Sunday, 15 February 2015

Forsaken - Chapter 1

Crying when you’re not really upset takes planning. You can’t expect to just turn up at a funeral and switch on the tears. You need a memory to tap into. On the way to the church, my face pressed against the window of my mum’s old Ford, I thought about my dog that had been hit by a bus when I was six. He was an untidy Labrador called Adam. He slept on the end of my bed and left strands of saliva and charcoal coloured hairs on the sheets. One morning, he had been hit by a number 17 bus, after scrabbling under the garden fence in pursuit of a cat before trying unsuccessfully to chase it across the road. I’m not usually emotional, so finding a memory to use had taken some thought. It was the last time I could remember crying for any length of time, so I thought about Adam with his sad eyes, lying dead beside the kerb, and it was enough to bring the first tears.
While the priest droned in his finest funereal tone and gesticulated skywards, I stood to the rear of the church, holding my mum’s arm, wiping salted tears on the back of my hand. She comforted me by stroking my hair and rubbing my neck. It was a convincing scene, and I knew that my cover was safe – people would see the distraught fifteen year old mourning the loss of a friend and never suspect a vengeful boy who had murdered him in cold blood.
I bowed my head in feigned mourning, watching ants file past my feet in a ragged line. Fierce sunlight filtered blue and green through stained glass windows, warming my arms, lighting slow moving streams of dust. Despite the heat outside, the stone floors and pillars inside the church were cool to the touch. Two great fans whirred and hummed as they rotated slowly, blowing warm air over the bowed heads of congregation. The priest was talking about the next life and how Anthony was happier now. I kept wondering if he would spend eternity with a caved in skull – just walking around in Heaven with blood on his face and matted hair and a triangular looking head. For some reason, the Heaven in my imagination was filled with ivory white clouds, and even when I tried to replace them with a seemingly more realistic rainforest, intersected by crystal streams and lit by patches of pure sunlight, the clouds kept returning, so I gave up trying to stop them, and watched a bloodied Anthony stroll around on a cloud beneath a perfect sky.
The priest invited Anthony’s uncle to the lectern, who stood hunched, red-eyed and gaunt, and eulogised about the lovely boy Anthony had been: helpful, kind, inquisitive and intelligent. It was all drivel, as Anthony had been a spiteful thing, full of bad temper and cruel jokes. He was the nastiest fifteen year old in school and plenty of people would take years to rebuild their self-esteem after he had flattened it – honed in on their weakest points, darkest fears and then prodded and probed with endless taunts and jibes. One girl, I forget her name, had drunk a pineapple juice laced with paracetamol after six months of him mocking her weight. Her mother had found her vomiting blood and she had survived, if a bit damaged.
I stopped crying for a while as my eyes were sore. A projector screen clicked and hummed as it unrolled from its mounting; first blue, then unfocused, then finally a photograph of Anthony blowing candles out on his eighth birthday cake. This was followed by pictures of him looking smug or unpleasant in various locations around his home: eating heavily buttered toast at the breakfast table, slumped on the sofa, gripping his sister in a headlock. The pictures were accompanied by Elgar, which drowned the sobs of the congregation, but seemed oddly discordant in the context.
As the slideshow finished, my mother gave me a comforting hug, and whispered words of encouragement, telling me how brave and strong I was, so I cried a little more, to keep my cover secure. She was a good Christian woman and attended church every Sunday, sometimes accompanied by me when I could find no reasonable excuse, and sometimes by my father when he wasn’t abroad, like he was that day. She was petite and pretty, tanned from gardening in the May sun. She wore black, as we all did (I was dressed in my only suit, a shade too big, the trousers hanging low at my waist). She was a kind mother, and I remember her being softly spoken and shy in public. When I was younger, she made up stories filled with anthropomorphic animals, dramatic weather and improbably cheerful endings. I remember one about a hedgehog who was lost in the snow, was rescued by a squirrel and spent Christmas eating acorns by the fire. At the time I was worried that hedgehogs didn’t like acorns, but I never mentioned it.
After the slideshow the priest talked about death some more and how it was just another part of life and how the people we had known were still looking down on us and how they never really moved on but watched and waited for us to join them. I looked up and wondered if Anthony was looking down how he would be feeling. Pretty angry, I thought, having his life cut short by a collapsed stone wall. Except, I guessed, that in the afterlife he might get told the truth, or maybe watch it back in some Heavenly replay, and see that the wall had not fallen by itself - I had pushed it on him. It was not exactly a premeditated attack. I fully intended to kill Anthony at some point, but seeing him laying there, his evil frame snoozing in the shade, taking a break from tormenting the other kids, I had made a pretty quick decision. I saw the loose stones in the upper layer, manoeuvred myself into position then pushed with all my strength, sending a hefty stone from the upper layer directly onto his head. As he lay there gasping and twitching, I lifted the stone as high as I could then dropped it onto his head for a second time, just to make sure the damage was terminal.
He would be angry, that was for sure.
Anthony’s mother screamed and sobbed and seemed close to hysteria as the ceremony finished and the pall bearers lifted the coffin onto their shoulders. The slow walk out seemed the most emotional bit so I cried some more and hugged my mother just so everyone could be sure I was upset, even though I was thinking more about an iced drink from the café opposite the church.
Outside, the procession made its slow way to the graveyard, but we hung back with some of the other schoolchildren and their parents, leaving the final moments to the close family. For a boy who had caused so much hatred there was a good turnout from our school, although most had been dragged along by their parents, and were probably grateful their tormentor was dead. We stood silent by the flint walls of the church, bathed in warm sunlight, surrounded by the smell of hyacinth and roses, listening to the wailing mother and the hum of distant traffic.
If Anthony had been there he would have been causing trouble; pushing someone, sneering, making whispered comments, making lewd gestures at the girls until they cried and ran away. School would be a better place without him. In a way, my actions had made me a hero, although no-one would ever know, and my actions might not exactly fit the definition.
Anthony had tried it with me as he had to everyone, of course. We were left alone in the school changing rooms after sport – football in the dry heat, our clothes and bodies layered in fine dust. I was one of the last to finish changing, and I had been pulling my jacket on when I realised too late he was behind me with a can of heat spray, catching me in the eyes as I spun around then kicking me in the ribs as I hunched on the floor in agony.
‘I’ll kill you for this,’ I told him.
‘Whatever,’ he said, giving me a final kick before he left.
But unlike most people and their empty threats, I really meant it.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Authority - The Sequel to Thrift

