YOU COULD DIE LAUGHING

With a deadline looming for the new Bev Morriss novel, I asked a colleague from my radio days if he’d sit in my blog seat this month. So over to . . . Adrian Juste.

Hat

As someone who’s spent a lifetime writing comedy, I’ve always admired the work of the ‘serious’ scribe. A crime writer could invariably do comedy, but it’s far harder the other way round. Some of the gags I’ve committed to print over the years might be verging on the criminal, but that’s the closest I got!

When Maureen asked if I’d like to do a piece here, it got me thinking: our respective styles aren’t the polar opposites you might imagine.  Humour is a very useful tool for the crime writer: I liken it to sea fishing – you release a bit of line with a tension-busting gag, then slowly wind the reader back in again.

And repeat.

It’s that cadence that keeps them hooked.

Television too has always known about laughter in dark places: The best TV cop shows have always used it to great effect.

The Americans started the ball rolling in the ‘70s with assorted detectives in flasher Macs, overweight ones, bald ones crunching lollipops, and even one on horseback !

They certainly weren’t taking it seriously.

columbo

And of course, Peter Falk had things easy – his villains invariably nestled in the sumptuous Rodeo Drive end of Beverly Hills.

I’m sure Maureen would have loved writing for that . . .  cold-blooded murder doesn’t have quite the same resonance in a Kings Heath chippie !!

While all that was going on, back here in the UK the vaguely gritty tenor of Z-Cars was laid to rest as TV turned towards pure grit with the heightened realism of Thames’ blockbuster The Sweeney – another series tempered with comedy . . . bad-tempered comedy!

If you’re of an age, who can forget grouchy Jack Regan spitting out the classic line: Get your trousers on – you’re nicked or, We’re the Sweeney, son, and we haven’t had any dinner – both delivered with the venom-ometer set to 11.

But those tetchy barbs still provided light relief from the violent wages blags and non-stop boozing and carousing which occurred on ‘the manor’ back then.

Sweeney

The 80s proved a rather fallow period for good crime series here in Britain; but Hollywood’s hit factory was on a roll, with biggies such as Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice and Cagney & Lacey.

We rolled over, countering feebly with The Bill – which turned into a soap opera, with the consequence all villains Sun Hill way kept their trousers on before being nicked.

Thankfully the 90s proved more fertile ground for the crime writer.

We were treated to David Jason balancing his distinguished comedy background against the ‘legit’ role of maverick DI Frost in A Touch Of . . .

Frost

Played for more laughs than creator Rodney Wingfield ever intended, running gags came aplenty: we had the office radiator which only worked with a well-timed kick, and the stuffed mullet on Frost’s wall (a nod to his straight-laced Superintendent of that name).

But two really amusing scenes spring to mind: the time Jason was confronted by a twelve-foot ’gator at an exotic animal dealer’s home, which saw our hero scrambling to safety atop a high fence, and getting on the radio to shout: It’s Frost! We’ve got an alligator chasing us! Get the exotic animal unit down here – and make it snappy.  Corny, but what writer would leave it out!

Or the time he was investigating a murder, the trail of which had led to a crypt. He radioed back to HQ: Tell George I’ve found a dead body in the cemetery – and when he’s stopped laughing, tell him to get down here pronto.   

 Again, it’s that well-aimed use of laughter to break the tension; a convenient emotional turntable before you start ramping the plot up again.

More recently, a series I’m ashamed to say I’ve just got into is New Tricks – with the original cast.  It started to wobble a bit for me after James Bolam and Alun Armstrong quit.

NewTricks

The writing here is wonderful. A favourite scene is where wrinkly computer whizz Brian Lane is barred from investigating a case and ordered to keep away, but his two middle-aged compatriots conspire to sneak him into the hotel just the same – as blokes do!

Their feisty boss DS Sandra Pullman discovers they’ve been smuggling bits of their breakfast into his room, and when she discovers one of the guys bringing a cup of tea in to him, erupts into Krakatoa mode. After giving them a protracted and emphatic piece of her mind about how she’s dealing with a bunch of children, she sweeps out. As she slams the door behind her, Brian Lane turns to Bolam’s character and whispers in a line timed to perfection: Did you bring any milk?

As with criminal plots, comedy works best when given an unexpected twist . . .

Maureen has always had a good eye for TV drama, and earlier this year steered me towards Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley.

Sadly I, along with many other viewers, struggled with the sound of this production, and had to really concentrate – and often replay scenes to catch what was going on. Maureen appears blessed with bat-like hearing, as she heard every word and couldn’t understand my protests.

Us lesser mortals really did struggle to keep up.

ear

But it’s an ill wind . . . so when Bev Morriss DOES make it onto TV, this new way of doing cop drama may be no bad thing.

Let’s imagine the script . . .

Bev was right, the frenzied attack HAD taken place in the East Midlands – and the main witness sitting across from her was nervous and sweaty; she’d obviously given up her Pilates membership for Lent some years back and hadn’t renewed, taking the fitness to fatness route by dialling in to the pizza and kebab programme.

The large tattoo on her upper arm glistened as the sun shone through the crack of the interview room window, beads of moisture had formed on her brow and top lip.

This was obviously the gal who’d put the Leicester in cholesterol.

Bev re-established eye contact and said: One last time, Leanne, who was with you that night? 

Well, if you must know, cozzer – it was Mmmpphhmmwrrdy . . .   

Plot lines? Character development? Why knock yourself out if no one’s able to hear it?!

Hey! Thanks to trendy TV production, crime writing just got easy . . . !

 

 

 

CHIPS WITH EVERYTHING

The piece I wrote back in February about my Mr Chips seemed to resonate with you. Brief recap is that after a gap of fifty years, I’d made contact and emailed the wonderful man who taught me English.  I’d long wanted to thank him for instilling in me a love of words.

Well, since then I’ve been able to thank Michael Scarborough in person.  We met last month over lunch (ironically, no chips) and didn’t stop talking the entire time.

Mr Chips and me

If I look happy here it’s because I was and still am. It meant more than I can say to see ‘Mr Scarborough’ again, hear his voice and learn about some of the amazing twists and turns his life has taken. We still have SO much to catch-up on and plan to meet again soon.

Anyway before we said goodbye, I sort of turned the tables and gave my teacher homework. I asked if he’d write a guest post giving his take on being an inspirational Mr Chips.

Here it is . . . I hope you enjoy.

