SLIGHTED

“de batailler et kerneller de pere et de caux ses chambres de novel comencees en sa place ou mansion”

Well there was one. A licence to crenellate, or more precisely a freedom to crenellate. It was hardly going to be a fourteenth century equivalent of the 7s 6d dog licence his father had had to buy each year for the family pet. He smirked at the thought before turning his eyes back to the microfiche reader.

There it was, clear as day in the Recognizance roll. Well as clear as day if you read 14th century Law French, which he suspected Robertson didn’t. Freedom to turn a town house, albeit a large one on four burgage plots into a defensible building with battlements. Perhaps not actually a castle, although given the problems of Richard II’s rule the concept was far from passé, and in the light of what happened in the debacle following Richard’s murder, fortification was a prescient step for one of the Cheshire men

Being the king’s enforcers was bound to attract a certain amount of discontent and desire for revenge if and when that reign ended with the opposition taking over.

Westmacott sat back and pushed aside the vicissitudes of the century long conflicts between fifteenth century English mafia bosses wearing crowns. He turned his attention instead to composing in his head a series of letters and articles. The short pithy letters would go to the local and regional papers destroying the drivel in Robertson’s articles and in so doing, his popular reputation. The articles for peer reviewed historical journals would slide the knife in deeper and turn the blade more effectively, ending Robertson’s professional standing, such as it was, as a historian.

Robertson would probably not notice of course. He hardly moved in those circles. Westmacott had checked his credentials when he had read the articles in the local rag. He was barely more than a hack journalist. At best an antiquarian repackaging and peddling the idiocies of eighteenth and nineteenth century collectors of folk myths. Barely one step up from those who had believed the stories about Joseph of Arimathea bringing the Grail to Glastonbury. An early example of fake news to gain money position and power. Westmacott almost laughed out loud. You had to hand it to those Benedictines – a great scam that still had resonance to pull in the gullible five hundred years after the monks themselves had been given the heave ho.

Robertson had made enough himself out of recycling folk myths and speculation. Nowhere near the scale of medieval religious scams of course but too much to be allowed to go unchallenged.

In the greater scheme of things it was a small enough victory, but it would be satisfying enough. It would restore the truth about a departed building, reinstate a much loved, to Westmacott anyway, dignitary of the fourteenth century to his proper place in the local pantheon, and remove a competitive charlatan.

Westmacott saw this as an undisputed victory for truth, justice and the Historiographic way. Of course it would also bolster his own reputation for deep forensic research, his careful and precise correction of modern populist revisionism. That it simultaneously destroyed someone who had irked him and challenged his position as the expert in the region was simply an unfortunate byproduct of his commitment to historical truth.  He had certainly crenellated and fortified his position with this find. At that thought he could no longer contain himself and he let a rather unprofessional squeak of delight escape into the silence of the reading room.

There were a couple of shuffles of disapproval from the few other occupants. Westmacott sneered; probably family history buffs. Genealogy for the masses. What a sad thing he thought.

He made sure his notes were complete, properly referenced and concisely contextualised, then rewound the fiche to the reference page, extracted the cassette and switched off the machine.

He pocketed his pencils, tucked his notepad under his arm and almost swaggered back to the archivist’s desk.

‘Find what you were looking for Mr Westmacott?’ She asked. Charming lady he thought, quite natural she should know her most illustrious clients by sight.

‘Yes thank you, a most rewarding afternoon.’ With that he placed the cassette on the desk and waited for her to check the catalogue and sign it in and him out.

‘Ooh. You are popular aren’t you?’ she said as she checked the cassette number and typed into the computer. Flattered but slightly confused Westmacott couldn’t help himself and asked,

‘Am I?’

The archivist laughed.

‘Sorry Mr Westmacott. Not you, though I’m sure you are. I meant this chap.’ She waved the microfiche cassette at him.

Westmacott was puzzled. He had assumed he would have been the only person to request the Recognizance rolls from Richard’s reign for some time. Of course they were bundled with many other ‘Welsh papers’ and Palatinate papers so it needn’t necessarily be a worry someone was trespassing on what he thought of as ‘his’ patch.

‘That is surprising.’ He said as noncommittally as his thoughts would allow.

‘Yes, not out for years then here he is out four times in the last month including today.’

‘Four? But this is the first time I’ve been back this year.’

‘Yes, the other three were that nice man who writes the “Times Past” column, Mr Robertson.’

‘In the last month?’

‘Yes, last time was two weeks ago. Very enthusiastic he was, said he would be making quite a splash with some of his findings. He expected it to be in this week’s Express. Said it would fortify his position as the expert on local castles quite nicely. He likes a joke does Mr Robertson.’ She put the cassette back on the carousel. ‘Right. Anything else I can do for you Mr Westmacott?’

`No. Thank you.’

‘Are you all right? Mr Westmacott. Mr Westmacott!’

 

Photo credit: <a href=”https://visualhunt.co/a5/2815f4″>Orchids love rainwater</a> on <a href=”https://visualhunt.com/re7/434462b2″>Visualhunt</a&gt; / <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”&gt; CC BY</a>

EFFECTIVE TIME MANAGEMENT

I went on a course once. Nothing new there, I went on every course going; from Health and Safety to Advanced Silent Killing. Well, if they’d had a course on that I’d have applied for it. The advanced killing thing, not the Health and Safety one. They had a whole series of those and I went on them all.

