Dandelion Souls - Part 6 20/11

Chapter 24 - Connecting Up

Finney was back and Dee had emailed Frankie with her number and a short, cheery message about having lots to tell her and Nathe.  Before too long, she heard back and they all arranged to meet up back in Dream on one of the band nights.  Dee had thought, rightly, that Finney would get on well with them and he and Nathe were soon talking happily together because, like them, Finney in his time, was quite well travelled too through his rather alternative background.  They discussed Thailand while Dee caught up with Frankie.  They had a new polytunnel set up now, via some community allotment space, Frankie told her, when she had asked about the revival of ‘Carrot Top.’  Dee didn’t touch too closely on Al, due to Finney’s presence, just talked about what had happened after she had gone home.  She did reveal that Andrew and Nolan had actually turned out to be private detectives and that her parents had hired them to find her.

“I knew there was something about those guys”, said Nathe.  “Way too curious. Still, at least they turned out to be on your side, Dee.  You needed someone who was,” he added, stretching out his wirily tanned legs from scruffy shorts as they sat in the beer garden .

Dee, until they had left so abruptly, had always thought Frankie and Nathe were but she realised now, that as a couple, they were a pretty self contained and independent unit who seemed to do everything together as one and that theirs was the only relationship which really counted with them.  

The sky, which had continued to be as blue all evening as during the day, had dabs of coral gold running across it at dusk, which Dee was looking at, wondering if she would be able to capture the effect.

“Angel’s wing feathers,” said Finney poetically, looking up at them with her dreamily.  “You would be able to paint that, Dee.”

“I was thinking about it,” she agreed, taking a few shots on her phone.

She smiled at him, deciding that, yes, she had missed him and that, although with Finney there it was different with Frankie and Nathe, it was different in a good way.  The next set started up and so they all went back in to listen.

A barbecue at Finney’s, held for somebody’s birthday, followed soon afterwards.  It drifted into a lengthy and noisy party evening on the dried out grasses of the garden, uncut, gone to seed and now hay-like.  The barbecue itself, given the conditions, was being carefully tended to avoid fire risk.  Frankie and Nathe, invited by Finney, had rocked up and Dee was surprised to come across Frankie and Finney’s mother chatting together, something she never really did herself apart from the odd passing conversation.

“I used to worry he’d get religion,” Finney’s mother was saying of him, startlingly, “but he seems to have settled for being messianic.  All that ‘Skills Guild’ business.” She sounded amusedly critical. “Still, I suppose it’s better than him actually getting Jesus.  Oh, hello, love,” she said, as Dee joined them but Frankie seemed to interest Finney’s mother more as an individual and she was soon asking her about her travels and how she and Nathe financed them.

“Bit of this.  Bit of that,” Frankie said, with her relaxed smile.  “We’re doing polytunnel veg and selling it. By the end of Summer we should have enough to take off again, so long as we live on peanuts in the meantime.”

“You do right,” said Finney’s mother, getting up and moving off to other guests.  “Plenty of adventure. That’s what you need in life.”

Dee was disappointed that her refound friends were planning to vanish again and also by the comments she had overheard.  Their activities hadn’t seemed to have met with approval, she felt, and she herself, she perceived, not for the first time, was somehow found wanting.

“She doesn’t think I’m good enough for Finney,” she commented.

Frankie looked surprised.

“Why do you say that?  I thought she was nice,” she answered.  Of course you did, thought Dee, because unlike me, she was bothering to pay you some attention.  She didn’t reply and Frankie got up too, saying easily, “I’m going to find Nathe and grab some more grub.  Coming?”

Dee shook her head, moodily staying put but Frankie didn’t notice her pique, or if she had, just decided to leave her to it.  There was something, Dee thought, about Finney’s family. Despite the open house set up, they somehow had the remoteness of the rich.  Finney and some of his half siblings had occasionally ‘boarded’, as he put it, due to the parents’ musical travels, he had said, and his poised confidence didn’t come from nowhere, did it, she pondered now?

“You’ve got a public schoolboy there, Dee,” Billy had commented once, although she had dismissed this at the time.  “Bit of a contrast for you, eh?”

A blue charcoal haze drifted across to her, making her and others jump aside and splutter and there was consternation about the wind’s change of direction and the possibility of sparks setting things alight.  For a while, things centred on getting control again and there was a bit of a row about reckless activity kicking off.  Finney appeared from the midst after it had calmed down and said,

“There you are, Dee.  I could smack him one, sometimes.  Well, I just have.”

The pastels in his hair, faded now, gave his face a ghostly look.

“Who?” asked Dee.

“Bloody Sam, my bloody brother-in-law.  I told him, no more fuel on it.  Pillock!”

A girl with similarly faded hues in her own hair appeared at his shoulder and said solicitously,

“Are you alright, Finney?”

“Of course.  Yes.  Thanks,” he answered shortly, still worked up.

She continued to hover, though, both of them, thought Dee, looking like a haunting.  The girl was one of the Barcelona group, several of whom had returned with these multi-coloured hairdos.  She was one of Finney's fans.

“What’s the matter with you?” Finney continued heatedly, looking at Dee’s face and presuming dislike of his having struck someone.

“Nothing,” she said, looking away.

“I didn’t expect you to actually hit him!” exclaimed the other girl, sounding impressed by it all the same.

“No.  Well. Happens sometimes.  When I lose it.  I try not to,” said Finney, still addressing Dee, who laughed.

“Feet of clay after all,” she said wryly.

“What do you mean?” asked Finney, puzzled.

“Nothing,” she said again and they went inside to escape the smoke which was making them all cough and effectively distracted them from their conversation.

Finney, having made it up with his family,  quickly regained his good humour and Dee concealed her previous lack of it and the reasons for it.  The Barcelona going group joined them, along with Frankie and Nathe, so there was plenty of cover for her initial silence.  By the end of the evening, Dee felt part of things again and had got over it.  When they waved Frankie and Nathe off, she stayed the night with Finney and told herself  she didn’t mind that he had simply expected that she would.

The World Cup and Wimbledon Finals had come and gone, without much notice from Finney or Dee but the various highs and lows being followed by Billy and Nolan who, whilst not being devotees, enjoyed the excitement of tournament climax games.  Andrew and Sarah watched Wimbledon and played some knockabout games together in the evenings while he was visiting her, both having, in their school years, had a bit of skill in that area of sport and had once shone dimly in youth competitions.  Both jokingly claimed that old injuries had put paid to future success in the field.  Sarah had ‘a knee’ and Andrew laid claim to ‘a shoulder’.  Sarah, like Billy, continued to know little about the realities of the private detective work and Andrew had told her nothing yet about Watson’s Wheatsheaf, or Ben’s death.

 “Smells like something died and definitely didn’t go to heaven,” said Andrew as he arrived at Nolan’s door, wrinkling his nose.  Somebody down the street had been putting bait down to kill mice off and they were pegging out beneath the floors of the terrace somewhere, Nolan told him, having just got back to the house himself.  The stench was appalling. “Are you sure it’s not something bigger?” asked Andrew, flinging as many doors and windows open with him as possible. “Have you seen everyone who should be around?”

“Yes, except, unfortunately, for Billy.  He’s legged it to his mum’s till the worst is over.”

Nolan, who had no family he admitted to, had no such recourse.  

“Happily independent since leaving home” was all he would cheerfully say but from the odd snippet let drop, Andrew conjectured that family beliefs and Nolan’s sexuality were probably at odds with his adult life.  He had zero tolerance towards religion and one of his jokes was that Andrew (who wasn’t) was a child of the Manse and a dyed in the wool Scots presbyterian.   Billy, who knew more, had once said that Nolan had been mainly brought up by his grandmother and was likely to be extremely touchy if you forgot his birthday, or didn’t buy him something for Christmas, because he reckoned he was owed a whole childhoodful of presents now, not having been allowed them back then.  As Nolan would often say himself, though, luckily for him he was born with the happy gene and had always intended to enjoy life to the full.  He and Andrew both retreated now to Nolan’s study, which, being at the front, was not so afflicted as the back rooms.

“Let’s air the place off for an hour, then we can pub it down by the veranda office.  I’ve had to work in there nights when it was too bad in here, this week.  Mind you, with all the fireworks going off all the time at that wedding banquet place across the road, it’s like a mass shooting every evening.  Hard to concentrate.”

“Why didn’t you go with Billy too, then?” asked Andrew.

“Can’t,” said Nolan.  “I’ve got a big job on for one of my regular firms, new systems and data transfer.  Besides, Billy won’t see reason and is terrified we’ve got monster rats in the locale and insists I get things sorted out.”

“Are you sure you haven’t?”

“Yep.  I spoke to the Rentokil guy.  I’ve seen the van on the street.  He told me he’s been putting poison down for mice in a couple of the houses.  I reckon they just wander through the under floor gaps and are carking it down there somewhere but the smell gets through.  Not enough cats, that’s the problem.”

“You hate cats.”

“I didn’t say I had to have one.  We haven’t got mice in our home.  Besides,” he added, with pained sentiment, “I don’t hate cats.  I’m allergic.”

“What about dogs?  You wouldn’t Wilbur sit for me.  I had to palm him off on Dee.”

“I don’t hate dogs, it’s just Wilbur.  Those snappy little teeth.”

“Understandable,” Andrew supposed.

“And he dribbles.”

“He does not dribble!” Andrew defended his rescued dog.  “He can’t help his fur. He’s just got a mucky looking mouth.”

“Ew,” shuddered Nolan.

The doorbell rang and Nolan said disgustedly,

“Bloody hell, look out, Bewitched is here,” and, picking up a package from his desk, went out to hand it to the neighbour it had been intended for, having reluctantly accepted it earlier from the courier to pass on.  “Hello, there!” Andrew heard him calling out with arch insincerity. “Here’s your book of spells, dear!”

“Who was that?” Andrew asked on his return, laughing, because Nolan was clearly camping it up for effect.

“Magdalene, stuck up bitch.  Couldn’t stand her from day one.  She disapproves of us and she’s always telling us to keep the noise down.  It’s why Billy has to wear his headphones.”

Andrew smiled.

“Maybe she’s called down the plague of mice.  She thought you were joking, though.  I heard her laugh.”

“She may think that but you wait till she wants me to help her defrag her computer again,” said Nolan nastily.  “Next time, no more Mr Nice Guy.”

“Speaking of that,” said Andrew.  “Did you have any joy finding out stuff about Ben’s death?”

“Yes,” said Nolan.  “Sit you down and I’ll fill you in.”

They shut the office door and settled into Nolan’s two lazy boy chairs because the office doubled, in part, as his den.  Nolan had done his best to find out what he could and as they had expected, the pathologist’s report, which he had managed to hack into, had concluded that a broken neck was the cause of an accidental death due to the deceased failing to follow safety procedures in the workplace.  The coroner’s findings then, when the inquest followed in due course, would doubtless be death by misadventure.

“Right,” said Andrew.  “As soon as we know when the funeral is, I’ll join the mourners.  Low profile, of course.”

“Oh, of course!” said Nolan meaningfully, eyeing him as if to suggest that this wouldn’t be too easy.  “Right. Pub time. Let’s get out of this place. It’s giving me the heebie jeebies. I’ve had more incense on the go than an ashram and I’m sure I’m getting high on Febreze.”

Now that the sickening smell had dissipated from the house with the airing they had given it, a floral and sandalwood confusion of scents clashed sweetly from room to room.

“I see what you mean,” agreed Andrew.  “Come on, then.  My treat to say thanks for finding out for me.”

“You’re on,” agreed Nolan, as they departed.

The funeral date, once Nolan had found it for Andrew, was a couple of weeks off still, so that being the case, Andrew and Sarah continued as planned back up to their home place for a short stay.  In between town and country living, there were smallholding farms, connecting villages and a widely linked community.  Only the older people now mostly remained resident, so that the young, who had left, in recompense, helped out in the area when they could on visits in the Summer on a volunteer basis, fixing dry stone walls together, herding beasts about, being tour guides up waterfalls and staffing the youth hostel, depending on skill, need and aptitude.  It was a place where people had no side to them, with a hospitality and interest in others which spoke, even now, of a rather remote area.  Tourists received a warm welcome. Andrew’s father had headed up the village school before his retirement but Andrew was as used as the farm children were to working in the countryside and could coppice as well as anyone.

“We should slap a preservation order on everyone,” Sarah, a farm vet’s daughter, now a vet herself, observed, as they watched a somewhat haphazard cricket game together on a ground which sloped a bit too much to be a level playing field.  “It won’t last, you know.”

Andrew, who always felt rather as if he had missed dropping anchor in the modern world at the right developmental moment, said he knew what she meant but as he also said, it was the reason they had all moved away after school was out and they were grown up, because opportunities for the locals were really quite limited these days, unless you ran the B&Bs or country pubs dotted about.

“Don’t forget, we all aimed to get away,” he added.

“I know and I couldn’t live here now but I’m nostalgic for it before it’s gone, I suppose.”

“It’ll last a while yet,” Andrew reassured her.  “Oh, dear. Dad’s out again already.”

His father, wearing the anciently floppy cricket hat which he always blamed for impairing his vision and game but equally, always wore for such occasions, had managed a couple of runs at a slow gait before being bowled out and now came to join them, happily enough.

“Well,” he said, as he always did, inevitably seen off in short order every time he played the odd fair weather game, “I’ve done my bit.  I can have a pint now. Come on, son. Sarah?” They went inside the old club house building, which, if it had seen better days, had lived them at a considerable distance from its present state of dilapidation and looking round it, Andrew’s father, as he did whenever they found themselves back in it, said, “Could do with a facelift in here.  Someone should do something about it. But then again, I’ve never been one for committees.” This last said with the ironic distaste of experience and Andrew said,

“Now, come on, Dad.  Let’s not go there again!” the expected rejoinder, which made his father and Sarah smile, as there was a considerable history of such bodies, which had caused plenty of vexation for Andrew’s father while participating in them and much mirth in the family about their shortcomings after their demise.

 In the ‘Pomme d’Or’, Dee’s parents had tried and failed to engage Gus in their local anti Brexit campaign group because he was, he said, too busy and too much would be expected of him because of his French origins.  

“I left Europe myself,” he shrugged.  “So what could I say?”

When they said but, he still was in Europe as of now and wasn’t he worried about the future of his tenure, then, in England and for his business, he said he wasn’t and would not be persuaded otherwise, so they had to leave it because Dee said they’d be nagging her out of a job and anyway, not everyone wanted to be politically involved, did they, whatever mum and dad kept on about people having their heads in the sand over?  

There was a small and brief coolness between Dee and Finney around this time, because she had suggested that perhaps they didn’t have to actually live together in Leeds but could continue to have their own spaces and this had wounded him, so she had retracted it as not having been something she meant.

“The problem with not meaning it,” he had responded, “is that you’ve already said it.  Maybe there’s more than that we need to think about, is there?” Dee had agreed that perhaps there was, as she didn’t particularly care for being part of somebody’s entourage.  “What’s that supposed to mean?” he had demanded but she had not been able to find the words to express herself without sounding petty or jealous and since neither of them had wanted, so unexpectedly, to reach the point of no return, they backed away from the precipice and left things undecided until they had actually had a chance to look around at what was available.  They might, anyway, end up in a shared house rather than their own place due to the inevitable expense of renting anywhere, they both agreed.

While they were a bit more separated, she had gone out a few times with Imogen and several of their other friends.  Occasionally, the infamous Baz had joined them briefly before hoisting Imogen off out of the general company, not being, as he made clear without saying it, able to suffer fools gladly for very long.  Dee thought he was as steadfastly obnoxious as ever and remained slightly intimidated by him whilst annoyed with herself for being so, a feeling he seemed to generate uneasily in everyone else too.  There was no pearling the grit he thrust into the soft body of any friendly group until the irritation caused by his presence was removed.  He certainly did not grow on Dee in any way and she remained baffled by Imogen’s interest in him, although she did recognise the beginnings of controllingly possessive behaviour when she saw it, who better to do so? Again, she reconsidered her own feelings about Finney.

“Maybe my brain needs retraining”, she thought, “because I got used to seeing that as being looked after properly instead of seeing it for what it was when Al kept me in lockdown, too.  I should appreciate the difference I’ve got now more, maybe.”

It made things easier between them when she and Finney saw each other again.

 Ben’s funeral, on another oppressively hot day, was a small affair at the crematorium and it was easy, having waited outside for the hearse to arrive, for Andrew to unobtrusively go in too for the ceremony.  A couple, the car’s only occupants, who comforted each other as parents would have done, sat with occasionally open tears at the front, holding hands.  A few other people who seemed to be from Watson’s Wheatsheaf and possibly the pub Ben went to, had come out of respect and acquaintance rather than friendship, by their demeanour.  The address itself was rather general, as if not a lot about Ben himself had gone into it and it focussed rather more on a vaguely religious sense of death not being the end for Ben because loved memories of him would remain as his future. Due to the manner of his death, the local press attended with discretion.  As the mourners left, Andrew was sure he heard the mother say, passing by his seat, carefully chosen at the end of an aisle,

“Our poor Jan,” and thought he must have misheard her saying Ben, rather than as he had received it, ‘Yan’, her voice being thick with distress and the father, patting her hand, said,

“I know.”

Andrew followed out and, as the couple stood looking at the few flowers and their wreath before the doorway, he said,

“I’m so sorry for your loss, Mr and Mrs Bradbury.”

It was a moment before, sobbing quietly together, they turned to thank him, eyes as blank with grief as Ben’s had seemed in life.

There was not a lot to learn from the short, dignified and simple occasion, nor were the few mourners asked to go back anywhere afterwards.  Choreographed by a nervously professional young funeral parlour usher, anxious for times of arrival and departure to be kept to as scheduled, they all filed obediently through and off again without lingering.   Andrew made his own private reverence by retracing the route that had been where Ben went for his run, wondering if it had or had not held any private significance for Ben.  There was nothing about it to tell him, either way, whether it had.  

Having finessed his CV, Andrew later put in an application for a part time starter role in Watson's Wheatsheaf, for which there were a few sought after vacancies, according to their online publicity.  He could still lie about his age and get away with knocking a few years off, given his ingenue face and lankiness of build, so he presented as being twenty two and looking to learn a proper skill in an established family firm, after having completed an invented apprenticeship in catering.  Being successfully called for interview, he was fervent about wanting to get back to the roots of ‘real baking’.

“Bread,” he asserted, making an open hands gesture.  “It’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Without that, you’ve got nothing.”

Emphatically and passionately pronounced, he had always found that the most meaningless of statements gained credibility.  It went down well with the people who were interviewing him and he was handed over for a view of the premises to a woman who was one of those forces of nature seemingly  so high on life that they put years on everybody else.  Since she never stopped talking with the utmost vivacity as she led him through everywhere, he was able to concentrate on looking around and taking in the places he had, as yet, never seen the inside of when he was accompanying Ben.  

“I’m Viv, love,” was short and heavily built but managed to effortlessly step out in very high heeled shoes of a patent blue which perfectly matched her pearlescent eyeshadow, as turquoise as a seventies disco and reaching up to her plucked, arched eyebrows with the expertise of years of application.  Her piled up hair smelt of lacquer and perfume and she radiated smiles and ruthless self interest even handedly.  You wouldn’t mess with her, Andrew thought, would you now and it was clear, as she paraded through the workplace with him, that nobody did.  Her word, as well as her shoes, evidently carried weight there. 

The role duties he would have were not restricted to the catering side.  In the office, where they wanted spreadsheet clerical tasks doing (a small test having been set which Andrew had naturally passed with flying colours), he was cavilierly introduced to several people at computer terminals who sprang into action with commendable alacrity from browsing cheap flights online together.  Andrew was impressed by the speed of their reflex actions, screensavers on immediately. One young woman picked up a phone as if she hadn’t noticed them come in, shooting from the hip efficiently about something and someone else called to another, urgently,

“Did you get that email from Sanderton’s, Alex?”

Alex, apparently, had.

“This is Andy ” said ‘I’m Viv’, who had called him this from the off without asking “and don’t think I didn’t notice.”

“Hi, Andy” they all greeted him with  slightly forced brio and Viv, with the kind of capricious smile at them which might or might not promise more to be said about their behaviour afrerwards, urged him on out of there to the next building.

This was the demonstration bakery, which he had often visited previously and she told him was a place where he might work in time because they didn’t put people in front of the public to bake straight away, so he mustn't worry (here striking a slightly disturbing maternal note).  

“We might put you in the shop to serve, though, sometimes,” she said, taking him through there next, having assessed him as presentable enough to be customer facing.  Andrew said, “no problem”, to everything, which he had been using as a noncommittally enthusiastic but not overeducated response, he hoped, as their tour progressed.

In the delivery yard, she swept through the vans being loaded, making an introduction here and there, to the factory building, long since reopened for operations.  There were several production stages and different rooms for their processes, busy with people, machines and finally, ovens which, given Ben’s death, made Andrew think of Hansel and Gretel, in the modern world, ending up as batch loaves.  There was also a further set of linked buildings behind this, which he had not really seen before, where the packaging was done.  People everywhere in these buildings were anonymous in plastic shower hats, gleamingly pristine baggy overalls, coveralls, shoe covers and sleeved gloves, only height and build a vague indicator as to sex.  This he found reassuring as, while getting to know people, he would be in large part in similar disguise himself, presumably, except in the office or the shop.  Even there, in the shop the staff uniformly donned the old brown shop coats, although in the office, workers were in casually modern dress and during breaks, where he had seen staff coming through, they had disrobed from factory gear to their own clothes.

“We keep our whites white here, Andy,” Viv told him, sounding like a suspectly racist soap powder commercial,  of the working uniform requirements. “Essential part of making sure everything is spotless. We have a professional laundry service for that, so you won’t have to do your own washing.  All you lads are pleased when I tell them that!”

She shared this with the intimate chuckle of sexual innuendo but it was just a mannerism, Andrew realised, along with her domineering bustle.  I’m in charge, but I’m as fun as hell, and don’t you forget it, it seemed to mean, regardless of her words’ context. He was given a start date and sent along to be looked over for which ready made sizes he would require for overalls  and shop coat, because, as she assured him, they had plenty for all comers.

“So you needn’t worry anyone’ll be feeling up your inside leg yet, Andy” she had cackled, of course, leaving him to it and saying that she would see him on the day in question.  Getting in his car to leave, he rang Nolan.

“I’m in!” he said.  

“Hold on,” said Nolan, “I’ll call you back.”