MR CHIPS RESPONDS

A school student may remember an individual teacher but a teacher will have some difficulty remembering a lifetime of students. So to be contacted after fifty odd years by a student and to have some memory of them, and to identify them on an old school photograph, had something intriguing about it. So it was when Maureen got in touch.

old school

Fifty years: my mind could scarcely grasp what life the young pupil I had known might have had, and she might wonder how much of that young English teacher would have survived the fifty years. A meeting would be very interesting.

For myself, Graham Balfour school was a formative experience. It was my first job and in a new school, in a new building, with only a headteacher, two members of staff, a secretary, a caretaker and some forty or so pupils. This encouraged an opportunity for innovation and curriculum adventure and, perhaps because I was educated in the immediate post war years, I wanted change and to put the regimented desks, ink and chalk monitors, the canings and tedious rote learning well behind. Certainly that was my determination. Earlier in life, for a year, I had been a pupil in a very poor secondary modern school and, even at the age of eleven, I had been shocked to see how so many young people were written off as failures, as ‘thickies’. In reality, the failure was not of the pupils but of the system.

If I trawl through my memory of the school there are too many hours of classroom teaching to identify one single lesson as special and there would be something grossly unfair about identifying this pupil as being inspiring,  this one as thoroughly dull or one other as an incorrigible but lovable rogue. But there are two experiences to which my mind has returned many times over the last fifty years.

It was a day in mid October 1962, ultimatum deadline day of the Cuban Missile crisis, when we could not know whether by mid-afternoon the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union would be resolved by a soviet back-down or by nuclear war. I was teaching in an upper room in the school as the clock moved towards the deadline time and I remember so clearly looking across the young faces and wondering just what sort of world we had built for them, what sort of world they might make for their generation. We had to do better than this.

Fierce blizzard

The potential of young people is too often underestimated and unrecognised and I recall vividly one experience where young pupils were to inspire me. A group of pupils and I were on a three day trek in the Peak District. On a high ridge above Castleton the weather suddenly changed and we were caught in freezing winds and a fierce blizzard of snow. Very quickly our spirits took a battering and I became deeply concerned that we were inadequately clothed and that for some it might be impossible to reach our destination safely. Two of the lads approached me, nudged me to one side and one whispered, ‘Come on, let’s get them moving’. With their help, I did.

Lessons were learnt at Graham Balfour not just by pupils but by me. There can be no multiple choice questioning or tick box assessment that can measure the learning there is in experiences like that for both teacher and young person alike.

Donkey travels

I moved from the Stafford school to a College of Education which had radical new ideas about how the excitement of learning might best be nurtured in students. Can I imagine now, in our over-tested and over-structured education system, a college that would give its students a term’s freedom to plan and execute their own adventurous curriculum however creative, however outrageous. Drama, caving, canal ventures, fossil-hunting, art expeditions and even travels with a donkey; they all happened and they all encouraged the awareness that learning can be personally initiated and not merely received and regurgitated. It was an exciting time. It was the sixties.

But how was it that for my final years of employment I worked on educational television for schools?

I suppose I must go back to my own childhood and a father who made it clear that reading anything other than classic works of English literature was to show serious signs of academic weakness. I did, clandestinely of course, read Famous Five books and Biggles’ stories under the bedclothes and The Beano, The Wizard and The Eagle under the desk. There was a value in these publications as well as popularity. Later I could see that if young pupils watched and responded to such television programmes as Dad’s Army, Star Trek or Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, then we should not turn our back on those programmes in English teaching. After a period of research into this at a northern university I was offered the television job and as well as being involved in programme making and support resources. I spent many hours working with young people and their teachers to discover how out-of-school reading could be something more than the target of easy and prejudiced criticism.

Triggered thoughts

In the mid nineteen-fifties the editor of a Derby newspaper had given me a full page spread under the headline: Why so angry young man?  Yes, some of my opinions were angry and naive, some rather silly, some I might even regret today, but I applaud that editor for recognising that the views of young people should not be seen as just the ramblings of difficult adolescents. That opportunity and the angry criticism from some readers gave me the confidence and the challenge I needed to keep me writing.

Hearing from Maureen after all these years has triggered these meandering thoughts and, because of the media and writing parallels in our careers, I’m interested  to learn much more about how she has tackled using words and shaping narratives. I have never written novels but for fourteen years I wrote and broadcast a fortnightly Letter from England to a chain of American radio stations so, for both of us, writing has been a satisfying and important part of our lives.

http://www.krab.fm/KRAB-Programs-other.html#Scarborough

Crime writing is not a genre which I have ever explored, perhaps because my literary prejudices get in the way, but that is precisely why the contact with Maureen feels rewarding: she can take on the task of educating me.

 

Postscript from me . . .

I’m delighted to say I’ve already started the task. I gave Michael a copy of my second book Dead Old which he’s now read. Next time we meet, I’ll be asking questions on the text!

re-branded bev covers

WRITE ON OR WRESTLE WITH?

I’m talking words – get them right or get them down? I ask because recently I spent rather too much time playing Oscar Wilde’s Comma. You recall his dilemma?

oscar

Unlike Oscar, I tinkered with more than the odd comma. I tussled with an entire sequence.

As in . . .

I’m about halfway through writing the the next book in my Bev Morriss crime series. The deadline’s the end of June. As per, I aim to hit a daily daily word count but last month several days went by when no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get the words down.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I could. I wrote hundreds and hundreds of words but not les mots justes – they just weren’t singing off the page. To misquote Eric Morecambe, it was a case of all the right words but not necessarily in the right order. Or maybe they were the wrong words in the wrong order.

Whatever, they just didn’t work.

snoopy better

I rewrote the sequence countless times, spent ages reworking, fine-tuning and still it didn’t read, look or sound right. A lot of writers do this, of course. It’s certainly the way I work but not to the extent I had to recently.  And that’s the operative phrase: had to. 

As an author, I’ve never been able to move on to the next passage, even paragraph, until I’m as happy as I can be with the one I’m writing. I know it’s down to the years I spent in TV journalism.

tv report

Every news story I covered, I had to edit, edit and edit until it was right. It had to come in at the correct length and it had to come in on time. Only then could I let it go and move on. I’ve been a fiction writer for fifteen years now and constantly editing is still the way I work.

But, is it the best way?

Since my Oscar experience, I’ve been giving it some serious thought. Was the later version of the passage I’d struggled with for hours and hours really that much sharper? Did the first version not have a fresher feel? Did it not flow equally as well, if not – whisper it – even a little better?  Had I been over-thinking, over-writing? I was certainly overwrought.