One or two proved useful beyond getting me out of the office for a while, but I don’t remember most of them. Fire Safety was useful I think, and I once stopped someone bleeding to death from a cut artery using emergency first aid skills learned in a bowdlerised version of ‘Don’t Let Him Die’. Well, possibly. I suspect someone else could have worked out what to do before they bled out, but you never know. Kinetic Handling may have stopped me pulling a back muscle moving furniture about and Assertiveness Training made me realise there was nothing wrong with my self esteem, just something wrong with my bosses who wanted a shouty idiot rather than someone who might actually think about stuff before opening their mouth.

But none of them would have helped me in my current circumstances.

I remember the jokes we made in the meet and greet coffee break before the course I am thinking about started. Effective Time Management. Was this effective use of our time? We were disappointed when every speaker made exactly the same joke before each slot designed to make you a better corporate drone.

There was scheduling of course. What time is the most productive and tips to overcome the mid afternoon slump. Thoughts about how to get the most from meetings, one to one to full committee. Don’t use them to decide anything was the best tip from memory. Get the decision first and use meetings to stroke the egos of participants to buy in. There was no choice but make them feel appreciated. Cynical but effective. Oh yes, and always have a cut off time. And stick to it.

I didn’t like that course. I really did need it but I couldn’t see any of the ideas put forward being anything other than pie in the sky, or ‘aspirational’ as far as I was concerned.

If there was a task did I stop doing it because there was a cut off? Did I plough on if there wasn’t ‘buy in’? What was the methodology if everyone else’s prioritisation dynamics were on a slightly different stovepipe track to mine? Did I dismantle the stovepipe and construct a flat bedded, horizontally integrated, low rise hierarchy before declaring the task nugatory?

I noted that effective time management in the field seemed to take second, third or hundredth place to presentism, whereas the theory said define boundaries and don’t be there if there was nothing to do.

I remembered one of the segments on setting time boundaries suggested having due regard to the practical sensibilities of everyone in the task or project and being flexible where possible, and firm where necessary in light of the goal.

Goals.

That was my main problem. No goal. Some people had callings, vocations, needs and commitment. I’d waited all of my life for some sort of revelation which had yet to arrive.

Or it had been my main problem up till now.

Now, an apparent lack of flexibility on the time boundary appeared to be the problem.

I hadn’t got a major goal in life, but I had many things I wanted to do. It had become clear to me that life obviously closed down certain avenues of choice as it progressed. One of the mantras I had worked out for myself rather than trawling through the list of training courses was you can’t go back. Yet I had spent a lot of time waiting for the second route to certain options to present themselves, which of course they never had. But I accepted the idea in general and had planned, or rather not planned accordingly. Rather than ploughing the same furrow, I had taken new forks in the road at random and looking back the forest had closed behind me. It felt like an odd corollary to the crap mantras on desks of the put upon and petty office tyrants ‘your lack of planning is not my emergency’. My emergency was my lack of planning.

Though I suddenly had a worryingly imminent deadline in my project diary I had an apparent infinity of tasks yet to complete.

What would my course notes say I should do?

They were long gone of course. Sacrificed on the altar of low physical storage in the era of the paperless office, designed by low clutter architects for those with the attention span of a three year old. But even had I been able to access them from some digital repository, I couldn’t see they were going to tell me what to do with my last six months.

Make a list of prioritised goals I should imagine would be the best to be culled from the pages.

Sod that.

Never needed any stupid goals so far.

Stop worrying and plough on as fast as you can.

And don’t look over your shoulder.

 

Just in case anyone is wondering/worrying – this is fiction remember, and in no way autobiographical. As far as I know I have many future occasions for procrastination, lack of goals and hedonistic irresponsibility. (fingers crossed).

THE CONSTABLE CODE


The Project Gutenberg EBook of Constable, 
by C. Lewis Hind: The Hay Wain

Having too much time on your hands, yet frequently not enough in a continuous run to get into a really productive writing session (children^, cat, wife in the NHS and very busy, cooking, general inability to concentrate) you find yourself trawling through old flash drives going; ‘Uh? What the…?’ and ‘Oh, I like that!’ The latter unfortunately being outnumbered 10 to 1 by the former.

One of the latter however was this – written by the look of things in 2005 for a BBC Radio4 Front Row spoof on the then very hot ‘Da Vinci’ Code. The brief was to write a 100 word (or shorter) pitch for a Dan Brown*-esque treatment of a well know cultural artefact and the mystery/conspiracy/plot around it.

They didn’t use it and I had no idea what else to do with it – haven’t written the book yet – thank goodness – so here it is, for you, in all its glory!

THE CONSTABLE CODE

Blair, Kennedy, Howard, each from a Celtic country. Could the prophecy be true? Wilson seized Charlotte’s hand, evaded the grip of the three Arch Druids and dived through the fourth floor window.

The symbolism of The Hay Wain shrieked at him louder than Charlotte’s fear as they plummeted towards the Thames. The Lydney dog cult of the Silures, the horse of the Iceni and Trinovantes from Constable’s own country, the Lindow Man like water sacrifice. The Celtic Twilight was coming.

Constable! Of course! The keeper, of a castle, the country, the dark secret! The black water closed over their heads.

 

I was frequently a bit snotty about Mr Brown, but while you can be sniffy about his literary style, it’s *****y hard to argue with the sales figures, and to be fair they are rollicking paced action stories with loads of hooks into bits of European cultural history (however weirdly presented) most people would never think about. He has also done some really good work with the cash; making obscure and unattainable books available online for example.

