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Jack of all trades, master of some. That's my own assessment of a life where I've tried many things, done well in a few, failed in a few, but generally kept my head above water in this fast flowing river of life.
Now, I'm in calmer waters, having joined that band of retirees who can choose when to get up in the morning. Most days, anyway.
This website showcases some of my writing and some of my images and is a fluid selection, changed at the occasional whim to provide new works or older, but previously unseen material.
So, more may be added, a few items may disappear and maybe the style will change as it grows organically; for that's the serendipitous way I tend to do things.
I hope you enjoy what you find.
As for my background, click the button below for a brief resumé.
As a consequence, all three lives are threatened before a disastrous finale exposes the truth.
A dark plot, but a light read.
She didn’t expect the kind of interest his introduction would arouse – or that a train of events among her new acquaintances would lead to such tragic consequences.
For those who like a good page-turner.
What's new this month?
This month's short story involves a dragon.
But not a mythical one.
(Click here) to read "The Elmhurst Dragon".
And a flash length story, also on this page,
"A knock at the door".
Growing up – Earlswood Lakes, October 2018
A knock at the door
There was a knock at the door. I don’t have a bell. I hate that unmelodious, two-tone, ding-dong. I opened it, a smile on my face, which quickly faded when I saw who it was. A matched pair of PC Police, one male, one female. They’d been here before. So, what had I done now?
‘Excuse me, sir, we have received a complaint against you… again.’ It was the female officer who spoke first: and she emphasised the word “again” with a slight pause and a nodding of her head in a we-know-you way.
I invited them in and asked who had made the complaint.
‘We can’t tell you that, sir. We must maintain confidentiality,’ the male officer replied, in a loud voice, as he stood on the doorstep for all the neighbouring curtain twitchers to see and hear. I remembered these two. They always spoke alternately, so that no priority was assumed by either of them. I wondered if they tossed a coin to decide who spoke first?
‘It is serious, this time, sir.’ You guessed it: the female officer, with a look of pleasure on her face, as she continued. ‘It concerns an incident that took place at the entrance to the supermarket on Clarendon Road.’
‘We have witnesses to the event, sir. And CCTV.’ The male officer, expanding his chest and drawing to his full height. ‘You arrived from a south-easterly direction at the same time as a female member of the public, who we cannot name, arrived from a south westerly direction, both of you reaching the door simultaneously.’
The female’s turn. ‘Whereupon, sir, the alleged offence took place and was duly reported to us by the complainant.’
I wondered if they counted each other’s words, to maintain an even balance, as I asked exactly what the alleged crime was that I was supposed to have committed.
I was surprised when the female officer continued. She must be running short on her word count, I thought. ‘It is alleged, sir, that you stepped forward and opened the door and made a gesture signifying that the lady in question should proceed before you, which she then felt compelled to do.’
I queried how that was an offence.
‘Sir, you took it upon yourself to open that door and force the young lady to proceed through it, without having the equal opportunity to open the door herself, which is deemed both demeaning and a denial of rights to a female in your presence. This is entirely contrary to the code of political correctness and equal opportunities for women and we are also looking into the possibility of sexual harassment in forcing this lady to act against her wishes.’ The male officer expanded with pride in being able to include so much in one sentence.
I felt I must plead guilty, but offered mitigation for the circumstances.
‘What mitigation,’ the two officers chorused in unison.
I told them I was poorly educated and knew only a previous PC code. Polite Conduct.
The Elmhurst Dragon
Roger always hated Saturday afternoons. The rest of the day was fine. The morning was the best part of the week, waking up early, with no rush to work, no school run: and no bolting down of overdone toast with lukewarm tea, as he tried to get Mark and Emma, washed, dressed and ready for delivery to Elmhurst Primary by 8:45am. All just part of the ritual of being a single parent.
Saturday mornings meant time to enjoy a proper breakfast with his two offspring, time to catch up on what they had been up to all week – or as much as they would tell him. Time to take them swimming and treat them to a McDonalds’ burger and fries, followed by a McFlurry. The least healthy meal of the week. By the time he collected them from after-school club, on weekdays, they were too tired to do anything but grumble and fight, argue with him, and themselves, and generally putting him in a grumpy mood, before he finally put them to bed. But once the warming drink and two biscuits had been consumed over a goodnight story, mostly made up by himself and frequently involving the Elmhurst Dragon, they were giggling themselves to sleep.
