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

SHOOT OUT AT THE RED HORSE BOWLING CLUB (5)

‘And now in best Miss World tradition,’ Carol’s fingers curled into fists. ‘We will announce the winners in reverse order.’

The background noise dropped away.

‘In third place, with a sound knowledge of tropical birds and the albums of Anthrax and Slayer but a poor showing on organic chemistry, we have our very own Jack of All Trades.’ There were whistles and jeers and I felt the eyes of various tables boring in at us. The captain went up to receive the third place trophy and mementoes.

‘And now, in what was a very tight finish between two excellent teams, we come to the runners up.’

He paused. I felt the sweat trickle down my spine.

‘Second place goes to a team with a broad spectrum of knowledge save musical theatre… Red Horse Crown Princes!’

Ronald walked up with a face like thunder and took the prizes offered.

We looked at each other. That must mean…

‘And in first place we have a team confirming their elite league status, our knowledgeable guests from… The Rugby Club.’

I’ve heard deeper silences because I’ve attended military remembrance services. Those silences are solemn, contemplative and respectful. The silence in the Red Horse Bowling Club had another quality.

The MC still had his hands raised in acclaim and a fixed smile. He realised he’d missed the mood.

Everyone stared at our table and everyone on our table stared at me.

You know you have to say something, just to make sure the Marshal and the Judge can see you didn’t draw first, but I knew where this was going to end.

My chair clunked against the table as I rose to my feet.

‘Thank you, thank you everyone.’ That confused them and bought me a moment before the silence burst. ‘We’ve had a lovely time this evening and we’d like to thank everyone involved in organising this quiz, but as we said, we came for that enjoyment and to support the charitable work of the Club. So rather than have any misunderstanding, we said earlier we weren’t in the competition so we congratulate Red Horse Crown Princes on their well deserved victory.’

I sat down, Ronald, Ivor and their supporters glared. The MC had a hurried conversation with Jeff and the quizmaster before announcing.

‘That’s very gracious, but we have been able to see from up here that the young lady has not been involved in any answers and you have won fair and square. The Red Horse respects the spirit of quizzing and we would be honoured if you would collect your prizes.’

He smiled and his hand ushered me forward to the top table.

There was nowhere to go. I looked at the team and Carol.

They raised eyebrows and shrugged.

I rose and walked to the front.

There were a few boos now.

‘I’m not having any of that.’ The MC snapped into the mike.

I received the large, repurposed bowls championship trophy, four bowling bags with the sponsor’s logo, four jacks and four bowling mats. I immediately donated the latter two items to the club as none of us bowled and it seemed like a conciliatory gesture. There was some clapping, but the muttering outgrew it.

I thanked everyone again and walked back to our table.

The MC began a roundup of the evening but before he got beyond ‘And now ladies and gentlemen a reminder that…’ Ivor and someone who I presumed was closely related, judging by his looks and hat, but who had been better nourished as a child marched over to us. Ivor spoke.

‘That trophy should be ours. Coming here with five players. What’s the game?’

‘You tell ’em Ivor!’

‘Cheats.’

I stood up.

‘Now look. We don’t want any trouble. We came for a fun night out and we’re going now.’

‘Are you now? Nick our trophy and then sod off ?’

‘Nobody “nicked” anything.’

‘Now gentlemen, let’s not have any unpleasantness. We don’t want to ruin a lovely evening do we?’ the MC’s voice called out over the PA system.

‘We haven’t had a lovely evening thanks to them!’ Ronald shouted, joining in the growing numbers behind Ivor and his large friend.

‘Could save it though.’ Ivor’s clone said. ‘What position do you play love?’ he asked with a leer. ‘Hoo…’

Carol was on her feet before he could finish the word.

‘I wouldn’t, even if you were paying.’ She said.

He sniggered and Ivor took a step forward.

She went for her pocket.

I was hoping she wasn’t going to do what I thought she was going to do, but she did.

Next second an open wallet was in Ivor’s startled face. ‘Hold it right there! She said.

Now in many circumstances the appearance of a Manchester Police warrant card would have given most people at least pause for thought before continuing in their nefarious activities.

In the Red Horse however it wasn’t pouring oil on troubled waters but petrol on a smouldering fire.

