Monthly Archives: September 2015

A conversation on a train

A CONVERSATION ON A TRAIN

“I’m 200 years old today. It’s my birthday.”

The man who spoke sat in the opposite corner of the compartment. As people do, we sat as far away from each other as space would allow. We were the only two in the compartment and had been travelling for some 20 minutes. In this time we had not even acknowledged each other. As he spoke I looked at him for the first time.

He was small, perhaps no more than 5 feet 3 inches, with sparse, sandy hair. His brown suit was obviously old and well-worn but showed the unmistakable signs of having been carefully looked after. His footwear was similarly well-worn but polished and presentable. With his clean, white starched collar he looked a typical clerk; the type of man who diligently, and unambiguously, works out his life in the services of the same master in some commercial backwater.

His face was unremarkable until you looked into his eyes. They were a very pale grey and seemed to have vast, hidden depths. As I looked I seemed to see in them experience and understanding far beyond normal understanding.

“Yes,” he said, “I calculate I’m 200 years old today.”

“Oh,” I replied, feeling that I had to say something but not quite knowing what.

I looked at him again – more carefully. Apart from his eyes I would have credited him with little more than 40. But those eyes – they seemed to contain so much more than could be accumulated in a mere 40 years.

“Well, you certainly don’t look 200,” I finally managed to get out.

I had come to the conclusion that the man would need humouring, something I felt disinclined to do, so had decided to let the conversation die away as quickly as possible. However, in responding in the way I did, I seemed to have provided him with the necessary stimulus to speak.  His voice sounded tired, like the sound a well-fitting door makes when it slowly drifts shut in a carpeted room. Even so it came clearly to me over the rattle of the train wheels on the track joints.

“Yes, I suppose I don’t. After all, I was only 40 when I stopped aging. That was 160 years ago and for the past 50 of them I have regretted that fateful day. Yes, regretted it but done nothing about it. Now I’m tired and have come to the end.”

Definitely a man to be humoured, I convinced myself, and settled back to be a martyr to someone else’s needs.  The man sat back in the corner with a far-away look drifting into his eyes: as if he really was thinking back over so many years gone by. After a while he went on in his soft, tired voice. A voice that now had a far-away quality about it as well.

“It’s a strange gift, immortality,” he began. “When it first came to me I was overjoyed. So much time was mine. I had time to do anything and everything I wished. At first I rushed about doing all the hurried, urgent things that one does when confronted with unlimited choice. I had unlimited choice and unlimited time as well but I could not grasp the idea and control myself.

“It took me perhaps ten years to really grasp and accept the fact that I was immortal; that I had no need to hurry anything. It gradually dawned on me when I saw my reflection in the looking glass day after day. My features did not change. For 10 years my face had stayed the same. A little tanned from travelling in sunny climes perhaps, but still the same me. It was then that I slowed down. I could watch change take place. For a while inventions fascinated me. I watched them introduced, often with a great to do, come into common usage and then be overtaken by the next invention.

“I watched people. Great men appeared. Their careers and fame grew, blossomed into full glory and, in time, died. Sometimes their fame lived on, but more often it died with them. Countries appeared and developed from previously unknown corners of the world. Some took their place in world affairs; others sank back into the oblivion that had been theirs.

“I watched this ever-changing pageant with an absorbed interest, sure in the knowledge that I would outlast it all – and I have. But now my interest wanes and I grow tired. Old age is not just a physical thing; it is a mental thing as well.”

He lapsed into silence. Despite myself I had been intrigued by his story. Whether the story was true or not was something I could not tell, but he certainly believed it.  As he sat there in silence my curiosity got the better of me.

“How did you come by this immortality?” I asked.

He looked at me, almost as if he hadn’t seen me before. He studied me with eyes now shrewd and all-knowing. For perhaps a minute he studied me, looking critically into my eyes and at my face.

“The face tells the true story of its wearer” he murmured quietly to himself.

“Yes. How does one come by this gift of immortality?” he repeated, louder but still to himself. Almost as if he was asking himself the question. After a pause he looked straight at me; almost through me.

“I was travelling in the East when it came to me. I did a lot of travelling in those days. I had attached myself to a camel train heading eastwards; roughly in the direction I was aiming. For three days we trekked across the desert.

“During that time I talked often with another itinerant traveller who did not belong to the train either. He, in fact, came from the mountainous lands to the north of India but had spent a long time travelling the desert wastes, never settling for long in one place or with one group of people.  He was presently heading back to this mountainous homeland, there, he said, finally to die. He had one last secret to pass to another and then he could rest in peace.”

Again the man stopped in the telling of his tale. Silence descended on the compartment, broken only by the click-clack of the wheels on the rails.  In a while he took up his story again.