^ As if to prove my point just after I wrote that, my son arrived seeking sustenance – so I cooked our lunch, my daughter complained incessantly about Royal Mail not arriving with her birthday present – over a month late and a very long story – and parcels my wife ordered online began arriving in a volley of knocks on the door, rung doorbells and me piking them up from the drive. 

2026: KEEP SAFE YEAH?

Last week a member of a writers group I attend set an exercise for the group even though we aren’t meeting at the moment. It was to write a piece of about a thousand words on the idea of a ‘prediction’ six years post Covid. He provided a first phrase: ‘It was year PV 0007…’ which I have taken to heart but left out. What follows is most certainly not a prediction, but rather an irreverent imagining of what might happen if government of the UK fractured under the strain. I apologise for the ‘patois’ I’m bound to have got things ‘wrong’, but remember this is the future so I am ‘right’ after all!

 

2026

Somewhere in South London

Evening.

 

The man with the gun let Hancks into the room.

‘Wotcha Spango, awright?’Hancks said.

‘Wotcha? Wotcha? Nobody’s said Wotcha since forevs. Like before the Cov. What the effin ell’s up with you?’

‘Lightening the mood bruv, innit?’ Hancks said, hanging his head and avoiding eye contact.

‘Want it darker fam, like white dark.’

‘S’up with Spango?’

‘Brickin it inne?’

‘Fuck off Nods.’ Spango said, checking himself in a mirror.

‘Why? S’only a vlog post.’

‘Cos,’ said Nods, ‘e’s been on the Spice and e’s still all wavey.’

‘Where’d  you get that Spangs?’

‘Treasury, they got loads man.’ Nods said.

‘I ain’t been takin nuffink you nob.’ Spango rolled his shoulders. ‘Need to be tight’

‘S’a vlog post. You can do it again you get it wrong. S’not live.’

‘Why in’t he doin it live.’ Hancks asked.

‘Cos e’s bricking it.’

‘Fuck off you great wazza.’ Spango punched Nods. ‘S’important. People gotta trust me. Gotta be done right.’

Nods nodded and fiddled with the controls on the console.

‘And he wants music and effects.’

‘Oooh! Get ‘er!’

Spango stuck a finger up at Hancks.

‘Shut it right. I’m going to do it now. Okay Nods?’

‘Yeah go in three, two, one.’ He pointed a finger at Spango who began to speak.

‘People of South England. Good evening, I…’

‘E can’t say that.’ Hancks whispered at an enormous volume.

‘What the f…’ Spango exploded.

Nods toggled a switch and shook his head.

‘It’s a vlog innit?’ Hancks said.

‘I know it’s a fucking vlog. So effin what? I haven’t said anything yet.’ Spango screeched.

‘You said “Good evening”. What if they’s watching in the afternoon?’

Nods creased up laughing.

‘It doesn’t matter when they watch it. It’s evening now innit? It’s when it’s made counts.’ Spango explained.

‘I’d think it was well weird the Prime Minister saying “Evening” in the middle of the day, me. I’d think you’d lost it bro.’

‘Well nobody’s arxing you is they? So shut it yeh.’ Spango looked at Nods. ‘Need it from the top or run on is it?’

‘Just read man, I’ll splice it.’

Spango looked into the webcam again. ‘And you interrupt again I’ll have you office spaced you twattin bozak.’

Hancks sneered but shut up.

Nods did the three two one bit again and Spango went on.

‘I am speaking to you tonight to let you all know that my cabinet and I is thinking about letting you all out a bit. We have had only a few deaths this last week and we knows you is all cooped up and that. It is like six months since we let people out without offing anyone if they went out so we think it’s worth a shot.’

Spango took a breath and looked at Nods and Hancks. ‘Okay?’ he mouthed. They gave him a thumbs up. ‘That was bangin, Bossman!’ Nods said.

Spango smiled and carried on.

‘So from midnight tonight I am telling all… What now!?’ he yelled at Hancks.

‘Look bruv I don’t want no Babylon beating on me, but what midnight? I mean is that “tonight” tonight or “tonight” when it gets posted or “tonight” when they watches it?’

Spango’s eyes got really wide and his hands balled up into fists, but before he could scream at the door guards to take Hancks out and beat him up, Nods spoke.

‘Nah he’s right. I mean you gotta be precise. You don’t want no mandem thinkin “skate park time” and getting slotted cos it’s the wrong midnight.’

Spango’s fists unclenched.

‘Right. Carry on.’ Spango took a breath.

‘So from midnight on March 20 2026 all police and army will allow anyone with a ID app on their mobile to be out on the street from eight in the morning to 6 at night. If that goes okay for three weeks, we’ll see about extending that and I’ll get back to you. Keep safe bros.’

Spango stared into the camera with the hint of a smile on his lips and then Nods waved his hand across his throat to let everyone know he’d stopped recording.

‘Good?’

‘Well good bro.’

‘You want to skin up?’ Hancks asked.

‘Nah, I gotta to talk to Treasury now.’

Hancks and Nods folded over laughing.

‘Nah, no effin Spice you wasters. I gotta see if we is still skint after being Rishi’d.’

‘Whole world’s been Rishi’d man.’ Said Hancks.

‘Yeah well I gotta do a deal with some Northerners, get some jabs innit? Gonna need bare loot for that. Keep my people safe you know?’ Spango ducked his head to show how serious it was.

‘Yeah, can’t long it no more. Gotta get some.’ Nods agreed. ‘I’ll splice this up and get the tekkers to put some banging sounds on it yeah?’

‘Yeah, cool.’

‘You want Beeb South lined up for it?’ Hancks asked.

‘Yeah, bitches gotta be good for somethin.

