Jacky Fowler's Stuff

July 26, 2010

Creation

Filed under: Short Stories — jackyfowler @ 11:20 am
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The following is a piece I did for a writing assignment – ‘what if you had unlimited powers to create anything’. I may have bitten off more than I can chew with the theme – especially for an agnostic.

I always believe that this time it’s going to be different, this time is the right time. I plan so carefully – God is in the detail.

Even with my resources, it is a huge drain. Creating something out of nothing.

In the beginning, I speak the word. Exhaling it softly, watching it weave its wonder. It has the power to call anything and everything into existence. It is the same word every time – in the beginning. It is the channel for the power – my power, our power.

It has started, and I continue to call this world into being, speaking the words that define it. “Let there be light.” Brilliant, shining, scintillating, sparkling, blinding light. Day. And its equal and opposite – the deep, dark velvet of night.

 Next, the shadowy, formless mass that will become the earth. It sucks in the brightness of the light, dimming its radiance. A neat division into the sky and the earth and, once more, the light illuminates the darkness.

The waters eddy, gathering into seas, leaving dry ground – land. Highlands and lowlands. Mountains and valleys. Marshes and deserts. Plenty of space for the earth to bring forth grass, plants, and fruit-bearing trees.

Which means the next command has to create the means to mark the days, seasons and years all this lush vegetation needs to thrive. So the sun, the moon and the stars appear in the heavens, to govern night and day and rule the hours, the minutes, the seconds of life.

Into this vast, empty setting I generate myriad creatures to inhabit the seas and every type of winged bird to soar in the skies, beasts and reptiles and insects to permeate the diversity of the earth’s environments.

And finally – mankind. This where I pause, but it has to be done. Perhaps this time?

I take stock of what I have created, and it is perfect. Beautiful beyond belief in its clarity and freshness. A paradise, an idyll – all for mankind. A miraculous kitchen garden from which he can eat his fill. And for pure enjoyment – the flowers I’ve sown. White lilies, lemon verbena, the small-seeded, scarlet poppy amongst which the bees buzz with a contented hum. The warmth of the sunshine to caress his shoulders. To shade him there are pine trees, lime trees and elms. Pears and blackthorn fruit for him. He can enjoy the scent of the first rose of summer and the tart tang of the earliest apples of the autumn harvest. There are hyacinths to brighten his winter.

How could mankind be unhappy in this idyllic garden – a vision of natural bounty? A serene palate of aquamarine, ruby and beryl, full of verdant contrasts. Nature at its most generous and life-giving. Birds dart overhead, cleaving the cerulean blue of the skies, then flutter and perch in the multitude of trees. Gentle breezes ripple the grasses of the meadows. Sweet-scented oleander and tender, evergreen myrtle exhale their perfume under the smiling heavens. The brooks in which he can cool his feet bubble merrily on their meandering way through the valleys.

What more could I give these human beings? They have the Garden of Eden, abundant food, satisfaction in tending the garden and the naming of all the fish, birds and animals over which I have given them dominion. And most important of all – love. Love of each other, love of the world I have created for them. What more could they possibly want?

Power, the power of the word. The power to think and do – to invent and create. They continue to develop their capacity for creativity, just as I know they will. Beyond Eden they learn to harness animals to share the labour of their lives, and make music to lighten their leisure, and they bend the metals of the earth into new shapes and uses. In many ways I am a proud father, watching as they take faltering steps forward.

But they cannot remain as innocent infants. They grow, and multiply and flourish. But they lose their capacity to share happily the freely-given bounty they enjoy. They take my God-given capacity for creation and they use it to create ugliness, sin, malice, iniquity. At times they revolt me. My most precious creation, and they are intent on destroying each other and anything that gets in the way of this, their ultimate aspiration – annihilation.

I cannot resist trying to help them. They are so precious to me. I send them signs and wonders. They ‘ooh and aah’ and forget. I send them charismatic leaders to show them the right path. They follow for a while and then stray. I send them omens. All they have to do is look and listen. They do not learn.

Of course, I know what happens. Always. Every time. The seeds of the ending are sown in the beginning, when I give them free will. It is the triumph of hope over experience. But I cannot deny them the chance to achieve wisdom and grace.  

Ah well, perhaps next time. Perhaps, a new beginning

July 14, 2010

The Passion of the Dance

Filed under: Short Stories — jackyfowler @ 12:35 pm
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 “Oh, she couldn’t have.”

“Oh yes, she could. And she did.”

“But what did Andy say to her?”

“I don’t think he had a breath left in his body to say anything to anybody. He was ashen though – white as a sheet.”

“No wonder. Had she been drinking?”

“Well, to be fair to her, I honestly wouldn’t have said so.”

“What made her do it then? It’s so unlike her – she’s usually so ….. well, so quiet.”

“I know, but one minute she was sitting right beside me and the next she was – well …. I was shocked! …. talk about attention seeking!”

“I still can’t believe it. Surely she must have known it would set everyone agog?”

“Not so that you’d notice. She came right back to the table and sat down looking like butter wouldn’t melt. It was everyone else left gaping like a bowl of goldfish.”

With a click, the speed of the treadmills increased and the conversation between the two women ceased as they saved their breath for running.

The subject of their conversation was hidden from them in the huge cage-like structure of the chest press. Elaine had heard Jean and Linda come into the gym, and steeled herself. She’d known there’d be gossip and she’d known she’d have to face it sometime, but not quite so soon. That they hadn’t seen her before getting onto the treadmills had been an unexpected reprieve, but it wouldn’t be very long before they moved on to a different piece of equipment and pass too close to miss seeing her. What would she say? What could she do?

