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For teen readers of all ages
Extracts from ten stories by the author of The Bull Leapers, The Freedom Tree, Talking in Whispers, No Surrender, Justice of the Dagger and Fair Game: The Steps of Odessa etc.
1. BOY MEETS GIRL 2. GIRL MEETS GIRL 3. DISSIDENT GIRL MEETS DISSIDENT POET 4. ENEMIES MEET FACE TO FACE 5. ENCOUNTER WITH BOMBS 6. ATHLETE MEETS BULL 7. MOTHER FOREST MEETS BROTHER BUSINESS 8. GIRL MEETS GHOSTS OF WAR 9. ENCOUNTER WITH A FOOTMINE 10. DAVID MEETS GOLIATH
1. BOY MEETS GIRL
Edited extract from Besieged! The Coils of the Viper. In preparation.
The mercenary armies of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan, called The Viper, have brought terror to Italy. Cities such as Siena, Perugia and Bologna, have either been overcome in battle or been terrified into submission. Florence alone stands out against him. In the burning hot summer of 1402, the Viper has laid siege to the city, his intention to starve the citizens until they are too weak to resist.
In the refectory of the priory of the Dominican brothers, the Master, one of Florence’s most distinguished artists, and Luca, his teenage apprentice, see no choice but to continue with the great fresco that the Master has been commissioned to paint. They know that once Visconti’s savage mercenaries breach the city walls few citizens will survive the brutality that has become the Viper’s trademark. While escaping the heat of the August sun and sketching the masterpieces of Giotto in the gaunt but magnificent Santa Croce basilica, Luca has become aware of the girl in a brown robe, hovering in shadow as if compelled to look over his shoulder at what his skilful hand commits to the page. Will one of them pluck up the courage to speak? …I’ve been sketching the figure of St. John the Evangelist and the petitioners kneeling around him. Usually, after I’ve been here in Santa Croce for a while, I’m recognised by one of the lay brothers. He pinched my cheek once, and I only smiled and shook my head. Since then he seems to haunt the chapel, and when he sees me he brings out a stool for me to sit on. He pats my shoulder and leaves me to my sketching. It looks as though the girl isn’t going to turn up. She’s become almost as regular a visitor as I am; about my age, curiously dressed – a brown woollen robe, complete with hood but cut short at the calf. I guess she bought or stole it from a mendicant friar, took if off his corpse or traded it for services rendered. It’s that kind of world; everything is possible, and blame is as stupid as it can be unjust. She usually wears rope sandals but at other times she appears out of the shadows barefoot. That’s how I think of her – a mystery; a sort of spirit. I never see her arrive, never see her depart. Yet I’ve decided her eyes are too bright for them to belong to a ghost. Her skin, though fresh, has the hue of dark leather; and there is the hint of a limp, making her rock slightly from side to side as she walks. Hers is as beautiful a face as I’m likely to see in these blighted days, for the respectable daughters of Florence are kept indoors, unless they’re in service to the rich and need to chance the city streets to fetch and carry, or if their business is in the tanneries or the woolsheds along the Arno… Today I promised myself I’d speak to her at last. All it needs is a word, a question, a smile. It’d be worth it merely to have her smile back, for so far she’s been as solemn as one of the angels my Master complains about in Santa Maria Maggiore; ‘joyless,’ he calls them. I shouldn’t feel so disappointed that she’s not turned up. Only a fool gets his hopes up in these horrible times. My hand seems to lose its motivation to draw, and I realise the only reason I keep
coming, poring over the Evangelist’s resurrection of Drusiana, over his Ascension or the Death of St. Francis, is to see her. I realise I’m talking to myself and this is at the same moment that I sense her presence. She is close enough to see the page of my open sketchbook. I’ve been scribbling devils. She glances up at the fresco where there are no devils, and the drumming of my heart tells me she is about to break our silence. Pointing up to Maestro Giotto’s fresco, she says, ‘Scusami, excuse me, but is that what you see?’ I amaze myself with my nerve: ‘I was thinking you wouldn’t come.’ The comment startles both of us. We evade each other’s embarrassment by staring up at the flowing robes of Giotto’s figures. She seems to be pleased at my frankness. ‘You noticed?...I’m surprised, for you seem to concentrate so hard.’ I’m struggling to keep up with her, say the right words that won’t put her off; but she doesn’t need any help. ‘May I look?’ She almost brushes my shoulder as I turn the pages of my sketchbook. I say, ‘All very quick…Just, sort of, ideas on paper.’ ‘Why do you like Giotto so much – because you sketch only his figures, don’t you?’ ‘Because…well, they have volume, roundness. They’re solid – real.’ ‘As if they’re about to step from the painting – alive?’ ‘Yes, that’s it, exactly.’ I am pleased. Her interest is welcome, her perceptiveness obvious. ‘You see, so many paintings are just like the old mosaics – everything flat.’ I hear myself going on a bit, but I can’t rein in my enthusiasm. ‘They’ve no space, no perspective. They shut you out instead of drawing you in.’ ‘Is that the secret – perspective?’ ‘My friend Filippo swears it is. Perspective, he says, is the key to great art. Without it, we are left with pure decoration.’ ‘Does it mean the same as having a perspective on life?’ I decide she’s half-teasing me, but I’m grateful for that halfsmile and look forward to receiving a whole one. ‘That’s a bit more complicated,’ I manage to say. I return to my latest sketch. ‘That devil could be Gian Galeazzo the Viper, could it not?’ I nod. My pencil shifts to a space on the page and I begin to draw a coiled serpent – Gian Galeazzo’s emblem. There are seven coils narrowing to a pointed tail. Trapped in the final coil is a tiny human figure, struggling in terror. ‘That could be the people of Florence,’ I say, ‘in a few days’ time.’ ‘You are very talented.’ ‘Thank you.’ ‘I suppose everyone tells you that.’ ‘They did, once. But there’re no “everyones” any more.’ ‘Are you an apprentice?’ ‘For my sins.’ She blesses me with a full smile. ‘You look too innocent to be a sinner.’
They are clearing the church, locking up. The great works of Maestro Giotto have faded into shadow. I stand. She is tall, my height if not a shade taller. She is thinner than I remember her; yet close up, her face is truly beautiful, full of character (as the Maestro often describes his madonnas and his saints – ‘depth of character, that’s what counts, in art as in life’). ‘My guess,’ I say, determined to hold on to her company for as long as possible, ‘is you’re not from these parts, neither Florentine nor Tuscan.’ ‘You can tell by my accent?’ We are outside in the piazza. Normally it would be crowded, but we are almost alone. The heat is as intense as it’s been since early morning, but now the atmosphere is clammy. ‘You’re from the north, I think.’ ‘From Lombardy. Remember the Bianchi? I was one of them. When we marched here, Florence gave us the kind of welcome that made us want to stay.’ I laugh, remembering something the Master had said: ‘My Master approved of the Bianchi, and the city loved them, he says, because they paid their bills!’ ‘True, but our cause – universal peace, that was what Florence welcomed.’ ‘Peace, my Master says, is good for trade, and trade is Florence’s first religion.’ She takes the comment in good part. ‘Be a cynic, if you wish. But it was much more than that. There was a yearning among the people, for an end to wars and bloodshed. We felt it then and still do.’ We’ve strolled down to the river. There’s scarcely a dribble of water. A pale golden light still lingers on the façade of San Miniato high above us. The avenues of pine and cypress are deepening from green to black tinged with the last flashes of crimson along the horizon… . ‘My name’s Luca, by the way.’ ‘Caterina – come sta, how are you?’ ‘Sto bène, gràzie, I’m fine, thank you!’ We talk about Florence. ‘You are very proud of the city, aren’t you, Luca?’ ‘And sometimes I’m ashamed of it. At its best, I love it. It was once beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful city on earth.’ ‘Are you forgetting Venice?’ ‘Never been, but the Master jokes about his visit there – “Too much water!” he said.’ Her face lights up every time she smiles. ‘Especially if you’re not looking where you’re going. I went there once. It does pong a bit. But as for Florence, it’s what the city stands for, isn’t it, which makes you Florentines proud?’…
Caterina puts her hand on my arm, shakes it gently with what I can only guess is affection. ‘I see Florence being truly great once more.’ I cannot believe it, but we are holding hands. ‘You seem very confident in the future,’ I say. ‘What are you – a fortune teller?’ She stares down at the riverbed where a child in rags is trying to scoop up water in a brass pot. ‘Perhaps I am…something like that. Or just an optimist.’ She glances again at the river. ‘The Arno looks as if it is dying, doesn’t it? But come the spring, everything will be different. The seasons bring hope.’ I’m not so easily shifted from my dark mood. ‘Yes, and sometimes the floods wash away bridges. Nobody’s safe.’ For a moment we both sense that the floodtide is in ourselves, one of sadness and bereavement. Our fingers slip reluctantly apart. Defeat is in my voice: ‘It’s so difficult to hold on to hope when everything seems stacked against us.’ I guess that she is as loath to depart as I am. Her gaze meets mine, lingers… and I sense that if I had put my arms around her and hugged her she would match the strength of my feelings. She is now holding out her hand towards me, formally, almost stiffly. ‘Till next time, perhaps.’ We shake hands. It is almost comical when really I would like to hold her and kiss her. Her smile closes this, the happiest hour of my life. ‘Things to do.’ She turns, strides away, limping a little from the hip. I call after her. ‘I would like to sketch you.’ She stops, faces me. The last light of the evening adds a splash of scarlet to her face and hair. ‘One sitting will cost you ten soldi.’ ‘Can I pay you when I’m famous?’ ‘A gold florin if I have to wait that long!’ I call after her one last time. ‘You didn’t say where you live.’ This time she does not look back. ‘No I didn’t.’ She heads towards the Ponte Vecchio leaving me suddenly empty, struck by melancholy as if I’d lost something precious that I might never recover.
