Short Stories

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The train rolled into the station like a long green dragon, its clickety-clack echoing through the platform. Mitsuko’s heart raced as the brakes brought the train to a halt with a loud squeal. Although she was used to the sound, it still scared her, reminding her of a tragedy.  


More than a decade had passed since a tsunami hit her village near the Fukushima nuclear plant. The awful noise the sea made would not go away nor would the vision of people being dragged into the ocean by the retreating wave. Guilt at surviving still ate away inside her. What a day. Even after all that time and having moved three hundred and fifty kilometres south and away from the coast it still lingered in her mind. Her many visits to the Jinja to ask the kami who dwelt in the shrine had not helped even though she brought offerings of rice and fish. The loss of her parents and siblings on that tragic day left her with no-one close with whom to share her fear.


Mitsuko eased her way along the platform. She found a seat in the third carriage opposite a European man. The advantage of getting the train at this second stop on the line meant she would get a seat. Further on into the city it would be standing room only. With a lurch, the train set off. Fields, villages, and orchards whizzed by. The first signs of cherry blossom peaked out, awakened from their wintry slumber. Soon the train would live up to its nickname of the Cherry Blossom Special. Tourists from around the world and all over Japan would travel the line from terminus to terminus during March and April for the spectacular displays.


Lifting a copy of Pride and Prejudice from her shoulder bag she opened it at the page kept by her silk bookmark. This was her second reading of the Jane Austen masterpiece in English. Her first was a long time ago at university as part of her degree. If only there could be a happy ending for her, but her Mr Darcy had yet to appear, and she was approaching thirty-five. A glance at the man opposite, whom she decided was about her own age, almost made her smile but shyness prevailed, and Japanese culture had instilled into her propriety and not to stare at strangers, particularly at such a person.


One thing was for sure, Toshiro-San was not and never would be her Mr Darcy. He was the Deputy Assistant chief of the Sako Tourist Company and her line manager with a habit of getting too close. Today he had a conference at the British Consulate and had instructed her to accompany him. He spoke good English so taking her as translator seemed superfluous except, she had an inkling why! Well, she decided he would be disappointed. Her longing for love had its limits. How to deny him was still worrying her.


A shudder and then a howling screech of metal on metal made Mitsuko drop her book, screw her eyes tight shut and grab the arm rest while her heart thumped so hard, she feared it wanted to break out of her body.  A sudden loss of momentum catapulted her into the lap of the European.


Mitsuko slowly opened her eyes. “Oh! Gomen'nasai!


The man blinked. “Sorry, what did you say?”


At a complete loss of how to react sitting on the man’s knee she muttered: “Sorry. You’re English. I said I’m sorry!”


“You’re trembling? Are you all right?” The man helped her off his knee and back into her seat. He picked up her book and handed it to her.


“Er. . . yes, thank you.”


“Don’t worry. There’s probably just some technical fault. It’s time they replaced this old model. Harry Carpenter. I suppose you could say we have been introduced.” A laugh spread across what Mitsuko thought a kind if rather pale face.


Should she introduce herself? No, not really. She didn’t know him even if she had sat on his knee!


A voice in Japanese came over the speakers in the carriage.


“What did he say?” Harry Carpenter raised his blond eyebrows.


“He said there is a fault in the braking system, and we should not be held up for long.”


“Thank you Miss. . .?”


Mitsuko lowered her eyes to her book.


A lurch and the train pulled away. Mitsuko kept her eyes down to her book for the rest of the journey now travelling much slower. It trundled into the city station twenty minutes late. Stuffing her book into her shoulder bag and offering a slight bow to the man who said his name was Harry Carpenter, she hurried from the carriage, along the platform and out onto the bustling city street.


Why oh why couldn’t I talk to him? What’s the matter with me? I have to stop being so. . .so. . . what? Polite? Traditional? Shy? Maybe.


***

“Ah there you are!” said Toshiro-San as Mitsuko hung her jacket over the back of her chair and placed her shoulder bag on her desk.


She made a slight bow. “I’m sorry I’m late. The train had brake trouble.”


“Not to worry.” He put his hand on her shoulder and squeezed. “We’re leaving at ten. The meeting starts at eleven and may go on all day with a break for lunch. I’ve made arrangements for our lunch. I doubt the British one is worth having.”


Mitsuko sat in her chair, logged on to check her incoming emails, and tried not to imagine what Toshiro-San may have in mind for lunch. He had an apartment near the consulate. Why me? After nine years at the company and glowing annual appraisals from the Deputy Chief she deserved better than to be the subject of such unwanted attention from Toshiro-San. If she complained nothing would be done. In her opinion, this male dominated company like many in Japan was misogynist. Few women were in positions of authority. Perhaps the new company chief would change it as some other companies were doing but her hopes were not high. The women in the office looked to her for leadership though she held no leadership role. Perhaps they recognised hidden under her outward façade of conformity and tradition she had a rebel heart. Or more likely it was her empathy. Mitsuko wished she could unleash that rebel to talk to strangers! That morning on the train she had failed.


A glance at a digital clock on the office wall showed 09:55. Without any enthusiasm she closed her desktop, slipped on her jacket, and lifted her shoulder bag.


Toshiro-San breezed into the office. “Ready?”


Mitsuko nodded.


Her hopes that he would sit in the front of the cab were soon dashed when he climbed in the back with her ‘accidentally’ brushing his hand over her leg making her wish she had worn her business suit with the pants rather than the black skirt that came just above her knee.


Security at the consulate ran with quiet professionalism and soon Mitsuko and Toshiro-San were in the conference room with lots of other people; a few she recognised from their visits to her company’s offices. She sniffed as an air-conditioning system pumped out a clearly artificial fragrance pretending to be cherry blossom. It irritated her nostrils.


“Take notes,” said Toshiro-San guiding Mitsuko to a chair. He sat next to her with his leg against hers.