****** 

Coming to the gym regularly was a turning point for Elaine. Feeling fat and forty wasn’t something she’d enjoyed and although Andy hadn’t said anything, she felt he’d been disappointed by her descent into dumpy drabness. They’d drifted apart. As Andy worked long hours on his way up the management ladder of his company, Elaine concentrated more and more on the kids and their home. But she loved him and missed the closeness they’d shared. She wanted to put the spark back into their marriage, so she gritted her teeth, cut down on the calories and put herself through a pretty tough workout several times a week.

After six months she braved a shopping trip and had been amazed at the pretty new clothes she was able to buy to flatter the trim figure she’d regained. But Andy had just been promoted and, struggling with a demanding new job, he hardly seemed to notice any of her new outfits. A slightly puzzled “you look nice dear” had greeted her new hair colour, but that was it.

Elaine was thoroughly frustrated. I might just as well give up. What’s the point of all that hard work if he doesn’t even notice that I’ve gone down two whole dress sizes? Okay, I feel a lot better about how I look.

She smiled a little to herself. Better than I have for years as a matter of fact. The smile faded, to be replaced with a slight frown. That’s it – I’ve come this far, so I’m not giving up now. I just need to figure out what to do to get him to really see me again.

The idea came to her one Saturday night a few weeks later. They were watching Strictly Ballroom on television. As usual, Andy was thoroughly involved in the programme.

He sprang from his chair and reverse turned his way around the room. “I can’t believe she could get such a simple step so badly wrong! Look!” He continued to effortlessly ease around the furniture with his arms holding an imaginary partner. “Good grief, it’s so easy even you could manage it better than her!”

Elaine’s face crumpled, but Andy was already engrossed in the comments of the judges, oblivious to her distress. It was an old wound, rarely re-opened these days. Andy was a talented, stylish dancer, he’d even been a junior champion in his teens, but Elaine had two left feet. In the early days he’d tried to teach her to relax and enjoy a simple waltz, but still she’d felt like he was dragging a sack of potatoes around the dance floor.

Elaine had never felt comfortable or confident enough to improve and eventually, Andy had given up trying. Then she’d had to watch from the sidelines as he enjoyed himself partnering other women, or, when he’d seen how much that could upset her, feel the frustration pouring out of him as they’d watched other couples dance. 

Alright, if that’s what it takes to make you notice me again, then that’s just what I’ll do. If that celebrity carthorse can learn to dance, then I must be able to!

******

So why had she picked such a difficult dance? Elaine asked herself that question so many times over the next few weeks. Finding a teacher had been her first task and it had been much easier said than done. Trawling through the telephone directory she’d spoken to half a dozen or more teachers before she reached Enrique.

“It doesn’t matter if you have three left feet, with me, you will dance el tango maravillosamente.” He sounded so emphatic that she believed him. “So, two-thirty on Wednesday, and bring your high heels.”

Enrique’s dance studio was in the city centre, at the top of an office block. As she stepped out of the lift, Elaine could hear the sultry beat of the tango music pulsing through the air. She pushed the door open slowly, peered timidly around it, and there was Enrique.  

He wasn’t quite what she’d been expecting. He definitely had the Latin looks to go with his name – olive skin, dark hair slicked back, a wiry build.

Elaine was filled with dismay. He must be sixty-something if he’s a day. Would he really be able to dance the tango with the energy it required? Then he looked at her, and his dark, penetrating gaze somehow made her pull herself up to her full height. Taking a deep breath, she walked forward, her high heels tapping out a determined rhythm as she crossed the beautiful wooden dance floor.

It had been a battle of wills right from the start.  Somehow it had seemed almost indecent that a perfect stranger was holding her in such an intimate fashion.

Enrique would pull Elaine firmly against his chest. “No, no, you must trust me. In tango, you must dance heart to heart with your partner.” When she grew stiff, unable to relax, Enrique would scold. “No, no – I am in control. I lead, you follow.”

With aching feet and a pounding head, Elaine left her first lesson exhausted. She had to grit her teeth and force herself to go back. The second lesson hadn’t been any easier and nor had the third, or the fourth for that matter.

Elaine steeled herself to tell Enrique that she wouldn’t be coming back next week. I’ve tried, but enough is enough.

When Elaine shared her frustration, and decision to stop lessons,  Enrique had simply raised his eyebrows and nodded slowly. “Okay, but one last dance, before you leave? To say goodbye.”  

Delighted to have been let off so lightly, Elaine agreed and the music began once again.

“Just look into my eyes – keep looking – don’t think of the steps, they don’t matter anymore if you’re not coming back. Just follow my lead.”

As she kept her eyes firmly on Enrique’s, Elaine did exactly as he had asked and just followed his movements. Concentrating on Enrique’s velvety brown eyes, she could suddenly feel the music oozing up through her feet and she no longer felt uncomfortable.

“See, following is easy. Enjoy it and let your feminine side take over.”

By the time the music ended, Elaine was out of breath, but exhilarated. Okay, so it wasn’t perfect, but for the first time she’d danced, really danced.

“So, two-thirty next Wednesday, don’t forget your high heels.”

******

A few weeks later she was thrilled, but apprehensive, when Andy came home with the invitation to the company’s annual dinner dance. It was the opportunity she’d been waiting for, all she had to do now was summon up her courage and grasp the chance wholeheartedly.

Elaine shifted in her seat. Stop fidgeting, Not long to go now.

The dinner had seemed endless. She hardly tasted anything she ate and had to stop herself reaching for her wine glass again and again, as the knot in her stomach got tighter and tighter.

The two other couples at the table with Elaine and Andy watched the dance floor, fascinated. Linda nodded toward the throng of couples who waltzed in time to the tempo of the music.

“They’re a fantastic band, don’t you think?”

“Mmmn” Elaine replied distractedly, trying to keep Andy in sight as he worked his way back towards the table from the bar.

The floor cleared at the end of the waltz.

The bandleader turned toward the audience. “And now, ladies and gentlemen, by very special request, something a little more energetic – the tango.”