‘Bozza know you is coming? Don’t want his people offin you cos you ain’t from their ends bruv.’ Hancks looked worried.

‘We doin it on the bridge. He stays north of the river. I stay south.’

‘Wear a mask man.’

‘A mask? I ain’t on the run bruv. I run everything south of the river. Bossman yeh? Pigs are mine now.’

Nah fam! A mask. He’s had it. Effin carrier now.’

‘You had it same time Hancks, you is okay.’

‘Can’t trust him though man. He had it real bad. Wear a mask.’

Spango nodded and went to talk to Treasury.

SECRETS: A TRIPTYCH – AFTERWORD

I hope people have enjoyed reading ‘Secrets: Triptych’ in all its versions. The responses I have had so far have been favourable*. A couple of people have been complimentary and a couple have been slightly niggled by the fact that there is no obviously definitive ‘true’ version in the three as written.

First: what makes you think there isn’t? :^)

Secondly: those comments made make me reflect on what we think is truth.

I’m not a massive fan of postmodernist approaches to literature or history, but I don’t think you have to swallow Derrida/Foucault et al whole to see that what happens in chaotic events is open to a certain amount of interpretation; by the first hand participants as much as by those second and third hand participants in the ‘discourse’ of reading about them.

I think there is a truth, an objective set of events that happened; in the story, in life. Au revoir to postmodernism at this point. Whether that necessarily can be recovered and told in a story is another kettle of fish.

Witnesses to accidents and crimes often give conflicting or at best slightly differing accounts. You start to worry about collusion if they are all the same in every detail. So most stories, true or fiction are almost of necessity one variant of the truth. At best. With unreliable or wilfully obfuscatory narrators involved it becomes almost impossible to decode the ‘truth’. We can see this through many works of fiction that weave different narrative viewpoints together in more or less subtle ways. Rashomon and The Moonlit Road (Bierce’s work I mentioned in my introductory piece to ‘Secrets’, do it openly, while other writers have unreliable narrators often exposed near the end of the novel as other more reliable actors pitch in (or at least we give them that credence because of the way they are introduced). Sebastian Faulks, Yann Martel, Chuck Palahniuk and Iain Banks have all created marvellously unreliable guides through books. There are many others.

So I don’t apologise for not saying which is the ‘true’ version. I know which one I believe is nearest the ‘truth’, but readers will have to decide which is the best truth for them.

 

*Just a reminder that I am very happy to receive comments/thoughts/criticisms via the ‘Comments’ system here. Moderation is turned on to filter any completely off the wall stuff, but generally if you want to write it I’m happy to read and approve it. I will try and answer any questions to the best of my ability.

SECRETS: CHLOE

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

 

SECRETS: CHLOE

‘Chloe! How are you?’

She hadn’t been looking forward to this event. It wasn’t relaxing or exciting. Hanging out with the senior people from the office was never going to be either of those, but it got her out of the house. It also offered a chance to refine her knowledge of the pecking order. Coming back from such a long secondment was never going to be easy and she was way out of touch with who was on the way up, who was marking time and who was about to head to freight and mails. It wasn’t just the rankings that had changed though, the game had changed. Corporate infighting would always be bloody, but being away for so long meant you were playing by old rules. Her ‘broadening’ experience should have been a great asset and she had been assured it would be, but there was no evidence. It was all on a trust basis and anyone who trusted what HR said was mad. Not being able to talk about what she had been doing for the last few years sometimes drove her crazy anyway. She listened to the desk bound types spouting off about things she knew about from first hand experience, and had to bite her tongue instead of putting them right. It wasn’t that she wanted to go and do it again but she was beginning to wonder if she could put up with not doing it again. At least Warwick was in a nearby office. They’d done some mad stuff together in the field before he came here. Having someone who knew the score was great, that someone being Warwick was even more of a comfort, even if neither of them seemed certain where they were going.

The voice calling her name broke her train of thought and made her heart sink a little. Not Chris? Surely not here?

She scanned the crowd for the face associated with the voice. There he was. On the stairs. Posing.

Her colleagues, she could tell, were intrigued. Not even pretending they weren’t interested in how this person knew their new section head.

‘Hello Chris, how are you?’ She said, trying hard to make her voice neutral.

‘Darling! All the better for seeing you.’ He boomed ‘Where have you been hiding yourself dear heart?’

She cringed inside, but kept her game face on. As long as he didn’t want to talk about the “good old days” she might be able to keep this short and sweet.

‘I’m in the branch now.’ she waved her glass in a gesture encompassing the room and the members of the branch assembled. She could see the interest levels rising around her. She needed to stop being the centre of attention.  She linked arms with him and dragged him into the least crowded corner of the room. The crowd noise resumed its random activity as they moved from centre stage.

‘So what are you doing here tonight Chris?’

‘Liaison old thing. Not sure precisely what I’m supposed to be doing at this shindig, but I’m glad I came now.’ He smiled that smile that had annoyed for two years of ops. ‘And you?’

‘Well I’m trying to fit in, so…’ she shrugged, ‘…here I am. Being a good section head, bonding and all that.’

‘Isn’t this a bit tame for you? I mean last time I saw you, we were…’

‘I think we can leave the circumstances of our last meeting out of it, don’t you?

‘But it was so much more fun than what happens here.’

‘Fun? I think we have different memories of it then.’

She shuddered at the thought of when she had been working with Chris. She shuddered some more when Chris leaned closer and ran his finger down her glass.

‘Well I remember quite a lot of fun.’