“After the three days we reached an oasis where a number of desert tracks met. The camel train was heading north-east from here: my new found colleague, south. As I was heading nowhere in particular I elected to join him and together we set out, aiming for the mountains of his homeland.  He was a pleasant companion, seeming to have an unending fund of stories of strange parts of the world. His knowledge of the desert seemed limitless, unerringly picking watering places out of the vastness of the wilderness in which we travelled.

“Over the days of travelling we got to know each other very well. One night we had made camp and were sitting beside our small fire before finally settling down for the night. As was usual we were telling stories of our travels and the strange and interesting places we had visited. I remember that my story was of a visit I had made to the Holy Land a few years previously.

“His story went back longer than that – two centuries to be exact. He told me of a meeting with a holy man all those years ago in the land they now call Tibet. There, in the snowy fastness of those mountainous lands, he had spent a winter with a small community of holy men and their families. It appears that he made a very favourable impression on these holy hermits during this time. As the spring came and his departure drew nigh, the head man of the little community called him into his sparse cell.

“There he had told my travelling colleague about the small holy band. Since time immemorial they had lived there – six holy men with their families – untouched by the happenings in the vast world around them; untouched by illness or by old age: immortal.  Their children matured slowly as befitted the children of immortal parents. With no natural death to control their numbers it was important that they did not overpopulate their valley. To avoid this it was laid down in their laws that as a child reached maturity, at 100 years, the oldest of that child’s sex within the community must die.

“That was the problem that now confronted the head man. One of the young men had reached his maturity last summer and now wished to take his place in the community. So the oldest man, the head man, must die. Their law said that he could not leave the valley nor, because of his immortality, could he die in any normal sense of the word. The only way they could end their life was to give their immortality to another living being that was not immortal.

“This they achieved by telling the secret of immortality to one of the animals that lived in the valley. In the telling of the secret the gift of immortality was passed to the other. Having told their secret they aged and died. Provided they told an animal that had not reached breeding age, the balance of nature in the valley was never upset.  The head man, however, had long ago resolved to pass his secret to some other human. During the winter he had decided that their guest, my present companion, should be the receiver of the gift, the first human from outside the valley to become immortal. In the telling of the secret my companion had been given immortality, whether he wanted it or not.

“The head man had then hurried him on his way. The years would now rapidly and irrecoverably catch up with the head man and within hours he would be dead and the young man of the community would take his place.

“My companion had then found himself ushered out of the cell and into the bright spring day. His few belongings had been bundled together and these, together with a quantity of food, awaited him. One of the young men escorted him to the edge of the valley and directed him to a path that eventually led to the desert in which we were travelling.

“When we first met, my companion had been heading back to the valley to return the gift. However, the days we had spent together had changed his mind. His wish now was to pass on the gift to another dweller of the world. In telling me the secret the gift was given again. Like him before me I had had no choice.”

The man grew silent. In the time it had taken him to tell the story he had aged ten years, or so it seemed. After a while he spoke again.

“As I said, at first I was overjoyed. But now I feel old and I am tired and want to rest. I have had enough.”

He stopped speaking just as the train jerked. It was coming into a station, the first stop on the journey. That jerk of the breaks brought me back to reality and I shook myself as a dog does after getting caught in a shower of rain. As the train pulled to a halt the man stood up and reached for my hat and coat from the rack above the seat.

“I believe this is your stop for this journey,” he said as he handed me my things. I automatically stood up and took them. I climbed out of the carriage and for a moment stood on the platform looking back at the story teller. He smiled at me with a tired smile and spoke as he pulled the door closed.

“Take care of the precious gift of immortality. It is yours now, guard it well.”

The train pulled away from the platform and the man was lost to my sight. I stood on the platform and watched the train disappear into the distance. I stood on the station, slowly realising that I was immortal, and my erstwhile travelling companion would soon be no more.

It was in 1854 when I stood on that platform with realisation dawning. Now I too am tired of this ever-changing world and want to rest.  I cannot wait for 2055 to arrive. I cannot bear the burden of immortality for 200 years. Things now move so much more rapidly than they did when I had the conversation in the train. I believe that 150 years is now the limit a soul can take.  I have come to the end so ….. Take care of the gift of immortality for it, now, is yours.

Guard it well.

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A bolt from the blue

It really was a ‘bolt from the blue’ – a bolt of soft, exquisite lace falling from the top of a stack of bolts of blue linen. It bounced off Jimmy’s head and his reflexes were good enough to catch it before it hit the floor.

‘Oh my goodness; I’m so sorry. Are you OK?’ She was shortish, ‘softly built’ and of indeterminate middle age – and now looking very flustered.

