A bad case of flu


As I drove down the muddy track the thunderstorm broke, the car went out of control and I lurched into the ditch.

The satnav had broken a few miles back, and travelling to this rural part of Devon to my new job was turning out to be a nightmare.  The rain lashed across the windscreen like a wave from the sea, blanking out the world.  As I revved the engine in the ‘drive’ gear, the wheels span and I was going nowhere.  All I could see in the rear-view mirror was a torrent of Devon’s bright red mud churned up by the back wheels that were spinning uselessly.

Not for the first time I wondered if it had been a good idea to accept this post in the back of beyond.  Everything had gone wrong so far, from my streaming flu that had started two days ago, to the flat tyre earlier on the journey.  Now at midnight, six hours later than expected, I was stuck in a ditch in the worst thunderstorm I can ever remember in my life.

My phone had run out of battery.  I was hungry and tired and couldn’t stop coughing, and my sore throat was burning. Plus it was freezing cold in the car.

There was only one thing to do: fight my way outside and see if I could find somewhere to seek shelter – or at least a house with a phone, so I could summon help.

I pushed the car door open against the the lashing rain, staggered into the road and was instantly drenched.  Undaunted, I plodded along for a few yards, searching the horizon for lights, to see anywhere the was inhabited.  Finally, after a ten-minute walk, when I was on the point of collapse, I saw a light in the distance, and shuffled towards it.

Down a lane to the right I found the tiny cottage with a light in its window.  In the rain it was hard to see details, but I got the impression of an old house with a thatched roof.  I knocked on the door, praying that someone was in.

After a long time it was opened a crack.

“Yes?  Who is it?”  said the young woman, whose face I could just make out: a narrow forehead and a grim set to the wide mouth.

“My car’s broken down and I’m stranded,”  I appealed to her.  “Could I use your phone?  Please, I know it’s a lot to ask, but I’m in real trouble.  Please!”  I was taken over by a fit of coughing, and I leaned against the doorframe.

“Of course, come in, come in, poor you,”  the lady said, opening the door wide and ushering me inside.  When I saw her face I could see that she was actually strikingly attractive, indeed quite beautiful. I also noticed that one eye was blue and the other was brown.  Her eyes were quite captivating actually, and I was instantly bewitched by them.

She led me into her living room, and helped me take off my coat.  The roaring log fire was more welcome than I could have imagined, and when she offered me something to eat I refused, because my throat was so sore I couldn’t have swallowed anything.

“I’m sorry but the phone lines are down,” she apologised.

I assumed for some reason she didn’t want me to use her mobile, but I was past caring.  I couldn’t face going back out into the storm to meet an RAC man anyway, in fact I could barely move, my cold was so bad.

“You must stay the night,” she insisted.  “You’ll catch your death if you go out in the cold again.  I can make up a bed here, on the sofa.”

“Thank you so much.”

The lady had introduced herself as Molly, and she started talking to me.

“I’m so glad you came,”  she began.  “To be honest, tonight is the hardest night of my life.  I really didn’t want to be alone.  Earlier today I was told that my husband had died.  I’ve just been sitting here ever since, stunned, unsure what to do.”

“How awful, and I’m imposing on you at a time like this—”

“No really ,  I mean it! I’m glad you’re here.  If you hadn’t come I’m not sure if I could have resisted taking all the tablets I’ve got in the house.  You see, without Walter my life really has no meaning.  I was going to end it all, but now I know that would have been wrong. He wouldn’t have wanted me to do it.  Walter was always kind, always thinking of other people. . . ”

She went on for hours, telling me about Walter.  How they’d met, what a fine man he was, how brave, how decent, how kind he was to her.  She didn’t go into how he had been killed, and I didn’t like to ask.  She was so upset, crying every now and again, that I felt it was wrong to interrupt her flow, and it seemed as if she really wanted to talk to someone, even a stranger like me.

I don’t remember falling asleep, or even how I came to be on the sofa, without my raincoat, but otherwise fully dressed.  But I woke up to full daylight and the sunlight  streaming into the room.  I got up and went into the tiny hallway, and called out.  But no one answered.

My flu seemed to be a bit better too.  I went upstairs, looking for my kind host, but I couldn’t find her anywhere.

I went out of the front door, and looked out to see a fine sunny day.   Taking a final tour of the house, I concluded that she must have gone out.  I found a scrap of paper in my pocket and left a note, thanking her for her kindness, and wishing her well.

Then I went out again and ten minutes later found my car.  It started, and with a bit of careful toing and froing, with low engine revs, I managed to get back onto the road.

To my delight it seemed as if Nether Bottom, the village where I’d been headed for my new job, was only a couple of miles away, and I drove there, feeling refreshed, and, for the first time in days, I wasn’t coughing, nor was my throat sore.

The Fairlawns Home for the Elderly was a quaint Victorian manor house set in several acres of beautiful countryside and I reached the huge semi circular front drive, parked and got out and entered the imposing doorway.

Albert Chinnery, the director, welcomed me at the reception desk, taking my bags and chattering away.

“Well Dr Somerville, it’ll be nice to have another resident medical director.  We all miss dear old Dr Hathaway, hasn’t been the same here since he retired,” Albert said as we began our rounds, meeting the elderly residents.  “We get the occasional emergency, but mostly it’s managing ongoing problems, sorting out drugs and so on.  It’s a happy place, I always think.  I’ve always enjoyed working here, and we’re a friendly team.”

As we turned a corner, one of the doors of the private rooms was firmly closed.

“Ah.”  Albert looked unhappy, taking the key from his pocket, unlocking the door and leading me into the room.  “I meant to tell you downstairs.  I’m afraid we had a death in the early hours. The storm was so bad the roads were closed so we couldn’t get an ambulance out.  I hope you don’t mind officially declaring her dead and filling in the forms?  Horrible thing to ask you on your first day, I’m very sorry.”

We walked inside the room and I looked at the body of the little old lady in the bed.

“Molly was very frail and I’m afraid she suddenly took a turn for the worse.  Sweet old soul, everyone liked her.  In fact she lived a stone’s throw away from here for most of her life.  Apparently her husband was killed in the Second World War, and she never got over it.  She always told this story about how on the night he died, she’d decided to kill herself but this stranger came to stay in her house, and he gave her the will to go on living.  She never forgot that man, she even tried to find out who he was, but she never did.  And it was strange.  She never even knew his name.”

I stepped closer and looked at the old lady.  No one had yet closed her eyes, and with a shock I saw that one of them was brown and the other was blue.

I even recognised how beautiful her face still was, despite the ravages of time.

And as I looked down at her dead face it looked as if she gave me one last smile.





Lost in Loneliness


I felt no pain as he drove the knife into my chest. Just a sensation of pressure, and a feeling of profound disbelief as I saw my own blood.

The next thing I remember was my would-be killer talking to me.

He was a young man whom I’d never met before that day when he had charged up to me on the street and demanded money. I had refused, feeling a blinding flash of fury at his temerity. And now here he was again, standing in front of me. And strangely enough, even though I knew he’d tried to kill me, I wasn’t the least bit afraid of him. He was just a young terrified boy.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said to me. And in that moment I could see by the way he was staring at me that he really meant what he said. He was much younger than I’d realised, about the age of my son Kevin, when he had died in a motorcycle accident last year. He had no weapon, his hands were clasped together, tightly squeezing each other in anguish. “The others in the gang, they told me I had to do it, to prove myself. They’re my friends, see? They was watching me. I’d just joined the gang so I couldn’t back down in front of them. But I never done nothing like that before. It was like a kind of madness, see? I’m really really sorry. I didn’t want to do it. I couldn’t believe I’d done it. Will you forgive me? ”

And he started to cry almost uncontrollably. I could see that he wasn’t lying. And although I should have hated him for his unprovoked attack that could have killed me, somehow I couldn’t. He just looked lost and lonely and scared. As lost and lonely and scared as my son Kevin must have felt in the seconds before he’d skidded on ice into the back of the lorry. Kevin had died in the evening just after he’d told me he’d joined a gang, and I’d felt a cold chill in my heart and a deep abiding terror so real that I could still feel it now. After he’d told me that he’d joined the gang, and they were now his best friends, I had yelled at him, told him he wasn’t my son, and he could get out of my house. He had sworn at me, then punched me, and stormed out and leapt onto his motorbike and roared off into the night. It was the last time I ever saw him.