Ivor’s large companion leaned forward.

‘That’s Manchester police. You don’t have any jurisdiction here.’ He said and made a grab for her.

I hit him as sweetly on the chin as anyone I had ever punched on a pitch and he went down in a most satisfying heap. There was a gasp around the room.

Ivor spluttered.

‘About time someone did that.’ Someone on a nearby table said.

Ivor spun around.

‘Was that you Ernie Outhwaite?’

‘Aye! What of it? I’m sick of you and your idiot brother with your stupid hats.’

Ivor, already apoplectic at the quiz result lunged for Mr Outhwaite. Someone grabbed his arm before he could grasp his tormentor, but Ronald rabbit punched the man who had intervened.

The rugby club was already half way to the door. It opened and the doorman entered. The room had already passed beyond being aware of his presence. He looked at the three committee men at the front of the room and the MC nodded at him. He waded into the room. Tables, chairs, drinks, and quizzing paraphernalia were already flying about the place and now people joined the debris as he progressed towards the centre of the fracas. He grabbed Ivor and Mr Outhwaite and held them apart, one in each ham like hand. The rest of the room calmed down.

The MC looked at us and pressed the button on the mike.

‘And a last round of applause for our guests this evening, The Rugby Club!’ There was an enthusiastic burst of clapping from at least half the room from which I gathered my opinion of Ivor’s dress sense was widely shared.

We risked a wave and opened the door.

‘Same time next year lads?’

The End

SHOOT OUT AT THE RED HORSE BOWLING CLUB (4)

The room went quiet. I couldn’t really see the problem. She’d let them all have a go and waited until the last call to throw her hat in the ring. But I crossed my fingers she was going to be wrong.

‘Well, if it isn’t our guest.’ The halibut smile touched the MC’s mouth again and he looked at Carol with interest. ‘Do you have a name you’d like to try?’

‘I do. My grandfather would never forgive me if I didn’t know this.’

The MC’s brow furrowed.

‘Why?’

‘Because his dad was Bernard Kelly’ Carol paused for effect, ‘winner of the Waterloo in 1953 and 1954.’

‘Bloody hell.’

Some saw the funny side, some, realising they had the descendant of Crown Green royalty in the room, applauded and cheered. Ivor and Ronald began a speculative barrage of “Ringer”, “Cheats”, taken up by others who felt their sacred knowledge of the Crown Green game was being stolen by this female Prometheus.

Jeff and the MC tried to calm things down before anything more than insults were thrown. There was as much invective flowing now between various tables as there was towards us.

I was judging the best route to the door when Jeff disappeared and returned with the huge man who had been taking the money at the door. He loomed over the MC and looked round the room. Even the Homburg wearing Ivor was quiet.

‘Is there a problem?’

The silence was absolute. The MC resumed with a smile, a genuine one this time as far as one could tell.

 ‘Thank you ladies and gentleman. I can confirm that “Bernard Kelly” is the correct answer, and I’d like to extend a warm Red Horse welcome to such a lovely representative of a legendary family.’ There was a ripple of clapping. Ronald opened his mouth a couple of times, but his sense of injustice withered in the looming presence behind the MC.

Carol sashayed up to the front and collected her coasters and the MC’s handshake was long and genuine. Mr Kelly’s fame trumped everything in his eyes. Carol didn’t showboat this time and there was spontaneous applause. The doorman’s eyes swept the room one last time as Carol returned to our table, and satisfied he was no longer required, went back to mind the entrance.

‘Well, we are honoured to have the great granddaughter of one of the greats of Crown Green bowling in our midst.’ The MC announced. He took a breath to recover from his brush, however remote, with fame before continuing. ‘Now, on to the last two rounds and I’d like to remind you all that the last round is a double pointer. The questions are harder but the reward so much greater.’

The Rugby Club looked at each other. This wasn’t quizzing according to Hoyle, but it was the Red Horse’s quiz. League rules didn’t apply if they didn’t want them to. The Red Horse was always a maverick outfit. There wasn’t any judge to run to on this side of town. We’d known that when we crossed the river.