People were edging closer, eyes slightly glazed as they nodded to each other out of synch with their conversations, straining to hear what the pair were saying. Chloe remembered holding her breath as men with guns walked around in the rooms below the roof space she was hiding in. She remembered the decanting of brains from a splintered skull, oozing like half set pink blancmange. Fun?

‘I don’t want to talk about that now.’

‘Why don’t we go somewhere a little quieter then? There’s a playroom for Alan’s kids where we could have a chat if you want to let it go?’ His smile widened. ‘That might be fun.’

She realised the fun he was thinking about wasn’t anything to do with people trying to shoot them or blow them up, but the drunken disaster of a fumble they had had near the end of her tour. She didn’t want to relive that, and she certainly didn’t want to recreate it tonight. Not ever.

‘I don’t think that would be a good idea Chris, do you? Not exactly the way to establish my place in Alan’s branch.’

‘I’m here in a general liaison capacity within the Division but I spend a lot of time in Alan’s branch. I’m hoping to spend a lot more time in parts of Alan’s branch now. I could help. You know, discreetly. Put in a good word.’ Chloe took a half pace back.

‘Let’s get this straight Chris. We weren’t friends like that. We made complete arses of ourselves that night.’ She took a deep breath. ‘People here may think you are some sort of Ian Fleming type, but we know what it’s really like. So let’s keep our mouths shut and have a nice quiet evening and one of us can leave in twenty minutes. All right?’

It was no good. She didn’t know how much Chris had had to drink or if he was just being stupid about their one fling, but he didn’t want to let it go. He’d already made her life a lot harder. Everyone here was wondering how they knew each other. As long as he didn’t mention where they had been or what they had been doing, otherwise life could get very awkward, for both of them.

‘Why wait Babe? We could go now. Your place or mine? Probably best yours, I’m in a hotel at the mo.’

‘Chris, we are not going anywhere. Certainly not together. If you want to stay for form’s sake, stay away from me and I’ll leave as soon as I’ve done the rounds. Okay?

‘Come on Chlo. You mean all that time together meant nothing? All those days? All those nights?

‘We’re not talking about this here Chris.’ Chloe shook her head. ‘We’re not talking about it anytime.’ She turned to go, but Chris reached out to take her elbow.

‘Come on Chloe, that excitement wasn’t just because we were in…’

Time seemed to expand. The stupid sod was going to say where they had been. It had taken months to adjust this much and she was damned if she was going to have to start again. Everyone was staring, straining their ears to catch the revelation of where Chris had spent ‘all those night’ with the new section head.

She knew what she was going to do. She just hoped she could cover it with a good excuse. It was in all probability going to make the sojourn in freight and mails rumour look a little hollow. Chloe heard the first syllable of the location, whether for real or in her head she was never sure, but she pivoted on her heel and with her free hand slapped at his face. The shock stopped his speech but to make sure he got the message she slapped him with the other hand, dropping her glass first so she didn’t cut him. He sat down hard and she realised his nose was bleeding. She stared down at him.

‘Sorry Chris, but I did tell you to shut up.’

Warwick appeared at her side.

‘You okay?’

‘Yes, thanks.’

‘Shall I get the car? Do you want go?’

She nodded.

‘Probably best.’ She said.

‘All right, and don’t worry, half the office has been wanting to do that. I’ll square Alan. He doesn’t need telling what a prat Chris is, but it won’t hurt to remind him.’

Chloe smiled at him. ‘I can fight my own battles you know? You get the car. I’ll be out in a minute.’

 

SECRETS: CHRIS

Having read what the party goers saw and the story they assembled from their various vantage points and perceptions of the protagonists, what about those two main actors?

How did the evening pan out for them as it happened?

Chris’ story next.

 

 SECRETS: CHRIS

 

Chris hated evenings like this.

He’d had to turn up of course. What was the point of a liaison officer who hated parties? And generally speaking he was up for most work related socials, from the raucous Channel Nights at sea as the ship returned to home port, to the sophisticated and measured diplomatic dances of embassy functions.

Nights like this, faux social gatherings of work colleagues, were however, mind numbingly dull. It was difficult even to enliven the affair with a liaison of the more carnal kind. Alan, the branch head was quite old fashioned about things like that and made life difficult. Not impossible, but certainly difficult.  Sometimes that made the thrill of the chase even greater, but frankly at this level of seniority the pickings were a bit outside his target age range. From his vantage point on the landing that stretched the width of the place, he surveyed the scene in what he had to admit was rather a swanky reception room.

He was trying to decide whether Hilary would be worth the candle if he could separate her from her partner, whatever his name was, or whether he should just have a few tots more and work on his career by schmoozing up to Alan. The mental coin was still spinning when a new arrival walked into the room and all his plans went on hold.

Chloe Macalastair! Hilary and Alan dropped right off the evening’s things to do list. There was one object in mind now. To renew his acquaintance with the delectable Chloe. True they hadn’t parted on quite the terms he would have wished for. Actually he wasn’t certain there were terms on which he wished to part from Chloe Macalastair at all. That in itself was a warning light. Chris had always had very clear moral principles on this. Never get involved with a woman who made you feel as if you might want to stay close to her for more than twenty four hours. Not that he had a problem with being with a girl for a long time, just not on consecutive days. It removed the mystery and the fun and Chris liked fun and variety. It was why, he told himself, he was a great liaison officer and a fun guy to be around. That was enough introspection he decided.