Kevin had always been a lonely boy. This boy in front me, I could sense that he was lonely too. Just like my son Kevin, he had joined a gang to have friends. And now he was sunk in deep dark misery, and his friends weren’t around.

And in that moment I felt no animosity of any kind, because I could see his total and complete defencelessness and utter sincerity. He was lost in loneliness.

“Of course I forgive you,” I told him. “Look, I can’t be too badly hurt or I couldn’t be talking to you, could I? Don’t be upset about what happened. I understand.”

“You understand?” He looked up at me in amazement. “I couldn’t believe what I’d done. Soon as I done it I tried to phone for help.”

“It’s okay. Everyone’s done stupid, dangerous, terrible things in their lives – I know I have. You made a mistake. We’ve all made mistakes.” I clasped his shoulder and suddenly I felt the strangest sensation. It was as if a surge of pure love flowed from me to him, and all I wanted to do was to ease his pain. “What’s done is done. I don’t hate you at all. I won’t press charges. I don’t want this to ruin your life.”

“You forgive me?” He stared at me as if he couldn’t understand.

Of course I forgive you.”

As I fell asleep I saw a strange peace settle on his features.

~ ~ ~

“He’s awake!” I heard the soft voice of the nurse from above me.

I was lying in bed, and it looked as if I was in hospital. I knew that time must have passed, but I had no idea how long I’d been lying here.

A man – presumably a doctor – joined us, and from my horizontal viewpoint I noticed that just above the collar of his white coat there was a stray whisker on his throat he hadn’t managed to shave that morning.

“Good morning, Douglas,” he said to me in a hearty voice. “Do you know what’s happened to you?”

“Not really.”

“You’re recovering in hospital. We’re not quite out of the woods yet but you’re going to be fine.”

I frowned, all my memories were jumbled and disordered. “What happened?”

“You were stabbed last night. You lost a lot of blood, but we luckily they got you in here pretty damn quick, and we did an emergency operation to repair the internal damage, and everything is okay. You were lucky – another centimetre to the left and he’d have severed your aorta.”

“H – he apologised to me,” I mumbled. “Tell him it’s okay, I won’t press charges.”

He gave me a confused smile. “Never mind old chap, you’re bound to be a bit confused, you’re still in shock. Try and rest.”

He stood up and I heard him muttering to the nurse that I was probably traumatised, and not acting rationally.

I fell asleep and the next time I woke up there was a policewoman sitting beside my bed.

“Mr Thomson, I was wondering if you feel up to making a statement,” she asked me gently. “No rush.”

“Statement?” I was confused. “All I know is that I was in the street and someone stabbed me.”

“You’re not to worry about a thing, because there were witnesses,” she told me, putting a hand on my wrist as she spoke gently and kindly. “Three people saw exactly what happened, so I want to reassure you you’re not in any kind of legal trouble. It was clearly self defence.”

“Self defence? What are you talking about?”

“According to the witnesses, a man stabbed you in the street. You then pulled out the knife and stuck it into his chest.”

I stabbed him? After he stabbed me?” I asked incredulously.

“You acted in self defence,” she asserted firmly. “His hand was in his pocket, where there was another knife, so it looks as if he was about to stab you for a second time. There’s nothing for you to worry about.”

Then it came back to me. The all-consuming fury as I felt the knife go in, and then seeing him put his hand in his pocket. I’d known I had to act fast before he stabbed me again.

“How is he?”

“He died. It was all very strange and bizarre. The medical teams were working on both of you at the same time, in adjacent operating theatres. They told me that before he lost consciousness he kept saying he was sorry, that he wanted you to forgive him. He kept saying ‘Will you forgive me?’”

“To forgive him?”

“The nurses were quite affected by it. He was so young, too. But, as I said, you have nothing to fear, because we know you acted in self defence. Although we’re obliged to investigate the matter fully, I’ve been told unofficially that we’ll not be taking things any further.”

“Was there anything else in the pocket?” I asked. “Apart from the second knife?”

“Just his phone.”

I felt my throat constrict and tears began to fall.

I started to cry.

And I couldn’t stop.

Long Lost Family


“Oh why did you do it? You promised!  You bastard, you’ve ruined everything!”  As she said it, Caroline burst into tears and fell into my arms.

I had been sleeping peacefully in the clean and soulless bed of the Premier Inn, where Caroline and I were staying.  In separate rooms, I might add.  As a researcher for the excellent TV programme Long Lost Families, I had volunteered to accompany Caroline on the long journey to Devon from her home in Scotland, to meet her natural mother, whom she had never met before.

Long Lost Families is a programme where the popular presenters Davina McCall and Nicki Campbell front dramas whereby relatives who have been separated for all kinds of reasons get reunited on air, and the viewers can follow the search and finally share their joy at finding each other.  It could be a mother and daughter, brothers, twin sisters, all manner of combinations of people, the common factor being that one of them wants to find the other, and, by means of researchers like me, we do various kinds of detective work in order to facilitate the meeting if we can, that is if the object of the search also agrees to a meeting on air.

Of course the programmes that are televised are the successes.  There are plenty of failures that get canned, mostly because we fail to find the missing person, or we find them and they don’t want to meet the searching relative.  Or else they might want to meet them but not publicly on live television.

Caroline’s destined meeting with her natural mother was one of our successes, and the culmination of all our work was to be tomorrow, when she would meet Margaret, who had given birth to her fifty years previously when she had been fifteen, and her parents had overruled her desire to keep the baby, and ensured that Caroline was adopted and should never know her grieving mother.  Margaret was delighted that her daughter had contacted her, heartbroken that her parents had separated them, and over-the-moon at the chance to be reunited with her the following day, telling us that she had always been afraid of trying to find Caroline, in case she hated her for having had her adopted.

I was still only half awake when Caroline had burst into my room.  But thankfully she had recovered a bit when I’d made her some tea, and she seemed less upset as she sat on the bed, both hands clasped around the mug, sipping slowly.

“John I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have shouted at you, I know it’s not your fault, you’ve been so kind to me, looking after me, travelling with me like this.  It’s just that Davina promised me that I’d be able to get ready to meet my mum properly – and that she’d come with me to the hotel for our first meeting.  And I thought that’s what you all wanted too – for the programme.  For goodness sake, it was all arranged!

“Yes, we did, and it is all arranged,”  I told her in confusion.  “I just can’t understand what’s happened.  As we told you, Nicki is going to be with your mum, he’ll go with her in the taxi to the hotel, and Davina is calling here at ten in the morning to collect you to take you to the same place.  It doesn’t make any sense at all.  I mean the whole point of the programme is to capture the first meeting of the two of you.”

“And I so wanted to fit in with the programme. Davina’s been so nice and kind, and it was a way to pay you all back for finding Mum,”  Caroline went on.  “I’d rehearsed all the things I was going to say, but when my mum burst in on me just now, everything flew out of my head.  I didn’t know what to say.”

“It’s crazy,”  I admitted, looking at my watch and checking that time, and noting it was five past six.  “It doesn’t make sense.  Unless perhaps your mum was overcome with emotion, and just couldn’t bear to wait until morning.  Has she gone now?”

