My collection of short stories, featuring Jack Lockwood is free to download from 13 – 17 May. Here is one of the most popular stories. Some are adventures, some are supernatural, others are humorous. All of them are easy reads, ideal for a train journey of a coffee break. You’ll find that Jack is good company.
LEAVING IT ALL BEHIND
It started with a mass of headlight-shimmered droplets, then escalated to a swoosh-whoosh-slurp as my wipers tried to dash it away, until it took over everything, the windscreen, the road ahead, the very air in front of my face. It wasn’t Christmas-card snow, that was pretty and sweet. This was fat hunks of sloppy ice, dirty and dangerous, chunky great flakes falling much too fast for comfort.
I’d hoped to make it home in time, but for the past few hundred yards I’d begun to realise I’d been kidding myself. When the car started to slither, and snow began to pack itself into white hills almost before my eyes, I knew I couldn’t go on.
It was a freezing cold night in a pitch-dark country lane in the wilds of Kent. Eventually I just slithered to a stop in the middle of the road, or wherever I guessed the invisible road or pavement might be.
My engine was still running, so, in theory I could sit it out here and stop myself from freezing to death by using the car’s heater. But soon the snow would be deep enough to block the exhaust. So if I just sat here in this freezing cold, I could then literally freeze to death, or rather go off into that gentle sleep someone told me about, where, from feeling freezing cold and shivering, you suddenly get a lovely glow of warmth, and have an overwhelming urge to sleep. Those are the seconds before hypothermia tells you you’ll never wake up again.
So there was only one option. Wrap up as warmly as I could, push the car door open before the weight of snow jammed it shut, and walk to a house and hope someone would let me in. I knew that Brindley Cross, a tiny village with a small church, grocery store and a scruffy pub was a mile or so ahead. I was twelve miles from my own home, in Brookham, much too far to walk.
As I shut the door and locked the car, I tried to dispel the image in my mind of Angela Swan, a woman I had been out with a few times, opening her front door to me in obvious irritation, leaving me to follow her inside, where a good-looking man was sitting in her living room with his shirt undone and his face flushed. It was clear why Angela hadn’t been keen on answering the door, and I left before she could offer any explanation. What hurt more was that I had liked her a lot, and was hoping that she might feel the same way. But the man in her living room was better-looking than me, and his clothes, the few he was wearing, looked high quality, and the way Angela looked towards him made it clear that they had some kind of understanding.
And if I hadn’t spent the early evening driving to Ramsgate to sort something out, then detoured to call into Angela’s without warning her, I wouldn’t be on this road right now, unwillingly dicing with death.
The walk helped to keep my limbs from freezing, but my shoes were hopelessly inadequate for the deep snow I was crunching through, slush oozing over the top and soaking my socks and feet. After what seemed like hours I saw a couple of lights in the distance: Brindley Cross, thank goodness. Further on I passed the old village sign, almost obscured by the falling snow.
There in front of me was the Barley Mow, the village pub, and that was where the lights were coming from. I stepped into the candlelit grotto that looked more like a shadowy cave than the public bar, where a log fire blazed away in the hearth along the far wall.
A man looked up and smiled at me as he came around from behind the bar.
“Another stranded motorist, are you?”
I nodded. “Can I come in and warm up?”
“Course you can, mate, sit by the fire before you freeze to death. Meanwhile I’ll get you some of that tomato soup that’s been so popular tonight. Excuse the candles, the electrics went out ten minutes before you arrived.”
I sat at a table beside the fire opposite a tall man in a crumpled suit who appeared to be around thirty-five. He had a mobile phone pressed to his ear and was shouting into it as if his life depended on it.
“Look, the line’s breaking up!” he yelled frantically. “My names Rogers, Alan Rogers. My wife is Jenny Rogers. She was brought in. Hello, hello, HELLO!” He slammed the phone down on the table. “FUCK!” he shouted to anyone who might listen, closing his eyes in fury.
“My wife’s having a baby.” He was speaking to me now. “We live in London, she was rushed into St George’s hospital—it wasn’t due for another ten days, so I thought it would be okay to come down to Dover on business, but an hour ago I got the call that it was on its way, bloody well premature. And the land lines are down and the mobile signals fucked so I don’t know what the hell’s happening! God above, she could be dying by now, and I’m stuck down here!”
“Very rare to die in childbirth these days.” This was said by a silver-haired chubby old man who was sitting on his own in the corner.
“WHADDA YOU KNOW ABOUT IT, YOU OLD FART?” yelled Alan Rogers. “My Jenny’s scared stiff, it’s her first pregnancy, she’s very frail, she’s very delicate, and, fuck it, she needs me and I’m not bloody with her!”