Elaine tore off the shrug she’d kept so carefully over the rather low cut dress she was wearing. Before she could lose her nerve, she grabbed Andy by the hand and pulled him onto the dance floor. He was so surprised he just stood there and she’d had to take his hands and strike the opening pose of the dance.

He stared at her, bewildered, but when the music struck up he swiftly came to life and pulled her close – heart to heart. Keeping her eyes locked on his, Elaine abandoned herself to the music and Andy’s lead. At first he was cautious, keeping to simple steps, but Elaine followed his every move with ease, her body swaying and swirling in time with his.

A question in his eyes, he pulled her even closer and then swung and dipped her so low that her hair brushed the ground before he drew her smoothly up again. Elaine didn’t miss a beat and wound her left leg around his right hip, the lacy skirt of her dress sliding up to show a glimpse of her toned and tanned thigh. Then they were off again, circling the dance floor, lost in the music, the dance and each other. Elaine was tingling with excitement; her body so attuned to Andy’s that she responded by instinct, surrendering to his lead and dancing steps she hadn’t even known existed as the passion of the dance wove its seductive, magical spell.

When the music came to an end with a final flourish, they stood there, flushed and exhilarated. Only then did they realise that they were the only couple on the dance floor, which was ringed with just about every other guest, clapping and cheering.

Quickly Elaine turned and walked back to their table, sat down, took her glass of wine in a shaking hand and smiled vaguely at Linda. Linda simply stared back at her, her mouth open.

Very shortly afterwards, they’d driven home in silence, but Elaine could feel Andy’s darting glances through the dark. When they got home, Elaine bent down to undo the high-heeled strappy gold sandals she was wearing, but Andy took her hand and stopped her. He pulled her into the kitchen, pushed aside the table and put his arms around her. She leaned into his body and he danced her around the kitchen several times.

Andy’s eyes sparkeled with enthusiasm as he smiled. “You can dance. You really can dance.” Elaine felt the film of tears in her eyes – she couldn’t remember the last time he’d looked so happy.

“I can” she said softly, smiling back at him. Then, taking his hand once again, she led him out of the kitchen and upstairs.

****** 

Elaine shook herself, and put up her hands to cool her flushed face. She’d been so engrossed in her memories she hadn’t noticed the time moving on, but now she could hear Linda and Jean chatting again as the treadmills slowed to allow them to cool down. Time to face the music – again.

 Somehow though, much as she was dreading having to face the two women, she just couldn’t seem to stop smiling. She got up, straightened her shoulders and stepped off the exercise machine, walking round to the treadmills.  Her smile broadened as she saw the looks of chagrin on Jean and Linda’s faces.

 “Good morning” she said cheerfully.

Linda appeared flustered. “Oh, we didn’t see you there.”

“I know, but don’t worry; I don’t really take any notice of gossip – even if it’s about me. Oh, and, by the way, there was only one person’s attention I was seeking last night.” Her smile became a grin. “And I very, very definitely got it!”

July 11, 2010

Letters Home

Filed under: Short Stories — jackyfowler @ 12:41 pm
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On 11 November 1918 the Armistice was signed between the Allied and German armies, ending the First World War – a global war that lasted four years, extinguishing millions of lives. This is a story I wrote to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Armistice.

She was in the garden. “Pottering” Johnnie called it; “putting things to rights” she would have said. The latch on the gate clicked and she looked up to see the postie coming towards her, a single letter in his hand. She rose, rather more slowly than she would have liked these days, but smoothing down the apron she wore to protect her skirt, she managed a smile.

“Good morning, Mrs Gordon. I’ve something for you from France. I hope it’s good news!”

It was as much as she could do not to snatch the letter from him, but she managed to hold out her hand quite steadily and wait until he passed it over.

“Thank you, Archie” she said, turning to go back into the house, the letter clutched close to her. The usual chit chat was beyond her.

Once inside, she stood and stared at the envelope for a while, unable to open it just yet.

“Don’t be silly” she said aloud, went to the desk in the corner of the room and picked up the letter opener. Quickly slitting open the envelope, she took out the wafer thin paper inside and started reading.

Dearest Ma

Well, here I am at last, writing to you from the Front for the first time. We’re in a reserve trench just now, but will be moving forward soon I think.

Tell Da we left our kilts behind a few miles. Our dress now is trousers cut short above the knees and I’ve a steel helmet (which is a great life saver against shrapnel we’re told). That is one thing I do not like – shells – their noise and the whining through the air. They can’t whistle a decent tune for toffee!

I got your last letter and paper. A paper here is very much appreciated – “luxuries” like hard to come by here. We get cigarettes and tobacco sent out to us (as well as a drink of rum every night) so you see we don’t do so badly (the thick socks were a blessing though, ta very much).

Give my love to Da and the brothers and sisters. I often picture you all gathered for dinner of a Sunday – keep my place warm. Chin up Ma, and you’ll see me probably sooner than you think.

Well you will have to wait until I come home for more news, these letters are censored you know and I don’t want to say anything that I should not.

Your loving son,

Johnnie

A huge sigh escaped her and she realised she’d almost been holding her breath as she read. Shaking her head to clear away the emotions that had engulfed her, she read the letter over again, relieved beyond words. He was safe – for now.

****** 

He was in his workshop, but the tools of his trade were all neatly lined up and unused this morning, as he took the letter out of his pocket and looked intently at it.

He was pretty sure he had the contents almost by heart, but read it through one more time.

Dear Da

I do not really know how to start this letter, as the circumstances are not that different from those under which I’ve written before. I will not post it yet but will leave it in my pocket. If anything happens to me someone will perhaps post it for me – or if I get back safe I’ll post it myself. You see, we are going over the top again this evening and only the Good Lord God in Heaven knows who will come out of it alive.  