2. GIRL MEETS GIRL
Edited extract from Fair Game: The Steps of Odessa (Spire Publishing & Kindle).
Kyiv, capital of the Ukraine; a bleak winter’s night. Natasha, a talented soccer player, ambitious to play for her country, broods on the dangers to herself and her brother Lonya resulting from investigations into government corruption by their father, campaigning journalist Victor Kaltsov. When the SBU, Ukraine’s secret service, call at Victor’s flat, they find Natasha alone and take her hostage, driving her through heavy snow to a ‘safe’ house in the city outskirts.
…There’s a window open and Natasha can smell countryside – a wind that has travelled for hundreds of kilometres across the flatlands,
upwards from the infinite Steppe, an ocean of grass crossed by countless rivers… Snow is coming in through the car window. She feels its coldness on the sweat of the hood. Out there, what? – gentle forests, avenues of linden stretching through a thousand years of history, all of it, the glories and the tragedies, culminating in this: a hostage, hooded, a pistol in her ribs, innocent as snow, but then, in this world – Dad’s words – ‘It’s the innocent who suffer most’. …Myk has turned off the road. The snow is so thick in the headlights that the Shogun slows to walking pace, then stops. ‘Okay, Comrade, bring her out.’ Sergei’s pistol is still jammed against her side. She’s grateful for the coat they let her have. The house seems a long way from where the Shogun has been parked. The wind hums through the trees on both sides of her. She guesses it’s a dasha, like Dad once rented, in the good old days when he wasn’t on the bad side of people. ‘Steps,’ warns Myk. Two wooden stairs lead on to a verandah already heaped up along its length with freezing snow. The dacha has no electricity. Myk lights two paraffin lamps. In the first of two rooms, there is a table, bunk beds against the side wall and a wood-burning stove in the corner. Natasha is marched by Sergei into the second room, empty except for a single bed. A small window is shuttered. Natasha’s captors open the vodka. Myk falls asleep on his arms, but Sergei has other plans, and they involve the fair prisoner. In the darkness she reaches for the bed. The thin mattress is covered only by a single blanket, and both are soaked with damp. Her legs are shaking. She sits, then lies on her side, her knees pulled up to her chin. Her teeth are chattering with the cold. She stands, moves to the door, listens. Sergei is in two minds: take the oil lamp or leave it. He picks it up and the room sways with shadows, dizzy as his head. He decides against the lamp, replaces it on the table, fiddles for his torch, can’t find it, but does locate his flick-knife. In search of a weapon to defend herself, Natasha has darted back to the bed. She stoops, then kneels, feeling the metal legs in the hope that one might be loose enough to remove. Hopeless: she’d need a wrench to shift the nuts and bolts. …It’s going to happen. If the idea is in his head, vodka in his stomach, then he’s not going to turn up this juicy chance. Me. Juicy – who’d ever have thought that? She is shaking, like before a big match, or just before taking a penalty. Jock, our lovely coach, calls me Cool Head. I’m not cool now; only maybe I’ve got to be… Sergei hears nothing above his own nasal rasp. Natasha hears him swallow; and she also hears herself say, almost aloud, I’m no defender. Miss-time my tackles. Gave away a penalty last week. Jock said, ‘Forget it – attack, that’s what you’re born to do.’ Attack. Huh!
A key is thrust into the door, turned soundlessly. Sergei guesses she is asleep. She steps away from the door. Okay, Cool Head – prove it. Jock’s back: rehearse; think ahead what you’re going to do. The door is opening. It brings with it the faintest image of the snowstorm and the outline of Myk asleep and snoring. Sergei pauses. He should have brought the lamp. He enters Natasha’s room, closes out what light there is as he eases the door to. He almost shuts it, but not quite. He steps forward, his boot scraping on the earth floor. He stops, breathless, sightless. Natasha is an arm’s length away, to his right, her pulses drumming. She smells the vodka. She could trip him. She could kick him. She could even trample on his head. But there’ll be noise, so she hovers: that’s how the best goals are scored, by slipping silently, swiftly, unseen and unexpected through the defences. Sergei passes her. He whispers ahead of his conquest. ‘Shush, kid, not a word, this is just between you and me.’ Now! The door proves no friend. It betrays her with a loud squeak. But the vodka proves her ally: it catches in Sergei’s throat and he coughs, knows nothing of her departure. Natasha is through the door – speed she never needs to rehearse – and across the room. For a moment her intention is to wake Myk, thinks the better of it, heads for the door of the dacha. Miracle! Neither of the guards thought to lock it. In the same instant, Sergei discovers his juicy opportunity has taken flight. He yells out in frustration and fury – ‘Myk!’ Natasha is away into the storm, its own fury matching Sergei’s. The snow swirls and blinds. Her trainers sink in it past the ankles – moving ankles, striding ankles, ankles suddenly stuck in a drift, extricated, commanded to move – move! – to put distance between the dacha and the runaway…It’s cold, God it’s cold. The wind’s straight from Russia. It turns crystals into bullets. Need shelter, something till morning, till light.
Natasha struggles on through the snow till she reaches the outbuildings of a farm or large dacha. She has banged her knee in the dark, but the light from a distant window beckons her on.
Well, what are you waiting for? There’s the door – knock. Suddenly a dog barks. A man’s voice orders its silence, but the dog senses a stranger, becomes more excited. Knock! The door is so solid Natasha’s fist makes no impact and no sound. Yet inside they know someone is there. The voices are hushed. Natasha knocks harder. The door opens. Her first reaction is to note – they’ve got electricity, wonderful! An elderly man, shorter than she is, holds out in front of him a long-barrelled shotgun.
‘There’s only me. I was out running. Got stuck, and lost.’ The man lowers his weapon. He is joined at the door by a woman of his own age, and a third person, much younger, who does their talking for them. ‘Let her in, Uncle, and close the door, or we’ll freeze to death.’ The elderly man hesitates, suspicious, then nods her forward into blissful warmth. He steps back for his wife who exclaims, ‘Grief, the child’s covered in icicles. Put more logs on the fire, Vanya. Monika, help me brush her down. Hot water, that’s what she needs. Come, child, sit here.’ Normally Natasha would resent being called a child; but not at this moment. If a child gets spoilt like this, they can call her what they like. She grins at Monika as she brings a change of clothes from another room, then hands her a large towel. Without waiting to be asked, she helps Natasha off with her shirt; offers dry jeans for soaked jeans and then busies herself towelling Natasha’s hair. ‘I’m Monika. This is my Aunt Sophia, and you were nearly shot by my Uncle Vanya.’ ‘Uncle Vanya – like in Chekhov. My favourite. Other than Pushkin.’ It’s by way of introduction. ‘And my name is Natasha.’ Monika is fair, taller, a little older than Natasha; blue-eyed. She keeps towelling while Sophia has brought a dish of hot water. ‘Now warm those toes, my child.’ ‘Some run,’ Monika observes. ‘This is the wilderness, you must have been training for a marathon.’ There is no suspicion in her voice, only good cheer, as though Natasha’s arrival has broken the monotony of a life in the outback. ‘You’ve hurt yourself.’ Monika has noticed Natasha’s cut knee and the bruise already swelling and turning blue. She dampens a cloth in tepid water, ties it gently round the knee. ‘Keep it on just for a bit.’ Natasha confesses, ‘This is too good to be true. I mean, your kindness.’ …She is invited to the scrubbed table, served hot broth – potatoes, beetroot, leak, flavoured with chervil, and home-made bread. The food warms her throat, her chest, and as she eats, they stare, too polite to ask questions, so she asks her own: ‘Do the trains go straight into town?’ ‘Don’t say you jogged all the way from Kyiv?’ smiles Monika. ‘It’s twelve kilometres at least.’ ‘Sport’s my thing. I play soccer. Jock, our trainer, says we should do thirty kilometres a week. At least.’ ‘You look done in, Child,’ says Sophia. ‘A night’s rest is what you need.’ ‘You’ll have my bed,’ says Monika, ‘I’ll sleep in here.’ Natasha is too exhausted to argue. She stands, tries her knee. It’s not so bad. Monika takes her arm. ‘Lean on me.’
The bedroom is also a workshop, and Natasha gasps as Monika switches on the light. ‘Oh, amazing – pysankys!’ The broad table in the centre of the room is strewn with wooden eggs – pysankys – in various stages of completion, the finished ones painted with images of Christ, the Madonna, angels and saints, glowing with fresh colour. There are carvings too, brightly painted, while on drying racks against two of the walls are jewel-bright icons. ‘You make these, Monika?’ ‘Uncle and me. I’m sort of his apprentice. We make them in the winter, sell them in spring.’ Natasha examines two of the famous holy eggs of Ukraine, one of St Cyril with a golden halo, the other of a long-haired warrior carrying a broadsword. ‘I recognise St. Cyril, but who is this?’ ‘Ryurik the Viking, the founder of Kyiv.’ ‘He’s wonderful.’ ‘He’s yours – if you want him.’ ‘I couldn’t.’ ‘Something to remember us by. Your good luck talisman.’ ‘Well, I could do with a change of fortune.’ ‘I promise: Ryurik will look after you.’ Natasha is usually slow to take to people, but in Monika’s case it’s friendship, swift and warm and if her expression is anything to go by, reciprocated. She feels suddenly awkward and asks, awkwardly: ‘You make a living out of these, Monika?’ Monika nods. Her nervous smile seems to suggest she is also surprised at her feelings. ‘Well, almost a living. Business has picked up as more and more tourists arrive in the country, especially the Americans. They prefer the icons, though Vanya’s statues of St. George are a nice little earner too.’ ‘And when you’re not making pysankys?’ ‘I’m a tour guide. Foreign visitors, mainly. Americans in particular.’ ‘So you know English?’ ‘Enough to explain to our visitors which are the Men’s loos and which are the Women’s.’ ‘I’m learning it too – from my trainer. He’s from Scotland. I play for the Kyiv Falcons, the cinderellas of women’s football, though all that’s going change at the international tournament in Zhytomyr.’ Natasha gazes down at her troubled knee, then grins, raises Ryurik into the light. ‘He’s already working his magic – the pain’s easing already!’ ‘Tomorrow at first light we’ll ski to the station.’ ‘You’ll have to keep picking me up.’ ‘What are friends for?’ Friends, yes; it happens that way. How strange, thinks Natasha that in this moment of her fraught life she feels so happy.
