me and nodded. Though his sobbing carried on and the tears still streamed from his face, it seemed as if there was almost a look of relief in his eyes, a half smile appeared momentarily on his face before he turned to face the car again and walked toward it.

At the time, I remember wishing that he’d just pointed the way to his home, and that I could have walked him there. Of course I was concerned about the welfare of the child, but I wasn’t too keen on what people might say if my car was stopped with a strange little boy in his pyjamas in it. I realised then that the boy’s safety was the main thing, and that I had to forget about other people’s attitudes. I had to drive him home, though I wondered what his parents would think when I knocked on their door with their son with me. Sod them. They had more that needed explaining than I did.

I opened the passenger door and the boy climbed inside. I got in at the driver’s door and fastened the boy’s seat belt. As I did, I noticed that his bare feet weren’t at all dirty. He couldn’t have walked far.

“Where to then?” I asked, “Where do you live? It can’t be very far.”

The boy just sniffed a little and stared forward through the windscreen. He raised his arm and pointed forward. I shrugged and started the car. There were a lot of bends in this road; perhaps his home was just around the first one or two.

I’d been driving for about ten minutes now and the boy just continued pointing toward the road in front of us. I had no doubt that he knew where he was, because occasionally his arm would point more toward the left or toward the right, just before a bend in the road loomed before us. The boy knew the bends were due, even before the headlights had picked them out.

“It can’t be much further,” I said to him. “You must live around here somewhere.” Just then he began pointing much further to the left so that he was almost pointing through the passenger door window. I slowed down and sure enough, I saw where another road joined ours from that side.

“Down here?” I asked, “Do we turn left here?” The boy said nothing, so I turned anyway. He seemed happy with that and he continued to point directly in front of us. The road ahead now was heavily wooded on both sides, but it seemed to be straight. I drove down it in the dark for about another five minutes before it curved to the right. This boy must have sleepwalked for a hell of a distance.

As the car went around this bend in the road, I saw the house. At last, it looked like I’d found the child’s home. It had to be. It was the only house I’d seen around here.

I drove further up the road toward it. As I did, I thought I caught sight of what seemed like an occasional flash of light coming from one side of it. As we got nearer, the flashes of light took on a yellow glow and became more apparent, seeming to come from windows on the right hand side of the house. We were almost upon the house before I realised what it was. This house was on fire!

The road we were on continued on at the end to form the house’s drive. I drove straight through the open gate before I stopped. I took my telephone from my pocket and looked at it. Good: the signal was strong. I began to panic then. What the hell was the emergency number for mobiles? Was it 999 or 911? I remembered something about 112; was that it? I dialled 999 and it seemed to ring, but how could I be sure I’d get through to the correct exchange?

I did get through, and when I reported the fire, they asked me where I was calling from. I’d noticed the name of the road we’d last turned down so I told them “Endsleigh Lane,” I said, though I was sure that wouldn’t be enough information.

“Is that Endsleigh Lane off Farrier Road south of Stoke?” the operator asked me. At least it seemed I had the right exchange, because I’d been about twenty miles from Stoke when I’d first encountered the little boy.

“I’m not sure,” I replied. “I’m a stranger here. I saw the sign for Endsleigh Lane, but I have no idea if I’m anywhere near Farrier Road.” I looked at the little boy. He was nodding vigorously. “Yes,” I almost shouted to the operator, “Yes, Farrier Road. That’s the place. Please hurry. I think there are people in there.”

After hanging up, I felt I ought to do what I could before the emergency services arrived, Even if I could just raise the alarm. There could be people in there. If this was the boys home, and they could sleep through their son opening the door and wandering out, it wasn’t beyond the realms of imagination that they could sleep through a fire too. I opened the car door, but then it occurred to me that I was obstructing the driveway, which wasn’t a good idea if fire engines were due to arrive soon. I started my car and pulled off the drive onto the lawn at the front of the house. I parked up as far from the drive as I could, then stopped the car and started to get out again.

“It’s best if you stay here sunshine,” I said to the lad. “There’s nothing to do until the fire brigade arrive. I’m just going to check things out.”

I ran toward the house. The flames showing through the ground floor and first floor windows at the right hand side of the building were really obvious now. They seemed brighter and more active downstairs, so I assumed the fire had started there. As I got closer I could smell the smoke in the air around the house, faint at first, just as if someone had lit a garden bonfire nearby, but as I approached the front door, the smoke became almost overpowering and I found myself coughing.

I hammered on the door and shouted, making as much noise as I could. Of course, the occupants might have already evacuated the building; maybe the little boy had wandered away from them while they were outside. It didn’t seem that anyone had already reported the fire though, and when I tried the front door, it was locked. I found it hard to believe that a family fleeing a fire would bother to relock the front door. Of course they might have escaped via a window. I ran to each end of the house and scanned the windows: they all seemed intact as far as I could tell.

I returned to the front door and hammered on it again, just in case anyone was still sleeping inside. It was at that point when I heard the voice of a child calling for help. I charged the door in an effort to break it down. My attempts were ineffective. External house doors were built to stand more than my feeble efforts. It was then I noticed there was a panel of glass running full length down the side of the door. If I could break that and clear all the glass from it, it would be wide enough for me to squeeze through.

I picked up a stone from the edge of the path and broke the glass. A few extra hits with the stone and most of the glass came out. As I was pulling out the remnants and splinters of glass to prevent cutting myself to pieces I could hear the child’s voice calling for help. It sounded to me like a little girl. Surely there must be others in there too. Surely they’d have heard her. If they were still alive they should have done anyway.