I nodded sympathetically.
“You got kids?” he asked me.
“No. Is this your first?”
“My first with Jenny. I was married before, got a couple of girls, aged five and six.”
Alan looked nervously across at the older man he’d bawled at just now. There was an awkward pause.
“Look, I’m very sorry, I shouldn’t have snapped at you like that, I didn’t mean it okay?” Alan tried to sound sincere. “I don’t know what’s got into me.”
“Apology accepted.” The old man smiled. “I’m a friendly old fart. I don’t bear grudges.”
Sitting at another table was a woman, who appeared to be in her thirties. She had red hair, a chunky figure, and lively eyes above freckled cheeks. She looked up at me as I turned towards her.
“So what’s your story?” she asked. In her perfectly enunciated tones there was just a trace of a Scottish accent. “As you’ve just heard, our friend Alan is desperate to be in London to be with his wife. I’m an actress whose life depends on turning up for an audition in the morning, that I haven’t got a hope of making. And it’s the first part I’ve had a hope of getting for a year, and my damned car’s stuck down the hill. Because of this god-awful weather, that role I was hoping to get will go to some other desperate-for-work actress, and it looks like it’s going to be back to standing behind the burger-bar counter for little old me. And it’s not bloody fair!”
“Sorry. I suppose I’m the odd one out here,” I admitted as the landlord arrived and put a steaming bowl of lovely tomato soup with bread in front of me. “I haven’t got to be anywhere desperately urgently. I was just on my way home.”
“Well lucky you!” She stuck her tongue out jokily.
I turned towards the old man, not wanting to exclude him from the conversation. “Are you in a hurry to be somewhere else?” I asked him.
“I was.” He looked wistful for a few moments, then shook his head as he looked down at the table. “But it doesn’t really matter anymore.” He took another mouthful from the glass full of amber liquid. And walked to the bar to get another. His walk was swaying slightly, as if he’d had quite a few drinks already. Alan looked at him behind his back, raised his eyebrows at me, and lifted his hand with an imaginary glass to indicate that in his opinion the man had already had enough to drink. I pretended not to notice. Alan was getting on my nerves.
The pub didn’t have spare bedrooms, but in the exceptional circumstances, the landlord, John, was happy to do what he could, and we helped him move some tables out of the way and to bring down mattresses, blankets and pillows from upstairs. Without electricity there was no TV and no one had a battery radio, the phone lines were down and the nearest mobile signal mast was having problems, as Alan had discovered, and now appeared to have stopped working completely. So we were literally totally cut off from the outside world.
However a trip to the front door told me that the snow had stopped falling, and it felt as if the temperature had risen slightly. But I couldn’t imagine the snow melting enough tonight to move my car.
I was in one corner of the room and Alan was in the other. Lucinda, the red-haired actress who, now I’d seen her more closely, struck me as extremely attractive, had the adjacent room to herself. As the only woman amongst us, it seemed right that she should have a modicum of privacy. Elderly Harry told us he didn’t want to sleep, would rather sit up all night in his chair in the corner, and our long-suffering landlord left him a bottle of whisky to keep him amused.
An hour later, at around one in the morning, I found I just couldn’t sleep. I got up and tiptoed across to a room with an open door, where a single candle was flickering on the table, its glow reflected in the almost empty bottle of whisky, lighting up Harry’s face as if he was an evil old genie. It was a small kitchen that he’d found to sit in by himself.
I sat down at the table, opposite Harry. He was awake. Gloomy and drunk. A scowl was etched into his face as he leaned back in the chair.
“It was all planned so well,” he said.
“All planned to the last detail!” He hiccupped and leaned across the table so that he was inches from my face.
“I’ve worked for that shop for forty-five years. Hardly had a day’s sickness, done everything that was asked of me. And every Friday, regular as clockwork, I take the day’s takings to the local bank. We take a lot of money on a Friday, see, end of the week. This week they wanted me to take an extra lot from the other two shops as well. So it was all arranged. I drive down to Dover, meet this guy, he takes care of the car, gives me a pile of Euros in exchange for the English cash, arranges to smuggle me onto a boat to get me onto the French coast. Then a train journey across France. The bank account is already all set up in another name, I been adding bits to it over the years. Eileen, my wife, she’ll be okay, she’ll have the house, there’s no mortgage on it. See, I was planning to disappear from the face of the earth. In seven years Eileen could claim my life insurance, assume I was dead.”
“And by now, because of this snow, they’ll know the money hasn’t been paid in. Just a question of time before the coppers catch up with me.”
“Don’t you think you should hand yourself in?”