No harm in renewing the relationship for a bit. They had spent a lot of nights together but he had to admit not in the way he wanted to have spent them. Lurking in various safe houses, bushes, dodgy housing estates and backs of panel vans had not been the series of romantic interludes he craved with Ms Macalastair. Still, they had been very close, if only physically at work, and now was the chance to put right that rather clumsy tryst at the end of his tour. They would both, he was sure, relish the opportunity to relive that experience with a better outcome. And he had a head start on anyone else here. They had both spent months in extreme front line circumstances and it would do no harm to remind her of the dangers they had faced. Danger was always sexy.

He checked his look in the mirror at the top of the stairs. Perfect as always, and he timed his descent to arrive just three steps above her as she passed the foot of them.

‘Chloe! How are you?’ he said in his best rolling brogue. He knew women couldn’t resist his warm rich tones, it was he decided hardly fair, but then they got to be with him, so the benefits evened up in the end.

He saw the leap of recognition in her eyes as she looked up at him. He loved women looking up at him, such a great feeling. She played it cool of course as you would expect from a professional in such matters. You didn’t go all girly just because the mark had walked in the pub did you? Neither did Chloe. That was what made the prospect so much more fun than usual. Desk types knew the score of course but couldn’t play the game. Civilians were okay but just too easy to be worth it most of the time. Most of them didn’t ever realise there was a game being played.

‘Hello Chris, how are you?’ Chloe said, a little bit too fast Chris decided. Not quite as cool as she’d hoped for no doubt. Well if that was the way it was, no need to complicate matters, Charge!

‘Darling! All the better for seeing you.’ He said, projecting so she could hear the delight in his voice. ‘Where have you been hiding yourself dear heart?’ he concluded and glided down to greet her with a peck on the cheek. The crowd was staring at them now and well they might, the two best looking people for miles he knew. She radiated a smile at him.

‘I’m in Alan’s branch.’ she said indicating the onlookers who had to be here at Alan’s command. She linked arms with him and steered him somewhere more intimate out of sight of the gawping office workers who resumed their murmuring as the two beautiful people slipped from view.

‘And what are you doing here?’ she whispered.

‘Liaison old thing. Though I’m not sure why I was supposed to be here until you showed up.’

She laughed at him in that way that had always excited him when they had been up close together on surveillance. ‘And why are you here?’ he asked.

‘I’m a Section head in the branch’

‘Really? Isn’t this a bit tame for you? I mean last time…’

‘I don’t think we should discuss that here do you? I mean they don’t need to know.’

‘Not everything, but why end up here? What we had was so much more fun.’

‘Fun? You remember things differently from me.’

He leaned closer and ran a finger down Chloe’s glass.

‘I didn’t necessarily mean the work Chlo. I remember some bits of that tour being a lot of fun.’

Around them the people in the room were edging closer, trying to look elsewhere as they listened to what was being said.

‘Chris, I don’t want to talk about that now. No-one here knows about where I’ve been or what I did, that and they don’t need to know. It’s a security thing? You remember that?’

‘Of course I do sweetie, but we don’t have to have this reunion so publicly. Alan’s kids have a playroom that’s off limits to the hoi polloi.’ His smile widened. ‘We always did like to play didn’t we Chloe?’

Chris could see the memory made her flustered and realised that it would be difficult for her. He wondered if they should leave now and go straight back to her place. He was in hotel accommodation which was okay for some things but lacked the space and privacy he felt their reunion demanded. He realised she was saying something else.

‘… or I’d have got Alan to sort this out earlier.’

‘It’s okay Chloe. I’m general liaison to the Division head and I don’t spend a lot of time with Alan’s branch, but I’m hoping to spend a lot more time with parts of Alan’s branch in future.’

He realised she needed time to sort out in her head how this would work out in practice.

‘Right Chris. Let’s get this straight. We were friends but I need to concentrate on getting myself back into desk work for a bit. You’re some sort of Ian Fleming figure to the nerds round here and that isn’t going to help me keep a low profile. So keep your mouth shut and let’s have a nice quiet twenty minutes before we leave. All right?’

The faces of those closest to the pair flickered with increased interest as they tuned in to Chloe’s voice. Chris looked round. Could he control himself for another twenty minutes? He didn’t think so.

‘Why wait? We could go now.’

‘Chris, we aren’t going anywhere together. For form’s sake, stay away from me and we leave separately. Okay?

‘Come on Chlo. All those days together? All those nights? I don’t think I can play it cool now I’ve found you again.’

‘We’re not talking about this here Chris.’ Chloe shook her head. She turned to go, but Chris reached out to take her elbow.

‘Come on Chloe, just because we were in…’

He realised what a confused state of mind she was in, how much it must mean to her too, as she swung round in panic. The people in the room were staring now, the ones closest straining their ears to catch the revelation of where Chris and Chloe had spent ‘all those nights’. There was no way he wanted to hurt her or her career, but he suddenly knew he wanted her very much. Wanted to be with someone who actually knew what living that long on the edge was like.

As she pivoted to face him again, she stumbled and threw out a hand to steady herself on his firm shoulder, but he had taken a step to catch her, and her hand caught him a glancing blow in the throat instead. He coughed and choked with shock as much as anything, and staggered. Chloe dropped her glass and threw out her hand to steady him but caught him instead full in the face with her open hand. He sat down on the deep pile of the Axminster carpet blood pouring from his nose.

‘Oh Chris! I’m so sorry.’

The bloodied figure on the floor nodded as the crowd began to gather and ask if they were all right.

It must be love he thought. With that thought he could understand why she made her excuses and left with the East German desk guy. Good cover. He’d see her tomorrow and pick up where they had left off.