First there was a music round and that might have soothed the savage breast, but the combination of thrash metal, swing and gospel rock was not conducive to that end. The temperature rose. We were not clued up on the works of Metallica, Tommy Dorsey or Cliff Richard but surprisingly, some of the Red Horse teams were. The gap narrowed. We weren’t playing for the prize. We were playing for honour and I had a sneaking suspicion we might have forfeited that in most people’s eyes some time ago. I knew Carol wasn’t answering any of our questions but I wondered how I’d have felt if Ronald or Ivor’s teams had pulled the same stroke. Not that there was a stroke being pulled, but I suddenly saw how it might look. Losing might be the honourable thing to do.

‘Drink?’

I pulled myself back to the present.

‘Er, no thanks. Keep a clear head and stuff.’ I said.

‘Good thinking.’ Said Steve. ‘Double points next round, we don’t want to let them in at the death.’

‘I wish you hadn’t said “death”‘ Paul said, looking over his shoulder.

‘Nothing to worry about now.’ Steve replied.

‘Not with our get of gaol card.’ John nodded at Carol.

‘They wouldn’t touch the granddaughter of Brian Kelly.’

‘Bernard, and he was my great granddad.’ Carol corrected.

‘I’m not sure how far that amnesty extends.’ I said.

‘Right, ladies and gentlemen, with the scores poised in a very interesting position, we move into the final round, and with double points up for grabs, things can change very quickly.’ He swept the room with his grin. ‘Are we all ready?’

‘Get on with it!’

‘Then I’ll begin.’

The questions were harder, but as well as being an average inside centre at the weekend, John was a pretty mean industrial chemist by day. We knocked over the questions on the Haber process, carbon ring geometry and blast furnace components without breaking stride. Naming German goal scorers in the 1966 World Cup Final proved more of a challenge. Helmut Haller was no problem but we had to go via the German author of “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” to dig up Wolfgang Weber’s name. The rest were somewhere in between but we were confident we had knocked all of the questions over the boundary. Then I remembered perhaps we should be trying to lose. I was still dithering about whether to change some answers as the sheet was collected.

To keep people busy while the serious business of marking and adding went on at the top tables, there was a ‘just for fun’ picture round, but beyond a few ‘Who the **** is that’ mutterings over lesser known movie stars and Bishop Abel Muzorewa, it excited little interest. The frantic calculations by the teams believing themselves to be still in contention were interrupted in fairly short order by the MC.

‘Ladies and gentlemen.’ He called us to order.

He wasn’t going to surrender his power easily and he strung proceeding out as best he could. He thanked the waitresses, the bar staff, the organisers, question setters, markers and “of course all of you wonderful teams” for making the evening possible and the raising of so much money for charitable causes, although they remained unnamed. There was a grumbling in the throng.

He was a committee man, and he stuck to his guns, making amusing, to someone at least, comments about various well known characters from the club and their performance on the green and in the quiz. Eventually he got to the meat of the event.

SHOOT OUT AT THE RED HORSE BOWLING CLUB (3)

We pored over the pictures and the lads mumbled a few complaints about not getting the trophy and I suggested they could stand up and reverse the decision if they liked. The swell of noise around us was still divided between ‘bastards’, ‘cheats’, ‘pompous twat’, we could beat ‘em anyway’ and ‘leave ‘em alone’, ‘that was nice’ and  ‘doesn’t he speak posh?’ I wasn’t sure if the latter comment were a positive or a negative. It was the Red Horse, but I’d give them the benefit of the doubt.

We handed our picture sheet in and talked amongst ourselves.

‘Does this mean we can play properly now?’  Paul asked.

‘What do you mean; “properly”? Have you been holding back?’

‘Little bit.’ Paul said.

I looked at John and Steve. They nodded.

‘Bloody hell.’ was all I could manage.

‘I thought you were supposed to be rugby players?’ Carol said.

We looked at each other, at the assembled multitude in the Red Horse club room and then back at her. Steve opened his mouth. Before he could make a sound Carol spoke again.

‘And if you say “It’s the Red Horse” I’m going to tell them you’re all gay.’

It was the 1980s and thank goodness no longer illegal to like your own gender, but the Red Horse clientele would move out of the 1880s in their own good time.