I do not want you to think that I am depressed or fearful – on the contrary, I am very cheerful. But out here, in odd moments the realisation does come to me of how close death is to us all. 

I say this to you because I know you understand, from your own experience as a soldier, the possibility of the like happening to myself. I feel very glad that I can look the fact in the face without fear or misgiving – thanks to your example. Much as I hope to live through it all for the sake of you and Ma and the boys in particular, I am quite prepared to give my life as so many have done before me – if I have to. All I can do is put myself in God’s hands for him to decide, and I know you and dearest Ma will be praying for me.

It seems years and years since I tried to get myself drowned in the burn, now I’m awash in a sea of mud. Isn’t life strange?  

Your loving son

Johnnie

PS As you see, I am still alive and well, and as usual enjoying life out here to the full.

The tears collected in the corners of his eyes and ran slowly down the deep creases in his face, creases that had deepened with worry over the last ten months. But through the tears was a smile – he was proud, damned proud, of his son. And he was safe – for now.

 ******

Mary Gordon put her feet up on the bed and sighed long and loud. She was pretty used to the long hard hours of nursing she had to put in by now, but it was still blissful to untie her shoes, take them off and wriggle her toes in freedom after a lengthy shift.

She reached for the letter on her bedside table. It had come just before her shift started and she’d been unable to put it from her mind ever since, even though her duties should have taken all her attention.

Dear Mary

Now barring accidents you will know all about what’s happening. I know you will have a big surprise when you get this letter – I hope it reaches you without mishap (and it will mean a pal is back in Blighty – one way or another). If anybody in authority was to see it I’d be for it!

I can’t write any of this stuff to Ma or even to Da, but I know you’re dealing with the consequences of the actions out here each and every day, so you’ll likely know what is really going on.

Of course you’ll have guessed by now where I’ve been for the last few weeks? Yes, it was the Ypres salient. Oh it was a lovely ‘baptism of fire’ that first night. We had to dig ourselves in and early the next morning Fritz started strafing like crazy.

For the first time out here I was afraid – almost frightened to death. It was strange, I’ve been in the front line before, but this was different – Ypres is truly hell on earth. One of my Section took shell shock when a big ‘un dropped a couple of yards off the parapet and then the instinct of the soldier Da always told me about came to me and I was as cool as ice and steady as a rock. There were twelve men with me when we went in, I came out with three others. Mary, it was awful.

Perhaps you would like to know something of the spirit of the men still out here now. Well the truth is (and I’d be shot if anyone important got his hands on this letter) every man Jack is fed up almost past bearing, and not a single one has an ounce of what you’d call patriotism left in him. No one cares tuppence whether Germany has Alsace, Belgium, France or even the Moon for that matter. All we want now is to get done with it and go home. There, that’s the honest truth, and any man who has been out within the last few months will tell you the same thing.

I have lost pretty much all the keenness I had too, it is just the thought of you all back home, knowing you love and trust me to do my share of the job that will keep you safe and free. That is all that keeps me going and enables me to ‘stick it’.

God bless you Mary for what you’re doing for all those who come back broken and suffering – I hope if my time comes then I’ll have as good a nurse as I know you are.

But don’t worry sister dear, I’ll take good care and I shall carry on to the end be it bitter or sweet, with Ma and Da and you and the others I love and who love me as my inspiration.

Your loving brother

Johnnie

Mary sighed. Of course, she’d heard about the kind of horrors Johnnie had been undergoing, but it was different, nursing the strangers who came onto her ward, even knowing that they were probably someone else’s brother. Still, he was safe – for now.

******

Sister Jennie Murray sat in the small pool of light cast by the carefully shaded lamp on her desk. Otherwise the ward was dark, and reasonably quiet, most of the men having settled down to sleep for the night. The odd moan came from some of the beds, but there was nothing out of the ordinary.

Reaching up to relieve the pressure of her heavy, starched white headdress, Jennie sighed. She’d like nothing more than to put her head down on the desk and go to sleep herself. But that wasn’t possible, and she’d need to do another round of the ward to check on some of the worst cases soon. Still she’d probably just have time to carry out another of her many duties. So she picked up the pen and started to write.

No 4 Casualty Clearing Station

France

Dear Mr & Mrs Gordon

Your son Pte J Gordon of 1 Seaforth Highlanders was admitted to this Hospital on the 11th of this month suffering from a shell wound in the thigh. He has been rather ill since admission on account of the injury to the bone. Today he is slightly better and we believe him to be over the worst. He has been a splendid patient and very anxious to get on too and we shall do everything we can to help.

If he continues to improve in this way, he will shortly be sent home.

Yrs truly

J Murray

(Sister Hut 3)

There, it was done. Jennie was used to writing so many of these letters now, but she still felt a thrill of happiness each time she was able to send home good news rather than bad to the families waiting so anxiously to hear of their loved ones.

She picked up the lamp and carried it carefully over to where Johnnie Gordon lay. He was sleeping, a lock of dark, unruly hair flopping over his face, covering some of the lines on his forehead – so deep for one so young. But he was safe – for now.

******

Good Lord, but he was tired. The session he’d just endured in the orthopaedic rehabilitation room had been painful, but rewarding. He still couldn’t walk without leaning heavily on his stick, and his left leg still dragged, but he could walk. When he’d first reached the hospital in Edinburgh he’d had little or no hope of being able to set one foot in front of the other ever again. Days and nights of rattling along on one train after another, then the ship, then more trains, left him exhausted and he’d wanted nothing more than to sleep.

Sitting at the desk in the day room, he pulled paper and pen towards him and began to write.

Dearest Ma and Da

It was wonderful to see you on Sunday, I wasn’t expecting a visit from you at all, so it was a great surprise and it did me a power of good.