She moved her leg away and slipped a notepad from her shoulder bag. And then she saw him come to sit on the stage to the left of the lectern. The man from the train. Their eyes met. She lowered her eyes to her notepad.


The first speaker extolled the historic sites of the United Kingdom. Mitsuko had never been and imagined it may be an interesting place though she would never have enough money to go. The second extolled the virtues of cruise lines based in the UK. Harry answered questions when the speaker turned to him for help. A vacation on a cruise ship she would never have. Not with her fear of the ocean.


The British Consul brought the first session to an end and invited the delegates to lunch.


“We’ll go round to my place and have something,” said Toshiro-San with what he may have considered a smile but what Mitsuko regarded as a leer.


“I think we ought to join the other delegates, sir. It may not be appropriate to refuse their hospitality.”


“No! No! No! I insist we go to my apartment where we can rest before the next session.”


Mitsuko sucked in a deep breath. This was it! Did she have the courage to stand up for herself? Yes! She would not go with him. His intentions were clear, and he had taken advantage of other women. About to open her mouth and make a stand a voice interrupted.


“Hello again.”


“Hello!” Mitsuko found her voice. “Er. . . Harry, sorry I forgot your last name.”


“Harry Carpenter.”


“Mr Carpenter this is Toshiro-San the deputy assistant chief of my company.”


Harry made a slight bow. Toshiro-San returned it losing inscrutability and replacing it with a glare.


“Mr Carpenter, I’m so looking forward to seeing what you British provide for lunch,” said Mitsuko surprising herself at her sudden influx of confidence or was it self preservation against her boss?


“Then I would be most honoured if you would both join me,” said Harry.


“I’m so sorry,” said Toshiro-San. “We have a previous engagement.”


Mitsuko gave him a slight bow. “You don’t really need me for that appointment Toshiro-San. Thank you Mr Carpenter I would be delighted to join you for lunch.”


They left Toshiro standing in the conference room. The twitch under his left eye that appeared when he was angry was volcanic. Mitsuko expected retribution but not here. Today was Friday so he would wait until he had her in the office on Monday.  And a strange thing happened. She didn’t care!


***

As they strolled through the corridors of the impressive building Harry said: “You still haven’t told me your name.”


“Mitsuko Watanabe.”


“Hello Mitsuko Watanabe.”


“Hello Harry Carpenter!” Mitsuko couldn’t help but smile.


A buffet awaited the guests in a dining room with portraits of Queen Elizabeth II and King Charles III and a grand chandelier hanging from a ceiling painted like the Sistine chapel. Mitsuko had only seen photographs of Michelangelo’s masterpiece in brochures she prepared for tourists visiting Italy.


“What is this?” said Mitsuko after swallowing a piece of sausage roll.


“Sausage roll. Do you like it?”


“Erm. . .”


Harry laughed.


“So, what do you do, Mitsuko? Is it all right if I call you Mitsuko?”


“Yes, you may. I’m a translator at our company’s main office. Sako Travel if you know it.”


“Yes, I know it. You arrange visits for our cruise ships.”


“And what is your role?”


“I work for Seascape Cruising. They sent me here to check on our systems to make sure we are providing a quality service to our customers at a competitive price.”


“But you don’t speak Japanese.”


“Actually, I do. That’s why they sent me. I did Economics and Japanese at university.”


“Oh. I thought you didn’t speak the language after the train incident.”


“I confess. You’ve caught me out. I asked you to translate because I wanted an excuse to talk to you.”


“And I didn’t.”


“No. I got the message when you went back to your book but I’m glad you are talking to me now.”


Mitsuko may have found her confidence after defying Toshiro-San, but she still blushed. The lunch was all too quickly over. Harry escorted her back to the conference room.


“How long will you be in Japan?”


Harry shook his head. “I’m not sure how long it will take me to complete the project.”


“And then you go back to England?”


“Probably not. Another posting to somewhere our cruise ships visit.”


“It must be fascinating visiting other countries. I only see them in brochures.”


“You should take one of our cruises. I could get you a good deal. The Mediterranean is a great place to cruise with so many historical sites and culture to enjoy.”


“I don’t think I would like a cruise.”


“Oh! Why?”


“I think I had better go to my seat. Toshiro-San is staring at me.”


Harry Carpenter took his seat on the stage while Mitsuko with great effort managed to avoid showing her reluctance as she sat next to Toshiro-San. He huffed but said nothing and didn’t try to put his leg against hers. The volcano had subsided but still twitched.


Two speakers droned away on stage, but Mitsuko was far away in her head. Not in the trauma of the tsunami but sitting under the cherry blossom in her garden.


A man came on stage and whispered in Harry’s ear. Harry moved off stage in a hurry.

***

Mitsuko woke early on Saturday even though there was no need to get ready for work. Outside a Japanese bush warbler sang to a potential mate somewhere nearby. It made her smile and wonder if it was happy like her. Spring had arrived. The feeling of amazement at her performance yesterday remained in the form a warm glow. Could she really shake off her shyness and the doom that resided deep within her from the tsunami disaster? Perhaps today was a new beginning!


With her breakfast of grilled sea bream, rice and nori, Mitsuko took her plate out to her small, enclosed garden to enjoy the bright though chilly morning. The cherry tree she planted five years ago had grown to almost two metres. More sheltered than its cousins out in the orchards, the tree was already a riot of pink blossom. As she sat on the single chair at her marble topped table for one, she gazed at the blossom and imagined the kami who may live in the tree. She liked to think her parents and siblings inhabited this tree or ones like it.


The bush warbler still sang his sweet tune though he hid from view.


Her breakfast finished she leaned back in her chair and contemplated what had happened on the train and then at the consulate. What did she really feel about Harry Carpenter? Well, she wasn’t sure. Certainly, he was an attractive man and had an affable manner. But he was English and so different from her own culture.