Out of interest, I asked a writer friend to cast an eye over both versions. We’re in almost daily touch and share highs and lows (meaning, keep each other sane) and she was well aware I’d been having a hard time. Anyway, I asked her verdict.

Before revealing it, here are two slightly shorter versions of the passages she read.  Bear in mind they’re both early drafts and neither will make it to the book.

 1

‘They live in Bourneville, gaffer. I’m heading out there now with, Tyler.’ Kay Henderson had barely been able to string two words together on the phone. Bev knew a face-to-face would be more effective and if her instinct was on the money, quicker in the long run. She had an inkling the Henderson girl had paid a heavy price for shooting her mouth off. The ultimate. If that was the case, they needed the mother to open up, soon as.

         Having collared Mac in the car park, she’d brought him up to speed as they walked back to the motor. She’d badly needed his chauffeuring services, so she could do some serious detecting en route via the phone. Now she’d accrued a bit more info, she’d just put Powell in the picture.

          ‘So you’re saying this Gemma bird’s got form?’ The DI sounded a tad sceptical; probably thought she was going out of her way to miss the early brief.  But when did the blond ever listen properly? 

          ‘I’m saying if it’s who I think it is she made a false accusation a few years ago that landed a guy in court.’ Bev was still waiting for Terry, a mate on the West Mercia force, to get back with confirmation of the girl’s identity. In the meantime, she was scrolling on-line newspaper reports to refresh her memory. She and Tel had discussed the case in the run-up to the trial and she was ninety per cent sure she’d heard him mention the name, Gemma.

        The Gemma in question had a habit of telling fairy stories. Quite the serial offender. Little Miss Anonymous in the media had got off lightly but the same couldn’t be said for the teacher she targeted. He’d very nearly been sent down before the truth – make that the fantasies – came to light.

2

Could rush hour traffic get any louder?

          ‘Bristol did you say, Morriss?’

          Frowning, Bev clamped the handset tighter to her ear.  ‘No, gaffer, Bourneville. It’s where the family live.’             

        Moira Henderson had barely been able to string two words together on the phone. Bev knew a face-to-face would be more productive and if her instinct was on the money, getting out there now would be a damn sight quicker in the long run. As she’d tried telling Powell – she had an inkling the daughter had paid big time for shooting her mouth off. Either way they needed to get the mother talking, soon as.

           ‘Are you saying this Gemma bird’s got form?’ Powell sounded a tad sceptical; probably thought she’d do anything to avoid the early brief. Her and Mac both. She’d collared him in the car park before he even set foot in the nick. Mac was doing the driving honours while Bev did some homework on the phone.       

          ‘I’m saying if it’s who I think it is she made a false accusation a few years ago that landed a guy in court.’

         The case had been West Mercia’s baby; Bev was still matey with one of the detectives who’d been on the inquiry. She’d messaged Tel the sixty-nine thousand dollar question, and was waiting for an answer. Tel had been well hacked off when the trial collapsed, called the girl all the names under the sun, including – if Bev recalled rightly – Gemma Henderson. 

        ‘And you’re thinking this Aiden bloke’s waited till now for payback?’ Powell sniffed. ‘Sounds pretty unlikely to me.’

          ‘You might be right, gaffer.’ Always a first time.  ‘Won’t know till we’ve checked, will we?’

    What Bev did know was that the Gemma she had in mind had a habit of telling fairy stories.  Little Miss Anonymous in the media had got off lightly considering she’d spun a web of lies. Unlike the guy she’d vilified. Apart from having his reputation shredded, Aiden Manners had very nearly lost his liberty before the truth – and fantasies – came to light.

 

So which version did my author friend prefer? The first. Her thinking? That it had the edge in pace and focus. I have to say neither version really did it for me, and I agonised a while more until feeling happy enough to move on. Still I found it an interesting experiment, hardly scientific, but it certainly made me question further the way I work.

edit

The bottom line is – I know I won’t change. Probably, can’t. Not least because other factors come into play.  I feel if a sequence is wrong it can have a knock-on effect on the next and the next and so on. Plus I’d hate to get to the end of a book knowing there are sections that aren’t right and that serious work’s needed to fix them.

Not, I hasten to add, that I’m ever completely happy with a book when it’s finished. Is any author? I fine-tooth comb the script several times, editing and tightening yet again.  But when it’s ready to go to my editor, at least I know that – as far as I can – I’ll have hit the right notes in just about the right order.

Until the edit comes back.

To finish – two of my favourite quotes on writing.

 

And as for Mr Hemingway’s words . . . I couldn’t put it better myself.

rewrite

BY GRAND CENTRAL STATION I . . .

Didn’t sit down and weep. I spent hours chatting to someone I’d never before met. And, no, I’m not in the habit of foisting conversation and copious cups of coffee on the unwary stranger.

I knew this person, but only through social media and her blog. We’d exchanged emails and messages, commented on each other’s posts and pictures but being e-friends is no guarantee that people will click – pun intended – in the real world. Who’s to say we wouldn’t take an instant dislike to each other and run screaming to the nearest exit?

Needless to say that didn’t happen.

grand central

We met at Grand Central in Birmingham. I was already ensconced in Carluccio’s waiting for her train to get in from the East Midlands.

Our profile pics can’t be too ancient as we recognised each other straight away. What’s more I’m delighted to say we hit it off from the word, go. Word being the operative, well, word.

From the moment Elaine Aldred spoke it was obvious that, like me, she’s passionate about the written word. We bonded over books: writing them, reading them, reviewing them. Coffee-d out, we moved on to lunch; discussion spilled over into publishing, authors we admire (or not), the editing process and just about every aspect of crime writing: fictional detectives, favourite characters, cracking plots to dialogue that sings off the page.

elaine aldred

Elaine’s genre is more difficult to categorise but leans towards science fiction. At the moment she’s fitting in fiction writing around an academic career and to coin a phrase: I don’t know how she does it.

Already armed with a BA in Creative and Professional Writing from the University of Nottingham, she’s currently completing a doctorate in education also from Nottingham and still finds time – among a host of other things – to produce a really excellent blog.

Not surprisingly the strange alliances blog explores different styles of writing. Elaine also crafts detailed and intelligent book reviews and author interviews. It really is worth checking out:

https://strangealliances.wordpress.com/about/

When we went our separate ways Elaine was off to – what else? – a book launch. On the way home, I immersed myself in serious research on the number 50 bus: people-watching and shameless eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations.

Which brings us neatly back to meeting people we don’t ‘really’ know . . .

