Month: October 2015

THE GIRL IN THE MARY QUANT DRESS

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Here’s another story from THE JACK LOCKWOOD DIARIES, free now and tomorrow, get it here

“I saw her, I swear I saw her!

Ben Salter was trembling as he sat in the chair in the office of Archie Stanhope’s Architectural Salvage Yard, where he’d been working for three weeks. I’d popped in to the yard to pick up some timber for some work on my house, and went into the little shed that acts as Archie’s office. The huge yard was always filled with piles of bricks, roof tiles, stacks of timber joists, old iron baths and other assorted debris from demolished houses, all arranged neatly for builders to pick through to buy what they wanted.

“Exactly what did you see, Ben?” Archie asked gently, looking at me over the teenager’s head and giving me an ‘I told you so’ look.

“I was on my own here, remember? You’d left me to lock up. I was sweeping up after that final delivery yesterday night. And I saw her walking towards me. Plain as I’m seeing you, Jack!” Ben turned towards me.

“So where did she go?” I asked.

“That’s what so crazy.” Ben covered his eyes with a hand. “She just seemed to disappear.”

“Are you absolutely sure someone was here?” Archie probed.

“I didn’t imagine it!”

Ben was Archie’s newest employee, and it was his first job after recovering from a serious mental breakdown. He’d been in a psychiatric hospital for a year, and we knew him to be in a delicate mental state. But so far he’d worked well, everyone liked him, and he seemed happy enough, well-adjusted, and, until now, there had been no sign of a return of his mental troubles.

“She just—vanished!” Ben went on. “One second she was there, and I asked her what she wanted, was about to tell her we were closing up, and she’d gone. I looked all over for her, but I couldn’t find her.”

“Well, she obviously didn’t have a vehicle parked nearby or you’d have seen it, so if she nicked anything it can’t be much,” Archie said. “So I’m not losing any sleep over it.”

“It isn’t that,” Ben said, slowly. “When I looked at her it was like she wasn’t really there, know what I mean? You could kind of see through her.”

“Describe her,” I said.

“Very attractive. About my age. Longish dark hair, sort of flowing blouse and a really short skirt, and, I think, high heels.”

“No wonder you were sorry when you couldn’t find her,” laughed Archie. “Don’t worry about it, lad.”

“But I just don’t understand,” he appealed to both of us. “I mean I never saw her come into the yard, and I looked all over before I locked up, yet I never found her and I never saw her leave.”

At the end of the day I came back to the yard to collect the rest of the timber I’d bought. It was after five o’clock, and everyone but Archie had gone home. Archie and I were alone in the office again.

Archie’s craggy face seemed to have even more lines than before, and the pale blue eyes that always seemed to be looking into distant horizons, were full of anxiousness.

“Have you got a minute, Jack?” he asked me.

“Sure.”

“You’re going to think I’m a daft old bugger.”

“I already know you’re a daft old bugger.”

He indicated the ancient chair for me to sit, then sat down himself behind the desk and took a bottle of whisky from a drawer and some glasses, pouring us each a drink.

“It’s ridiculous, I know it is,” he said, almost to himself, “but I’ve been worried about what Ben said this morning—you know, about the mystery prowler. Take a look at this.”

He passed across an old newspaper, yellowed with age. There was a picture of a girl, dressed exactly as Ben had described: dark hair, short skirt and high heels. The headline said ‘Suicide of socialite beauty’. It went on to say: Rebecca Shelley, 18-year-old daughter of Andrew Shelley, of Althouse Manor, was found dead in the summerhouse in the grounds of the manor. Police are not looking for anyone else in connection with the death, and a suicide note was found next to the body.

The date of the newspaper was 1967.

“So?” I asked him, having read it.

“We demolished the summerhouse of Althouse Manor a couple of weeks ago. It was a very old building, eighteenth century, and the bricks were lovely old Flettons, well worth saving.” He pointed out of the window. “There they are, stacked up over there.”

“Come on, Archie,” I said in disbelief. “It’s fanciful enough to believe in the possibility of ghosts. But if there are such things, surely they have to be associated with a place, not inanimate objects. Not a pile of bricks, for goodness sake!”