“Yes, she dashed off in a rush, just as she’d arrived.  She was very very upset, she was crying, we both were. ”  Caroline began to break down.  “But it was so marvellous meeting her for the first time, I felt I already knew her, you know?  She told me she’d always loved me, and had always longed to meet me, and that every day she thought about me, and that she never once stopped loving me.  She just held me and we cried in each other’s arms for ages, and I’ve never felt such happiness in my life…”  She spoke through her tears.  “But it’s wonderful really, so wonderful.   And do you know what she said, to me, John? She told me she’d always be with me from now on, that she knew my husband was dead and I have no other family, but that she’d always watch over me, and we’d always be really close from now on.  And that I’ll never ever be on my own again, and she’ll never leave me. . .”

“Well, at least it’s a happy ending.”  I knew that Davina and Nicki would be fed up that the programme was ruined, but I also knew that they were kind, decent people, who really cared for the people we tried to help, so although they’d be furious that the televised ‘first meeting’ was impossible, their anger would be short-lived.  I even began to wonder whether we could salvage the situation somehow – maybe stage a ‘first meeting’ for the sake of the programme.  But no, it would never work.  You can’t fake spontaneity, and Davina and Nicki are too professional to even attempt such a contrivance.

My mobile rang as Caroline was wiping her eyes and drinking the tea, thankfully having calmed down a lot.

It was the producer of Long Lost Families, Marilyn.  She sounded very upset.

“Terrible news, John,” she began in her habitual breathy voice, as if she was on the point of breaking down.  “We’ve just had a call from the hotel where Margaret was staying.  She was rushed into hospital last night with a heart attack, and died at midnight.  I’m phoning to warn you that Davina and Nicki are insisting on coming over to the hotel to tell Caroline the news, they said it’s the least they can do.  Honestly, John, they’re both in tears, I can’t believe this has happened. . .”





Gripping Yarns


“Well, the nymphomaniac daughter pairs up with the vicar who believes in ghosts.”

“What about her husband?”

“Didn’t I tell you? He’s going to fall off the top of a mountain to his death while he’s having sex with the trapeze artist.”

Ralph and I would spend hours bouncing around the threads of plots for his novels. Eventually the story would come through, it always did. Because Ralph Neverchance was in most people’s opinion one of the most successful storytellers in recent times, regularly earning awards for a ‘thumping good read’, bestseller of bestsellers and goodness knows what else.

But unfortunately, Ralph was dying. A horrible illness had him in its grip and at the age of eighty-nine, it looked as if he wasn’t long for this world. He’d said to me just this morning, “Well I’ve had a good life, all I’ll really miss is thinking up stories. I love it so much, I always have.” He looked pensive, chewing his lower lip. “I only wish I could go on doing it. Maybe there are books in heaven, eh? Perhaps God will give me a typewriter. You know, Hecci, it’s never really mattered to me that my books are so tremendously successful. I’d go on writing them even if they sold as badly as yours do.”

“Thanks very much!”

“Sorry old boy, but let’s face facts. Your novels are all so bloody boring, aren’t they?”

Since he was so ill, I knew I had to make allowances for his tactlessness. What’s more, to my chagrin I knew he was right.

Amanuensis is a funny old word, but it describes what I do pretty well. I wrote to Ralph twenty-eight years ago, when I’d just graduated from university, and was trying to become ‘a writer’. Ralph wrote back enthusiastically, offering me every encouragement, telling me that you should never try to be writer so as to be rich, because it rarely ever happened, you just had to have the ‘urge to tell a story’. Twists in the plot, sexy bits, gore and violence, fiendishly cunning storylines, they were all very well he’d told me, but enjoying telling a tale was all that really ever mattered. Ralph had invited me to come and see him, and we’d got on well. Since he was then in his late sixties, he told me that the ‘nuts and bolts’, of typing up, editing and proofreading his books was something which bored him, he just liked getting the ideas down, so on the spot he offered me a job of being his general dogsbody, and I’ve done it happily ever since. He always typed everything on an ancient manual typewriter, using two fingers. When he was inspired those fingers would fly like lightning, the clattering and clacking sound almost deafening. And afterwards I would type it up properly, and do the edits and so on.

Alongside helping Ralph with his novels, I carried on writing my own books, and I like to think I’ve improved a bit over the years. Maybe Hector Goodbody isn’t quite such a catchy name for an author, but at least it’s memorable. I thought gloomily of a recent review on Amazon: ‘Hector Goodbody’s story was so dull it helped me get to sleep. His characters have about as much life as a game of dominoes between octogenarian bores and I didn’t care what happened to any of them’.

Ralph made an awful lot of money, but he gave most of it away. Guide Dogs for the Blind (Because it must be so awful not to be able to see, old boy), water infrastructure projects in the third world (Think of it, Hecci, those poor little children having to drink filthy contaminated water), donkey sanctuaries, cancer research, you name it, and Ralph gave money to it. He reiterated what he’d said to me when we’d first met: ‘You should never write to try and make money old boy, because it just won’t work. I’m just the exception that proves the rule. And as you know I give most of it away. I regard it as a kind of bargain. I’m sure that if I stopped giving away most of my income the old muse would dry up.”

When Ralph died it was worse than terrible. Especially as he’d been getting towards the end of a fantastic trilogy – a family saga full of trials and tribulations, with a nymphomaniac daughter, a gambling-addict son and a mother who led a secret life as a striptease artist and a father who, after having six children, had decided to have a sex change. Sounds bizarre? Yes of course it does, it sounds utterly ridiculous. And yet Ralph could get away with it and get away with it with panache. The reason was he had this knack of making you care about his characters, of somehow bringing them to life.

So when Ralph died it was the end of a job I’d thoroughly enjoyed, and the end of a very close friendship.

Ralph had very firm views about the afterlife. Recently we had gone together to a spiritualist meeting to do research for one of his books, and Ralph had listened to the service for a time. But after a while, he stood up and yelled at the leader: “Do you think we’re all idiots? The dead can’t talk to the living!  It just can’t happen!

“How dare you?” shouted back the tall, rather attractive lady, whose long blonde hair was tied up in a large bun on top of her head. “If you care to stay I’ll prove to you that there is life after death.”

“Bollocks!” he’d replied, leading us out of the room, not caring that all eyes were upon us.

All through the funeral service I was thinking about the last discussion Ralph and I had had about his latest novel, the final book in the trilogy Hopkins Drift. He’d wanted to discuss a problem with the plot and I hadn’t been able to help him at all. I rarely could, even though he liked to use me as a kind of sounding board.

Then, as I was looking at his coffin, something slipped into place in my mind. I suddenly remembered a few things he’d said the day before he’d died, and I realised that he’d been able to convey to me what he wanted to do with the novel. The answer was for the nymphomaniac daughter to meet a sex-addicted man, the gambler son to fall in love with a female croupier at the casino, and the father who wanted to change sex to get struck by lighting, after which all his desires for living as a woman would magically disappear.

That was it!

Then I had that ‘golden glow’ moment as Ralph always called it, that time when the bits and pieces of your story, or in this case Ralph’s final story, all seem to slot into place.

Ralph’s publishers had hoped that he’d finish the book before he died, and Maureen, his wife, and I were going to have to have the sad task of telling them that it hadn’t been completed. Now, with Maureen’s permission, I thought where would be the harm, if I finished the book in the way I was convinced Ralph would have wanted it to be done?

So that’s what I did. We told the publishers that Rap[h had ‘more or less’ finished the novel, and I had successfully tidied up the manuscript.