‘I’m OK. Soft lace landing on a soft head does no damage’, he said. ‘It’s a very nice piece of lace I must admit. My wife would have loved something like that.’

‘Oh; can I cut you a length to take home for her? It’s the least we can do after dropping it on you.’

‘No, that’s OK – she passed away last year – in fact 12 months today it was.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ Tears started to show in her eyes. ‘My Jim passed away this time last year as well.’ She sniffed, trying to bring herself away from the memories.

There – would it be wrong if I took you over there’ Jimmy said, pointing across to the snack bar, ‘and we both had a cup of coffee or something? Would your boss mind?’

‘He’s up on the next floor – and it’s my break anyway. I was going for a coffee when I knocked the lace on to you.’

‘So you’ll join me then?’       She looked round. There was no staff member to be seen. ‘Yes, thank you; that would be nice.’

‘We’ll take this lace with us for now shall we?’ Jimmy said. ‘Can’t have it falling on anyone else can we,’ he added with a chuckle.

She smiled too.

They found a seat in the corner of the snack bar. ‘I’ll get the coffee’, she said, smiling again, ‘It’s the least I can do. I did, after all, hit you on the head – and, anyway, I get it for free!’

The next 15 minutes were the best 15 minutes of his life since his Alice passed away thought Jimmy.

‘Oh look – it’s time I went back to work. It’s been very nice talking to you.’

‘It’s been my pleasure’, Jimmy said. ‘I see from your name badge your name is Alice. That was my wife’s name. You said your husband was Jim – my name’s James, but I’ve always been called Jim or Jimmy. There has been something special happening to us both today. Take care.’

Alice looked flustered. ‘I must go – thank you; I won’t forget today either.’

Jimmy stood there for a minute or two, then realised he still had the roll of lace. He went over to where the incident had happened. Alice was nowhere to be seen but another member of staff was there.

‘Hello, I’m looking for Alice,’ Jimmy said to the girl, ‘I have to give this bolt of lace back to her.’

The girl looked at him as if he was out of his mind. ‘We have no-one here called Alice as far as I know.’

‘But she knocked this roll of lace onto me half an hour ago – and we’ve just had coffee together,’ he said passing the lace to the girl.

She looked at him, and then down at the lace. ‘I don’t think we have had any lace like that in this store for a year or so. It was a big pile of lace like this that fell on Alice last year – the same day that her Jim died.’

She looked up to see his reaction. There was no sign of him.

Jim had disappeared – just like his beloved Alice.

Green eyes

In the middle ages the little village had a reputation for being a centre for witchcraft and black magic. Even now one could understand how the reputation would have grown. The narrow cobbled streets twisted between tall stone houses. Every now and then an even narrower passage led off the streets into dark and secret courtyards. All around the mountains towered. Sheer faces of dark rock rose thousands of feet into the clear blue sky. Progress seemed to have passed it by. Just one road wound through the village, following the valley. Coming from nowhere and leading to nowhere. Cars were few and tourists even fewer.

It had been quite by chance that Peter Jefferson had found the village at all. He was heading north at the end of a leisurely touring holiday when he seemed to lose his bearings. He must have missed a turning somewhere, he had decided. He had driven on for a while and was just considering whether to turn back or not when he reached the village. He found a little bar that was still open and went in for a drink and a bite to eat. The talkative owner had told him something of the history of the village; of the witchcraft and black magic that had been practiced there in years past. Peter had discounted them with a shrug and a laugh, a reaction that seemed to have upset the landlord.

Peter decided that, as long as he was there, he might just as well have a look round. As he strolled through the village he could imagine how the stories would have grown. Even in the bright afternoon sun some corners of the village seemed foreboding. As it does in the mountains in autumn, the dusk started to fall quite early – the depth of the valley accentuating the differences between the bright sun on the mountains and the darkening shadows near the houses.

Just as he was thinking that he should go back to his car and get on his way Peter found himself at the edge of the village. The road out of the village stretched before him across the open valley floor. A little stream flowed along the side of the road. To his right was the last house in the main street.

He stood and looked around. The flat open valley floor swept round behind the house. Little wisps of mist were beginning to gather near the stream in the rapidly cooling air. Alongside the house was a lane – narrow and edged with low stone walls. At the end of the lane was a small cottage. The door was open and he could see in the lighted interior an old woman, seemingly bent with age, and a young girl with very long, dark, hair. They appeared to be busy over some task that he could not see.

For reasons he could not explain he began to walk down the lane toward the little cottage and its open door. As he did so the girl suddenly stood straight and threw back her head with what looked like a laugh – but Peter heard nothing. The whole village appeared devoid of life and of sound. He stood there in the failing light in complete silence.