‘Okay then.’ Steve said, ‘But I hope you can run as fast as you can talk.’

The MC switched his mike on again, repeating the electronic howling of earlier and brought proceedings to order.

‘While the lovely ladies…’ Carol’s eyes got even flintier than they had been when issuing her threat to us, ‘…are moving amongst you for orders before the second half, we’ll have the first of our spot prizes. These are questions for individuals to answer so anyone in the room except for staff can answer, so that includes our delightful guests,’ he inclined his head towards Carol. ‘I shall ask the question and anyone who knows the answer put their hand up. Jeff will select the person who put their hand up first and if correct they will win the spot prize. If the answer is wrong Jeff will indicate the second person and so on until we get the correct answer.’

‘Point of order.’

‘Yes Ronald?’

‘Aren’t spot competitions restricted to paying members of teams in the main competition?’

‘We’ve checked during the interval Ronald and it doesn’t say so in the rules.’

‘I would have thought…’

‘Three committee members have decided it’s open to anyone except staff.’

‘Well I think…’

‘It’s a committee decision Ronald. Bring it up at a committee meeting if you want.’ He turned to the paper in his hand. ‘Now then, this prize is a lovely tankard engraved with the Red Horse motif and our motto “Crown of Strength”. Now if you are all ready the question is: Who wrote the tune for the song “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” in the film and show “Cabaret”?’

There was a lot of blank stares and then a couple of hands shot up. Jeff selected one.

‘Christopher Isherwood?’

‘Incorrect. Jeff, next one please.’

‘Adolf Hitler.’

‘No.’

‘Stephen Sondheim.’

‘An imaginative try Ronald.’

‘Frank?’ Jeff said, selecting the last remaining hand.

‘Bob Fosse.’

‘Sorry Frank a creditable effort but he was the Director.’

Jeff and the MC exchanged glances.

‘Anyone else?

The Rugby Club was out. Songbooks of musical theatre were not our forte. And then I saw Carol’s face. She was smirking, and her hand climbed into the air. Jeff saw it but did a very convincing act of looking to the far wall as if seeing another hand raised, somewhere, anywhere.

All eyes except Jeff’s were on Carol. Eventually even Jeff couldn’t pretend he hadn’t seen the rock solid hand in front of his face. ‘Er, the young lady here’ he said pointing somewhat redundantly to the lone hand aloft in the room.

‘John Kander and Fred Ebb wrote the song.’ She informed him, ‘But it was Ebb who wrote the music.’

The MC’s eyebrows lifted and he pasted a broad smile on his face.

‘Why, that is spot on young lady! Many people think it was an original Nazi song from the Third Reich but it was specially written for the stage show. Well done. Would you like to come and collect your tankard?’

Carol stepped up. The room had that heavy silent feel to it, like the atmosphere before a thunderstorm. She shook hands with Jeff and the MC, picked up the tankard, held it aloft and beamed at the room. A rumble went around the place. A storm was coming.

We admired the tankard and prepared for the first round proper of the second half.

The talk at half time and Carol’s individual win broke any reserve we might have had about playing to win. We got full marks on the first two rounds and dropped one in the third on the value of Pi to six decimal places because we couldn’t decide whether the last digit should be two or if, as were truncating it and the next value was six it should be three. We went the wrong way.

The half time altercations must have inspired some of the opposition as well because we had not broken away from the pack completely. Two other teams, Jack of All Trades and Red Horse Crown Princes were keeping pace with us and muttering still about numbers.

There was another spot prize. I was hoping the question for the “beautiful set of Red Horse Coasters” would be more in keeping with the assembled Red Horse knowledge base and would restore some bonhomie. The MC’s smile was even wider than normal as he opened the envelope with the question in it.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, one for the aficionados I think. Ready?’ There was a chorus of ‘get on with it’ and he began.

‘Only three men have won the Waterloo more than once, who was the first to achieve that notable accolade?’

We were safe. The Waterloo was a crown green bowling competition held in Blackpool at the Waterloo Hotel each year, and that was as far as my knowledge went. I was pretty sure that made me the top wrangler on bowling in our team. Carol’s face was a mask and I couldn’t tell what, if anything she might know about double victors of the supreme championship in Crown Green Bowls. Then I remembered her grandfather; a keen bowler and member of a club that regularly sent players up to Blackpool. There was not a flicker on her face, no movement of her limbs.