Without social media Elaine and I would probably never have connected. So thank you Facebook for bringing us together. I went away that day feeling I’d made a real friend and let’s face it – there are few better ways to spend free time than drinking coffee and talking books with a committed bibliophile.

Unless, of course, it’s rendezvousing over a glass or two of vino in Grand Central New York?

World_USA_New_York_Grand_Central_Terminal_018858_

What do you say, Elaine? Next time?

HELLO MR CHIPS . . .

I guess all of us have been influenced and encouraged by an inspirational teacher or two? Mr My Chips is a born and bred Yorkshire man called Michael Scarborough who taught English at the grammar school I attended back in the sixties.

s and d

With hindsight it wasn’t an easy time for me: my father had died three years earlier and though I probably didn’t realise it then, his death  left me feeling lost and insecure.

Mr Scarborough – and he definitely didn’t realise it at the time – passed on to me something even more vital than a deep love of words and a passion for reading and writing. He gave me back a little of the confidence and self belief which dad’s untimely death had pretty much shattered.

gbs a

Here’s one way he helped.

When ‘sir’ introduced the class to Macbeth and asked pupils to read parts aloud, he cast me in the Lady Macbeth role. Me! I saw it as an honour, relished the spotlight and discovered I had a ‘voice’ in more ways than one. So much so I went on to enjoy a career in broadcasting as a BBC TV journalist and producer.

I’m a full-time author now but over the years often thought fondly of Mr Scarborough. I wanted very much to thank him for helping a shy insecure schoolgirl into making a good living from working with words – writing and reading them.

Time and again I tried contacting him but, no joy.

Then (long story short) . . .

Via a circuitous route that involved several laps of Friends Reunited, Facebook and YouTube, last autumn I finally tracked ‘sir’ down. Given nearly half a century had slipped by since our last contact I wasn’t even sure he’d remember me or recognise the name in his inbox. He did and I was genuinely overjoyed when he replied.

Since then, we’ve exchanged several emails and reminiscences and I’m hoping we’ll meet again later this year. We might even try organising an old school reunion.

old school

Among the many things I’ve now learned about – as opposed, from – Mr Scarborough is that he, too, went on to work in broadcasting mainly on schools programmes for ITV and Yorkshire Television.

Oh, and I’ve also learned not to call him Mr Scarborough, or sir. After all this time, we’re on first name terms.

I was curious to see how he looks now and asked if he’d send a recent photograph. I smile fondly every time I see it, so: Thanks again, Michael. Here’s lookin’ at ya . . .

mr scarborough

I won’t complete the line – he might make me write it out a hundred times.

 

BLOOD AND FLESH

We’re already halfway through January and I’ve only just got round to posting. Sorry for the e-silence but I’ve been laid pretty low with a bout of woman flu. I’ve also had to spend an inordinate amount of time designing a new website as well as working on a new Bev Morriss title that’s due out in June.

Not that I’m complaining. Not when the nights are drawing out and the days are beginning to get a little longer. I am no fan of winter.

Anyway, I thought I’d kick off the New Year with a short story that proved pretty crucial to my career. I’d written only one piece of fiction before coming up with Blood and Flesh back in 2000, but it turned out to be a prize-winner. Not, I hasten to add, the Man Booker or a Gold Dagger, but a place in a national writing competition.

For a struggling writer, the boost to my fledgling career – and bank balance – came at exactly the right time.  I made a good living as a journalist but had never earned cash from writing fiction before. To be honest the validation my writing was heading in the right direction, mattered far more than the money.

The advice I always give, if asked? Baby steps and all that . . .

I hope you like the story.

Blood and Flesh

I was sixteen when I decided to murder my mother. Course, I had to find her first. I’m eighteen now and saw her for the first time a few weeks back. As it happens, I quite like her. Still, I can’t see that being a problem.  Mind, I’m already getting ahead of myself, I always do. It’s what they used to say in the home as well.  But I won’t go into that, not just yet.

Where was I? Oh, yeah.

I couldn’t just turn up on the doorstep, could I? ‘Hi, mom. Pop the kettle on. Long time no see.’

I was hardly her long lost daughter. She knew exactly where she’d left me: a phone box on the corner of Hope Street. Some hope. It’s not as if I was gonna call anyone. I know I’m forward, but even I couldn’t talk at that age.

Could you do that? Not talk, silly. I mean leave a day old baby in the dark and in the cold on a bit of grimy concrete.

I know I couldn’t.

Course I didn’t find out any of this until a couple of years back.  It was my birthday. Sweet sixteen and never been kissed. Been a few other things, if you get my drift. Anyway, the staff always made a bit of a fuss when any of us had a birthday, so I was expecting a prezzie and a few cards. I remember it like it was this morning.

I came down for breakfast trying to look cool, as you do. We were in the dining room, all orange Formica, brown lino and burnt toast. Most of the girls were sitting down, scoffing cereal and stuff. Kell was perched on the edge of our table, swinging her legs, showing her knickers, as usual. She was as close to a mate as you get in them places, but that don’t mean she didn’t have her faults.

‘Come on, Shaz. Let’s have a butcher’s.’

She had that cat that snaffled the gold top look on her again. I waved her down. It was my birthday, I was gonna milk it. Honest, you couldn’t see my place mat for envelopes. There was a stack – and a mega one at the bottom. I was dead chuffed. I remember that: dead chuffed. Save the best till last, I thought.

I reckon everyone in the place had sent me a card. I’d been there the longest, see. Get to sixteen and you have to move on. So it was nice, the others, remembering like. We oohed and aahed over the fluffy  kittens and had a good laugh at the funnies. But I was saving myself for the big one; had this weird idea who it’d be from.

It wasn’t. It wasn’t even a birthday card. But it was about the day I was born. Front page news it was. Great big photo an’ all. The cutting was from the Birmingham Evening Mail. Tatty and yellowed by now. Not that I noticed at first. All I saw was this word: DUMPED.

It was in big black letters over the picture of this scrawny little mite. There were other words of course: New Born Baby; Appeal For Mother; that sort of thing, but dumped was what stuck. See they’d never told me that. Never really told me anything. My ma could’ve been the Prime sodding Minister for all I knew. I was in care and that was it. But it wasn’t, was it? I’d been . . .

Horrible word, innit? I mean, you dump rubbish don’t you? Stuff you don’t want no more. Chuck it away. Forget it. I know what you’re thinking. How did I know the poor little beggar was me? Well, whoever sent it had been dead considerate. Clipped a note to the newspaper: Dear Sharon, Who’s a BIG GIRL now. Many happy returns.

