RIDDLE ME REE

I have always hated riddles.

The English have a penchant for them apparently. It comes from the Saxons’ idea of how to beat boredom and passed for humour amongst the type of people who invaded other peoples’ lands on the pretext of ‘helping’ them.

You may have heard of the thing, though they appear to be less popular now than they were supposed to be when I was at school. They go – Question: What has six legs but no brain, three heads but cannot be driven by a hammer and is scared of a woman’s tongue? Answer: three drunken Saxons.

Oh! How we laughed.

I scratched my head and wondered what the hell they were on about, but apparently it was risqué and clever and amusing all in one, which made the English the cleverest race on God’s Earth. So they said.

But I knew a Gaelic proverb which, translated into the cleverest language on earth, goes: ‘Three things come without asking: fear, love and jealousy.’

That tells it from the shoulder without the hiding behind the addled humour of the riddle. That sums a man’s soul and warns you of the pitfalls of life, though no warning can prepare you for that triumvirate when they come.

I was delivered of them each in turn and had I thought of it, would have paid the price of the two for the chance of the one.

I looked at the lock of hair and wondered if there was a riddle in her going. I could only feel the pain. The fear of life without her and the jealousy of the man she went to. There may be life after loss but many is the day I have wished there weren’t.

The riddle was in the living.

The Best Person to Decide

‘How many today?’

‘I haven’t counted yet. Hundreds.’ She said.

“Said” actually implies something more positive, more certain, more involved than the way she spoke. “Sighed” might be nearer, but may be too polite, too slight in its ability to depict the awful weight those words carried.

‘Hundreds.’

‘I’ll cook. What do you fancy?’ I tried to put a bit of a smile in the way I asked. I don’t think she wanted smiles.

‘Anything. Nothing. Look you get yourself something. I’ll pick at something later.’ She started rummaging in the bag of papers she’d brought home tonight. ‘I’d better start. They’ve got to be with the exam board in a couple of weeks.’ She dumped a pile on the table. ‘And I’ve still got lesson preps.’

I went into the kitchen and left her to it. I would prepare a Bolognese. I’d do enough for both of us and I’d freeze the rest if she didn’t want it.

I’d had a bit of a hard day myself, but you couldn’t tell a teacher that. It was interesting seeing what went on through the looking glass. When I had been at school I can’t say I had much respect for teachers. Some I liked as people. Some I liked for their ability to convey a subject’s innate value. Some combined both feelings. The majority didn’t hit either mark. Many were just plain average Joes (boys only school, one female teacher and she was the most macho of the lot of them). Many were completely useless.

Just as “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, so all good teachers were alike but each bad teacher had their own particular way of making the day a misery.

The onion was going clear in the olive oil; I added the chopped garlic and looked for the oregano and basil.

I hadn’t seen Rebecca teach of course so I couldn’t tell what she was like in class. I’d seen the amount of lesson preparation she did, had  looked at the materials, talked over some of the curriculum she had to teach and ideas for engaging the little buggers. It all seemed as good as it was going to get given the weird concepts of what kids need to get on in life that passes for educational policy these days. But I’d ever seen the performance part. The bit where she tried to turn the theory into the messy practicality of imparting knowledge and enthusing kids to learn, to see that knowledge was only the first bit of learning, of knowing how to gather information, how to analyse it, how to use it and its products to do other things; how to think.

She’d practised run throughs of new material on me. They seemed cool. I learned some things. But I wasn’t thirty mixed ability, mixed enthusiasm, mixed aggression fifteen year olds. I liked learning new stuff. I loved Rebecca. I’m pretty sure a few 15 year olds would as well given half the chance, but that didn’t necessarily encourage the mind set for learning.

The minced beef was browned and I rummaged for passata in the cupboard.

I held the bottle aloft in triumph.

‘Do you want a bit of Bolognese love?’

I listened for a reply. Nothing but frantic paper rustling.

I poured the sieved tomatoes into the pan and put the water on to boil.

She was grading. Not papers, but pupils. This was like a meta analysis of someone’s evidence for life. Government dictat had swayed from exams, to exams and course work, to exam like assessments and back to exams over the decades but this was different. This was Covid induced surrender to the idea that “the best person to judge the pupil is the teacher.”

I put the spaghetti into the largest pan we had, the water roiling in its eagerness to consume the pasta. I’d always dribbled a little olive oil in with it until I’d watched an Italian chef on an online channel use quite a lot of rude words about that idea. So I just shoved the strands in and went to put the garlic butter into the bread for a quick oven heating.

I stuck my head through the door.

‘Ten minutes love, if you want to eat.’ I said. She grunted noncommittally and dropped another set of marks onto the pile of those who had been weighed in the balance. I grabbed a piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano from the fridge and wondered about what was going on next door.

Rebecca was stressed with the sheer volume of work at the best of times. The obsessive paperwork proving the prep work had been done, plus all the weird governmental obsession with various and multifarious metrics meant there was little time to actually teach. I wondered if the box ticking, hoop jumping and goal setting actually made weaker teachers better enough to balance out the drag on the better teachers. I couldn’t see it making any difference to the stinkers. They would always find a way to win the battle with the pupil.

I grated some of the cheese and checked the clock. Time to test the pasta. I didn’t adopt the Sweeney’s method of hurling a piece against the wall to see if it stuck to it, although that way no doubt still had it adherents.