I’m still working my way through your seedcake Ma, despite having had to share it with several of the other lads in my ward – Will said it was the best cake he’d ever tasted Ma, and I’d say he’s not wrong.

I’ve just come back from rehabilitation – they’re real slave drivers and keep me hard at it for hours on end, until I’m fairly ready to scream at them. But I know it’s doing me good and each day I can go a little farther. And you’ll never guess what the bigwig surgeon said today when he saw me – he says it may be a long slow haul, but he thinks I’ll be able to walk without a stick eventually. Not in a few weeks, but perhaps a few months if I stick at it. How’s that for good news, eh?

It’s been good to be able to get out into the sunshine for a while today, I’d almost forgotten what a Scottish summer’s day can be like. I sat on a bench in the garden with Davie (you remember the lad in the bed next to mine? Missing an arm poor fellow, but he’s as cheerful as anything all the time now he knows he’ll be going home in the next week or so).

Anyway, it will soon be time for dinner, so I’d better get this into the post.

My love to all of you and hoping to see you again soon.

Your loving son

Johnnie

He put down the pen and sat back in the chair. Rubbing his left thigh, he stretched the leg, trying to ease the cramping pain that throbbed through it. He’d thought he was going to lose it that first night in the casualty clearing station, but the surgeon had fought hard and he’d woken up to find the leg still there. It still hurt like hell most of the time, but it was worth it – it told him he was still alive. But it was bad enough to mean that he wouldn’t have to go back to face the same horrors anytime soon. He was safe – for now.

 ******

The knocking on the front door was loud. Grace was a little put out by the disruption. Her eldest granddaughter was on her lap as she tried to untangle the knots in her hair as gently as possible.

“Up you get Jessie, please, I’ll have to get the door before I finish this.”

Opening the door, she saw the postie standing there, a brown envelope in his hand.

“I thought you’d want this straightaway,” he said, “it’s from the hospital. It’s likely notice of Johnnie’s comin’ hame.”

Grace took the letter and smiled her thanks. Having shut the door, she tore open the envelope, eager to find out for sure the news they’d been expecting almost daily – her boy was coming home at last.

1st Scottish General Hospital

Edinburgh

Dear Mr and Mrs Gordon

I regret very much having to tell you that your son, who has been here for several months now, died at 4am on the 19th of this month as a result of influenza. He fought very hard to get better and you may be sure we did all in our power to help him. I feel very, very sorry for you all, in your sad trouble. But you know that your son fought bravely for his country – what better could a Mother and Father wish! His belongings will be sent along soon. With my sincere sympathy.

Yours truly

Lucy MacKenzie

(Sister Ward 4)

She sank to her knees there in the hall, the letter clutched to her chest with shaking fingers, tears streaming down her face, her body racked with heart-wrenching sobs. Johnnie was safe – forever.

July 10, 2010

An Inconvenient Wife

Filed under: Short Stories — jackyfowler @ 12:17 pm
Tags: ,

 This is a story I wrote for a ‘crime fiction’ competition within my writers’ group – it was joint winner.

“Right Mr Nunn, can we just get this straight? For the record. The last time you saw your wife was five days ago?”

“Yes.” James Nunn leaned back in his chair and folded his arms as Inspector Colin Travis leaned forward across the table.

“Five days, and it’s only just occurred to you to report her missing? Why is that?”

“Because I thought she was just sulking.”

“Sulking?” The inspector’s eyebrows rose.

“We’re not on the best of terms right now. I thought she’d gone to stay with friends for a few days without telling me. It’s not unusual.”

“Without taking her car?”

James shrugged his shoulders. “She could have got them to pick her up. Or taken a taxi to the station.”

“True. But how likely is she to have left without her purse … with all her credit cards in it?”

“I didn’t know she’d left her purse.”

“Or that she hadn’t packed a case, or taken any of her belongings with her?”

“Look, I’ve told your colleague already – we’re in the middle of getting a divorce. I don’t really keep tabs on what Louise does any more.”

Inspector Travis leaned further forward. “So why are you here now then, Mr Nunn?”

“Her sister got worried, she hadn’t heard from Louise for a week. Couldn’t get her on her mobile. So she came up to the house.” The tone was flat, almost bored and James let his gaze roam around what little there was to see in the pigeon-grey painted interview room.

A fleeting expression of annoyance passed over Inspector Travis’ face. “Yes, we’ve contacted Mrs Duffy. What was your response to her concern?”

“If you’ve spoken to Carol, then you’ll already know, won’t you?” Patience was thinly stretched in his tone.

Travis leaned back. “I’d still like to hear it from you, Mr Nunn.”

“Fine,” James sighed. “If that’s what you want.” He leaned forward, and recited pretty much word for word what Inspector Travis could see on the statement in front of him.

“I told Carol I hadn’t seen Louise since Saturday night. She asked if I’d heard from her since then. I said ‘no’. We’d gone into Louise’s study, but there was no note or anything there. So Carol called her mobile again, and that’s when we heard the ‘phone ringing. It was in a drawer.” The tone became more animated. “That was unusual, she usually has it glued to her hand.”

“So, that was when you started to wonder what had happened to her?”

Another shrug. “Not really, I just thought she’d misplaced it.”

“So you weren’t worried then?”

“No, why should I be?” James glanced down at the polystyrene cup that had held what he’d been told was coffee. He’d taken one sip from it and then pushed it away. Time hadn’t made it any more appealing, and he pursed his lips in distaste before looking back up at the inspector.

“But Mrs Nunn’s sister was worried?”

“Carol’s like that. I told her she was making a mountain out of a molehill, but she was adamant that Louise would have been in touch, even without her mobile.”

“And Mrs Duffy then went up to her sister’s room?”

“Yes.” Another shrug. “She insisted.”

“Did you not want Mrs Duffy to go up to your wife’s bedroom?”