There were other hands up all over the room already though. We’d be safe this time. Someone would get this right.

‘Brian Duncan’.

‘Sorry Frank. He has won it twice but he wasn’t the first.’

‘He’ll win it again this year an’ all.’

‘That’s as maybe, but he wasn’t the first. Yes, Ronald.’

‘Dennis Mercer.’

‘No. Perhaps he should have, perhaps he will, but he hasn’t yet.’

Another flurry of answers scattered names of past winners into the room, but none was the name of the elusive first double winner. The MC still had a smile on his face, but it had outstayed its welcome, like a week old halibut on a fishmonger’s slab.

‘Come on ladies and gentlemen, time’s ticking. I’m amazed no-one knows this great man. Winning the Waterloo twice should make him a legend.’

‘Well he weren’t from round here.’

Laughter ran round the room, mingled with mutterings about the difficulty of the questions.

‘Get on with it man.’

‘Thank you ladies and gentlemen for your comments.’ The smile vanished. I had a feeling that might have been his pet question. ‘We’ll reserve the coasters for another time then, unless there are any other answers…’ he waved a couple of hands away, ‘…from people who haven’t yet had a go.’

Carol face broke into a smile, ‘Well I need something to go under the tankard don’t I?’ she said, and raised her hand.

SHOOT OUT AT THE RED HORSE BOWLING CLUB (2)

Episode 2 of Shoot Out

I should have mentioned this was going to be in serial form. Sorry! It will appear in 5 sections

At a table behind us, a man rose. He was a tall hombre, 6’ 3” if he was an inch. His hat added another six inches. It was a homburg. Dude had to be mean to wear a homburg this side of town.

‘Excuse me Mr MC. I just want to clarify the position of this team…’ he pointed at us, ‘…they appear to have an extra player.’

The MC looked across at us. He turned to the cadaverous character from the door, Jeff, who had followed us in. There was an exchange of words before he turned back and uncovered the mike.

‘It’s okay Ivor, the Rugby Club…,’ A murmur rippled through the crowd, ‘…have brought a spectator. There isn’t room for her elsewhere but she won’t be answering questions.’

Ivor looked at the MC, then at us, then back at the MC. He nodded and sat down.

‘Bloody hell.’ murmured Paul. ‘You were right, this doesn’t feel good.’

The MC resumed his spiel.

There were ten rounds and a picture round and a music round on top of that. There would be an intermission at half way. At the end of each round drinks orders for the bar would be taken by the waitresses passing amongst us.

He wished us all good luck and handed the mike over to the quizmaster.

Round one was an ice breaker. Politics. They did things differently at the Red Horse. He started the questions.

‘Who the hell came after MacDonald?’ Paul said.

‘Which time?’ Steve asked.

‘What do you mean?’ said John.

‘He had two terms as PM.’ Steve replied before I could say anything.

‘Oh.’

‘Doesn’t matter.’ I said. ‘It was Baldwin both times. It’s a trick question. MacDonald was PM in 1924 and 1929 to 1935 and both times Baldwin was PM before and after him.’ I nodded to Steve. ‘Write it down. Classic quiz trick. They’re trying to spoof us.’

Carol raised an eyebrow as we stumbled over Bohemian Queens in the European History section, cudgelled our brains about nematode worms in biology and struggled with whether the formula for the square root of -1 was E to the IxPi or not. The answer papers were collected and taken to the markers after each round. While the quizmaster asked the next round of questions the markers ticked and crossed and discussed the papers in front of them. While the next round of papers was being collected at the end of the round, Jeff scribbled the scores of the top five teams in the preceding round up on a whiteboard near the bar.

We weren’t making any friends. At the end of round two the results of round one were displayed on the whiteboard. We were equal first. A wave of murmuring swept the room. After round three the murmurs became an angry buzzing. We had gone out to a clear lead. After round four, the buzzing was accompanied by people standing and peering at the edges of the room. There were smoke signals in the hills. There was finger waving and pencil jabbing.