When he did, Andrew’s ringtone had changed to the part of the New World Symphony which had featured so successfully in  the old Hovis advert.

“Very clever,” said Andrew.  “I don’t think.”

Nolan laughed evilly and rang off.  Andrew tried and failed to change his ringtone back.  That, he told himself, is the trouble with getting on close terms with a hacker.  No scruples. None whatsoever.

Dee and Frankie met up in Dream after Frankie had done her next delivery from Carrot Top, to have a chat, go together at Dee’s suggestion to look at what was becoming of Stanley Mill and then to go to the ‘Pomme d’Or’ for Frankie to be introduced to Gus, who had agreed to be interested when Dee had sounded him out on Carrot Top’s behalf about its produce.  Frankie’s insouciant ways and comfortably extrovert manner meant that people remembered her and so there was an eddy of people in Dream coming up to say “hi” and to ask about what she had been up to.  With a flourish of new tattoos running up her bare arms, legs and across her shoulders and a lively story to go with each of them about where she and Nathe had been when she got this or that one,  there were plenty of eager listeners.  Frankie’s tousle of tawny ringlets, sugar frosted where the sun had bleached them on tropical travels, added to her road trip look and even customers who didn’t know her at all looked across with indulgently interested smiles.

Dee sat all this out, dying to reminisce privately with her but didn’t really get the opportunity until they had driven round the corner afterwards to the mill, in the car lot banger which Frankie and Nathe had purchased for nunpence, whose exhaust already had a death rattle in its throaty rumble.  Frankie, though, as might have been expected, didn’t really feel particularly attached to place and while agreeing that it was a pity about the mill, wasn’t especially moved, apart from to say,

“We had some fun up there, didn’t we?” pointing up to the roof of the penthouse flat.

“Yes,” agreed Dee and remained poised on the threshold of wanting to talk about her days with Al and what had happened, without crossing it, because she wasn’t quite sure how it would go down, since Frankie had met Finney, by now, several times.  Perhaps she might find it a bit wrongly self indulgent, wallowing, hypocritical, even, Dee wondered.

“Al’s just Al,” Frankie had once said and she had been the one to help Dee go secretly about her picture business, so she knew about all that side of their dynamic.

But Frankie, it turned out, did know how Dee felt, because as they were looking at the transformation scene’s impersonal  chaos, dismantling parts of what had stood for so long there, she put her arm around Dee’s shoulder and said, tapping her lightly on the forehead with her free hand,

“Don’t worry.  It will all be in there.  The good bits. Keep them and forget the rest.  That’s what I do” and the ambiguous statement was left to stand, relating to building, past days enjoyed in it and relationships gone by all together.  Frankie gave her characteristic grin, and with a squeeze of Dee’s shoulder she released her, checking her watch, a large one where Mickey Mouse’s white gloved hands clicked exuberantly through minutes and hours, saying, “We should get going, huh?  Three o’clock, wasn’t it? I’m looking forward to meeting Gus. He sounds like a character.”

“He is,” agreed Dee.   “You’ll like each other.”

Gus, when they arrived, though, far from being in the middle of one of his cosmopolitan charm offensives, was having an uncharacteristic kitchen battle.  He did not encourage ‘temperament’ in his restaurant generally speaking.

“You can keep that for your ‘TV chefs’ he would say contemptuously, with a dismissive finger snap.  “If we don’t enjoy cooking it, how can our customers enjoy eating it?”

Gus’s place specialised only in meticulous classic French cookery, where the preparation chopping took a long time but he would not allow any convenience gadgets to save any of that time.

“By hand!” he would exhort his staff, inevitably meaning that various wanking gestures were performed disrespectfully behind his back by resentful young people being trained up in the art of ‘finesse’, his other cooking watchword.

“Wow!” breathed Frankie, impressed, as Gus furiously seized on a state of the art commercial mandolin, slicer, dicer and spaghetti veg spooling object, as if it were contraband, marching it and the errant member of staff to an accompanying diatribe out of his kitchen.

“Take that vile monstrosity to the nearest charity shop right now! There!  That one!” he cried, gesturing violently to one a few doors down.

“But, Gus, I keep telling you, it makes things easier,” protested the young chef who had smuggled the equipment in under Gus’s radar.

“Not in my kitchen!  You work as I work, or you walk!” Gus concluded theatrically.

“Fuck this, then!” retorted the other hotly, stalking off with his much maligned machine.  “I’ll take it back to the shop. I bought it myself, for here!”

Never!” asserted Gus, folding his arms and standing bullishly in the doorway, a sadly wasted gesture, as his chef was storming off in the other direction rather than trying to get back in.  “I’m sorry, ladies,” he said, resuming his normal manner as if nothing had happened.  Dee introduced Frankie, and Gus picked over her sample goods approvingly, chatting with her about how organic it was and how fresh it would be on arrival.  “I do not store” he was telling her, as if to do so was heresy.  Dee looked into the kitchen. The other chef, she knew, was on holiday.

“Gus?” she asked.  “How will we manage if Ollie’s walked out?”

“Oh, he’ll come back tomorrow,” said Gus, flapping his hand carelessly.  “He has to let his steam off, that one. I’ll just have to prep myself as well as be head chef tonight.

“I can do it if you like,” offered Frankie.  “I’ve done plenty of sous cheffing in places.”

Gus pursed his lips.

“Well, let’s see.”  He set her to starting the finely chopped basics of mirepoix, with the serious concentration of a consultant surgeon watching a junior doctor at work on a first operation.  She worked fast to produce several batches to be used in different dishes that night. “Not bad,” he concluded, cheering up and rubbing his hands. “If you don’t mind?”

“See how I do,” grinned Frankie, agreeing terms for the evening ahead and potentially, she clearly hoped, others to come.

“O.K.” said Gus.  “Any road up, we can cook tonight, ladies.”  He beamed and phoned Ollie immediately, saying, “You’d better get your arse back in here tomorrow, boy, you’ve got competition.”  He beamed again, ringing off before Ollie could reply. “He needs to feel wanted,” he explained to Frankie and Dee, “for his moral support,” adding, “there’s room for you, too, Frankie, because Matt’s on his jollies abroad.”

Whistling cheerily, he donned his apron and hat as chef for the night, because Gus liked to cook as well as to host, the tasting along the way, as he liked to say (and Dee now heard him tell Frankie), as much a part of the dish as the final presentation of it on the table.  Imogen had arrived and after she and Dee had set up and it was time for their first break, Frankie joined them in going across to the park to “take a breather”, as Gus suggested, from her kitchen labours.

“How do you find Gus?” enquired Imogen.  “He can be pretty full on at first but you get used to him.”

“Gus?” Frankie shrugged.  “He’s fine.”

“So -” angled Imogen, “you and Dee know each other from before, right?”

“Right,” agreed Frankie, licking her rizla paper to make a roll up.

Imogen waited but Frankie said no more and nor did Dee.  The moment passed and Frankie winked at Dee, evidently approving that she hadn’t shared her ‘before’ with Imogen.  Retrospectives were not her thing, Dee understood.  Live in the present and look ahead was her and Nathe’s often expressed nomadic motto.  That way, they meant, you stayed one step ahead of anything dogging your footsteps.

“Oh, no,”  Dee thought next, seeing the figure of Baz Jackson approaching from behind the bandstand.

“Here’s Baz,” announced Imogen.  “He’s going to the ‘Mucky Pup’ (local parlance for ‘The Dog and Duck’ pub nearby).  “I’m meeting him there for a drink after work.”

Imogen was only on the ‘Early Bird’ shift that night.  She got up to greet him and they moved aside, Baz nodding impassively at the other two girls, who had stood up too.

“Is that the one Finney hates?” asked Frankie, for she and Nathe had heard about the ‘Crash Start Art’ saga and all that had gone with it when they had met up in Dream that first time.

“Well spotted,” said Dee wryly.  “Yes. That’s him.”

Already, Baz had the blown cherub look of a regular beer drinker under the dusty looking curls and a thickening of his stocky build suggested he wouldn't look much different in his forties from in his late teens.  He was shorter than most of his contemporaries, meaning that his dead eye stare met the eyes of the girls more or less head on, the disturbing penetration of his expression an instant strike. He turned his head towards them now, from where he and Imogen stood talking, looking Frankie over assessingly.  She said to Dee that she had better go back in and Dee sat down to finish her break. Imogen joined her. Baz was going too, to go along to the ‘Mucky Pup’ and he caught up with Frankie, seeming to exchange a word before she went back in. Imogen, coming back to sit with Dee, noticed it, as Dee did.

After they had served up and were clearing the Early Bird sitting, Imogen asked Frankie on her way in and out of the kitchen,

“Did Baz actually talk to you?  You’re honoured.”

“Yes,” said Frankie.  “He asked me to sit for him nude.  He said I had great tits. Well, he didn’t but he was looking at them when he asked me.”

“Good,” said Imogen, evidently realising that Frankie was taking a rise out of her.  “He can give mine a rest. He must want to do a study of the mature older woman figure.”

Frankie gave her guffaw laugh in appreciation of the swift come back as Imogen left.

“That was a bit mean,” said Dee.

“No, it wasn’t.  She was part of trying to spoil things for you all.  Why are you friendly with her?”

“I like her.”

Frankie shook her head.

“Up to you.  I don’t, especially.  She pries and she’s one of those influencing types.  Like him.”

“You think?  She used to go out with Finney but she finished with him before Baz.”

“Is that what she says?  I’d check with Finney first, before you accept what she tells you.  I’ll bet she’s tried to put you off him.”

Dee thought back to the conversation where Imogen had done exactly that, while claiming that it wasn’t her intention.

“Mmm,” she said noncommittally.  “Did Baz really ask you to sit for him nude?”

“As a matter of fact, he did.  But that’s just him being an artist.  The way he did it was just him being an arse.”

Dee laughed.

“Yep, that’s him all over.”

“Back to my duties,” said Frankie, as Gus’s head looked inquiringly out of the kitchen at them.  “Oh, and there’s no chance I’ll do it for him, Dee.”

“What about if Finney asks?” said Dee, teasingly.

“Ah, well, now,” Frankie teased back, disappearing through the kitchen door, “I might have to think about that one.”

Dee decided to ask Finney about Imogen. They were lazing together in his garden with a couple of fruit ciders and he was still messing with his guitar after one of the impromptu jamming sessions his friends called in to have with him.  Dee was lying on her back on the grass, looking up at the house’s dishevelled wiggle of pointed windows against the sky, decoratively fretted gable trims like broken piped icing where bits had weathered and fallen off. A frowsty heat surrounded them, with no freshness in its humid, sun bedraggled air.

“Finney?” she began.

"What, babe?” he replied absently, plucking strings.

“You know, Imogen?”

“Of course.”

“That I work with?”

He cast a fondly amused glance, raising an eyebrow under a cartwheel white raffia hat he had dug out against the sun, once belonging perhaps to his mother or a sister.  It had a hole in one bashed in side.  A gauze scarf tying a spray of fake flowers to its crown trailed floatily down and into his long hair. It made him look both oddly glamorous, with his sunglasses on, and at the same time like a deranged sixties wedding guest.

“Is there another Imogen we know?” he asked with a smile, still strumming through soft minor chords.

“Well, no.  Did you used to go out with her?”

“Me?  No. I’ve known her a long time but we’ve never been together.  Why?”

Dee hesitated, then rolled on to her front, cupping her chin in her hands and told him, looking up under the brim of his hat, that she’d thought from something Imogen had said that perhaps they had been.

“Why?” he asked again, unperturbed, his face, shaded by the hat, still looking down at the instrument he was playing cross legged.  “What did she say?”

“Well, that maybe Baz was such a contrast to you that was why she couldn’t resist going out with him afterwards.  ‘We weren’t long over,’ she said and she seemed to mean you.”

Finney stopped playing and put the guitar down, with a laugh.

“No.  It wasn’t me.  You must have got the wrong end of the stick.  Or she was pulling your leg. But - Baz, though!”

This seemed to surprise him as much as it had done Dee, who hadn’t told him before because it had been a bit of a confidence Imogen had asked her not to mention to Finney as it would cause trouble.  She was still taking in that Imogen had lied to her (as suggested by Frankie that she might have done) since Finney was clearly being as honest as he always was. Finney never dissembled or romanced about things, perhaps because his life had always been sufficiently outlandish for him not to feel the need to do so.

“I know,” she agreed.  “Frankie doesn’t like her,” she added and told him what Frankie had said to Imogen about Baz asking her to sit.  “You know,” she added as he laughed, “she’s not crude, Frankie. It’s not the sort of thing she says. I was a bit surprised, to be honest.”

“Instant hostilities,” said Finney.  “Sounds like she went for it, Frankie.”

“She did and she warned me off Imogen too.”

“Mmm.   She’s always liked to mix it up a bit between people, Imogen, but you’re wise to all that kind of thing, Dee” he said mistakenly, picking up his guitar and starting to play again as Dee blushed, recalling what Imogen had said about Finney himself and the little snide asides she would make conspiratorially with Dee about others in the ‘Skills Guild’ group as they worked together in the ‘Pomme d’Or’ and which she had joined in with, rather, though often against her better judgement.  

Since Frankie had come all that had stopped, her sanguine personality holding Imogen’s implications back like a bright shield.  Besides, where Frankie came, Nathe went too and sometimes he came along to help out at the end of the evening, to clear up before he took Frankie home in the beat up saloon car that served as their delivery van now, along with Frankie’s bike and trailer for shorter distances.  So as a result, the three of them had resumed their casual alliance at the expense of Dee’s burgeoning closeness with Imogen, with whom she had discussed previously whether or not it would be a good thing to live with Finney in Leeds, now she came to think of it, and who had dropped many a hint that if Dee were not entirely committed in mind to him then there were other ways to go and other fish in the sea she couldn’t meet on her own terms if she were living with him.  She thought of how hurt Finney had been when she had put some of that into words, words that, perhaps, had not been entirely her own and felt ashamed of herself.  While claiming to want independence, had it been because of someone else’s manipulation, at least in part?  Finney put down his guitar again, having been thinking himself but along different lines.

“Baz and Imogen,” he said reflectively.  “So now we know who our mole was, don’t we?”

“I guess.”

“ I suppose I should have realised that was possible but she wasn’t really part of our group so it didn’t occur to me.”

“Me either,” said Dee, shuffling over to him and rolling on to her back again to put her head in his lap.  He stroked her hair, his own brushing her face ticklishly, which she swatted off, so he leaned down to blow a raspberry on her upturned nose, then kissed it.

“Come on,” he said.  “Let’s get another cider,” and they got up to wander hand in hand into the coolness of the kitchen, contentedly together.  “I hate that guy,” he commented. “He’d better not cross my path any time soon.”

“No,” said Dee, hoping Baz wouldn’t be present in the Mucky Duck when Finney came down for a drink there with her, Frankie and Nathe on Saturday night after ‘Early Bird’.  Gus was closing after that because he was going out himself, unusually for a weekend but, at the start of the school holidays, with people away, it had been quiet.  Dee wasn’t entirely sure Baz wouldn’t appear because he seemed to have a circuit of pubs he visited on a drop in basis and at the moment, Imogen working in the ‘Pomme D’Or’, those in its environs were more likely to be included.  But that Saturday, Imogen wasn’t going to be in.

“Will you smack him one if he is there?” she asked mischievously, reminding him of the barbecue moment.

“Smack him one!  I’ll knock his bloody block off, Dee!”

She looked at him gravely.

“Promise me you’ll wear that hat when you do,” she said.

Finney burst out laughing.

“Yeah, right,” he said, taking it off and pretend swiping her with it, then planting it on her head at a rakish tilt instead.  “Suits you,” he said in mock appraisal.

A smell of dust from it and a powdery scent lingering in the gauzy scarf, which was faintly imprinted with meadow flowers, made her sneeze.  She took it off and jammed it back on his own head again instead.  They looked out at the garden but, unable to face the heat again for now, opted to take their chilled ciders up to his bedroom, passing the big landing window where sunshine poured colour blocks on to the once polished floorboards, now jaded and faded like much of the house.   It was not so much neglect that it felt like in the place, more that its shabbiness was just overlooked by those who loved it, lived in it or visited, worn down, like an old teddy, to its plush.

“You’ll hate leaving here,” Dee observed to Finney.

He looked surprised.

“I’ll be coming back.  So will you. What’s brought this on?”

“I wish we weren’t going to Leeds,” Dee said suddenly, surprising herself as well.  “I wish we could have stayed here, like this. We’re fine here on our own.” She laughed a little.  “If I actually moved in, nobody would notice.”

Finney smiled.

“I would,” he said.  “I’d love it. Anyway, we are going to Leeds.  In a couple of weeks, don’t forget, for my sculpture workshop.”

“I know,” said Dee.  “Ignore me. I’m just being soft.”

“That you are,” said Finney.  “I like it.”

So they drank their cider between sweet tasting kisses in his bed, the big open window scattering breaths of air across their bare bodies as approaching thunder sent a warm wind scudding through his room, blowing the flimsy old nets which were all he bothered with for curtains (being high up and overlooking only the garden) into billowing land sails.

On Saturday, in the day, it being Sophie’s birthday, Dee joined the family celebration outing to the hat museum, followed by afternoon tea in the perfect, original Art Deco tearoom of the still functioning theatre and cinema in a nearby town.  Cream cakes came on a tiered stand, sandwiches had crusts cut off and waitresses wore traditional uniforms with frilly caps.  They made a fuss of the birthday girl and the music, a crackly thirties ensemble of jolly songs sung by glee singing tenors, was set to include a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’, especially for Sophie.  It was, ‘something a bit different’ to mark her tenth, their mother said, pouring tea from a dribbly silver plated pot.

“Reminds me of being at my grandma’s,” said Dee’s father.  “She had a teapot, jug and sugar bowl just like that. Not such posh cakes though.  You might have ‘a nice Battenberg for specials’, as she used to put it.”

All was going well until Dee’s mother was put in mind by this of Sophie, when little and at her own grandmother’s, offering to do the ‘wash it up it’ after tea there and asked if she remembered it, which put Sophie in a pet.

“I’m ten,” she declared with outraged dignity, which had to be mollified by all parties, since she regarded this as practically being an adult.

“Sorry,” they said and Dee’s mother went on to remember a lipstick favoured by her own grandmother long ago.

“Tangee it was called,” she said.  “Orange in the tube but pink on the lips.  I thought it was magic!  That and the powder puff she had in a cut glass jar on her dressing table.  That’s all I aspired to for being grown up,” she told them, turning the joke back on herself so that Sophie could laugh at her.

“You’re so sad, mum” she said, happy now.

 In the Mucky Pup later, for most of the evening it was just the foursome of Dee, Finney, Frankie and Nathe and they were happily discussing a vague plan for one of the spot nights in Dream, where perhaps Finney and Dee might join their ‘Hydro’ twosome.  

“Why don’t we get together for a practice session, see how we do?” suggested Frankie.  “Dee’s sung with us.”

Dee laughed.

“Yes, when it was just us at the mill one night, for fun, not in front of an audience.”

“Still, though, you’ve a got a good voice,” Nathe said.  “It complemented Frankie’s all right.”

Dee demurred but Finney, used to performing, declared himself up for it.

“I’ll come and watch,” said Dee.  “Then if nobody listens to you at least you’ll have one member of the audience.”

“Oh, they’ll listen all right,” said Frankie.  “We’re pretty loud. There’s no missing us.”

“That’s true,” Dee agreed and they went on to discuss a potential rehearsal session.

“Come up to mine,” Finney was suggesting, since Frankie and Nathe were staying with the friends who had stored their gear,  for a bit of rent off them, rather than in their own place now, when Imogen walked in, not with Baz, but with another girl they didn’t know.  When they had both got their drinks from the bar, the two girls didn’t sit with their group because as they hovered, Imogen having said hello, nobody made a move to invite them to and Frankie closed ranks by leaning diagonally across the table with her back to them, to talk to Dee sitting opposite.  They sat instead, at a nearby table.  Finney, Dee noticed, was staring at Imogen occasionally in a way worthy of Baz himself and sure enough, when he got up to go to the gents a short while later, passing them coming back, he stopped, standing over them.

“Traitor!” he said to Imogen, rather brutally.  “I know it was you now, getting Baz in on the act.”

“Oh,” said Imogen, glancing at Dee.  “Has someone been telling tales?”

Dee felt effectively belittled and blamed for spilling the beans, feeling slightly guilty in spite herself.

“Why did you tell Dee you were my girlfriend before?” Finney demanded next.

Imogen could not resist a slight smirk of satisfaction at having maybe stirred up a bit of trouble between them, it appeared.

“I did?” she said.  “I don’t remember saying that.  Anyway, why are the two of you gossipping about me?  Not very nice, is it?”

“Yeah, yeah,” scoffed Finney.   “I’m wise to you, don’t forget.”

Imogen shrugged.

“You want to calm down,” she said.  “You’re getting your knickers in a twist, Finney.”

“If that wanker comes in here tonight, I’ll have him,” Finney said angrily.  “Clear?”

“Baz doesn’t fight.  He’s too bright for that.”

“Oh, is he?” said Finney.  “Well one of us isn’t.  So tell him.  Keep away from me.”

“You can keep your hair on,” said Imogen.  “ He’s not out with me tonight.”

“Good,” said Finney, walking away from them and sitting down again, despite his warning heatedly disappointed that his quarry would elude him and having difficulty hiding it.

Imogen remained collected, sipping her drink slowly to spin out his annoyance with her being in full view, her friend, initially discomfited, being supportive about her being threatened like that.

Dee was a bit annoyed too.

“I have to work with her,” she muttered to Finney.  “Did you have to?”

“Yes,” he said shortly.  “I did.”

“Come on,” said Nathe, taking in the situation.  “Let’s go elsewhere. There’s no atmosphere in here,” he added drily, there being one you could cut with a knife right then.

The four of them drank up and went to a different bar but the easy conversation of earlier had been dissipated and Dee knew that Finney felt she should have supported him, not criticised him for tackling Imogen.

“It’s not that you weren’t right,” she said to him privately.  “It’s just - it will make things awkward for me with her.”

“Dee,” he said.  “Sometimes, you know, you really have to face up to things.”

“Oh and you think I don’t?”

“I don’t think you always find it easy to,” qualified Finney.  “Maybe I’m a bit too up front but, I couldn’t just leave it.”

“No,” she said.  “I know.”