Taking Charge

For most of my life I had felt rather insignificant - sidelined by my own mediocrity. I had watched many of my friends and family follow successful careers while I had languished in the teaching profession – noticed more for my inadequacy than any great skill or merit. However, the events of the previous Christmas term, when I had somehow produced a watchable school play and survived an Ofsted inspection, had landed me in the favour of the Headmaster, who believed that I was the man to reverse Radley Hill’s declining fortunes. After a brief and uncontested interview process, I had been awarded the position of deputy head, which had not made me too popular with the rest of the staff, but did mean that I had a bigger office and far fewer lessons to teach.
Consequently, on a warm May morning, while the rest of the staff were busy trying to teach, I sat in my office and felt smug. My pay had almost doubled, I had a new found authority, and my office had a splendid view of the woodland behind the school. I was looking forward to spending many mornings in a similar fashion. The great benefit of joining the leadership team was that there was always something I could pretend to be doing. I could wander into the staffroom shaking my head sadly saying ‘these data reports are jolly tricky.’ I could carry a clipboard and every now and again stand in corridors making notes about nothing in particular. I could keep emailing the Headmaster with stock phrases about the ‘learning journey’ and ‘metacognition’, or any other teacher speak that turned up on the TES. If there was anyone who could make themselves appear busy while doing nothing, it was me.
 After a few enjoyable minutes watching clouds roll across the sky, I dusted my shelves and put my books into alphabetical order. I positioned an array of pens and pencils next to my diary, which was open on the first week of May, and noticeably blank. I opened my laptop so that if anyone came in I could be concentrating hard on the screen, muttering about progress and levels. I also used my espresso machine for the first time. It was my gift to myself after my promotion – a De’Longhi, black, with metallic trim. It made an excellent espresso, and I savoured the drink with my eyes closed.
My relaxation was ruined when there was a knock on my door.
‘Come in,’ I said.
Mr Dale’s burly frame filled the doorway. He was the school’s rugby playing geography teacher. He had a recently blackened eye and a chilli sauce stain on his tie. He was unusually agitated.
I stared at my laptop screen and drummed my fingers on the desk.
‘This data looks worrying,’ I said. I’m sure we can squeeze more progress than this.’
‘There’s a bit of an emergency,’ he said, which was disappointing, because he seemed to be ignoring my excellent portrayal of a busy deputy head.
‘Just a bit of an emergency?’ I said.
For some reason his arrival had reminded me of my hidden supply of food. I searched in my biscuit drawer for a lemon cream - one of the five superior types of biscuit I had bought in abundance.
‘Well, maybe a lot of an emergency. Mr Winters has been taken hostage.’
The lemon creams were as excellent as I had expected. I offered one to Mr Dale who shook his head.
‘Taken hostage by terrorists?’
‘By a student. Some boy in year 10 who claims Mr Winters was ignoring his rights.’
‘Does this boy have a gun?’
‘A staple gun. I presume it’s loaded.’
I drank some espresso. I had not expected my first week as deputy head to include a hostage situation. Mentally, I was more prepared to follow relaxing with a quick sleep.
‘You should alert the Headmaster,’ I said, making an excellent decision.
‘He’s away at a conference.’
‘The police?’
‘What if they take too long?’
‘Do you think I have to deal with this?’ I said, which was a genuine question. I was still coming to terms with what my new role actually meant, other than less marking.
‘I think so. You are in charge.’
I smiled, despite my internal anguish.
‘Lead the way,’ I said, and put two lemon creams into my pocket in case the situation turned into a lengthy affair.
I followed Mr Dale through the long corridor that led to the art rooms. We passed the toilets that smelt of smoke and hastily applied deodorant. Two year nine boys were leaning on the wall looking suspicious.
‘No smoking in school,’ I said.
‘Soz,’ said one boy.
Paintings of varying quality lined the walls of the art corridor. Several members of staff were gathered by an oil painting of a blue horse standing on a purple cloud. Its legs were disproportionate, but it was infinitely preferable to the hellish portrait of student’s cat that looked as though it had been reanimated some months after its death.
‘Thank goodness you are here,’ said Miss Waters, who looked overwhelmed by the situation.
‘Indeed,’ I said.
The staff looked hopefully at me as I observed the closed door that led to Mr Winter’s classroom. Their silent expectation was awkward to say the least, and I waited unsuccessfully for one of them to suggest something useful.
‘We need a plan of action,’ I said, considering at what point any act of heroism would result in personal danger. There was the potential to appear a dedicated professional by diffusing the situation brilliantly with some well-chosen phrases and tactful humour. There was also the potential to take a staple through the eye which was far less appealing.
‘Maybe you should all move back,’ I said, deciding to take the professional approach. ‘I will deal with this.’
I approached the door and listened carefully.
There was silence within.
‘Hello,’ I said.
‘Alright,’ said a boy, whose voice seemed familiar.
‘Is that Harry?’
‘Is everything ok in there?’
‘Not really. Mr Winters said my painting was poor.’
‘Was it?’
‘I guess. I tried to paint my house but I forgot what it looked like.’
‘The house you live in now?’
‘Yeah. I only saw it this morning but it’s hard to remember stuff when you get to school. I got stressed and it ended up all wonky and the wrong colour.’
‘I see.’
‘He still should be praising me though. It’s good for my esteem.’
This was a fair point.
‘Well I’m sure we can find a solution,’ I said. ‘Mr Winters?’
‘Yes,’ he said, somewhat muffled.
‘Are you prepared to give this boy some positive feedback so we can resolve this crisis?’
‘Absolutely,’ he said, sounding more cheerful than expected given the circumstances.
‘Harry,’ I said. ‘I propose we make a truce.’
‘A what?’ said Harry.
‘A truce. We all agree to be friends and everyone gets to go about their business as usual. Mr Winters will say something nice to you, you will say sorry then I will go back to my office and carry on analysing some very tricky and important spreadsheets.’
I looked at the staff during my final comment, making sure they had heard how busy and important I was.
‘Fine,’ said Harry.
Mr Winters cleared his throat.
‘Well done for trying to draw your house. It can be very hard to remember what your own house looks like, but you did a great job.’
‘Sorry for ruining the lesson and threatening you with this stapler gun,’ said Harry.
A click and a scream followed.