The picture round arrived. Last round before the half time break. The sheet of photographs landed on our table and a small, precise, bank teller of a man, rose to his feet and peered at the officials, trying to catch their eye over the seated crowd.

‘Excuse me Mr Question master. Excuse me. As we are going into the break, I’d like to raise a point of order. I can’t see how it can be fair to have one team, and one team only’ he looked at us, ‘of five, competing in what is after all a serious prize competition for four man teams.’

‘Person.’ Carol said loudly.

‘See!’ chimed in the homburg, ‘she is talking.’

‘Ivor, I think she was questioning Ronald’s lack of feminist credentials.’ the MC said, leaning in to take the microphone. If he was trying to lighten the mood, he failed; there was no answering chuckle from the assembly.

‘As agreed, by three committee members, we have extended our hospitality to accommodate the Rugby Club…’ there were boos from a couple of tables…’now now. As I said, our HOSPITALITY, so that they may look after one of their young lady followers.’ Carol glared.

‘They can do that in the car park after…’ came from somewhere near table 20 at the back. Carol began to stand. I put a hand on her arm and shook my head. The others looked at me. I rose.

I looked at the MC. The MC looked right back at me. We nodded.

I made quietening motions with my arms. I swept the room and the faces watching us and my eyes settled on the score board. We could still lose this if we worked at it but I felt a long line of Rugby Club quizzers of old at my shoulder. You can’t put fake answers down and walk in the club next Saturday. They didn’t do that. You can’t do that. You have to do it right. If you know The Picture of Dorian Gray was Wilde’s novel about a picture growing old in the attic you have to say so, even if Mac thought it was a play. Whatever happens. You have to do it right. Even if it means not walking in the club next Saturday.

My eyes went round the room one more time and landed on the homburg.

 ‘We came to play a charity quiz. We want to win but we aren’t going to cheat.’ I said staring at him ‘We’re very happy to be here in the spirit this evening was intended for.’ I just prayed none of the lads would smirk at this point. ‘So we’re going to play. As a foursome.’ The homburg started to open his mouth. I carried on. ‘But we won’t be playing for the prizes or the trophy. All we want is the fun of the competition and to help the Red Horse Bowling Club continue its proud tradition of fund raising for charity.’

I smiled at the MC and sat down. There was a silence and then someone clapped. The room took it up. We weren’t going to be lynched. Probably. Not yet.

SHOOT OUT AT THE RED HORSE BOWLING CLUB (1)

It was a mean place on the wrong side of town. It had been a pub bowling club, but the town shut the Red Horse Pub. So the bowlers moved out. They settled on a plot next to the cemetery. House prices couldn’t fall and the locals couldn’t protest about the new neighbours.

The challenge came in the fall of the year.

We weren’t bowlers, rink or Crown Green, we were rugby players. We read the note twice. They didn’t want us for our high quality rucking or spin passes. They wanted to take us down. We were Quiz League, Division A, winners. They thought leagues were for sissies. They wanted a mass face off. All teams, four players each, one night, winner take all.

Steve, John, Paul and I looked at each other. It wasn’t the way we played, but we wouldn’t back down. We were men in the man’s world of quiz leagues. We had to look ourselves in the mirror each morning. We couldn’t do that if we ran, just because it was the Red Horse gang.

The Monday before the showdown I knew I had to tell my fiancée. It was only right. I rang her.

‘On Thursday?’

‘I have to Carol. There are some things a man can’t back down from, and who’s going to answer the literature questions if I’m not there? Steve!? Hah!’

‘But that’s the only night I can see you this week.’

‘I know darling, but I have to do this.’

‘Well, couldn’t I come along?’

‘To the Red Horse!’

‘It’s only the bowling club, the pub shut years ago.’

‘But it’s four man teams and…’

‘Man?’

‘Well I suppose ‘person’, but we’ve got four, and a reserve…’

‘Not Mac?’

‘Well, he’s keen and …’

‘He can’t find his way to the bar on his own.’

‘That’s because he’s mean, not because he’s stupid.’ I thought about this for a second, ‘But admittedly he’s not first choice.’

‘Couldn’t I just tag along for a drink and be with you afterwards?’