4. DISSIDENT POET
An edited selection from TICKET TO PRAGUE (Gollancz, Penguin, Collins & Kindle).
Since her parents were killed in a motorway car crash Amy Douglas has been at war with the world. She has been expelled from school, she has been involved in a violent street fight which has led to her boyfriend being put behind bars while she has been issued with a controlling order. She has ended up as a part-time carer in a home for men who have either rejected society or been rejected by it. Josef is a Czech poet. Almost a generation ago he had been permitted to join a group of poets and other writers on a cultural visit to Britain. He absconded, but the decision was so traumatic that the poet, along with all the evidence of who Josef actually was, vanished into silence. All he does, from week to week, month to month, year to year, is stare at an empty television screen. Neither Amy nor Josef realise on their first meeting that their period of isolation, their seemingly pointless and directionless lives, are about to change. The key that unlocks the door to silence is a shared love – of literature, the enriching power of reading.
From a distance, High Lawns does a passable imitation of a stately home. It stands on a pleasant incline among acres of meadow and woodland, all encompassed by high stone walls. Ancient beech trees escort the main drive which stretches through rough pasture to a sunken wall. Beyond this are lovingly tended gardens, smooth-cropped lawns, a tennis court and an open-air pool… … 'Whatever you do,' senior nurse Sylvia Benson, had advised Amy, 'never call the place a loony bin. Never use such words as "lunatic", "mad", "round the bend" or "round the twist". These unfortunates are our family. Now they're your family.' … 'And this gentleman, said Mrs. Benson on Amy’s first morning on duty, ‘is Josef, spelt with an "f", one of our longest-serving customers.' 'Customers?' 'Oh yes, that is what we have to call them these days. It sounds more business-like. Josef is foreign. He smokes too much and hates taking exercise. A lazy old scruff, really – aren't you, Josef?’ Still in pyjamas and slippers though it is past eleven, Josef makes no response to Mrs. Benson. He is around sixty, Amy guesses. He is short, scrawny but still with a generous head of grey hair. He spares one glance at the tall, handsome girl with blonde hair. There is the dart of a smile from watchful green eyes that seem to say, 'I know secrets but I'm not telling'.
'Josef won't give you any bother, Amy. There is little point, by the way, in trying to engage him in conversation. He's foreign and doesn't seem to have bothered to learn our language beyond "I want", "No" and "Football!" He is what Dr. Parrish calls homo mollusca, someone trapped for ever in a shell of almost absolute silence.' Amy is wondering, should Mrs. Benson be saying all this in front of Josef? 'Don't worry, he never listens to what anybody says. We call him Sir Stubborn.' Amy takes to Josef instantly: Sir Stubborn, meet Lady Stubborn. 'Shall I turn the telly on for him?' 'No, he prefers it off.' 'He looks as though he is watching it.' 'Oh yes. If he's watching it, or looks as though he's watching it, and it's off, don't wheel it away or he'll become quite agitated.' 'And if I turn the telly on?' 'He'll walk away.' Amy grins. 'That means he's got good taste. I'm not struck on telly myself.' Mrs. Benson isn't used to considering the opinions of young people sent up on Community Service or from the Youth Training, but Amy seems different; brighter, more full of herself. 'You've got a point. All that violence and suffering before your very eyes, well it's enough to make you feel suicidal...' 'Like you want asylum?' 'Yes, I guess that's what we are at High Lawns, a refuge from all the horror and carnage.' Ms. Benson explains that Josef, as a special privilege, is allowed to stay up to watch the late-night football. 'Otherwise he retreats into his shell completely.' Amy contemplates Josef. 'He looks so intelligent.' Mrs. Benson drops her voice. 'There's absolutely nothing wrong with Sir Stubborn that a good kick up the backside wouldn't cure. Private opinion, mind.'
After settling a nocturnal fracas between two ‘customers’, Josef and a Mr. Dodds over a packet of fags, Amy is curious to draw Josef out of his shell.
There is this terrible silence. Amy recognises it because somewhere in the building, far off, somebody is crying – a child, a grown-up, it is difficult to say. And the crying goes on and on and it makes the silence in this room and the silence outside so clear; like a frost… …'You've got a real reputation, Josef. Your friend Mr. Dodds says you killed your kids. I don't believe that... though you were pretty violent just now. He says that's why you never tell anybody about yourself. Because of your guilt. 'I don't believe that either...Do you know what I think? You're afraid. If you just stick with Please and Thank You, nobody will report you: am I right?' Why did I say that? Guesswork. But it's pressed something in his head. Josef's gaze for a second shifts from the empty TV screen. 'Still, don't think you're the only one. Everybody's afraid – I mean
everybody who's ever lost anyone. Or lost themselves, you know what I mean?' Another flicker of the eye; a recognition. 'Yes, I think you do. 'I hope you don't mind me talking to you like this. I lost my parents, you know. They were passengers in this car going along the M25. Heard of that? It's the most dangerous stretch of road since the First World War. Then I went to live with my Auntie, who's not actually my real auntie at all. She was kind – so long as I didn't bring home any “darkies”.' The mournful weeping from a distant ward has continued, and until it slips into silence, Amy keeps on talking.... 'I quite like it here, actually. It's a sanctuary. I think you like it too, Josef. It's a horrible world out there, do you agree? 'I get my meals, same as you. And Mrs. Benson thinks they might take me on, as a temp. Pay me, even...Mind you, I've only got GCSEs. Though I can swim. I used to race. And when I did, when I competed and left others ten metres behind, I was somebody. When I didn't, I was nobody. 'You're very trim, Josef. I bet you did sport when you were a boy. Football? They're very keen on it in Czechoslovakia, am I right? Course, personally I'm more into books these days.’ She dangles a juicy literary worm. 'Now Czechoslovakia – that's where Franz Kafka lived.' A pause; a flicker of recognition, no, more than that. 'A bit morbid, though – that story about a man turning into a beetle. Poor Gregor Samsa!' Something is happening. Josef's face seems suddenly to melt in the glare from the strip light above; melt, go out of shape, and then reform, almost into a new face. 'One of your favourites, is he, Josef – Franz Kafka? We could sort of read him together. The Castle, what about that? No? Okay, The Trial then. My English teacher Mrs. Ambler was very keen on him.' Josef suddenly emits one word. Amy does not recognise it, fears it might be a curse. 'What was that, Josef?' 'Sveyk!' 'Sveyk? Right.' A long pause. Baffled. Sveyk – doesn't sound like a swearword. Josef is reaching out his hand. 'Come. Please!' Three words! This must have exhausted Josef's usual tally for the year. 'Okay.' Upstairs, to his room, head nodding now, vigorously. Josef switches on the light, goes to a set of drawers, opens the top one. Amy waits by the door. 'Sveyk.' She practices it aloud. Does it mean 'bedroom' or 'drawer' or perhaps even a 'secret case' that Mr. Dodds accused him of hiding away? Josef produces a fat paperback with a flash of yellow on the cover. He holds it up. 'Sveyk.' At last. 'He's the author?' She receives the book. She reads out the title. 'The Good Soldier Sveyk by Jaroslav Hasek.' 'Hashek!' replies Josef, correcting Amy's pronunciation.
Eyes meeting, eyes aglow now. On the cover, an officer in a blue uniform is sitting down and smoking a fag. Coming through the door, saluting, is a plump soldier with a stubble beard and a big grin. 'Sveyk?' Amy points, Josef nods. She turns to the back cover and reads: The Good Soldier Sveyk and His Fortunes in the World War...it says here that it's the "classic novel of the 'little man' fighting officialdom and bureaucracy with the only weapons available to him – passive resistance, subterfuge, native wit and dumb insolence".' Dumb insolence, eh? Amy gazes across at her new friend. All she says is, 'Sveyk!' Josef nods again, and now he smiles. 'Sveyk!' 'And you want me to read this to you?' She examines the volume which has suddenly brought her close to this old man full of dumb insolence. '752 pages, Josef, that'll take us a lifetime!' Another nod. No sweat. She flicks through the pages, pauses at Chapter 4: Sveyk Thrown out of the Lunatic Asylum. She looks up but does not speak, then turns to the opening page. She reads out the first few lines: 'And so they've killed Grand Duke Ferdinand,' said the charwoman to Mr. Sveyk, who had left military service years before, after being finally certified by an army medical board as an imbecile, and now lived by selling dogs – ugly, mongrel monstrosities, whose pedigrees he forged. Apart from this occupation he suffered from rheumatism and was at this very moment rubbing his knees with Elliman's embrocation... Amy's turn to nod. 'It looks as though it might give us a laugh or two.' Josef is beaming. All at once Amy begins to feel good. She closes the book. 'Sveyk!' says the old man. 'Sveyk!' repeats Amy Douglas, little realising how this one word will change her life.
Amy and Josef become friends and she discovers that far from being the murderer of his kids, Josef is a poet of distinction, almost but not quite forgotten in his own country. Her aim becomes to reconnect him with his past and bring him fully and creatively into the present. In doing so, she comes to terms with her own past and present.
