Sir Greed and the Knights of Exploitation

Sir Greed banged his fist on the round table, “Bring me truffles!” he thundered, as the serving staff in BHS livery went scurrying. “’Tis treachery! The May Queen talks softly of helping the poor, yet it is the avowed intent of this fair kingdom to crush their will and keep them in grinding poverty, lest they get ideas and organise resistance!”

Knight on horse
Sir Greed rode out on his black stallion

He rode out of Castle Green at the head of his personal escort and made his way to the commission of poor men to give evidence for his alleged misdeeds. His squire, a mean and indolent fellow called Chappell, rode beside him.

“Chappell, heed my words. These villains will ask why I favoured thee with half my lands, to which you must reply, ‘My Lord put me in charge of the upkeep of the serfs in good faith, but I lacked the knowledge of my wise master to manage the estates and provide for their welfare’. Got it?”

“Yes, my Lord. And I shall remain in your favour by not mentioning that you stripped the silver and gold from all the holy places to pay for your new royal yacht.” Sir Greed glared at his snivelling underling, knowing full well that his deviousness and avarice had bound him to the villain.

“Look, my Lord! The May Queen awaits you before the humble parliament shed.”

“Good day, my Queen, to what do I owe this pleasure?” The portly knight said, quivering in his saddle as he attempted an ungainly bow.

“It is no pleasure of mine, Sir Greed! I have come to warn you not to mock my councillors and give truthful evidence, for I intend to reform this kingdom and reverse the culture of theft and oppression that has become your hallmark.”

“My Queen, I will doff my cap and tell them what they want to hear, but we both know your kingdom is based on a wealthy elite exploiting the serfs for personal gain, aggrandisement and displays of riches. For every rich man, there must be hundreds of serfs to support him, working his fields for a pittance, fighting his battles, and being grateful for a rat-infested hovel to live in and a handful of grain to feed his lice-ridden family.”

The May Queen eyed him with a cold, well-practiced withering look, and answered in a low and threatening voice. “That may be how we want it, Sir Greed, but we must at least make a show of appearing to care for the welfare of the legions of poor, for without their labour, our kingdom would falter and we would not be able to continue our lavish lifestyles… beware the dangers of arrogance and cruelty! They have been the undoing of many Lords, and I will move swiftly to strip you of your titles if you do not play along with our mocking game of deception and false hope for our minions!”

Sir Greed, suitably chastised, went before the commission, and smiled like a devious crook as he rebuffed charges of dishonesty, avarice, and cruelty to his people. For in truth, the commission had no powers to strip away his lands or titles, merely the power to chastise and humbly request some coins for the alms box.

Sir Greed and Squire Chappell rode away, laughing at the powerless rage and frustration of the councillors, and dismissing the paltry amount paid into the alms box.

“We shall recover our outlay with higher taxes, my Lord,” the heartless squire quipped.

As they rode through a dark, foreboding forest, making their way slowly under overhanging trees, their path was suddenly blocked by a band of outlaws.

“Out of our way, vermin,” Sir Greed demanded.

The leader of the group, an ageing man with a grey scaggy beard, approached on a mangy nag. “My Lord, I am The Corbineer, leader of, well, one of a number of bands of outlaws in this forest, having been duly elected by my peers, and I must now ask you for your purse, as we have many mouths to feed.” He waved a short, bent sword, and encouraged his men to laugh at his boldness.

“Out of my way, scum!” Sir Greed replied, spurring his horse forward and brushing aside the dandy bandit. He rode away on his black charger, closely followed by his whimpering squire. They soon cleared the forest and turned back to see their entourage beaten and stripped of their clothing.

“Shall we ride back to aid our followers, my lord?” the panting Chappell enquired, feigning bravery.

“No need,” Sir Greed replied, “There are plenty more where they came from. I shall send a group of knights from the Order of The Exploiters to deal with this troublesome Corbineer. The poor are too divided with their village rivalries to come to his aid. We will not kill him but instead capture him and keep him in our Palace of Westminster as an example to others of how hope of advancement is in vain and they must accept their subservient position in our kingdom. As my Uncle Avarice once said, ‘It’s their hope that kills ‘em’.”