I reckoned it was Kelly at first. She was always banging on about my weight. But she was the one who put her arm around me. She was the one who asked if I was okay.

Course I wasn’t okay.

If I’d had my wits about me, I’d have clocked all the faces, tried to suss out who’d done it. It was cruel, wasn’t it? I know ignorance is supposed to be bliss and all that. I mean I’m so thick I should be on cloud nine permanent, like. But it’s one thing to be a few slices short of a Mother’s Pride, it’s another to have been kept in the dark all these years. Imagined all sorts, I have. One week my ma’s that dumpy bint in EastEnders, next she’s that lippy tart on the cooking show, the one who’s always licking chocolate and stuff off her fingers. There’ve even been times, God forbid, when I reckoned my ma could be pushing up the daisies.  Well now I know, don’t I. My old lady? She’s the one as goes round dumping babies.

That word again. I had to get out. I could feel the sweat running cold down my back. God knows what my face looked like, but I’d be blowed if anyone thought they were gonna catch me crying. No one’s done that for a long time now.

I didn’t mean to hit Kell. My glasses were all smeared and I was shaking like a life. I just took an almighty swing. I know I shouldn’t’ve but I wasn’t thinking straight. I was scared I was gonna drop in a dead faint. I ain’t  done that for a while either, but you never know. Must’ve looked a right sight. Let’s face it the only thing that runs on somebody my size is the nose. But you know when people say ‘something snapped’? Well, that’s what happened. I’d had enough. Well you can tell, can’t you? I hate swearing I do, but I’ll tell you what I went and did, I turned round and gave the lot of them the finger. Freak off, yer lousy cats, I says. Just freak off.

—————————

I don’t know how long Mrs T had been hammering. You know how it when your heart’s pumping in your ears? I was bawlin’ an’ all by now. And I don’t care what you think, anyone’d do the same. Anyways, I didn’t hear the old bag. Even if I had, I wouldn’t have let her in. I didn’t have much but at least I had my own room. Then I remembered. It wasn’t mine. Or wouldn’t be at the end of the month. That really got me going. Either that or catching sight of myself in the mirror. My T-shirt had ridden up showing off a load of lard, long dyed black hair clinging to porky cheeks, and piggy eyes peering out through the face furniture. All I needed was a few hairy warts and a pointy hat.

Sod it. I grabbed the first thing I could lay my hands on: a bedside light with a Barbie lampshade. I ask you! I’d always hated it. I held it over my head and chucked it straight at the mirror. Love the sound of smashing glass, don’t you? The bits went flying. I bet I’d have lost an eye if I hadn’t had my specs on. My face smarted a bit I’ll tell you that. I bent down and picked up the biggest piece of glass I could find. Just wanted to check the damage. You should’ve seen my mug. It was like a bleedin’ road map. Couldn’t help but laugh. Course, once I started, I couldn’t stop. Hysterical, wasn’t it? Bleedin’ road map. Don’t worry, they were only nicks. It didn’t leave any scars.  Not on my face.

Anyway, by this time, old Ma Tinson’s wetting her drawers. She’s banging away, screaming blue murder.

‘Sharon Burke. If you don’t open this door, I’ll swing for you.’

I’ve often wondered since if that was what planted the idea. See, I’ve never been violent. Not really. I might hit out when I’ve got a strop on but to be honest, I never mean to hurt nobody. The other kids keep away cos they think I’m dim, they’re not scared or nothing. Ask Kell if you don’t believe me.  She reckons I’m a right laugh.

—————————-

‘What you gonna do, Shaz?’

I wish Kell’d take her shoes off when she lies on my bed. And if she gets that muck on her face all over my pillow, I’ll stick pins in her condoms again. Little tart. I shrugged a shoulder then bit the bum half off an orange jelly baby and gave it a good chewing. Wanted a bit of thinking time, if you must know. Was I gonna be straight with her, or what?

I licked my fingers all casual like. ‘Might take up that offer from Spielberg. I could do with a month in Hollywood.’

‘Yeah?’ She held her palm out, so I chucked a yellow one over. Not too keen on them, anyway. Lovely teeth, Kell’s got. She was talking while taking these delicate little nibbles. I’m watching her mouth, but she ain’t looking at me. Dead straight she says, ‘Doin’ Moby Dick next, is he?’

Was she having a go? Moby Dick could be a right wally for all I know. She popped in the rest of the jelly baby and smiles, real sweet. I let her have the benefit of the doubt; didn’t say anything, just gave a knowing look and a wink.

She sat up dead sudden and wrapped her arms round her knees. ‘Seriously, Shaz. What you gonna do?’

Her knickers didn’t look none too clean to me. I’d have to get that duvet down the launderette. Mind, I’d give my right arm for a pair of pins like Kell’s. Straight up, she could be a model if she fancied to. I looked at mine. Talk about tree trunks. Squirrels could shin up and hide their nuts in ’em. And don’t believe all that guff about black being slimming. With my wardrobe, I could work in an undertaker’s and still look like a bleached whale. Bleached? Beached? Whatever. You get the picture.

I looked at Kell. She was admiring her nails but it didn’t fool me. She was waiting for an answer.

Not supposed to talk with your mouth full, are you? I shoved in a couple of reds and a black then wiped me hands on the beanbag. It’d be best if she didn’t know nothin’, but I swear if the dinner bell hadn’t gone when it did, I’d have spilled the lot. There’s something about Kell. Don’t know what it is but I wish I had some.

By now everyone was stomping downstairs and believe me, they’d go through the grub like a plague of wotsits. I was struggling to get to my feet, but Kell gave me hand up, which was good of her.

‘I know what I’d do, our Shaz.’ She jabbed my boob with a pointed painted nail. ‘I’d find the slag and give her a piece of my mind.’

I’d find her all right and she’d be getting a bit more than that. ‘She can rot in hell far as I’m concerned. I don’t give a stuff.’

‘Atta girl.’ She squeezed my arm. It was like a butterfly landing on a leg of pork. She didn’t mention the waterworks, just passed me her hankie. It had a blue K embroidered on it. Personally, I’d have made sure it was a bit cleaner, but that’s me.

—————–

I didn’t wait till the end of the month.  Clean sheet, new leaf and all that. I’d been dumped and everyone knew it. I couldn’t stand the thought of all the other kids gawping at me, going silent every time I walked in a room. No. This time it’d be doing the dumping. And this place would be the first place to get the elbow.