As he stood there he saw a cat – large and black – sitting on a wall nearby; watching him. Peter stared at it and the cat stared back – green eyes glinting, shining; reflecting the last rays of the setting sun.

Deliberately the cat stood up, stretched and jumped lightly from the wall. It started to walk, almost slink, towards him – watching him with those glinting green eyes. Peter looked up from the cat towards the cottage. The old woman and the girl stood looking out of the door – watching him and the cat. A preposterous thought went through his mind. ‘They look just like an old witch and her child. They were weaving spells when I first saw them – and now they are watching the results.’

He shook himself. It was preposterous. This was the 21st century. It was just the old village, the failing light and the landlord’s tales that were creating the illusion. Despite himself he shivered. Time to go he decided. He looked back at the cat – the big, black witch’s cat. It now stood watching him.

He turned and walked towards the road. He wanted to run but resisted the temptation. As he walked, the cat followed him; stalking him down the lane.

Reaching the end of the lane Peter turned right, heading away from town. Why he did it he couldn’t tell. He just found himself walking toward the open valley in the failing light. Just behind him, green eyes glinting, stalked the cat.

He stopped and shooed it. The cat stopped and gazed back at him. He shooed it again. Again the cat stayed firm – its green eyes staring back. Sudden, unreasoning panic gripped him; panic and fear, and directed toward the cat, the witch cat. He took a step toward it and kicked. He felt his foot make contact and the cat, without a sound, flew through the air and landed on the grass verge.

Panic and fear still gripped him; now it was compounded by confusion. Why had he kicked the animal? The animal that now sat looking at him from the spot where it had landed. Still its green eyes were fixed on him – Peter Jefferson.

Standing and seemingly rooted to the spot, Peter looked away from those eyes; away and toward the little cottage. He could still see the open door, the light and the silhouettes of the two women, young and old, standing there.

He turned his gaze back to the cat. It was moving toward him again – moving in a peculiar way; a menacing way. The movement reminded him of a big, black, squat toad moving slowly, remorselessly across the road toward him; another companion of witches – the witches from the cottage in the lane.

The animal moved closer still making no sound. Terror grew again in his mind. Movement returned to his legs and he kicked again – wildly, viciously. He felt his foot make contact. This time the animal made a noise – something akin to a snake’s hiss. The sheer unexpectedness of it completed the return of movement to his whole body. He started to run, but still away from the town; away from the women in the cottage, away from the animal whatever it was.

The release of pent up fear gave him speed – a frenetic panic stricken dash up the road. He turned to look over his shoulder and the animal was still there – now large, black and Panther-like; bounding along silently and close. As he looked Peter stumbled and started to fall and, as he fell, l the animal leapt; white fangs glinting in the half-light, its green eyes shining, a low chilling growl coming from its throat.

At that moment a bolt of lightning hurtled across the now dark sky. A deep and threatening roll of thunder followed. Another bolt of lightning came from sky to ground, striking a tree that flared and split with a loud crack. Suddenly everywhere appeared to be on fire – yet everything had gone silent and the green-eyed animal had gone.

Peter lay where he had fallen. Then he heard a voice – a deep, clear, quiet voice; a voice of authority.

‘Stranger – what are you doing here?’  Peter looked round. There was no-one.

‘Speak stranger. Speak or …..’ The voice tailed off. The threat, the unknown threat, was ominous.

‘I hear you. Who are you? Where are you?’

Another bolt of lightning illuminated the dark, foreboding, sky.  ‘I ask the questions. What are you doing here?’

Peter looked around. There was nothing; no one. In the background there was a low roll of thunder.

‘I am waiting.’

‘I am here by accident; lost.’

‘Leave now. You will know your way.’

Peter didn’t argue. He climbed to his feet. His car was strangely close to him. He got in. The back seat held his belongings. He started the engine and set off along a road he had not seen before. It was strange to him – but he ‘knew’ it was the right road. It turned left between two sharp-faced hills, and as he did he heard a low rumble of thunder behind him – then nothing.

Beneath a clear evening sky he followed ‘his’ road. In less than 15 minutes he drove into a neat village. In the centre, looking across the market place, there was a hotel.  He stopped and went in.  It had a room available.

‘Where have you come from?’ mine host asked. ‘Have you come far?’

Peter told him of the holiday he had taken and that he was now on his way home. He said that he had thought of staying at the village a 15 minute drive away but it didn’t seem to have a hotel so he had driven along to here.

‘There is no village that way sir’ the hotelier told him. ‘There was one many, many years ago – but it is not there now. That village was demolished, razed to the ground, over 100 years ago. Strange things, bad things, were reported to have happened there. It was not a good place to be – especially for strangers – it was said.’