My teachers had not been particularly aware or bothered about how I interacted with them and the school system. I was quiet and not problematic. That let me sit just above the middle of the pack for most subjects, below in some and near the top in a few. This largely depended on how confident and capable of controlling the class the teacher was. If I could concentrate and they inspired I would fly. If they were on the look out to pick on someone to cover the fact the class was a mess I slumped. I was lucky I guess, the ethos was to learn and only a few bothered with the idea that allowing pupils to “express themselves” was of paramount importance. It was my fellow pupils ‘expressing themselves” that bothered me most of the time.

I’d been at the front of the peloton, just behind the teachers’ pets in junior school. Until the 11 plus which as an IQ test of sorts. I was top of the school and nobody, least of all the teachers, liked it or believed it.

I continually did better in most exams than I did in class with teacher assessments.

The steam billowed up from the colander before I returned the pasta to the pan and poured the Bolognese on top of the pasta. I stood it to one side, snatched the garlic bread from the oven and put the butter and lemon zucchini into a serving dish.

‘Ready if you want love.’ I smiled.

She looked up, hurled the latest paper down on the decided pile and stood up.

‘Sod it. That little bastard’s done nothing all year anyway. Let’s eat.’

Cooking With Gas

‘We’ll walk. It’s only up the road.’

So we did.

Two young men. Professionals in three piece suits. Not as unusual then as it would be now perhaps. We strode across the old market centre of an old mill town. The town was searching for a new direction. We knew where we were going. The mills that had brought prosperity and self confidence were almost all gone, one or two hanging on by their fingernails. Our client wasn’t.

He was dead.

‘What did he die of?’

‘Heart attack I think.’ Andrew stopped at the crossing. They really needed to do something about the traffic snaking its way through a medieval street plan. I said so to Andrew.

‘They’ll put the ring road in soon.’

‘You think.’

He looked at me as the green man appeared and the beeper bleeped.

‘You should stay a bit longer in the Leigh on Friday nights.’ He winked.

‘I think I’m still at the house clearance stage.’

We turned off the main street and disappeared into the warren of early nineteenth century terraces.

‘Me too, but get yourself noticed.’

‘Yeah?’

‘Yeah.  Eddie, Keith and Simon were all in last week when the planning crowd walk in, straight upstairs. Eddie and co. buy a round and follow. Monday he tells me there are interesting developments on the old railway line into town.’

We turned a couple of corners in quick succession then took a left down some cobbled steps.

‘Where’s that going to go then? When it gets into the old goods yard? There are properties all round there now.’

Andrew slid his forefinger along the side of his nose and tapped it.

‘Keep an eye on the conveyancing files. See where your mate at the Rugby Club puts his mortgages out to in the next few months and who’s buying.’

‘But it’ll be blighted.’

‘Exactly. Lots of lovely compensation. What’s a terraced cottage at the moment? Eight grand?’

We entered a courtyard that could have been out of a Dickens novel.

‘Bit more, bit less depending where it is.’

‘Yes, well you can rest assured you can buy it for seven and sell it for twelve when the council values it for you if the road goes through and you sell without trouble, Deal yourself in, then you’ll be cooking.’

We stopped before a peeling green door.

‘Key?’

I took the bunch with its clean new string and cardboard tag and jangled it in front of Andrew.

‘Want to play “guess the key”?’

‘What the hell did he want with all these?’ He took the bunch, squinted at the tumbler lock and selected a Yale type key. It stuck half way in.

‘Bugger! Your turn.’ He handed the bunch back.

I discounted all the obvious mortice keys and selected the most worn Yale. It slid into the lock and with a slight wiggle spun the cylinder. The door pushed clear.

‘After you.’

Andrew gave me his dead pan look as he stepped through the door, then stopped and wrinkled his nose.

‘What’s the matter?’ I asked. Then I got it as the air rolled out past him. It wasn’t so bad as to make you gag but there was something really odd about it.

‘Did he die in here?’

‘Don’t know. I guess he must have.’

We went in a bit further. The door opened into a short hallway with stairs facing you and a door on the right. The smell wasn’t quite as bad now the door had been open a minute. We left the front door open and moved forward to the door to what was obviously the living room. The smell rolled over us again, very strong now. We both cleared our throats. Someone had to go in first. Andrew had been first into the house, so my turn.

I walked in, eyes flicking, hoping not to see anything too horrible. It was a standard terraced room. Some had a front room and a living room and a kitchen. This was configured with a living room a kitchen and a scullery. The living room had nothing in it you wouldn’t expect to find. I shook myself free of the smell.

‘He can’t be here can he? He’s with the undertaker. That’s why we’re here.’ I rationalised.

Andrew nodded and went and shut the front door. It was quieter than I would have expected. It didn’t smell like a body. Not entirely. Not really. It wasn’t that decayed meat smell, not the sickly sweetness underneath, although there was a hint of it. We stood on the threadbare carpet and shrugged.

‘Let’s get on with it.’ I said. We each had a plastic bag with a couple of foolscap envelopes in case we discovered things we needed to take back to the office. You never knew what. Simon and Andrew had found a bewildering variety of oddly coloured old bank notes in a house last year none of which were now legal tender. The Bank of England redeemed them at the face value of just over a thousand pounds. I had wondered if the estate would have been better off selling them as collectors’ items; but it wasn’t my decision.

‘You check the sideboard I’ll do the shelves then we’ll move back through the kitchen.’ Andrew said.

I put the bag on the top of the cluttered sideboard. There were ornaments and trinkets and lots of bits of metal lying about in the dust. I squatted down and opened the cupboard doors underneath the drawers.

I rubbed my fingers together, they were getting grubby already. Dusting had obviously not been a priority. I felt the grime as I took in the collection of china and odd mementoes. I rubbed my fingers again. They felt greasy, which was odd. Old polish? I discounted the china as definitely not Meissen or Ming and went on to the drawers. They too were greasy and a bit smutty even. I found some letters, a few bills, one insurance policy, a cheque book and a building society pass book. They all went into an envelope which I signed and Andrew countersigned.