She knew what he said was true of her but she didn’t care for it being pointed out and she was feeling used by Imogen in a way she hadn’t guessed at in time.  She thought back to the day in the garden and felt that she had been right, they were fine on their own, it was just when other people got involved that they weren’t, always.  Still, they couldn’t live in a bubble, could they, she recognised. Realising that she had gone quiet and was a bit upset now, Finney turned to telling Frankie and Nathe how Dee’s paintings had given him the whole idea for the art workshops in the first place, paying generous tribute to her talents and inspiration by way of making amends. Later he whispered that he was sorry and made an affectionate fuss of her for the rest of the night and Frankie said to her, aside,

“Don’t you worry about Imogen.  She’ll behave herself at work. You stick with me.  I’m in for a while now,” and Dee was comforted that she wasn’t being seen as foolish or weak by them after all.

“You’re just a gentle soul” Finney told her when they were alone together later.  “And that’s a lovely thing.  I mean, I’m pretty laid back most of the time but hell, I’m only human.  And I am a bloke.”

“I noticed,” Dee said, laughing, and they were able to get past the moment, intimate again

Andrew’s start date at Watson’s Wheatsheaf crashed through the calendar towards him with the speed of an approaching avalanche and, as is the way with that sort of thing, from thinking that there was lots of time to plan for the new venture, suddenly it was upon him.  He had told Sarah that he had a few weeks of commissioned accountancy work coming up, which would be concentrated and long hours, so he might not have a lot of time to spare, regrettably, while he had all that on. She herself was covering more slots at the shared veterinary practice where she was a junior partner, as it was her turn to step in for others on holiday and, it being Summer, there was a lot of small animal work coming in due to fights, bites, pests and other more constant issues, so she too would be tied up for the foreseeable future.  Andrew had found himself amazed by the oddities of the things she had to deal with.

“I mean,” he had said skeptically of one conversational account of her day’s cases, “birthing pigs I’ve dealt with.  That I understand. But….a guinea pig with glaucoma? And you can actually treat it? I’m amazed you can even diagnose it!”

“Yes, and if you don’t do something about it, their eyeballs can explode,” said Sarah, matter of factly.

“Oh, my God!” exclaimed Andrew.  “Tell me no more,” he shuddered. “I thought it was all cuddly stuff in your world.”

“Far from it.  There’s plenty more where that story came from,” she averred, teasing him for being squeamish.

“I don’t want to know!”  he exclaimed. “I want to remember my hamsters as having had happy lives.”

“Did they?”

“Well, yeah. Till they died, of course.  They just got whisked away, though, so I suppose I never saw the worst.”

“The most common thing for them is -”

“Shut up!” Andrew interrupted hastily.   “This phone’s going down right now!” he had concluded, telling her he would ring her tomorrow if she promised to be nice, as she continued to laugh at him.

On the run up to starting at Watson’s Wheatsheaf, while awaiting confirmation following the references Nolan was faking up for him being accepted, Andrew had done some idle browsing on line about the firm.  Sepia antecedents of the present owners showed a post First World War survivor whose unfocussed gaze bore witness to the chronic short sight which had saved him from battle, a stoutly aproned spouse beside him (Herbert and Nora Watson).  There was a younger brother (Fred Watson) who had been just too young to be called up and was luckily on hand, full bodied and alive, to do the initial delivery boy running round, though at age twenty two when the business was established, no longer in his boyhood.  He was just married then to Audrey, who at twenty one herself, pictured with him in their wedding garb, already looked about a hundred (which she did in fact live to be) under a crushing cloche dome topping her spindly, long nosed figure. The poor girl had certainly not looked lovely in white, or not, at least, in the unforgiving fashions of the day, thought Andrew, studying the photographs and account of how Watson’s Wheatsheaf came to be.

They had begun their enterprise in the kitchens of the Victorian pile where they were in the service of the last inheritor of an old cotton mill’s estate, one Ely Garnett having created it.  Miss Garnett had been elderly and as the youngest of the final female line of only child cousins who had also remained childless and single, did not have a surviving relative to bequeath it to.  The war had felled any distantly linked males who might have claimed it.  It was fortunate for the Watsons that they had already branched out into the original bakehouse she had allowed them to construct in the grounds before she left happily to finish her days in a private nursing home with more modern comforts about her.   After her departure, an accidental conflagration saw off a large part of the house, in quite bad repair by then, the rest having to be demolished for safety reasons following the fire.  It was seen at the time as being a great pity for the Watsons because it turned out, when she died a short time later, that she had bequeathed the remainder of her property, land and capital to them in gratitude for their friendly care of her and with all good wishes for their future success, as well as, prior to her death, peppercorn renting them the grounds to work in.  There was sufficient to develop the whole place into the baker’s factory business it soon was, behind the high stone walls which had formerly enclosed the house and garden plots.  There had been some surprise about the old lady’s will, but it was proved and these were, after all, new times, with new social orders replacing the old. A couple of stuffy newspaper articles from the day, uploaded to the website, attested to these details.  There was also a picture of Miss Garnett sitting on a chair before her then drawing room window, the four staff standing suitably behind her in the embrasure to avoid any show of familiarity.  Everyone wore the distantly beady eyed look of strain engendered by posing for a studio style photograph, Miss Garnett holding a book which seemed to have some significance.  Further information revealed this to have been a monograph on her youthful travels which she had vanity published in her age.  Andrew found it all rather touching and liked her thumbing her nose at society by leaving everything to the Watsons. Maybe, he conjectured (possibly not the first to have done so), they had all come up with it together.

“Get me out of here,” she might have said, “and once I’m settled comfortably in, burn the whole wood rotted mess of it down and start again.  I hated it always!”

The house had been ugly, heavy and badly proportioned, looking as if it meant to confine you rather than offer you a home and, in pictures of it, squatted in sooty gloom at the foot of the hill behind it.  Andrew wouldn’t have blamed her at all, he thought, if she had put arson forward as the solution to its continued existence and drain on her resources.

Watson’s Wheatsheaf had gone on to prosper, if the family myth were to be believed, with continued unity and barely a rift in any lute to be discerned as it became a key source of quality baking in the area, branching out, as the Watsons’ own family tree did in time, into being an established name in the catering trade, as relied on as Betty’s in Harrogate for proper Northern teacosiness.  It looked, thought Andrew, moving on to the present day incumbents, great greats in grandchildren terms, to be operating a successful publicity machine. On the ‘Do you want to work for us?’ page where they were beamingly pictured, it declared underneath their photograph,

“You don’t have to be family to be one of us at Watson’s Wheatsheaf.”

Andrew wondered how true that really was.  He’d find out soon enough. Once more he thought of Ben, with those round eyes that looked so transparent but conveyed so little, in the cafe the first time he had met him, shuffling the sugar tubes as Andrew had tried to prompt him.

“If only you’d told me, Ben” he addressed him now, “what it was you wanted me to follow you for.”

Nolan had suggested that once he started, Andrew should record video clips of himself just saying anything that came to mind about the people, days or nights there that had struck him, then they could review them to see if any picture was appearing to throw any light on what had really happened to Ben.

“I’ll feel a bit stupid just talking to myself,” Andrew had objected.  “I usually do notes.”

“This is different,” said Nolan.  “I think a video diary will be more spontaneous because you’ll be there all the time, on your own, don’t forget.  You need to report it as you go along so we can work on picking up on things, all the bits you might forget if you were trying to remember them to write up later.  It’ll make it routine, set ten minutes a day aside, you can say a lot in that length of time. Live stream it to me and I’ll record it automatically for you.”

“I’ll give it a go,” said Andrew doubtfully.  “How’s life in ‘The Vortex’?” he asked next, because following a period of quiet after ‘The Great Stink’ as Billy had termed rodentville, rehashing the historic term, they had been plagued by hideous hatchings of flies emerging in clusters on their kitchen windows and patio doors downstairs, crawling horribly towards the light.

“Costly,” said Nolan.  “I have to spray the blighters, sweep up the corpses and then we have to go out to eat because we can’t in there till we’re sure it’s all over.”

“Vile!” agreed Andrew.  “I suppose Billy won’t do it?”

“You suppose right.  He spends his time wringing his hands with antiseptic gel in the other room leaving me to it, as you might imagine.   I tell you, even I was nearly crying about it. I think it’s pretty much done now, though. We thought we’d have to put the house on the market.  I said we could put in the advert saying, ‘Like wild life? Why live in the country? Enjoy it in the comfort of your own home.’”

“Yuk, pretty nauseating,” Andrew commiserated, after laughing at the proposed description.  

They agreed on a drink to help Nolan get over it all on the following night and over that, in a micro brewery bar near Andrew’s flat, they mulled over doing a replay of ‘Heaven and Hell’, trying to follow the same decisions that Andrew had first made and guess at Ben’s possible choices, just to see if there had been, after all, any relevance in any of that.

Dee was relieved that the Leeds trip was coming up, when it did so, because it was, despite assurances, a bit stilted now between her and Imogen in the ‘Pomme d’Or”.  They avoided each other where they had been companionable but there was always so much kerfuffle between kitchen and service that it wasn’t particularly noticeable to the others, or to Gus, and Frankie just didn’t care, so around her there were no awkward moments with Imogen.   In Leeds, Finney and Dee found themselves crammed into now empty student quarters in a hall of residence block, a small, single, cupboard like room having to do for both of them.

“It’s a good job the bed’s against the wall,” Finney had said sweet naturedly after the first night of sleeping on the outside edge.  “Or more than one of us would be falling out on to the floor all the time.”

It was spartanly uncomfortable and they agreed that urgent searches for a proper rental were definitely necessary before they started there in the Autumn.  They had come forearmed and Dee was doing visits to places while Finney was starting the workshop course.  The cost of rent, though, it soon became clear, would make a house share the only viable prospect.  They had moved on to researching those and Dee was to go on a couple of visits in the afternoons while Finney returned to his workshop.  They were in the town centre at lunchtime, Finney taking shots of Dee on the Town Hall steps beside the stone lions, because he had an antique theme in mind for his sculpture project and wanted some ideas.  Frankie’s hair had given him the notion, he said, of a Medusa style lion’s mane and girl fusion but he wasn’t sure yet. The lions gaped an indifferent maw to camera, while Dee obediently moved about as he asked her to.  When he had finished, he realised he was running late and would have to get back to the class.  They swiftly kissed goodbye and Dee sat on the steps to check the directions on her phone to the first place she was going to see after a bit of a shop in the old arcade, which she liked the look of, leading off the nearby shopping precinct.  Looking up, she idly watched, from her vantage point, the people coming along the street towards her and it. 

What looked like a large family group was approaching now, the women in front pushing prams urgently before them as if driving chariots, chivvying the tardy followers on with whipping calls behind them to ‘hurry up’, the message quite clear even if Dee didn’t understand the language. Scarves flowed, glittery threads sparkling amid vivid colours and the chatter passed by in a hasty rush of busily talking women.  Bigger children were behind them and then some menfolk, ambling and chatting in disregard of the calls to catch up with the business of the outing.  They passed too and finally the last, one on his own, not seeming to be a participant, even in that, came more clearly into view.  Dee stood up suddenly, dropping her phone which clattered down the steps and fell on to the pavement right at the feet of this individual, who naturally stopped and bent to retrieve it.

“Hey!” he said, turning to see where it had come from. “You dropped your phone. I hope it’s not broken.”  He was still looking at it in his hand before turning fully to Dee, saying, “The screen’s not cracked. You could be lucky.”  

Polite concern turned to astounded recognition as Al found himself looking at Dee.  He looked hastily after the group in front and called something out to them to explain his delay, waving the phone and someone shouted back in acknowledgement.

“Dee!” he exclaimed disbelievingly.  “What are you doing here?”

“Me?” she returned.  “What are you doing here yourself?”

“It’s my home town.  I’m visiting Ma and the folks.  You?” he interrogated, neither of them able to behave quite naturally in the unexpected moment.

“Finding digs.  I’m starting Uni in the Autumn here. Art,” she returned, not mentioning Finney in the equation.  “Is one of those your baby?” she asked, gesturing towards the retreating backs of the ensemble ahead of him.  Al nodded.  “Your wife?”   He nodded again.  “What do you call him?” she asked about the child because all the prams had proudly held baby boys.

“ Little tyke,” said Al. “Remind him of his roots.  Can’t have him all one sided,  can I?” and a hint of the old grin returned.  He handed Dee the phone. “It’s working,” he said. “I’ve put my number in it.  And I’ve sent yours to mine.”  One of the figures in front turned, pram too and began a proposed return back towards him.  “It’s all right!” he called.  “I’m coming now.”  He and Dee gazed at one another for a long moment. “Call me?” he asked, as a plea rather than as a statement of expected fact.

“I’m here for a week,” she found herself telling him.

“Then, call me,” he said again and, under the observation now of several of the men and women who had stopped to wait for him, he went to join them, unable to touch or kiss her in full view of them, apart from when their fingers had met when he handed her the phone.

Dee remained where she was until she had watched Al, in the midst of his family group now, disappear with them out of sight.   She looked down at the phone in her hands, silent and still, as if it might be the portal to magic him up again as it just had done, and she knew, whatever she intended to do rightly, that she would, call him, because the pull of seeing him remained as strong as ever, as it had clearly been for Al, too, on seeing her.  They didn’t need to say anything to know that.  She walked on herself and through to the covered arcade, everything she saw part of an excited nostalgic blur, half expecting to come across them all again.  Alone, for now she didn’t fight it, wanting Al back, and she indulged the feelings sweeping through her.  She knew they both felt, thwarted the last time by Al’s mistaken semi flight to her being done all wrong, that the chance encounter now was surely meant to be.  Al had looked no different.   He was still setting himself apart from all that went with his arranged family life, Dee felt she had seen at once, from the way he had hung back, choosing to walk behind on his own, thinking his own thoughts away from the sociable melee going on ahead of him.

At the appointed time, she took the short bus ride for the viewing booked, a double bedroom at the front of a small house straight off the street being the one she and Finney were interested in.  Amongst its red brick fellows in a short terrace, it could do with a repaint of interiors but was not obviously damp.  The bathroom and kitchen would be shared, along with a living room still ornamented with left behind traces of its not long since departed former student occupants, as was the alley at the back, where a small dump of what nobody wanted to take away with them was still waiting to be collected, she saw, when she was shown the little yard and what was behind it on the tour.  There were four tight streets of similar dwellings, all named after Crimean War battles, dating the build.

“I don’t want to live here with Finney,” Dee found herself thinking.  “I want to live somewhere back with Al.”  It was a clear thought, with too much truth in it to be dismissed.  “I can’t let go,” Dee realised, whilst realising, too, that it was surely just as much of a hiding down to nothing as it always had been for her not to do so.

There were no other people scheduled in for viewings yet, the house having only just come empty, so she thanked the letting agent, being suitably enthusiastic and putting a first dibs marker down for being able to pay the deposit quickly, saying she’d be in touch about it after speaking to her boyfriend.  She didn’t mention the other places she had lined up to see, following the agreed plan to do her best to find something if possible. She had another place to look at the following day.

Finney was enjoying the workshop, where he said he’d met another couple of people who would be joining them at the University, who were doing the optional preliminary Summer school sculpture course as well.

“You’ll like them, Dee,” Finney assured her.  “I’ve been telling them we’re already looking at possible house shares and they’re up for it, too, so it could be cool with people we’ve already met, instead of total strangers.”  This seemed fair enough to Dee (unsurprised that he was already gathering people up, as was his way) to whom the prospect of any of it happening still seemed far from real, quite apart from her having seen Al again.  “We’d be two of each,” said Finney. “They’re not a couple, though, so we can have the double and they can have the singles, maybe.”

Dee, whose mind was not really on things, agreed but pointed out she’d only seen one place.  Finney was keen to take her word for it that it looked all right and persuaded her that they should say they wanted it.

“Bird in the hand and all that?” he suggested.  “We can change our minds if you see something you think we’d like better.”  They looked again at the pictures of the house’s exterior and rooms inside online.  “It’s on the bus route and everything. Shops nearby. We’re not looking for a dream home, are we?”

Dee went along with it and duly rang the lettings agency to secure it, being in good time to do so,  while agreeing with Finney that she would continue with the other viewings she had booked. They went along to the refectory for the evening meal which was part of the arrangements  but the two people he had mentioned were not there, so he said he’d introduce her another day.

“Plenty of time,” he said cheerfully, then told her all about how his sculpting design was coming along.

The following day, Dee said goodbye to Finney and at eleven, instinctively feeling it to be the right time to do so, she rang Al, who answered immediately.

“I can see you this afternoon,” she told him.  “I’m supposed to be looking at a place but I’ve cancelled it.”

“Are you on your own?” asked Al.

“No.  But I am this afternoon.   Are you?”

“I’ll make sure I am,” he said.

The conversation was concise, as they concentrated on the urgencies of arranging to meet.  It was as if they had got past the need for anything but the essentials between them because time was, of course, going to be brief.  Dee took the bus into the city centre and waited once more at the Town Hall steps, it being one of the few places she knew.  A silver car flashed up and she got in, Al sharing delighted, triumphant smiles with her before speeding away to wherever he had chosen for their short, intense tryst.  They discussed no ‘one days’ or future plans because they both believed, now, with a silent understanding, that it was bound to happen, somehow, not in any certain time, perhaps but knowing that whoever else was in their lives, they would find ways not to be kept apart, and with Al present, as it always had done, Dee’s resolve vanished as if it had never been. 


Chapter 25 - Working at 'Watson’s Wheatsheaf’

The total immersion technique of living and breathing ‘Watson’s Wheatsheaf’ was fully absorbing, making analysis difficult.  The video diary began to work for Andrew.  At night, he and Nolan, as planned, in their separate homes, replayed ‘Heaven and Hell’ but it never did quite work itself out in the same ways, sometimes offering darker choices if things went wrong.

“Can you live with yourself?” it might ask, if your choices meant death for someone.  “Why wait for retribution? Reincarnate now to play again.”

That, of course, meant choosing to die yourself as a character.  It was not, Andrew and Nolan agreed, a game for the lonely or insecure to get lost in and displayed a sinister side beyond the obvious.  Nolan said that while Andrew was busy at the bakery, he’d try to find time to find out more about the game’s creators.

Andrew had seen no signs of any chicanery so far in Watson’s Wheatsheaf, although, on beginner duties, his activities had initially been limited to warehouse unloading, sorting and shifting under supervision.  There was a busy camaraderie of noisily shared instructions from one area to another and friendly rivalries over whose turn it was to enjoy driving the little fire engine red fork lifts over to the electronic loading bays, these days activated by pressing buttons where once you would have winched up pulley ropes.  

Andrew’s initiatory drive was accompanied by cheering, clapping and whistling by way of encouragement and the presentation of a joke steering wheel prize for achievement (one of the Watson's Wheatsheaf giant doughnuts with sprinkles) to mark the occasion, a bit of the inclusive fun they  seemed to enjoy here, inhouse traditions like this one affectionately observed. He had quickly felt a part of things and was unexpectedly enjoying himself belonging in an undemanding crowd. Usually his work, apart from being with Nolan and seeing his clients, was rather solitary, beavering at book-keeping on short term contracts for people in different venues.

Graduating onwards from the warehouse duties, he helped to load up the delivery vans too, and through this, although not yet on the factory floor, he began to get to know the bakers and drivers, because at Watson’s, as he already knew from shadowing Ben, duties alternated.  It was both a collaborative and divide and rule method of occupying and controlling the workforce, he thought, people knowing one another but moved about between groups and activities too frequently and through changing shifts to form a cohesive body. There had never been a union at Watson’s, he knew, having asked someone, who had just laughed and said,

“What would we need one of those for?”, as if it were a thing quite outside their ken.

Andrew’s slightly old fashioned manner fitted in quite well when Viv put him on a stint in the shop and hadn’t especially marked him out amongst his fellows because he had no side to him and was neither self conscious, although his easy blushes made him seem shy, nor someone who stood on his dignity.  He knew how to be accepted and it was too busy a place for it to appear at first as if there were any particular cliques. There was a little more standing about time in the shop, though and an opportunity arose, in a customer lull, when only the staff were in, to chat cautiously around the topic of Ben, as it seemed that a monthly health and safety briefing was coming up.

“They’ve stepped them up since, well, you know,” began one of the other brown coated servers, coming to a halt at a warning look from someone else, as he was telling Andrew that it would be this week.

“Since what?” prompted Andrew innocently.

“Well, there was an accident with one of the machines a bit back.  They have us all in to go through everything and demonstrate safe operating rules,” said the other after a glance around to make sure nobody was in earshot.

“It’s very rare at Watson’s,” put in the comfortable woman on the cake counter opposite their grocery one.  “I’ve been here years and it’s never happened before.”

“What did happen?” prompted Andrew again but still there was hesitation in coming out with it.

“They don’t like it being talked about, not to upset people, they say, but, of course, bad for the firm’s reputation, too.  All got hushed up at the time, press wise, well paid not to print or report on air I’d say,” his brown coated companion, Mike, a middle aged man like the woman opposite, said, without explaining it still.

“You make sure Viv’s not around if anyone’s mentioning the accident,” the woman, called Linda, cautioned Andrew.  “You’re still new so you wouldn’t know not to ask. Anyway, I’d say they look after us here pretty well, wouldn’t you?” she said more openly and Mike said,

“Oh, yes, you’d never want to leave, would you?“ reverting, as Andrew had noticed people were wont to do here, to comfortable cliches, a conversational gloss which only occasionally rubbed off.

It was a convention observed, he thought he recognised, to preserve their jobs, because if there ever was a grumble, someone was bound to remark that they should all be grateful to be in work like this and with good wages, too.  The sayings on the signboard lettered notices about the ‘Watson’s Wheatsheaf’ premises consistently reflected on the loyalty required of its workers in the guise of cosy, sampler like pieties, saying,

“We’re all friends at Watson’s,” or “ One big happy family for almost one hundred years!” and the like, suggesting that any overt malcontent would be swiftly shown the door.

In the shop, Andrew waited for another hiatus between customers, where today’s pitch for the Watson’s speciality tea loaf was going down  very well at the cake counter,  whilst he was enjoying weighing out lump sugars, leaf teas or coffee beans on the brass scales and serving them in blue paper packets fastened with the Watson’s Wheatsheaf delivery boy on round stickers.  He hadn’t been let at the full cheeses or churned butters requiring a good eye to cut the right weight with the wire as yet, which also featured as local produce and Watson’s specialities. That was Mike’s department.  It was enjoyable role play which took many a customer back to their childhood shopping days and they even had plastic milk tokens to bring in (purchased at the door with their tickets) to buy fresh milks, creams or butter milks from the shop.