“Yes of course, there’s no logic to it at all,” agreed Archie. “But I dunno. Materials absorb energy, heat, light, electricity, don’t they? Supposing psychic phenomena exist as a sort of energy? Why shouldn’t it be stored in a natural material, just like anything else? Like a sort of battery?”

I shrugged. “Did you tell Ben about the suicide of the girl in 1967?” I asked.

“No, no of course I didn’t. If I had, I’d naturally assume the boy’s imagination had run riot. After all, you know all about his mental problems.”

“Sure.”

“Brrr, getting chilly these days, ain’t it?” Archie shivered. His face seemed to pale visibly.

It was suddenly very cold. It was a miserable November evening, and whether it was our maudlin conversation or whether there really was something strange happening, the temperature certainly seemed to have dropped alarmingly and very suddenly indeed.

“Bloody hell, I’m shivering now. Feel that breeze, Jack?”

“Yes. All of a sudden.”

It was like a stick of ice had run through the air. Both of us looked out of the office window towards the piles of bricks, the ones I now knew had come from the summerhouse at Althouse Manor.

“Mary Quant,” Archie said.

“What?”

“Mary Quant. You’re too young to know about her, Jack, but in the sixties there was this dress designer, very attractive woman she was, called Mary Quant, sort of a fashion icon you could say. She invented the miniskirt. Nowadays of course it’s come back into fashion. But in the sixties baring your legs almost up to your bum was new—it was daring. I followed the case of that girl, Rebecca Shelley, who killed herself. One of the things I remember was, it was a genuine Mary Quant miniskirt she’d been wearing when she died. And there were rumours that some pretty weird things happened at Althouse Manor afterwards.”

“Ghostly things?”

He nodded. “All a lot of hysterical nonsense, I’m sure of that. But this is the killer, Jack. There were reports that people said they saw Rebecca in the grounds near the summerhouse where she took the overdose. Don’t they say that a ghost is a spirit trapped between two worlds?”

“But not trapped inside a brick.”

“Okay, it sounds ridiculous.”

“Come on, Archie, it is ridiculous! Let’s go to the Dog and Duck,” I suggested. “Have another sort of spirit and pull ourselves together.”

“Good idea,” Archie agreed with alacrity, getting to his feet and making for the door. “See a few other faces, it’ll put all this rubbish into perspective.”

As Archie locked the gate and I waited beside him, I couldn’t help looking towards the towering piles of bricks, all that remained of the summerhouse at Althouse Manor. But there was no girl, no staring face, no miniskirt above high-heeled shoes.

Then, just as we were getting into my car I saw her. A girl of about sixteen, just as Ben had described.

We frantically unlocked the gate and ran towards her. She ran, but she wasn’t fast enough for us and we soon caught up with her.

Close up we found that she wasn’t a young woman at all, but a child of about twelve. Dressed in the sort of skirt an older girl might wear, but, to my relief, she had no similarity to the faded yellow picture in the 1967 newspaper. And from the way she was trying to pull away from Archie’s grasp of her sleeve, she was very much alive.

“Only adults are allowed in this yard,” said Archie. “Children could hurt themselves, and they’re not covered by my insurance. Where’s your mum and dad?”

“I’ll go home now, let me go, Mister, please!” she wailed, finally stopping trying to pull away. “I didn’t mean no harm. We’re at the camp, our caravan is over in the car park. Mum leaves us alone, so we wander, see? I found a hole in your fence over at the back, and I was exploring, that’s all. I wasn’t going to nick anything, honest.”

I remembered the travellers’ caravans that had invaded the car park only the previous week. Piles of rubbish, a generator running day and night, and feral dogs, and children running amok or riding bicycles. From a distance this child in her short skirt could well have looked like a young woman to Ben. I breathed a sigh of relief that the mystery was explained, and that Ben wasn’t losing his grip on reality.

Archie had his mobile phone in his hand. “Give me a number and I’ll phone your mum and she can come and collect you. Now you have to promise not to come in here again. Promise?”

She nodded, biting her lip and looking down at the ground. “I only came in because I saw the lady was already here.”

“The lady?” Archie asked.

“There she is!”

We swung round to look and just caught a glimpse of something flashing past in the light. For barely a split second the thing—a sort of shimmering flash of light that seemed like a human figure—appeared.

And then it was gone.