‘It’s really grubby.’ I said.

Andrew looked at his hands. They too were showing signs of dirt. ‘It’s like he’s been smearing butter or something on the wood.’

We moved through to the kitchen. Everything there had the same soiled feel to it, but oddly it was not as bad as the living room. There was nothing of interest to his estate there. No solid silver cutlery or Fabergé eggs tucked away in drawers. We moved back to the scullery. If anything it was cleanest room so far. There was an old fashioned ringer washing machine but beyond that it was mostly given over to metalworking tools and a bench with boxes and boxes of nuts, bolts, screws and other bits of metal unidentifiable to me.

‘What did he do for a living?’ I asked.

‘Toolshop engineer for Hewitt’s mill.’

‘Brought his work home with him then.’

‘Retired last year. This is his hobby stuff.’

‘One year out of harness. Not much is it?’

‘Poor old sod.’

‘Upstairs then?’

We walked back through the kitchen and I checked the grill and the oven. Clean as a whistle.

‘I checked that. No hidden millions in the cooker.’ Andrew laughed.

‘I just wondered if he’d left a meal on or something. It smells like old bacon.’

‘Someone cleaned it up if it was. Gas is off according to Len.’

Len was the firm’s Legal Exec who had sent us on this errand. It needed two of us to make sure everything was above board. It was why we stuck together in the house. You didn’t want someone accusing you of walking off with the half of the sovereigns Uncle Tom had always told them was in the back parlour. We went upstairs.

One small bedroom had been converted into a bathroom. You could just about swing a cat but there was nowhere to hide a fiver, never mind a bag of sovereigns. We considered the shaving kit for a moment, shuddered at the cutthroat razor and moved on.

The second bedroom was converted into another workroom. The work bench was covered in tools and metal again. All clean and relatively tidy. There were a couple of drawers, in one of which we found twenty pounds in pound notes. They went into an envelope and we sealed it, signed it and noted the room.

The bedroom was sad, the bed unmade, a few scattered clothes. The wardrobe was full of clothes from a different era and the overpowering smell of naphthalene and paradicholorobenzene mothballs. There was nothing of value or significance in the pockets but at least the stink of mothballs overpowered the stale burnt bacon smell.

My hands were nearly black and sticky and my suit would be going into the dry cleaners the next morning.

‘All done?’ I asked.

‘Couple of girlie mags in the chest of drawers and about a dozen watches. That’s it. Time to go.’ We bagged the watches and replaced the magazines.

We descended and stuck our head into the living room for a last look round. No obvious Picasso on the wall we’d missed. A few shelves, the sideboard a television, a couple of easy chairs one of which looking the worse for wear and stained with what was presumably the side effects of our client’s demise

We locked up and left.

It was almost five when we got back to the office.

‘All right?’ Julie, the receptionist asked.

‘Yes. Need to wash up though.’ Andrew held up his hands.

‘Ew! What have you been, going through the coal hole?’

The talking brought Len out of his office.

‘Come on, hand over the loot before you go anywhere.’

We followed him into his office and placed the keys and the bags onto his desk and talked him through the finds.

‘No treasure chests that lot open then?’ He said nodding at the bunch of keys.

‘No. He just collected metal bits and pieces, tools, watches and obviously keys.’

‘Fair enough. You’d better go and get him washed off you by the look of things.’

‘What?’

Len had a big smile on his face as he tamped down his pipe.

‘Didn’t I say to take some gloves or something?’

‘No you didn’t.’ I said, holding my hands away from my sides. ‘Should you have done?’

He laughed. ‘Didn’t you read the file?’

‘No identified close relatives, house search for valuables and financial papers.’ Andrew said.

‘Clerks eh? Page two, cause of death.’ Len smiled, and picked up the folder as if to refresh his memory which was obviously not required.’

‘Neighbours called the police when they hadn’t seen him for a few days and…Did you notice anything odd?’

We shrugged and I held my hands up. ‘Everything was covered in greasy dust. Oh and it smelt like he’d left a fry up on.’

Len laughed.

‘Neighbours knocked and then opened the letterbox to shout. Then they called the police. They called the fire brigade.’ Len smiled sadly. ‘He’d been sat in front of the gas fire, watching tele. Died of a heart attack. Nobody missed him, retired, no family, bit of a loner. Sat there in front of that fire for quite a while. Not hot enough to burst into flames. Just enough to cook his legs through to the bone.’ He nodded at our hands. ‘That grease and soot is what’s left of his legs.’

Andrew and I looked at each other, at our hands and headed for the washroom followed by Len’s chuckles.

Quick Thought on ‘Snare’

So that was ‘Snare’.

It started life as a deliberate attempt to get myself through not so much a writing block, I ‘m not sure I have those as such, but rather an ‘ending’ block.

The basic idea started with a memory of a walk in the Cotswolds which began through a yellow stone alleyway between the back of cottages to an enchanted valley. That was the only bit I had, but taking an idea for a little walk has never been much of a problem. Bringing the stroll through plot and character to an end however is often problematic.

Spoiler alert – I hate endings, I slow down at the three quarter stage of reading a book I am enjoying because I don’t want it to end, I used to hate going to bed and bringing the day to a close etc etc.

But I decided this story was going to end whether I liked it or not.

Do I like it?

Well it’s my least disliked.

There’s a short intro to ‘Snare’ exploring my feelings and thoughts a bit further on the ‘Snare’ page – found in the menu under ‘Writing’ or here if you want to know more and would like to read the whole story in one place without following from blog post to blog post.