After carrying her plate into her small kitchen, she sat at her electronic piano, put on her headphones so she wouldn’t disturb the bush warbler’s attempts at finding a mate and to not annoy the neighbours, she played her second favourite piece; Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

***

Mitsuko rolled off her tatami mat and shikifuton mattress and pulled open the sliding door that led to the garden. The bush warbler sang his song making her wonder how long he would keep it up. And then she realised he would keep going until he won his mate. Would that someone would pursue me with such ardour, she mused. She filled her lungs with the fresh air of morning and the scent from her cherry tree so different from what came out of the air-conditioning at the consulate. Mondays usually came round too quickly for Mitsuko. Not this Monday. Would she see Harry Carpenter on the train? She hoped so. He hadn’t come back to the conference room after leaving so abruptly and she hadn’t seen him again.


With its clickety clack, clickety clack the train matched Mitsuko’s heartbeat but not from fear. With a tinge of apprehension and huge dose of hope she boarded the third carriage. Harry Carpenter sat in the same seat he occupied on Friday.


Don’t be too obviously happy to see him. Keep it cool. Remember propriety, said the little voice in her head. Oh, shut up!


“Good morning, Mitsuko!” Harry stood and made a slight bow.


“Good morning, Harry.” Mitsuko returned the bow and took her seat opposite with an imagined gag around the little voice.


“Sorry I missed you on Friday. Emergency on one of our ships. Someone had a heart attack and I had to arrange to have him collected by helicopter and flown to hospital. Everyone had left when I got back.”


“Oh! Is he all right?”


“I believe so.”


“Do you take this train every day?”


“Most days. Sometimes I must stay in the city overnight if I have a late meeting or an early one the next morning.”


Pride and Prejudice stayed in Mitsuko’s shoulder bag as she enjoyed a conversation about literature and Japanese art. The orchards had a little more blossom on this sunny day.

***


After she parted from Harry at the terminal she strolled along the busy street to her office with a smile and a spring in her step. Whatever Toshiro-San had in mind for her she knew she could cope.


Taking her place at her workstation she logged on to her desktop. A glance around the open plan office failed to locate Toshiro-San.


Time ticked by on the office clock. Still no sign of Toshiro-San. The sooner he came and berated her about what he probably thought was her disgraceful behaviour in going to lunch with the foreigner rather than himself, the better to get it over with.


She looked up to see the new chief’s secretary coming through the office heading in her direction. Mitsuko’s heart gave a little flutter of apprehension.


“The chief wants to see you, now, Mitsuko.”


“Oh!” Mitsuko stood, slipped on her jacket, and followed the secretary to the stairs and up to the next floor. “Why does he want to see me?”


“Don’t know.”


But Mitsuko had an idea. Toshiro-San would have done something to show her in a bad light or accused her of impropriety. The hypocrisy! 


Both the chief and the deputy chief sat in a plush office with an ikebana display on a black lacquered chest under a wide window. As a teenager, Mitsuko had taken lessons in ikebana, the Japanese art of flower decoration that emphasizes the simplicity, balance, and harmony with nature. She expected no harmony in the next few minutes. Where was Toshiro-San?


“Come in, sit down Mitsuko,” said the Deputy Chief. He pointed to an antique chair to the side of a grand desk.


Mitsuko sat and put her hands in her lap. No histrionics, she would listen to their tirade and let it drift over her head. Just like her visits to the dentist, she would let her mind drift away to sit under her cherry tree.


“I have reports about you,” said the chief.


Mitsuko made no reply. She was far away offering food to the kami who lived in her tree.


“So, there is the matter of Toshiro-San,” said the deputy.


Still Mitsuko sat quietly.


“For reasons I do not wish to disclose, Toshiro-San has been dismissed from the company with immediate effect,” said the chief.


That brought Mitsuko back from her garden and into the room. “Oh!”


“We have many good reports about your work here. It has been noticed how you help other employees, particularly but not only the female ones,”


“I don’t know why but they come to me,” said Mitsuko.


“Because you have something that marks you out. You have empathy Mitsuko, and that is in short supply these days or in the old days to be honest,” said the deputy.


“There is a dreadful shortage of women managers in this company and others,” said the chief.


Mitsuko wondered what was happening. She had come into the office expecting at best to be harangued and at worst to be dismissed.


“I have discussed you with the chief and we have agreed that we would like you to replace Toshiro-San as the Deputy Assistant Chief, if you are willing to accept the position,” said the deputy chief.


Mitsuko could not help her mouth dropping open in surprise.


“Please understand we are not promoting you because you are a woman. You have been chosen because you are the right person for the job,” said the chief.


At a loss what to say, she managed: “Thank you.”


“We are trying to improve equality in the company, so your salary will be the same as Toshiro-San received,” said the chief.


Mitsuko carried out a quick maths calculation in her head. More than twice her current salary!

***

Clickety clack, clickety clack the train came to halt with a squeal of brakes but this time it rekindled no fears.


He was on the train.


“I’ve been promoted!”


“Really, that’s good news.”


“Yes, the man I was with at the consulate, Toshiro-San, he’s been fired. I don’t know why. They have given me his job. I’m now the deputy assistant chief.”


“Congratulations!”


On Wednesday and Thursday that week she met Harry on the train. He told her all about his travels raising a desire to see more of the world now she had the income to allow her foreign holidays.


On Friday morning he sat in his usual place.


“I must stay overnight in the city. I have a meeting with staff very early tomorrow so I will be staying in a hotel.”


“You have to work Saturdays?”


“Cruise ships don’t take a day off!”


“Oh, poor you.”


“I was wondering if you would like to have dinner with me this evening if you don’t have to rush back home.”


“Nothing to hurry home to. Yes, I would like to have dinner with you.”


“I will be staying at the Johinna. Do you know it?”


“I know of it. It’s very expensive. Some of the VIPs who use our company stay there.”


“One of the perks of my position. The company pays! I’ll meet you in the roof-top bar at say eight, is that okay?”