He blamed much of these circumstances on himself. Two children, less than a year and a half apart, his long working hours and his frequent trips away eating into weekends and disrupting holiday plans. Too many boozy dinner hangovers and too little time spent with Mark and Emma, as much as he adored them, to take some of the weight off Linda, their Mum. It all proved too much for her. She cracked under the strain, mentally and physically, and was consigned to an institutional life, eighty miles away. There she sank into a protective barrier of total amnesia. He still visited her, but he had stopped taking the children. She no longer knew them, nor that he was anything more than a kind man who brought her chocolates. She even asked him once, if he had a family and did his wife do voluntary work visiting men. They’d like that, she’d said. Men are such self-centred creatures.
After Linda’s breakdown, her mother had taken over for the first week, while he rapidly changed his work schedules to take a complete month off. Her mother continued to come over during that time, too, pasting blame on him with a thick brush. He didn’t deserve it all. Linda had a previous history of mental incapability. Naturally shy, at fourteen, she’d been bullied at school for her comfort-eating roundness and later vilified for her anorexic skinniness by her mother, at seventeen. It was only through Roger’s love and constant support that normality had returned and she recouped the self-esteem of prepubescent years. And married him.
The first five years had been full of romance, both had high profile positions in business and when baby Mark arrived, Linda turned all her attention to his upbringing. There were no financial worries living on Roger’s earnings alone. She left her legal post to become a doting Mum. Emma arrived sooner than planned, but was adored from the moment she opened her eyes and bellowed at the world with her strong healthy cry. A cry which became a constant wailing for over six months, exhausting both parents, though never disturbing little Mark who would have slept on should the house have collapsed around him.
Now, Roger had to balance work and childcare, but was coping better than he had hoped. So, his weekends were sacred to family. But Saturday had the intrusion of the Elmhurst Dragon.
She was the inspiration of many of his bedtime stories, his bête noire, though not quite his nemesis. He somehow managed to survive the weekly onslaught, on Saturday afternoons, of Linda’s mother.
It was pretty certain Linda would never come back, but her mother was in denial. She would arrive at two o’clock, on the dot, with husband, Harold (never say Harry), in tow and, using the spare key she had been given years ago (for keeping an eye on the place over holiday periods), she would march in and call to the children, completely ignoring Roger. Harold and children would be despatched to the park. They liked that. On his own, their Grandpa was good fun. He let them do all the things Grandma forbade and kept them topped up with fizzy drinks, sweets and ice cream, before returning to his meek and mild self, in his wife’s overbearing presence.
Once the house was emptied of distraction, Roger was despatched to his study to go and do something useful (never specified) while she put the house in order. Even though Roger kept a tidy house. It was the only way he could cope. He cleaned and polished, never let the used crocks pile up, changed the bed linen and prided himself on maintaining a standard that meant he could welcome visitors, business or social, at a moment’s notice, without the pitying looks he got when he was first left on his own to look after two lively youngsters. It was also good discipline for the children, who were rewarded for keeping their rooms tidy and other simple chores.
However, that wasn’t good enough for Linda’s mother. She took the perfectly clean plates and cutlery out of cupboards and drawers, and ran them through the dishwasher. She dusted where he’d dusted, polished where he’d polished, ran the vacuum over the dirt-free floors. She kept up a running commentary of how Linda would like this that way and that this way, then she would call out the one word ‘Tea’ expecting him to venture out and provide a porcelain cup of Earl Grey and two shortcake biscuits. And moan that the plate, which he’d just had to take out of the dishwasher, was too warm and he should have cooled it properly, first.
Then came the real reason he was kept behind: the heavy lifting. It was time to move the furniture around. Again. Almost every week, the Dragon, (as he thought of her) said that Linda would want this chair over there and that table over here. How could he not know? We must have everything right for when she comes home. The fact that he had left things just as she had placed them the week before had no bearing on the matter. The children loved it. Each week, they bet Grandpa, in sweet currency, that something would be moved and they got a double payout of jelly beans, if they actually named the right piece of furniture or picture or the correct swopping over of cushions. They were rarely disappointed.