SNARE

Part 4

Ed wanted to know what was going on but he was stuck behind his friend, his view of what was happening blocked by the edge of the copse.  To get a glimpse of what a going on he needed to move around Tom but that would mean making a noise and moving the trees and if Tom’s stillness was anything to go by that was probably not a good idea right now.

Tom slowly lay down, his body behind the hazel, his head just poking round the undergrowth. ‘He’s looking downhill. Not moving though’.

‘Can we get across the path?’

Tom shook his head slowly. ‘He’s not got his back to us. He’ll see the movement. Specially if he’s looking for the dog.’

As if to emphasise that the man most certainly was looking for his dog, there was a burst of whistling and shouts of ‘Max! Max!’ from the direction of the path. There was a crashing sound again in the brush behind them in response to the shouts and a flash of brown and white crossed the track going uphill.

‘Bugger.’

‘What?’

‘He saw the dog. I think.’ Tom said.

The circled back round uphill of them and came across the path. It was a Springer, all smile and tail touching its nose as it greeted them with a bark.

‘Fuck off.’ Tom hissed and his hand curled round the handle of the knife he carried tucked away under his hoody.

‘Don’t Tom!’

Ed looked at the dog, excited now by its new friends. It was unlikely Tom would get near enough to kill the dog but if he did or if the owner saw him with the knife that would be the end of Uni, the end of his escape from the village. He dug inside the rucksack, pulled out the rabbit that Tom had dispatched and waved it like a toy at the dog who, smelling the blood and meat, set for it. Ed held the carcass out to the animal and as the dog seized it, he grabbed the dog’s collar. He left the bag at Tom’s side. ‘Stay there.’ He said and walked out onto the path.

The man had been about the start shouting again by the look of it and was a couple of paces down the side path when Ed appeared. Ed put his gruffest voice on, but gave it the posh edge he used when he was talking to the adviser about his options for college places. He hoped it would sound like Chucker’s keeper.

‘Is this your dog?’

‘Oh, er yes.’

‘Well keep him under control will you? Look what he’s been doing.’ Ed gestured towards the dog’s new toy being shaken like a rat as he trotted contentedly at Ed’s side.

‘Oh, God! Leave it Max!’ Put it down!’

The man looked shocked.

‘I’m so sorry. He got away from me. He’s only young and…’

Ed was up to the man now.

‘You got a lead for him?’

‘Oh yes.’

‘Well put it on then.’

The man fumbled for the lead and snicked it onto the collar. Ed let go of the collar and stood up.

‘You should keep him on the lead in the country. There’s lambs about this time of the year and birds rearing in the woods. If I’d had my shotgun…’

‘Oh God! I didn’t think. I am so sorry.’ He looked down at the dog who was trying to eat the rabbit. ‘Max, put it down, please.’

Ed looked at the dog and firmly took the rabbit and said ‘Leave!’

Max was a bit startled at the gift being taken back but he let go and waited.

‘Thank you.’ Said the man. ‘I couldn’t get him to come back. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t caught him.’

‘Get some training, then he’ll come back to you.’ Ed smiled. ‘Might even bring you some more to share.’

‘Oh, I am so sorry. He’s not in trouble is he? Are we?’

Ed looked thoughtful for a moment.

‘Well, it’s only a rabbit and no birds damaged so not this time. No. But if he gets loose again where there’s lambs or birds…’

‘Yes, yes of course. It won’t happen again.’

‘Right then. Where are you headed?’

The man patted Max.

‘We’re headed for Colehampton.’

‘Colehampton! You’re way off.’

‘I thought so but Max saw a deer and dashed off and I had to get him. Got pretty lost to be honest. Could you put us back on the right path?’

‘I reckon.’ Ed gave Max a pat as well. ‘A deer you say?’

‘Yes. Big one, seemed to keep stopping to get Max to follow him.’

‘Big antlers?’

‘Yes. Is he famous or something?’

‘Just a bit odd, antlers this time of year.’

The man was looking at Ed, waiting for more. Ed decided there’d been enough chat.

‘Well, you’re on private land here but if you head down to the bottom of the wood and turn left along the 10 acre there, you’ll come to a lane. Turn right up the valley and there’s a footpath about half a mile on the left will take you into the back of Colehampton, by the church.’

‘Thanks. We’d better get going then. Cheerio.’

‘And keep Max on his lead.’

Ed watched the man and Max, reluctant to leave his furry plaything behind, walk down the slope to the ten acre. He wondered about the deer Max had been lured into the wood by. He waited until Max had disappeared and then walked back to Tom.

‘Has he gone?’

‘Off to Colehampton with his dog, aye.’

Colehampton?’

‘He got lost.’

‘That was bloody brilliant Ed. I thought you was a keeper myself for a minute. How did you know he was just a walker?’

‘Dog wasn’t trained was he? Just a pet like, running all over like that, all that noise, him and the bloke. Not a countryman’s dog.’

‘Like the way you gave the dog the tough old boy been squirming all night. Good thinking that. You’ve got big future here you have boy.’

Ed didn’t answer but picked up the bag and walked off up the hill.

They crested the rise and walked down into the Green lane. They kept well into the hedges along the 30 acre, Tom garrulous with the excitement of their encounter. They reached the almshouses without problem and as they went over the gate they turned and looked up into the darkening shadows of the woods. A figure emerged from the edge of the trees, darker than the shadows, and paused. It was hard to see details with the setting sun over the wooded hill casting fingers of darkness down the field, but Ed was sure he could see points of light on antlers. He pointed the figure out to Tom who grunted. Then the figure tipped back its head and a belling roar echoed in the evening air.