A month later I regretfully stopped going to Ralph’s ivy-covered big detached house, and settled down in the living room of my tiny bedsit, staring at the computer screen. This was it. I was on my own, and I was going to have to try and earn more money from my own writing, and also would need to get another income somehow. I’d already looked in the local paper and discovered that the only way to pay some of my bills would be to apply to do early morning cleaning in a local pub or try to be accepted on a team of telephone salespeople. For want of inspiration I’d even gone back to the spiritualist meeting that Ralph and I had attended. Was I hoping to contact Ralph? Of course I was, but I knew the idea was ridiculous, and so it proved. I travelled home in the pouring rain, feeling more wretched than I’d ever felt in my life before.

When I got home, I desultorily looked through my latest novel: a tale of the trials and tribulations of a Victorian family in rural England.

It was bollocks. All of it. I realised that the novel I’d spent so much time slaving over, had no redeeming qualities at all, and it was rubbish. Worse that than, it was boring rubbish.

Then a very strange thing happened.

Maureen had let me have Ralph’s old typewriter, and suddenly I saw a few of the keys flying up and down. There was the familiar clatter clack I’d grown used to hearing in Ralphs’s study.

Then in a bizarre flash of insight, I thought of another story altogether. Something completely new, and it seemed to me, completing gripping. I immediately sat down at the computer, and started work on it. After ten days of feverish typing, I had written an entirely original one-hundred-thousand word novel. When I reread the first draft, for the first time ever, I felt that ‘Golden Glow’, that Ralph used to talk about.

I phoned Edna, the editor at my publishers and outlined my new storey. And, for once, she seemed enthusiastic, telling me that a nuclear physicist with a foot fetish and a transsexual mind reader who wanted to assassinate the Queen, sounded in the zeitgeist of recent literary trends, and she was looking forward to seeing it.

Six months on, and my novel was published, and, to my amazement, it was well received. Reviews such as ‘Hector Goodbody has at last found his voice, and it’s really worth listening to’ and ‘Forget his previous turgid nonsense, this author had finally hit on a gripping yarn.’

After a year, that book had become a bestseller, and I’d been commissioned to write two more.

As I’d begun to write the second, with the usual ‘blank page nightmare’, sure enough I saw Ralph’s typewriter spring to life, and simultaneously the ideas flowed into my brain.

Oh yes, I almost forgot. As soon as I found that sales of my novel were substantial, I arranged a regular donation to all the charities that Ralph had donated to, plus a few of my own, making a mental note to increase them if sales got any better.

And I added another one to the list: the local spiritualist church.


The Night has a Thousand Eyes


“She wouldn’t just go—she isn’t like that!”

“But you said you had a row and told you she was leaving you.”

“I know that, but. . .”

The trouble with being a senior police officer is that while you have masses of experience to draw on, you also grow a strange instinct for when things don’t smell right.

That was the case with Michael. He was convinced that his girlfriend had disappeared against her will, and no one would believe him, including me. But something told me there was more.

On the face of it, Helen Bailey had done everything you would expect someone to do if they wanted to take a solo trip around the world, as she’d told everyone she was going to do. She’d left her job at the bookshop, having given notice, she’d arranged to leave her rented flat, and she’d withdrawn a large sum of money from her bank account. All her belongings, including her passport, had gone with her on the appointed day of leaving her erstwhile home. She had no immediate family, but she’d told her boyfriend, Michael Hastings, that she wanted to break up with him and get away from her old life, ‘once and for all’ and discover new things and a whole new life that didn’t include him. And so she had apparently done so.

No amount of explaining that anyone over the age of eighteen (Helen was twenty-six) was free to do anything, go anywhere, live as they wanted, would dissuade Michael from believing that she had either come to a bad end or was currently in some kind of danger.

“I’m very sorry,” I told him firmly. “I wish there was something I could do. But if Helen didn’t want to keep in touch with you, then it’s her decision.”

Indeed, Michal struck me as a ‘clingy’ kind of individual, with his unblinking stare, stutter, frown of concern and obsessive obstinacy. Small wonder that Helen had wanted to get away from him. Anyway, since she had evidently gone abroad, as she’d told him she’d planned to do, I had no way of contacting foreign police forces to check up on her whereabouts, for a start, I didn’t even knew which country to contact.

The day’s drama, which had me escorting poor Michael out of the police station, and him begging, in tears, for me to do something, had upset me a lot. Okay, the man was very odd, and also unreasonable, but I felt sorry for him. The loss of his girlfriend Helen, had reminded me of my own loss. After forty years of happy marriage, Jean had died last year, and now all our plans for my imminent retirement made no sense anymore.

We had bought a little cottage on the coast, about an hour’s drive away, and Jean had spent her last few years decorating the place, choosing curtains, and planning our idyllic retirement. Now the place just reminded me of Jean’s hopes and aspirations for the time when we could be together all day, that now could never be. I was planning to sell it, for my few friends were here, in the city, so what was the point in moving away?

That evening I got a phone call from one of the neighbouring cottages.

“Bob? I thought I should tell you, the lights have been coming on and off in your house. I thought it was odd, because your car wasn’t outside, so I knocked on the door, but there was no one at home. Is anyone staying there?”

“Oh hell,” I answered friendly Janet, the lady next door, whom Jean had struck up a firm friendship with. “Well I certainly haven’t been there, no one has. Hope there hasn’t been a break-in. Otherwise it has to be some kind of electrical fault. I’d better come down and take a look.”

But on the drive down, I couldn’t fathom what kind of electrical fault could cause such a phenomenon. And it was odd, since before buying the place it had passed an electrical safety survey.

Sleepy Hollow, the cottage’s nameplate beside the front door, stood out in the pitch dark in my car headlights as I pulled into the drive, parked and went in.

Just for an instant I thought I could smell Jean’s perfume. I switched on the hall light.

And then it went off again. Then on. Three times it happened.

What on earth was happening?

I checked the front and rear doors, all the windows, indeed any possible point of access and everything was secure. No signs of a break-in whatsoever.

In the living room, I noticed a book had fallen from one of the shelves. I walked across and there was The Count of Monte Cristo, one of Jean’s favourite books, she’d read it again and again.

Weird. How come it had fallen down?

The light in the living room went off, then came on again, three times. And then I swear I heard that old Bobby Vee song, ‘The Night has a Thousand Eyes’. It had been a favourite of ours, a song that I remembered from childhood, and Jean I used to sing along with it when we were at school.

That’s when I remembered that Jean was a much nicer person than me, and had always been taken in by the most blatant liars, considering that some ‘unseen god’ would always unmask a villain, as in the words of the song: that a liar is spied on by the ‘stars in the sky’. But she wasn’t naive in a bad way, she just had no instincts for recognising ‘wrong uns’. She would always help anyone she could. Indeed her innate kindness was one of the reasons why I had loved her.

Next day I thought it couldn’t do any harm to visit the bookshop where Helen Bailey had worked, to see if any of her colleagues could shed any light on her disappearance.

No one seemed to know her very well, but a rather sly young woman with a permanent scowl, April, had whispered to me that “Helen and Oliver had a thing going once,” pointing to a bespectacled balding individual with a drooping moustache who was on a ladder, stacking books on a shelf. “It ended badly. But for goodness sake, don’t tell him I said anything. Oliver is a right weirdo.”

But when I talked to Oliver he seemed a harmless soul. He smiled noncommittally, telling me what all of them had said: that he hadn’t known Helen very well and had no idea where she had gone.

As I was leaving the bookshop something made me pause. When I turned around, Oliver had his back to me, but his shelf stacking had gone into a faster mode, and as he moved sideways I noticed a bead of sweat on his forehead. I was beside the fiction shelves and a book slid off onto the floor, for no apparent reason. I picked it up.

It was ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’. The story of the man who has been falsely imprisoned and exacts revenge on his captors.

The same book that had fallen from the shelves in my cottage.

That’s when I knew.