5. ENEMIES MEET FACE-TO-FACE IN THE TRENCHES OF CATALONIA
From the Spanish Civil War novel The Freedom Tree (Puffin, Collins, Kindle etc.).
In the footsteps of his dead father, Will has joined British volunteers to fight alongside the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and against the forces of General Franco. He finds himself, with his companion Griff, in the bitterly cold trenches of Catalonia, northern Spain. He has been sent out by the group leader, Candy Sam, to gather brushwood. In the pitch darkness, Griff and Will lose their way.
In the dark, north, south, east and west wore the same featureless mask. The stars were over-clouded, and anyway neither Will nor Griff could read the stars. They left the limestone parapet of the home trench and dropped in to no-man’s land. ‘When you hear a shot,’ Candy Sam had instructed, ‘drop flat on your faces. It’s a thousand to one against being hit.’ Every footstep, for Will, was agony because he could hear his steelshod boots designed to make the biggest possible noise over crackly limestone. And if he could hear them, so could the watchful enemy. He might as well have had bells tied to his feet. Boulders were the chief hazard and Will duly tripped over one. He fell among firewood. ‘Roots!’ ‘Drag them up, then.’ He was grateful to halt his progress towards the enemy lines. He hacked at the rough limb of stunted oak. ‘This’ll never burn in a month of Sundays.’ The tree took five minutes’ sawing. It quivered and fought for its survival until Will began to feel sorry for it. Yet he moved on, dragging his prickly victim with him. The thought of crawling into a trench and finding not their comrades but a scowling enemy, made Will stop. ‘We need to take our bearings.’ Instinctively, they crouched down and at the very same moment the hill halfway up the sky burst into flames. An explosion raised the lid of darkness, and smaller explosions burst on the heels of the first. There was one second of silence before the entire battlefront unleashed its armoury. Somehow the blackness made things worse. Distances closed in. Between a machine-gun barrel and the victim was sightlessness – no matter that in daylight you couldn’t see the bullets either. Head down, smelling the bitter winter earth, hands clamped over ears. A bullet smashed stone close by. Another ricocheted off rocks to left or
right. Will raised his eyes as the intensity of the gunfire – and got the very worst shock of his life. His gaze fell on another face. The enemy soldier lay belly down, pointing in the direction of his own trenches as Will and Griff were pointing at theirs. He was as terrified as Will – and as young: wan faced, pop-eyed, immovable as though his limbs had been driven into the ground with wooden stakes. If he was armed, there was no sign of it. At the sight of two of the enemy, he rolled sideways like a rabbit springing from the hand about to descend upon its neck. Will said, ‘Please!’ It was all he could think of: please – don’t do anything, don’t shoot, don’t run. But Griff cut words. This was the closest bang, the closest bullet and it drowned Will’s anguished ‘No, Griff!’ Too late. The bullet was straight. The enemy turned half in a circle. His hand was raised as if to some invisible support, some arm held out to him in the last flash of his living mind. His pop-eyed face fell before the rest of him. ‘There was no need!’ ‘Him or us.’ ‘He’d no gun.’ ‘Beggar that!’ Will was across the body. ‘If he’s only wounded –’ ‘Forget ‘im, he’s dead.’ The young Spaniard lay as only the dead lie. Yet Will would not let him go. Feebly, he bent over him, willing breath back into him. ‘Sorry. Sorry…’ He no longer heard the flying bullets. He did not care whether they struck him. The pop eyes were in his head. He could see nothing but them. One life. Sixteen years of caring and loving and feeding, of laughing and crying and running and talking – turned, in a single moment to cold flesh. Will cocked his head. He lifted himself. Great waves of nausea drove upwards through him. He was sick in his throat, sick down his nostrils. When the nausea departed it was replaced by anger and disgust. His mind had never prepared itself for this. It had imagined other, nobler pictures – all shattered. In these seconds, Will’s hatred was not for the Fascists but for Griff. The look in his companion’s eyes – which again and again reverted to the dead Spaniard – was of pride. He was glad of what he had done. Will gathered up the firewood they had collected. He felt no fear, for he felt nothing. He was changed. Something – perhaps everything – of his past self lay with the young Spaniard. Back in the home trench with the others, he took out his pistol. He handed it to Candy Sam. ‘Give it somebody else, please. I want none of it.’
Will’s war moves to the Battle of Jarama, where he meets Molly, a medical orderly, and is then followed by a desperate journey north, to the Basque town of Guernica. Accompanied by their Spanish friend José, they arrive on market day in Peg, a commandeered van. General Franco’s fascist army is aided and abetted by German aircraft. Mola, commander of Franco’s northern battalions, has issued a proclamation demanding that ‘if submission is not immediate I will raze all Vizcaya to the ground, beginning with the industries of war’. The proclamation concluded: ‘I have the means…’
The tide of war seemed to be behind them. Ahead were signs of a people still at peace – farmcarts pulled by oxen and piled high with produce for market. The Basque peasants walked backwards in front of their oxen, gently urging them on with the occasional tap of a stick on the horns. They talked to the oxen and the oxen seemed to take in every word… The Oak of Guernica seemed to beckon Will and Molly to its quiet solitude. It was, thought Will, like walking out of the bustle of his home town, Jarrow, to the holy silence of Bede’s Well; a similar pilgrimage. They stood before an oak tree like other oaks, not bigger, not grander; yet a special oak. Beneath the spread of its branches there were wooden seats carved with the arms of Vizcaya – a tree and lurking wolves. ‘Smell the sea, Molly? It can’t be faraway.’ ‘I’ll remember this for ever.’ The early evening sunlight tilted red through the dark branches as José described how, when the rights of Vizcaya were declared, trumpets were blown and bonfires lit on hilltops all over the province. The hum of the market did not drown the soft rustle of the leaves. A breeze carried rose petals along the ground. ‘Peace!’ Then from across the town came the sound of a church bell. It struck single chimes, and the look of contentment on José’s face vanished. ‘San Juan!’ ‘What’s he saying, Molly?’ José was dragging them away. ‘What’s happening?’ ‘Air raid!’ General Mola was keeping his word. The three of them ran. And then they stopped running, for where was there to run? They stood still. They waited. The bell of San Juan struck again and again and again, stirring apprehension into fear… Above the squall of voices close by, the shouts, the clatter of panicky feet, there came a faint drumming roar. Will and Molly knew that sound well enough. ‘It could be they’ll pass over – on their way to the factories in Bilbao.’ They took comfort from this possibility. After all, what strategic significance had this sleepy market town?
A single plane, blunt-nosed, with the outline of a killer whale, skimmed the town. ‘Heinkel!’ The bombs were clearly visible. They glided through the rays of evening sunlight. One…two…three…four, and the ground shook, the air flashed. A blistering wind swept the rose petals over the dusty earth. Five…six, followed by the crack of grenades. Will gripped José’s arm. Were there any anti-aircraft guns in Guernica? The young Basque replied that there were no guns and no troops either; scarcely a rifle to aim at the sky. Having delivered its load, the German Heinkel 111 banked towards the west. José beat his fist against stone. He had heard the rumours, he said, of other bombings, at Durango, Elgueta, at Ochandiana and Elorrio. Perhaps this was just a warning. Perhaps a single pilot had a few bombs to drop to fulfil his quota. Perhaps the Heinkel was the first and last…An aching pause. Optimism rising, then fading as a second Heinkel traced the path of the first, its target the town centre. It completed an unchallenged tour of destruction with a burst of machine-gun fire. José advised that if a full air-raid came, they must look for the sign REFUGIO where they would find shelter behind sandbags. Thirteen minutes. Fourteen. On the fifteenth, silence died. The thunder of man rolled across the western horizon. ‘Tranvias! Tranvias!’ The call spread down the street. ‘Tranvias!’ José explains: ‘’Trams. That’s what the people call the Junkers…Junker fifty-twos.’ The temporary peace was shattered by the clanking roar of huge, ugly, clumsy monsters that hardly seemed able to hold their position in the air. ‘Too late for a refuge. Quick, against the wall!’ Will’s hand searched for Molly’s. They watched the bombs fall in a single, streaming cascade. They saw whole streets shudder with the impact of high explosive. Houses split in two, lifted from their foundations. Great walls keeled over into the streets. Solid brick and stone disintegrated. Plumes of black smoke shot upwards through the jagged ruins… This was a new kind of war, no longer soldiers against soldiers, but the deliberate extermination of civilians. Will watched the bombs falling, tilting in line, sometimes spinning. He saw them plunge to the very heart of the houses. Roofs collapsed into upper storeys, upper storeys on to the floors below, ground floors into basements. He was sick with fear. He could hardly breathe. He felt Molly trembling. Equally shaken, José prowled. He refused to stand with his back to the wall. He advanced into the road. He snarled abuse at the sky…The streets were deserted no longer. For the people, their refuges threatened to become stone coffins. They fled from battered and unmolested homes alike. They would take their chance in the open. The town was doomed. They must escape from it.