“I didn’t mind her going up there. I just didn’t see the point.”

“I take it you don’t share a bedroom with Mrs Nunn anymore?”

“No. We agreed to share the house until the divorce is final, but that’s as far as it goes. We don’t share a bedroom and we don’t really share anything else anymore.”

“But she’s still your wife Mr Nunn. Surely you started to worry when Mrs Duffy told you she’d found her sister’s purse and that all her clothes still seemed to be in her closet?”

“Louise has so many clothes I don’t see how Carol could tell if there’s anything missing or not quite frankly.”

“So you’re still not worried about your wife. And yet you’re here to report her missing? A bit of a contradiction surely?”

“I’m here because Carol ‘phoned just about everyone she could think of and none of them has seen Louise since Saturday. Well, none of them will say they have.”

“Why would they not say if they’d seen her – put everyone’s mind at rest?”

“Because Louise can be a right bitch when she wants. She probably just wants to make life difficult for me.”

“And why would she want to do that?”

“I’ve already told you – we’re in the middle of a divorce; it isn’t easy. Louise isn’t an ‘easy’ woman.” Nunn scrutinised the well-manicured fingers of his right hand, before adjusting the signet ring on his little finger slightly. He looked up at the inspector again and said “No, definitely not an easy woman to live with at all.”

“So you’d had a row then? Is that why she’d want to ‘make life difficult for you’?”

“No. I don’t think we did more than pass in the hall on Saturday. Louise doesn’t need a reason to be difficult, Inspector, it’s just the way she is.”

“Well, Mr Nunn. You may not be worried about your wife, but we are. You have a large estate – what if she went for a walk and got into  difficulties?”

James’ mouth twitched in amusement, and he shook his head. “Louise? Go for a walk anywhere there are no shops? No. No way.”

“Even so, we’ll need to come up to the house, search it and the estate to start with. Standard procedure.”

James shrugged yet again. “If you feel it’s necessary Inspector.”

 ******

Colin Travis was shrugging himself into his jacket ready to head off home when he heard the footsteps coming towards him across the incident room floor. He looked up and sighed faintly. Damn. DCI Lyle. Probably no chance of even a late supper then, and he’d promised Julie faithfully he’d be back earlier than usual tonight. It was probably going to result in a ‘sleeping in the spare bed’ kind of row when he finally got back. This case was taking its toll.

Travis ran a hand over his hair, switched off the light in his office and went out to greet his boss with what he hoped was a welcoming smile. “Good evening, sir.”

“Evening Colin. Sorry it’s so late – thought I might even have missed you. I really need an up-date on the Louise Nunn case ASAP. You’re positive you’ve got enough to give the CPS?”

Travis nodded, and gave in to the inevitable with a gesture towards a couple of chairs that gave a good view of the cluster of clear panels on which the case evidence had been pieced together.

“Oh yes sir. It’s been a frustrating investigation, but we’ve got a pretty clear picture now of what happened.”

Lyle grimaced. “I wish it had been as clear before you dug that dirty great hole in the overtime budget searching for her.”

His face broke into a grin. “Bloody hell, Colin, I thought the ACC was going to have a heart attack when he saw what it cost. Nearly choked on his jasmine tea when he saw you’d even gone through the pig shit. It was almost worth the bollocking I got for authorising it. I told him you knew what you were doing.” His eyebrows rose, posing the unspoken question.

“Thanks for taking the flak sir. You knew we had to be sure. It’s a big estate, we went over every inch of it – there was a possibility she was there to be found. It would have made the job a lot easier to have a body – even traces of a body. Not easy, proving she’s dead without that. And that her husband murdered her.”

“The jury’s going to have to be given a hell of a lot of circumstantial evidence to believe it, Colin. And the CPS are going to be even more of a bugger to convince.”

Travis straightened in his chair and stared at the photo of the smiling man that was pinned to the case wall. “James Nunn’s a cool customer, I’ll give him that.  But he’s always been the major suspect in the case. Something about him right from the start.”

“Well, it’s not exactly unusual for it to be the victim’s ‘nearest and dearest’ is it? But it’s going to take more than statistics, Colin. I know most of it, but pretend I’m the CPS – convince me it was Nunn.”

“Okay. We’ve no body. But we also have absolutely no sightings of Louise Nunn after Saturday, 28th September. Not even the usual volume of crank calls. Credit cards, passport, mobile ‘phone – all in the house. No record of any duplicates. Yes, people do just take off for a new life, but look at her,” he gestured at the photo of the blonde woman at the centre of the case. “She’s distinctly high maintenance, there’s no way she’d take off without so much as a change of clothing, let alone no money.” Travis turned his gaze on DCI Lyle. “On the contrary. She was planning to start a new life, yes, but she was determined to sort her old one out first. Chiefly by taking her husband to the cleaners.”

Lyle gave a wry smile. “I can sympathise with him there then. But is that enough of a motive?”

Travis grinned. “No disrespect sir, but I doubt you had quite as much to lose as Nunn. Louise’s divorce lawyer is more than confident that her client was going to walk away with four million plus. Half of everything he’s got. And she wanted it as a lump sum, so he’d have had to sell either the business or the estate to raise the cash. He was between a rock and a hard place – without the business he couldn’t afford the upkeep on the house and estate and the only thing I’ve seen him get passionate about is Redmayne Hall.”

“Okay, I’ll give you a decent motive. What else?”

“Not least is the fact that he left it five days to report her missing. And he only came forward then because his sister-in-law pressurised him – told him she’d do it, if he didn’t.”

Travis reached for a file on the desk and flipped through it as he spoke. “The usual checks brought up a report on a call out to a “domestic”. Seemed quiet by the time our lot got out there. There were no marks on her, so no evidence he’d been violent – she said that was because … ‘he shook me by the shoulders until I thought my head would fall off’. Said she didn’t want to make a formal complaint though, so it just went ‘on file’.”