“Yes.”


Mitsuko parted from Harry at the station. The train, she knew, would go on to the coast. Someday, she hoped, she would take the train all the way to the coast to see if she could finally rid herself of her fears. So much had happened to her recently. It had to be possible.


For most of the morning she fretted about what to wear for her dinner date. Was Harry just a friend or was there something more? Mitsuko wasn’t sure. He was a nice guy but was a romance with him likely or even wanted by her, or by him? She could not make up her mind.


Taking advantage of the lunch break and the prospect of her next month’s salary being far more than her previous one, she toured the downtown shopping area and found a modest black cocktail dress. The afternoon dragged.


***

A commissioner in a long brown coat and peaked cap greeted her at the revolving glass doors of the Johinna Hotel. Butterflies took off in her tummy as she saw the elevator and stepped out towards it with a click of her heels on the hard floor.


“Good evening, may I say how good you look.” Harry slipped off a bar stool to make a slight bow. He looked handsome in his dark blue jacket and his light blue pants that Mitsuko saw were the same colour as his eyes.


“Good evening, Harry.”


He led her to an alcove, summoned a waiter and ordered a bottle of champagne.


“You do drink champagne?” said Harry as the waiter trundled off towards the bar.


“Not often.” Mitsuko felt her hands clammy. Something wasn’t right. Why was he trying to impress her so much? This hotel was way outside her comfort zone, and she knew enough to realise that a bottle of champagne here could cost more than an office worker’s weekly pay if it were vintage.


“You all right?” said Harry.


“Yes, just a little tired after a long day at the office.”


She glanced over at woman in a red silk dress who had taken a seat at the bar. Why was she glaring at Harry?


“So, what is it like being a boss now, Mitsuko?”


“I like it. I have more of a say in how the office works and I’m better equipped now to help the staff.”


“They are lucky to have you.”


“Thank you. Harry, I think that woman at the bar has a problem with you.”


He shook his head. “Don’t know her.”


The champagne arrived. With a flamboyant gesture the waiter popped the cork, poured a little into a flute for Harry to approve and then filled two.


“Well, here’s to your climb up the greasy pole,” said Harry raising his glass.


The phrase wasn’t lost on Mitsuko, but she raised hers too.


Over many delicate and delicious courses Mitsuko still had a feeling that something was not right.


“I’ve been transferred. I’m off to Athens on Sunday. I need to hand things over to my replacement tomorrow.”


“Oh!” So that is why he is different tonight.


I’ll miss our conversations on the train,” said Harry.


“Me too.”


The meal over, Harry said: “We can finish with a coffee in my room if you wish.”


And there It was. In my limited experience a man invites you to his bedroom for only one reason, she mused. And Mitsuko was tempted. But then she shook her head. There was no future with Harry Carpenter. Just one night.


“Thank you but I must go. I must catch the last train.”


“Oh! Are you sure? I don’t expect I will see you again.”


“Probably we won’t meet again but I wish you good fortune.”


“If you ever decide to take a cruise. Contact me through Seascape Cruising.”


“Thank you for the dinner.” She kissed him on the cheek and walked out of the hotel wondering if she had made the right decision.


Outside on the sidewalk with the city’s neon lights flashing and traffic hurrying by she dithered. A one-night stand? It was something she had never done before. What kind of woman would I be if I did go back and spend the night with him? Why didn’t he try harder to get me to go to his room? Such a gentleman. I can’t blame him for trying and I respect him for not pressing me. For goodness sake you know you want to go back! Go! The little voice in her head piped up.


So, she walked back into the hotel, took the elevator up to the roof top bar and saw Harry sitting in the alcove where they had been before dinner. Now he was with the woman she saw at the bar glaring at him. She was laughing, drinking champagne and up close to him. He had his arm around shoulders.


Mitsuko turned and left thankful that they had not seen her.

***

On Sunday she decided to take the Cherry Blossom Special all the way to the coast. It was time to face her fears about the ocean and the only way she could do that was by going there. Much to her surprise she did not feel upset at what happened at the hotel.


Boarding the train, she sat in her usual seat with an empty one facing her. Now the cherry orchards were in full bloom. She took her Pride and Prejudice from her shoulder bag. At the city station she stayed on the train. Many more people filled the carriage with a mother, father and child taking the seats opposite Mitsuko. Oohs and ahhs came from the passengers as the train clickety-clacked through the orchards.


At last, it arrived at the coast.


With her hands clammy and butterflies in her tummy she made her way to the seaside and found a bench facing out over the beach to the sea. A few white horses crested the small waves bringing the tang of salt to Mitsuko’s lips. What a difference to the tsunami that had taken so much from her.


Sitting with her book open in her lap she looked out to sea. Were her parents and siblings out there as kami now? A feeling of calm spread over Mitsuko. Her fear had gone as if carried away on the breeze.


“Mitsuko? Mitsuko Watanabe?” said a voice.


She looked up to see a man standing by the bench. Did she know him? She didn’t think so. And then he smiled. A smile with a slight gap between his two front teeth. He was a lot older than the last time she saw him.


“Kaito?”


“Yes.”


“I haven’t seen you since you went to university. I’m so sorry about your parents. I was with your sister at the refuge centre after the tsunami.”


“I remember her telling me. You lost your parents, your brother and two sisters.”


“Yes, I don’t know how I survived. I can’t remember how, and I don’t want to.”


“My sister was lucky being further away when it struck. Sorry, if talking about this brings back such bad memories.”


“I have to face it. This is the first time I have been to the ocean since it happened. I want to overcome my fears.”


“I can’t imagine what you went through. I was at uni when it happened. I came back and everything was gone.”


Kaito sat on the bench.


To change the subject Mitsuko said: “Look at you now! You were a horrible and annoying child! You put a frog down the back of my dress, and I got into trouble from the teacher for screaming!”