“So,” Andrew said eventually when it was quiet again, “what happened, then, in the accident?  Just so I know what not to be mentioning if it does come up?”

“Something went wrong and a person got - hurt,” Mike compromised.

“They don’t let anyone work alone now with the big industrial mixers,” said Linda.

“They never did, though, or at least, nobody was supposed to.”

“He must have got careless, cut corners to do something,” suggested Linda.

“Sounds nasty?” Andrew said.

“Poor lad died.  I wouldn’t start asking about it, though, like I say, if you want to make a go of it here.”

“Oh, I won’t” Andrew mendaciously assured her, looking rosily reliable.   “One of Watson’s family secrets, I take it.”

“You could put it that way,” the woman said with a smile, adding sadly.  “ Such a shame. Nice quiet lad he was. No trouble.” Whilst being another time honoured trope for describing a deceased person, Andrew had to admit that for all he knew of Ben himself still, it was apt enough.  “Chap who found him left soon after, mind you he was coming up to retirement anyway, Ron, and he was so upset, I think they gave him an extra settlement to just go and get over it. They’re good that way, you know, at Watson’s, for taking care of people.”  

“Come for a pint after work, Andrew,” Mike offered, changing the subject.  “It’s about time you came along.”

“Oh, thanks,” said Andrew, gratified on several counts, firstly because this indicated acceptance of him, secondly because he would have another chance to dig and lastly because he was safe from chance recognition by the man who had been with him when he discovered Ben dead.

Post shift he duly went along with Mike and several others to the not surprisingly named “Watson’s Arms,” down the road, its microbrewery specials a nod to the erstwhile benefactor, being branded “Garnett’s Ales”.  There was not a lot that the modern Watsons had not branched out into, on the back of heritage enterprises, thought Andrew. Off site, others came along later to join their group of ready made customers keeping the Watson’s Arms in convivial business.

Andrew noticed amongst them, as he had occasionally about the place during his time so far, the two people he had seen Ben observing on the occasion which had struck him at the time as just slightly out of the way for Ben.  They seemed, here, not so much a couple in themselves as a couple of people whom other people naturally wanted to please, courting the favour of their attention. They had an air at once both smug and wary, as if people might have to work hard to be included by them but naturally would want to be.

“Who are they?” he asked Mike, whom he was sitting next to.

“Those two?   Came in on a sponsored scheme a few months ago.   Community service or rehabilitation or something.  I don’t know. Watson’s like to do their bit.”

“You don’t sound as if you approve?”

“None of my business,” shrugged Mike.  “People have to be given a chance to work don’t they, even if they have gone off the rails a bit as kids?”

“Did they?”

“Rumour has it.”

“I didn’t think Watson’s approved of rumours,” Andrew laughed.

“It doesn’t but we’re all human aren’t we?” Mike said, conceding a bit from the approved behaviours.  “Watson’s likes to give ones that are local the opportunity to get back on track.”

“Interesting,” said Andrew, adding idly.  “I wonder what their past is?”

“Best kept there, I’d think.  Don’t you?” said Mike, raising a pointed eyebrow and dropping the subject.  “I doubt it’s anything that bad.”

“No, I suppose not,” agreed Andrew, dropping the subject advisedly and thinking he’d better not  probe any further about the ‘accident’ right now after all.

These two young people were perhaps a few years older than Ben but he wondered, had Ben known them before, perhaps and was that the source of his interest in them?  Ben himself had sounded local but he had never asked him. They had youth still in their faces but it was being pared into the harder features of adulthood. His was a bit scarred somehow, but whether through injury or acne Andrew could not tell from this distance and didn’t want to catch his eye, which had a fidgety aggression in it that he seemed to be containing.  She, though, was perhaps the more dominant character, somehow, the one whose assumed loudness was what people were paying attention to.

“I don’t think they’re your type, Andrew,” Mike suggested, noticing his continued covert observation.  “They might not be very kind to you. I’d stick with us, if I were you.”

So, Andrew thought ruefully, he’d been marked down as a softy anyway by the men he worked with but it wasn’t as if he wasn’t used to that assessment of him.

“Happy to,” he said.  “Did I tell you, I’m a country boy myself?” and he went on to talk of where he came from and got his phone out to show Mike and the others some pictures of it, duly admired as a “proper beauty spot, that is”.

Under cover of going on to take a shot of his workmates in the pub to show ‘mum and dad up there’ what he was up to, he managed to take in the young man and woman nearby.

Looking at it later, he saw that his action hadn’t been missed, because the young man was looking directly to camera in a challenging way, that “what do you think you’re looking at,” kind of way which went with what Mike had suggested might be his back story of some bit of trouble or other.

In his video diary, Andrew made as detailed an account as he could of the little he had been told about the accident, then he rang Nolan directly and said, if he phone mailed him a photograph, could he isolate the young couple he’d just described to him.

“Natch,” said Nolan.  “Why?”

“Could be something.  Could be nothing. Ben seemed to look at them that’s all.”

“Sounds like a lot do,” said Nolan.  “If they’re a bit rough and loud they’ll stand out there, won’t they?”

“Well, yes but, it’s the only thing I did notice.”

“I think you should stick to finding more about what happened to Ben with that accident.”

“Yes.  Watson’s were quick off the mark to pension Ron off, weren’t they, and to keep it all very quiet publicity wise?”

“Definitely.  I think you’re looking at a firm with some very dodgy safety in the workplace issues.  If so, he won’t be the only one at risk, will he?”

“True.  There’s no union or anything and everyone’s very careful to praise everything all the time.”

“So you told me.  I’ve been streaming the video diary, don’t forget.  You be careful. Maybe what’s really going on there is that everyone’s scared to say a word out of turn in case they get sacked but there could be all sorts of safety aspects that should be addressed.”

“Maybe.  So far it all seems fine.”

“You haven’t been on the factory floor yet, though, have you?”

“No, I haven’t.  Not yet. I will be soon.”

That, in fact, was scheduled for the following week.

 Dee had arrived back at the empty modernity of the hall of residence to shower, change and think for a while.  By agreement, she and Al had not watched each other go and that there was sure to be a next time was no longer doubted by either of them.  She sat alone on the single bed, with its short view across to a tree outside which filled the small window with green leaves and sudden bursts of diminutive birds flitting into and out of it, intent on aphids.  For all its claustrophobia, the tiny room felt, just for now, like a safe space in which to let her mind settle back into itself. She had no intention of telling Finney or anybody else. By the time she went across to meet him in the student bar, open for the Summer schoolers, she had locked it all down again.  He was there, as arranged, with the other two prospective housemates, who seemed friendly enough. Dee said that today’s viewing had been no good, so they agreed to stick to first choice and the possible future tenants of 6, Inkerman Street raised a glass in toast, because Dee had, before joining them, arranged a second viewing of the property and to go and sign up the estate agents’ contract.  Everyone, with a little parental help, had the wherewithal to put down the necessary deposit. That having been achieved, and their place of student residence established, the workshop week was nearly through.  Dee was going to be with Finney for the last couple of days of it, because she’d offered to help with setting up the final exhibition room furnishings and fancies for a setting, having had plenty of practise with Crash Start Art, which provided a lively enough topic of conversation for getting to know the new people.  

The stone sculpture workshop pieces had displayed well against the rich blue plinth drapes Dee had arranged to set them off, Finney’s, in fact, being nothing like the complex notion he had begun with, dissuaded by the tutor from it as being far too difficult to complete in the time allowed, so he had settled for a perfectly polished marble sphere which made you want to touch it immediately.  Photographed for the occasion and advertising brochure, the sculptures were next set up in the college entrance hall’s ‘Newbie’s gallery’.

Back in the Pomme D’Or, Dee found that Frankie and Nathe were now fully working together there, he having stepped in when Dee was away and remaining because Imogen, Dee was glad to find, had now left.  Finney, though, said when she told him, not to count her chickens.

“Why?” she had asked.

“It’s my guess they’ll both turn up in Leeds.”

“But, why?” she had asked again.

“Because, where I go he always goes in the end.  Don’t ask me why, because he can’t stand me.”

“Oh, god, I hope not!  She never said anything about that to me?”

“Not her,” returned Finney.  “She’s doing fashion here, isn’t she?  But she’ll be visiting him and I’ll bet you anything we’ll be seeing Baz in Leeds.”

But Dee, who had other thoughts about who she might be seeing in Leeds in the future, did not pay this too much heed at the time.

Walking in from a warmly sunny early morning to the factory floor for the health and safety briefing, dressed anonymously like everybody else in the uniform white coveralls from head to toe, felt surreal to Andrew.  Heady scents of Christmas wafted incongruously through from the steam vents because they were already baking for then, rich cakes which would prove over time, the Watson’s delivery boy surrounded by stylisted snowflakes on seasonal tin lids.  Treacly rich fruits suffused with the spices of ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg created the whole redolence of Yule.  It took a moment for Andrew to adjust, childhood in his mother’s kitchen instantly recalled, having a traditional stir of the batter for luck.  As this still went on, observed with polite indulgence by him and his father, why it struck him with such a nostalgic sense of loss he couldn’t understand, except to think that a sentimental reaction to the whole fabricated concept of Christmas was by now programmed into the national psyche of those who celebrated it and easily triggered by association.

These sensations punched in and out quickly as he listened with everyone else to a run through of safety regulations and practices on the factory floor.  When they trooped on through to the next key room and the industrial mixing vats on two levels, Andrew was glad of the concealing garb and a crowd to hide his dismay in.  The reiteration of regulations, ‘never operate any machines alone, always observe the shift rules, never attempt any cleaning or maintenance duties alone’, settled him down again, concentrating on that helping to shut out the inevitable visual of finding Ben which assailed him on entrance to that place, a part of the factory he had not yet visited in the course of working there in his first weeks and one which he had not been keen to return to.

He took the opportunity to look around at others but although faces showed encircled by hood hats, they were so depersonalised by their surrounding clothing that it was impossible to read much into their expressions.  He observed to the person nearest to him that the management seemed to be making a big deal of this health and safety session, to test the water.

“Accident waiting to happen,” this person, not somebody Andrew had met before said, reminding him of similar things he had overheard on the day of Ben’s death.  “Watson’s have always run things their own way.”

“Really?” Andrew probed interestedly.  

“Those aren’t the right machines for this carry on.  The ones you get to up on that galley platform there.  Purpose built but far too deep. They don’t listen, though. That’s how it happened. ”

“An accident?”

“That’s right.  A fatal one.”

Unexpectedly, Viv, apparently exempt from coveralls, appeared at their elbow, emerald green bolted to her embonpoint by a large sparkly broach, a lizard clambering gamely up her cleavage.

“Taking it all in, I hope, Andrew?” she enquired, skewering his neighbour with an all seeing eye, her radar apparently alerted.  “Andrew’s new here,” she informed them “and I want him to understand how things work at Watson’s.”

“Oh, aye,” returned the other, undeterred.  “We all have to understand that, don’t we?  That’s the point of this health and safety do, you see, Andrew, is it?  Like I was just saying, you can’t be too careful working with these big machines.  I mean, falling in could be fatal, couldn’t it?”

After a short standoff, during which Viv’s hard stare was returned with equal force, Viv suddenly beamed.

“Quite,” she said.  “Frank here’s one of our stalwarts,” she told Andrew.  “Been here forever, haven’t you?” She gave a brave little laugh.  “Like me.”

“That’s right,” said Frank drily.  “I last out.”

A few seconds of acrid silence followed, suggesting subtext and signalling that Frank, historically, had never been one to back down (which Andrew filed away for future reference) and then Viv drew Andrew expertly aside, saying,

“The briefing’s over, Andrew.  Will you change out of those coveralls and come to the office, please?  I want you in there today to sort the payroll run out.  I’m one down sick and I need a figures man.”

Andrew could see that she was testing whether or not he might balk at it and reveal less skill than he’d claimed.

“Of course,” he said.  “I’ll be glad to help.”

“Good.  See you in five,” said Viv, walking away as briskly as ever in spite of her high heels, this time scarlet red, like the belt round the emerald green tunic dress she was wearing over stretchy black leggings.  She looked today, thought Andrew rudely, like an oversized pantomime boy, a comparison the Christmas baking smells might have brought to mind.

In the office that day, when he and Viv got there, were about eight people at the computer terminals dealing with orders for goods, customer service enquiries and complaints, stock ordering and accounts, the bit Andrew was being brought in to assist with for the payroll run.

The two women on customer care had headsets on and were mid call in both cases, so just waved beringed, false nail adorned hands in silent greeting as Viv brought him through to that end of the office space, where he was partnered with someone around his own age, crisp auburn hair cropped brutally short apart from a spring of curls on top.  His blue suit had a silk shimmer to it which looked expensive and his eager expression said,

“I’m all over it.  I’m the best.”

It was clear, thought Andrew, that this person was also a recent employee keen to impress Viv and it turned out that his conjecture was correct.

“Andrew’s one of my new boys too, Ethan,” Viv introduced him.  “So you’re going to have some help today.  I hope you’ve picked enough of the ropes up to cover, since Phil’s off?”

“No worries, Viv,” Ethan assured her brightly, risking a slightly flirtatious wink.  “I’m on it.”

Viv, however, was in gracious mode today and without responding to the intimation of a permitted familiarity said, a little crushingly,

“I hope so.  I’ll leave you both to it, then, for now.  I’ll send Ken up later to double check. He’s supervising in the factory this morning.”

“Fine!” agreed Ethan confidently.  “There’ll be no problem, though.

He didn’t risk another wink, although it was clear that it had gone down well when he had tried it before.  Andrew picked up an exchange of grins between the others in the office at seeing a new favourite pulled down a bit now and wasn’t surprised.  Viv was someone who evidently played people off against one another.  Andrew himself had gone for neutrally deferential reserve with her, always courteous, never presumptuous, which allowed him to keep out of all that whilst appearing to be entirely on side.  If Ethan were at all cast down, which Andrew doubted since he was just operating by playing the game, he didn’t show it, now turning, neatly professional, to Andrew and inviting him matily to sit down as Viv went off again.  Andrew, to whom all this was as being a grandmother taught to suck eggs, allowed himself to be shown everything, Ethan flourishing his brief seniority like a dandy’s lace handkerchief at every opportunity.  Andrew let him enjoy it and Ethan’s angular face animated with his sense of superior expertise to the point of active warmth.

Let loose after this himself, a scan through the payroll list by Andrew found Ben Bradbury’s name, rather poignantly, still on it but marked as ‘left’, no doubt due to the system’s parameters for entering information but nonetheless something of a whitewash, Andrew felt.  He found a few anomalies between personnel and payroll which he automatically tidied up and saw the two young people who interested him, Tyler Kane and Leah Martin, marked against a ‘placements’ definition, bearing out what Mike had told him. That was certainly one avenue that Andrew wanted to explore further.

When Ken arrived, duly despatched by Viv to check things over, he praised them both for all the figures (which had apparently been out in previous months) now tallying.   Andrew said nothing and Ethan’s look of swift appraisal at this self effacement was followed by him taking the credit obliquely, just as Viv arrived back, too.

“Thanks!  I’ve been showing Andrew, here, what needed doing,” said Ethan with opportunistic aplomb.

Andrew remained meek.

“Well done,” approved Ken.  “Ethan here’s got the figures straight, Viv.”

“Has he?” said Viv.  “A pity he didn’t spot that last month, then.”

“Oh, I didn’t like to push it when Phil was here,” said Ethan, sounding generous.  “He’s worked for you a long time and I didn’t want to upset his applecart.”

Viv gave him a keen look and smiled at Andrew instead.

“I’d say you’ve made a good start, Andrew,” she said, ruining all his efforts to play underdog at a stroke, so that he had to make swift amends.  His aim was to blend in and find things out discreetly, not to be resented.

“All thanks to the people training me, Viv,” he said modestly, passing the credit back to Ethan, whose display pride returned to his features like the sheen on his suit.

The others in the office showed no interest in the little tableau, all very busy in Viv’s presence but when she and Ken had gone and Andrew took the opportunity to offer to brew up for all, going from desk to desk, he met with the kind of friendly smiles that suggested nobody had missed the exchange and whose side they were on.  Andrew was one of them and Ethan was not, because he was setting himself up as management. This suited Andrew perfectly.  He wanted as many people as possible to feel comfortable with him, because there was no telling as yet, apart, possibly from Frank, where real information might lie.

There was an opportunity for a reprise of events with Nolan over the weekend because Billy was hosting an end of Summer Harvest Festival get together, which Andrew graced with a batch of freshly baked party rolls from Watson’s Wheatsheaf as his contribution, gratefully received.  Nolan was let off buttering in readiness for Billy’s special fillings to have a bit of a catch up time with Andrew, both presented with a tester Pink Gin Sling (a sliced strawberry sandwiching raspberry tiers on swizzle sticks topped by a mint sprig by way of decoration) to see if Billy had the proportions right.  They had a second one each to be sure and confirmed that he had, then retreated briefly to Nolan’s office.

Nolan had made his own notes after reviewing Andrew’s video diaries and it was interesting to compare conclusions.  Nolan still thought that the industrial accident scenario and cover up fitted best but Andrew pointed out that he had been hired to see if anybody had ‘noticed’ Ben and that this must have meant something.

“Maybe he was on to malpractice and didn’t want it bringing into the open yet?”

“He never said so.”

“He never said anything, did he?”

“Not really, no.  I’m still wondering about those two others, though, the ones on that scheme.  They were new to the place not long before the time Ben hired me.”

“I’ll do some digging into their backgrounds, then, if I can?  Find out what the placement is for.”


“You have a go at Frank.  I think he’s your best bet.”

“He might be.  I’ll try but I have to be cautious.  They’re absolutely on the case about keeping Ben’s death quiet, management and workforce alike.  But, you’re right. People are reluctant to criticise in case their jobs come under threat, and then, they just put up with whatever the working conditions are so as not to rock the boat, don’t they?”

“Exactly,” said Nolan.

“Have you found out anything about ‘Heaven and Hell’s authors?”

“No...They’re well hidden in terms of identity but there has been a bit of scandal attached - vulnerable people being lured into suicide by it, allegedly, but nothing proven.  I hardly think that’s a likely aspect with Ben, though, the way he went.”

“Definitely not!” agreed Andrew.

“It’s mostly God Squadders making the accusations, anyway, who, naturally enough, are totally opposed to the game.”

“Yes.  Well, they would be, I suppose.”

“Yup.  O.K. I’d better get back to making sure which side my bread is buttered, or I’ll be toast.”

Andrew laughed.

“I’ll come and help.”

Billy was still cheerful enough, though, buoyed up by the prospect of once again being Mein Host and bossed them about happily as to where he wanted their assistance.  

 The surround of Watson’s walls boasted a stand of mature horse chestnut trees which, magnificent in all seasons, were now dropping their fruits after the long hot Summer and deluges from  Autumn storms winging in from the sea. Conkers gleamed with silken oils, French polished by nature to a high gloss finish, their sputnik casings splitting to reveal them, freshly burnished, scattered enticingly on the ground.  Andrew could not resist picking up some of the biggest and best of them and taking them home where, not quite knowing what to do with them, he put them in a bowl on the windowsill to enjoy before they dulled and dried out. He and his father had sought out bagfuls of them in the past, caught up in collecting fever while out walking his boyhood family dog together, a leggy mongrel called Dolly, all lollop and snout, who was ever excited by the chance of a rootle in the woods.  Sarah came for a visiting weekend and, although they hadn’t especially played together as children, she had similar reminiscences to share as they went for walks themselves and gathered more conkers together, which she claimed she was going to make into craft gifts, because she knew he’d think it twee and would disapprove without liking to say so. One of Andrew’s charms for her was that he was so easy to tease.

By now, he had decided to share with her something of his and Nolan’s activity on the side, because he had to explain his now lengthening sojourn on shift work which had prevented them from meeting as much lately and, after she had finished falling about laughing in disbelief, was pleased to note that she was, if quietly, rather impressed.  He was vague about his present investigation but entertained her with his previous missing person work, now that Dee was safely, as he believed, back in the fold, without identifying individuals involved and when he was able to aver that, yes, actually, he had been the one to find the young girl at risk and bring her home again, he felt really quite gallant in Sarah’s eyes.

In the Watson’s Wheatsheaf office again with Ethan, Andrew found that account keeping was scrupulous and any faults, such as those he had found before relating to the payroll, were due to human error rather than any attempt to defraud, so he was beginning to discount anything like that as having been a factor leading to Ben’s death.  Ethan had arrived here too late to have known Ben but of those who had done, other than a general view that he was quiet and hardworking but pleasant enough, as Andrew had found Ben to be himself, there still didn’t appear to be a lot more to know.

Andrew had pressed Nolan while at the last party to at least try to find something out about Leah Martin and Tyler Kane for him, as he remained convinced that there was something there that linked them to Ben in some way.  Nolan had since done some research but found the backgrounds of the two individuals Andrew was interested in were  sketchy. The scheme was to bring people back into the workplace who had not been in work or education for some time and he couldn’t find any sign of them locally in either activity, not in itself significant as they may not have come from the area directly but then, if not, why were they on the scheme?   He cross referenced this with Ben Bradbury’s family and found that they, too, appeared, if not recently, then only twelve years or so back, according to the electoral roll.

He went to look next at the big estate that Ben had lived on the edge of by himself, wondering about that run route of his that Andrew had described and whether that meant anything.  Returning to the internet, Nolan scoured for any particular history relating to the area. Going back gradually, he found coverage, some salacious, some appalled, some full of high toned outrage, about a cuckooing crime on the big estate that had happened well over a decade ago.  It was a sadly grim tale and had been a notorious case.

There had been a small, excluded enclave on the estate set aside for supported living accommodation for vulnerable adults, only, the support itself had been cut by that time to a potentially callable warden, who covered the entirety of the estate itself for caretaking duties.  Two doors faced two doors and they were trustingly hospitable neighbours, sitting on kitchen chairs in their little porches like weather people waiting for someone else to come out. They were eager for company and so it came their way, these people who were young, middle aged and old all at once, with their badly cut hair, indeterminate sets of clothing and a sense of hygiene which declined as ‘support’ for their independent living died away.  The first to come were girls, tough young teenage roughnecks a bit on the edge of friendly, gelled hair screwed into buns like lock tight nuts. They did a bit of ‘helping’ in exchange for a liquid share in the bits of shopping they offered to bring, if given the wherewithal to do it, of course. It had begun simply enough. They started dropping by, then going in.