‘Tell me about it – sometime’ said Peter. ‘Which way is the bar?’

Peter slept surprisingly well that night. In the morning he had a good breakfast and checked out.

‘Thank you Sir. Have a safe journey.  ‘I am sure you will know the way’, he added in a voice that Peter felt he had heard not too many hours before.

It was then that Peter decided that, perhaps, he would not come this way again.

Rubbish

He was NOT happy. ‘Have you seen that rubbish down the road? It’s disgusting – and what’s the bloody council doing about it? Nothing! Not one bloody thing.’

‘Don’t worry Jim, it’ll be all gone by the time you get back from your golf.’

‘Who’s going to do that then? You I suppose. You’re daft – all of you. Stupid, daft women with nothing better to do than do the council’s dirty work – for nothing.’ With that he picked up his golf bag and left – slamming the door behind him.

‘Men,’ murmured Rosemary to herself as she cleared away the breakfast things. ‘It’s a good job there are women in this world.’

The telephone rang. ‘Mrs Bradshaw?’ a voice asked.     ‘Speaking.’

‘Rosemary?’     ‘Yes Peter.’

‘All ready for today?’     ‘Of course.’

‘One o’clock at the recycling plant then?’     ‘Certainly; I’ll be there.’

The line went dead and she replaced the handset.  ‘Right Rosemary; let’s get this show on the road’ she chuckled.

Half an hour later she and three other ladies were busily picking up the roadside rubbish that so annoyed Jim. The council provided bags were soon filled as the four worked their way along ‘Rosemary’s’ road. That done, they repeated the exercise along four more roads before stopping for a break.

Back in Rosemary’s kitchen the conversation was on just one subject – the rubbish they had just bagged up.  ‘We agreed with the council that we would gather the bags for each road into piles at convenient places for the men to collect them. Are we still happy with this?’  There was total agreement.

‘Right ladies, let’s get it finished and ready for them.’
It didn’t take long, and the four were soon standing admiring their work.  ‘Thank you very much ladies, your help has been great. I’ve got all the paperwork so I’ll take that down to the recycling centre later this morning. Have a nice day.’
Rosemary’s three helpers headed for home but she had one more job to do before setting off to the recycling centre. The job took her a quarter of an hour or so and, with that done, she gathered together various other things she needed; left a brief note for Jim and headed off to the recycling centre.

Peter was at his desk. Rosemary handed over the ‘Ladies Tidy Campaign’ papers.  ‘Looks good,’ he said. ‘The lads have called in and reported that the bags have been picked up as planned, and the whole area looks great. Everyone on those roads will be very pleased with what you have done. May I buy you some lunch? You deserve it.’
‘Well thank you kind sir; I accept your invitation. Shall we go in my car?’
‘Yes please. The council gets annoyed when their cars are used for social purposes. Is there room for my case?’

As they drove out of the council gates Jim was arriving home from his golf.  He was not happy with the pile of full rubbish bags blocking his drive.

He was even less happy with Rosemary’s note saying ‘Goodbye’!

THE SET-UP

I came across this story a few weeks ago while having a clear-out in a cupboard. It was some 40 years ago in the 1970s when I wrote this as part of a writing course – a course that I never completed. I got a good feedback from my tutor on this with suggestions as to where to get it published but I don’t think I ever did anything with it. I have transcribed it here verbatim and just wonder how something like this would be accepted now. I suspect it would be lucky to even get onto a desk.

There are a number of places in the piece that made me squirm and cringe but I thought it worth posting as a ‘now’ and ‘then’ or a ‘compare’ and ‘contrast’ piece. Here goes:

It was a cold, wet and windy winter evening; the sort that made driving a bit of a bind. Most of my day had been spent at meetings in the Midlands, the last finishing about 6.30. I had been driving for about an hour since then when I reached the M1 which led south.

Standing on the side of the slip road was a small, bedraggled figure in a parka. After an hour’s driving it was warm in the car and I felt sorry for anyone out in that weather. I stopped and the figure climbed in and settled in the seat. As I pulled into the traffic the figure spoke.

‘Thanks’ it said

It was then that I realised I had picked up a girl.

‘Where are you heading?’ I asked.

‘London. And you?

‘Hertfordshire, so I can take you a fair way.’

‘Good,’ she said, and lapsed into silence.

Conversation spluttered along fitfully for a while. The girl was obviously warming through. She settled back more comfortably in her seat and undid her parka. I could sense her looking around the car. After a while she spoke.

‘Nice car. Is it your own?’

‘Yes’ I replied. ‘I haven’t had it long.’