‘It shouldn’t have antlers now.” Ed said.

Tom looked at his friend.                     

‘See you tomorrow?’

Ed kept on looking at the hill. The patch or darkness returned to the wood.

‘Don’t think so Tom. I’ve got to talk to some people about next year.’

END

SNARE

Part 3

‘Come on dopey, first one’s only a few yards.’ Tom said, moving off through the bushes.

Ed had done all right at school once he’ stopped hanging around with Tom and actually done some work. His teachers hadn’t suggested college because they’d had him marked down the same path as Tom, but now he’d got his results, good results, he was thinking about going this year. He’d put an application in and had one offer and needed to talk to someone about a couple of others he was waiting for. The idea was to make some cash this year but so far there’d been nothing. And here he was again with Tom.

He nearly bumped into him as Tom stopped.

‘Here we go.’ He stooped and pulled aside a branch. The snare had looped neatly round the rabbit’s neck and the animal was as dead as it was going to be. Tom unpegged the wire and pulled it out from the rabbit’s flesh. He coiled the wire and peg and pocketed them, giving the animal to Ed who stuffed it in the haversack.

‘Next one’s about five yards over.’ Tom whispered.

They turned their back on the run and stepped under and round the undergrowth to where Tom had laid the next snare. There was no rabbit. The loop of wire was still set open and there was no sign of disturbance. Tom shrugged. ‘Bugger. I thought that we’d maybe get them all sprung today.’ He stood up. Never mind, leave it, we can come up tomorrow and check that one.’

‘”We.” Already apparently in Tom’s mind they were working together again. Ed wasn’t so sure. He had a route out if he was sensible. College. A job in a town or city. Money, independence. Not being a country boy on the edge of existence. Not being a sidekick to a chancer like Tom. Wondering again why Tom’s family was weird and what would happen when the luck ran out.

They checked another three snares on this side of the path, one empty, one with another clean kill and one with the animal still kicking a little as the noose hadn’t broken the neck or throttled it in the time since it had run into the trap. Tom slipped a short lead cosh from his pocket and smacked the animal sharply on the back of the neck which stopped the wriggling.

‘He’ll be a tough old bugger to eat. Give that one to my Dad I reckon.’ Tom laughed.

‘Why?’

‘Why tough or why give it my Dad?’

‘Both I suppose.’

‘They don’t die quick, they get real knotty. All that struggling. Quick kill before they realise what’s happening, they’re all relaxed see. Nice eating. Dad don’t mind, but Carslake’s customers is choosy. I start giving him tough old buggers like this he’ll drop the price or stop taking ’em altogether.’ Tom grinned. ‘Customer care boy.’

Ed took the animal and looked at it. ‘You’ll know which is which?’

‘Yeah. Look.’ Tom flipped its neck over. ‘See. Big bit of fur rubbed off this side where it was struggling.’ He lifted the head. ‘And that mark where I whacked him.’

Ed put it in the sack with the others.

‘How many more Tom?’

‘Another five. Round the other side of the warren.’ He pointed to a patch of thick briars just down the hill. ‘That’s it. Hundreds of the little beggars in there. Not far to the fields in the bottom of the valley. I’d get more trapping that side but you don’t know who’s watching from the wood on the other hill.’

Ed nodded and they moved off around the thicket and uphill back towards the track.

They finished emptying the snares. Four of the five had been good clean kills and one untouched. Tom was setting another snare on a new run when they heard a crashing through the undergrowth somewhere down by the briar thicket.

The two of them looked up and then at each other.

‘What’s that Tom?’

‘It’ll be that bloody buck. It’s getting late and he’ll be off to browse in Chucker’s fields.’

‘You reckon?’

‘Yeah, come on. Set one where you are. You’re more or less standing on a run there.’

Ed caught the wire and peg that Tom threw at him. He crouched down and looked for the tunnel through the undergrowth. He’d tight pegged the wire round a good strong trunk of a bush and was just setting it open at the right height for a rabbit head when the crashing sound cam louder and presumably nearer. Ed half crawled to where Tom was finishing his last snare.

‘Come on Tom. Let’s go.’

‘What’s the matter? Afraid of the spooky deer?’

‘I don’t know Tom, but it’s getting late and I don’t want…’

There was a whistle and both lads dropped down to the ground. They looked at each other. ‘That’s not a fucking buck Tom.’

The other noises got louder and they heard panting. A dog was quartering the wood.

They backed under a blackthorn bush, Ed biting his lip as the thorns scratched his legs.

The dog’s panting got louder and the whistling more strident. Then a man’s voice cut the air.

‘Max! Max, come! Come!’

The dog went away.

‘What is it? A walker?’ Ed whispered.

‘Keeper with a new dog?’

‘It’s bound to find us.’

Tom raised his head a little looking downhill to where the noises were coming from.

‘Move uphill Ed, slow and low like. He can’t have seen us.’

‘What about the dog?

‘Don’t sound too bright if he’s making that noise to get him to come back does he? Come on boy, move!’

The two started to half crawl, half stumble up the hill keeping as low and as quiet as they could while they made their way back towards the path.

They almost stumbled onto it through a stand of hazel that someone had coppiced years ago, now left to straggle. Tom stopped, and froze, still, barely, in the cover of the trees.

‘Bugger’s come up the lane and onto the side path. Standing up there now.’

‘Who is it?’ Ed asked.

‘Dunno. No shotgun, not Chucker or his keeper.’

‘What’s he doing?’

‘Just standing there.’

‘Waiting for the dog?’

‘Maybe.’