***

‘It’s no place for a woman. It’s the Red horse.’ Steve said when I asked about Carol coming.

‘I know but…’

‘Quiz night’s like lad’s night isn’t it? Paul offered.

‘I know, but I just thought it would be easier for me to play in the league games if I let her come this once.’

‘You’re going to be buggering off again though aren’t you? You won’t have to play them twice a season, home and…’ John swallowed hard, ‘at their place, next season and every season after that.’

I decided I was going to make a stand. ‘Well, it’s me with Carol, or Mac on his own.’

‘Shit.’

                                            ***

We parked on the road. A long way back down the road. The walls of the Red Horse Bowling Club glowered in the evening light. There are some things a man has to do. Doesn’t mean he wants to do them. The slam of the car door broke my reverie.

‘Are we going in or what?’ Carol asked.

With each step my keys beat the jingling, jangling rhythm of our march to destiny. I pulled the invitation from my pocket and re-read the invitation one last time. ‘Entry £6 per team. Quality prizes. Four players only per team. Proceeds in the aid of charity.’ Red Horse events were always in the aid of charity. Nobody ever asked which one.

We waited.

‘Should we maybe go in?’

I shook my head. ‘We said we’d meet outside.’

‘Why?’

‘Safety in numbers.’

‘You what?’

‘There are stories.’

‘It’s a bowling club.’

I looked her in the eye and then let my gaze swing to the green and gold sign hanging on the side of the building. “Red Horse Bowling Club. Greenall Whitley.”

‘It’s the Red Horse Bowling Club.’ I told her.

Five minutes later the others arrived.

‘Registered yet?’ Steve asked me, then added ‘Evening love’ to Carol. At least I thought it was that way round.

I shook my head.  ‘We said we’d wait for all of us. Safety in numbers.’

‘Don’t be daft.’ Paul said, stopping at the double doors. ‘After you.’

A large, surly man who clearly knew his finger from his thumb peg and could spot the borrow on a green at fifty paces sat in the lobby. He was behind a desk. Like him it had seen better days. This could get ugly fast.

‘You’re…?’

‘Rugby club.’

He looked up. ‘Oh aye. We’ve been expecting you.’

‘I should hope, so we registered a fortnight ago.’

He looked more closely at us.

‘Who are your named players? There should only be four of you.’ I explained about Carol.

‘She can’t compete or confer.’

‘I’ll sit at the bar.’ she offered.

‘Can’t. No room. We’ve waitress service taking drink orders and bringing them to tables. And the quizmaster will be up there as well with his adjudicators. Quizzing isn’t a spectator sport’ He turned to a tall lanky man behind him. ‘What do you think Jeff?’

‘Aye. It’ll be all right I suppose.’ He fixed her with a steel rimmed spectacled eye and flashed an erratically toothed grin at her. ‘It’s a man’s game, quizzing. She won’t be any help anyway.’

I steered Carol away as quickly as I could. There were times for what she wanted to do to him, and it wasn’t that time. Yet.  We walked across the lobby and pushed open the swing doors.

The roar of over a hundred people met us like a wall. The small clubhouse main room was packed solid, people shouting greetings, jokes, challenges and threats as they settled down in their teams to do battle on mixed trivia and themed novelty question rounds, while staff prepared to serve drinks, ask questions and mark papers. They saw us enter. A silence spread from table to table across the room.

We were the holders of the league division ‘A’ title.

We nodded at the assembled quizzers, hopeful, doomed to fail, and took table Number One.

We sorted out our pens, drinks and snacks.

The murmuring started up again.

A large man in a stained suit and open necked shirt leaned across from table 12.

‘You can only have four in a team you know lads.’

‘She’s with me. She’s not competing.’ I stared him down.

‘All right, you don’t have to pick a fight.’ Paul said.

‘It’s the only thing they understand Paul. Blink, look away, show them you’re scared, and all hell will break loose.’

‘Have you been drinking coffee again?’ Carol asked. ‘You know it doesn’t agree with you in the evening.’

The master of ceremonies tapped the microphone and an electronic howl swept over the room.

‘I’ll take that as a yes, it is working!’ he chuckled. It was about to kick off.

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.’