‘I should think it is a pretty expensive motor’; she mused – almost to herself. When I did not answer she asked a direct question:

‘Is it really yours? I would have thought that a car like this would be a company car.’

‘Well, I suppose it is in one way,’ I laughed. ‘It’s my company so I think of it as my car as well.’

‘Oh, what sort of company is it? Something exciting?’

‘Can be; depends how you look at it. It’s electronics so some would think it’s exciting. I certainly find it interesting.’

She lapsed into silence again for a few minutes.

‘I supposed you’re married.” She came to life with a little laugh.

“ ‘Fraid so,” I replied, returning the laugh. “Married and a couple of kids’.

“Oh well,” she said, “can’t win them all.”

“What about you?” I asked. ‘What do you do with yourself?”

‘I’m a student. Studying at Art College. Like everyone there I’m hard up so I’m going home for the weekend. I finished classes at lunchtime and I’ve been hitching a lift since.’

‘How long had you been waiting on the slip-road then?’ I queried.

‘Oh; about an hour.’

We were passing a sign proclaiming ‘Services one mile’.

‘Fancy a coffee?’

‘Please’. Her voice almost sounded excited at the thought of motorway coffee.

I pulled into the services carpark. We ran across to the cafeteria to get out of the rain as quickly as possible. The cafeteria was nearly empty.

‘Hungry?’ I asked.

‘Mmmm,’ she nodded.

‘I’ll get some sandwiches or something to go with the coffee; you find a seat.’

I went off to collect the food. A couple of minutes later I was back with the coffees, some sandwiches and cakes. The girl had found a table in the corner that had been cleared. She had taken her parka off and thrown it on a chair. Underneath she had a bright red anorak which was undone showing a yellow sweater. Black slacks were stuffed into the tops of worn furry boots. Her hair was a darkish blonde and cut short, framing a fresh, quite attractive face. I put her age at early twenties – perhaps 21 or 22.

She smiled as I arrived and immediately attacked the sandwiches as if she hadn’t eaten all day. Perhaps she hadn’t. In the act of munching her second sandwich she leant forward as if to say something. She never said it as, in leading forward, she managed to knock over one of the coffee cups. With a clatter it fell on to the floor and broke. As she had tried to catch it she knocked the plate with her sandwiches on down as well.

One of the staff was close by clearing a table and came over with a trolley to pick up the pieces. The girl was very apologetic and must have said sorry to me and the cleaner at least half a dozen times before we convinced her that it didn’t matter. Accidents happen.

I went and fetched another coffee and we finished the snack with no more mishaps. We got up to go and the girl took a round-about route to say “Sorry” and “Thank you” to the woman that had cleaned up the wreckage and the Supervisor who had been hovering around.

With her parka thrown over her head we ran back to the car, which was still warm. She threw the parka into the back of the car, took of her anorak and settled into her seat. I checked the fuel guage, plenty left, and set off on the final lap.

We must have been travelling for five minutes or so and the girl had not spoken a word since leaving the services. Then she stretched and asked quietly and confidently: “How much will you pay me not to say you attacked me and tried to rape me?”

For a moment her question stunned me. Finally I found my voice and managed … “What did you say?”

I said ‘How much will you pay me not to say you attacked me and tried to rape me?’” She went on: “I would have thought it must be worth at least £1,000.’

My mind was in turmoil. I finally forced myself to respond. “You’re mad!”

“I’m not. But you will be if you think I am bluffing.”  Her voice had changed. It was harder now, and confident. “You think about it. Who would they believe? You or me? You, the man in the flashy car who picks up a woman on the motorway or me, the small defenceless student trying to save money and get home for a quiet weekend with her parents? Even if they did believe you there would always be doubts in people’s minds. Your family; your friends; your business colleagues. They would all have that thought – did you try it?

“No mister. If you don’t pay you’re finished. Just you think about it.”

I did. I thought hard. I drove on in a daze. She was right. The dice were loaded against me. Whatever I did, I lost. I stood to lose anything from £1,000 to the whole of my life as I knew it. I slowed down. No sense in hurrying along the motorway. The sooner I reached the end, the sooner I had to face the facts. I needed time to think.

“OK” I finally managed. “It seems you have me. Have you done this before?”

“Yeah; and they usually pay up.”

“I expect so. Why do you do it?’

Her voice was flat and factual: “The money. It pays well.”

Having her talk was better than driving along in silence, brooding over the problem I had. In any case, hope springs eternal and I had the vain, forlorn hope that she might be kidding and that it would all come out right in the end. Because of this, and because I was also intrigued, despite my position, I asked: “Do you normally go about it this way?”