Fair Oaks. It was all I’d ever known. Well, apart from a few foster homes. Wasn’t my fault they didn’t work out. Anyone could’ve fallen down the stairs at the last place. Even the Old Bill said they were a death trap. That woman never liked me. I was blowed If I was gonna call her mum. Can’t even remember her name now. No, it’s been Fair Oaks for me. For better or worse. And take it from me, it ain’t been a bowl of Bounty bars.

Have to say, no one’s laid a finger on me for ages. Not since I took a razor to the last bastard. They hushed it up, if course. But honest, when I was little, it was right bad. I’d lie awake, listening out for the footsteps, wondering whose turn it would be, hoping it’d be some other poor little bugger. You’d hear crying or a few screams and relax a bit, knowing it was probably safe to go to sleep. See, I thought it was what happened to kids like me. Never knew any different. And there was no one to talk to. I wanted to ask: if us kids are supposed to be in care, how come know one cares a flying fuck? And you know something? Finding out my own ma didn’t care either? That made it even worse, much worse. That was the cherry on the bloody cake all right.

I felt like Dick Whittington that last night at the home. Seen the panto, I have. Love the theatre, me. Might go again one day. Anyway, Kell’s snotty hankie wasn’t big enough to pack my bits in, so I borrowed her rucksack. I knew she wouldn’t mind and it’d give me something to remember her by. It was still too early, so I gave the room a good clean. I wasn’t gonna have anyone talking ’bout me when I’d gone. After that, I lay on the mattress, waiting.

You get to know the night time noises. There wasn’t enough snoring yet and Mrs T had only just switched the landing light off. I’d lifted a torch off Stan, Stan, the handy man. Let’s just say, he owed me one. I’d bust the lamp, as you know, and Mrs T said it was my own stupid fault and I wasn’t gonna get another. Silly cow. Acting big just cos she daren’t strap me anymore. Anyway. this torch. Had to have something to see by, didn’t I. Should’ve left it off till I got outside. Gave me the willies seeing all the shadows and weirdo shapes in my little room. What’s the word? When the light does weird things. Gawd. It’s on the tip of my tongue. Whatever, no sweat.  I closed my eyes and went over the plan. Oh, yes. I knew exactly what I was gonna do. Seen it on the telly, hadn’t I?

—————————

Talk about landing on your feet. First lorry that pulled over? Only going to Birmingham, wasn’t it? Mind, it ain’t difficult. Plonk yourself on the right bit of the ring road in Woolly-hampton and everything’s heading south. Shame, really. Daft as it sounds, I was enjoying myself, standing there, watching all the lights and the fancy motors flashing past; all them people with places to go. Got to thinking how strange it is – they way things work out.  Take me. One minute I’m Sharon Burke  kid-in-no-care, next I’m starting over. A few years, a few breaks, I could be anyone . . .

Been to Birmingham before, I have. Me and Kell used to sneak out. Getting lifts was dead easy. Kell’d go off and do a bit of business and I’d do a spot of window shopping. Just think, I could’ve wandered straight  ast my old lady and not known her from Adam. I’ve always had pictures of her in my head. She’s big – well she’d have to be, wouldn’t she? – and she’s got crinkly  eyes and a nice smile. Don’t laugh, but there’s this smell as well. Sometimes, I’d dream she was tucking me in bed. Course when I opened my eyes, there was no one there. Just this scent. Difficult to put your finger on but it put me in mind of strawberries.

‘What’s up, bab?’

I was miles away. Les the Lorry was giving me an old fashioned look. I wiped my nose on my sleeve.

‘Nothin’.’

‘Not cold are you?’ He needed dental work. Badly. ‘Soon warm you up if you are.’

I looked away, dead caz. ‘Up to you. I’ve got Aids.’ Bollocks, I have. Shut his trap smartish though. Kept shtum all the way to the Bullring. Shouted ‘fat tart’ as he pulled away. Like I care. I was in spitting distance of New Street. And that telly programme, I mentioned? That was Plan A. See New Street’s where the God botherers hang out. Sally Army and all that. Soft touches if you ask me. Spin ’em a line and they feed you and throw in a bed. Then all you have to do is pick their brains. They’re experts, see. They trace people.

Missing people.

————————–

It didn’t work out at the hostel. Nosy lot there. Supposed to be me asking the questions. Anyway, I did another flit. Time for Plan B. Seen that on the box, an’ all. See, I might have cack for brains but I pick things up pretty damn quick. Mind, it’s not been easy. The streets of Brum aren’t paved with the gold stuff. Not short of toffee-nosed bints though, swanning round in their strappy shoes and strapless frocks. Broad Street’s full of ’em: a snobby bloke on one arm and a Gucci bag on the other. All fuck-me heels and fuck-you looks. In the early days, I’d wander down there at night. Buzzing it was. Kids my age, looking good, talking big. Dead loud they are even when they’re not on their poncey mobiles. Smell rich, don’t they? Give off this odour of the good life. Anyway, short of a life transplant, it weren’t for me. Nah that part of town’s full of cocky buggers who don’t give a stuff. Still, I’m not thick. If there’s not gold to pick up, there are other things. You’ve got to know where to look, that’s all. Not telling you though – I ain’t that stupid.

I’ve learned what you might call a few tricks since Fair Oaks.  For one thing, some blokes don’t half fancy big woman. My Johns are no oil paintings but let’s face it, the only thing I give a stuff about is the colour of their money. And while we’re at it, let’s face another thing: the only difference between them and the old pervies at the home is that punters put their hand in their wallets as well as in my knickers. I’ve got to have the readies, see. Not going to see my ma looking like something the cat dragged in. Oh, yeah. Forgot to tell you. I know where she is.

———————-

Took me long enough, didn’t it? Couple years, give or take. Might have been a lot less if I’d looked at the bleeding obvious. Talk about the nose on your face. I tried all sorts. Went to the cops, visited God knows how many hospitals. All I had was a date of birth and a name, see. So why didn’t I just look in the phone book? Bit clever for me that. Anyway, she weren’t in it.  Sixty-nine other freaking Burkes were in there though. Tell you what I did turn up leafing through the pages. Only a flaming private detective. Cool or what? It’s been costing me a packet plus a bit on the side, if you know what I mean, but the old bugger came up trumps. Knocked me up one afternoon, he did. Thought it was the cops at first – have to be careful in the squat, even if it is a dump. Anyway, there’s Columbo on the doorstep with this brown envelope. Couldn’t have looked any shiftier if he’d been on skates.