After several hours in the police station, Oliver eventually admitted that he had abducted Helen on the day she was leaving work. Passionately in love with her, he’d overpowered her and driven her to his isolated house, where he had chained her up in the cellar, hoping that when she ‘saw the light and admitted her love for him’ he would be able to release her and they’d live happily ever after.

When she came out of hospital and learned that it was Michael’s persistence against the odds that had been the reason for her release she saw him in a new light, and last I heard she’d decided to delay her world trip.

And me? I thought again about selling our cottage by the sea. The electrician never found anything wrong with the lighting.

And as I settled down to watch telly on the following Saturday evening in the living room of Sleepy Hollow I thought I heard ‘The Night has a Thousand Eyes’ coming from somewhere.

Gone Forever


When my wife died I was lost. We’d been married for thirty years, and when I retired we spent most of our time together.

Over the past few years we hadn’t bothered with friends much, just did our own thing, went away for weekends, pottered around the house and the garden. She was so much a part of my life that when she died unexpectedly, after a very short illness, I felt more alone that I’ve ever felt in my life.

We never had children, so I didn’t really have any kind of family support.

You read all this stuff about a loved one’s spirit coming back to give you comfort, to say they’re in a happy place and not to worry about them, but nothing like that had happened to me. I even went to church for the first time in years, I prayed over and over, asking for some kind of message from Linda, just to know that she was still somewhere around, that she wasn’t gone forever. But there was nothing. Not a vestige of anything in the house, in the bedroom, even in her beloved garden, where she spent so many happy hours.

Reluctantly I had to face the fact that all that stuff about an afterlife was so much hogwash.

Depression is as bad as you’ve been told, and worse. It drains away your life and leaves you hollow. I used to like messing about doing up old cars, but I just couldn’t be bothered anymore. I used to play golf, but now my clubs just gathered dust. I was no longer interested in watching football or anything else on the telly, I couldn’t be enthusiastic about food, in fact I had hardly any appetite. I couldn’t sleep for longer than a couple of hours, and the more tired I got, the worse my insomnia became. And one morning I woke up and thought what’s the point of any of it? Why force myself on? Who would care if I wasn’t here?

So I drove out to the motorway and I parked nearby. Got out of the car, and walked over towards the barrier. I began to climb over, planning to run out in front of the biggest, fastest truck. But just as I was about to jump down I thought about the poor truck driver. How would he feel, having my death on his conscience? Regretfully, I trudged back to my car.

Out of sheer desperation I went down to the doctors’ surgery. Surely someone there could help me? Maybe they could give me some pills to help me to sleep. Or what was that stuff, Prozac, that cured depression? Neither Linda or I had had much to do with doctors – we’d luckily both been pretty healthy up until her final illness.

The receptionist was very nice, but she explained that there was no chance of seeing anyone. But as I walked away, I think she must have somehow sensed how I was feeling, so she said, “Look Mr Henderson, no promises, but if you’d like to wait, I’ll try and have a word with one of the doctors and see if they can fit you in.”

“Thank you,” I told her. “I’m sorry, it’s just I don’t know where else to turn.”

For a couple of hours I watched the miserable procession of people getting up and striding off to the different rooms. I was tempted just to give up and go home. But something stopped me – maybe I just couldn’t face going back to that empty lonely house. Or maybe I was afraid of being tempted back to the motorway for my appointment with a speeding truck.

“Mr Henderson?” A woman doctor came out of one of the rooms and walked across to me. “I’m Dr Rogers, please come through.”

She had a lovely face. I don’t mean I fancied her, nothing like that. Truth to tell it was months since I’d even noticed women in that way. No, I mean she had one of those smiles that cheers you up deep inside, and you don’t quite know why.

In her room, I told her everything: how I was feeling, how I was afraid I might do something silly, how I didn’t know what to do.

“You say you want to believe that Linda is still surviving somehow,” she said at last, “that her spirit lives on?”

“Yes. It’s ridiculous of course.”

“It’s not ridiculous at all,” she told me seriously. “And why are you so convinced that your Linda has gone forever?”

“Because it’s true,” I said to her. “I tried and tried to contact her. I’d have given the world to have some kind of sign or message from Linda’s soul, her spirit or whatever, but nothing ever happened. When I looked down at her in the coffin, I remember thinking that all this belief in life after death, is nothing but wishful thinking. I could see that her body was just a shell. That Linda had gone. Gone forever.”

“Well, Mr Henderson, you’re right, her body was a shell, but that was because her spirit had left it. Personally I passionately believe that there is an afterlife. I believe that your Linda is probably with you right now, even though you don’t realise it.”

“Life after death?” I couldn’t believe my ears. “You really believe in such a thing?”

She nodded. “Believe me, Mr Henderson, I believe in life after death as much as I believe that you’re sitting there in front of me. Oh yes, just because you can’t communicate with Linda doesn’t mean to say she’s not trying to communicate with you. It’s like a TV tuned to the wrong channel.”

“Really?” I was bemused at her serious expression. “But you’re a doctor! How can you believe something that isn’t proved scientifically?”

“A great many doctors are religious. We see a lot of miracle cures that can’t be explained scientifically. And we see so many people die, many of us believe that the earthly life isn’t the end. I’m certain of it myself. Absolutely certain.”

“Thank you doctor. You’ve been very kind. I appreciate your help.”

While I’d been talking to her I’d felt fine. But when I got out of the room, away from her kind face and sympathetic words, my legs went to jelly, and my depression came back with a vengeance. Dr Rogers had undoubtedly been a very special person, so nice and kind, and she’d offered me comforting platitudes. But she hadn’t given me any pills.

In reality, it had been an utter waste of time.

Believing in an afterlife? Admittedly she had been infinitely kind and well meaning, and she had obviously chosen her words to try and bamboozle me into some kind of contentment, in an attempt to lift my depression.

But you know what?

It hadn’t worked.

Life after death? What nonsense.

She must have taken me for some simple minded moron, an idiot, someone who’d readily fall for her fairy tales.

The disappointment of everything, and the sheer tidal wave of misery, came over me all at once, so that I had to sit down in the waiting room again, and suddenly I found I just couldn’t stop myself crying. Not wanting to draw attention to myself I fought against it, struggling to regain control, hoping no one had noticed me.

No such luck. The receptionist I’d spoken to earlier came across with a box of tissues and sat beside me, putting a gentle hand on my shoulder.

“I am so sorry, Mr Henderson,” she told me. “I’ve tried and tried to help you, but none of the doctors have had a second to spare and surgery’s closing in ten minutes. I know you lost your wife, but the fact is we’ve had a terrible tragedy here too. One of our doctors died yesterday, suddenly, with no warning, and everyone’s had to rally round and cover her appointments. Frankly we’re all stunned, we can’t take it in.” Her voice became hoarse and a tear appeared at the corner of her eye. She pointed towards the room I’d just come out of, with the name ‘Dr Marian Rogers’ on the door. “We haven’t even been able to bear to clear her drawers or even lock up her room. You see we all really loved Dr Rogers. She was the most popular doctor here. I’ve had patients say they only had to look at her face and feel her kindness and warmth and they’d feel better immediately.”

The Murderer


Stephen, a quiet man who popped into our Dark and Light store one day, told me this very interesting story:

Stephen’s Story

“I killed my wife,” said the man sitting opposite me in the cable car.

“Excuse me?” I answered, bemused, thinking I’d misheard him.

“She was sitting where you’re sitting now, and we were passing over the valley, just as we are at the moment. What a splendid view, isn’t it?

“I’m not quite with you.” I tried to make sense of what he was saying.

“Perfectly simple. I killed her. The thing is we’d been arguing all day, and she was going on about how much money she’d screw out of me in a divorce settlement. So I couldn’t stop myself. Just looked at her smug self-satisfied face as she went whining on and on, opened the door and pushed her out.”