Tom was like stone, unmoving, eyes fixed and his voice was the sound of a leaf falling. Ed could tell it as there but he wasn’t sure how he could hear it. It was almost as if he could feel Tom’s thoughts in his head rather than through his ears.

SNARE

Part 2

They dropped down to the side of the field out of sight of prying eyes in the almshouses, into the shade of high old hedgerows. A shallow depression lay between the hedges forming a dark, green lane that ran up the hill by the side of Chucker’s 30 acre and on into Dumbar’s wood. Tom kept up a good pace in the warm Spring air and Ed was sweating by the time they got to the top of the rise.

‘Right, we can slow down now.’ Tom said, his voice quiet.

‘What we doing Tom?’ Ed asked in a whisper.

Tom stopped and crouched by the side of the lane.

‘Right, we’re going to go down the other side of the hill in the wood. There’s a few runs I put snares on last night. Need to check ’em.’

‘Snares? Shit we’re going to be in big trouble if we get caught. That what the bag’s for?’

‘What do you think?’

‘Tommy, what do you want rabbits for?’

‘Dad likes them, nice with a mustard sauce’ He laughed. ‘And old Carslake the butcher takes them for a few quid each.’

Ed considered this news.

‘People still buy rabbit then?’

‘Lots of farmed rabbit about.’ Tom nodded to the woods, ‘But these beauties? Wild, natural, sustainable, organic, all that old bollocks. Sell for a premium to the right type.’

‘Who?’

‘Weekend Barbour brigade. Hippies who aren’t Vegan yet. Knit your own yoghurt types.’

‘Must be mad.’

‘Keeps me in fags. Now are you coming or not?’

Ed looked back down the hill and then at the gap in the bushes leading to the wood, then at Tom. They’d had good fun with the fishing and the money had come in handy. He wondered if Tom might cut him in on some now. He was always skint these days.  Be in big debt if he went to Uni.

‘All right, go on then.’

‘Good lad, let’s get on.’

The two of them rose and crossed the lane, disappearing into the deeper shadows beneath the canopy.

‘Bit creepy Dumbar’s, never liked it.’ Ed confided.

‘Why?’

‘Dunno, feels funny. Lots of kids at school said so an’ all. Loads of bad stories about it.’

‘That’s why I like it.’ Tom said.’ All them daft stories keeps folk away. Lots of things in here you don’t get other places with people crashing about scaring ’em off.’ He stopped, and as if to prove his point a fallow deer buck walked across the path ahead of them. It stopped, half in, half out of the shadows for a moment, sniffed the air and walked on, unconcerned, to disappear in the undergrowth.

‘He’s kept his antlers late.’ Tom said ‘April? Should be shed by now.’

‘Big beggar wasn’t he? Ed said.

‘He was. Maybe he’s come to have you?’ Tom said, making a scary face and raising his hands in claw like manner.

‘Sod off Tommy. Let’s find these rabbits.’

Tom let his hands fall to his sides. He nodded down the track to where the buck had crossed the path. ‘Follow the big lad then’

They moved off down the trail to where the sun dappled the bushes and the path, and turned off to the left into the shadows of the undergrowth. There was a crash of something moving hard through the bushes and Tom pointed as the white patch and black horseshoe shape of the buck’s rump disappeared into the woods’ gloomy interior.

‘Should be lying up, daft animal.’

‘Forget him Tom, let’s find these rabbits.’ Ed said

‘Bit odd though isn’t it?’

‘What is?’

‘Bloody big buck wandering about bold as brass in the day, still got his antlers this time of year. Weird.’

‘You’re not scaring me Tom. It’s just a deer.’

Tom was about to say something else but stopped and moved off.

‘Come on then.’

They descended into the deepening gloom of the trees. There was no more noise from the buck, and no birdsong broke the silence. Tom and Ed moved through the undergrowth as softly as shadows. Tom had said no-one came here, but they both knew game birds lay up in these woods. There was no game shooting this time of year and the rearing pens were on the other side of the valley, but Chucker’s gamekeeper could be planning out drives and seeing what was what anywhere on the land. Both listened for the sound of movement and their eyes swept the depths of the wood for a sign of the keeper. They carried on in this fashion, cautiously following the path across and down the hillside for a few minutes. Careful, silent progress. Then Tom held up his hand and pointed at a small ‘V’ carved into an Ash trunk.

‘Down this way.’ He whispered and slid off the track to the left.

Ed could see the animal run emerge onto the path as he followed Tom.

‘Why didn’t you trap it at the end?’

Tom stopped and looked at Ed. ‘And have Chucker or one of his boys see it? Don’t be daft Ed. I thought you was a country boy.’

Ed nodded. Tom always made him feel like this. Never quite as smart, quite as sharp, quite as at ease with the wilder end of life as Tom. Tom hadn’t been phased at all by the police calling about the fish. Never bothered about the teachers on his back. Never directly rude but always challenging. Always one better behind the back of anyone in authority. Hadn’t got him a job though. Hadn’t got him out of the village. Hadn’t got him the exams to go to Uni. He was smart in other ways; ways teachers and coppers didn’t approve of. Ed wasn’t sure he did any more. There was something attractive about Tom’s wildness but it scared Ed at the same time. Tom was like the buck, part of the same natural system, but unusual, larger than life, belonging to a disappearing world. Whereas Ed wanted to get out of Dumbar’s wood and away from the buck whose antlers should be long gone.