She was obviously proud of her cleverness and started to talk. It was quite easy really. It was always on a motorway and in the dark. She always selected a car: vans and trucks were no good. The claim for cash was always pitched at the level she thought was best for the driver. That’s why she always had the conversation that we had before the stop. For some the figure was £50. The most she had ever got was £2,000. It seemed I was in the upper level of the claims.

Apart from the motorway and the darkness, a vital ingredient was the stop for coffee. If the driver did not suggest it, then she did. Having made the stop, she made sure that she drew attention to herself and the man. The bright colours of her anorak and sweater were not an accident. Nor was the coffee.

“Remember the coffee?’ she asked. ‘That woman, and her Supervisor, would remember the mess, and remember us. I made sure of that.’

All she then had to do was wait until they were back in the car and past the next junction. That gave a place where she could claim the driver had pulled off the motorway. He could not stop on the motorway but she could not stop him pulling off down some deserted country lane, could she?’

It all made frighteningly logical sense. She had thought it through carefully and I could not find one flaw through which I could escape.

“What would happen if I refused to pay: if I just stopped the car and threw you out?” I thought I could guess the answer but I had to ask.

“Oh I just mess up my hair a bit. I’ve a blose under this sweater. I’d tear a couple of buttons off – it doesn’t take much for a girl to look as if she has been in a struggle. Some kindly motorist would stop and take me to a police station. With your car number they would soon track you down – by the way I have already made a note of yours. If it did come to a court case a few tears, some demure clothes and a little-girl-lost look would get everyone on my side.”

She really had got every angle well thought out. While she had been talking I had been racking my brain, trying to think of a way out of the trap – I couldn’t. My turn off was coming up soon – what could I do.

I rarely smoked while driving but I had gone through two cigarettes while she had been talking. The packet was now empty. I rummaged through my pockets to find another packet. There wasn’t one, but in my right-hand pocket was a small dictating machine. As my hand closed over it a last ditch idea came to me.

Just for something to say I muttered: “‘It looks as if I’m well and truly set up.”

As I said this I switched the tape in my pocket to re-wind. I took it out and laid it on my lap. I gave it a few seconds to rewind then picked it up with my left hand. As I picked it up I switched it to record, and with a prayer that there was a tape in it, and the volume was turned up loud enough, I laid it on the console between us.

I said, “I’ve no cigarettes left.” It was dark in the car and I hoped she would think it was an empty cigarette packet that I was putting down, if she noticed anything at all in the darkness of the car. Having achieved that with no reaction from her at all, I added: “So it’s all a set-up is it?”

“Yes it is,” she retorted, “and you’re the one that’s set up good and proper.”

“I don’t have £1,000 in cash with me. I assume you will accept a cheque for that amount?”

“Yes; made out to cash please.”

“Aren’t you afraid I would stop the cheque?”

“You wouldn’t dare” she said. “If you did I would say it was hush money. You attacked me and then tried to buy my silence. It won’t work so don’t try it.”

We had reached my turn-off.

“No, I don’t think I will try that,” I said. “I think we’ll just drive into the nearest police station and see what they have to say about it all.”

For a moment she was speechless and my stomach was trying to tie itself in knots. The she found her voice.

“You’re crazy. Haven’t you understood your position? When I tell them you tried to rape me you’ll be finished. My story will ruin you.”

I reached for the tape recorder. This was it. I stopped it and wound it back. While I was doing this I said to her: “I don’t think so. I think it’s rather a case of your story ruining you.”

I switched on the recorder and tuned up the volume. For what seemed an age nothing happened and then we heard my voice asking: “So it’s all a set-up is it?”

“Yes it is and you’re the one that’s set up good and proper,” her voice replied.

It was not hi-fi but both voices were recognisable. I switched the recorder off. “The whole of our conversation is on here,” I told her. “I think the police will find it very interesting listening.”

“Don’t do that, it was only a joke.” Her voice had lost all its’ earlier confidence. She sounded frightened now. “I’ve never done it before. Let me out and we’ll call it quits. Please mister.” She was pleading now like condemned prisoners must plead for their life.

“Please mister, let me out. I won’t say nothing – to anyone.”

We came to an exit and I pulled off the motorway and stopped. She grabbed her anorak and parka and literally tumbled out of the car.

As she fell out I reminded her: “Don’t forget. I have it all on this tape.”

Just in case, I switched my lights off and drove round the exit roundabout. I didn’t want to risk her seeing my number plate – she may have been lying earlier.

My legs were shaking as I drove along, my lights on again. That had been nasty. I switched the tape recorder on again.

“I don’t have £1,000 in cash …..” my voice stopped. That was all there was on the tape – nothing else. The tape had run out. I had played just enough to frighten her and had luckily turned it off before my bluff was exposed.