“Really?” I was barely listening to this madman. I was terrified of travelling to the top of the mountains in this cable car and had been dreading making the trip. Now we were halfway up, getting higher and higher, and I’d kept my eyes tight shut so as not to have to look out of the window. I just longed to reach the mountain peak and get out and sit down on firm land, and not to have to look down to a view thousands of feet below me.

Nor did I want to have to talk to this maniac, who was sitting opposite me.

“Yes, it wasn’t that hard really, She was so surprised she hardly realised what was happening. And when she went, she fell through the air just like a sky diver, quite extraordinary. It was quite beautiful to watch her fall really. I had my binoculars and was able to see what happened. She crashed through a greenhouse roof and landed headfirst in a crop of tomatoes.” He paused. “Funny that. She always liked tomatoes.”

I didn’t reply.

“So young man,” he went on. “Are you scared of heights?”

“Yes, terrified.”

“So why are you travelling in a glass-sided cable car above a valley that’s 2,000 feet below us?”

I flinched at the thought. “I write for a travel magazine and I have to describe the view and this cable-car experience for an article I’m writing.”

I looked at him properly for the first time. He didn’t look mad at all. He appeared to be perfectly ordinary: a man in his late sixties, chubby, mostly bald with some white hair, wearing a light coloured suit. Beside him was a thin, bored looking man of about my own age, who was absorbed in looking out of the window at the view below us, and taking no part in our conversation.

“Have you always been afraid of heights?” the ‘murderer’ persevered.

“Yes. Ever since I was small.”

“Well, what I’d suggest you need to do now is bite the bullet. Step over to the door and lean out over the drop. If you can do that you’ll have faced your fear. Then you’ll never be afraid of heights again.”

“No, I couldn’t do that,” I replied. “It’s bad enough just being here.”

“One step at a time, eh? Well there’s no need to worry. This car is as safe as houses. I should know – been using it for years, ever since we retired to this area. It’s perfectly safe. And it really is a beautiful view down there.”

He was behaving so matter-of-factly that I wondered if I’d misheard what he’d been saying earlier on.

“Excuse me,” I began hesitantly, “but didn’t you just tell me that you had recently murdered your wife?”

“Yes I did,” he replied equably. “And now my problem is what to do next. Do I go to the police? We were alone in this cable car, no witnesses, so I could pretend she just jumped. But it’s a risk. If they don’t believe me I’d face years in prison.”


“Alternatively I could go on the run, but I really don’t fancy that at my age. Or I could kill myself. Hmm. Quite a range of options really. What would you do?”

“Well, to be quite honest, I don’t think I’d have murdered my wife in the first place.”

“Point taken. At the time it seemed such a good idea. But now I really am in rather a fix.”

The journey continued, and when we arrived at our destination, it was such an incredible relief to step out onto land. I wondered if there was any other way to get back to the town I’d just left, so as not to have to go in the cable car again? I really didn’t want to face a return journey in the wretched horrible claustrophobic cable car.


My new friend bustled off quickly and strode away out of sight.

As I began my walk into town, the man who’d been sitting opposite me, and beside the murderer, was staring at me, frowning to himself.

“Absolutely astonishing,” he said, coming closer and staring at my face. “I really can’t see a thing. They can do miracles these days, can’t they?”

“What do you mean?” I asked him.

“Well, the earpiece and the mic for your phone. It’s so tiny I can’t even see it. All through our journey just now you were chatting away to yourself, obviously talking to someone on the phone, and yet your microphone and your earpiece must be so tiny as to be virtually invisible.”

“Wait a minute,” I told him. “I haven’t been talking on the phone. I was talking to the man beside you. The old man who was sitting opposite me.”

“What old man?” he said in surprise, smiling at me. “We were alone in that cable car. There was no one else there but the two of us.” He ignored my amazed expression.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry into your business, clearly your phone call was private, I promise you I wasn’t listening.” He moved closer to me, talking in a quieter voice. “Hope you didn’t mind me chatting to you, but between you and me I’m a bit nervous, as I’ve got a pretty grim job in front of me. I’m a reporter for the local paper, for the Brits who live out here. A fortnight ago some English bloke who’d retired out here apparently went mad, pushed his wife out of the cable car, then went home and shot himself. It’s up to muggins here to find out the facts. I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything about it, have you?”


Gone with the Wind


Knowing that I’m interested in the supernatural, very often people tell me their stories.  This is Ray’s very strange tale that really got me thinking. . .

“Thing is Jamie, when my wife died, my little girl took it hard.”

Ray Tomkins was verging on drunk, chattering away almost to himself, even though he kept leaning towards me, to make sure I was still listening.

“How do you explain to a three-year-old that her mummy has gone for ever?”

Ray was a pleasant fortyish character I’d got talking to in the pub. I liked him a lot. As he downed his third pint and leaned closer to me, his friendly smile whisked me into his realm of cheerful contentment.

“It was a hard time for me, as you can imagine. Had to give up my job and I signed on the dole to look after her. But it was the best decision I ever made. They say that being a dad is the most important job you can ever do in your life, don’t they? And by golly it’s true.”

“Can’t have been easy on your own,” I commented.

“But strangely enough I wouldn’t have missed those years for all the riches in the world. Having my little Ellie meant that somehow my Sally wasn’t gone, do you see? Because they were so alike in lots of ways. And when children are that age, every day is exciting. Watching a little person grow and change, learn to speak and see things and find out about life. And now that Ellie’s grown up, she tells me how she remembers those years when we were alone, and how happy she was, in spite of mussing her mum of course. See, I had to be a mum and dad all rolled into one. With a bit of help from my mum and sister of course.”

He gazed into space for a moment. “But the thing I wanted to tell you about, Jamie, was my ghostly experience, because I know you’re keen on that sort of thing. Well it was 2003, and we used to go for walks in Coulsdon, Surrey. There was this old derelict mental hospital – Netherne – that they’d mostly knocked down, out in the fields it was, where the village of Netherne-on-the-hill is built now. But the chapel of the old mental hospital was still there, and Ellie used to like looking over at the place you know? Nice old red-brick building, You couldn’t get close, but you could see it from the path through the metal fence, and it was where we’d always sit down on the grass for a bit of a rest before the walk back home.

“Well, one day, she looked up at one of the broken windows and started waving. I looked across to where she was waving, but there was no one there. Who are you waving to, love? I asked her. She just smiled, and pointed and said ‘Pretty lady! Daddy, look at the pretty lady! Can’t you see her there? In window. Looking down. Smiling at me!’

“I was worried that she’d started seeing things, was losing her mind. And next day she looked up to see if the pretty lady was there at the window, but she wasn’t. Nor was she there the day after, or ever again, even though little Ellie looked up expectantly, longing to see her. She was always disappointed.”

“And it was just a derelict empty building?”

Ray nodded. “It was fenced off from the public, so if anyone had been inside it could only have been a building worker, and if someone had broken in, they’d not have been in the mood to stare out of the window smiling down at a child. Well I tell you, I was a bit worried, and asked our doctor about it, but he said that is wasn’t so unusual for youngsters of that age to make up ‘pretend’ people, and in Ellie’s case, she was obviously missing her mother, so inventing a ‘mysterious pretty lady’ was a natural thing, because she was missing a female influence in her life. That seemed to make sense, and I didn’t make a big deal of it, and, as I said, Ellie never saw her again. So no harm done. Soon she forgot all about it.”

I got us some more drinks, thinking that was the end of his story.