“Fuckin’ ell, Jeanette, it bloody stinks in your loo,” one had said, returning from using it as an excuse to look for nickable cash in hand.  “You wanna put some bleach down it.”

“Bleach?” Jeanette had repeated blankly.

“I’ll get yer some if yer like,” the girl had offered.  She was quick and fidgety, flightily duplicitous but strong minded, heading up a group of other girls and smaller youngsters caught up in running around with her.

“Cheers,” Jeanette had said, just as blankly and so it had started in earnest, with a reason for coming.

The boys arrived next, circling the girls jeeringly on their bikes as they sashayed through the estate and following them down, lured, vulture like, by the clink of bottles in the shopping bags they carried.  Tipsy laughter and music, shouting and battling began to silt up the erstwhile tranquillity of the remote spot on the once quiet side of the estate but nobody was watching out for those living in their carefully designed seclusion.  Even so, it was a while before things took any significant turn for the worse for the four residents. When it did, things escalated in various brutal ways, culminating in the kicking and stamping to death of a bewildered Jeanette, because her living money hadn’t come through, money which, by now, in the view of the gang leaders, had become their money.  Like the most vicious of enforcers, they gave out emotional, then physical punishment for failure to pay what they held to be a debt rightfully owed to them and killed her in what was described as a prolonged and eventually frenzied attack. Younger children had looked on, girls and boys alike had egged on and there was, at the eventual court case, much confusion about collusion and culpability.  The vulnerable residents afflicted were in various states of mental capacity to start with and, having declined further, being neglected, were mostly unable to explain how things had happened, the only thing one of them did say, more than once, being,

“Bad apple,” presumed to suggest, perhaps, that there had been a possible single source of influence.

It was at a time when child criminals’ anonymity was at a premium, following the controversial public naming and adult trial of two ten year olds in the 1990s, and so, other than these accounts and hints that the older ones had possibly been outed by the statements of younger ones, due to witness protection and the refusal of court to identify them, they had all gone on to be punished or live in privacy without the risk of their being known about from anything but rumour.

So this, then, was one history relating to the estate.  Nolan took the photographs of the small settlement he had screen shot on his phone back out with him to the run route and was chilled to find that it did indeed back on to the walls of the gardens dropping down to the canal towpath and that this was where, coming in from there at the rear, scrambling up the embankment and over the walls, the gathering of so many youngsters there had not been noticed in terms of walking directly to them off the estate or the environs.  Word travels fast when there’s a free party to be had.

Still, this did not constitute anything that linked directly to Ben, did it?  Or, did it? Back home, Nolan sat swivelling on the chair in his office back and forth in front of his desk, thinking.

A trawl of social media was a bit more revelatory, since Nolan was an adept at going behind the electronic scenes, as to the possible identities of the individuals involved in the dreadful crime.  He found discussion threads on various platforms back in the day, a spreading pool of Chinese whisper anecdotal allegations as to who had been whom and how much they had been at fault.

There were some photographs of the children and young teens from that time rumoured to be among the perpetrators hidden about on the net, too, which had been kept out of the official media sources.  A sturdy, solemn looking blond child, the image titled Jan Dabrowski, was caught holding the plump hand of a younger version of himself, posed in a small garden. After a bit of playing about with a piece of computer software used to do identikit likenesses, Nolan found the planes of Jan’s face were a direct match for those of the adult Ben.  He did the same with two other, slightly older faces at whom fingers were pointed as noted trouble makers with a history of causing it, Amelia Matthews and Kaden Taylor.  They were a direct match, too, for the present day features of Leah Martin and Tyler Kane of Watson’s.  The names were somehow phonetically similar to the originals, not too far away to be forgotten by the new owners of them, perhaps but different enough for new identities not to be discovered.

Nolan belatedly remembered the picture of a young boy in his school uniform that Andrew had taken at Ben’s flat and searched it out.  Having done so, there really was no doubt in his mind that this was the same boy.  This boy was the younger one rumoured to have identified the ringleaders to the police.  If it were true, he had perhaps been an easier link for the police to break open, not having been a solid part of the community from birth, his young Polish parents having arrived as part of the skilled worker boom and, whilst his brother had been born in England (from what Nolan could dig out), Jan had not been.  Wasn’t Jan the name Andrew had thought Ben’s mother had used at his funeral and believed he must just have misheard?  It had obviously struck Andrew enough to mention it to Nolan at the time, although he had ascribed it to mishearing. It seemed that Jan’s family had disappeared from the area as quickly as they had arrived in it, bearing out Nolan’s theory that witness protection was involved but Ben’s parents did not live all that far away now and Jan as Ben had come back to find himself working at Watson’s and living on the periphery of that same estate.  Had it been safe for him until Leah and Tyler arrived so unexpectedly and he still thought it would be if they didn’t recognise the man from the boy?  Why, indeed, would they have done? Besides, the case had been out of any limelight for a very long time by now.  Ben kept himself to himself by all accounts at work and at home and no wonder, if Nolan had got it right.  And yet, what if they had done, what if they had ‘noticed’ Ben and having worked out who he was, got their revenge for his betrayal?  It was a bit of a fetch, granted but it made a kind of sense of things which had been entirely lacking so far.  

Further browsing suggested that Kaden Taylor and Amelia Matthews had gone through the youth justice system, leaving a trail of former misdemeanours behind them.  Amelia Matthews, pretty much a home alone child left in charge of younger siblings by a chaotic mother, was used to holding anarchic sway over others and handed out rough justice as she saw fit,  exerting her ungoverned authority.  Kaden Taylor had thieved and joyrided his way through boyhood until a serious smash through a windscreen doing handbrake turns at speed on a motorway slip road by night had almost proved one fatal risk take too far, but he had recovered and returned to the estate.

On the threads and forums Nolan penetrated, people had debated things at length and, together with a news photograph he had found post crime of a smiling Jeanette in happier times, proud in her living room, ornaments on a little shelving unit and mantel behind her, which he had also matched to the knicknacks Andrew had photographed in Ben’s flat, he was sure he was right.  Why had Ben had them?  Had Jeanette herself given them to him for safekeeping, as one of the younger, nicer ones (as his giving testimony might have attested he may have been, had it in fact been Jan who gave it) or had a child magpie thieved them as pretty things he had coveted then and kept since as some kind of momento, tribute or good luck talisman?  Perhaps something of each, for surely they had been the originals of the sack of charms ‘The Boy’ had toted with him in the game of Heaven and Hell, which Andrew had described so vividly to Nolan at the time?  Nolan was someone whose gift for all things computer related meant he had an excellent memory and pretty much instant recall where putting things together was concerned.   

Nolan decided to tell Andrew about his new theory and alert him to the idea that  Nolan’s own previous view of things being work safety related was possibly barking up the wrong tree altogether in terms of what had really happened and that Andrew’s hunches had been right.  He hadn’t seen and wasn’t likely to see Andrew due to the shift systems and decided, once he had sorted his thoughts out clearly on the matter, that he should ring him.  He doubted at this stage if any warning were required, since Andrew had no connection to anything involved and according to his video diaries had until now been working almost everywhere but with those two people. 

Andrew, meanwhile, had still been keeping an open mind.  He had since managed to get hold of Frank because he was now learning on the factory floor, where he saw Leah and Tyler, too, because they, it appeared, being on a placement scheme,were on restricted duties and only worked in there.  Frank, he noticed, when they were all being instructed together, seemed to eye them with cautious disfavour, not easy to discern but there, all the same.  Andrew took his time about making initial approaches to the man about safety issues or working conditions, observing them for a while for himself.  There was less of the rowdy camaraderie of the warehouse in here, concentration being needed on storeroom shifting through of raw materials, the smooth running of busy conveyor belts, processing machines, baking times, quality checking of produce, packaging and loading. Eventually, on a canteen break together, Andrew took the opportunity to raise Ben’s accident again.

“I shouldn’t really have mentioned it to you,” Frank said.  “But it was a bad business, that.”

“It’s difficult to see how it could have happened, someone just falling into the mixing vat like that.  He broke his neck, didn’t he?” Andrew ventured.

“You’ve had the full story, then, from someone,” commented Frank.

“Well, I don’t know,” said Andrew.    “Does anyone really know what that is?”

“Your guess is as good as mine,” said Frank, taking the Watson’s line on gossip.

“Oh, I don’t know,” flattered Andrew.  “You seem like a man of experience who’s prepared to stand up for things?”

“Yes, well, take it from me, my lad.  It doesn’t get you anywhere. Not here.  Not anywhere much these days, I’d think.”

They reflected in silence on this remark over their machine dispensed coffees for a minute or two, then Andrew observed that he expected Frank had seen some changes in his time.

“Not as many as I’d have liked and then, some that I haven’t liked,”  Frank replied.

This was proving to be harder work than Andrew had expected.

“I was doing the payroll last week,” he offered conversationally.  “I noticed we had some people on a scheme. I was wondering what that was?”

“Good deeds,” said Frank pithily.  “They get a remuneration for taking people on it, at Watson’s.”

“Not getting owt for nowt, then,” said Andrew, getting a dry smile in return for dropping into Frank’s across the Pennines vernacular.

“No, lad. They don’t go in for that here.”

“I think two of the people I’m working with on the floor are on that.  Tyler and Leah. I might ask them about it. If it’s open to people I’ve got a friend or two it might help out,” said Andrew casually.

Frank gave a caustic chuckle.

“I doubt you’ve any friends that would need that leg up.  Not unless they’ve done time.”

“Really?” exclaimed Andrew, all startled naivety.  “I had to get character references as well as work ones before I could get taken on!”  he added, in apparent outrage at such laxity.  “Are you serious, that they’ve done time, then?”

“They’ve done something, or they wouldn’t be on the scheme.  I’d mind your own on that score, if I were you. That’s how you get to be a wise old owl like me.”  

Frank looked appraisingly at Andrew.

“Oh, I never pry into other people’s business,” Andrew lied easily, looking as candid as ever.

Frank laughed again, this time more warmly.

“Then I’d say you were nicely brought up,” he said.  “I doubt those two were.”

“I’ve seen my share of realities,” Andrew said defensively, flushing in spite of himself.

“Oh, aye,” said Frank drily.  “I’m sure. Come on.  Back to it.  We only get twenty minutes.  We don’t want Viv out with her stopwatch, do we?”

“No,” concurred Andrew, realising he wasn’t going to get any further with this right now.

On closer viewing, he had seen that what marred Tyler’s lower face were the serious scars of some old accident going through glass (probably a windscreen when joyriding, Andrew conjectured privately) whilst on Leah’s was a constant bored myriad of shifting expressions, underpinned by some resentment against life in general, requiring relief.  He suspected that tormenting others was part of obtaining it. He tried exchanging covert shared smiles and eye rolls of irritation with them as they were instructed and moved from job to job, sometimes together but they didn’t seem to warm to him, their exterior cool still freezing him out but in order to make him persist, he felt, as much as anything.  

He was waiting on the top level gantry outside the storeroom, Walkie Talkie in his work belt, waiting to be told what goods were required to be brought up and through from the pulley lifts ready for the next batch mixes when his mobile rang.  Ferreting through the complexities of the coveralls, he managed to get it out of his pocket just before it stopped and saw Nolan’s name flashing up.

“Andrew, remind me what Ben said about those ornaments he had, will you?” Nolan asked, without preamble.

“Ummmm…” Andrew considered. “He said they were keepsakes, I think.  Yes, that’s right.”

“Keepsakes,” said Nolan thoughtfully.”


“Because I think I’m on to something.”

“Really.  What have you found out?”

“Who Leah and Tyler really are.  And who Ben probably was.”


“I think so and I think they, or one of them, killed him.”

“But - why?”

“Revenge.  Listen, when can you get off?  Where are you?”

“I’m still on shift.  With Tyler as it happens.  Frank’s put us on the top galley storeroom station.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sakes!  Watch out, will you?”

“Why?  They’re not going to do anything to me, are they?  I don’t even know what you’re on about yet, do I?  Don’t fret, I’ll be careful”

“Just come here as soon as you can.  What time are you off?”

“I’m on two-six, so I can be at yours about half past six.”

“O.K.  Good.  Don’t ask any questions of anyone till I’ve talked to you.  Especially not Tyler if he’s with you.”

“All right.  I won’t,” agreed Andrew, deeply intrigued.

He had answered his phone unguardedly and after ringing off and putting it away, belt hung Walkie Talkie having remained silent, turned, thinking due to this that he was still alone, to find Tyler leaning on the gantry right beside him, well within earshot.  Startled, he quickly ran over in his head what he had said. Nothing too incriminating himself but, in order to hear Nolan over the surrounding machinery noise, he had put him on speakerphone.  Tyler, though, only said, eyeing him sourly,

“Have you done?  He’s just sent me out for you.”

“Oh.  Yeah,” said Andrew, unable to tell whether or not Tyler had just arrived or had even had any opportunity to properly overhear or not, as there was so much background cacophony everywhere.

A couple of hours later, having worked together in co-operative near silence, Frank headed back to the factory floor, leaving Andrew and Tyler to finish shunting sacks across from the pulley lifts to replenish the store room, which meant that in there, there were moments alone. Tyler had lazy lidded eyes in a muddy brown, which Andrew found turned on him in sullen study.  His scarred face, Andrew noticed now, was much paler than a Summer like this would have left it had he been enjoying it outdoors.

“All right?” Andrew enquired eventually, smiling.

The other licked his lips slowly and smiled back without mirth.

“What are you doing here?” asked Tyler bluntly.

“Eh?  Working.  Like you.”

“No.  Not like me,” returned Tyler.  “Do you know about that?”

“Huh?  Know about what?” asked Andrew.

“Don’t play dumb,” advised Tyler.  “I’ve heard you nosing about and people tell us, you know, me and Leah.”

“I don’t know what you’re on about,” said Andrew carelessly.  “Here, we need to get these out.”

He gestured to the sacks he had just loaded on to the flat trolley.  Tyler came very close to him.

“We’ve seen you here before.  Before you worked here.”

Shit, thought Andrew, he did hear that phone call, or some of it.  Looking past Tyler’s shoulder he saw the heavy door of the storeroom was closed.

“Why not?  I’ve visited here to look around and buy things like a lot of people do.  It’s not a crime, is it?”

 He cringed inwardly at his own choice of words.  Tyler clicked his tongue against the back of his teeth and licked his lips again slowly, still staring.  The action was deliberately repellant. Tyler moved fast, rabbit punching Andrew hard in the groin, so that he fell with a sickened agony, whereupon Tyler kicked him in the stomach, leaving him retching on two counts.  Tyler then leaned over him, licked Andrew’s ear, spat in it and said,

“Leave.  Never come back.  I see you one more time and you’ll be as dead as that Ben you’re so interested in.  Get it?”

Andrew did but was for some time too far gone to respond in any way, recovering slowly on the floor where Tyler had left him, until he could finally get up.  He reckoned he had better do exactly as he had just been told. This being a food production facility, there were very strict rules on keeping any gastro enteric infections out, so Andrew took a hasty route to the outdoor gents, spent some time coming round a bit further with his head between his knees and emerged looking as wan as a bout of something unexpected might leave a person.  He called the office from outside, following procedure, made his excuses and left to get his car, receiving sympathy from those people who did see him.  Of Leah and Tyler, he saw no sign, thankfully. He arrived at Nolan’s still feeling extremely shaken and when Nolan told him the full story of what he had uncovered, proven by Tyler’s warning off outburst, they both believed they had found out why Ben had died and what his motivation had been in hiring Andrew to watch for him and see if he had been recognised.  No wonder he had not given Andrew any further information as to why, either. When Nolan showed Andrew the photograph of Jeanette in front of her little treasures, the ones he had certainly seen in Ben’s flat, he said nothing for quite a long time, touched by that to the point of being visibly distressed about it.

“Aww, look at you, you soppy old thing,” said Nolan.  “I didn’t mean to upset you. I was just explaining how I thought it all linked up.”

“It’s not that,” said Andrew gruffly.  “I’ve just been punched in the balls and it’s still bringing tears to my eyes.”

“Yes,” said Nolan.  “And that’s another thing.  If you’re going to keep on with all this detectiving lark, you’re just going to have to man up on the martial arts front.”

“Maybe so,” agreed Andrew.  “So what do we do now?”

“I don’t know,” said Nolan.  “How much difference will it make?  Will it cause even more grief to Ben, or Jan’s parents, to know he was murdered due to his old involvement?”

“Yes, and his and their names would be revealed and dragged through the mud, too, but...they killed him, Leah and Tyler!”

“Tyler did, yes, I think so.  Probably she got him to do it, that Leah.”

Andrew thought about it for a while.

“I won’t go back.  I’ll talk to Frank on his own, away from there, if I can.  Put the bubble in that these may be former killers, get them taken off the scheme and away from Watson’s, get the police looking into Ben’s death because of it.  Frank doesn’t like them and I reckon he’s got the guts to front it up with the managers. I’ll make sure he does it in such a way he doesn’t get found out by them.”

“We’ll have to plan that, Andrew.”

“I know.”

“Look, go and have a good long soak in the bath.  Billy’s got some lovely bubbly stuff up there. Have bit of T.L.C. pampering for yourself.  Then we’ll have a few drinks and order in from Just Eat. Give Billy a treat and me a rest from his cooking.”

Andrew laughed.

“Selfish sod!  Dressing it up as concern for me.”

“I am, though, concerned for you.  You’re not cut out for the rough stuff, Andrew.  Me, either. We really need to be more careful. Both of us.”

Andrew, agreeing, went up for the proffered bath. 

When he had come down, feeling more restored after that and dinner, he and Nolan went into Nolan’s office, leaving Billy to some project work of his own on his laptop in the living room which he needed to do before the next day.   Nolan shared with Andrew his further thoughts on the ‘keepsakes’ and the story of the cuckooing crime being mirrored in the way Ben had played ‘Heaven and Hell’; his choice of avatar, his bag of talismans, a goblet for the vase and the netsuke characters for the pottery whimsies being crucial to that.  ‘The Boy’ had other children in tow when he arrived, didn’t he? And what of the mysterious ‘A’?  What if that stood, not for Amazon, but for Amelia, the real destructive force?

Perhaps, posited Nolan, Ben had played the game with Andrew, not as a bit of sly fun for himself, but to give Andrew clues as to the real scenario that had happened in the past, by way of of leading in, perhaps, to telling him something of it in reality, but was killed before he could?

The action had played out as a kind of repeat, hadn’t it?  The skirmish raids, the increasing harm visited on the inmates of the stockade and the eventual death of the elders in Andrew’s care - before Ben had programmed that game round to end, with the story that he might have been trying to find a way of showing Andrew because he wasn’t able to articulate it yet and why he really feared for himself, concluded.

“I think you’re right,” said Andrew.  “I could never figure it out at the time, why all these things kept happening.  But - if Ben was sticking to his own secret script, then, yes, it all makes a crazy kind of sense.  Maybe he was working up to giving me the truth. He was so quiet, perhaps he was trying to do it that way first and then struggle it all into words somehow.  Years of training in keeping his real identity and involvement in things, too, must have gone into that silence of his.”

“And then along came Polly….”

“Leah, yes, and with Tyler.  What a piece of appalling bad luck for him that they should have been placed there, of all things.”

“I think he still thought he was safe, though, don’t you?  He’d laid the trail of breadcrumbs, hadn’t he? That run of his along the canalside by the gardens where those sheltered units were, every day, where you had to follow him.  I think that was to tempt fate, to see if he could lure them out into showing they knew him, going by there repeatedly to find out if they were following him and had connected him back to Jan.  You were his back up, Andrew, but you didn’t know it. They never appeared, though, did they?”

“No.  They didn’t.  Not that I ever saw.”

“The penny dropped at some point, though, didn’t it?”

“Must have.  I don’t know when, though.”

“You hadn’t the first idea about that old crime, had you?  Nobody ever talked about it.”

“No.  Not to me.  But if people come in on that scheme on a regular basis, why would anyone think, even if they had been around themselves at the time, that anyone on that had been part of that horrible incident?  I’ve got to do something about it.”

“You know what I think?”


“You can’t act without speaking to Ben’s parents.  It’s their future which will be affected by that now.  He’s dead. They’ll have to run again because this will take time to come out and these two are pretty ruthless, aren’t they?  Remember, Amelia and Kyle’s identities are protected as well and this could be seen as somebody’s witch-hunt. When Ben died, it never came out who he really was.”


“And….nobody else is at risk from them at Watson’s in terms of physical danger.”

“They weren’t, until I started poking about.  But. They’re finishing there soon, those two.  It’s only a six month placement anyone gets. I checked it out.”  Andrew looked at Nolan. “You’re going to tell me to leave it, aren’t you?”

“You know, on balance, I think I am.”


“Think about it.  Very, very carefully.”

“What about an anonymous police tip off again?”

“You won’t get anywhere.”


“Because the police will want to cover up their own failures to protect those under their witness protection programme.  Oh, I’m sure they’ll write up a report if Frank does say anything to them but that won’t go anywhere.  Leah and Tyler will go and slip back into nowhere, orchestrated by the police.  If I were you, I’d let them.  Ben believed he was a guilty man who hadn’t been punished.  Because now, I have found out who invented that game.  He did. That was his hobby on the side, inventing interactive games.  Something for the lonely nerd to do when you’re keeping out of everybody’s way.  It couldn’t be much clearer, could it? Everything in that game says there’s going to be retribution, that something will get you in the end unless you throw in the towel yourself before it does and suicide out.  Hence, ‘Heaven and Hell’.  It took some finding out that Ben created it, because he was almost, but only almost, as good as me at working the net in secret.  It came to me that it had to be Ben once I'd seen how he played the game and the way it matched the cuckooing crime.  He had to have set 'Heaven and Hell' up in the first place to have those choices so well determined and what the outcomes could be. ”

“Fuck me!” exclaimed Andrew, untypically. “I’m in there under cover and you’ve solved it all from the outside!”

“Only because of what you told me” said Nolan modestly.  "The video diary was a big help too."

“But - I owe it to Ben to do something.”

“You have.  You’ve found out.”

“I don’t think that’s going to be good enough for me,” said Andrew.  “But I will think about it.“

With this assurance, Nolan had to be content for the present and hope that his cautions would take root.  Justice was one thing but messing directly with active murderers was another.  In his view, Andrew had had a very narrow escape, much as he had done with Al Saleem at the mill.  Proving anything at all, he was very sure, would be all but impossible, due to the many and varied ramifications of doing so.  Andrew went home, realising that he was already missing the prospect of going back to Watson’s Wheatsheaf because he had liked working there, as different as it was from anything he had done before. Still, whatever he decided about that, he would have to lie low until Leah and Tyler had gone from there, perhaps.