If the bluff had been exposed I would have had to pay. My wife, Helen, thought I was on my way to Scotland for a meeting, and not the sort of meeting I was planning in the house just along this road.

I hoped Jennifer had some brandy in the House!

The Cottage on the Corner

It was just what they had been looking for. It stood on a manageable plot on the edge of the village. Behind the cottage was uncultivated land of trees and shrubbery which, in the last war, had been home to a group of British soldiers. Behind that was an old, but still lived in, farm house.

A road out of the village turned sharp left at the cottage gate, carried on for half a mile or so before turning right and heading to the next village. During the war there had been a guard post on that corner – and behind that had been the American Air force.

The cottage, they were told, had been built in the early 1800s as two cottages for workers from the farm. At some time in the 20th century the two had become one and, during the war, had been ‘home’ for an Army officer – well, a number to be accurate, because they tended to be moved on every 12/18 months. After the war a returning soldier, his wife and young son had moved in.

With a brick built toilet in the front garden, a single cold water tap in the house, old thatched roofing and wattle and daub walls it was destined for demolition just as soon as the new council houses were complete. Those houses had been finished, the family of three that had lived in the cottage got one and moved out, but the cottage was not demolished. It had been purchased and modernised to early 1950s standards.

The outside walls had a brick cladding added and the roof was re-thatched. Inside a ‘Raeburn’ fire was installed with a hot water tank to provide room heating and 24 hour hot water. Electricity was also connected. Because of the housing shortage, and the new building programme, the cottage had been let to an ever-changing range of occupants. Young families were the most frequent – and they rarely stayed for more than a couple of years before moving into a new council house in one of the surrounding villages.

Forty years on the cottage was in need of an update and was up for sale again. Jim and Jackie had bought it at a surprisingly attractive price. They had plans for many changes but – once there – the cottage took a hold on them. There was something about the cottage that said ‘Don’t touch.’ So they hadn’t.

It was four years later, following a particularly cold winter, that they finally did ‘begin to touch’. Central heating was their first addition. The local installer came highly recommended and the job was soon complete. In the last cold snap of the winter it proved a god send – except in one part of the house, their bedroom. There the radiator got warm rather than hot.

During the summer they continued to make minor changes and improvements to the house. Nothing seemed to go quite right. When Jim was placing a large porcelain bowl they had just bought onto a side table it slipped through his hands and smashed on the floor. Jim just did not drop things.  But – the garden around the house was at last showing the results of Jackie’s careful work. By mid-summer the lawn, the flower beds and the colourful shrubs were being admired by passers-by. But as autumn arrived the garden changed.

The green lawn had brown patches appearing, and they refused to respond to Jackie’s various solutions. By late September the disaster that was the lawn was joined by the plants and shrubs along the south side of the garden. No matter what Jackie did they drooped, withered and died.

Indoors, a new radiator did not solve the problem in the bedroom – in fact it seemed to be worse than the previous one. As autumn set in it just didn’t work at all.

It was the first Saturday in October, and Jim and Jackie were having a drink in the Chestnut Tree pub in the village. They had noticed that the tree that gave the pub its name was looking rather bare compared to all the other trees in the village.

It was Jim that made comment about the tree; and about their plumbing, and their gardening problems.

The group went quiet. The regulars looked at each other. No one spoke.

‘So?’ asked Jackie, looking at each in turn. ‘So?’

It was Peter, a born and bred villager and in his late seventies, that finally answered the question.

‘It’s all building up to tomorrow week – Sunday 13th October – but you’ll have to wait until next Spring for your garden and heating to get back to normal.’

Jackie and Jim looked at each other, then at the group around them.

‘So?’ repeated Jackie.

‘Sunday 13th October 1793 was the day when Charles and William Brockhurst, cousins, were murdered in the house that stood on the place that your house is built on.

‘The story goes that they were found in bed together by other family members who had suspected that situation for some time. Charles was killed where he laid but William escaped. He ran down the stairs and out of the front door. More were waiting for him there. They set upon him but he fought back and killed one of them.

‘There was no escape for him though and they hacked him to death – about where your garden problem is now.

‘By Christmas the house had been demolished and it was not until the 1830s that a pair of cottages was built there. Since then Sunday 13th October has always been a bad day for people living there – some much worse than others.’

Silence fell on the group.

Jim looked at Jackie, and he looked back at him. Without a word they joined hands and left the Chestnut Tree.

On Tuesday 8th October a van pulled up outside the cottage, loaded up with their furniture and other pieces and left.

Jackie and Jim drove away very soon after.

For your peace of mind – the next Sunday 13th October is in 2030.