“And you didn’t tell on me.”


“I’m not a snitch!”


Mitsuko thought back over the years to when they were teenagers. Kaito was the first boy she kissed. There were others since but not many.


“So, do you have a family, Kaito?”


He took the book from Mitsuko’s lap and turned it over in his hands. “No, I’m waiting for my Elizabeth Bennett to come along.”


If you enjoyed this story scroll down for more or click HERE to go to my novels.

At first, only a few spots of scarlet seeped to the surface of her yellow silk blouse as she lay mortally wounded in George’s arms. The spots rapidly became a torrent, colouring Bianca’s top to the hue of her gypsy skirt. Tentacles of nausea crept through George’s stomach forcing upwards into his throat as he pulled the boning knife from her chest. The sound of Bianca’s body sucking air through the gaping bloody hole shook George to his soul.


‘I put a curse on you George for the wrong you have done me. Soon you will die a painful death screaming for me to release you.’


A tear escaped from the corner of her eye; taking with it the life from those brown eyes that had captured George’s heart five years before, beneath the Seville sun. Even the lustre of her jet-black hair imprisoned in a bun beside a red camellia lost its shine.


Shadows from a bitter February sun on the yellow and red rose patterned wallpaper gave way to twilight; and then the black night, bringing with it the dark despair of his loss. A grandfather clock in the corner of the hallway broke the sombre silence with its Westminster chime of midnight.


George ignored the darts of pain shooting through the cramped muscles of his skinny body as he crawled to the light switch. High in the vaulted ceiling a crystal chandelier that once adorned the boudoir of the Empress Josephine threw its twenty-bulb luminescence onto the sanguinary scene. Mr McIvor, Bianca’s spiteful cat, stared accusingly down at him through the balustrade of the minstrels’ gallery.


The peaty warmth of single malt brought some semblance of sanity and pain relief to George. He sank into his leather armchair in the yellow painted drawing room, with its blood-red velvet curtains, twisting the glass of amber liquid in his shaking hand. Antique Spanish furniture, so lovingly gathered from Harrods by Bianca, surrounded him as he brooded on what to do next.


Should he call the police and tell them it was an accident? No. They wouldn’t believe him. They would uncover a motive, jealousy. Should he bury her in his two-acre garden? No. The gardener or a fox might dig her up. Could he dump her in the Thames that bordered his Berkshire mansion? No. She may float. Anyway, she was six feet tall, and he couldn’t carry her far.

If someone discovered the body, he would hang. Neither his social position nor his distinguished war record would save him.

There could only be one solution; the zinc bath in the cellar and a saw. He had the time. Mrs Hardcastle, his housekeeper, was visiting her sister in Manchester for a few days.

George fortified himself with another whisky and turned on the wireless. Funeral music for the death of King George V1 broke the eerie stillness.


His thoughts drifted back five years before, to his travels in Spain.


***

A guitar and the clacking of castanets beckoned the curious George. Through the bougainvillea scented heat of a July evening, he followed the sound along the reed banks of the Rio Guadalquivir to an orange grove. Brightly painted horse-drawn caravans stood in a clearing among the trees. The mouth-watering aroma from three rabbits roasting on a rickety rack drew him closer.


A rainbow of women in their red and yellow skirts and men in black leather opened their ranks to let him sit among them on the sun-dried planks and boxes. The pungent smell of horses and hard work wafted from the men, cut through with lavender from the women. Feeling slightly overdressed, George removed his blue tie and linen jacket, rolled up his white shirtsleeves and crossed his cavalry twilled legs.


And then he saw her. Carmenesque, this beautiful creature twirled and twisted her long slim body inside her scarlet skirt, in time with the guitar, clapping her castanets above her head in a beat that almost threw George’s heart out of rhythm. With a red rose clenched in her ivory teeth, her unfettered long black hair tossing first one way and then the other, her high cheek boned face flushed with passion, she came to George. Beads of perspiration ran down her perfect neck from under gold earrings big enough for a parrot to perch. It trickled through an amber necklace the colour of her skin and disappeared into a yellow chemise, lost in a paradise of which George could only dream.


Her soft hand slid through his blond hair making a little curl, across his pale forehead and along his nose. His lips parted as a finger touched the pencil thin moustache and entered his mouth. A red painted fingernail probed the small gap between his two front teeth.


‘You English?’


‘Yes.’


‘I like English. You like Spanish.’


‘Oh yes. I like Spanish.’


‘I called Bianca. Today I twenty-one. What you give me for my birthday?’


‘I give you, my heart.’ George wasn’t joking.


‘You make me laugh. I like.’


The sangria flowed, the rabbits devoured, all but Bianca and George fell asleep under a canopy of a billion stars and a lullaby of cicadas.


They danced, they laughed, they whispered. He talked of the flowers he had seen in the jungles of Asia during the war.

‘Someday I learn all about flowers,’ said Bianca. ‘Here you keep.’ 


She placed her rose in George’s open palm closing his manicured fingers over the long stem. George thought his heart would burst.


 Gently she led him to a red and yellow painted caravan set a little way from the others. Flowers of every colour imaginable bedecked her home, inside and out, hanging in old pans, boots and even a chamber pot. George, ten years older than this Spanish beauty and world travelled, thought he knew it all. That night, Bianca taught him more about love than he ever imagined existed.


The early morning rays of summer sun crept through the open window filling the caravan with the glow of a Seville orange. George stirred. Bianca slept. The rise and fall of a few wisps of hair in his lover’s gentle breathing captivated him. On a small table lay the rose. The heat of the night had faded the bloom; lingering still was its sweet perfume.


Carefully climbing from the small bed, he pulled on his trousers and turned to gaze once more at his good fortune. The crimson stain on the white cotton sheet bore witness that Bianca was not what she had seemed.