 Andrew, even by the next morning, had decided that he was not going to leave it, or wait until Leah and Tyler had gone and spent his enforced week of absence on ‘sick leave’, considering what to do about it.  For the first time in his life, though, apart from a brief bout of childhood kickboxing when it was in vogue, he decided to do something about skilling himself up in self defence tactics.  Nolan had always had more street smarts than he did with regard to that but after recent experiences, Andrew felt he certainly needed to hone up on some fighting off mechanisms, if only, he thought, because he had decided to do something about ‘it’.  The stirrings of defeated male pride had melded into the mix of his desire to see some kind of justice done for his dead client.  Nobody had died on his watch before during his and Nolan’s short tenure as private detectives and little as he had known Ben (as he still thought of him), it had shaken Andrew’s innate sense of responsibility for others deeply.

He began to consider who he might bring on board at Watson’s Wheatsheaf and how he might get them to support him in taking some kind of action.  Ethan was his contemporary but not, being pickled in self interest, a likely ally.  Viv, his first line of access to senior management, was too wedded to keeping Watson’s reputation unbesmirched to do anything except, potentially, simply dismiss Andrew and wait for the killers’ placement to finish.  Others would clearly be wary of rocking the boat and putting their own positions under threat.

What of Frank, though?  He was perhaps maverick enough, as Andrew had immediately picked up on but as Nolan had pointed out, Frank’s own safety and situation at Watson’s must not be compromised, even if he were to be approachable in some way about it.  While thinking this over, Andrew joined a gym nearby, with a personal trainer who offered to teach defence skills when he made enquiries.  After his first couple of assessment sessions during which, whilst his fitness levels were found to be generally good, his reflexes (given that he had emphasised defence and disabling moves rather than attack ones as what he wanted to learn) were judged to be a bit slow, his trainer created a bespoke package for him to start on.

Nolan nearly choked on his pint when Andrew told him, in ‘The Crown and Cushion’ near their office, that his trainer had decided to put together a programme for him based on women’s self defence.

“Women’s self defence!” he derided, laughing.

“Yes.  I’m too slow to move in first, so I need to concentrate on knocking them off kilter and getting away.”

“So when it comes to fight or flight, you know where you stand, do you?”

“We’ve both always known where I stand on that score,” said Andrew good temperedly.

“True,” agreed Nolan.  “Well...I suppose it’s a start, at least.”

“I’ve got great hand-eye coordination, though, apparently ” added Andrew cheerfully.  “Must be why I was good at tennis as a kid.”

“Yes.  But when it comes to a physical showdown,  second service isn’t always an option, is it?”

“No.  That’s why I’m doing the training.”

There was something so evenly determined in Andrew’s tone when he said this, that Nolan looked at him closely.

“What’s going through what passes for that mind of yours, Andrew?”

“I don’t quite know yet.”

Nolan frowned.

“Well, you make sure you tell me when that Scotch mist you keep in there clears.”  Andrew just smiled.   “And stop trying to look enigmatic.  On you, it’s pure village idiot,” added Nolan, nettled for some reason.

Andrew took a serene sip or two of his own pint and said, reading the reason correctly,

“Stop worrying.  I’ll still need you as my indoor back up.”

“Indoor back up!” exclaimed Nolan indignantly.  “Well, don’t come to me when you’ve snapped a bra strap trying to put someone in an armlock.”

“I won’t” said Andrew, smiling nicely at Nolan’s put out scowl.  

“So, when do you start?” asked Nolan, discarding a stale danish pastry from today’s bar top cake selection which he had been toying with.

“Gina’s booked me in for my first proper session tomorrow.”

“Gina!” said Nolan, in further disgust.  “No wonder she’s training you in women’s self defence.”

“I didn’t think gay men were supposed to be sexist pigs,” commented Andrew.

“Fuck off!” said Nolan.

“See what I mean?” said Andrew,  continuing peaceably with his pint.

Since he had little else to do on his week off, work wise, Andrew concentrated on his crash course, which relied on a few simple but effective physical moves to be perfected first, to lead into further, later sessions.  An obligatory warm up and core muscle strengthening set of exercises went with it.  Gina, Andrew found, was the strong and silent type, who regarded small talk as a sign of not taking things seriously, so that he had to knuckle down.  Despite his being considerably taller, it was a few sessions in before he parried being stopped and dropped in seconds with any degree of success.

The first time he fended Gina off, even briefly, met with a grunt of semi approval which Andrew thought even Nolan would find macho enough and he began to think that, after a lifetime of being hors de combat by nature, if push came to shove, he might be able to use something of these new skills he was developing.  He certainly had the bruises to show for it (together with the fading ones from the kicking he’d had from Tyler Kane) as Sarah commented the following weekend, noticing them when they were lying naked together and asking if he’d been walking into a lot of sharp edges lately and did he think he needed glasses? To which he responded, a little huffily, that no, actually, he didn’t and no, he also hadn’t fallen downstairs drunk, thank you very much, as, if she hadn’t noticed,  he lived in a flat.

“Nolan doesn’t,” she said.  “And you both like to party.”

“Yes, well, it’s not that,” he said with defensive dignity.

“Oh,” said Sarah.  “You must just have fallen off your high horse then,” so they both laughed and, to his relief, she left it, because Andrew didn’t want to start going into any explanations with her about Watson’s Wheatsheaf and what had happened, or might happen, in relation to it.

The following week, despite the warnings off he had had, Andrew returned as expected to Watson’s Wheatsheaf, quarantined off in the office at his own suggestion when speaking to Viv about coming back on the Monday, just to really be on the safe side, he said, because, he told her, milking it,

“I don’t often get things like that but it knocked me for six for days, so it must have been a powerful one.”

“I’m always telling you young ones to avoid ordering in takeaways,” she had said.  “That ‘Just Eat’ app’s walking ecoli right through your front door. Haven’t you seen the news?  Fifty percent of places the Council have zero rated are on four star ratings on that.  It’s a disgrace!”

Viv was very hot on this subject, given the extremely high standards operating in Watson’s Wheatsheaf.

“You know, I think you’re right”, Andrew said, stroking her ego.  “ I ordered in a ‘Sloppy Joe’s’ the night before.”

“Well there you go, then!” said Viv triumphantly.  “With a name like that you should have known.  Anyway, yes, you go in the office with Phil.  I think Ethan’s ready now for a trial run as supervisor for the external delivery drivers.”

I’ll just bet he is, thought Andrew, whilst agreeing that the suggestion was fine with him.  He parked his car outside the grounds, just in case it had been identified by ‘Tyler’ or ‘Leah’ as his and sloped in as discreetly as possible.  It was raining, so he hunched his head down, hood up, and hurried through with short, dashing steps rather than his usual chin up stride, hoping to disguise himself, hastening straight into the office building.

He was welcomed back by the staff in there warmly enough for him to feel that it was with open arms, although this was tempered by an awareness  it was possibly  less to do with him personally than with his not being Ethan, whose attempts to ingratiate himself generally, as well as with Viv, had clearly failed to convince anyone.

Phil, with whom he had not worked before, was less enamoured of him, wearing the testy expression of someone who had to deal with him on sufferance, as being part of the cocky pair who had picked up on some faulty record keeping and shown their senior, Phil himself, up, so that Andrew had to spend some time showing he was no challenge, just a good hearted sort who had blundered on the errors by chance.   Phil, for whom it was clearly still a sore point, his years of experience brought into question by the discovery, took a little time to come round but, being persuaded by Andrew’s apparently naive assertion that, actually, it had been Ethan who had noticed it while he had been sitting by being shown the ropes, thawed.  More so when Andrew overheard one of the women on customer care calls, brewing up with Phil in the kitchen corner, say,

“Bless him, he’s that innocent, Phil.  It was him picked it up but Ethan told Viv he had and Andrew never made a murmur.  Probably convinced himself it was Ethan by now.  He’s no bother, Phil.  Andrew just wants to get on with people.  I don’t think he’s after anyone’s job.”

“No.  Well. Maybe he’s not,” conceded Phil meaningfully but, after that, he relaxed with Andrew.

Andrew took the first opportunity he could to check the systems, to see when Leah and Tyler were due to finish.  They were still there, but only for another few weeks. He wouldn’t have long, then, to work on whatever he decided on.  He had switched his training bookings to evening slots, still with Gina, who did both morning and night sessions and, advised of his working shifts, was prepared to be flexible.

Andrew began his day now with a prescribed run, which also reminded him of Ben and he was quickly feeling the improvement of all this in toning him up, leg muscles stronger by the day, which according to Gina, was the key to success in what he was hoping to achieve in self defence abilities.

“So you can run away faster?” Nolan had mocked.

“Not just that,” Andrew had said. “Although it will certainly give me an edge.”

“Oh, will it?” Nolan had said drily but left it at that, since Andrew had not told him that he had gone back to the bakery and had only muttered something about a bookkeeping job when Nolan had asked what he was up to while he was tied up himself with his data cleansing short term contract.

At University, where the start of term seemed mainly characterised, not so much by course work as by people in proximity pairing up early and wandering around the college corridors together in a lustful daze like Siamese twins, Dee, if she were honest, was finding herself bored.  Once she wasn’t working instinctively, responding to things on a subjectively personal level, the work lost its charm.  She hated writing essays and she didn’t like researching for them.  She and Finney were not on the same course work modules and when she began ducking things without telling him, he didn’t notice.  The usual drift of girls began to attach to him, becoming, amongst students whom the other house share people befriended, regular droppers in at 6 Inkerman Street, which, like Finney’s home, quickly became a place that welcomed casual visitors into it. When Dee slipped off, more than once, to meet up with Al before the end of his long family visit, there was sufficient distraction in general for Finney not to wonder where she was, or at least, if he did, he didn't ask her about it.

In October, perhaps rather dutifully, Dee and Finney attended a civic debate leading to coaches travelling down soon to London for the anti Brexit rally coming up.   Dee’s parents were going anyway, so if the two of them wanted to go, they would be assured of a lift.  The assembly was big and people were invited to contribute from the floor.   Finney was one of those who chose to go up to speak and as he left her side, somebody else slid into place next to her and said:

“Still seeing Billy Bullshit, then?”

“What?  What the hell do you want?” demanded Dee, rounding on the unlooked for figure of Baz whom  she found next to her.  “Where did you spring from?”

“Public meeting, poppet,” said Baz insultingly.  “I’m exercising my democratic right.”

“Well don’t sit next to me while you’re doing it.  I bet you didn’t even vote.”

“Wouldn’t have made any difference.  Same as this won’t.”


“All this shenanigans.  The big boys will make sure it’s all so confuddled and kicked into the long grass it’ll hardly matter.  Well, not to them. They’ll still work the money and the arms deals while everyone else is trying to stop farting and eat less meat to stop global warming, or recycling plastic to save the whales from scoffing it.”

“Those are very serious issues!”

“They are, love, oh yes.  But compared to what’s really going down in the world out there, just handy short term distractions to let people think they can do something.  Like going on a march.  About Brexit or anything else.  It’s not possible to stop them.  Not any more.”

“You’re just a nihilist.  That’s easier than having principles.”

“Doesn’t mean I don’t give a toss about it,” shrugged Baz.

“Anyway, what do you mean by calling Finney ‘Billy Bullshit’.  Finney has got principles.”

“He’s got the ones that’ll make him popular at any given time, for sure.  But is he deep, Dee, do you think?”


“Yeah.  Deep crust, thin crust or just stuffed crust?” Baz said in his dull, sardonic tone.  “Any topping you like.  Suck it and see.”

“You’re disgusting,” said Dee.

“Am I?  Or just honest?  People don’t like honest, do they?”

“Finney’s the most honest person I know!” objected Dee.  “You’re just horrible. Go away.”

Baz only laughed quietly.

“But are you honest, Dee?” he asked, raising his eyebrows, the deadpan stare, at that moment, highly unsettling.  “With Finney, I mean.”

“Of course!” declared Dee.

“As I thought,” said Baz, as if she had confirmed just the opposite.  “Oh, shame, we’ve missed his little contribution.  We’ve talked right through it.   I bet everyone loved it, though.  Don’t you?   I’d best be off then,” he said, with one of his tight smiles.  “Since I’m not welcome.”

He stood up.

“What are you doing here anyway?  In Leeds, I mean.”

“Studying, Dee.  Like you. You just haven’t noticed me in the background.  Ta-ra, then, “ he said, adding nonchalantly as he went, “and who says it was Finney I was calling ‘Billy Bullshit’?”

He disappeared into the crowd again as Finney, following a smattering of applause, returned to his seat looking quite pleased, not having noticed Baz.

“I think I made a few good points there.  Don’t you, Dee?”

“Oh, yes.  You were great,” enthused Dee, covering up her lack of attention with a supportive hug.

A horrible thought had struck her.  What if Baz knew - about her and Al?  Had he seen them? How could he have and how did he know anything about that past relationship?  Somewhere deep down though, she felt she knew that Baz had seen them and that he did know already about her history.  It had all been there in his inflection.  She remembered again those intimate chats with Imogen.  She thought she had successfully kept her council, but had she always?  They had made their confidences together in the early days, hadn’t they, when she thought she had found a friend and Imogen had been telling her that if Finney wasn’t right for her, she didn’t have to be with him ‘instead’?  Well, it wasn’t as if Baz was going to get any chance to talk to Finney, was it, or as if Finney would listen to him if he did?  Still, she was worried, though but then, when she found on their return that the most persistent of the new set was already at the house waiting for them and saw pretty Coralie fawning all over Finney about hearing him speak at the meeting, in a newly proprietorial sort of manner that he appeared to be enjoying, and as if Coralie knew nothing of him being with Dee at all, Dee was almost mean minded enough to think dimly that maybe it served him right anyway.  She didn’t tell him about seeing Baz at the meeting.

Andrew opened the door on Wednesday night to a tall ghoul.  He wasn’t wearing makeup and didn’t need to, already thin, hollow-eyed and rapacious looking.  A small band of similar, slightly younger teens were behind him, these in a variety of Halloween masks. 

“Trick or treat,” announced the ghoul, as if demanding right of way into the building.  One of the smaller ones was already pushing past Andrew, the others ready to follow. He stopped them forcefully, shoving back and barring the way with his arm. 

“Knocking on for Halloween, man,” the blocked teen objected. 

“Nope!” said Andrew, considering the other residents of the building, one or two of whom also lived alone.  “You’re too old for that.  Clear off!” 

He closed the door firmly and deadlocking the entrance, went to make sure everyone was already in and warn his fellow tenants not to answer, as that lot seemed to have potential burglary rather than Halloween in mind. 

It made him think again about the cuckooing case and what he could or should do about the one time Amelia Matthews and Kaden Taylor.  He had spent his first few days of the week back at Watson’s lying low in the office, taking the opportunity to find out what was current gossip in the workplace and continuing his exercise and training sessions with Gina.  It didn’t seem that anything of his being beaten up had leaked out and if any word of his return were being mentioned anywhere in the busy bakery, it didn’t seem to have reached the ears of either Leah or Tyler, as he saw no sign of them.

 The rotas in the office showed him where everybody was.  Frank was presently managing the warehouse loading, which might offer Andrew a chance to get hold of him away from the factory floor where he was in danger of being spotted.  In the meantime, he took the chance to ask for a meeting with Viv, telling her he thought he had found a potential problem in the recruitment protocols which might need tightening up.  Any risk to Watson’s was probably the way, if not to Viv’s heart, then to the heart of her main interest there, he thought. This approach had to be made with due respect to her constant front of loudly demonstrated activity, however.  Not a moment of her paid time, it said, was wasted and certainly none of anybody else’s was, either, on Viv’s watch. When he asked her, she said grudgingly that he could have ten minutes, tops, with an automatic glance at the office clock.  They went through into the small back room which, when Viv’s flight of the busy bee did occasionally come to rest, was known as her own office.

She gestured to Andrew to sit down, a frostily defensive frown across her pencilled eyebrow arches.  Whatever he said, he must be careful not to give any hint of criticism about current practices, so he began with a reason as to why he had looked into things. 

“I’d done the figures, Viv, and I was thinking what else it might be useful to get on with.”  This met with approval, the eyebrows relaxing slightly. “And I thought, well, it’s always good to review procedures, keep them tight and up to date.  Of course, I know everything is. Only, it occurred to me, you know how people get taken on placement through that scheme?” 

“Yes.”  Viv moved a little restively, an indication, perhaps, that it was something that, after all, she was not entirely comfortable with herself.  “The partners are very keen on that, putting something back in the community. They think it’s good for the firm’s reputation.” 

“I’m sure it is, too.  A great thing to do,” enthused Andrew, ”and I know they’re all thoroughly supervised in their time here.  It’s just that...well…”he hesitated tactically. 

“Go on,” encouraged Viv with a prompting glance at her wristwatch. 

“Well, we’re all vetted so thoroughly as ordinary staff before we join and, they’re here for a long placement at six months.  I wondered, does the company know what any of them actually did before?  I mean, is there any kind of assessment of that before they come?  I’m sure it’s all fine but there could be a lot of temptation for ex offenders of various kinds in a place like this?” he suggested. 

“They’re placed by the probation service as being suitable.  The partners have never questioned that.  ‘A fair next chance’, they call it.” 

“Well, I just wondered.  Three months at a time instead of six months would give scope to have more of them and not let them get too settled in the place and also, maybe there should be some crime exclusion categories?   You see, I’m working on the basis that, otherwise, you just don’t know what you’re really dealing with.  That could be a risk to the company.  Not to be making a fuss about nothing, of course.” 

A few seconds ticked by during which Viv regarded him calculatingly. 

“It’s never been an issue,” she said thoughtfully. 


“But you could have a point.” 

Andrew said no more for a moment, trying to convey well meaning innocence, as Viv decided whether it could be to her advantage to raise it higher up. 

“It’s just a potential risk factor I wanted to highlight to you while I thought of it, “ Andrew added as a further nudge.  He stood, the ten minutes being up, ready to leave. 

“I’ve noted it,” said Viv, giving him a little nod of dismissal which he took as his cue.   

It was, considered Andrew, going back into the main office, a kind of start and if he did do anything to bring Leah and Tyler into the spotlight, it was perhaps a foundation to support him in doing so. 

The clocks had gone back, offering him better cover for crossing the yard to the warehouse as darkness fell, so he went to find Frank before he left as the shift in there ended.  After making a little smalltalk with him, he suggested a pint together after work on Friday, not at the Watson’s Arms but at a place further down the road which, Andrew having ascertained that Frank was a traditional stout drinker by preference, he said poured a very decent pint of that, Rafferty’s being an Irish pub.  Frank was happy to agree but said astutely, 

“All right.  What’s on your mind, lad?” 

“Nothing. Just a friendly drink and a natter with a like minded bloke.” 

“Oh, aye?” said Frank, as laconic as ever but with a wily glint in his foxy eye which suggested Andrew wasn’t fooling anybody, which was fine with Andrew, who wanted Frank’s curiosity to be aroused, just a little, to open the way for what he planned to discuss with him.  They’d be safe in Rafferty’s, a bit of an old gimmers’ pub and not one frequented by the Watson’s workers. 

When they got there, with a satisfied inch or two of cream topped stout lowered in their glasses, Frank said, as a bit of an opener, definitely wanting to know what Andrew was after, 

“Not seen much of you this last week or two, Andrew.  Where have they got you on?” 

“I’ve been back in the office this week.  The week before I was, well, er, off sick.” 

“ ‘Well, er, off sick?’ ” queried Frank with a lift of bushily sandy brows. 

“I had to do that because, well, because somebody pretty much caught up with why I’m really at Watson’s Wheatsheaf.  They beat me up, warned me off.” 

Frank digested this briefly, with another couple of appreciative swallows of his velvety stout. 

“And they were?” he asked. 

“Tyler Kane,” Andrew told him.  “One of those two on the placement scheme here I mentioned to you before.” 

“I know who he is,” said Frank.  “I did tell you to leave well alone there, didn’t I?"  Andrew nodded.  “Why you’re really at Watson’s, you said?”  Andrew nodded again. “And that’s to do with them, is it?” 

“It turns out to be. Yes.” 

“Hmmm.  Well, throw a bit of light on the subject then, lad.  I take it that’s why I’m here?” 

“I’m going to tell you this in confidence, Frank, so that, well, so that if anything happens, someone I can trust at Watson’s knows about it.” 

“And that’s me is it?” said Frank, sounding both chary and gratified at once but Andrew could tell that he was pleased. 

“Yes,” confirmed Andrew. 

“Right, then.  So why are you at Watson’s, then? 

“I’m a private detective,” Andrew announced.   

Frank made commendable attempts not to splutter in disbelief. 

“Right?” he said again, slowly. 

“Before Ben Bradshaw died at Watson’s, he hired me to watch him.” 

“Why would he do that?” 

“In retrospect, with what I know now, because he feared for his safety but he didn’t tell me that.  He wanted me to look out for anybody paying him attention.” 

“And did they?” 

“No.  Not in the weeks I was on that job.  I was with Ben wherever he was, day till night.  Then he died.  I was the one that found him dead, with the man who’s left now.  It was too late to help Ben.  I was pretty sure it was no accident, though, even then.” 

“So you came back.” 

It was hard to tell if Frank were convinced or not by this unlikely tale. 

“So I came back, because they ruled it a workplace accident, the police and the coroner.  I got taken on at Watson’s and now, well, now, I’ve found out.  Who Ben was, who Tyler Kane and Leah Martin really are and why he was very right to be afraid of them.” 

“Who are they all, then and why was Ben afraid of them?” 

Andrew told him. 

“What a sad, sordid story,” said Frank at length.  “Those poor people.” 

“I know.” 

“And in a way, poor kids, the younguns.  The older ones, well, let run riot, what can you expect when they’re turned out all wrong to begin with and nobody dealing with that?” 

“Yes.  I don’t think Ben, well, Jan, ever really got over it.” 

“Didn’t deserve to get over it,” declared Frank.  “None of ‘em did.  Anyone who was involved in that should remember what they did for the rest of their lives.”  They pondered this together sombrely and Frank went to get in another round. “Calls for a second one to think this through,” he said and, returning, set two more drinks on the table between them.  “If they hadn’t all met up again,” he said, ”everyone would have paid their dues and could have moved on in their adult lives a bit.” 