‘So,’ said the Headmaster. ‘It seems that on your first day as deputy head a member of staff was admitted to casualty with a facial wound.’
Although it was difficult to be certain, he did not look happy. The situation had not worked out as I would have hoped. Mr Winters had received a staple through the lip after Harry had lost concentration during his apology and somehow managed to pull the trigger. He had been rather roughly escorted to our detainment room by Mr Dale where he had claimed that his behaviour had been caused by an eighteen hour gaming session fuelled by energy drinks the previous night and been booked in for some regular counselling.
‘Would you like a lemon biscuit?’ I said, reaching into my pocket. This would have definitely worked on Mr Stevens, our absent deputy head, who was easily swayed by anything containing sugar.
The Headmaster was made of sterner stuff. He was dressed immaculately in a pale grey suit with a white shirt and burgundy tie. His office was a reflection of himself – everything was beautifully arranged and symmetrical. There was a scent of coffee infused faintly with lavender room freshener. The only hint of a weakness in his façade came from the tiredness around his eyes; no doubt a product of trying to raise our failing school out of the depths of incompetency before Ofsted returned and closed us forever. The previous Ofsted report had given notice to improve. This was unlikely given high levels of incompetency displayed by the teaching staff and students alike.
‘No,’ he said.
I put the biscuit back in my pocket and studied the carpet.
‘You and I are the ones who are going to change this school. We are on a journey together, a journey to a better place, where our students can attain grades that are nearly national average. We are on a journey to a place where our students can leave this school with their heads held high as esteemed members of the community. We may have been through stormy seas, battered by strong winds, lashed by fierce rains, but we are unflinching in our duty to this school and its students.’
I dared to look up at the Headmaster. His face was flushed with the passion of his speech. I wondered if technically he was insane. It seemed possibly. His speeches were terrifyingly dictatorial. It seemed appropriate for me to respond in some way.
‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘I will fix everything.’
‘You will,’ said the Headmaster.
Sitting alone in my office several minutes later even an espresso and opening a second packet of biscuits (triple chocolate) could not raise me from my gloom. I had expected being deputy head to bring some responsibility, but I had not thought it would include being instructed to fix the entire school. I wasted some time checking my emails. I found the usual nonsense: complaints from parents, adverts for pointless teaching conferences and some more data and tracking sheets that I would not be reading.
After a few more minutes of procrastination I took a notebook (black, leather-bound and bought with my new deputy head budget) from my drawer and stepped out into the corridors of the school to start designing my plan that was somehow going to change the lives of the seven hundred people who attended Radley Hill every day.
‘Whattup, sir?’ said a small boy with floppy hair who lounged against the wall outside of my office.
‘Is that a real word?’ I said.
‘Never mind. Should you be in some kind of lesson?’ I checked my watch. It was 12 o’clock, midway through the second session of the day.
‘Which lesson should you be in?’
‘Does that generally take place in a classroom?’
‘So should you be in that classroom during your maths lesson? Doing maths?’
‘Yeh. It’s long though.’
‘Long. Like boring.’
‘Right. Follow me,’ I said. ‘There should be no standing in corridors during lessons. Back to maths.’
I made a note in my book:

1.  Prevent students from standing in corridors during lessons.

It took us several minutes to make the long walk to the maths department. I tried to ignore the shouting and general anarchy that was taking place in many of the classrooms we passed. My approach to improving the school was going to be organised and systematic. My first priority was to return the boy, who told me his name was Mike, to his lesson.
‘Mrs Mutton,’ I said, opening the door to her classroom, ‘I have found a student who is missing your lesson.’
Unfortunately it transpired Mrs Mutton was also missing.
The collection of year ten students in the room paused their card game and looked up. There was a distinct smell of cigarettes in the room. Most of them had loosened their ties and removed their blazers. Someone had written ‘Mrs Mutton is a well good teacher’ on the whiteboard.
‘Where’s your teacher?’ I said.
‘She left, sir,’ said a girl who was eating her lunch on her maths book. She had sandwiches, crisps and chocolate biscuits spread across both pages.
‘Did she say where she was going?’
‘Hard to say, sir,’ said a boy with his tie wrapped around his head.
‘She was crying a lot when she went, sir. She said something about a zoo. Then she sobbed and went.’
‘I see.’
‘She’s not the first teacher to leave in the middle of the lesson but it’s normally because we’ve thrown stuff at them or tied tying them up. Must’ve been upset about something else, I guess.’
I looked at the absolute apathy and negativity that slumped before me. I had seen many classes like this before, and I knew that Mrs Mutton, who was one of our more dedicated members of staff, had broken under the pressure of trying to motivate through the indifference.
‘Perhaps we should all do some maths?’ I said.
Mrs Mutton had written ‘Algebra’ at the top of the whiteboard in large, green letters. I assumed that was the topic of the day. Most of the students looked at me with at least a vague interest.
‘Algebra,’ I said, ‘is like maths but with letters not numbers. It’s a kind of pretend maths.’
‘Then why are we doing it?’ said a girl, who might have been called Emily, and looked like she had fallen into a bucket of orange food dye.
‘Because it’s the kind of maths that really clever people use – like astronauts and physicists.’
‘Astronauts aren’t real,’ said Emily. ‘My mum said the Americans made them up to win World War II.’
The lunch bell rang, and algebra was forgotten as the students abandoned their books and headed out of the room in a shambolic fashion.
That evening I sat in the lounge and read back through my notebook. I had collected several ideas for improving the school. After my initial observation that students should be made to stay in their lessons, I had added the following:

2. Teachers should stay in their classrooms during lesson time.
3. Students should avoid gambling and smoking, especially during lesson time.
4. English teachers should not attempt to teach maths.
5. Teachers should avoid throwing things at students, even if they have been exceptionally annoying all day.

I had added the last point after an afternoon incident during which Mrs White, a history teacher, had thrown a board rubber at a student who had loudly explained that he thought the Nazis sounded cool and he would have definitely joined them. Luckily it had been a sponger board rubber, not one of the old style wooden ones, and it had harmlessly bounced off the student’s forehead. Also, it had not taken long for me to convince him that if he went home and told his mother about the incident I would inform the government about his Nazism and he would be trialled as a war criminal.
‘I think school might be in an even more hopeless state than I thought,’ I said to Malcolm. ‘I am not sure I have the skills or resources to fix it.’
Malcolm was my housemate. We lived together in a small village in an untidy cottage. It had taken me some time to forgive him after he had told the police we had been accidentally responsible for the death of an old woman. After a few frosty evenings, and the police dropping all charges, we had returned to our usual habits of watching bad television or drinking in the local pub, where Malcolm still worked as the barman.
At that moment he was watching Jaws and eating jam with a spoon.
‘Fix what?’ he said.
‘The school. Remember what I’ve been saying? The school is failing horribly and the headmaster wants me to turn everything around. He said so this afternoon.’
‘Get better teachers.’
‘It’s not that simple.’
‘Or students. Switch them for ones that do work.’
‘I don’t think you’re helping.’
And that was the end of the conversation. Malcolm clearly found the shark more engaging than me.
I sat with my own thoughts and my notebook. Outside it was still light. I could hear the distant shouts and cheers of the village cricket team practising. It was possible that spring was in the air, but the smell would never have competed with the stale odour of Indian food and damp that hung around our cottage.
I ran back through my notes from the day. There was nothing particularly inspiring. Radley Hill had dipped for so many reasons. Many of the teachers, myself included, were ineffectual and tired. The students had low expectations of themselves. The parents were indifferent. Funding for new facilities was non-existent. The outlook was bleak.
‘Pub?’ said Malcolm, as onscreen the shark exploded.
‘I guess,’ I said, and left my thinking for the following day.
‘And what solutions have you created?’ said the Headmaster, as I sat in his office the next morning. He looked tired and pale. I noticed his top button was undone. This was a bad sign from a man so terrifyingly fastidious.  
‘Well,’ I said, and opened my notebook. At that point I wished that I had declined Malcolm’s offer of a trip to the pub and done some more work. I spent a few seconds trying to read my own writing.
‘Well what?’
‘What we need is to improve the school.’
‘I know that. How?’
‘We need to create a learning environment where our students actually make some progress.’
The Headmaster was not looking impressed with my analysis of the situation so far. His face seemed to be changing from a pale grey to pink and I assumed possibly to red if I did not manage to come up with some kind of solution. The high-esteem he had held me in after my triumphant Shakespearian production the previous Christmas seemed to have been forgotten after my promotion to deputy head and the problems the school had found itself in.
‘I think,’ I said, ‘that we need an expert. We need to hire ourselves a behaviour expert who can turn these kids around and get them learning.’
‘Well don’t just sit there. Get one.’
‘Yes, sir,’ I said, and left before he asked any difficult questions.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Robbery, Murder and Cups of Tea: Free for Kindle