“But you know what was odd?” he went on, “Not long ago Ellie and her boyfriend Mark and I went to see that film Gone with the Wind, and after it, Ellie was quiet like, she seemed shaken, you know? I asked her what was wrong, and she said ‘Did I remember the ‘pretty lady’ she saw at the window of the chapel at the mental hospital, all those years ago?’ I told her yes, I remembered her talking about it, that she’d imagined it. ‘Well,’ she said to me, ‘I’m sure I didn’t imagine it. And that was her, in the film! Scarlett O’Hara! I can distinctly remember her looking down at me and smiling, the actress in the film. I’d forgotten all about seeing her until I saw Scarlett O’Hara  there on the plantation gazing out at Rhett Butler. She was gazing down at me in just the same way.’”

“So do you think that Ellie had seen Gone with the Wind as an infant on TV, and not remembered it?”

“No. I thought of that. I’d have remembered seeing it on TV with her – she only ever watched cartoons on her own.”

“Very odd.”

“When we got home, her boyfriend googled the actress Vivian Leigh, who played Scarlett O’Hara in the film. We found the following entry:

The actress Vivien Leigh suffered from bipolar disorder, and after a particularly bad breakdown in 1952, her husband, Laurence Olivier, brought her back to England in 1953, where she was treated by the relatively innovative method known as Electro Convulsive Therapy, in the exclusive Fairdene wing of the pioneering Netherne Hospital in Coulsdon. .

So I dug around a bit and checked the date she was admitted. It was the evening of 21 March 1953. Fifty years to the day when Ellie saw the ‘pretty lady’ in that chapel window. . .”


Flight 409


Have you ever done something on the spur of the moment that’s totally unlike how you usually behave?  For instance have you ever made love to someone you’ve only just met, taken a smoke of cannabis for a dare, or given a beggar a shed-load of money, just because he had a nice friendly smile?

This is Michael’s story, about his rash act of kindness that more or less ruined his life.  But you know what?  The spooky thing about this story is that he didn’t know why he did it.

As he told me, his hands shaking, something just Made him do it.


Everyone hates me.

I’m an inspector for Accountancy Solutions. I’m the guy who swoops into your place of work when your boss thinks someone’s nicking money or goods, and goes through the accounts to make sure things are in order.  And if they’re not, it’s muggins here who points the finger at the likely culprit.

I do pretty well at it. I’ve got a lovely wife, and we adore each other, in fact we’ve got the perfect marriage. My boss Colin is also my best and oldest friend. Elizabeth and I have got a beautiful big house. On the whole I enjoy my work.

Born lucky I suppose you could say.

So why do you think I risked everything I’ve ever worked for to help a perfect stranger out of trouble?

My strange experience happened in Edinburgh.  My company had sent me up to Frigid Foods, a large distribution centre for supermarket produce, where the boss suspected that money was going missing.

And I’d done the job to a tee.

Which was what was upsetting me so much.

I was waiting at the airport for Flight 409 that was leaving shortly, to take me back to London.

I was brooding and unhappy, remembering the ‘criminal’ Mary McCarthy, the extremely attractive middle-aged lady in the accounts department, who’d asked me into her office as I was leaving.

Tearfully she’d confessed to being the one who’d taken the money, something which I already knew.  She explained about her daughter’s drug addiction, her desperate attempts to find her counselling and therapy, and the huge cost of treatment at the addiction clinic.  This was the reason, she told me, that she’d ‘borrowed’ money from the company’s account, intending to pay it all l back before anyone noticed.  Indeed, she told me, she’d got a loan that very day, and had already paid back all that she’d taken, but it would only show in the books tomorrow, too late for her to cover up what she’d done, particularly as I had now completed my audit.  For obvious reasons we inspectors arrive out of the blue, so that no potential crook has the opportunity to cover their tracks.

Of course she knew there was nothing I could do to help her, she didn’t even ask.  Just sat there, telling me about her depression and misery, how she was divorced, and had been prepared to pay literally anything to find help for her daughter, who’d ‘fallen apart in front of her eyes’, but thankfully at long last had found a boyfriend and was on the road to recovery.

All I could do was advise her to tell her boss the truth next day, before they got my company report, and to throw herself on his mercy.

She replied, grimly telling me what I already knew: that as soon as he found out the company would be obliged to prosecute her, she might even go to prison, and she’d certainly never get another decent job.



Was the notice that flipped up on the huge announcement board, that broke into my gloomy thoughts.

But just as I stood up to go through to the departure lounge, I knew that I couldn’t go.

I just couldn’t go!

I pictured Elizabeth, my wonderful wife, getting ready to drive out to meet me at Heathrow in a couple of hours’ time.

But I still couldn’t go.

For some weird reason I knew that there was no way that I could leave Edinburgh.

Next thing I knew I was running out of the airport and leaping into a taxi.

When I arrived back at Frigid Foods, the man on the reception desk was surprised to see me.

“Thought you’d finished, Mr Cook,” he said.

“Something I forgot,” I told him.  “Is it all locked up upstairs then?”

“No, the offices stay open until eight in case anyone wants to work late.”


As I climbed up to the third floor I had a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach, a gut-churning fear of I don’t know what.  I raced hell-for-leather up the last flight, and reached the accounts office door, crashing through, to hear the sound of furniture falling.

And I arrived to see Mary McCarthy dangling by the neck from a noose that was fixed to the ceiling.

I made it in time to lift her legs, and eventually managed to reach up and disentangle the noose, so that she fell down into my arms.

She was slack and almost comatose, but it was merely drunkenness that was affecting her: I could smell alcohol on her breath, but she was breathing fine, panting in fact. It looked as if I’d arrived in time to stop the noose doing any damage at all.

And, unsettlingly, I realised how attractive I found her to be.  I longed to kiss her, and hold her in my arms.

When I’d settled her on the chair, I found another one and sat in front of her.

“Why did you come back?”  she demanded, aggressive in her drunkenness.  “Why did you stop me?”

I shook my head to clear my thoughts. “Because I’ve had an idea.”

“An idea?”

“I can make it go away.”


“I haven’t emailed my report yet.  The money’s going to be in the company account tomorrow. I’m going to fudge the figures. I can pull some wangles, make the missing money ‘appear’ where it shouldn’t, at dates it didn’t.  I’ll tell your boss there are no discrepancies, that everything’s fine.”

“But why? ” She stared at me in amazement.  “If anyone found out—”

“—My career would be toast.”


How could I answer her?  I hadn’t got a clue myself.

“Maybe it’s because I’ve had more than my fair share of good luck. I’m in love with my wife, I enjoy my work, I’ve got money, and I simply can’t face going back to my lovely happy life at home and leaving you in the shit. I like you Mary. And I’ve seen enough criminals to tell when someone’s straight and decent.”

“You feel sorry for me.”

“Anyone would feel sorry for you. I can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to have a problem daughter to cope with.”

“Oh God, Michael, I don’t know what to say. Thanking you doesn’t even begin to cut it,” she said quietly after a while.  “You know I simply can’t believe this is happening. I mean what do you get out of it?”

“Nothing. Please Mary, I don’t want anything, I just want to put things right. Forget this mess ever happened.”


“—Come on. Let’s get out of here and find a decent place to eat. I’m starving.”

We found a nice pub and had a good meal. And Mary relaxed more as she ate, and the drunkenness wore off.

And with a sinking heart I suddenly realised how utterly stupid I was being.

For in the last half hour I’d done something I’d never ever done before in my professional life, and I was going to live to regret it. I’d fallen for a pretty face, and stupidly risked everything I’d worked for, for the last twenty years: my well-paid job, my lifestyle. And if I lost my job my wonderful wife Elizabeth would suffer too.

Oh God, Elizabeth. We’d never had any secrets from each other, and I knew I’d have to tell her what I’d done. That’s the kind of marriage we had, we could tell each other virtually everything. I could tell her what a bloody fool I was to have done this rash act of kindness and she would understand.