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The Secret

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My book of short stories THE JACK LOCKWOOD DIARIES is free right now, you can download a copy here

This is another one, to give you a taste:

“Would you believe it of a vicar? Long dark hair, she had, short skirt, too much make-up, and driving his car into the vicarage drive at two in the morning! Well I ask you, she weren’t going to discuss the Bible with him, was she?”

Maggie Prior, who runs the mini supermarket in the village, is the eyes and ears of the community, and this latest gossip had been relayed to her from a ‘trusted friend’. I’d only popped in to buy a loaf of bread, and she’d pinned me in conversation for ten minutes already, avid to tell me about the sexual antics of our new bachelor vicar, who’d only moved into the vicarage a month ago. I’d met the Reverend Robin Gargle a couple of times, and he’d seemed an agreeable enough character to me.

“I mean, don’t you think it’s scandalous, Jack? I know we live in immoral times, but surely a vicar should set an example. Not a patch on dear old Revered Partridge, with his gammy leg and his wife and four daughters. You know where you are with a married vicar.”

“Well thanks, Maggie, I’m in a bit of a rush—”

“Don’t forget your loaf, Jack, nice and fresh this morning. Mind you, I know a thing or two about what goes on in that bakery—”

I managed to escape at last, then remembered I had to pick up my car from the garage.

“Have you heard about Robin, our new vicar, the dirty devil!” John, my mechanic friend, said, leering as he rubbed his hands on a rag. “Two women in one night he had apparently! Seen cavorting up his front drive, arm in arm with a blonde and a redhead, neither of them with many clothes on, flashing their bits, and he was fondling them right there in public, for all to see! No shame at all!”

“You can’t condemn the poor bloke—”

“Condemn him?” John boomed. “I’m jealous of the bugger, me! Couldn’t half do with a bit of action myself. Funny, when I first saw our Robin I reckoned he weren’t exactly a ladies’ man, bit limp-wristed if you know what I mean. But seems like he’s got a good bit of lead in his pencil after all.”

The rumour amplified, as rumours do. The other people I spoke to around the village all told me their versions. Robin’s sexual antics varied from three-in-a-bed romps to wild drug-fuelled orgies in the vicarage back garden, involving black leather masks, chains and whips. Somehow, the quietly spoken bespectacled rather shy man I’d met in the Dog and Duck pub a week ago didn’t seem at all like this sexy monster, but as someone once told me ‘There’s nowt so queer as folk’.

I came across Robin later that day in the Dog and Duck and we fell into conversation. Just as when I met him before I found that I liked him. He was nice, interested in my work, and he told me all about the parish he’d had before this one, where he’d been able to help young people find work and started a club for the elderly. As we talked I noticed that Rose, the rather buxom barmaid who was known to have regular flings with all and sundry, was staring at him in a particularly earnest way, and when he paid for his beer her hand rested a little longer than necessary on his, and she leaned forward to talk right into his ear. He responded to her flirting by blushing slightly and beaming at her, apparently tongue-tied. When he’d extricated himself from Rose, he told me that the vicarage had a damp problem and did I know a builder. I’ve been a builder myself, so I offered to go and take a look.

At the vicarage I soon discovered the problem—an overflowing blocked gutter, which I cleared, and Robin was overcome with gratitude, wanting to pay me, but of course I couldn’t take money from a new friend, especially a likeable guy who’d just been telling me about his schemes to help the homeless in Canterbury. He seemed like one of those gentle types, considerate, sensitive and thoughtful, always thinking of others. It crossed my mind to warn him about the ridiculous rumours circulating about him, but I decided it would be cruel and actually pointless, because it was already too late. Best just to let things lie, and hope that no one told his bishop about his alleged antics. Talking to Robin who, quite frankly, didn’t seem the most macho man in the world, I couldn’t believe there was any truth in the rumours. Especially when he showed me his Shirley Bassey CDs and his collection of dried flowers, and told me how he couldn’t bear to wash his woollen jerseys in the machine, they had to be hand-washed, to preserve the freshness of the fabric. I rather agreed with John at the garage, that, while he was undoubtedly a decent bloke, he probably didn’t have any lead in his pencil.

But I discovered I was wrong when I washed my hands in the bathroom and discovered a black bra and knickers hanging up to dry.

I decided to tackle the subject head on. “So your girlfriend comes to stay sometimes does she?”