Although banished to his study, at five o’clock, he was moaned at for not having started the children’s tea and, with a huff of ‘I suppose I’ll have to do it again,’ she’d whip around the kitchen cupboards complaining that nothing was in its right place, she couldn’t find any eggs (at least six of which were always in the fridge door) and they would have to do with toast and jam.
Mark and Emma were bright – and mischievous. They had guessed the origin of the Elmhurst Dragon stories about a crotchety dragon that kept moving things around, breathing fire over knights in armour, to send them into battle with their breast plates glowing red hot, setting whole forests alight to warm up a wintery day and swooshing down into castles to move one set of goal posts to the side of the pitch on Saturday football matches, so the players on one team didn’t have to run so far from end to end. And switch them, back if the opposing team had control of the ball. So, tea and toast called for a little amusement. Mark would turn up the setting on the toaster and go into the living room with Emma, to sit quietly with a book, as instructed. When the strident tones of the smoke alarm resounded around the house, the two would giggle and one of them, whichever felt the braver that day, would call out ‘better be good, Grandpa. Grandma’s breathing fire again!’ and Grandpa always gave an impish chuckle, as he waved a finger at them to be quiet.
Roger accepted everything as it was, knowing that within the surliness of Linda’s mother lay a love for her daughter that ever hoped for her recovery. But this Saturday, she had gone too far. She had arrived early at twelve o’clock, before he was back from swimming, and as soon as he opened the door he heard the howl of the vacuum cleaner, then the silence as it was switched off, followed by a howling torrent of why wasn’t he there when she arrived, why had he left everything in such a state of disarray, when Linda was due home at three o’clock. ‘You knew she was coming!’ she said sharply. But he didn’t. Not until now. His mother-in-law had neglected to tell him that she had made arrangements for her to come back to her own home, on the grounds it might bring back memories. Not that it had the two times that had been tried before, during her early treatment. In fact, the first time it had had the opposite effect and driven her deeper into herself.
‘I told the doctor she can stay as long as she likes and that you would be retiring early, so that we can look after her. I’m sure you can arrange that in a couple of weeks and I’ll manage until then.’ Roger looked at her in astonishment. He was only thirty-eight and his finances would no way stretch out to his pensionable age. ‘Now, no arguments. We haven’t got time.’ Her husband walked into the room, shaking his head, saying nothing, and then gathered up the children to take them to the park, with the words ringing in his ears, ‘… and make sure you’re all back by three.’ She was definitely in Dragon mode, Roger decided.
Within minutes he was shifting furniture, changing around the pictures on the walls, out mowing the lawn and back in to empty the dishwasher. Any attempt to say a word was met with deaf ears – and another instruction. What he worried about most was what Linda had been told, how she would react on arrival and what effect it would have on Mark and Emma, who hadn’t seen her for over four years (although he talked to them about her, frequently). Any thought of her staying more than a couple of hours filled him with terror. Was she really coming? Why hadn’t he been contacted? Of course, he had – but the Dragon’s spare key was useful in checking what post he had, while he was at work, and he wouldn’t be aware of the odd failed delivery. It was useful, too, to let in the care worker who came to inspect the house. ‘Of course, we’ll put everything back to how Linda liked it,’ Linda’s mother had said. ‘Roger hasn’t got a clue. Typical man.’
As three o’clock approached all too quickly, she fished in her pocket and brought out an envelope. One she’d noticed well over a week ago. ‘I forgot to give you this. I found it on the hall floor. Looks like it was sent ages ago, from the postmark. The mail is terrible these days, isn’t?’ (Well it is when it’s intercepted, of course.) It was the confirmation of Linda’s extended stay and promised a care package of daily nurse visits, plus an assessment at the end of the first month. Any hope that Roger had had that his mother-in-law was having senile misconceptions about the visit were dashed. And she wasn’t just coming for the day.
That being so, the first hurdle was where was she going to sleep? ‘With you of course. She’s your wife.’ Now that was a problem. He knew she was, but she just thought of him as a hospital visitor. Unless her morals had diminished in proportion to her memory, that could set any progress back on the first night. Her mother had truly lost grasp of reality in her wish to have her daughter back, as before. He tried to explain, but it was all deaf ears and mother knows best, again. ‘I’ll stay in the spare room for the first night or two. Harold put my case up there, earlier.’ It was the only room they hadn’t re-arranged, so Roger hadn’t seen it. So, it looked like Linda would sleep in his bed, but he would be down on the sofa. No doubt with ructions if he didn’t get up before the Dragon was on her morning prowl.