Even with that, at first we questioned him as a ‘significant witness’ rather than a suspect. He was pretty consistent in his story, but then we found out he’d lied about not having a row with Louise on the day she was last seen.

“Of course, he tried to make out it was just a regular ‘spat’, but that was the day she told him she was taking half, and that she knew about his latest affair. With his secretary … sorry, personal assistant.”

“Ah,” DCI Lyle’s tone said it all. “Sounds a little bit like history repeating itself.”

“Exactly. We took another look at the death of Nunn’s first wife, Helen, of course. But there’s nothing to prove it wasn’t just a tragic accident – combination of filthy weather, pitch black night, muddy back-road to the estate. There were obvious skid marks – trying to avoid an animal was the accepted explanation. Her car veered off and ended up smashed into a tree. She was dead before the ambulance got there.”

“Hmm.” Lyle’s chin disappeared into his chest. “Interesting, but …”

“There’s more. She left him her own money and there was a hefty life insurance payout too. He needed it – badly – he’d made a total balls-up of his company. Grandfather made enough out of it to buy the estate. Father kept it ticking over. But James doesn’t seem to have a head for business, and the bank was just about to pull the plug on him.”

Lyle jumped in, unable to resist. “Very convenient. And a year or so later, the business was going from strength to strength, thanks to the injection of fresh capital and Louise Lawrence, as she was then, joining the company as Sales Manager.”

“Gossip was rife about them for months, before and after she started working for him. They weren’t particularly discreet.”

“And then he married her,” said Lyle, with the air of one producing a trump card. “Must have seemed like a good idea at the time, eh? And now?” The DCI smiled back at James’s photo. “To lose one wife may be regarded as a misfortune, Mr Nunn, but to lose two looks like … murder.” He pushed himself to his feet. “How about a drink, Colin? Then you can tell me about the diary.”

 ******

The courtroom was packed and it was becoming uncomfortably stuffy as the day wore on.

The Crown Prosecutor heaved himself to his feet again, straightening his wig a touch as he did so. He glanced at the sheaf of papers in his hand and looked straight at the man in the witness box.

“Well now, Inspector Travis. Please tell the court about Mrs Nunn’s diary. First of all, where did you find it?”

“Well, a search of the house brought to light several computer memory sticks – they contained Mrs Nunn’s diary.”

“And you found these memory sticks where?”

“They were inside a smallish Harvey Nichols bag, which had then been placed inside one of the handbags in Mrs Nunn’s dressing room.

“So you would say they had been hidden then? Well hidden?”

“Yes, it took quite some time to go through all Mrs Nunn’s belongings. It was an extremely thorough and painstaking search.”

“And this diary led you to consider Mr Nunn’s murder of his wife as the most likely explanation for her disappearance?”

“Yes.”

“Tell the court why that was please.”

“There were entries detailing a series of confrontations with her husband – about work, the house, children. Mrs Nunn had tried several procedures, but was unable to have children and wanted to adopt. Mr Nunn didn’t, he wanted a child of his own to inherit the estate. The marriage seems to have been rather volatile for some time. Many of the recent entries, since she filed for divorce, dealt with the rows they were having about the settlement she wanted. Rows which became increasingly violent.”

“Entries such as: ‘All hell broke loose when I told him I’d had enough and wanted a divorce. I don’t know why, he must be as sick of me as I am of him. He pushed me to the ground and I was screaming my head off, but we were alone in the house. I’ve never been so frightened … I want to get away from him – for good.’ That kind of thing, Inspector?”

“Yes. And that was backed up by e-mails to friends, complaining that the defendant was threatening and violent towards her.”

“Mrs Nunn even reported this violence to the police. Again, I quote: “I can’t believe I thought reporting him to the police would work. My word against his, no evidence of violence, so charges wouldn’t stick. I’m stymied, he’s not going to leave any obvious marks on me – for crying out loud, we work together and he knows I wouldn’t say I’d “walked into a door” to cover up for him, not if it got to that level. But he was shaken – he didn’t think I’d actually make the call. Maybe it will make him think twice next time. God, my head hurts, I really thought I was going to pass out. Feel sick.‘ Can you verify this incident Inspector?”

“We were called out, yes, but I’m afraid we can’t do anything unless the victim is prepared to press charges.”

“Yes, of course. And on the Saturday she was last seen? There’s a diary entry for that day which reads: ‘The last row was bad enough. It left me shaken, very frightened. What’s he going to be like when I tell him I want half? Determined to get it over and done with this weekend. After all, what can he do now that I know about his plans with Karen?’ Do you know what those plans were, Inspector?”

“Mrs Nunn had confided in her sister that she had proof that the defendant was having an affair with his personal assistant, Karen McRae. She thought he’d go along with her demands for an increase in her settlement so that they could hurry the divorce through and he could marry Miss McRae.”

“Why the need for haste, Inspector?”

“Because Miss McRae was pregnant.”

There was a Mexican wave of murmurs along the spectators’ gallery. The judge glared up at its occupants and silence fell. “You may continue, Inspector.”

“Thank you, sir. Unfortunately, Miss McRae suffered a miscarriage a few weeks after Mrs Nunn’s disappearance.”

****** 

“I didn’t do it Karen. I didn’t kill her.” James Nunn thrust his hands across the formica table between them and grabbed her fingers. “I can’t understand what I’m doing here. I’m innocent.”

“I know you are, darling.” The voice was soothing, reassuring. “I believe you didn’t kill Louise.”

“Then why didn’t they believe me?”

“Because they don’t know you, James. Not the real you – that lawyer made you sound like some kind of Bluebeard. Blithely killing off one wife after another. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.” Karen’s tone was indignant.