Or could I?

Was I betraying her?

But for the next hour Mary chatted away about her life, her family, her daughter’s troubles and so on until I suddenly realised guiltily that I hadn’t phoned Elizabeth to tell her I’d be on the later flight.

While Mary went to the toilet, I dialled my home’s number on my mobile, then cursed as I remembered that the phone people had been tinkering with the wires in the road outside our house, and the landline phone was behaving erratically.

Strangely, the next time the dialling tone gave way immediately to a conversation, and I recognised Elizabeth’s voice on what had to be a crossed line. Then I heard who she was talking to:

“Shut up Lizzie and listen!” said the male voice I recognised as Colin, my best friend and boss at Accountancy Solutions.  “I tell you there were no survivors at all on flight 409. Yes, yes, poor old Michael, I know, it’s terrible, but face it darling, he was killed on take-off, everyone was.  At least it makes things simpler for us.  Now you don’t need to divorce him.  And knowing Michael, I bet his life was insured to the hilt.”

“But Colin darling, it’s all so sudden, I can’t get used to it…”

In a daze I looked up at the large flatscreen TV on the wall of the pub.  There in front of me was the wreckage of the aircraft I should have been on, with the words underneath reiterating that all the passengers on Flight 409 were killed in the crash.

Black Shuck

Jamie’s note for readers:

Tales of a large black ghostly hound have been reported for centuries from all around the British Isles. However ‘Black Shuck’, also known as the ‘Spectre Hound’ or the ‘Hound of Hell’, the huge wild dog that portends disaster to anyone who sees it, is specific to parts of Norfolk and Suffolk, especially in coastal villages, where sightings have been reported for more than a thousand years. There’s even talk of links to the Vikings’ superstitions, suggesting that the hound was actually the god Odin’s ‘dog of war’. Black Shuck is said to be one of the oldest ‘phantoms’ of Great Britain, its name deriving from the Anglo Saxon word ‘Scucca’ meaning demon.

This unnerving experience happened to me a while ago now, and it still makes me shiver to remember it.



“He was the biggest dog I ever saw, more like a horse. Black, vicious eyes like saucers. I was terrified, so I was.”

“And you saw it last night? On the building site?” I asked Pat O’Reilly, who was sitting across the pub table from me with his two friends.

He crossed himself before replying. “As God’s my witness, so I did, sir. And I don’t mind telling you that I ran. I ran for my life! Sure that dog was massive, I’ve never seen anything like it. When I stopped running and turned round it had gone. Just vanished into thin air.”

“And it was floating around on a sea of mist?”

“Something like mist,” Pat blustered, half closing his eyes to remember. “Twas all swirling like a misty lake, you couldn’t see its legs properly.”

I waited for the almost twitching upper lip, the glint in someone’s eye, the incipient smirk of ridicule aching for release.

But Pat and his friends were obviously very good actors.

Phantom dogs with slavering lips and wild eyes, chasing him for his life? For goodness sake! Should I fall in with the joke, I wondered, or front them up?

Because I don’t like being ridiculed.

And I could easily see why this big unimaginative building worker was making fun of me, and why. The previous week the national newspapers had carried a story with the headline The architect who believes in ghosts!, proceeding to mock my latest investigation into a haunted manor house, making me out to be a naïve crank. I’d already taken a lot of stick from friends and acquaintances, but meeting ridicule from men I was employing on a job was another matter.

Apart from me, Pat O’Reilly and a couple of the other members of his gang of building workers, The Pheasants Game pub, in the village of Dunster, on the Norfolk coast was almost empty on that freezing cold winter’s night. The big house I’d been commissioned to design and supervise the build on the nearby clifftop was in its early stages, and I’d come up to see how far the excavation crew had come—their job was to dig the trenches to the various specified depths prior to the pouring of concrete foundations. I’d never met any of the Irish building workers before, but it seems they’d heard of me, and were obviously amused about my seemingly naïve interest in the supernatural.

“And its eyes, Mr Dark,” Pat was going on, “Sure they was as big as saucers! It’s terrified I was, I’ve never seen a dog that size running free, and it looked as if it was going to tear me to shreds. What in all that’s holy could it have been?”

“All right Pat, this had gone far enough.” I got up, stepping around the table. I grabbed him by the collar and dragged him to his feet, my face inches from his. “The world and his wife has heard about the ‘phantom hound of Norfolk’, and you thought I was stupid enough to fall for your story because you’ve read in the papers that I’m some patsy who believes in ghosts,” I snapped angrily. “You’ve had your joke, so now you can just bloody well shut up and remember that it’s me who’s paying your wages!”

As I released him to collapse back into his seat, I stormed out of the pub and marched down the road.

Upset and lonely, I reflected that it had been a humiliating end to a gruelling day: driving up from Kent, meeting this tough gang of Irish building workers before I’d even had a chance to snatch a meal, and then discovering that they were all laughing at me. Truth was, that even before Pat O’Reilly had tried to make a fool of me I was upset and worried about this job, which had been a hassle from the start.

I wanted to go straight to the hotel and to bed, but I was worried about the progress of the excavations, and if Pat and his gang of jokers were as stupid as they appeared to be, they were probably lying about their progress on site, and I knew I wouldn’t sleep until I’d taken a look for myself. I had a powerful flashlight, plus there was plenty of moonlight, so I took the opportunity to stroll back to the building site to take another look at the trenches that Pat and his boys were supposed to have dug.


It was easy to see why my client had wanted a house on this beautiful clifftop location. There was a panoramic view out to sea, and it was a delight to see the ‘footprint’ of what was going to be a four-bedroom house laid out on the ground, the six-foot-deep trenches following the lines of what would eventually be its outer walls.

Suddenly I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder.

Scared, I turned around, to see Pat, standing behind.

“Thought I might find you here, Mr Dark,” he began, moving to stand beside me.

I decided not to refer to my outburst in the pub. “I’ve been driving all day to get here, and this is the first chance I’ve had to see how it’s looking. I’ll have to make measurements in daylight, but it looks as if you’ve done well.”

Pat nodded, and I noticed how tall and Celtic he looked, with his clear blue eyes and silver hair and cool gaze—the kind of man you feel you could trust—making me realise that idiots come in all shapes and sizes.

“Listen, Mr Dark, I’m sorry for upsetting you. I can see how it must have sounded back there,” he said quietly.

“All right Pat, let’s just forget it. I can take a joke.”

“I don’t doubt it, sir.” He paused, looking serious. “But the fact is, Mr Dark, none us have read that newspaper article about you. Didn’t even know your name until our gaffer told us you were coming earlier today. And everyone in England might have heard about this ghost dog, Black Shuck, but I’ve lived on the Emerald Isle and the States for most of my life, and it’s all news to me.”

I looked at him, expecting to see the twinkle in his eye before he laughed, having tried to ridicule me for a second time.

That was when I noticed that my flashlight was still on, pointing out into the darkness. Without a word, we both at the same time were drawn to the twin reflections of something like red sparkling jewels, picked out in its lonely yellow beam that stretched out into the darkness.

“Switch it off, for Christ’s sake!” Pat yelled, knocking the flashlight out of my hand. “The light’s attracting it!”

A primeval terror took over. I swear I felt the earth underfoot tremble as the shape in the distance thundered closer. All around the thing there was a swirling mist.

And then we heard the wild howling sound, that set the hairs on the back of my neck pricking up.

Closer now. It was a huge vicious snapping dog, a killing machine on four flailing legs, running hell-for-leather towards us.

“Get down!” Pat snarled in terror, grabbing my coat and pulling me down after him into the trench.

Just before I sprawled down on my face in the mud at the bottom of the grave-like space I saw the huge beast running towards us, its teeth bared, wide saucer-like eyes.

They blazed bright red…

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