Stepping outside the caravan, confused and with pangs of guilt deep inside, he found himself looking down both barrels of a shotgun. At the other end stood Bianca’s grey moustachioed father under a black hat, his weather-beaten face carved by fifty Andalusia summers.


‘You dishonour my daughter and me, English.’  The reek of stale tobacco, garlic and sangria leapt the length of the gun to lodge in the nostrils of a terrified George. ‘Now walk English.’


Deeper into the orange grove the father prodded him.


‘Kneel English.’


George tried desperately to remember a prayer from his Eton schooldays as he knelt in the dusty earth. A man on the brink of death looks upwards for salvation; George learned that as the shells burst around him in Burma. All George saw in that Spanish sky so blue and clear was an imperial eagle floating in a thermal. Frogs on the riverbank called their friends to come to the execution. Peeking out nervously from behind their green shields, sparrows chattered like monkeys. He swore he heard the footsteps of an ant as it carried a leaf past his trembling knees. Oh, perfidious fortune, thought George, to take my life on such a day. The shotgun pressed hard against his right temple, and he wasn’t sure if his bladder would hold out long enough for him to die with dignity.


‘You married, English?’


‘No sir.’


‘What’s your name English? I want to know who I shoot.’


‘George Sanders sir.’


‘You have two choices George Sanders. The first, you may take my daughter’s hand in marriage.’


‘What’s the second?’


A thumb, cracked from hard labour and stained yellow with tobacco, cocked the hammers.


‘No Papa. No Papa. I love this English.’  Like an angel on the wing, Bianca burst through the trees scattering flocks of sparrows skyward.


‘Please may I take your daughter’s hand in marriage?’


The wedding in a small whitewashed Spanish church was simple, legal, and devoid of any friends or family on George’s side. He still felt the humiliating jeers from his new in-laws when his bride stooped to kiss him at the altar.


***

A sharp pain in his right thigh dragged him from his reverie. Looking down he saw the claws at the end of two black legs set in his leg. Mr McIvor withdrew and slunk away with thoughts that George couldn’t even guess. He would have to kill the cat.

Bianca’s camellias, on the far side of the French doors in the conservatory, turned their red flowers away from George’s gaze. How she had loved those plants. They were the start of the trouble. With the cat gone and the whisky taking effect, George drifted back into memories of two years before.

***

‘George, this is Sebastian. He’s going to teach me about horticulture.’


‘Oh, yes?’


George didn’t like the look of him. Standing taller than even Bianca, his rippling tanned muscles strained the short cotton sleeves of his white shirt. Sebastian, with his slicked black hair, looked more like one of her Spanish gypsies than a horticulturalist. He came to see her once a week on Monday afternoons until two months ago. They would spend hours down in the potting shed or in the greenhouse speaking in Spanish and laughing. Every Thursday, she would take the Daimler and say she was going to Kew Gardens. Her mind always seemed elsewhere. It drove George mad with jealousy.

  When Sebastian stopped coming and she didn’t go out on Thursdays anymore Bianca settled down to her old self. Gone were the days when she would shut herself away in her bedroom reading books. The spark of their love, reduced to an ember for two years, soon blazed back into the full glory of a forest fire.


George didn’t say anything about Sebastian or the trips to Kew when they stopped. He thought it better not to raise the subject of her affair for a couple of months. Bianca didn’t take kindly to questions if she was angry or upset. She had been loving and considerate recently and, most importantly, calm so his confidence in broaching the subject of Sebastian was now high. A lunch of Bianca’s special paella with rabbit and a glass of Rioja had made him mellow; now he watched her clear the dining table. As they stood in the kitchen among the pots and pans, George gazed into Bianca’s beautiful brown eyes and his love for her new no bounds. This was the moment.


‘I forgive you my darling for your affair with Sebastian. I know he was only a travelling gypsy. But it’s all right now. I do forgive you.’


Framed in the doorway of the hall, George ducked the bottle of gold top that came hurtling towards him to smash above his head. A carafe of Rioja exploded against the blue Moorish tiles on the wall to his left, spending its blood-red passion in swirls among the white innocence of the milk. Instinct, and five years of marriage to Bianca, told him to run when she picked up the boning knife.


***

George woke up. The pale winter sun of morning tip toed its way into the drawing room reflecting a sepia haze as it hit the brass fireplace. An empty whisky glass lay on its side on the Persian carpet where it had fallen by his foot. Thank God it was all just a terrible dream, he thought. He didn’t want to live in a world without Bianca.


George needed a cup of tea and headed for the kitchen. In the hall, cold and lifeless, his Bianca lay on the marble floor. It would have to be the zinc bath, the cellar, and a saw.


Outside the watery sun vanished, overtaken by a wind whistling through the woods, driving rain hard against the front door.

George knew he had to think like a murderer. If he could pick up enough acid from one or more of his five factories, without raising any of his workers’ suspicions, it would save him from the gruesome task. He would dissolve, not dismember, his wife. But first he had to get her into the cellar.


The heavy oak door to the cellar stood facing the front door, just a few feet from where she lay. The blood helped George slide her to the unlocked cellar door. He pulled it towards him and switched on the light with his trembling hand. His knees buckled as he tried a fireman’s lift. With a Herculean effort George managed to keep her over his shoulder. The camellia in her hair fell to the wooden stairs bouncing sideways to plummet through the banister and land far below in that dank subterranean place. With a pain in his heart and an even bigger one in his back he turned to descend to what he knew would be his Hades. How George wished for the knife that had taken Bianca to have taken him instead.


Outside, a freak gust of wind forced open the front door. The sudden pressure threw the heavy cellar door shut knocking George off his feet to tumble down the stairs, landing with a thump on his back. Bianca followed, coming to rest across his chest, face down in the dust of the musty cellar.


The pressure from the weight of Bianca’s body emptied his lungs. He tried to move but she didn’t budge and a sharp pain in his back sent shockwaves through his arms. He couldn’t feel or move his legs. In the war he had seen men with back injuries. They often caused paralysis. If he didn’t get her off him, he knew suffocation would take his life.