“My girlfriend? Oh no, Jack, I haven’t got a girlfriend.”

“But in the bathroom, I saw the underwear.”

“Oh!” The smile lit up his face. “Oh no, they belong to Amy Golightly.” He laughed to himself and did a little pirouette on the carpet. “Wait a minute, I’ll explain.”

He went out of the room and returned, wearing a long dark woman’s wig. Then he handed me a flier for a poetry festival at a nearby town. Top of the bill was Amy Golightly, whose face beneath the dark wig was undoubtedly Robin’s. Amy’s raunchy risqué rhymes was the beginning of the description of her act.

“You see, Jack, in my job I just can’t afford to risk any kind of scandal,” he told me. “It just wouldn’t do for a vicar to stand up in front of people and read poetry, someone might report it to the bishop and I’d be in big trouble. So I go in disguise. For the evening I’m Amy Golightly, and the poetry I read can be as risqué as I like. I dress up in Amy’s clothes so I can really feel I’m in the part.”

So the mystery was solved. It was Robin himself who’d driven back to the vicarage, and in the dark and with the wig, lipstick and female clothing, anyone would assume he had a woman visitor.

As I drove home, I realised that if I scotched the rumours by telling people the truth, that the vicar dressed up in drag and read out raunchy poems, his reputation would be irrevocably tarnished—in fact it was the kind of thing that could probably get him sacked, or at least merited an article in a scandalous newspaper, which would utterly ruin his life. Far better to let the rumours die down and hope that no one ever found out the truth.

The following morning I realised I’d left my screwdriver at the vicarage, so I drove over there early, on my way to town, hoping that Robin would be up.

The door was answered by Rose, the free-with-her-favours barmaid at the Dog and Duck. Her hastily donned dressing gown allowed a generous view of the top part of her bosom, and from her tousled hair and lack of make-up it seemed clear that she’d just got out of bed.

“Hello, Jack. Robin said it was okay to answer the door to you—we recognised your car,” she said, giggling and fluttering her eyelashes. “But please, please, Jack, don’t tell anyone about Robin and me. You see, in his job Robin has to be discreet—he can’t risk his reputation.”

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The Corner House

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My book of short stories THE JACK LOCKWOOD DIARIES is free right now, you can download a copy here

This is one of them, to give you a taste:

THE CORNER HOUSE

Corner House was a horrible building. I never liked it, even when I used to pass it as a small boy. Large, sprawling, ugly and made of dark red bricks, it hovered on the edge of town like a black cloud.

After a catalogue of miserable disasters befell all of its previous owners, it had been brought by a property company, but before they could secure it, squatters moved in, and several of them were drug users. The three druggies who’d died there all in one night, had, allegedly, injected tainted heroine, and since then locals avoided the place, and it had attracted a ridiculous reputation as being haunted.

This was why Ali and Gerry had been able to buy it from the company relatively cheaply. The roof was leaking, there was dry rot in the cellar, woodworm in the floors, and all the plumbing needed replacing. Gerry, a keen DIY builder—who remodelled houses for enjoyment— was keen to renovate the place, but had a full-time day job. But Ali, who worked as a translator from home, and would have to spend plenty of time in the house alone, wasn’t so enthusiastic about their acquisition.

I was passing by her jungle-like front garden, noticed her kneeling down and trying to clear some undergrowth, and we started chatting.

“Blow this, Jack, fancy a coffee?” she said, leaning back and pulling off her gardening gloves. “I’ve had about enough for one morning.”

She seemed a pleasant friendly lady, and I already knew Gerry a bit—he often popped into my local in the evenings, the Dog and Duck. They were an easy-going couple, practical, no-nonsense, optimistic.

“It seemed a great idea to buy it at first, but God, living here,” she said to me as we sat at the kitchen table. “It’s such a bloody miserable place, like living in a mausoleum. No point starting decorating yet of course, not till the main building work’s done.”

“Bit of white paint on the walls will cheer the place up no end,” I agreed.

“There’s other stuff, Jack. I catch sight of things out of the corner of my eye sometimes—must be my imagination. But I come into a room and I get this horrible spooky feeling, you know? As if someone doesn’t want me to be there. And another thing is this huge electric bill.” She passed across the electricity company’s bill. “I mean this is after just one month!”