He won’t hand it over till we’ve done the biz then I look at what he’s got. Me hands are shaking that much, I can hardly hold the photo. Talk about tiny? She’s a little sparrow. Nice though. Dark hair, smile in her eyes. She’s coming out of this big house like the ones you draw when you’re a kid: red brick, black door, windows either side, smoke coming out the chimney. Smashing garden, an’ all.

‘Nice place, innit?’

I’d forgotten Columbo was still around. I glanced across, saw grey hairs sprouting through his string vest. I know it’s not like me, but my mouth was so dry I couldn’t say a word.

‘Been there nine years.’ He’s lighting a fag, knows I hate the stink.  ‘Works as a school secretary.’ He’s drawing it out, enjoying it. ‘She’s a widow now but her old man left her comfortably off.’

‘On her own, is she?’ I asked casually.

He sucks a bit of baccy from his front teeth. Hate that noise, don’t you?

‘She is now. Two boys, she had but they’re married got kids of their own.’

Couldn’t have hurt more if he’d kicked me in the gut. But it could. Know what else Columbo dug up? Only another cutting from the Mail. July 10th. Which made me six days old. Six days and there’s this woman ringing the cops and saying she’s not coming forward, they can do what they want with me, end of. He’s watching me reading, this sly grin on his face.

You know people go on about a red mist? Well it descended big time. I guess I passed out.

When I came round, he was sprawled on the floor. The walls were all streaked with red. For a second or two, I wondered why he’d been painting.

————————–

Casing the joint. That’s what they call it. Columbo told me before his . . . accident. Anyway, that’s what I’ve been up to. I can tell you when she goes out, when she gets back, when she has a piss and what colour her knickers are. Been inside the place a few times, see. Sure, it’s risky, but I’m trying to get a handle on her. She keeps a clean house, I’ll say that for her. It’s not a patch on my place. Got this little terrace in Kings Heath now. Well, I say, got. I’m shacked up with this bloke. He pays the rent and stuff. And, no, before you ask, he ain’t a pimp. It’s early days yet, but he seems half-decent. Who knows how it’ll pan out?

Back to the old lady . . .  she’s not short of a bob or two, got some lovely knick-knacks. Tell you what I can’t abide? The pictures: her and her old man and the kids. Happy fucking families or what? Oh, and here’s a laugh. Guess what her name is? It’s only Mary, innit? Holy Mary, mother of . . . I don’t think so.

Tell you what I have been thinking though. How I’m gonna do it. I was gonna snap her neck and shove her in a skip. How’d she like being dumped, eh? Then I thought I’d torch the place. I got a real buzz seeing the squat go up. Mind, I’ve got my eyes on a few of her bits and bobs. Family heirlooms, innit?

I was waiting for her when she got back last night. I know you’ll think I’m soft but I was gonna give her one last chance. I’d put a frock on, had me hair done, wore a nice pair of kid gloves. Know what she says when she lays eyes on me?

‘Who the hell are you? What are you doing in my home?’

Give her her due. She was acting tough but she was scared shitless. Her hand shook as it went for the phone.  She’d pushed my buttons all right.

I make as if I’m leaving then as I’m passing, I take a swing. She’s so little, she’s down like a deck of cards; cracks her head on this old table in the hall. I was gonna trash the place, nick her bag and a few valuables; make it look like a burglary. Then I remembered this show on the telly, the cop talking about murder cases. He reckoned it was dead difficult to track down the baddy when there was no motive.

No point making it easy, was there?

I didn’t touch a thing. PC Plod was gonna have his work cut out. See nine times out of ten, the victim knows the killer. A case of the nearest not always being the dearest.  What was it the cop said? That’s right. ‘Pound to a penny, there’s always a connection The victim almost invariably knows the killer. Often the relationship is very close.’

Close. I looked down. The blood was oozing out of her head like gloss paint. The cream carpet was taking a hammering. I wasn’t gonna get sentimental. No use crying over spilt breast milk. Me and the old lady? We were ships that didn’t even pass in the night. I knew she couldn’t hear me but I bent down, whispered in her ear.’ ‘Sorry, ma. Close. But not close enough.’

Just for a second, I thought I caught the scent of strawberries but the sight of blood always makes me want to puke. No sense sticking around. I pulled the door to after me and walked home.

 

The new website, by the way? You’ll find it here: http://www.maureencarter.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

NOT DROWNING BUT WAVING

 

silecroft beach

Years ago, I was walking along a beach in the Lake District and spotted two little boys having a great whale of a time splashing around on the shoreline. I think it’s the only time a particular sight inspired me to write a short story. I wrote it for my daughter whose birthday it is today. And without being presumptuous, I share it with you now as an early festive gift. present.

Merry Christmas and happy reading.

Not drowning but waving

Stunned by the news story on the radio Bert clung to the bathroom sink for support. Surely they’d made a mistake? With trembling fingers he turned the dial, raised the volume, anxious to catch the headline again at the end of the bulletin. After taking a deep breath or two, he continued shaving, almost convinced he’d misheard. The newsreader’s voice was louder this time, the message clear.

…police want to trace an elderly man spotted yesterday near the scene of a tragedy at Silecroft beach…

Bert closed his eyes, barely aware of the falling razor, the clatter as it struck already cracked tiles. Casting his mind back, he was sure the beach had been empty, deserted but for the two youngsters playing at the edge of the ocean. The stinging rain and leaden skies had deterred less hardy holidaymakers; Bert had passed the caravan park, seen families cooped up, probably squabbling over board games as they waited for a break in the summer storm. But clearly someone else had been there, someone else had been watching…

 

beach light

It was the beauty of the little blond boy that had caught Bert’s attention, brought a welcome diversion to another solitary walk. His heavy boots had made deep impressions in the wet sand, but he couldn’t take his gaze from the little boy whose blond hair bobbed golden on a canvas of greys. The daft little beggar must have gone in the freezing water without a second thought. Clothes were strewn around anyhow and there was no sign of anything as sensible as a towel. But the boy was screaming in delight, kicking and splashing, revelling in his minor rebellion. The youngster’s unbridled excitement was infectious; Bert’s smile, involuntary.

He’d never seen a child so full of life. Radiant, that was the word. The lad couldn’t keep still, and every time he ventured a little further into the waves, his delight – and maybe a touch of defiance – rose.