“But they haven’t,” declared Andrew.  “They’re still killers.” 

“Both, or one of them.” 

“She’s the instigator.  I’d bet my life on it.” 

“I wouldn’t if I were you,” said Frank.  “Given what’s gone down, I’d say that would be far from a safe bet.” 

Andrew laughed a little grimly. 

“Yes.  You’re right.” 

“So, then.  What now?” 

Andrew outlined the negatives of trying to out Leah and Tyler to the police that Nolan had put forward, explaining that they were ‘Nolan and Munro’, private detectives.  As if the mention of this summoned him, Nolan phoned him just at that moment. 

“Where are you?” he asked abruptly.  “You haven’t been at the office all week!  And don’t try to bullshit the maestro. That computer’s not been on for days!” 

“I’m in the pub.  With someone,” Andrew replied. 

“Who?   Sarah?” 


“What are you playing at?” Nolan demanded audibly in the quiet saloon bar.  “Where have you been?” 

“I’ll talk to you later,” said Andrew hastily, ringing off.  “My business partner,” he explained to Frank. 

“Who, I’m taking it, doesn’t know you’ve come back to Watson’s and doesn’t want you to to be there, either?” 

“Correct on both counts.” 

“What if you need him?” 

“I won’t,” said Andrew stoutly.

 “Hmmm,” said Frank.  “Well, I don’t know what you’re planning.” 

“I don’t know myself, yet.  I just. I just can’t leave it!” Andrew exclaimed. 

“Let me think about it myself, over the weekend,” said Frank.  “It were a dirty business back then.  And now this. I don’t want folk like that around our staff and the public.  Sociopaths, the pair of ‘em.” 

“Yes,” agreed Andrew. 

“Well, you think on, too.  Don’t do anything daft.  And tell that business partner of yours what you’re doing.  If you don’t, I will, Munro of ‘Nolan and Munro’.” 

Andrew just smiled, knowing that he had, after all, got an ally at Watson’s now and also thinking that maybe Frank was right on the Nolan front. 

It was a weekend when neither Frank nor Andrew were scheduled in for shifts.  The people on placement were weekday workers only.  While he had been in the office, Andrew had gone into the system and checked where he’d been put on for the following week, which was in the shop.  A bit too public, he felt, to begin with, so he switched himself back on to basic warehouse duties and put someone else in the shop.  He could only hope that Viv’s eagle eye over the schedules would not spot the substitution but even she, if she noticed, would perhaps not remember exactly where he ought to be.  He moved Frank on to the warehouse again instead of deliveries, shifting someone else on to that, so that Frank could be party to keeping him in sight at work.  He noticed, not for the first time, that although Viv, as senior manager, was female, all her deputies were men, whom she seemed to favour for that.  Typical queen bee, thought Andrew, a solitary ruler surrounding herself with drones to serve her.  Women worked freely around all the other roles but not at that level.  Watson’s was in many ways as hierarchically old fashioned as its public image purported it to be.  The Watson family partners would call in and be around but acted more as a board than as being hands on with the operational work, although they kept a tight rein on things behind the scenes. 

Andrew got up on Saturday to go for his run.  It was a frosty morning of silvery grey light, the air still and damp, promising the early bite would give in as the day got going.  It was invigorating and his legs had a spring in their step by now, feeling the benefit of all his recent exercise. He enjoyed the sensation of being on the go before other people were, freshly privy to nature stirring awake about him, as he had done when starting out with Ben.  He arrived back to find Nolan waiting outside for him, waving a paper bag full of warm Watson’s doughnuts from the bakery shop nearby, the trademark delivery boy grinning cheerfully at Andrew from a waxy print on the side. 

“Breakfast,” said Nolan, brandishing them.  “To save me wasting time on telling you I know where you’ve been.” 

“Ah,” said Andrew, who had hoped to evade Nolan over the weekend. 

“Yeah,” said Nolan, following him in as Andrew unlocked the main entrance door to go up to his large bedsitter flat with small kitchen offside and bijou en suite bathroom. 

“Don’t say ‘no shit, Sherlock’ ”, said Andrew. 

“Get yourself a shower was more what I had in mind,” said Nolan, surveying him critically.  “I don’t think mud spattered pink legs are in this season.” 

“No?” asked Andrew, raising one speculatively to waggle it, the freckles on his face also aglow. “You could be right.  I’ll be back in a sec. Oh, and sorry, I’m out of doilies, you’ll have to make do with a plate.” 

“What a come down,” said Nolan, who was already eating one straight out of the bag, jam oozing out of its sides.  “Don’t fret. I’ll save you one. If you’re quick.” 

“I will be” said Andrew.  “I know what you’re like. Jaws with a sweet tooth.” 

He disappeared to shower and came back out to find Nolan had made coffee and had also told him the literal truth.  Out of four, a single doughnut was left. 

“You’re trying to keep fit,” said Nolan, licking his fingers in the face of Andrew’s clear disappointment.  “How is your ladyboy karate going, anyway?” 

“Fine, thank you,” said Andrew loftily, putting some toast on, hungry after his run.  “Want a demo?” 

“No touching, please!” said Nolan, recoiling with a mock shudder.  “Right. Spill.” 

“How did you know about Watson’s?” parried Andrew. 

“Lucky guess?  Your guilty tone on the phone last night and no sign of you all week.” 

“Frank didn’t tell you, then?” 

“Frank.  No. Why would he?  I don’t even know him, do I?” 

“Well, it was Frank I was with.” 

Andrew left a pause which Nolan instantly interpreted correctly. 

“You told him.” 


“All of it? 

“All of it.” 

“Why?” asked Nolan. 

“A bit of insurance.  Someone else there in the know.” 

“I don’t like it.” 

“I know.” 

“I suppose you think you’re a big boy, now?” 

“I just think I’ve got a duty to do something.  I mean, Peter Haddon walked away from me and I can’t let Kaden Taylor and Amelia Matthews get away with murdering Ben.  If nothing else, I can expose them for who they are and take it from there.” 

“You’re asking for more trouble.” 


“Definitely maybe.” 

“Even so.” 

“I hate moral rectitude,” observed Nolan.  “Especially in you." 

“I know,” said Andrew again. 

“I’ve been instructing you to go in for turpitude instead for ages.  That’s the manse in you talking again.” 

“Must be,” said Andrew, going along with it. 

“We’re supposed to blur the boundaries as private detectives,” Nolan went on.  “Not draw lines in the sand.  That’s for the law, my old mucker.” 

“Yes, dear,” said Andrew. 

“Fuck off,” said Nolan amiably, V signing Andrew. 

“I know what I can do is limited, because you’re right about how it would be covered up as quickly as possible - by Watson’s and the police,” Andrew conceded. 

“You know it, because, who loves ya, baby?” said Nolan, Kojak style (he and Billy were devotees of seventies tv series of many kinds).   “You’d better get me on side, then.  Hadn’t you?” he added in his normal voice.  Andrew gave him a smile of pure relief, which Nolan returned with the affectionate complacency of knowing he was needed after all.  “Right, then, you numpty.  Let’s get some kind of plan in the making,” he continued.  “What I need to do, is to be able to watch through their surveillance systems so I can see what’s going on and where everyone is for starters.  I’ll get on to that.  Shouldn’t be too difficult for me to hack into the CCTV.”  He blew on his nails pridefully and polished them on his jumper. “What do you think you’ll do?” 

“Well….I had started to think….I’ll do like Ben did.  Start to let them see me, lead them on a bit about what I do or do not know and draw them out.  Then….well….we’ll see.” 


“Trust me.  I’ll be very careful and I’ll orchestrate it as well as I can.” 

“Make sure you’re never caught alone, Andrew.” 

“I will.” 

“And… I think I should always meet you from work whatever shift you’re on, make sure you don’t get followed.” 

“What?  Don’t be silly!” 

“If I don’t, who’s to know?” 


“Exactly.  O.k. Next steps, then.” 


“I get to meet the famous Frank.  He needs to see at least one of us can be relied on to look as if we might know what we’re doing.” 


“You’re welcome,” said Nolan, toasting him with the remains of his coffee.  “Now, I gotta go. Billy’s got weekend brunch mania and there’s some new posing spot he wants us to adorn the window of.  He’s not awake dolling himself up for it yet and I plan to get back before he is. We don’t want him catching on to us about any of this, do we?” 

“That we don’t,” agreed Andrew, “Bye, Grandad.  See you after school on Monday, then.” 

“You’ll thank me one day,” said Nolan sagely.  “Some people just aren’t fit to be let out alone”, he added as a parting shot, shaking his twistop styled head before getting into his car and leaving. 

By Sunday night, Nolan had called to let Andrew know he’d got into the CCTV system at Watson’s and would be working at home in the day as far as Billy was concerned but really so he could keep an eye on Andrew’s workplace for him and figure out the Watson’s layout for himself.  He would come and wait outside when shift finished, to follow Andrew home. On Monday, Andrew went to the warehouse, or as Nolan expressed it, to make sure Frank could keep him in the nursery for a day or two.  Andrew put Frank in the picture about what he had in mind. 

“What I want,” he said, “is for them to give themselves away.  That way, there’s no getting away from it for anybody.” 

Frank, like Nolan, also didn’t like it but being temperamentally given to standing up against injustice and loathing cruelty and deception, allowed that Andrew had a point in trying to achieve that.   

“I’ve never liked the look of those two,” he said.  “You can tell. Summat just not right about them.”

 When Nolan came to meet Andrew, Frank followed them to Rafferty’s and they had further conversations about how things might be managed while maintaining personal safety, first and foremost, for Andrew, because it was agreed that unless his hand was forced in any way, Frank would not reveal that he was in the know.  Nolan would stay outside of things but he did say that he would follow up his external studies of the place with an incognito walkabout.  They all agreed that, even if Andrew appeared to be vulnerably alone to those he was trying to tempt out, he must not actually be, with someone always in sight and Frank easily called on by the Walkie Talkie system even if he were not directly present.   With these principles agreed, there was nothing left to do but go ahead and Andrew, if tentatively, began to do so. 

Midweek, having been in the warehouse undetected for a couple of days, even though he had been with Frank to upload goods into the top floor storeroom, Andrew upped the ante by switching the schedules back and did go into the shop on Thursday.  Its festoons of spun sugar cobwebs, Halloween spiders in many fondant hues and pumpkins hollowed out to show ‘Scaricakes’ inside them, had to be removed to give way to parkin, gingerbread and firework related displays.  A large and slightly lopsided Guy Fawkes came out of storage, had his straw bolster arms and legs plumped up, and sat in a wheelbarrow beside the entrance to greet children at eye level, with a disturbingly Fagin-like leer.  Sugar mice ran in and out of the pockets and up the sleeves of his greatcoat.  Candy rocket fireworks were strapped, like dynamite, to his padded chest.  It occurred to Andrew, noticing this, that in this day and age, perhaps that was not the right image for the dummy to have, even though it was, in a way, accurate.  He made a mental note to suggest that Guy Fawkes should not be wearing what appeared to be a suicide vest when he was wheeled back out again tomorrow.  Perhaps the candy rockets could be in a bucket alongside him instead.  It was an unusual publicity faux pas on the part of Watson’s but could easily be remedied and it would make Andrew look very up to the mark and P.C. when he mentioned it, ideally, to Viv, on her rounds. 

As Winter light fell into the afternoons, the staff were to take turns to stand outside invitingly with giant lit sparklers and a tray of free treacle toffees to dip into, to entice the customers in.  Until it came to the point when that was Andrew’s turn, he had not, as far as he knew, been seen.  A group of workers crossing from the bakery to the container units where they changed out of the coveralls coincided with him taking up his spot and the fact that a manager was accompanying them to do so alerted Andrew to there being those among them that were under supervisory escort about the premises.  He stepped forward a little, so that the multicoloured flare of the sparklers would catch attention and show his face clearly for a minute or two. It was impossible to tell, of course, whether any of the people at a slight distance, disguised in the coveralls and moving as a group, were taking any particular notice of him but he guessed it was possible. 

He felt a little hitch in his breathing, because he was, most certainly, afraid of them and of what he intended to set in motion and was glad when his stint was over and he could retreat back inside the cover of the bakery shop amongst his colleagues.  A figure in a scruffy old duffle and mittens came in, wearing one of those bright South American knitted hats with earflaps and a tassle, pulled on jauntily.  Nolan winked at him and passed by to buy some parkin at the cake counter.  Even though nothing had happened, Andrew was glad Nolan had chosen that day to do one of his proposed walkabouts.  He found he was looking forward to leaving and having Nolan with him.  Andrew hadn’t brought his car, coming in by bus and walked quickly out to the road outside to jump in with Nolan, by now deep in music with headphones in while waiting for him.  They had agreed that varying his mode of transport was a good idea when it came to trying to cover his tracks in terms of where he went after work. 

“I think it might start now,” Andrew told Nolan as they drove away, explaining why. 

“Well, I know what they look like and I’ve watched the patterns for coming and going from the bakery floor on CCTV as well.  Birds eye view and in person.  So all you’ve got to do now, young Andrew, is watch your smoke.” 

“I know.” 

“And remember.  You don’t have to,” said Nolan. 

“I do,” Andrew said.  “But thanks.” 

Nolan nodded and just said, 

“O.k.” as they continued on their way for him to drop Andrew off at home for the night.

 Adjured by everyone repeatedly to be careful, Andrew still had to find some way of bringing the guilty pair into the open as being criminally dangerous.  The following week’s cycle of work activity looked as if it might offer that opportunity because he was to be on early shift in the yard loading up the first delivery vans taking fresh bread and rolls out direct from the bakery to the shops which stocked them locally, which meant he would be in the open but with people.  Friday in the shop had told him that he had been right to think he had been seen by Leah and Tyler ( as they were called now) the day before.  He had looked constantly out of the window, Guy Fawkes, his rockets now safely in a yellow seaside bucket beside him, slumped in his barrow by the entrance, and around lunchtime had seen a responding gaze from across the way, briefly locking eyes with him in a hostile glare before Tyler moved on.  He managed to alert Ken by text over the weekend that he needed to speak to him.  Not really a mobile phone man by nature, by arrangement he was on the lookout and so after only an hour or two he responded with ‘Pub. Sat. 7.’  The two of them duly found themselves in Rafferty’s to exchange views on what, if anything might happen and ensure that Ken, once also on site on the bakery floor due to Andrew’s machinations with the shift patterns the week before to make them to coincide, would be as much on the alert as possible for anything unusual.  Neither of them thought much would come of things in such a public arena.  It was more for Andrew to act as a stalking horse in his moves to lure Tyler and Leah into some kind of action to expose them.

It was still dark so early on Monday morning and the courtyard flood lights were on so that everybody could see what they were doing.  It felt to Andrew like walking out on stage, even more so when, along with others, he began going in and out of the back of the bright bakery, carrying out fragrantly loaded trays and putting them into the designated vans.  As time passed, Frank nodding through to him to show he had seen him and the steady rhythm of loading up continuing smoothly, Andrew began to relax. The first vans began to pull out and Andrew continued down the line with the others.

He had put the last tray in the one he was helping to load at the far end and, following the established routine, shut the doors and banged on them to indicate it was ready to go out.  The van’s engine turned over but, instead of backing out to turn slowly and carefully with the customary caution, it shot into sudden reverse at speed.  Andrew leapt aside but, caught off balance, fell down still in its path as it continued to bear down on him obliviously.  Following his training by instinct, he rolled quickly aside as it shot past, missing him by a hair's breadth and he saw a white face behind the windscreen changing gears in furious concentration to come at him again as if the driver simply hadn’t seen him.  It was a woman’s face and it was Leah’s.  Andrew half scrambled up and leapt aside again, going into another roll and feeling gravel burning grazes into his face and hands.  The van shot past and under its cover another figure was almost on him as he was still down.  His now trained instincts kicking in, he was able to parry the blow with one quick knock up of his arm and got into a crouch before they came back, using his own core strength to spring up and as he was grabbed from behind, dropped all his weight forward before straightening fast and, by snapping his head back, smashed it into the face behind him.  The grip let go and Andrew spun to slash up with the side of his hand into the soft underside of the assailant’s nose, driving it up and back towards the brow. Screams of pain suggested he had broken it. There were shouts as people further away realised something was amiss and came running. Slicing wildly about him with the blade he held, blood coursing down his battered face, Tyler ran for the van roaring its engine alongside, scrambled into the passenger door and it tore out through the yard, narrowly missing others, then belted out of the Watson’s Wheatsheaf grounds.

People ran to Andrew, who was realising that his thickly padded mountain weather fit walking jacket had sustained the knife wound damage aimed at the arm he had held up in self defence and saved him from a severed artery at least.  Due to adrenalin drain and reaction, he found himself trembling. His head still rang from crunching bone to bone and the hand he had sliced up with so hard to connect with Kyle’s nose, was already starting to swell.  His face and hands stung from all the gravel he had slid through and he would have many more new bruises he was starting to feel.   Still, though, he was suffused with an odd sense of pride.  He, Andrew, had fought and won.  Leah and Tyler had failed in their mutual attempts to finish him by taking the opportunity to stage another accident.  Tyler’s bout of berserker rage when that went wrong and he couldn’t just push him back into the van’s path, would surely be the ultimately condemning factor.  Andrew was taken inside to be first aided and cleaned up a little, the hand pronounced to be perhaps in need of an xray but he said he would see how it felt later.

Viv, having been summoned, was deeply shocked to hear what had happened, even more so when Andrew finally, in confidence in her office, told her the truth about who everybody, including himself, had really been and why he was there.  He had no wish, he told her, to cause trouble for Watson’s and the police would not get the full version of events when they interviewed him.  It would be enough that this murderous assault on him would ensure the two still violent criminals would go back into the criminal justice custodial system when they were caught and, given the debacle of their escape attempt after failing in public to try to kill him so he could not expose them, Andrew had little doubt that this would happen.  He also told her that he had not wanted to disturb the new lives of any others who had been involved in the old crime, including the innocent, like Ben Bradbury’s parents.

He was proved right that Leah and Tyler wouldn’t get far, as news was soon brought that the two had been caught.  Andrew’s version to the police was that he didn’t know why but the two people on the community service project had targeted him from the start, that it had been bullying of him that escalated into a full on attack before by Kyle Taylor, unprovoked by Andrew himself and that the two of them seemed to be in on it together.  He dropped some hints that the deceased Ben Bradbury might have been subject to the same, sowing the seeds of the facts for them to follow as they grew into the light.

“It was, I don’t know, like some kind of game to them.  But as if they didn’t feel anything about it at all.  And, well, to me, I doubt it was the first time for them.  They were like one of those gone to the bad couples, if you know what I mean?”  He was all innocent insight to the police, but they clearly knew exactly who Leah and Tyler really were from the looks they all exchanged, so he went on to build on that. “I think they just thought I was easy meat.  It was verbal at first, but then Tyler started to threaten me.  He said I could be as dead as Ben Bradbury.  He was someone who died here, you know, at work.  Everyone thought it was an accident.  Maybe it was.” Further looks were exchanged between the officials here. “But I didn’t want to be driven out and I didn’t want to cause any trouble.  So I didn’t tell anyone,” concluded Andrew.

The police accepted this and Viv (who didn’t think anybody else except herself knew about Andrew’s real profession and reason for being at Watson’s, as he had kept Ken’s involvement hidden to protect him) being as keen to keep things quiet as Andrew had predicted she would be, didn’t tell them the whole truth, either.  It was agreed that he should go home to rest for now having given his statement, Viv being understandably keen to get him off the premises.  It was sad to know in a way, that he would never come back there, because damage limitation was to the fore in Viv’s mind, as Andrew had anticipated.  The private detective would not continue his training work at Watson’s Wheatsheaf.  He would be off sick, then not return. There might be a compensatory bonus finishing salary payment as thanks and reward from Watson’s.  In fact, Viv was sure she could arrange that by way of thanks for his discretion.  Andrew rang Nolan.

“You might want to check this morning’s CCTV footage at Watson’s from first thing,” he told him.  

“Why?” asked Nolan, who had only just got up by the sound of it, yawning audibly.  “You told me you weren’t on till two-six this week.”

“I lied,” said Andrew.  “I had a feeling this might come to something any time and you might have tried to stop me coming for the first bakery delivery shift as being too risky.  I didn’t expect it to kick off quite so fast though, even though I did think things might escalate, like I said on Thursday.”

When Andrew told Nolan, too, what had happened, he agreed that he certainly would have tried to stop him being in such close proximity to the two murderers in the bakery on that early shift.

“You Caledonian fuckwit!” he burst out, yelling down the phone.  “You might have been killed!”

“I might have been,” Andrew agreed, quite calmly by now.  “But I wasn’t.  Would you mind coming to get me, though?  My hand’s too bust up to drive. I’ll pick my car up later.”

“One of your crack defence moves?” enquired Nolan disparagingly.

“Yes,” said Andrew.  “Saved my bacon, mate.  Believe you me.”

“Hmm,” said Nolan, evidently unconvinced.

In the event, Viv offered to have Andrew’s car brought back for him later, really to avoid him having to go back to Watson’s, no doubt, but still, it was an offer he gratefully accepted.

Nolan arrived for him as requested and Andrew felt he was being towed away back into safety.  Nolan let him know that he was far from impressed.  After a bit of a silence, Andrew said,

“Did you watch the footage?”

“Yes.”  A further silence from Nolan suggested to Andrew his level of shock at what had so nearly happened to his friend and business partner.  Then Nolan said stonily, “You lied to me. We’re supposed to work together.”

“I know but, it was for the best.”

“Was it?”

“I bet you’ve lied to me sometimes, too.”

Nolan, of course, had, his casino nights at the mill and what they had led to, a near miss for him too, at the hands of Al and his older brother, never having been admitted to.

“That’s not the point.”

“Oh, really?” said Andrew, settling back a bit.  “I bet you thought you had your reasons too, at the time.”

“I never said there was a time.”

“Not directly.”

“Shut up.”

“All right.”  

They drove on in further silence for a while until Andrew asked where they were going.

“A & E, “ said Nolan.  “You’ve got nothing better to do for the next five or six hours than wait to be triaged, x rayed and patched up, have you?”

“I want to go home, though!” objected Andrew.  “I don’t want to sit around in there all day.”

“Well, tough shit,” said Nolan.   “That’s exactly what you are going to do.”

“You don’t need to stay with me.”

“I do.  Otherwise you’ll leg it in a taxi.”

“I thought you were my friend.”