“Sounds like an electrical problem,” I agreed, shocked at the astronomical size of the bill.

She nodded. “Gerry’s asked Sparky Joe to take a look.”

“Sparky’s a brilliant electrician, he’ll find out if there’s a problem,” I told her. But I was intrigued. “You know I can’t think of any electrical fault that would guzzle electricity like this. You don’t even have electric heating, do you?”

“No, or even a spin drier. We’ve thought long and hard. All we’re using is the lights, the computers, the TV, fridge and that’s about it.”

“Have you inspected the whole house?”

“Sure, all the rooms. Gerry’s even checked out the cellar.”

An idea was forming in my mind. “Have you looked in the loft?”

“The loft? No, I don’t think so. Gracious, Gerry’s been so busy, I don’t think we’ve even got a ladder at the moment.”

“Can I take a look?”

“Sure.”

That’s when I noticed the funny smell in the house. Ali agreed it was awful, but she’d been told it was the putrid stench of dry rot, but I wasn’t so sure.

On the upstairs landing, I managed to find a long pole—the kind with a tool on the end for undoing loft-hatch fasteners—and I used it to twist the hasp on the catch on the square panel in the ceiling. As it dropped down, the smell became overpowering, and we stepped back.

There was a pull-down metal ladder, and soon I was climbing up into the area.

There was the answer! Cannabis plants were blooming everywhere, and above them were the heaters, several of them, glowing hot, in the brightly-lit area.

Being an upfront, no-nonsense lady, Ali insisted on calling the police immediately, they duly arrived and arranged disposal of the plants, and told her that even though she’d been technically committing an offence, it was blindingly obvious that the cannabis farm had no connection with her.

A few weeks later I met Sparky Joe in the Dog and Duck, and brought up the solved mystery of Corner House.

“Trouble is, they’re still using masses more power than they should be,” Sparky said, scratching his head. “The juice just seems to be vanishing into thin air. I’ve checked all the circuits. Just can’t understand it.”

“Don’t they say that psychic phenomena can absorb electricity for no reason?” I suggested. “Those three druggies died there all on the same night, remember?”

“Ghosts you mean?” He smiled at me pityingly. “Surely you don’t believe in nonsense like that, do you Jack?”

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The Marrakesh Express

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My book of short stories THE JACK LOCKWOOD DIARIES is free from 9 -14 October.  Here’s one of them, if you like it, why not d.load them all to your kindle free from tomorrow here?

This is a spooky one:

I pushed a bit. Nothing. Then a bit more. Until finally, with just one more nudge, the huge sheet of lead dropped off the low parapet wall and out of sight. It landed a hundred feet below me in the graveyard with a distant thump-wumping sound.

Leaning out over the parapet wall of the roof of the church tower I stared down to see where it had landed. Oh no! I’d carefully positioned it so that it ought to have landed on the gravel path beside the church, but the strong wind must have altered its direction mid-flight, and now I could see it had spread itself across one of the graves. Spread itself like a piece of icing on a cake.

When I had offered my help to fix the roof of the church’s tower, I never envisaged shivering in an icy January wind while specks of snow glazed my face, wondering just how badly rotted the timber beneath the corroded lead had become, or how much work I was letting myself in for. Robin Gargle, our local vicar, is a good friend, and he’d appealed for help to fix the ancient church tower’s roof, which was leaking so badly that soon he’d have to close the church to visitors. I have no spare money, but I’d volunteered to strip off the split and corroded panel, and repair the timber roof beneath, so that another friend, John, who was a professional roofer, could fix a new lead cover in place.

As I climbed down the scaffolding, erected gratis by Jock Sloan Scaffolding of Canterbury, another mate of Robin’s, I panicked about what kind of damage I’d caused in the graveyard.
Lead is a very soft, fluid, ductile, hugging sort of metal, it’s rather like a liquid in that it can wrap itself around something, rather like the way a mould is made. It had done that very thing, and now I was looking at the crinkled grey sheet, with an eruption at one end, where the point of the tomb’s headstone had pushed it outwards into an ugly bulge. As I stepped closer, my heart sank to see beautiful flowers that had been carefully planted in the soil, many of them smashed and destroyed by what I’d done. Trying to do as little more damage as I could, I managed to lever the end of the metal upwards, and dragged it back and away, aware that the tombstone was slightly crooked in the ground as a result of the assault.