For the next two days, Robbery, Murder and Cups of Tea is free on Amazon. This humorous novella is just over 29,000 words long and tells the story of a supermarket manager who wishes he was a detective. When one of his neighbours is murdered, he gets his chance to investigate.The first two chapters are posted below.

Click here for link to Amazon UK

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Robbery, Murder and Cups of Tea - Chapters 1 and 2

The Detective

In a small English village, one inhabitant was planning an unlikely career change.
‘I think I might become a private detective,’ said Ray.
He sipped his tea and waited for a response.
None came.
Laura appeared to be ignoring him, which was not unusual. She was watching a foreign film, possibly French, with English subtitles. A man was standing on a bridge at night. At least it seemed to be at night; in black and white it was hard to tell. One thing was certain - it was raining. Or the television was broken. He assumed the man was in a suicidal mood and was contemplating jumping into the water below. It looked a long way down, and he wondered how far you could fall into water and still survive. It probably depended on the position of your body on impact. Face-first could be disastrous, even off a very small bridge, especially if the water was shallower than expected. He would check on the Internet later.
Despite his wife’s indifference, he decided to continue talking, mostly because he wanted to share his ideas with someone, even if they were not listening.
‘I thought it could be a way to make some extra money,’ he said. ‘Not a fortune, but just a few pounds. Although, thinking about it, private detectives must get paid a fair amount of money, depending on their success rates. Sherlock Holmes always seemed rich. Although, he might have been rich before he began detecting. I suppose that does seem likely. Anyway, money isn’t everything. I could do small cases at first. Finding lost wallets. Or children. That sort of thing.’
Laura bit into an apple and Ray realised for the first time that she was crying. She wiped her eyes with a tissue from the box she kept beside her. It was a box which had to be replaced frequently, as she often cried during films. Ray had tried to encourage her to watch less emotional ones. ‘No one cries during Alien,’ he had said, but she had ignored him as always. She seemed to like crying at the television, but not at real life - she never cried at real life. Even at funerals. Or when chopping onions. Ray cried uncontrollably at both.
On screen the man decided against a watery grave and walked into the darkness accompanied by orchestral music. Ray wondered how different his life would be if he was accompanied by music throughout his daily routine. Walking to the pub would be more dramatic with Wagner. Stacking shelves would be quicker with Metallica.
‘I was just thinking it could be a bit of a hobby. Make the evenings more interesting. Probably just be out for a couple of hours after dinner. You would barely miss me. You might even prefer it.’
She would definitely prefer it, he was sure of that. Being married involved even less communication than he had imagined. He wondered how long it would be before they spent their evenings in separate rooms. Or houses.
Laura sat with her legs hanging over the arm of the sofa. She wore a cream, silk dressing gown and her skin was still pink from the bathwater she had been soaking in for at least an hour. She filled the room with soft scents of lavender and vanilla. She took another bite of her apple and chewed. The film paused for an advert break. A woman with digestive issues seemed considerably happier after eating strawberry yoghurt. A Hollywood star looked enigmatic and serious advertising a new perfume.
Ray waited for Laura to speak. The film resumed and the man sat alone in a café staring mournfully out of the window.
‘Ray,’ said Laura, before pausing to bite into her third apple and wipe a stray tear from her left cheek. ‘You find it challenging enough running the local supermarket. Maybe you should concentrate on your day job? People would hate to see you lose focus and for the cereals to end up in just any order. It would cause chaos.’
‘Well,’ he said, and then ran out of words.
During the year since their wedding many of their evenings had passed in a similar fashion. Laura spent long periods of time relaxing in the bath, phoned friends, watched romantic films with happy endings and ate a variety of healthy foods, usually involving fruit. Ray wandered around the house, drank tea, visited the pub alone and drew up plans for making himself wealthier. So far his plans had all failed, mostly in the conceptual stage.
‘You have all these ideas, Ray,’ said Laura.
He was expecting, or hoping, for her to say something else, but she began eating seedless grapes and returned what little of her attention she had given him to the television.  
When they were first engaged many people, including his father, had expressed their surprise at how beautiful she was. He was reminded of those comments as she ran her fingers through Titian hair and stretched her slender legs. ‘Why would a woman like that marry you?’ said his father. It was a fair question, if a bit uncalled for, and one that Ray tried not to ponder too deeply in case he found some uncomfortable answers.
He left her alone in the lounge and headed to the kitchen to make tea. Ray liked tea and he was capable of drinking up to fifteen cups a day, which had the added advantage of creating numerous work breaks. Not that he was lazy at work. He ran the supermarket with surprising efficiency. Still, there were plenty of occasions when a tea was necessary to recover from a particularly troublesome customer.
‘I can be a detective,’ he said to himself, as he sat at the kitchen table and sipped his tea.
It was late October and raining. No one had been particularly surprised to learn that it was already one of the wettest months since records began, which had initiated many conversations about climate change in The White Dragon. None of them had been very conclusive. The landlord had argued that climate change meant that Britain was rising and floating towards France. Tony was sure that changes in the Gulf Stream were going to send the Earth spinning off its axis straight into the sun. Ray’s theory that it might make the weather harder to predict had been universally dismissed.
He briefly considered visiting The White Dragon for a pint, but it was raining with increasing vigour, and he was not overly keen to get wet, even on the four minute walk it would take him to reach the local. He was content to sit and ruminate on his new career path. He was confident that even in quiet English villages there were occasional robberies and murders. Once he had built up some experience he liked the idea of investigating some of them himself. He had no formal training, unless his GCSEs in chemistry and biology were relevant, but qualifications were not going to stop him. There would be plenty of opportunities to start small and local: lost pets, stolen garden furniture, investigating the odd extra marital affair. The inhabitants of Diddlebury would be more than happy to pay for resolutions to such cases, especially if they concluded in the exposure and humiliation of one of their neighbours.
‘Case solved,’ said Ray, as he imagined rugby tackling a particularly violent burglar outside the bakery.
‘Talking to yourself is a sign of idiocy,’ said Laura, as she breezed in and out of the kitchen to collect a kiwi fruit and a spoon.
‘Or genius,’ he said. ‘Einstein probably talked to himself constantly about gravity - though maybe that was Newton.’
‘And no trying to be a detective,’ called Laura from the lounge. ‘Remember to just concentrate on running the supermarket. Make sure there are enough bread rolls and other important things.’
‘Absolutely,’ said Ray.
He watched the rain and thought about some of the possible reasons why Sherlock Holmes never married.