José had stepped in among the crowds. He tried to rally them, turn them back as though a barricade or ranks of determined people would frighten the German aircraft away. ‘Gara Euzhadi Eskatuta! Gara Euzhadi Eskatuta!’ ‘What’s he shouting, Molly?’ ‘It’s the Basque freedom cry…Long live free Euzhadi.’ The Heinkels, with their characteristic split wheels, were flying so low that Will could see the faces of the pilots. The aircraft swooped over the streets. José declined to take shelter in a doorway. He was in the middle of the road, screaming at the Heinkels. Their target was not wood and stone and glass, but running flesh. They dived. They machine-gunned. ‘José, come back!’ The young goatherd was advancing in the direction of a lone Heinkel coming in from the east, diving low, furrowing the stone ground with machine-gun fire. He was a sleepwalker. He had stepped out of his living skull. Rage was his only instinct. He paused. He looked over this shoulder at Molly and Will. He raised his fist in salute as if to say thanks, as if to say – goodbye. ‘José!’ He held his empty wine bottle as a club. He cursed the Fascists. He cursed Franco. He walked almost into the shadow of the Heinkel. ‘Gara Euzhadi Eskatuta!’ He cast his bottle, spinning, flashing, at the plane’s propeller…
6. Athlete Meets Bull
From The Bull Leapers, set in Crete at a time somewhere between legend and history. In the kingdom of Minos slave athletes were brought, under duress, from other parts of the Greek world to take part in, and often to die in, the favourite sport of the Cretans – bull leaping. Piros knelt at the altar built into the limestone wall of the arena. His companions, young men and women wearing loin-kilts of stiff brown cloth and light boots laced past the calves, bowed low around him, invoking the protection of the Goddess. The silence of the crowd gave way to excited conversation. The women’s dresses shone in the morning sun like the tail of a giant peacock, proudly unfurled. Its shimmering motion was matched by the women nodding or bending their heads, for their frizzed black hair was garlanded with strings of pearl and gold chains studded with jewels. Brilliant blues and reds contrasted with the glaring arena sand. White walls stood in vivid outline against the misty green slopes of Mount Jukta – cleft, it was said, by the gigantic club of an angry god.
In this flourish of colour, Piros himself appeared no less distinctive. He was as black as the court ladies were sallow. His limbs were trim and muscular. His lips and nostrils were thicker than those of any other person there, and he had no need of court hairdressers to make his hair curl close to his skull. Although he was only seventeen he had long been the favourite athlete of the crowd. He was called ‘The Egyptian’ because he had been a slave in the kingdom of the Nile. His mastery of the bulls had won him admiration throughout Crete. He was agile, cool-headed, wise in the ways of these creatures made mad by darkness and blinding light, and starved to make their tempers sharp. The mark of Piros’ fame hung around his throat, a chain of gold supporting a disc engraved with the head of a bull. It had been awarded him, at the request of nobles and court ladies, by the man he now approached. Nickname ‘The Bull’ for his powerful and frightening appearance, Prince Tauros looked older than his twenty-one years. He sat with his mother, the Queen, and his two sisters. Queen Pasiphae was a disdainful woman with arched brows, thin features and shrewdly intelligent eyes. Princess Ariadne, a girl of sixteen, also had a nickname, but one given her in admiration. She was called ‘Princess Fairlocks’. It was claimed that the Earth Goddess, as a birthday gift, had once brushed her hair with enchanted silver. Ariadne’s younger sister was Princess Phaedra, dark and solemn… At the rasping summons of a conch horn, the painted gates opened. The bull stood motionless in a cloud of dust and sand, dazzled by the light. Its head swayed heavily, tail flicked. Its hooves stamped impatiently on the hot ground. A roar from the crowd broke over the bull’s head, confusing it, filling it with panic. It tried to halt the noise by wheeling round and snorting, only to discover that the sounds had swelled in volume. They had become united and were advancing to torment the bull with invisible thrusts. Across a golden distance immediately ahead, a figure moved forward. All the noise and light seemed to concentrate in it. The figure danced, arms waving, and the voices seemed to burst from it, growing louder as it approached. Head down, blood pounding behind its eyes, the bull began to trot. It fixed the position of the black shape. Sand rose. The light was blocked by a swift shadow. There was a sudden pressure around the horns, a weight on the head that forced it downwards. Then a soft touch on the hind quarters, and beyond the settling dust there was nothing, only a yellow mist and specks of light. The shadows came fast now, one after another. The bull tossed its angry horns and struck nothing but air. It felt the weight again and again, the strange final touch on the hind quarters, followed each time by the triumphant shouts and the sounds of hands beating together.
Despite its rage, the bull recorded the habits of its attackers. It knew their direction; that a shadow left the ground and a moment later there was the weight on its lowered horns. With every sortie the bull proved a more formidable adversary. It learned to raise its head as the shadow left the ground. Then there was a more rewarding encounter, with the impact of flesh and a cry different from the others. The light touch of hands on the hind quarters did not come. Above its own stormy breath, the bull sensed a change in the noise. It was less certain, less triumphant. The creature spun around. Instinct was beginning to dispel its earlier desperation. The taunting had gone wrong. Something white and low moved close by, not dancing now, not waving, its head bowed. The bull stood with sweat steaming on its shoulders and back, no longer terrified but filled with eagerness for the attack. The voice, a few strides away, was human, and in the whiteness there were eyes. Out of line of the bull’s vision, it sensed a flickering of shadows, but it had seen enough of its target to make no mistake. The weight on its horns was immense, uneven, then fell away, leaving spurts of hot liquid that coursed into eyes and nostrils. The bull knew victory. Spattered with the blood of the young leaper, it now came straight for Piros. The Egyptian danced right up to the moment the horns were an arm’s length away. Then he was in the air, searching confidently past the blooded points to clasp the horns from each side. The bull’s head jerked upwards violently but Piros was already plunging forward, body straightened to the horizontal, legs beginning to bend at the knees. He touched down on the slippery hide, rose again slightly, then brought head and knees tightly to his body. He sprang and landed on the balls of his feet. Momentum carried him a yard farther where he was checked by his team mate, Chronakis. Yet the bull had measured another pattern. Instead of continuing its run as it had before, it halted and turned about. Shadows scattered. A white low form raised itself feebly. Horns were lowered to kill when all at once a weight came, not from the front, not in the form of a shadow. It was on the bull’s back. There was pressure about its throat as though ropes were being tightened. Its eyes wrenched from the target and held square into the sunlight, the bull stumbled and tripped across the white shadow. ‘Quickly!’ yelled Piros. ‘Get him away.’ Theseus, the Athenian, enters the tale and adventures race through labyrinths of intrigue.
7 MOTHER FOREST MEETS BROTHER BUSINESS
From Justice of the Dagger (Collins Cascades) in which the forest people of East Timor are presented with a business proposition. At the village of Muyu Father a man called Marquez, escorted by two soldiers, came from the timber company. He held up sheets of paper to Muyu Father. ‘It is all agreed with your people. This is a signed document.’ Muyu Father took the paper, held it at arm’s length as if it were a poisonous insect. Marquez turned it round. ‘You’ve got it upside down, stupid.’ He knew a little of the language of the forest people. ‘It is an Order in Council. It requires you to vacate your village.’ ‘Vacate?’ ‘Move. Remove yourselves. Within seven days – you understand?’ ‘How is this? Our people have lived here since Great Island rose from the sea.’ ‘Not any longer,’ snapped. Marquez. ‘In any case, your people have no claim to the land. And it is not true you have occupied this village for a long time. ‘In fact you people are wanderers, you build a village and then when it gets stiff with shit, you move on, leaving a mass of litter in the forest.’ Muyu Father retorted, ‘All the forest is the Mother’s gift to us, so long as we cherish it. We move our villages to let the leaves grow once more. Mother Forest gathers back what belongs to it. Always.’ Marquez was not happy to be dealing with a tribesman who was also a philosopher. ‘The forest belongs to the government, Chief, and the government decides what to do with the forest.’ Lyana heard these words in torment. Hers was not the right to speak, but nothing could suppress her thoughts: it is you who have no rights. This island is not yours. You stole it from us, with your guns and your aeroplanes. It will never be yours even though you fill the valleys and the mountains with your battalions, even though you kill every one of us as you killed my family and all my clan. Muyu Father rarely showed anger. Sometimes by his calmness he made Lyana angry. ‘And the forest, what has the forest decided?’ Marquez paused. ‘You talk as if the forest had a mind of its own.’ ‘It has a mind. It has a soul. If you listen, you hear the heartbeat of the forest.’ ‘As far as I’m concerned, friend, this forest is a goddam nuisance. It’s full of flies and lizards and snakes – and people like you who get in the way of progress. ‘When I look at this forest, Chief, I see timber. I see sawmills. And I see things being made for the good of humanity. Timber for homes, timber for furniture, timber for building boats.’ ‘Oh yes,’ Muyu Father replied. ‘Some trees must fall. Some must be used, yes. We agree –’ ‘Listen, I don’t want to be preached to on conservation by natives. This forest has fifty years of timbering in front of it. Anyway, the
government has issued licences. And those licences mean one thing to your people – move on!’ All the villagers heard these words. As one voice, they asked, ‘Where do we move?’ ‘Further into the forest. There are thousands of kilometres of it not yet turned to timber.’ Marquez hated the forest and thus he did not begin to understand it. Muyu Father said, ‘Sir, the forest is not like a long road. Everywhere is its centre, like the circles of the moon.’ Marquez was hot. The sweat made his feet squelch in his boots. His shirt was dripping into his trousers and his trousers stuck to his legs as if his body fluids had turned to glue. ‘The government knows what is best for you and your people, my friend.’ ‘How can it know, when it is so distant, and when it does not listen?’ ‘It’s you who should be doing the listening, Chief. Then you’ll see sense. You’ll go to the special villages built for you; send your children to school to be educated. To be frank, you people need civilizing. This is the twenty-first century –’ ‘And your people, sir,’ interrupted Muyu Father, ‘’you talk with guns. Yours is the justice of the dagger. You have brought massacre. Our people lie dead in the forest –’ ‘Because your people rose up against the government,’ stormed back Marquez. ‘Attacked the camps of the soldiers. And because you listened to the Resistance who would stir you up in hatred against the government.’ ‘We do not listen to the Resistance,’ returned Muyu Father. ‘That is what you say. Soldiers who stray in the bush, they die. Not because of the snakes, but because your people obey the rebels, do their dirty work while they vanish in the forest to start new troubles elsewhere.’ ‘We do not listen to the Resistance,’ repeated Muyu Father, glancing at his son. Muyu nodded, though reluctantly; and his gaze met Lyana’s: her elder brother had joined the resistance movement. They caught him. Tortured him. Gave him a ride in a helicopter; and over the sea, invited him to ‘take a walk’; as the soldiers put it, mundi laut – gone for a swim. Marquez knew he was wasting his time and his breath. ‘No more arguments, Chief, the earth movers, the Yellow Giants as you people call them, come in seven days time, one hour after dawn. Take all your property with you.’ ‘Property?’ The word has no parallels in any of the many tongues of the forest people. ‘Belongings – your pigs, man, and your bows and arrows, though if I had my way I’d have them confiscated.’ There was a waiting as the two men glared at each other. And the forest whispered in a new wind from the south. ‘Come on,’ said Marquez as Muyu Father stood still as a hunter aiming at his prey. ‘Give me your word. I don’t want any trouble…What I want, Chief, is empty huts. You will not yet have made the acquaintance of Captain Selim, but I imagine his reputation will have already reached you. Do not cross him. Obey him to the letter – quit this place without fuss – and you will survive.