There, exposed, was an almost sparkling new white marble stone, and on its front was a small photograph behind a glass panel, of a smiling middle-aged woman wearing spectacles. Okay, it made no sense, but I apologised to her, hoping against hope that whoever she was would realise that I meant no disrespect, and I was deeply sorry for what I’d done. Then I hauled the heavy sheet away from the grave and onto the gravel path beside the church.

Going back to the grave, I saw the name, Nancy Parker, and her date of death was May last year. Cringing inside, I noticed the scored earth beside the beautiful colourful flowers that had been planted on the grave, a mishmash of torn leaves and ripped petals interspersed with gashes of brown mud.

“What’s happened?”

The man was beside me, tears in the corners of his eyes, as he touched the damaged area of ground, then lovingly caressed the photo of the woman on the gravestone. He turned towards me. “Who’s done this to my Nancy?”

“I’m very sorry, it was me. I’m not a professional builder and I was trying to repair the roof to help out the vicar.” I explained what had happened, and I hope he understood the sincerity in my words. “The thing is with lead, it’s so heavy that the only way to get it down from a height is to let it drop. You can’t really lean over to guide it, because if you’re not careful it’s so heavy that it takes you with it. I misjudged things. It’s my fault entirely. It should have landed over there.” I pointed to the path.

“But it didn’t, did it?” He glared at me. “How dare you do this!”

“Look, if I’ve damaged the stone I’ll pay for a repair. And I’ll replace the torn-up plants.”

“I don’t want your money.”

“Well I’ll do anything I can.”

He said nothing, just remained squatting there, his lower lip trembling as if he was on the point of tears. The wind was stronger now, I was shivering, wishing I’d never got involved in this bloody awful fiasco of a job. I never know what to do when people cry, I just get embarrassed. So I began to move away, realising nothing I could say or do would alleviate his pain.

“Do you want to know how she died?” he said as I was almost out of earshot.

I walked back to him.

“If you want to tell me.”

“She was on a ladder at home, in front of the house, trying to clear something out of the gutter and she reached too far, the ladder slid away, and she banged her head on the concrete path. And that was it. A stupid crazy accident.”

I shook my head, words unnecessary, ‘sorry’ being an absurd thing to say, though of course I wanted to say the word.

“I come here whenever I can. Spend a bit of time with her. Talk to her in my head. She was kind, my Nancy, always had time for everyone, gave money to people who came to the door, always thought the best of people. And if she could ever do anyone a good turn, she’d always do it, help anyone out if she could. Not like me, she was a much nicer person than I am.”

“She looks kind from her photo.”

“She was. Never hurt a fly. Used to say to me ‘Michael, have patience with people, don’t be so quick to make judgements’. Do you know, we were both going to take early retirement and go off round the world. That was why it happened, she was doing the house up. We hadn’t got many friends, no other family to speak of, we never needed to socialise, there was always just the two of us. We were trying to sell the house so we’d have a bit of something behind us, buy a camper van and just take off around Europe, maybe further afield, even perhaps Marrakesh. Do you know ‘The Marrakesh Express’, or are you too young to remember that song? That was one of our favourites when we were young. Nancy wanted the house to look just-so before the agent came to value it. The builder was supposed to have cleared the gutters, but he never finished, and Nancy wasn’t one to make a fuss and call him back. She just wanted to get it done and then, then…Well, you know…”

I gazed at his face, the neat short grey hair, the wizened features, the bags beneath his eyes. A conventional man in every way. The kind of person who wouldn’t raise his voice if he could avoid it. A lonely man.

A man who’d lost his way.

“Did you think of going on your world trip alone?” I asked.

“No.” He looked down, picking up a torn-off petal of one of the flowers and holding it against the stem, as if he could stick it back in place. “What fun would that have been? The whole point was to be together, to explore things, just the two of us. It was Nancy’s dream really, her idea all along, I only really wanted to go because she did. I just wanted to spend time alone with her, not just the evenings and weekends. Do you know, when it rains and snows I think of poor Nancy, out here all alone.”

“Did you take early retirement?”