Prunes and Ale

The next day, Ray was finding it exceptionally hard to concentrate at work.
‘Have there been any robberies or murders in the village lately, Julia?’
Julia was a woman in her early fifties who had worked meticulously and earnestly for local shops for most of her life. She was divorced, played bridge, was below average height, wanted to cruise the Mediterranean when she retired and seemed to have an endless collection of floral dresses. On that particular day she wore a blue and yellow tulip print that muddled Ray’s vision if he looked at it for too long.
‘Why would you say a thing like that?’ she said. ‘Diddlebury is not a murdering or robbing sort of place. Shall I put the food colourings in alphabetical order or ranging from light to dark?’
‘Of course it is,’ said Ray. ‘All English villages have terrible secrets. Some villages probably have five to ten murders a year.’
‘I think light to dark is quite pleasing to the eye. I must make a note to order more blue colouring. I do like to have a balance of colours.’
‘I imagine some murders go completely unnoticed. A few lonely old people getting bumped off on their way home. Like Mrs Winterbottom. I’m sure she was murdered. I haven’t seen her for weeks. Someone should investigate. I’ll get on the case.’
‘Mrs Winterbottom is staying with her daughter after a bunion operation. Anyway, this is England not America, Mr Wilson.’
She began to check the packets of sponge fingers, running her hand along the edge to ensure they were aligned.
Ray lost interest in shelving and his work colleague. He took an unscheduled tea break.
He had been the manager of the supermarket for two years. Previously he had worked for a small film production company in London for three months, hoping it would be a permanent career, until their financial difficulties had resulted in his dismissal. He had served in a music store that had closed and been turned into a coffee shop that made overly hot cappuccinos which burnt the roof of his mouth. He had been employed as a film extra for one day. He had been edited out of his only scene as a man buying an orange from a market stall.
There had been few other highlights.
He sat alone in the small office that served as a staffroom and accounts room. He read a chapter of The Getaway while he drank his tea. Briefly he was transported to a world of crime and dangerous living.
‘Mrs Mackerty would like to know why there is no fruit bread in stock,’ said Julia, poking her head around the door.
‘Right. Tell her we are sold out. There will be more next week.’
She coughed politely.
‘I think we both know that will not work.’
‘Unfortunately not.’
Ray put his book down and drank a last mouthful of tea before walking back into the shop.
Mrs Mackerty was waiting for him by the till. She was so aged that her back bent at ninety degrees making it difficult for her to look up. She leant heavily on a walking stick and every movement seemed unbearably arduous.
‘Now, Mr Wilson - that is you is it not?
‘It is. Good morning.’
‘I think we spoke before about how important fruit bread is for my bowels.’
‘Yes, Mrs Mackerty. I believe we did.’
‘I need a good supply of dried fruits to keep things moving.’
‘At my age things are not quite as efficient as they once were.’
Ray had an unpleasant image.
‘I understand completely, Mrs Mackerty. I will ring the supplier and make a new order immediately.’
‘I should hope so,’ she said, and with enormous effort turned herself around to continue her shopping.
‘Well handled as always, Mr Wilson,’ said Julia, as she made a pyramid of biscuit boxes nearby.
‘Thank you, Julia. If there’s one particular skill I have developed over the last two years it’s dealing with unhappy elderly customers.’
‘You most definitely have, Mr Wilson.’
‘I should get some of those stars they earn in fast food restaurants. Five stars for keeping pensioners well stocked with fibre.’
‘You certainly should.’
‘Perhaps I can be sponsored by a cereal company?’
Mrs Mackerty was reappearing from one of the aisles. Ray watched her shuffle towards him, each foot moving no more than a few inches at a time. She paused in front of a pillar and looked as though she might attempt to speak to it before shaking her head and moving on. She eventually stopped in front of Ray and studied his shoes to make sure she had a person and the right person.
‘Is that you, Mr Wilson?’
‘Yes, Mrs Mackerty. How can I be of assistance?’
‘Well I must say this is disappointing. I am afraid I hate to do this but I feel it is my duty to contact the regional manager once more.’
‘What seems to be the problem?’ said Ray.