I turned to see Lucinda at the doorway. She’d heard what he’d said. She sat down between us at the table and covered old Harry’s hand with both of her own.
“I know what it’s like to be desperate for money,” she assured him. “Really, Harry, I do know. But that’s no excuse for doing what you did. As you said, it’s too late to get away with it now, and there’s nowhere to run. It would be so much better if you go to the police and just give yourself up. You could pretend you’d had a mental illness or something—that you weren’t responsible for your actions.”
He shook his head, staring ahead, not even meeting her eyes. “Wouldn’t work. I told you, that account’s been set up for years now. They’d know it was all planned.” He leaned back and sighed to himself miserably. “All I wanted was a decent pension settlement. But no, they said, we can’t afford it. ‘If you can’t make ends meet,’ they told me, ‘What’s wrong with coming back in part-time, that way you can make up the difference?’ That’s what they said to me, the little bastards! And I thought, why the hell should I? Don’t I deserve a decent pension when I’ve worked for that company for the whole of my sodding life?”
“’Course you do,” I said. “But Lucinda’s right. It would be better if you handed yourself in.”
Harry drifted off to sleep and I started talking to Lucinda. She told me all about her life, her loves, her troubles and hopes and dreams. She asked me about my work, too, and we talked and talked. She was adamant that Harry ought to hand himself in, and that right was right and wrong was wrong, in fact she got quite heated about it. We argued long into the early morning, me saying that I felt sorry for him, but with Lucinda insisting that she felt sorry for him too, but that in no circumstances should he have broken the law. That for his own good, and for the sake of common decency, Harry ought to go to the police.
She was obviously a woman of very high principles.
Soon we talked about other things, and I found myself drawn to her more and more. I really liked Lucinda, and from the way she stared into my eyes, it looked as if she liked me too. When we kissed and held each other tight, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. I suddenly realised that if it hadn’t been for this storm I would never have met this fascinating woman, who just might have changed my life for the better. Of course it was early days, but the likelihood was that this relationship might lead somewhere.
Eventually, after another passionate embrace, Lucinda and I went back to our respective ‘beds’, in adjacent rooms, promising to meet up in the morning. As my head touched the pillow, I soon dropped off.
I woke up at around nine am the following day. The place looked different in the grizzled murky daylight, and I caught sight of Alan’s smiling face as he jabbered away on the phone. I gathered that his wife’s imminent labour of last night had been a false alarm, and she had returned home, and mother and unborn baby were safe and well.
“Come on, mate, chop-chop,” Alan said, now all cheeriness and full of bonhomie. “It’s warmed up a bit and there’s heavy rain, and it’s melting the snow like blazes. You’d better shift your car or it’ll be blocking the road. I’ve moved mine and I’m on my way. Good to meet you, Jack, all the best to you, mate.”
It was true. Crisis over. After I’d paid the landlord and moved my car, I went back to look for Lucinda and Harry, whom I hadn’t seen since morning, assuming they were in another part of the Barley Mow, or outside, attending to their own cars. I knew Lucinda would say goodbye to me before she left, as we’d agreed. But neither of them seemed to be anywhere around outside.
And when I went back to the Barley Mow, there was a police car parked outside.
As I walked into the bar I heard them talking to John, the landlord. They turned towards me.
“Good morning, sir, can you tell me if you saw this man here yesterday?” One of the policemen showed me a picture of Harry.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Did you talk to him?”
“We chatted for a bit.”
“And when was the last time you saw him?”
“Yesterday night, just before I went to bed. About, I don’t know, midnight I suppose.”
“Was anyone else here, apart from you and him?”
“There was a guy called Alan.”
“We’ve got his phone number and spoken to him already.”
“Well then.” Some instinct stopped me telling them about Lucinda.
“Thanks for your help, sir.” They turned away abruptly and from their talk on the radio I gathered that they’d found Harry’s car, which they’d been on the lookout for, but there was no sign of Harry. And, I guessed from their anxious expressions, they hadn’t found the missing money either.
It didn’t make sense. The chances that someone had picked him up and given him a lift in the middle of the night, when the snow had hardly melted, were practically zero. At his age he couldn’t have walked far, and there weren’t that many places to hide out.
And where was Lucinda? Was she still outside somewhere, having difficulty starting her car?
As I folded up the blanket I’d been sleeping on to give back to John, a note dropped onto the floor. It said: Sorry Jack, but I couldn’t let him spend it all on his own, could I? I read the note, on which Lucinda had drawn a downturned mouth face, like the opposite of the smiley ones you get on emails. Call me sometime XXX Mwah! You lovely man you! And there was a mobile number beside the smiley face she’d drawn.
As I got into the car I screwed it up and threw it away.