‘Seven days, Chief. Very generous in the circumstances. Then we shall be coming in for a dawn start.’ Marquez fixed his gaze upon Muyu, sensing the youth’s hidden rage. ‘And with machine-guns ready for any hot-heads who protest.’ For a second the eyes of Lyana held Marquez’s stare. She is a beauty, he thought, but that look alone could cut a man’s throat. He was tempted to warn Muyu Father – keep the girl out of sight of Selim. Instead, he wagged his finger and repeated, ‘Empty huts, Chief!’ Justice of the Dagger was a Waterstone’s Book of the Month.
GIRL MEETS THE GHOSTS OF WAR
Extract from The Ghosts of Izieu (Penguin Readers). Bored with her French village holiday, Elsa fails to befriend a young local boy. Curiously, he seems to know her and her attempt to start up a conversation makes him nervous. Wondering why he seems so scared, so desperate to get away, she wanders alone into the church. She is at a loss, rather more upset than she really ought to be. Also, despite the heat of this April morning, she is shivering. This whole place gives me the creeps. In to the church. It is cool, and, as shafts of sunlight penetrate the gloom, mysterious. Churches can also be creepy, so full of dark shadows. The slightest sound is amplified, rises to the vaulted roof and seems to return as a reproach. She sits down. There is a potent odour of incense mixed with damp. This holiday is becoming a disaster. Dad’s on edge, Carol’s on edge and so am I. Three’s a crowd: I’m beginning to understand what that means. I’m the odd one out. I resent Carol and I can’t disguise it; and I’m mad at Dad. He thinks everything can be normal. She’s not my mum and never will be. I told him in Carol’s hearing. She probably won’t ever forgive me… As for the boy out there, that I don’t understand; why his startled look, especially as he seemed to recognise me; and what or who was he staring at over my shoulder? He’s a loner, that’s my guess; stuck all day on a farm out there, herding cattle, picking grapes or whatever; probably with only rabbits and crows to talk to. I liked his eyes and his dark hair, though… Elise wanders towards the east end of the church, and the high altar. Sunbeams project the colours of the stained glass window, blue and red across the tiles of the choir and the altar steps. She closes her eyes, inhales the scent of spring flowers, though, look as she might, she cannot see any. The cool has become cold. That’s it, then: five minutes and I’ve run out of the tourist attractions of Izieu. Elise quickens her pace towards a door on the north side of the church. She pauses beside a tray of unlit votive candles. She picks up a box of matches. This’ll be for my Gran. The matches are too damp to light.
Sorry, Gran. I’ll bring Dad’s lighter next time. Beside the north door is an oak table. There is a large leather-bound Visitors’ Book and beside it the stub of a pencil. I suppose people pinch the biros. Elise opens the book. Its yellowed pages give off a pungent, musty smell: wet tobacco and rotting cabbage. What shall I write? ‘Had the most exciting holiday of my life. Back again next year!’ Better not or Dad might take me at my word and rent the cottage for every year till I’m an old maid. That’s strange, I could have sworn…Must be the poor light in here. She looks closer at the pages of the Visitors’ Book. Odd – very: could be some joker. She runs her finger down the list of names. Astonishment makes her voice ring through the church: ‘It can’t be! The last date is 1943!’ Not a very good joke. She turns back the pages: 1942, 1941, 1940. Could be that the priest’s put out an old visitors’ book by mistake. This is ridiculous. All at once, the silence of the church provokes her. She pronounces the word out loud: ‘Ridiculous!’ 1943: that’s the war – Dad’s war. She addresses her words to the back of the church: ‘Hitler, Nazis, Goebbels, the concentration camps – Auschwitz, the gas chambers…Huh!’ Not funny. Elise has been studying both world wars in History. She turns, as if imagining the church full of parishioners. ‘The war’s over, folks!’ Suddenly, from the West door, a voice: ‘Eloise! You must come now.’ The woman wears a shawl around her shoulders and a patterned scarf around her head. In the poor light she looks ancient but she is coming towards Elise with the speed of someone strong and determined. She says in a loud, harsh voice, ‘So Stefan didn’t manage to persuade you.’ ‘I’m sorry, I…’ Stefan? Warn me? ‘You will bring disaster on us all with your wilfulness.’ ‘Disaster?’ She called me Eloise. Stay calm, stay polite. In this gloom she’s mistaken me for somebody else. Elise tries a smile, yet steps briskly towards the North door: your turn, she tells herself, to leg it. The woman advances on her, clasps her arm. ‘Why do you do these things – and risk everything?’ This is weird. ‘Risk everything? Every what?’ Elise is pulled towards the North door. ‘You’re hurting me. Please let go my arm.’ ‘You will remember the rules, Eloise, whatever your natural desires. And you will obey them, like everyone else has to do.’ Elise guesses it’s to do with talking out loud in church. Sure, for most of us, the war’s long over, but for some it’s never over; and that means they take offence easily if you don’t show proper respect. ‘I’m sorry. I thought I was alone. The words just slipped out.’ She is wondering, will a Hail Mary or two get me off the hook and away from this crazy lady?
‘You will not be slipping out in future, I can assure you of that.’ The woman thrusts Elise out of the church door, then prods her in the back when she hesitates, dazzled by the sun in her eyes. They have emerged on to a side street, unfamiliar to Elise, running at an angle from the village square. Everything looks different from here. Elise can’t make out the war memorial, but her concern is for the hand that bites into her forearm. ‘Please, I’m not…’ In broad daylight surely the woman will recognise her mistake. She’ll apologise. Elise can think of nothing to say but, ‘I think I’ll be all right now. Sorry about that.’ But the misunderstanding is not to be resolved. ‘You wish to be independent, my child, yet –’ ‘Yes I do.’ All at once Elise is keen to assert that independence. This is not a joke; indeed it’s scary. She had been shivering in the church and now she is trembling in the morning heat. ‘I’m not a child, and if you don’t mind…Madame.’ ‘I do mind. Don’t you understand? – your actions put all of us in peril. All of us!’ ‘My actions? I was just…’ She is not to be heeded. ‘Come now! This is your last chance.’ When Elise tries to reply, the woman clamps her hand across her mouth. ‘Move – and not a single word!’
9 MEETING WITH A FOOT-MINE
Extract from No Surrender (Penguin, Collins etc.) In No Surrender, set during the Angolan civil war, Malenga is a volunteer at a medical centre in the bush; and she has also begun to teach in the local school. She is surrounded by dangers, but the worst lie under foot. Tomas possesses all the skills – trapping, dribbling, passing; and he can shoot with either foot. That is why Malenga has two extra players on her side. She calls, ‘Pass it, Salu!’ Her six-year old centre-back attempts to speed the ball on its way by using both feet at once. Ball and player crash into the sand at the half-way line – between a string of washing, sunscrubbed and dazzling, and the New Medical Centre. ‘Okay, mine!’ The ball is with Malenga. She takes to the wing, overkicking a forward pass that threatens to run into the bush. The shadows are emerald dark here, and the sand green with oncoming dusk. Tomas hurls out of his goal towards her. He collides with her outstretched palm. ‘Foul – free kick.’ ‘For me, you mean?’ ‘No, you fouled me, Sis.’ ‘Tell that to the referee.’ ‘We don’t have a referee.’ ‘Well then…’ They stand six paces apart, she tall, wide-shouldered, long-armed, in jeans cut to knee length, wearing a loose shirt of scarlet;
he in khaki trousers too big for him, taken from a dead bandit by the river: Tomas of the Nine Lives. Tomas has no time for rules. ‘Okay, Sis – you try penalty.’ He takes up a crouching position between goalposts that also don’t conform to the rules – one is his backpack (which contains everything he owns), the other is his hunting rifle. As Malenga wonders whether to slice her shot with the outstep or curl it across goal with her instep, she is suddenly called for. From the fields beyond the village edge – an explosion. The ground quivers. One blast, everybody running. ‘Bandits!’ Malenga runs, then halts, uncertain. ‘Doctor Garcia – we must fetch him.’ Brain and feet equally slow. Stupid. It’s shock. Tomas has retrieved his gun and back-pack. He comes towards Malenga Nakale, trainee medic and schoolmarm. In English now, ‘We not dilly dally, Sis’. In the fields the women have been working the last hour of daylight. Now they converge upon a screaming. Until now there’s been singing, and the women’s voices have been answered by the tune of the cicadas and answered again deep in the bush by the frog battalions along the river banks. ‘Ma-lenga! Ma-lenga!’ The crowd of women opens for her. Tomas checks her progress for an instant. His face is screwed up, one hand halfcovering his eyes. ‘It’s Dédo!’ Stood on a mine. Salu’s sister; bright star of Malenga’s class. Beside a cluster of cedars, in their lengthening shadow, Déodora had been hoeing rich, red earth. Everyone knows – mines are to be expected: the last of the war. ‘Tomas – go get the Doctor. Salu – black bag, please, from the Centre – hurry!’ Malenga kneels in hot soil; red soil soaked with red. ‘Don’t let her look! Hold her head, and her hands. Good. Soothe her. Cool her.’ The women obey, all eyes on Dédo’s face, averted from her terrible injury. The girl’s left foot is a bloody pulp. ‘You stop bleeding, Sis,’ instructs Tomas. ‘I thought I told you…’ I fetch Garcia. Fast.’ She wishes she could do the racing away, the plunging into the bush. She looks down at the leg, writhing. The foot’s severed. Stop the bleeding. Malenga pictures Tomas go, sprinting down the slope from the village, down the burning yellow track which leads to the river, where Doctor Leon Garcia has gone – today of all days – to treat a sick worker on the bridge project. She’s tugged off her shirt: red to red; places it over the leg, the stump. ‘Stretcher – we must get her to the centre. Dédo, listen. I’m doing what I can. You’ll be fine.’ Salu brings the medical case Garcia has been putting together for Malenga, of worn black leather, wide-based with a tough steel clasp. Under the leg, fragments of mine. She scrapes them away. Treat for shock. In the past few weeks she’s watched over Garcia’s shoulder. ‘Your turn will come, Malenga.’