Was this the curse of Bianca? Would he die a painful death screaming for her to release him? No. Calmness overtook George. If he was dying, locked in the arms of Bianca was a fitting end. George had beaten the curse. He would simply expire.


In his last moments, his thoughts returned to Bianca’s cruel death.


He saw her running from the kitchen with the boning knife in her hand, skid on the spilt milk and wine and fall on the knife. Oh, the fickle the finger of fate, thought George.


His soul crossed over.


***


Detective Inspector Blake took a brown envelope from the postman. Hanging his brown trilby next to his trench coat on the hallstand, the policeman went through to the drawing room, sat in George’s armchair, lit his pipe, and slit open the envelope.


Dear Lady Sanders,


It is with immense pleasure that I enclose your Diploma in Horticultural Studies with Distinction.


Dr Sebastian Hernandez PhD., your personal tutor, also sends his congratulations.


Dr Hernandez’s wife, Isabella, has asked me to pass on to you her most sincere gratitude for the trouble you took every Thursday for two years to travel to Kew to help her with her research. Her book, ‘The Flora and Fauna of Southern Spain’ comes out next month.


Please accept my further congratulations on your work with camellias. The camellia Bianca, named in your honour, stands testament to your outstanding achievements.


Yours sincerely,


Professor Jerome St John. Head of Horticultural Studies.


On a carved wooden table in the drawing room, the detective placed the letter and diploma next to a faded rose inside a glass case.



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****************************************************************************



The Diary


 

Dangling dangerously from a blue crane, the bronze bell departed its five-hundred-year-old home in the belfry of St Martins. Words not usually uttered in the confines of a churchyard drifted on the icy January wind to the nursing home standing across the broad Georgian street. The springs on the flatbed lorry groaned as the bell, at last, safely settled on it.

 

The Reverend Paddy, sitting at the third-floor window in the nursing home, looked down on the bell’s final journey. Nobody knew and perhaps didn’t care if he could understand what was going on around him. That is nobody except Theresa Rothem, a cleaner in the home.

 

Thirty years ago, Paddy officiated at her marriage. He’d told her then, as she listened to the peel, of the times the bell had rung out on great occasions like the end of both World Wars and how the muffled sound tolled for the passing of George V1. Paddy was proud of his great bell.

 

During the past seven years, he’d slowly slipped from being a much-loved elderly gentleman around town, through being a retirement home resident, into this nursing home for the elderly mentally infirm. For Paddy, today would be the last chapter in a long life of dedication to the service of others.

 

The bell had peeled for the christening of a baby boy from the manor. This boy had now grown up to be the youngest Prime Minister since William Pitt. The manifesto of his government had promised to do something about the imbalance in the population. People were living too long because of the advances in medical science and the economy was suffering. It was such a popular policy that the party won a massive majority. The disenfranchisement of the over seventies may have helped.

 

The euthanasia law had the tacit approval of the new Archbishop of Canterbury.

 

There had already been living wills. The new rules took care of those who didn’t make such provisions and became too feeble to make one. Paddy had not made a living will.

 

A tribunal composed of a judge, a magistrate and a doctor sitting at the Castle in Winchester heard Paddy’s case three days ago.

 

On the afternoon of the hearing, Theresa sat in the huge tribunal room. This place used to be the Assizes for Hampshire. Many a poor wretch had gone from here to the gallows. Now it was being used again to send people to the next life.

 

‘Is there anyone here to speak on behalf of the subject?’ said Judge Jeffreys as he brushed dandruff off his black gown.

 

Theresa found her courage. She struggled to stand up in the pink suit that she’d bought at M and S eleven years ago, ‘Please sir, he isn’t a subject, he’s Paddy, my old vicar. I want to speak for him.’

 

‘Are you a relative?’ asked the judge, wiping his bifocals.

 

‘No sir. But his wife died twenty years ago, and they didn’t have any children, so he hasn’t got anyone to speak for him.’

 

‘Who are you?’ The cadaverous Doctor Hugo Todie queried. Taking a polo mint from his grey suit jacket, he popped it into his mouth closing the thick black moustache under his hooked nose like a portcullis.

 

‘Please sir, I’m Theresa Rothem. I work at the nursing home. I’ve known Reverend Paddy for over thirty years.’

 

‘Have you any documents authorising you to speak for him?’ asked the magistrate, Mrs Ruth Lesley JP, carefully rearranging her blue rinse in the reflection of the burnished desk.

 

‘No Ma’am.’

 

 ‘Thank you, sit down please,’ said the judge. He looked at his two colleagues sitting in their high-backed chairs. The only other people in the room were an official typist in a short black skirt taking down notes of the proceedings and a young reporter more interested in what was beneath the black skirt than the hearing.

 

Papers were signed and passed between the three tribunal members.

 

The judge put on a solemn face, ‘The tribunal has read the medical reports in this case. Sadly, we are agreed that euthanasia is to be carried out in three days time on the subject unless an appeal is lodged by a relative or someone with the legal authority to speak for him.’

 

‘Please, sir. Don’t, please don’t. He doesn’t have anyone to speak for him. I’ve already told you that,’ said Theresa, her eyes filling until the tears started to flow down her cheeks.

 

‘Next,’ said the judge.

 

Theresa caught the bus back to the nursing home. Her thoughts were frantic as she struggled to think how she could save Paddy.

 

Since the tribunal, Theresa had tried everything - writing to the King, talking on the local radio and even collecting a thousand signatures on a petition. All this was to no avail. Now it was the day for euthanasia.

 

Theresa stood next to Paddy looking out of the window. She squeezed his shoulder and smoothed his thin grey hair.

 

‘Paddy, she said gently, ‘I need to communicate with you. I need to know if you can understand me.’

 

Paddy still looked out of the window without any sign of having understood.