Mrs Mackerty claimed that she had contacted the regional manager several times in the past, although as Ray had never heard anything from the man himself, who might have been called David, he assumed that she had been contacting the wrong person. He wondered how confusing it would be to be telephoned by a constipated, elderly woman to complain about her dietary requirements.
‘There is a distinct lack of tinned prunes in the fruit aisle. I looked carefully with my magnifying glass. I expect to be spending a prolonged period of time in the toilet this evening, and I hold you personally responsible.’
‘Sorry,’ said Ray, before adding: ‘Have you tried yoga? My wife loves it. As far as I know she’s very regular.’
At lunchtime Ray decided, as he often did, that it had been a difficult enough day to warrant a visit to The White Dragon. He left Julia in charge of the shop, with the added responsibility of ensuring that the cheese section was categorised in a sensible and efficient way.
‘Geographically, Mr Wilson?’
‘Very wise.’
‘Thank you. Enjoy your lunch.’
Outside it was relatively warm and the rain was unexpectedly light. Fallen leaves eddied around his feet as he made the short walk to the pub – thatched, white, with a front door that required anyone under six feet to duck and a sign with a faded White Dragon that swayed and squeaked rhythmically in the wind.
Inside it was typically busy. Diddlebury was a village where many people had very little to do. Consequently, a visit to the pub was a significant activity. Couples had lunch together, people drank in small groups and as is often the way men sat on stools at the bar and consumed far more units of alcohol than government campaigns recommended.
Ray sat on a barstool beside Tony, a man in his late forties with a beer belly of considerable size, thick glasses and a smart appearance. He had been a successful businessman in his younger years, or so he said, but he was prematurely retired and made the most of his free time by leaving his wife at home and drinking heavily. He wore a pink shirt, sleeves rolled up to reveal huge forearms, and brogues that had been carefully polished. His face was lined and flushed with traces of broken veins beginning to appear at the sides of his nose. Sometimes, on special occasions, he broke unannounced into song.
‘Good to see you, Ray. A drink to keep out the cold?’
‘Very kind, Tony,’ said Ray. ‘Just the one though. This is only a lunch break.’
‘Landlord, two of your finest ales, if you please,’ said Tony.
The landlord, Michael, was quick to serve his most loyal customer.
‘There we are, gents, enjoy,’ said Michael. ‘I see it’s raining again,’ he added, noting Ray’s wet hair and shoulders.
‘Just a light shower,’ said Ray.
‘Climate change,’ said Michael and shook his head. He sported the soft physique that it took years of neglect and great quantities of saturated fat to create. He was in the process of growing a subtly lopsided goatee. ‘I was reading just this morning that England could be completely underwater in the next ten years. And there was me thinking we were going to float towards France. Seems that sinking is much more likely. At least I think it was England. Would that be right, Tony?’
‘Perhaps just a part of the country, Michael? Like Essex or one of the bits on the side. Can’t imagine the whole lot will go.’
‘Exactly,’ said Michael. ‘Essex will sink for sure.’
He stared thoughtfully at the fire then made his way towards the kitchen.
To fill the silence Ray decided to tell Tony about his new business venture.
‘So, Tony, I was thinking I might try and start my own detective agency.’
‘Genius,’ said Tony. He ate a handful of peanuts. ‘Tell me more.’
‘I was thinking about investigating some of the mysteries that happen locally.’
‘Wonderful,’ said Tony. ‘I had better find a gun from somewhere. Do you know anyone who could get me a gun?’
‘I think they’re illegal.’
‘In England?’
‘Perhaps I could carry a machete? They’re always useful in a fight.’
He performed a series of swift, chopping motions with his right arm holding an imaginary weapon.
Ray should have realised that Tony was in no particular state to be discussing new business ideas. The empty glasses were a strong indication that he was not drinking his first pint of the day. His eyes had begun to lose some of their focus and Ray could not decide if he was looking at him or at a point just above his left shoulder.
‘Well, I was planning on just finding a few basic local stories to start with,’ said Ray. ‘Nothing too dramatic. Maybe a simple robbery to look into. Missing garden furniture. Stolen fruit.’
‘That should be easy enough to arrange. Let’s start with Herbie. He knows plenty about criminal activities.’
A brooding figure with well-muscled arms and a face that seemed as though at some point a tree had fallen on it looked up from where he sat at the bar reading the local gazette.
‘You mention me?’ he said.