‘I’m not ready.’ ‘You’ve the gift.’ But do I have the nerve? Dédo fights to sit up. Her face is stretched, swollen. Her scream is aimed at Malenga’s heart. ‘Keep her flat.’ From the medical case she takes a roll of cloth, stronger than a bandage. Old Maria has hobbled up from the village. The very breath of her is a comfort. ‘See, Maria’s arrived. That’s good news.’ As she has been taught to do by Dr. Garcia, Malenga applies a tourniquet. Water has been brought. It is offered to Dédo, calm now, fading. ‘No drink. Doctor’s orders.’ Malenga works at the exploded leg, at the arteries. No to drink, no to antiseptic too. Not in a deep wound. …The tourniquet will have to be removed shortly. She is tying off. The stretcher has arrived. In the corner of her eye, a metallic glint. Salu is holding the leftovers of the mine. Malenga is up, stiff, swaying, steadied by Old Maria. For a moment in the turn of the light, the rectangle of steel held by Salu resembles one of those old catechisms hand-stitched and placed above the bed. Salu traces the lettering with his fingers. He has just begun to read. His catechism for the day shines clear and bronze in the falling sun. In English, it says – FRONT TOWARD THE ENEMY. In the story that follows, Malenga is taken captive by a squad of South African militia assisting Unita the rebel army of Angola. She meets Hamish, another captive, a young South African national serviceman, a deserter. Theirs becomes a journey of survival, friendship and love.
10. David meets Goliath
A selection from Pigs Might Fly a story set in the 1950s.
16-year old Clark Gable Stevens (nicknamed Curlew because one of his few talents is being able to imitate that wild bird of the moors) is suddenly faced with a crisis – having to give up his layabout existence and ‘grow up’. His father, proprietor of Fetterton’s Ritz Cinema, already in grave peril as the developers wish to flatten it in the name of commercial progress, has taken a fall. With a number of significant bones broken, he will be holed up in a hospital bed for days, weeks or even for ever. Who but his son Curlew can rescue the Ritz? With his stalwart friends Curlew goes in to the window-cleaning business only to discover that Nigel Morgan, his rival in love for the fair Susan, has already set up his own window cleaning company. His assistants are the toughest muscle-men in the district. Efficient as well oiled robots, the Amalgamated Federation of Underage Window Cleaners marches through the back doors of Edward Street,
duck the washing lines and rap, at the exact same instant, on the council-house green doors. And as if one voice serves for all of them, the good ladies of Edward Street give answer: 'Eeh, no luv, sorry...We've already called the window cleaners.' Curlew is, as they say in books, 'taken aback'; or to be more exact, gobsmacked. To Mrs. Bolton at the end house, he protests, 'But there aren't any window cleaners in Fetterton, Mrs. Bolton. You were complaining about it in the chippy only the other day.' Before Mrs. Bolton can explain, a voice from behind Curlew starts to make all things clear. 'Then you'd better do your 'omework proper, 'adn't you, Stevens?' Curlew turns, feels a stab of terror – much as David must have felt faced by Goliath – at the sight and shadow of Frank 'Dumb-bell' Mason, the biggest, solidest muscle-man in town, known for his capacity to head bricks and not feel a thing. Two teachers are still off school for having warned Frank about ogling girls in the gym; and that was eighteen months ago… Curlew's brain is struggling to work out just what is happening; or rather why, because what is happening is that he is being lifted off his feet by Dumb-bell Mason and carried out of Mrs. Bolton's backyard. The why is soon evident. 'Feast yer eyes on that, Tadpole.' Dumbbell points to a smart van drawn up at the street corner. In big letters are the words: MORGAN ENTERPRISES LIMITED: ALL THINGS OUR SPECIALITY. 'Geddit, Microbe? Us was first.' Curlew does not need to guess that Dumb-bell has his assistants close by; but he asks anyway, 'I guess the Terrible Twins are also working this pitch, Frank.' He is referring to Kev the Crunch and Herb the Hangman. Together they comprise what Curlew calls them, the Three Stodges. 'You guessed right.' Dumb-bell Mason recites to Mrs. Bolton the window-cleaning charges as set by Morgan Enterprises. ''Front and back, will it be, Madam? That'll be three pound.' 'Three pounds?' Curlew hears himself exclaim. 'That's outrageous.' 'It does seem a bit steep,' says Mrs. Bolton. Curlew forgets his personal safety: economics are now on his mind: 'We can do better than that, Mrs. Bolton,' he announces. Curlew is aware that his comrades, each at the same position in the backyard next door and next door but one two three four and five, are waiting for a sign. He raises his voice to a shout. 'Three quid a house? That's a rip-off. It ought to be reported to the United Nations. We, in aid of the Save the Ritz Campaign, are offering a quid a house – ONE POUND A HOUSE, front and back. No quibbles, no hidden extras.' Dumb-bell appeals, in an almost gentle, persuasive voice, to Mrs. Bolton: 'These are snotty-nosed kids, Mrs. They'll make a complete mess of the job.' 'Okay, Mrs. Bolton,' parleys Curlew, 'if we don't do the job to your satisfaction, we won't charge you a penny.'
'Two quid a house,' comes back Dumb-bell, looking black, and promising with a swift sideward glance at Curlew that his windowcleaning days are numbered. But Curlew's character has always favoured words to personal safety. And the words are coming now. 'Don't you listen to that sort of business tactic, Mrs. Bolton. If he's having to cut his price, he's sure to skimp the job.' …Mrs. Bolton makes her decision in favour of windows cleaned at a quid a house and all the other housewives in Edward Street opt for the same. 'Okay,' concedes Dumb-bell Mason, pride very damaged, 'once you're outside this backyard, Stevens, you'd better start prayin’.' 'Tell you what, Frank,' calls Curlew from the top of his ladder. Somehow he has to make an escape route for himself and his comrades. 'We can do a deal. After all, we businessmen must watch out for each other – right?' Dumb-bell knows Curlew of old. He suspects him and his sort: talkers. He despises his physical puniness, but fears his brains. 'Oh yeah?' 'Yeah. This street is long enough for both of us. There're fourteen houses, so we could finish our wack, that's seven –’ 'I can count, block'ead!' 'Leaving seven for you to mop up the rest of Edward Street.' 'Bugger that,' calls Herb, 'not at a measly quid a shot.' 'Suit yourselves. But you could put your prices back up for George Street and Victoria Road.' It is quite possible that, if an unexpected disaster had not struck, some sort of deal between the warring parties might have been arranged; and the physical survival of the Ritz Campaign Committee guaranteed. Fate decided otherwise. The first batch of windows has been duly cleaned, the jobs duly paid for. Curlew pockets Mrs. Bolton's pound but politely declines a glass of Vimto. It reminds him too much of blood. Deep in gossip over her backyard wall with a neighbour, Mrs. Toliver at Number 11 has forgotten her husband's breakfast fry-up, which is about to become a fire-up. Ronnie Whinnet is first to spot the smoke. 'Fire! Fire! – pan's on fire.' Chippy Bulmer knows about frying-pan fires. His Dad's place once burned down completely, so his voice is the loudest, the most screeching: 'Fire! Fire! Call the Fire Brigade! The ambulance! The police!' The good ladies of Edward Street go straight into a free-fall panic. 'My kitchen!' screams Mrs. Toliver. 'My new kitchen!' Everybody rushes to her aid. 'Water – water!' yells Mrs. Toliver. What a godsend, then, for the women of Edward Street to see salvation stacked beside the van of Morgan Enterprises: a row of full water buckets waiting as if already expecting this emergency.