Luckily, Grandpa Harold was a kindly man, still a child at heart, and gently broke the news to Mark and Emma that their Mum was coming back to stay for a short time, that she was still very poorly and wouldn’t know who anyone was. He said, as long as they were kind to her, she might get to be a proper mother again, but it might take a very, very long time for her to get used to living in the house with them and their Dad. The children, being much more adaptable than adults, welcomed the chance to help someone get better. They only saw the rosy outcome of having two parents again, like most of their school friends. They were too young to understand the enormity of taking on what was, most likely, an impossible task with openings for many pitfalls.
Reliable Harold returned with the children at twenty to three, sped them up to the bathroom to clean up and installed them in their bedrooms, before the Dragon even noticed they were back. At five to three, Linda’s mum took up station in the bay window of the front room and actively willed the car bringing Linda to turn the corner into the road. There was a loud exclamation. ‘What’s that doing outside? Roger go and tell them to move it away, it’s across our drive. Linda’s car won’t be able to drive up.’ Roger looked through the window to see a somewhat decrepit, old, private, minibus ambulance. And when the sliding side door opened and, with assistance, Linda hesitantly stepped down, her mother almost shrieked. ‘How can they do that. The neighbours will think that Linda’s still ill – and it’s such a tatty old thing, they’ll think we’re cheapskates, as well.’
Forcing a smile and rushing to the front door, Roger keeping a couple of paces back, there was a booming ‘Welcome home,’ and a ‘Let’s go into the living room and Roger will make us all coffee.’ The driver remained in the ambulance cab, as Linda’s mother shepherded her daughter, a nurse and a psychiatric clinician inside and sat them down. Roger went straight to the kitchen to find Harold, who he had phoned on his mobile and asked him to buy a box of chocolates: the same ones he took when visiting his wife. He hoped that this would provide Linda with some association of who he was.
Meanwhile, the Dragon was not giving the nurse and clinician any leeway. She knew her daughter best. She would look after her wellbeing. She would make sure Roger was going to be around full time, once he had retired (which, of course, he had no intention of doing) and she would see that Linda took all her medications, ‘though she shouldn’t need them for long now she’s home,’ she concluded. The nurse gave a worried look to her senior and handed over, to Linda’s mother, the written instructions prepared for her daughter’s domicile over the coming weeks. With an ‘I don’t need these, I’m her mother’ sniff, they were just folded in half, without being looked at, and placed in a space on the bookshelves.
Then the two children we brought in and re-introduced to their mother, just as Roger brought in a tray of coffees and the box of chocolates.
A very bemused Linda sat in the midst of all this, totally confused as to why she was in a strange room, wondering what time they were all getting the bus back and hoping it wasn’t the same rackety old vehicle they had come in that didn’t even stop for more passengers. She liked to see different people come and go on the occasional outings she had, when taken shopping by one of the staff at her real home. Then something snapped into her errant memory, as she spied the chocolates. ‘Oh, you’re the man who comes and visits. How did you find me here? Did you bring those children, too? Can you take them away, before they get under my feet? I can’t abide children hanging around staring. Some of the others at home have them come in. Noisy brats. And who is that big dragon of a lady who keeps bossing everybody? Is she some sort of matron or have I been sent to prison? I haven’t done anything wrong, have I? My memory is not what it used to be. I remember bits. Is this Elmhurst? Was I told I was being sent to Elmhurst? I think I remember you saying there was a real dragon there. That’s it, the Elmhurst Dragon who kept changing houses around so nobody knew where they lived, anymore. Why do I remember that, when I forget everything else? Can I go home now, please?’
Mark and Emma stared at their grandma. Her face was apoplectic, glowing red cheeks, wide eyes and ready it seemed (as Mark whispered) to breathe real fire. ‘Perhaps she really is a dragon,’ Emma whispered back.