Herbie was a more recent addition to the village. He had lived in London most of his life but had moved into the countryside after a bitter divorce, or so he told people. His physical size and stern manner had been a source of constant gossip and it was assumed, with no actual evidence, that he was hiding from a criminal past. Sometimes, to add to the rumours, he wore sunglasses on cloudy days.
‘Know of any robberies or murders lately?’ said Tony. ‘My friend here was looking for some.’
‘He wasn’t saying you had actually done any yourself, just if you had heard of them.’
‘Not that you look like a robber or even a murderer,’ said Tony. ‘He was just saying that if anyone knew about that kind of thing it would definitely be you, especially as you lived in London.’
‘Afraid not.’
Tony raised his beer glass in Herbie’s general direction.
‘Thanks anyway. Let us know if you do hear anything.’
‘Bit of a dead end there,’ said Tony, signalling that more beer was required.
‘Great work though,’ said Ray, who was feeling a warm flush of embarrassment on his face. ‘Thanks.’
‘No problem. I feel this business venture is going to be a huge success.’
‘Do you think we need an office?’
‘Sounds sensible. I will look into it. We could have one of those golden plaques on the door. Make it fully professional. And business cards. They are pretty useful. And definitely brandy in a decanter.’
‘I should be heading back to work,’ said Ray.
‘Right. I will keep thinking.’
Ray finished his drink and made the short walk to the shop where he spent the afternoon helping Julia organise jams.
‘I’m not sure the private detective idea was such a good one,’ said Ray, as he sat on the sofa in the evening. Laura was eating blueberries. He was drinking tea and trying to make some sense of the film they were watching.
‘None of your ideas are very good, Ray.’
On screen two characters were sharing a meal. The restaurant was candlelit and improbably romantic. They were drinking wine and eating fish.
‘Is that sea bass?’ said Ray.
‘I’m not sure the fish is central to the plot.’
‘It could be symbolic.’
‘Symbolic sea bass?’
‘Is this Love Actually?’
‘Then why is Colin Firth in it?’
‘He’s not.’
Ray squinted at the screen.
‘Oh. That must be the other one.’
It seemed they were now sharing a chocolate fondant which was his favourite dessert. At least it looked like a chocolate fondant. He wanted to ask but decided not to.
‘I just think it would be simpler if we lived in a more normal village,’ said Ray. ‘I only told Tony and things got out of hand within a few seconds.’
‘What things?’
‘The whole detective thing.’
‘You were talking about Colin Firth.’
‘Before that I was telling you about Tony. And the detective agency.’
‘Are you going to talk the whole way through this film?’
‘Why have you been hanging around in the pub talking to deluded alcoholics? I thought you were supposed to be in the supermarket making sure there were enough bread rolls and other important tasks.’
‘I’m going upstairs,’ said Ray.
He left her alone in the lounge and went to his study. It was a small room, cluttered by books and strange drawings on scraps of paper. On the desk was a laptop and beside it several empty teacups and biscuit wrappers. Ray had been working on an advert for his detective agency and he picked a piece of paper up, covered in scribbles and annotations, turned it over several times in his hands, then screwed it into a ball and threw it to join the other discarded ideas on the floor.
Through the window he had an excellent viewpoint of the village. He could see the dim shape of Mrs Wilkins as she watered plants in the kitchen. She was one of his least favourite neighbours. She complained bitterly and constantly about the state of his garden and how his apple trees apparently shed fruit and leaves over the fence into her property. Mr Dawson was doing some kind of exercise routine with a metal bar that involved swinging his upper body from side to side. He had been in the military some years before and enjoyed keeping fit in a variety of unusual ways, including jogging around the village dragging a sledge loaded with bricks.
Ray pressed his face to the glass to see the upper window of the Hamilton’s residence where their teenage son was playing games of some kind, flashing lights erupting at seemingly irregular intervals. To the far right he could see the house belonging to Miss Stokes, a spinster and an excellent baker who repeatedly won the annual pie making contest at the village fete. That summer she had taken the title with a superb steak and stilton number that he had been lucky enough to taste. Her curtains were open and he could see where she sat in a rocking chair in the bedroom.
A careful examination of the scene revealed something unexpected.
She was headless.