One or two ladies get so enthusiastic about throwing the water through Mrs. Toliver's kitchen window that they let go the buckets as well. This brings out Mr. Toliver who's been reading the morning paper, unaware of what has been going on. Luckily he only gets a face full of the contents of a bucket rather than the bucket itself. A 999 call brings out the Fetterton Fire Brigade. It arrives quicker than you could recite the Lord's Prayer. They must have smelt the smoke. The fire truck swings immediately into reverse; indeed so quickly that the driver misses seeing the Morgan Enterprises van parked in Edward Street back. The crunch of metal can be heard three streets away, but not it seems by the driver of the fire truck. He continues to reverse, with Morgan Enterprises clanging on his tail, right up to Mr and Mrs Toliver's back door. 'It's okay, Officer,' says Mr. Toliver. 'Job's done.' He smiles as if disaster has been averted rather than multiplied. 'It'll have to be cornflakes for me this morning.' Now could all this possibly be Curlew Stevens’ fault? Not the fire, not the Fire Brigade, not the damage to Morgan's wonderful new van – but the whole situation? His fault or not, he knows who is going to be blamed… He bellows, 'Comrades, this is a Red Alert. Repeat, Red Alert. To all points of the compass – run! Scarper! Get fled!' It's as simple as that: surrender or scarper. All but Chippy, Clem and the mastermind of the Save Ritz Campaign manage to duck the outstretched talons of the Three Stodges. Dumbbell Mason has Curlew by the neck. 'YOU are goin' to pay dear for this little fiasco, 'orsefly. When I done wi'you they'll not recognise you. Not even your mad Aunt. You'll be needin' more than plastic surgery – you'll be needin' a brush an’ shovel.' Curlew is lifted off his feet and pinned over the bonnet of the damaged van. He reckons that unless he does some quick thinking, he'll be doing plenty of bleeding. He protests: 'You disappoint me, Frank.' The comment, being unexpected, checks Dumb-bell's massive fist. 'You used to protect little-uns, underdogs.' Now this is not strictly true. Dumb-bell did once warn off a big guy picking on a little guy, but it was for money. Still, he has his pride, and a principle or two. Curlew goes on talking. 'If you want to fight fair and square, Frank – okay, I'm up for it!' Curlew does not believe that he has said this, but he understands why. He is playing for time And Dumb-bell knows it... The condemned are marched to Market Square. On the way they pass St. Stephen's Church. The sight of its comforting stone portals gives Curlew the idea of making a sudden wrench and dart for it, and claiming … now what did they call it in the old days? Ecclesiastical sanctuary. …
'Right, Skunk!' The market place is deserted except for a few pigeons pecking among wood-framed stalls and windpools of litter. Truly, an ideal place for an execution. 'One last request, Gentlemen.' Herb the Hangman grins through broken teeth. 'E wants a Christian burial, Frank.' Kev the Crunch almost falls over laughing. Dumb-bell Mason has stripped off his leather rallying jacket. 'You wanna make yer last will an' testerment, d' you, Lumpashit?' Curlew is shaking. These guys really mean it. 'Er, if you don't mind, I'd like to…to request an adjournment pro tem.' He has not the slightest idea what an adjournment pro tem is, but then nor does any of the Three Stodges. It sounds legal. 'Stuff yer big words, y'frozen funk. There won't be no jourment totem.’ ‘What I mean, Frank, is – a delay.’ Now they all fall over laughing: 'A delay? 'E wants a delay!' 'Yes, just till I get my distance glasses back from the optician's.' Dumb-bell never tires of showing his cannonball fist. 'You think y'll need specs to see this 'eadin' in yer direction, Foureyes?' 'You'd not fight a blind man, would you?' 'Blind? I serpose y' cleaned them winders usin' radar?' Curlew pleads for life and liberty: 'A truce, that's all I'm asking for.' He is talking fast. 'What if I got our Campaign treasurer to hand over the money we made?' And faster: 'It'll take only seconds to get to his place and back.' As if to prove this, Curlew tries a move in the right direction (for him, that is) only for his foot to encounter Kev the Crunch's ankle bone. As receipt, he is awarded an early birthday present in the form of Kev's unwrapped fist and a Christmas gift in the shape of brother Herb's kneecap. The agony of it is one thing, but the worst of it is being shot up in the air as if he had no more substance than a bag of fleas. Curlew lands back on the market place cobbles and staggers straight into Dumb-bell who at this very same instant is pulling a huge pea-green sweater over his head. 'Oh no!' Curlew hears Clem and Chippy groan in unison. Dumb-bell, head trapped in the sweater, loses balance. He emits a roar loud enough to awake the Ninth Legion from their slumbers in Our Annie's archeological trench; and in trying to respond to the blow, he tangles himself further, until the Growling Goliath is fighting himself. To the casual observer, the shameful tumble of Fetterton's own Mister Invincible has been caused by none other than the Mighty Midget, Clark Gable Stevens, Pacifist Extraordinary. On even ground, Dumb-bell would recover his balance in a second and end Curlew's triumph as instantly as it began. But even ground is not what Dumb-bell has fallen on: at this point, Market Square drops at a steep angle. With his arms still trapped in the pea-green sweater, Dumb-bell begins to roll in the direction of the Cenotaph.
There has been time during these events for a fair sized crowd of spectators to grow. It has witnessed, from afar, a youth incapable of knocking a hole through a pie-crust despatch Fetterton's answer to Rocky Marciano from here almost to eternity. Could this be the beginning of a legend as long-lasting as Robin Hood and his Merry Men? Probably not; for, needless to say, raging bulls of Frank Mason's size, weight and muscle, are not to be obstructed long by lambswool, terylene, nylon or even polyester. Launched back on to his feet by Kev and Herb, Dumb-bell returns to the fray with the speed of a Blue Streak missile. He is spitting flames. Clem is calling: 'Curlew, the others are coming. Stand your ground!' Despite Curlew's orders to his comrades to hasten home and barricade their front doors, they have turned downhill racers on his behalf. This combat-to-the-death promises to improve on the battle scene in Henry V; it may even dim the glory of The Sands of Iwa Jima. It is touching. Curlew promises himself never to forget the desire of his comrades – his commandos! – to sacrifice their all on his behalf. The first skirmish proves the right of might. Herb takes out Seth by shoving a flattened palm in his face. 'An' you can piss off back to Barbados, sniveller!' He grabs him, flings him like a dead cat into Phil the Ghoul. Curlew shouts, 'Orderly retreat!' But Dumb-bell is all over him, going for his best feature, his nose, and punching him in the stomach; which reminds him he's hardly eaten any breakfast. Suddenly, into this mêlée, hotchpotch or hotpot of puffing, grunting strife, there sails a whistling handbag and the voice of Curlew’s Aunt Annie shrieking like a South American football commentator. 'Stand back! Stand back, you pig-livered villains! Leave that defenceless child alone or I'll call in the military!' Our Annie stands tall as a house front in her drainpipe raincoat and hiking boots. Her handbag isn't one of those that petty thieves snatch in Woolworth's. No, it is a canvas sack containing lumps of limestone from Fossil Bank. In her other hand, so far poised but not in action, is her geologist's hammer, specially forged to shatter the hardest rock. She is, in short, an awesome sight: Thor, God of Destruction (or at least his sister) appearing twixt two claps of thunder. 'Release him at once, you lice-infested rabble, or I'll boil your scalps in dripping.' A speechless paralysis stills the warriors on both sides. She has stepped between Curlew and Dumb-bell. Her geologist's hammer hovers an inch beneath Frank's chin. 'And you, well, you ought to be ashamed of yourself, Nigel Morgan, a young man with your antecedents.' Among her other shortcomings, Our Annie is shortsighted. Sometimes she does not even recognise Curlew, her own nephew. Dumb-bell Mason, confused at being mistaken for his Boss, only gets
out the words, 'I'm not –’ before he has to suffer more abuse poured on the head of Nice Nigel: 'All your puny, conspiring, slippery, slimy life you've been a mean son-of-a-gun.' 'Miss, I'm Frank!’ 'Yes, and I'm going to be frank with you, you mangy chip off the old block. When you weren't running a protection racket with kids with more pocket money than courage, you chased harmless foxes over the countryside in your silly red jacket, with your mad dogs foaming at the mouth – disgusting! Huh, so I'm amazed you're actually doing your own fighting for once, Nigel Morgan.' 'Not me, Miss,' Dumb-bell almost whimpers. 'Like your boneheaded Dad, making people's lives a misery. And what do you get up to when my back is turned?' 'Not me, Miss,' Dumb-bell actually whimpers. 'When I should be doing something important like digging up Pictish bones –’ 'Sorry, Miss!’ 'You pick on a poor, motherless waif like our Clark, whose only muscles are what he eats off Sawyer's Fish Stall once a fortnight.' Herb the Hangman gets in a word edgeways. 'It were ’im as started it, Miss.' 'Rubbish! If you gave this nephew of mine a boxing glove he'd not have the slightest idea what to do with it, cage it or eat it with tomato ketchup.' 'That's true, Our Annie,' agrees Curlew. 'And you can shut up too. I'm ashamed of you, brawling in front of the Cenotaph. My Donald didn't lay down his life so you could go on repeating the mistakes of mankind.' 'Sorry, Our Annie. It was all a big misunderstanding.' Clem offers support. 'Things kind of got out of hand.' The Three Stodges retreat, eyes still warily fixed on Thor's hammer. Dumb-bell's courage is returning in small sips: 'There'll be another time, Madam.' He glares at Curlew. There is to be no truce. Curlew knows that this fight to the death has only been postponed. He tries words of peace if not friendship: 'No hard feelings, Frank.' He's not sure whether he is asking a question or making a statement; but having said it, Curlew realises it is the understatement of the century. No words can describe Frank Dumb-bell Mason's hard feelings. He picks up his peagreen sweater, grabs his rallying jacket. The answer he gives sends freezing shivers down the spines of Curlew and his team. He is brief. He is to the point; and he means every word: 'The Ritz is dead!' Pigs Might Fly will appear as an independent publication on Amazon Kindle in the near future. James Watson novels available on Kindle:
Fair Game: The Steps of Odessa Talking in Whispers The Freedom Tree Ticket to Prague Justice of the Dagger
http://www.watsonworks.co.uk/ Blog: Watsonworksblog.blogspot.com
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