Bert was about to turn away when the boy gave a huge grin. He saw the child’s eyes then, a breath-taking sky blue. There was a spark of mischief as well, an invitation to join or at least condone the forbidden fun. Bert smile back uncertainly. The boy waved again, then raced into the ocean once more, his feet kicking spray high into the air. He appeared younger than Bert had first thought. Nine? Ten? It seemed no age to be out alone. Bert scanned the beach for signs of the child’s parents. He’d been so entranced, only now did he fully register the youngster’s friend, an older lad with long dark hair whose frame looked painfully thin even through a couple of layers of clothes. The older boy stood well back from the water’s edge, veering it seemed between caution and curiosity. Bert sensed a longing to join in but, perhaps like Bert, he was afraid of the water. The little blond boy looked as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Wading in further and further, he turned every now and then to cajole and coax his reluctant pal.

Bert glanced at his watch: nearly tea time.  His face lit up, he’d certainly have something to tell Enid when he arrived home. The little fellow’s high jinks would make his wife chuckle, it was just the sort of story she liked. Then Bert remembered. His smile vanished. Enid wouldn’t be there, wouldn’t be there ever again. He’d always thought he would go first. Even now there were times he had to fight the urge to join her. They’d been so close – not having kiddies of their own.

The little boy’s excited screams broke Bert’s dark thoughts. There was delight and devilry in the high-pitched squealing as he kicked and splashed oblivious to the cold, thrilled by his daring. He was in no danger. Bert knew this stretch of the Cumbrian coast better than the back of his hand. There was no steep shelving to trip the unwary, no powerful tides to drag the boy out to sea. As long as the child didn’t go out of his depth, he’d come to no harm. The thought comforted Bert and allayed to some extent the old man’s vague unease at leaving the youngsters alone. He pushed his hands deeper into his pockets and continued trudging along the beach. As he reached the coastal footpath, he turned back for a final glimpse. The little blond boy was waving.

Still gripping the sink Bert opened his eyes, though the scene still played in his head. He must go to the police, help in any way he could. But what could he say? He’d seen a child playing in the sea and now the child was dead, drowned. He felt a dreadful sense of guilt. But what could he have done? Bert couldn’t swim to save his own life let alone anyone else’s. And anyway, he argued, the boy had been in no danger. When he’d left, the little lad had been having the time of his life. Bert peered at his reflection through the mist in the mirror. There was a shiny red bead of blood above his top lip.

         * * *

‘There were two boys in the sea, Mr Glover. Is that what you’re trying to say?’ The inspector was tall, powerfully built, with a thin dark moustache. He reminded Bert of that actor in Gone with the Wind. Bert tried recalling the name but – like much else – it had gone. He smoothed a hand over thin silver strands of hair then scratched the back of his neck. He’d been through his account several times but Inspector Read made him feel like a doddery old fool.

‘No.’ Bert tried to stay calm. ‘Not in the water. Like I said, the older boy as hanging back, just watching. Never ventured in at all.’

‘I don’t mean to be rude, Mr Glover, but do you normally wear glasses? See, you’re the only witness who’s mentioned two boys.’

The inspector tipped his chair back against the interview room wall. ‘So are you quite sure about it?’

The hard seat was uncomfortable but not as unsettling as the inspector’s stare.  Bert folded his hands in his lap. ‘Perfectly. Thank you.’

‘See there’s another thing, Mr Glover. You said there was no one else around yesterday, but we’ve taken statements from a young couple who saw you watching the boy. Fact is they thought you were his granddad. Standing so close, smiling, waving, staring and all that. Otherwise they might have hung around, made sure he came to no harm.’

‘The boy wasn’t in danger.’

Bert jumped when the inspector’s chair hit the tiles.  ‘He drowned, Mr Glover.’

‘Not when I was there.’ Bert cleared his throat but there was still a catch in his voice. ‘He was just a little boy having fun.’ He still couldn’t believe the youngster was dead – all that vitality snuffed out. ‘What about the dark-haired lad?’ Bert asked. ‘Why hasn’t he come forward? He was a good few years older. I thought they were together, that he was looking out for the little ’un. I assumed they were mates but I suppose they could’ve been brothers’

The inspector picked a piece of loose skin from the side of his thumb. ‘The dead boy was an only child. The family’s holidaying at the caravan park. Only been there three days. The boy slipped out on his own.’

Bert wiped his nose surreptitiously with the back of his hand; there was a cold wetness on his cheeks. He wanted to go home; he wanted a hug, a comforting word from Enid.

Suddenly alert, the inspector leaned across the desk; a sharp edge to his voice. ‘Tell me again about the boy in the water.’

Bert dashed the tears away, tried to meet the younger man’s gaze.  ‘He was very blond. It’s what made me think the other lad was just a friend – him being so dark, see.’

Eyes narrowed, the inspector took a photograph from a file on the desk.  ‘This is the boy who drowned. James Tyler. Is this who you saw in the water?’

Even before he turned the print round, Bert recognised the face. It was a picture of the dark-haired lad who’d kept well back from the waves.

* * *

That evening the local newspaper dropped through Bert’s letter box at the usual time. He shuffled down the hall and stooped to pick it up. He’d not been feeling well since arriving home from the police station. Inspector Read hadn’t accused him of anything but it didn’t stop the guilt and grief. Bert blamed himself – if only he could go back, have the time over again. He recognised the signs of another depression but couldn’t snap out of it. He was lonely. He missed Enid so much. Retirement wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and he wasn’t one for the pub with what few friends hadn’t moved on or passed away. He ought to get out more, take up a hobby or something. He brewed a pot of tea, settled himself in his favourite wing-back armchair and picked up the newspaper. The place was a ghost town in the winter but now at the height of the season there’d be lots going on. Maybe there’d be details of a club he could join or . . .

Bert struggled to hold the pages still. There was a follow-up story on the boy’s drowning. There’d been a similar incident thirty years ago on the same stretch of beach. It had been big news and the reporter had retrieved the original article from the archives.

The boy back then had been younger than James Tyler. Details were sketchy but he was described as a solitary boy who loved the sea. The police thought he’d sneaked out of his home one night during a storm. His clothes were found strewn across the sand but the body had never been recovered. Bert couldn’t tear his gaze from the child’s photograph. It was dusk when he eventually laid down the paper. He needed air, exercise. The storm had passed, he reached for his coat.

He’d stared at the picture so long the image might have been fixed on his retina. He saw it when his eyes were closed – saw it still when they were open. Even here, on the beach, in the dark, the image shimmered in front of Bert.  A little boy with blond hair, a hint of devilry in his laughing sky blue eyes and a hand held frozen in the air.

better beach