SNARE

Part 1

Ed thought he recognised the figure almost as soon as it turned into the narrow alley behind the almshouse cottages. His immediate reaction was to jump off the wall he was perched on and escape down the path at the side of old Mrs Joiner’s place. He could get back to the road that way without having to speak to Edgworth. It wasn’t that he disliked Tom Edgworth. He didn’t. They’d been friends of sorts at school, not that long ago, but Tom was an odd one Ed thought. Not aggressive as such, not mean really and not even particularly unruly at school. Some of the teachers had had it in for him. Bit odd of them really when you thought about it. They were ‘green’ and ‘animal lovers’ but didn’t seem to like Tom’s country ways at all. Ed remembered a ‘show and tell’, some daft American idea, where Tom had brought his ferret. Didn’t like that animal did they? Ed smiled. Not really that bad a bloke Tom. They’d spent one summer fishing for trout and selling them on. Trouble was they’d gone fishing with gunpowder packed in tins. ‘Bang!’ and all the silvery bodies floated up to the surface of old Turbemere’s lake and you scooped a nice bit of earnings. Tom said his granddad had showed him that trick. Better than sitting there all day with a line and getting nicked for poaching and no licence. One bang, five minutes frantic netting and off before Turbemere’s water bailiff could get a look at you, never mind catch you.

Ed looked up the alley again. Definitely Tom. You could tell by the strut in his step that he’d seen and recognised Ed too. Couldn’t walk off now without offending him.

 Problem had been the police were a bit hotter on explosions than in grandad’s day. Lot of bother, but no charges in the end. Couldn’t prove it, and Tom and Ed had just denied it all. Tom reckoned they just visited all the kids in the village. Ed hadn’t liked it. His mum and dad had been furious having police round the house. ‘I told you them Edgworths were no good didn’t I boy?’ his dad had yelled at him. Ed had nodded. ‘And that Tom is worse than any of ’em.’  Ed had nodded again. ‘Stay away from them boy. Won’t go wrong if you stay away from them. Weird buggers they are.’

‘Why weird Dad?’ Ed had felt emboldened to ask now Dad’s ire was turned elsewhere. His father had glanced at his mother who gave one small shake of her head. ‘Never mind boy. You find some other friends that’s all.’ So he pretty much had. Couldn’t avoid Tom completely in a village mind. But there had been no more fishing trips. And now they’d left school and both found that there was no work in a village anymore, with good exams or no exams. Time lay heavy on Ed’s hands. He’d more or less decided to go to Uni next year after all. Tom didn’t have that option.

Tom bounced down the alley between the back of the cottages and the tall yellow limestone wall of the old Sterven estate, long ago split up into its constituent farms and the hall sold off. Tom drew level with where Ed was sitting.

‘You going somewhere Tom?’ Ed asked.

‘No, rooted to the spot me.’

‘Sarcastic bugger.’

‘Well don’t be a prat then Ed Bayfield. Course I’m going somewhere. Why would I be walking down here otherwise?’

‘Going for a walk?’

‘I’d be going somewhere then, wouldn’t I?’

‘Nah, you’d be walking, but not to anywhere. ‘Cept back where you started of course.’

‘Well I’m not. I’m going somewhere.’

‘Where you going?’

‘What’s it to you? You me mum are you?’

‘She doesn’t care where you are.’

‘That’s true.’

Ed jumped down from the wall he’d been sitting on and fell in step beside Tom Edgworth.

‘Where we off?’

‘Oh it’s “we” now is it?’

‘Don’t mind a bit of company do you? I’m bored out of my skull.’

Tom looked his companion up and down.

‘No, that’s okay Ed. You can make yourself useful though, carry that.’ And with that he slung the old fashioned haversack he’d been carrying at Ed.

‘What’s in it?

‘Nothing.’

‘Why you carrying it then?’

‘I’m not. You are.’

‘Very funny. You know what I mean. Why am I carrying it?’

‘Cause you’re a prat and you’re bored.’

‘Ta very much.’

Tom turned left at the end of the walled pathway and vaulted the gate that blocked the way. Ed climbed after him.

‘This is Chucker’s land. He’ll go spare if he catches us.’

‘Well he isn’t going to is he? It’s Tuesday, he’s up the market in town.’

‘I thought they’d shut that?’

‘Nah, they closed the old one, the one that sold useful stuff. It’s what they call a farmers market now. Chucker takes stuff up there.’

‘What, lambs and stuff?’

‘Can’t.’

‘Why not?

‘Can’t kill his own these days, gotta go to an abattoir.’

‘What’s he sell then?’

‘Few veg his missus grows, few birds he shoots, potatoes, and a load of crap he buys in and slaps Sterven Farm labels on.’

‘Cheeky bastard.’

‘Ah well, gives us a chance for a little enterprise, doesn’t it?’

Ed hefted the canvas sack and looked at Tom.

‘Enterprise? What? Like the fish?’

‘You can chuck us the bag and go back if you like.’

‘I didn’t say that.’

‘Good. Let’s get down in the lane.’

CROSSING

[I decided to clear out some old hard copy content this lunch time. I know you shouldn’t, there will be things you may want to use at a later date, alter, rework, inspire yourself with, leave to posterity(?really!). But there are limits and this actually proves the point of not throwing things away (I think!). In the copies of copies of copies of stuff I have multiple electronic versions of, there was this short piece. I can’t remember exactly what it was. It may have been an exercise or a piece I sent or intended to send somewhere when ultra short fiction became a big thing. Whatever it was, it has all dialogue, (one short narrative sentence) and no he said/she saids etc. I think the idea was to differentiate the characters by verbal style alone. Not sur it worked but here it is:

‘It looks like you’re in trouble there. Can I help?’

‘Er, no thanks, I’ll be fine.’

‘Are you sure? Because I don’t want to worry you but there’s a train due in a minute.’

‘A train? Fu…! Sorry. I didn’t think this line was used. Have you got a mobile? Can you ring someone?’