James drew back his hands and slammed a fist down on the table. “But the jury did. And the judge – he made that perfectly clear in his summing up. ‘Most unusually, Mrs Nunn has been able to give evidence from beyond the grave.’ Pompous old sod.” James put his head in his hands. “All that stuff she wrote. How could they not see how exaggerated it was? … I didn’t do half the things she claimed. And anyway, she drove me to it – the bitch. I’m glad she’s dead.”

Karen’s eyes flicked to the prison officer standing with his back stiff against the door and then back to James. “Shush, darling. I know it’s awful, but you have to think about what might happen next.”

 “Psychiatric reports. I’m clearly not insane so they’ll probably send me to prison for life,” he put his head in his hands and groaned.

“No, don’t give up, darling, please don’t give up. There must be something we can do. I’ll speak to your lawyer again – he must be able to come up with some reason to appeal, almost everyone who goes to prison for murder these days seems to appeal, don’t they? Even when it’s obvious they did it. Like Rosemary Thingy and that horrid caretaker who killed those little girls.”

James raised his head and stared at her.

“I know, I know.” Karen closed her eyes and sighed. “I’m babbling and I’m saying completely the wrong thing. I’m sorry, but I just can’t think straight. I just meant that there must be a way to make them look at the case again.” Karen stretched her hands out and after a few seconds James took them in his.

Karen smiled uncertainly. “I don’t know if this will help. I’ve been waiting for the right time to tell you, but it’s never seemed to be ‘the right time’, so I’m just going to come out with it now.” She took a deep breath and said in a rush, “I’m pregnant again.”

 ******

“Come on in. Do sit down. I’ll just move this … and then you can put the tray down on the coffee table please Tina … thank you, that’s fine. Jamie’s fast asleep and his baby monitor is on, so you can get off home now, thanks. See you in the morning.”

“Right you are Mrs Nunn. Goodnight.”

A faint click confirmed that the door was shut and Karen turned back to her guest.

“Hello. Long time no see.” She smiled. “Coffee?”

“Please. Just a spot of milk, no sugar, thanks.”

Karen smiled again. “I remember. There you go.”

The late evening sun faded in through the huge windows, the glow adding lustre to the slightly faded grandeur of the room. Carefully placed lamps added soft pools of light around the room, burnishing the well-polished mahogany on which they stood.

“I thought you’d have redecorated by now.”

“No time I’m afraid. Toddler. James’s appeal. The business to oversee.” Karen sighed. “It’s on the list, but nowhere near the top yet.”

“Well, I suppose belated congratulations are in order. The third Mrs James Nunn. Lucky number three?”

“Oh I think so, don’t you?” Karen grinned and stood up, arms open wide.

“Come here and give me a hug. You’re an absolute genius Louise. Every last little step in the plan worked out exactly the way you said it would.”

The two women embraced. Karen disengaged first and held Louise at arms’ length, scrutinising the delicate features of her face. “I love your new look. It’s truly amazing, if I didn’t know it was you … Even your own mother wouldn’t recognise you.”

“The best plastic surgeon in the business – admittedly the black market side of the business, but still ‘the best’. The hair’s a bit high-maintenance. But then, it always was when I was a ‘natural’ blonde.” Louise smiled, taking her seat in the huge chintz-covered armchair again. She took her time about crossing her tanned, still-shapely legs and smoothing down her pencil skirt.

“And Rio’s been fun, I’ve had a ball out there. All my hard work was done once I got out of the country. Just a matter of keeping an eye on developments via the internet, resisting the urge to get in touch in any way, and waiting for the right time to come back. How’s it been for you?”

 “Well, I can’t say there weren’t a few hairy moments along the way. I thought they weren’t going to find your diary for a start. And then one of the ‘sightings’ of you at Manchester airport sounded just a bit too possible for comfort. But handling James was a doddle. He couldn’t resist the bait of the baby.” Karen stopped as sadness etched her face. “The miscarriage was tough.”

She straightened her shoulders and smiled wryly. “But in a way it even helped. By the time I knew I was pregnant again, James was officially a widower, given that he’d been convicted of your murder. So we got leave to marry in prison before Jamie was born, and that made him James’s legitimate heir.”

She took a sip of her coffee and sank back in her chair, adjusting the cushion at her side before she continued brightly. e must be ableHe”So I have all the benefits of being Mrs Nunn, but with James safely behind bars for a very, very long time. So unfortunate that they couldn’t find grounds for an appeal against the verdict, and his legal team still aren’t very optimistic about the chances of getting him a reduced sentence.” Her voice softened. “I almost feel sorry for him.”

“Don’t.” Louise’s tone was uncompromising. “He deserved it. The only thing he’s ever really cared about is this place. And he killed Helen to keep it. He was clever enough to get away with it and he’d have found a way to get rid of me too – he was never going to give me what I deserved. Setting him up for my murder was the only way to have it all.”

“And do you really think it’s possible to ‘have it all’?”

“Why not? It’ll take some ingenious accounting, but I’m good at that. A half share in everything is what we agreed. ‘The best’ costs and Rio’s not a cheap place to live the high life – the money I siphoned off before I disappeared is going to run out sooner rather than later. I’ve waited as long as I can, it’s time to top it up.”

Karen shifted in her seat, reaching under a cushion. When she brought up her hand it held a small gun.

“There’s just one problem with that Louise. I want Jamie to have it all. I didn’t realise I’d feel that way, but I do. I want him to have Redmayne and everything that goes with it. And no one’s going to look for a woman who’s already dead.”

The frozen expression of disbelief on Louise’s face disappeared as the bullet did it’s work and she slumped in the chair. Karen listened carefully, but there was nothing from the baby monitor – Jamie had slept through the noise of the shot.

Karen stood up, shaking slightly. “I’m sorry Louise. Truly I am. But Redmayne only has room for one inconvenient wife at a time.”

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