“Hold on, I’m coming,” I said as I squeezed through the side panel, despite a few bits of glass I’d missed, that were catching and tearing at my shirt. Once in the hallway of the house, I spotted the staircase to the right hand side. It went up away from the front door, and then bent to the left. Down by the side of the stairs near the bend was an open door. Flames were raging in the room beyond and lapping up the side of the stairs just beyond the bend. I heard the little girl again. Her voice was coming from upstairs. I raced toward the stairs and up the first few. Suddenly the heat from the fire hit me. It was enough to stop me in my tracks, and I looked at the stairs beyond the bend. The entire right hand side of them was ablaze. It was a wide staircase though and the left hand side was far enough away from the flames to enable me to pass.

The little girl appeared on the landing as I placed my foot on the first step of the burning section. I pulled back instinctively as the step suddenly collapsed under the pressure of my foot and moments later the staircase fell inward on itself beneath where my feet would have been. I looked at the gap it left behind. If I hadn’t have stopped, I could probably have made it upstairs before the stairs had gone, then I could have easily jumped the gap down again, even carrying the child. Jumping up all that way though was impossible.

The little girl was standing on the landing near to the stairs now. She was about seven years old, wearing pink pyjamas. “Be careful darling,” I called out to her, “The floor might collapse. Just stand back a little for now, until I work out how to get you.”

I looked at the banister on the left hand side of the stairs. It was still intact, as was the wall supporting it. I grabbed hold of it and placed first one foot then the other on the base of it where it joined the support wall. It swayed a little but not enough to make me think it wouldn’t hold. I moved my hands further up the banister and then let my feet step sideways a little at a time until I’d managed to get up about halfway, above the gaping hole in the staircase.

The banister was beginning to sway a little now. I didn’t have much time. I reached out to the little girl, she came forward carefully and I grasped her by the wrist. “Do you think, if I swing you toward me, you can wrap your arms around my neck?” I asked her, “Get ready. Grab me as tight as you can as soon as you’re close enough.”

She nodded and I grasped her tighter, bracing myself to take her weight with one arm as I held onto the banister with the other. She looked very frightened, as she must have been. I smiled at her and said “Ready?” She nodded, “Jump then,” I said, “As quick and as far as you can.” She leapt from the top of the stairs, I was surprised by the wrench I felt in my right arm; she didn’t look like she weighed that much at all. I swung her toward me. The banister shook a little more and I felt the wall beginning to wobble under my feet. The little girl suddenly threw one hand around my neck. As her weight transferred from my arm to my shoulders, I lifted her other arm to my neck, telling her to hold on tight. I released her wrist and she locked her hands around my neck. I was being choked but at least I had her. I grabbed the banister with my right hand now and released my grip on it with my left; I put my left arm around the child to secure her; this enabled me to turn so that I was facing down toward the lower section of the staircase. I jumped as far as I could, but landed badly; I stumbled down a couple of steps as I landed but managed to keep my footing and got safely to the ground floor without dropping the little girl. All the while the little girl was sobbing and repeating “My mum. Help my mum.”

As she released her grip from around my neck, I wondered how the hell I was going to be able to go back for her mother. I realised that I’d first have to persuade the child to squeeze through the shards of glass to get out of the house. She was obviously thinking more clearly than I was: she ran to the door, unfastened the bolt and then began to open the door by way of the deadbolt latch on the inside. I helped her open it and as we both emerged from the house, we heard the fire engines racing down the drive.

A fireman rushed toward me as I emerged. “The fire’s at one end of the house,” I told him, “But that’s where the stairs are and they’ve just about gone. I got the little girl out, but I think there’s at least one more person upstairs. I think you’ll need your ladders.”

He thanked me and asked me to move myself and the little girl as far away from the house as possible. “There’ll be an ambulance here in a moment,” he said, “They’ll take care of the kiddie, and you should get yourself checked out too.”

A few moments later two ambulances arrived. I was sitting on a low wall at the gate holding onto the little girl as she wept. I handed her over to an ambulance man and he asked if I was ok. I’d cleared the smoke from my lungs by now and wasn’t really feeling any effects from the fire at all. It was at that point that I remembered the little boy in my car. He must be terrified! I ran between the ambulances and across the lawn to where my car was. I could see, even before I got there, that it was empty. He must have got out. He was probably concerned and went to see what was happening. I worried a little that he might have gone back into the house, but that would have been impossible, with all the firemen around. I just hoped he hadn’t wandered away again.

I turned and walked back to the drive, just as two ambulance men were carrying a stretcher away from the house followed by another carrying what looked like a baby. A fireman turned to me and said: “The little girl’s mother, it seems. She’s unconscious but it looks like she’ll be fine. The baby too: he seems none the worse for wear, but they’re going to the hospital anyway. It seems like all three of them have you to thank: It’s a good thing you called us as soon as you did.”

I turned and could see into the back of one of the ambulances. The little girl was sitting there with a paramedic; she was looking concerned at the sight of the stretcher. I walked toward them, wanting to reassure her that her mother and her baby brother were fine. As I approached though, one of the ambulance men closed the door. He then turned to me and looked visibly upset as he passed me.

I swung around and saw them carrying another stretcher from the house, only this one was fully covered with a blanket. I walked toward the house and met the fireman I’d just spoken to.

“He wasn’t so lucky,” he said to me, “It’s awful when anyone dies in a fire, but especially when it’s a child.”

I was shocked. I hadn’t realised that there’d been anyone else inside. The fireman noticed the look of concern on my face and said: “Don’t you go feeling bad about it. You did what you could. The other three owe their lives to you driving along here when you did. There’s nothing you could have done for this one. His room was directly above where the fire was. He’d died about an hour before you arrived, in his sleep from smoke inhalation by the looks of it.”

I turned as the ambulance men carried the stretcher past me; the blanket slipped a little and I caught just a glimpse of pyjamas with blue and red candy stripes.