 

‘Paddy, if you can understand me, please would you blink your eyes twice to say yes.’ Still no response from Paddy.

 

‘Never mind,’ said Theresa with a sad sigh. ‘I think you can understand.’ She squeezed his shoulder again. They carried on watching the bell being fastened down on the lorry.

 

A white van pulled up outside the church with ‘Acme Carillon Systems’ painted on the side above the picture of a bell and a compact disc. The van was there yesterday. The driver had been doing some wiring inside the belfry. Theresa had never heard of a carillon system, but she guessed it was something to do with loudspeakers and taped bell sounds.

 

The Reverend Perrigream came out of the church door. Theresa could hear him talking to the van man, ‘How long before you can test the new system?’

 

‘About ten minutes,’ the van man suggested.

 

‘I’m really looking forward to hearing it. It’s about time we got rid of the old bells. You don’t need a bunch of geriatric campanologists either to operate this system, do you?’

 

‘No, you don’t,’ said the van man. ‘And you can’t tell the difference between the electronic system and the real bells.’

 

‘Splendid,’ said Perrigream pulling his collar up to his fat, pink face against the chill wind. He crossed the street and went into the nursing home.

 

Two nurses in crisp white trouser suits came into Paddy’s room. They gently lifted Paddy from his chair and laid him on the bed on top of the patchwork counterpane that Theresa had placed there. It had taken her three years to make it.

 

A white clock on the wall ticked the seconds by.

 

The tribunal judge, magistrate and doctor came into the room. The doctor wore a white coat and carried a well-polished walnut box about the size of a cigar packet.

 

Perrigream came in, out of breath from climbing the stairs.

 

The judge started the proceedings, ‘We have had no appeal and, therefore, we must carry out the act of euthanasia as decreed by law. Reverend, please say a few words.’

 

Perrigream, still out of breath, said the Lord’s Prayer.

 

Theresa tried to hold back her tears, but it hurt deep inside her stomach. She gave in and her eyes welled over sending tears running down her black face.

 

The doctor took a loaded syringe from his box. One of the nurses rolled up Paddy’s checked dressing gown sleeve exposing his skinny right arm. Theresa held his left hand in hers and gently kissed it.

 

As the doctor leant over, injecting Paddy in the vein at the crook of his elbow, the carillon bell system was tested.

 

‘That’s my new electronic system. You can’t tell the difference between that and the real thing,’ said Perrigream proudly.

 

‘I can, can you Paddy?’ Theresa asked, squeezing his hand.

 

Paddy blinked twice.


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Long ago, she hid the diary, now worn and brittle, to protect the secrets within. And in that form, it arrived by courier like a dagger through the heart. How could I have been so stupid, so selfish and so uncaring?

 

Memories of sixty years ago came flooding back as I turned to the first page. I was enjoying a stay in a cheap Dublin hotel before my officer training at the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. Siobhan was a barmaid in a pub with traditional Irish music in the cobblestoned Temple Bar area. Shoulder length red hair, freckles, slim and a smile that lit up the world. I fell in love with her when she poured my first pint of Guinness. Her first entry in the diary surprised me. It described a handsome young Englishman, a little shy, whom she could tell was bursting to ask her out but took three visits and several pints of the black stuff before finding the courage. And how she wanted that young man with the blue eyes to ask her.

 

Why had she begun the diary with our meeting? Nothing of her life before me appeared. And I knew nothing of her life before we met other than she was from Cork. I did ask but she shook her head, and I could tell she didn’t want to talk about it. Sometimes the past is best left there and maybe so should the diary, but it wasn’t left and now I held it in my hands.

 

As I turned the pages our time together seemed like yesterday. Walks hand in hand along the banks of the Liffey. Kippers on the quay. Sitting in the back row of the cinema missing the entire film. And after our fourth date according to her entry, that first night we spent together at my hotel, I sneaked her in. All I wanted or needed was to be with her. It wasn’t as if I pressured her. We came to a mutual agreement over a newspaper wrapped fish and chips supper. It was only the second time I had made love and the first time hardly counted since it was over as soon as the dog saw the rabbit in the stable loft with Mary the dairy at my parents’ country mansion. My embarrassment was too great to dally with Mary again. Not so with Siobhan. We were two who knew little about the mechanics of love making but enjoyed learning together.

 

And so, after three weeks my time to go to Dartmouth arrived. Swearing undying love for each other we parted at Dun Laoghaire where I boarded the ferry to cross the Irish Sea.

 

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. In some cases that may be true. In my case, and this is not an excuse, not even mitigation, the tough officer training at the Royal Navy College kept my mind on other things than love. Back at home with my parents and their privileged coterie the idea that a red-haired Irish barmaid would fit our social circle was unlikely. So, I didn’t answer her letters. I didn’t even open them to spare me from thinking about her because I knew I would find it difficult not to catch the next ferry back to the emerald isle. It was best to let our love fizzle out. Best for me.

 

As I turned the pages of the diary, the sob that came from deep within me exploded into my comfortable drawing room.

 

From her writings Siobhan held no hate for me though she had every right to detest the man who abandoned her. Dates on which she posted her letters to me and what she had written in them she reproduced in her diary. Why hadn’t I responded? Was I ill? Could she come over to England and see me? And then the content of her final letter.

 

Siobhan was in what is now known to be a horrific establishment known as ‘the laundry’ run by nuns to contain and punish ‘fallen women and girls’. That final letter had a plea for me to come to her rescue and I had failed to open it. Would I have come to her had I read the letter at the time? I want to think so, but I know myself well enough to be unsure.

 

That was the last entry in the diary in her own hand. On the next page, in a different hand, someone had written, “Siobhan Catherine Mairead O’Riley born 23 January 1940 died in childbirth. The baby sent for adoption. No next of kin.”

 

I closed the diary. Who sent the diary to me? What happened to the baby? I do not know. I tried to find out but failed so far.



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