Before anything was forthcoming from the dragon’s lips, Roger intervened. Shooing away the children with Harold, he suggested that Linda needed some space, some time to acclimatise. With that, her mother pounced forward saying she would take Linda upstairs and show her her bedroom. Walking in, Linda had no recollection of having been there before and was surprised to see a double bed. ‘I only have a single at home.’ She said. ‘Am I to stay the night? I might feel lost in all that space? Couldn’t someone else have it? Perhaps you? Your much taller and fatter than me.’ Linda was quite petite, taking more after her father, whereas her mother was tall and broad, with more than ample bosom and not insignificant girth. ‘And what’s all this?’ Linda continued as she pulled aside the sliding door of the built-in wardrobe. ‘There’s all men’s things in here next to some dresses. I can’t stay here. There’s a cross-dresser been using the room and he might come back.’ She began to panic. ‘Let me out, I’ve got to catch a bus back. You can’t keep me a prisoner. I want to go home now. I demand it. I’ve done nothing wrong. Not that I can remember. You can’t lock me up. Get out of my way. I’ll report you to the police. You’re trying to incarcerate me with a sex fiend. I’ve read about people like you in the newspapers. I’m going to tell them, too.’
For once her mother was at a loss. All her scheming to bring her daughter home, so that she could bring her back to a normal life, seemed to be going awry. This wasn’t the moment of enjoyment she had planned: the family reunion she was sure would mend the past. To be shouted at by her once demure daughter was unthinkable. But it was happening.
Just then, the nurse appeared in the bedroom doorway: ‘It’s alright, Linda, you haven’t done anything wrong, you don’t have to stay, but your mother would like you to try being in your old house for a few days. It’s time for your medication, anyway, so just come with me and we’ll decide what’s best, after that.’ Downstairs, the clinician was already suggesting that the visit had been ill advised and Roger had told her that he knew nothing of it until a few hours ago.
Harold was with the children, in Mark’s bedroom, watching them play one of their computer games – one not involving dragons. He was waiting for the next outburst to come from his wife, as he was sure it would, before long. He was quite surprised when she put her head around the door and said quite calmly, ‘Linda is just having a lie down, so keep the children quiet and I’ll bring them something for tea, up here.’ That, in itself, was unheard of, considering her usual rule of no eating in the bedrooms.
In the hour that followed, the clinician had been busy making phone calls to her senior consultant and others, rearranging return transport, in case it was needed, and sourcing extra care help, if Linda was to stay overnight. The ambulance driver wasn’t happy with the delay, but stayed in his cab, enjoying, at least, the proffered food and a hot drink that Roger had taken out to him.
Once the medication kicked in, Linda became more rational; more like her institutional self. She let her mother continue a tour of the house and garden, but felt no warmth from her surroundings. She would not stay there, she decided. This forbidding woman seemed too much like a prison officer, the property too confined and the prospect of sharing the house, let alone a bed, with a man, made her shudder. The man was kind. She liked his gentle manner. And she liked the chocolates he brought. But he must stay an occasional visitor. She made that quite plain to him when she told him she must catch the next bus home.
That’s when her mother made her last plea. ‘Please Linda. Stay here just for a short while. You’re my only daughter. I miss you so much and I can come every day when you’re here, to look after you.’
A brief memory returned fleetingly to Linda’s mind. More like recollection of a dream; lacking in substance and gone when you wake up. ‘It was you, wasn’t it? You were the fire breathing dragon who devoured my children. I remember the flame, the piercing screams. Get out of here, all of you, before she cremates us all!’
Roger saw a look of horror and guilt pass across her mother’s face. Her mouth opened in retort, then snapped wordlessly shut, as tears welled in her eyes. She realised that she had no hope, now, of regaining her child. She was defeated, deflated and, after a short pause with none of the others sure what to say, she looked first at Roger then spoke to Linda. For the first time since Roger had known her, she uttered the words ‘I was wrong.’ She took a step forward and Linda flinched as she tried to enfold her. ‘Go home, if you wish; if that is where you are happy. I am not the dragon you think I am: I want your happiness first, but I was hoping to share it.’ Then she continued in a soft voice, so different from the usual strident tone she used with Roger. ‘Yes, it was me that burnt Mark’s hand, but it was only quite small. Mark and Emma are still here: they really are your children and Roger and I will always look after them for you. Always and until, maybe, you are well again and choose to come back.’