“I am, that’s why I’m dealing with this.  You’re too bloody daft to be left to yourself any longer. "  Andrew smiled.  “Scotch mist on the brain again,” muttered Nolan.  “Pillock,” he added, for good measure and they drove on.  “You’re paying for the parking,” he told Andrew as they pulled into the hospital’s car park barrier.  “It’s fucking extortionate.”

“All right,” agreed Andrew equably, finding himself quite pleased after all to be forcibly looked out for by Nolan, as he supposed he should, really, get checked over.

They parked, entered the crowded reception area, reported in and sat patiently, side by side, for the ensuing wait.  Nolan played games on his smartphone, leaving Andrew to suffer in ignored silence by way of demonstrating that he was far from being forgiven.  Andrew decided that it was politic to put up with it and entertained himself instead as best he could by people watching fellow patients enduring the wait, too.  After what felt like years, his hand was examined and they were sent to wait for an x ray. After a further millenium or two, the hand was pronounced badly bruised but no bones broken and after all that, he was told to put frozen peas on it to reduce the swelling and take paracetamol for the pain.  

“Told you it would pay to get professional advice,” Nolan said breezily after all this.  “Years of training went into that diagnosis. Can’t be too careful, can you?”

“Yeah,” said Andrew.  “Cheers.”

“Welcome, mate,” said Nolan with considerable satisfaction.  “I’ll take you home now.”

It was dark.  Nolan had scoffed sandwiches and cakes twice throughout the time but Andrew had been advised to eat and drink nothing until he had been examined completely and had the x ray results, in case of any need for a general anesthetic depending on the findings.  He was starving and very thirsty.

“Yeah,” said Andrew bleakly again.  “Cheers.”

“What are friends for?” concluded Nolan cheerily, as they drove away.

Andrew said nothing, feeling very little, just then,  like the hero of the hour he had felt himself to be earlier.

Nolan, despite having dropped Andrew back at his flat the night before and left him to his own devices, which consisted of a tin of soup and falling into bed with his throbbing hand on the prescribed bag of frozen peas (this last leading to some confusion about what was on the pillow next to him when he turned to answer his mobile in the morning and found his cheek pressed to something nightmarishly limp, cold and damp) seemed keen to keep him occupied now.  

“Jesus Christ!” exclaimed Andrew in alarm.  “What the fuck is that?”

“Morning,” said Nolan.  “Nice talking to you.”

“Oh, it’s all right.  It’s the peas.”

“No, it’s not the police, it’s me.”

“No, I mean the peas.  They’re on my pillow.”

“ Peas?  Are you sure it’s not a few marbles rolling round from your brain that have fallen out?”

“The bag of, oh, never mind.  What do you want?” said Andrew ungraciously, in pain and resentful of the hospital carry on, in retrospect, of that and of being unceremoniously dumped back at his flat by Nolan without any further assistance.

“It’s your after care package,” said Nolan, as if reading his thoughts. “You’d better stay at ours for the next few days if you’re not going to Sarah’s.  In case it is the police next time. I doubt you’ll want to go either to Sarah’s or your parents, will you and have too many questions asked about what’s happened to your pretty face?”

“Oh?” said Andrew.  “What’s brought this on, then?  You weren’t bothered last night.”

“Oh, dear!” said Nolan. “Don’t be like that, darling.”  

Andrew rang off peevishly and getting up, threw the peas in the kitchen bin, putting the kettle on.  He was still mostly dressed from yesterday and felt in urgent need of a shower.  Nolan rang back.

“What?” said Andrew.  “I’m making a cup of tea.”

“No, seriously, you don’t want the police coming at you right away, do you, asking enough questions to find out what you’re really about in life?  You’ve made your statement.”

“Would it matter?” asked Andrew mulishly.

“Does perverting the course of justice matter?  You’ve already withheld evidence about what you knew.  Besides which, there’s our licences to think of.  It’s not exactly your first offence down those lines is it?  Peter and Barbara Haddon?  Any bells ringing through the morning mist for you?”

Andrew’s heart sank a little, realising Nolan was right.

“I didn’t use my real surname.”

“Listen, Batman, they might, just might, work that one out if you are too much in their eyeline.  Reports might cross desks, capisce?”

“What’s Billy going to say when he sees the state of me?” parried Andrew.

“I’ll tell him you forgot to use your safe word with Sarah.”

“Hah bloody hah,” said Andrew.

“Seemples - I’ve already told him you’ve had a bit of a bump in your car and that’s why I was at hossie with you yesterday.  You are still sans wheels, no?”


“There you go, then.  No car at yours when he comes to get you.”

“What? When?”

“You’ve got about twenty minutes.”

“Fucking hell, Nolan.”

“Have a shower.”

“Oh, for crying out loud…”

“Just get on with it.”

Andrew did.  Billy greeted him with touching concern, making up somewhat for Nolan’s more cavalier approach and commiserated with him on the aggressive lack of road skills demonstrated these days by many of the local drivers, refusing to be either Knights of the road, or even abide by the barest minimum of the highway code, as he took Andrew and a hastily assembled overnight bag back to their place.  Andrew said it was very good of them on arrival and Nolan agreed that it was.  They sat in the living room, where the French windows opened on to a garden of confused seasons, Autumn leaves draping the trees along with second time round flower blooms, the mild temperatures misleading them back into Spring and Summer.

These were not the only things confused by the weather, or perhaps, not just the weather.  On her return to Inkerman street one slightly drizzly but warm dark evening, Dee passed by a shrubbed gateway, a white shape under a laurel who greeted her proving to be an old lady in a white plastic mackintosh sitting beneath it.  She wore a hat and the streetlamp picked out bright red, if crooked lipstick.

“Hello,” said Dee.  “What are you doing there?”

“I’m waiting for the Spring!” declaimed the figure grandly, as if this were the most natural thing in the world for about half nine at night in November.

“I see,” said Dee kindly.  “Well, I don’t think that’s a great place to wait for it.  It’s night, you know.  Shouldn’t you go inside?”

“Oh, I don’t live here,” the small old lady said, waving an arm to demonstrate with a flourish towards the house behind her.

“I see,” said Dee again.  “ Well is it far to where you do live?  Perhaps I can walk you home.”

“As to that,” said the old lady.  “I live near.  Just not here.”

“Well,” Dee tried again.  “What is the name of your street?”

“I really couldn’t say,” the old lady said, with the firmness of a teacher repudiating impudence from a youngster.

Dee managed to persuade her to her feet and suggested that perhaps if they walked a little, she would recognise where she was.

“Where I am?” said the old lady, Alice in Wonderland style.  “I know exactly where I am, dear! That is not in question.”

“No,” said Dee.  “I quite see that.  Which way, then?” she asked, feeling rather like Alice herself encountering some waywardly imperious creature.

“It’s down here,” said the old lady.  “Come along, then.”

Dee went with her just down a street to the right and reaching a large old Edwardian terrace, they went into the hall of one to open the door to a ground floor room, where a rat’s nest of plugged in single bar electric fires, their wires tangled together like tails, clustered dangerously on the  floor, where Dee could see a bed. Dee looked in doubtfully as the old lady entered and turned to shut the door behind her, smiling graciously at Dee as she waited a moment to do so.

“Will you be all right?” Dee  asked.

“Of course!” declared the old lady and singing next in a slightly quavery soprano “Over my shoulder goes one care!  Over my shoulder goes two!” shut the room door firmly in Dee’s face as if to disbar an uninvited caller.

Dee left her to it and shutting the big front door into the wide original hallway, mosaic tiles on the floor, went on her own way home.  It appeared the old lady lived there alone and had simply transitioned to the ground floor to sleep.  She told Finney, who had been out till later himself, about the apparent death trap and after a discussion about whether it was right or not to do so, in the morning she rang the call centre number for social services and gave the address, expressing her concerns.  It was doubtful to her that anything would happen as she didn’t know the lady’s name, nor her circumstances, but they assured her if the address did turn out to be that of a person known to be elderly and vulnerable, something would be done.   After a further conflab between them, Dee and Finney agreed to go back round themselves to make sure the old lady was all right, in the afternoon. The old lady answered the front door to their ring, holding a small drink of what looked and smelt like sweet sherry in a minute cocktail glass.  She did not remember Dee and sounded perfectly clear minded, at least for the present.

“Are you collecting for something?” she enquired obstructively.  “I never give. It’s a racket!”

She closed the door again firmly.  Finney said, smiling a little:

“I don’t think you need to worry, Dee.  She seems to be happy enough, wouldn’t you say?”

“I still think someone should have a check on her.”

“Well, you’ve tried to make sure they do.”

“I suppose so,” Dee had agreed doubtfully.

Al had vanished again into his diaspora existence and perhaps the sense of guilt that she did after all feel, had fed into her wish to do something good for a stranger, whether asked for or not.  She had seen no more of Baz, either, since his veiled challenge to her in the public hall and her disquietude about his remarks and their import had settled down.  Finney had picked up that she was increasingly distant when she returned to a houseful, going off to their room to be out of it rather than joining in, and he seemed as a result to have discouraged the new droppers in to an extent, socialising with them elsewhere.  Dee appreciated this allowance of her own space but was still no clearer about whether or not she would stay the course on the actual academic course.  To date, though, she had still not broached that with anybody, questioning herself about whether leaving so soon would be to  close the door to that kind of future.  She decided that now, on their way back from the old lady’s house, would be a good time to raise it with Finney.  His response was a little absent, and she felt he was trying to rouse himself to sound interested rather than really being interested.

“Are we growing apart, Finney?” she asked him.

Finney was silent for a moment or two and his answer revealed that he had always had more perception than she had seen all along.

“I didn’t choose that,” he said finally.  “That was you.” She looked at him and he said, “I always told you, Dee.  I’d never make you do anything you didn’t want to do.  It’s your life. You’ve already made one decision. It’s up to you to make the other.”

“You knew.”

“I knew.”

“I didn’t realise.

“No,” said Finney sadly.  “You never do.”

They didn’t say any more on their way back from the old lady’s house, a little excursion that had begun harmlessly enough, it seemed but ended, quietly, in their own disaster.  They both knew, in their hearts, that it was over but for it to end without passion was a sorrow to them both which they didn’t want to put into further words just then.  The moment would not pass between them, only time would and that, they realised, they would have to manage somehow.  

Dee sounded her parents out over the phone to prepare them for the fact that she was thinking of leaving the course after the first term. They were not happy.

“You’re going to just fold up again?” her mother had exclaimed, to Dee’s surprise.  “I thought you’d found some backbone!  You need to learn to get your head down and get on with it!”

Stung, Dee rang off.  Her father, the more indulgent of the two towards Dee, rang back, to ask what her plans were, then.

“I can go back to the ‘Pomme D’Or’”, she extemporised.  “I’m going to go back to showcasing my own artwork for sales and push getting commissions.  I’ll get back to the first woman who bought from me.”

“I see.  And - what does Finney think?”

“It’s got nothing to do with Finney!  He’ll be staying on here.”

“I see,”said her father again, adding, as clearly he did see.  “That’s a pity.”

“He’ll be all right,” said Dee, unfairly.  “Finney’s always all right.”

“I suppose so,” said her Dad.  “But will you be? It would mean coming home again, wouldn’t it?”

“Maybe,” said Dee.  “I’ll have to see.”

Susceptible to the warning tone in Dee’s voice, her father left it.  Discussing it later, her parents reminded themselves of her still maturing youth and of the need to let her make her own choices about her future, with their support.  Just in case, they told one another, sensitised to the potential for disastrous impulse outcomes from previous experience.  Still, her mother had said,

“It doesn’t do any harm for ‘Little Miss Daydream’ to be told what’s what about life from time to time.”

“I know,” her father had said, smiling at the use of their childhood Mister Men nickname for Dee as, at her insistence, they had now had to get used to calling their one time Debbie.  They were disappointed at what might be in the offing but not entirely surprised. “Think of it this way. Sophie will be pleased and our built in babysitter will be back. So we can at least have some more time to ourselves again, love.”

“Hah!” said Dee’s mother.  “And so we will. She owes us that, for our trouble.”

“Well.  Wait and see, eh?” Dee’s father had concluded diplomatically.

Dee, without having any notion of how to manage it till she had wrapped things up at college, offered to move out but Finney said that wouldn’t be necessary and simply absented himself from the house until, as he said, she was ready.  

“I’ve got somewhere to go,” he had said and went there.

Dee had no doubt that it would be to Coralie’s, who, due to property wielding parents, was in a buy to rent that they had furnished her with.  He didn’t tell her and she didn’t ask because Finney had made it silently clear that it would no longer be any of her business, leaving her in no doubt of his condemnation of her betrayal of him with someone Finney had always regarded as paltry in his behaviour towards her.  Al had once threatened her with total exclusion if he found she was ever seeing anybody else and yet it was Finney who, to her quite real surprise, had executed it but then, Al was already compromised and Finney, well he, up to that point, she knew, would not have been actively unfaithful.  

Now spoken of, Dee's infidelity lay between them like a pile of dead leaves stirred into life by the breath of their every conversation, spoiling it all.  It was a relief when he went.  Regret would come later, she knew.  They would miss each other but Finney would not be staying friends with Dee as he had done with former girlfriends, she realised.  He had seen them as being different and special together and Dee had totally let that view of their relationship down.  The thought of how long he might have known perhaps now explained how immersed in new company he had become so quickly, waiting, disappointedly, for her to be honest with him.  Dee was sorry for that and Finney had said, as he left with most of his things, generous money wise and saying he would continue with his share of the rent till she sorted her own exit out,

“What was it all for, Dee?

As always, in her dealings with Al, she would continue to question herself about that.   Perhaps, though, for the first time, it would lead to some real independence of her own.  Dee felt a rising sense of confidence that this, at least, was something that she really did want and now, finally, she would achieve it herself, through her own decisions.

Andrew continued to make himself physically scarce while being contactable on his mobile as far as the police were concerned, under the guise of recuperation from the stress of his attack, going on to visit his parents for a couple of weeks, telling them it was because he had the chance of a long visit in between accountancy work bookings.  He knew he would have to appear as a witness in due course but hoped to keep it at that.  He and his father had made an excursion by train to a favourite city, York, and having entered its thick medieval walls, were reprising their long established tour of the secondhand bookshops which still continued to flourish there.  It was by far and away Andrew’s father’s favourite activity. 

The bookshops were, as they had always appeared to be, places that seemed the haunts of timeless magicians living in a present they had accidentally created in the past.  In the first, floor to ceiling bookcases narrowed halls and rooms leading off into many chambers from uncarpeted spindled staircases and an upper gallery was reached via a metal spiral staircase at the back.  Old, thin papered hardbacks crammed together, their pages, when opened, whispering and crabbed with tiny print, treasure for all academic study and poetry down the ages.  Real fires bickered quietly in tiny grates and customers maintained a scholarly silence as they browsed in its distant reaches.   It smelt of dust settled by damp and retained an air of hushed, almost clerical privacy.  Books were reverentially paid for at a tiny cubbyhole counter huddled in a corner (for books took precedence over people for space), wrapped in brown paper, tied with string, and left to be collected later, once the circuit of all other potential hoards had been completed.   

They had left Andrew’s mother tidying up the post storm pruning he had done of the huge rowan tree in their garden, affectionately maintained in trim as their Celtic protector of house and home.  Andrew’s mother, who was a skilled maker of things, would use the best pieces to carve walking sticks and spindles for sale in the local craft shop.  A much loved project, the making of a spinning wheel, had also been long in the making and it was she, rather than Andrew’s father, who had a workshop shed to hobby in at the back of the house.  She had waved them off, saying, with faint hope, 

“Don’t buy too many now!  Think of the floors!” 

The weight of his father’s many books about the entire building gave her considerable cause for concern but there was no hope of any being quietly removed, as he had some instinct which led to an instant search for any particular volumes which might have been earmarked for being spirited away by his wife as of lesser note than others.  His distress at not being able to find them was greater than the potential risk to the floors and ceilings, so she never carried through any threat to “deal with all this” at some point. 

In between times, Andrew and his father rambled by the misty chill of the river so that his father could indulge in his pipe and grumble about it having to be a secret vice enjoyed outdoors these days, instead of being puffed at pleasurably over your cup of tea inside. 

“You should give it up anyway, Dad,” said Andrew mildly, as always and his father, as always, replied, 

“There’s more to life than just living it.  You need a few guilty pleasures to get by.” 

There followed, again as usual, some desultory talk about politics of the day but this was hindered by Andrew’s father’s assumption of absolute authority on all such matters, making it difficult not to become irritated when his own comments were met with as being fatuously childish somehow and not informed by the rigorously serious thinking given to it by his father.  He found it easier, therefore, to allow the flow to continue unhindered by anything except general agreement.  It was, though, a restfully pleasant day for him after what had gone on recently and Andrew enjoyed it.  Sarah was coming up for a short visit to her own family the following week and then she and Andrew would travel back down together, when he would stay with her. 

For the first time in a while, he heard from Dee, who texted to say it would be good to catch up. 

“What now?” thought Andrew, attuned to the whens and whys of what made her get in touch with him these days. 

On her return, Dee had found the ‘Pomme d’Or’ empty apart from its original staff and herself.  Frankie and Nathe had taken off again as planned.   She was setting up one day for lunchtime when a scatter of magpies outside caught her eye, cackling impudence on wings flashing black and white, their calls actually an alert to one another of possible danger, as they picked at food on the grass opposite. 

A person walking through the park had disturbed them and ambling across the road, glanced up at Dee, their own attention caught by her face at the window.  A halo of dusty curls told her who it was and she was gripped by a spasm of anger at the sight of him.  Leaving her work laying tables, she went outside to accost him with some half conceived challenge and blame of him for things turning out as they had. 

“Hello, Dee,” he nodded, stopping as she stepped out in front of him, adding caustically, “Back to waitressing, then?” 

“What the hell are you doing here?” she demanded irately. 

He cocked an eyebrow. 

“Going for a drink.  Same as always.” 

“I thought you were supposed to be studying in Leeds?” accused Dee. 

“I thought you were, last I saw,” he returned, hands in pockets, rocking on his heels and surveying her with satirical indifference.  “I didn’t say what I was studying, as I recall.” 

“So what was it, then?"

"People, at the time.  My work’s been part of an exhibition over there.  I’m in demand, you see,” he said, with a jeer in it.  “ I was at that and I walk about looking at faces, finding subjects.” 

“Following people about, you mean!” said Dee hotly, finding his jack in the box appearance now as questionable as she had done at the public meeting in Leeds. 

“Oh, I wasn’t following you, Dee.  Not the day I saw you.  Finney was, though.  I saw that, and his face, so then I walked after you both, just to see what was up.  You were going through the arcade.  I was standing in a doorway watching the crowd.  You went by and then a bit behind you, there was Finney.  He didn’t catch up so I guessed he was following to see where you were going and he didn’t look too happy.  The golden couple of ‘Crash Start Art’ in trouble!” he mocked.  “It was too good to miss.  Then, this full on guy appears and you practically leap into his arms.  You should have seen Finney’s face.  It was class.”  Dee’s own face burned.  “You rushed out with the Sultan of Swing and Finney stormed off elsewhere.  Messed it all up, have you?” he asked, eyeing her with insolent dispassion. 

“You just can’t stay away from Finney, can you?  Or from me by the look of it!” Dee burst out. 

“Just coincidence , poppet,” shrugged Baz.  “But I do like to see him riding for a fall.” 

“Why do you hate him?” 

“I don’t.  I think he’s a happy go lucky prick who needs taking down a peg or two.  He gets things too easy.” 

“You’re just jealous of him.” 

“Me?  I’m the established talent, petal.  Oh and you needn’t fret.  I haven’t the least bit of interest in you.  I really am just going for a pint.  Which I’m looking forward to.” 

“You like to cause trouble, though, don’t you?” 

“I don’t live by other people’s values, if that’s what you mean.  Most of them are a bit pitiful, leading their insular little lives.  Some are just too lazy to step out of line and others, well, others,” and here he looked slyly at Dee, “they just play follow my leader.  Depends who’s tugging on their leash.” 

“Really!” exclaimed Dee, taking all this as personally as Baz clearly intended.  “Well, for your information, I’ve chosen to do what I’m doing and I’ve chosen to be single.  I’m not with Finney or Al.” 

“No.  Well, you couldn’t be, could you?” drawled Baz.  “Not after all that.  Now, I’m getting thirsty.  Ta-ra, poppet.” 

“Wait!” Dee detained him.  “Does Finney know that you know about...that you saw me?” 

“I don’t know.  Who cares?  You’re boring me,” shrugged Baz and with this dismissal he shambled off towards the Mucky Pup. 

“I’m carrying on with my painting!” Dee found herself shouting after him. 

“Yeah? “ he half turned, momentarily.  “I suppose that’s something, then.”  There was a grudging approval in his tone  but he followed it with,  “Mind you, abstracts like yours are an easy choice, aren’t they?” leaving her loathing him more completely than ever on all counts but she shouted after him, 

“You’re just stuck in your own artistic rut, Baz!  And you're a miserable bastard!” which gained her a sardonic laugh and,

“Whatever…” called from behind his retreating back. 

Banging her way back into the restaurant, she felt that she had at least managed to score a point in return and stop Baz having it all his own way.  He wouldn’t like that, she thought, gratified but clattering down knives and forks and slamming the cupboard doors so loudly that Gus shouted out from the kitchen to ask what was going on in there. 

“Nothing!” said Dee, and she looked up at the walls, where new paintings she had done hung on display, priced up, one or two already admired by customers who seemed ready to buy them, telling herself that it really would be all right for her, now and actually feeling that it would be.  "The hell with you!" she added to herself.

A couple of hours later, Baz's figure, no less truculent looking but a bit worse for wear, weaved back past the window, either going home or to his next drinking destination.  Diners flinched as he glowered in at them, caught in the illumination of the lights around the window and Dee saw him notice her paintings on the walls this time, also lit up.  He paused a moment to look at them, enough for Dee to see that despite what he had said, he did rate her work, not, she was sure, that he would ever admit to it.  Again, she felt a leap of confidence in her own abilities as a result, not that she valued his opinion as a person but he was already successfully exhibiting as an artist, so in that respect, she was glad of the, slight as it was, approval.  He caught her eye, nodded unsmilingly, and went on his way again.

"Ta-ra yourself, then," she said to herself.  "You see?"  and she went back to serving the customers with her best public manner, feeling happily independent of the past.




Dandelion Souls Part 6

Dandelion Souls Part 6

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