“No. You hear of people doing these things, changing everything in their lives, making a clean break, a fresh start. But you know what? When something awful happens, like losing my Nancy, you don’t go doing anything adventurous. You don’t want to change your life. You just cling on to how things were before, you just go back to your rut. I told them at the council offices I didn’t want to leave work, they said fine, Michael, no problem, you just do whatever you want. So I just settled back into the routine of things on my own.”

“Look, I’m really sorry. There’s nothing I can say or do. But can I buy you a meal? Then maybe tomorrow I can help you put things right here.”

“No, no thanks.” He turned to me and smiled for the first time. “Sorry I yelled at you. I know it wasn’t your fault. Before I realised it was an accident, I was furious, thought of someone deliberately desecrating my Nancy’s grave, that’s what really hurt. But do you know something? Nancy wouldn’t have minded, she’d have laughed at this, she was like that, always looked on the bright side, never took offence. And she’d have approved of some bloke giving up his free time to repair the church roof. She’d have just been glad that no one was hurt.”

“Someone was hurt. You.”

He shook his head. “Forget about it, mate. I can replace the flowers. I’ll enjoy it. Give me something to talk to her about.”

Much later, after I’d managed to fix a tarpaulin over the rotten timber roof in an attempt to protect the inside of the tower from the weather, I was at home, preparing to go to bed. Then I heard the wind pick up even more. And I pictured my tarpaulin blowing away entirely, allowing water straight through so that the ceiling below the roof would be destroyed. With a sinking feeling, I drove back to the church to check.

And sure enough, to my dismay there was the tarpaulin, whipping like a ship’s mainsail in the high wind, the weights I’d used to fasten it down nowhere in sight. There wasn’t much chance of being able to fix it back now, but I had to at least try.

As I climbed up the scaffolding it shook alarmingly, but I was used to the slight pitch and sway you always get with scaffolding at high altitudes, especially with a wind like this. Jock Sloan was an experienced scaffolder, and I knew that it’s the kind of profession where safety is paramount. And I knew I could trust Jock’s abilities.

On top of the scaffolding, looking across at the tower it was much worse than I’d expected. The tarpaulin was virtually flying free, none of it was covering the roof’s expanse, and there was already a layer of snow on the roof’s timber.

I heard an ominous cracking noise, then a snap from below. A branch from the graveyard’s huge plane tree had blown off and guess what? It had landed dead on top of poor Nancy’s grave, the second time in twenty-four hours that she had been assaulted!

At ground level again, I pulled as much of the foliage away from the grave as I could, but it was too heavy to shift all of it on my own. I was heartbroken to see that the falling branch had smashed Nancy’s gravestone in two, and, as I pulled foliage aside, in the darkness I could just make out the photo of Nancy, smiling back at me, as if she hadn’t a care in the world. Of course, I thought, she hadn’t!

What a mess. Poor old Michael. All I could do was drop round and see him in the morning, after I’d come back with a chainsaw to chop away the branches and remove as much of the tree as I could, so that he didn’t have to see the carnage at its worst.

But first things first. I had to at least attempt to get the tarpaulin into position, because it had begun to snow hard now, it was almost a blizzard, and if too much water came through the roof, the ceiling below would be destroyed. I reckoned that I could possibly haul the tarpaulin back, while standing on the scaffolding, then maybe tie it down somewhere, tie it to the scaffolding itself, maybe?

I got a coil of rope from the back of the car, then, just as I was about to climb the scaffolding, for some weird reason I looked back at Nancy’s grave. I went closer, and, again, I saw Nancy’s smiling face in the photo, and felt a warmth inside, and for some unaccountable reason stayed there for a few moments, just looking at her. She looked like one of those people you meet and it gives you a lift just to look in their eyes, a sort of kindness you can pick up on, I suppose.
That’s when I heard the screech and roar as the wind’s force picked up again. And the scaffolding shivered even more. Then, it happened. Within a fraction of a second the entire metal edifice leaned over sideways and collapsed.

Diving downwards, I covered my head with my hands, but, thankfully after the crash and screeching and clattering, the tons of metal and disassembled scaffold poles had fallen all around me, but only one had come anywhere near me, a single pole that was stuck into the earth at an angle, like a spear.

I looked back at Nancy’s grave, wondering just what impulse had made me turn back and look at her, rather than climb the unsafe scaffolding to my certain death.

“Always gave a helping hand whenever she could, did Nancy,” I heard Michael say in my mind. “Always kind.”

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