A few moments later, Linda was guided back out to the waiting ambulance and walked down the path without looking back. Her mother stood inside the hallway, too upset to see her daughter being driven off again. Back in the kitchen, once the front door had closed, Roger was putting on the kettle and she called out to him ‘I think you might want something with more fire in it than tea or coffee. I have something to confess.’
Linda’s mother came into the kitchen and asked him to sit down at the breakfast bar. She sat next to him on one of the green padded, stainless steel bar stools. ‘Linda was right, in a way. I am a dragon to her and to you, I know: the Elmhurst Dragon. I overheard you once telling one of your stories to the children. I guessed you had me in mind.
‘But to get to the point. I was the cause of Linda’s final breakdown. It was because of me that Mark got burnt.’
She explained. Linda was at one of her low points, struggling to keep the home running, the children fed and happy, and suffering from long spells of depression that kept recurring ever since Emma was born. Her mother thought she was helping, though now she realised she was pressurising her daughter, pushing her to do more all the time, while constantly blaming Roger for not being there enough. Even though Roger tried to do more, his career took him away for days at a time and her mother’s constant nagging drove Linda almost to breaking point. Then disaster happened.
Her mother suggested Linda did some light dusting (or virtually ordered it), as she seemed stressed supervising the children making some cookies in the kitchen. Instead of staying with them, she popped in and out a few times, once to straighten some crooked pictures she had noticed, another to spy on what her daughter was doing. On her third venture back, to tell the children to tidy up, because it would soon be tea-time, she was alarmed to see Mark had the kitchen blow torch in his hand trying to toast some marshmallows. She rushed forward grabbed the burner, skidded on a tile, wet from over-zealous cookie mixing and twisted around so that the flame seared over Mark’s hand and up his left arm before she could extinguish it. Linda ran back in at the piercing scream that resounded around the house and caught the sight of the fierce flame as her mother juggled to turn the burner off and then saw Mark being rushed to the tap and cold water being run over his arm. This finally tipped her over the edge and, at first, she froze. Emma just sat on the floor, in the corner, sobbing and repetitively asking if Mark was going to die, like Guy Fawkes on the bonfire, last year.
Then, Linda threw herself at her mother, grabbed Mark away and held him tight to her, shouting ‘I should have stayed, I should have stayed in the kitchen, I’m a bad mother, look at what I’ve done.’ Adrenalin pumping through her body, she rushed Mark out to her car, picking up the keys on her way through the hall, and drove at breakneck speed to the local hospital. Some days later, she received two speed camera tickets and one red light violation.
The following week produced a crescendo of traumatic blame. Mark said it was his fault; Emma said it was hers, for wanting toasted marshmallows; Linda kept saying she should have stayed in the kitchen and Roger said he should have spent more time at home, helping out. The social workers who came felt the children might be at risk and called a case conference with Linda’s GP to discuss her mental health.
Linda’s mother said nothing, took no blame, offered to take the children to her house for a day or two, but no more than a day or two – ‘We mustn’t disrupt the family,’ she said. Then, one morning, Linda got up extra early, packed an overnight bag and left the house without telling anyone. The police became involved when she tried to board a coach to Liverpool (the first she had come to) without a ticket and couldn’t even tell the several staff, who offered her help, her name, her address or where she was actually going. The police eventually matched her to Roger’s description of his missing wife, by which time she was on a neurological ward, undergoing assessment, which led to the diagnosis of the Post Traumatic Amnesia from which she has never recovered.
After several hospital visits and a skin graft, Mark became quite chirpy about his scarred hand and arm. He told all his friends it had been scorched by a dragon and never let on how the accident really happened.
After her confession, routine returned almost to normal, except that the Elmhurst Dragon never came more than once a month, unless she was invited. She had the children over to her house once a week, because they adored their Grandpa, and Mark and Emma began to see a softer side of her, as she made them fancy teas, played card games with them and sculpted a dragon cake for Mark’s birthday; and an iced butterfly shaped cake for Emma’s.
One night, as Roger started a new story, Mark stopped him. ‘We don’t want to hear about the Elmhurst Dragon anymore.’
‘I suppose you think you’re too old for fairy stories,’ said Roger.
‘No, Dad. It’s because the Dragon’s fire has gone out.’