SECRETS: GUESTS

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

 

‘Chloe! How are you?’

Several people looked up as Chris drawled the words out for longer than their syllables required. Most of them had heard him do that when he wanted to make an impression, particularly with women. It usually meant that he wanted, or at least believed he ought to be seen to want, to have sex with them.

Whether it worked or not was open to question. He certainly managed liaisons with some women, but whether that was because of what he imagined was his irresistible, come to bed voice, was anyone’s guess. He presumably believed it worked as he refused to cease using it. Exchange of views by those who had been on the receiving end, suggested that it was not necessarily an asset. The judgements passed in the ladies’ rooms, bars and gymnasiums of the locality concluded however, that the lounge lizard sound only added a minor degree of repulsivity to his already odious character. That he was at all successful in his seductions was probably, so the consensus went, down to his supposedly mysterious past and inability to hear the word “no”’.

How much Chloe knew of this was unknown to those present at that initial exchange of the evening. They knew she was a new section head. That she seemed energetic and engaging, keen to get to know her staff and understand the nuances of the role she had taken on, was clear. Everything else was murky. She had appeared in the job virtually unannounced. No-one had seen her turn up for interview. No-one was sure where she had been until the day she arrived. Warwick, the Royal Marine from the East German desk seemed to know her from somewhere and they appeared quite thick. But when asked where she had been recently, he shrugged and said they had lost touch. No he didn’t know what she had done in between. In another division at least. Maybe she had been on secondment somewhere?

There had been a quiet word with key personnel, suggesting staff did not ask her directly, as it would be awkward for all concerned. Senior management knew people would understand.

They did. Of course they did given the nature of the work. And given the nature of the work everybody tried that bit harder to find out where she had come from. Just not directly.

One had to admire their discretion until you realised they didn’t want to be reported and dragged in for an interview without coffee, or worse, a security appraisal.

So Chloe found herself the centre of a social whirl of invitations to dinner parties, squash evenings, drinks parties, hashing events, birthday parties, lunches, wild parties, quiz nights, boring parties, skittles evenings and more parties. She even gave some herself. Tonight was not one of hers however, and it was certainly not being given with the aim of revealing her immediate past.

Alan had decided it was time to entertain and bond his senior team a little closer. The invitation had been to anyone and everyone in the branch of course. As the venue was his house, it was understood that not all were required or even expected to attend. Section heads and above obviously cleared their diaries, and aspiring or precarious sub section heads put on a brave face and donned the smartest casuals they had. Below that level one had to be very confident of a glowing future or too dim to realise there were limits to aspiration in order to turn up. At that level one had to be content with a certain amount of low level servitude as well; serving drinks, distributing snacks, making small talk with wives, partners and seconded low ranking allies, all on an entirely voluntary basis of course.

So when Chris stood half way down the sweeping central staircase and greeted Chloe with his well developed drawl, there was a fair sized audience of mixed ranks, genders and nationalities, waiting for the response. They were intrigued as to how they knew each other. Chris had been with the office on secondment for about a year. While he had not fitted in with accepted gender equality expectations in the modern nineteen eighties government service, he had proved himself to have as sharp an analytic brain as any there. His home department would no doubt be looking forward to his return at the end of his tour. The prospect that Chloe and Chris may know each other from the latter’s exploits with his own agency was too delicious for the assembly. He was another apparent cipher without a past.

‘Hello Chris, how are you?’ Chloe’s reply came in about a quarter of the time of Chris’ greeting.

‘Darling! All the better for seeing you.’ He boomed ‘Where have you been hiding yourself dear heart?’ and with that descended to the room below.

‘I’m in Alan’s branch obviously,’ she waved her glass in a gesture encompassing the room and the members of the branch assembled.  She linked his arm and steered him into a corner of the room. The murmuring began again as the main focus shifted.

‘And what the hell are you doing here?’ she hissed.

‘Liaison old thing. Not sure I’m supposed to be at this gathering really. And why are you here?’

‘I’m a section head here now.’ She said.

Isn’t this a bit tame for you? I mean last time…’

‘I think we can leave the circumstances of our last meeting in the past where they belong, don’t you?’

‘But it was so much more fun than what happens here.’

‘Fun? You remember things differently from me.’

He leaned closer and ran a finger down Chloe’s glass.

‘Well I remember some bits being a lot of fun.’

People were edging closer, pretending to be looking elsewhere while straining to hear what was being said. Chloe ignored them.

‘Chris, I don’t want to talk about that now. No-one here knows about that and they don’t need to know. You know; security? You remember that?’

‘Why don’t we go somewhere a little quieter then? Alan’s kids have a playroom that’s off limits to these bods.’ His smile widened. ‘You know me Chloe, always up for a bit of play.’

‘Stop playing silly buggers Chris. I didn’t realise you were anywhere near here or I’d have got Alan to sort this out earlier.’

‘I’m here as general liaison capacity within the Division but I spend a lot of time in Alan’s branch and I’m hoping to spend a lot more time in parts of Alan’s branch now.’ Chloe took a half pace back.

‘Right Chris. Let’s get this straight. We weren’t friends like that. Shit, we weren’t friends. You were and are a complete arse, and while the desk pilots here may think you are some sort of Ian Fleming type, I know you’re more Captain Pugwash. So keep your mouth shut and let’s all have a nice quiet twenty minutes before you piss off. All right?’

The faces of those closest to the pair flickered and they exchanged glances as Chloe’s voice rose in volume.

‘Why wait Babe? We could go now. Your place or mine? Probably best yours, I’m in a hotel at the mo.’