‘I don’t think there’s time. We need to get you off the crossing now. If we both push we should be able to move it’

‘Can’t.  I dropped the keys into the engine compartment and they must have hit the button and locked the doors.’

‘Brakes on?’

‘Yes’

‘Can you get the keys?’

‘They’re too far down for me.’

‘Let me try, my hands are smaller.’

‘You can’t. I’ve got my finger stuck down by the wash bottle.’

‘Have you got any spare keys? I tape one under the rear wheel arch.’

‘No. What’s that noise?’

‘Hell! It’s the train.’

‘Oh God what am I going to do? Get me out of here!’

‘Okay, I’m going to pull. It will hurt.’

‘No! Oh, yes go on then. Stop! Stop, you’re tearing my skin off.’

‘It’s jammed tight. Wait there.’

‘Don’t leave me!’

‘Just getting something. It’s okay I’m a doctor. Right. Look down there. Can you see the train?’

‘Where? Hang on what are you doing? No don’t…! Aaaargh! Oh my God! What have you done! Look at the blood. Fucking hell you maniac!’

‘Move. Away from the car. No, you idiot, over here. Get down!’

The freight train smashed into the car sending debris flying down the line.

‘Oh my God! What happened to my car?!’

‘It’s just a car. Press that cloth on the stump while I see if the driver’s okay. This skirt is ruined.’

Your Call Is Very Important To Us

All Allinson needed to do was speak to someone. He might as well have wanted to be the Queen.

There was a telephone number he had kept from an earlier time.

He’d rung it on his legacy landline. The only reason he’d still got it was because he’d ignored the promises, offers and threats to change to a mobile. Same as he’d ignored all the increasingly aggressive communications about having his heating and lighting and kitchen appliances connected to the Net. They had tried to make him feel as if he were personally responsible for killing the planet. Each appliance he refused to connect was supposedly individually, directly, responsible for overheating a Polar Bear or choking a Dolphin. The role of the power companies, the motor manufacturers, Chinese coal fired industry, everyone else on the planet was apparently irrelevant. His gas fired central heating, installed under the slogans of efficiency, cleanliness and sustainability was now going to be cut off. No he didn’t have choice.

Everything was connected now, didn’t he know.

Everything until you wanted to ask a question, get an answer, tell someone something different.

He’d rung the number. It had redirected him. It was no longer staffed. An automated voice, possibly a human recording but most probably these days a computer voice simulation told him to go to a website or text a number or email but most answers could be found on one of several social media platforms which now supplied information which satisfied over ninety per cent of client enquiries. It offered to repeat the contact details and then terminated the call.

Allinson went for a walk into town. Or where the town had been. The place he had grown up thinking was the centre of the town, the place where you could get all the requirements of life; food, drink clothes, shoes, access to the offices of those supplying amenities like water, power, telephone, had been gutted like a fish. No worse than a fish. There the spine and ribs remained. Here there was nothing. There were some takeaway food shops, some betting shops, a couple of charity shops recycling things, an opticians and some hairstylists. The remaining food shops were supermarkets on the outer ring road. The council offices where you could pay your rates in the old days, your council tax now, were closed to the public. There was a website and a mobile app to pay. A building that used to be a labour exchange, then a Job Centre and now a place where terminals scrolled online jobs, lowered over the end of the street. Inside euphemistically named jobs coaches threatened to cut your benefits if you didn’t attend the indoctrinations to indentured non jobs and enslaving zero hour contract treadmills

Allinson considered firebombing something but you couldn’t get the petrol and the 24/7 total coverage face recognition cctv guaranteed capture, probably before the crime was committed.

In shops he’d been able to have conversations. To talk to people.

Now the monitoring of staff performance by chips, key loggers and video meant staff were part of the machine and if they wanted to outcompete their automated replacements for a few more paydays, they threw the purchases at you and didn’t have time to say even please and thank you. Most of the checkouts were automated anyway and only security guards patrolled the line of pay desks. He’d tried using cash once to exercise his legal right to pay using coin of the realm, only to be told that didn’t exist any more and besides the company’s commercial considerations  rated higher than his poxy rights. He’d complained until they had thrown him out and then complained some more until the police came and moved him on for causing a disturbance. He’d tried to complain about that, but the town ‘hub’ computers wouldn’t let him download the complaint form or complete the online version as it was not within the purview of the authorities IT remit. He’d tried complaining about that but…

And now he wanted to warn them of something.

He wanted to speak to someone about something the FAQs and circular non-contact contact links hadn’t bargained for.

The police station was closed to the public.

The contact numbers didn’t contact anyone.

Emergency  numbers only turned out responses for immediate threats or occurrences of violence. Longer term or lesser threats were logged on another system but it would be better if you could fill in an online form.

Allinson went back home.

The alien was still there.

The translation machine hummed and it said;

‘Any luck?’

Allinson shook his head.

‘No.’

‘They won’t negotiate?’

‘I don’t know I can’t get through to anyone.’

‘Same as us then?’

‘Afraid so.’

‘We shall have to mark this species as too primitive and self absorbed to be preserved you know?’

‘You said.’

‘We’ll be off then.’

‘Okay.’

‘Would you like to come with us? You have been most helpful, within the limits of your system.’

Allinson thought about it a moment.

‘Can I take my dog, Lexxy?’

The alien paused for a moment, spoke into a small cube, then listened to a metallic crackling.

It switched the translator on again.

‘I’ll need authorisation, but there’s no-one staffing the desk at the moment. Can you fill in an online form to request the transfer?’

Allinson stared.

‘I think I’ll stay where I am thanks.’