‘Chris, get it in your thick head, we are not going anywhere. Certainly not together. If you must stay for form’s sake, stay away from me. Okay?

‘Come on Chlo. You mean all that time together meant nothing? All those days? All those nights?

‘We’re not talking about this here Chris.’ Chloe shook her head. ‘We’re not talking about it anytime.’ She turned to go, but Chris reached out to take her elbow.

‘Come on Chloe, that excitement wasn’t just because we were in…’

The people in the room were staring, the ones closest straining their ears to catch the revelation of where Chris had spent ‘all those nights’ with the new section head, where Chloe had disappeared to off the radar.

No-one was any longer in doubt that Chloe was aware of Chris’ approach to women. What happened next scotched the idea that her last posting had, as some unkind souls had suggested, been with freight and mails.

Chloe pivoted on her heel as Chris grasped her elbow and with the side of her free hand delicately chopped him across his throat, silencing him before he could reveal the location of their tryst. As his hand loosened on her arm she dropped the glass she was holding and smashed the heel of that hand into his nose. He sat down with a satisfying thump into the thick Axminster, sputtering the blood pouring out of what was left of his nostrils over his shirt front, gasping for breath.

‘I told you to shut up Chris. Speak about where I was again and it won’t be an informal reprimand.’ She stared down at him. ‘Understand?’

The bloodied figure on the floor nodded.

Warwick stepped forward and quietly asked Chloe if she was okay.

‘Yes, thanks.’

‘Well you aren’t going to have any insubordination problems from now on. On the other hand your social diary suddenly developed a lot of space.’ He smiled, ‘Shall we leave them to it?’

She nodded.

‘I’ll just make my apologies to Alan, and then we can go.’

SECRETS: A TRIPTYCH

I wrote a short story last week with the intention of submitting it for publication in an online magazine. It was just over the word limit however, and as I edited it down I was struck by the realisation that there was a lot unsaid in it. It wasn’t that it needed to be longer per se, I had told the story but only from the point of view of one set of viewers of the action. I wanted to know what was going through the minds of the protagonists as well. This was too many points of view in around 1500 words. So I wondered what a whole series of views would look like.  Well three anyway. The main protagonist, the woman, her interlocutor, the man and the observers in the party.

The result is three short stories, each around 1500 words.

This isn’t going to work for a short story slot below 2,000 words of course but I like the result so I’m putting it/them on here. Just got to decide on the order in which to post them.

I’m going to sleep on it and then it will be one a day – maybe consecutive days, maybe every other day.

I know this concept is not original, the film Rashomon told the story of a murder based upon multiple versions by participants and witnesses and was itself based on a short story inspired by Ambrose Bierce’s Gothic tale of murder by three different tellers, including the deceased via a medium.

No-one dies in my story but I like the different viewpoints of the same event. All participants see exactly the same event but like most witnesses to sudden events recall them differently in detail. Their own perspectives and backgrounds alter their perceptions and truths.

 

Which one first?

THE END

Part 4 (posted 10 March 2020) was the last episode of ‘SET THE WORLD ON FIRE’.

I should have said so perhaps, but I thought it was obvious. Having tried it on a group of people this morning, I guess it wasn’t!

They all seemed to enjoy the story and liked the last episode, but there seemed to be a desire from a fair section of them to know more about the background and also to know: what happens next?

SPOILER ALERT – if you want to read it without hints and giveaways to the plot go to SET THE WORLD ON FIRE in WRITING on the menu bar before reading on (don’t worry it won’t spoil it too much if you just read on for now I think).

 

I have a very clear idea of how the protagonists got to the beginning of the story, including the placement of the kudurru in its hiding place before they moved house, but I didn’t see that as part of the story. I wanted the writing to be quite tight and felt that long sections explaining how they got where they are would simply have slowed the start down and removed he tension from later sections.

Some people felt frustrated by the man in the story being what they saw as too passive. They wanted him to say: `now hang on love, stop right there!’ at several points along the journey. I had hoped that it was clear from the story that she was the one in control of the relationship and that anything of that nature would have resulted in the car pulling over and him being firmly told he could get out right now if he didn’t like it. My feeling was that any friction of that type in the relationship would have been resolved a long time ago. He is in awe of her, physically and emotionally and completely besotted.

What happens next? The big question was how does this resolve itself?

This is probably the one bit of the story I don’t know – because it isn’t part of the story.

I wanted to take this couple, apparently successful and happy in a quiet moment in their life – she has recently come to the end of a big turning point in her career, they are in a committed loving relationship, they have a new house which they are looking to fill with their belongings they have had to put in storage for a while, and throw it all up in the air. The destruction of the storage facility prompts a reaction completely beyond what the man expects. This leads to a sudden expedition which changes his perception of where he thought he was in his life, his understanding of his relationship with the woman of his dreams and his perception of her as a person.

Where it goes from there depends on many things which would turn this into a much longer piece and perhaps is as dependent on the reader as the writer.

I have several possible scenarios in my head about where it might go depending on what sort of a story it wants to develop into. It could be a genre horror story, a psychological horror, a crime fiction, a love story etc.

However, if I did follow any or all those threads with the plot twists that immediately spring to mind (who did start the fire?) it wouldn’t be a short story anymore and I wouldn’t start it where I did, pace it how I did or lead to such an early denouement of sorts.

So the short answer is – it’s over. If anyone would like to run with it and think of an ending, a different start and flesh out the various plot strand, feel free (and I only want 25% of the royalties too!).