They laughed as they rode to Castle Green, oblivious to the cries and screams of their abandoned followers, safe in the knowledge that order had been upheld in the Kingdom of Fear.


To find out about the future of the Kingdom of Fear…




Thames Valley Tales – Free Promo

Contemporary tales that echo the rich history of the flowing heart of England…

Thames Valley Tales is a collection of 15 short stories written by myself between 2013-2015 and first self-published on Amazon Kindle in July 2105.  To coincide with my presentation on Self-Publishing at Slough Library today (Thursday 2nd June 2016), and to demonstrate the ‘free promotion’ option on Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP),  I have made the book a FREE download for today and Friday 3rd June…so what are you waiting for?

Please download, read, and leave a review, nominating your favourite stories…



Thames Valley Tales promo masthead

When the Romans Left Britain…

ABANDONEDFollowing useful feedback from a reader’s group, I have made some changes and ironed out a few glitches to my long short story, ABANDONED! A revised version is now available to download from amazon kindle at the derisory price of £0.99 or equivalent in other amazon territories.

It is part one of an intended trilogy called, A Light in the Dark Ages. I’ve started working on part two, under the working title Uther’s Dilemma, which should be out some time in March 2016.  It’s loosely based around the idea that King Arthur must have had a grandfather!*  Dating of the Arthurian legend places King Arthur as a warrior king fighting Saxon invaders at the end of the fifth century, possibly about 50-60 years after the Romans abandoned their province of Britannia (sorry, Clive Owen!).

My story, Abandoned! is set in a Roman town at the time the last Roman legion pulled out of Britain, at around 420-440 AD.  My character, Marcus Aquilius, is entirely fictitious, and I have him as the father of Aurelius and Uther.  Aurelius Ambrosius is an historical figure who is thought to have led an army of ‘national unity’ at around 500AD to victory over a Saxon army at the battle of Badon Hill.  His brother, Uther Pendragon, fights at his side.  The problem is, no one knows exactly where or when this famous battle took place.

There are few surviving written records of events, and archaeologists continue to look for clues.  This obscure period in English history remains partly hidden behind the mists of time, leaving it, for now, in the realm of myths and legends.  Uther Pendragon is the supposed father of King Arthur, and the Arthurian legend was mostly written several hundred years later. It is based on stories handed down, a strong legend that refused to go away, and has some resonance with the dark historical events of that time.celtic-druids

*I read somewhere that the supposed father of Aurelius was the Roman Emperor Constantine, fighting in Gaul to defend a shrinking Western Roman Empire…not in my story!  What is fact and what is legend?


New revised version now up on amazon kindle…ABANDONED! (Light in the Dark Ages Book 1)

Download the free kindle app from amazon to read on any device.

Halloween 50BC

celtic-druidsThree loud raps on the gate sent her scurrying. Peeping through the spy-hole her eyes widened in alarm at the tall hooded figure of the Druid, staff in hand, waiting to be let in.  Elissa called her son to help pull back the heavy wooden spar.  The Druid’s arrival from his sacred grove in the woods always preceded a festival or funeral.

“Where is your husband, Waylan, the Gate-keeper?” he demanded of the cowering woman.

“Sir, he is dead this past week, killed in the last raid by the Atrebates. His body awaits burial.”

“Then we must honour him,” said the Druid, pushing past her and making for the house of the village chief. “We will summon his spirit at Sah-wen this night.  Make a place for him at your meal table.”

She was alarmed at the thought of the ghost of her departed husband and other spirits returning to walk amongst them as she set about making breakfast for her 9-year-old daughter, Dulla, and son, Tristan, aged 12.

“Mum! Do we get to wear our animal costumes tonight?” Dulla danced and tugged on her sleeve.

“Yes, dear, but first we must help build the bonfire and single out an animal for sacrifice. Perhaps the old ewe will do.  She is dry, and we must not show the Druid that she is lame.”

They had each prepared an animal skin costume with a cured head; Tristan would wear a ram’s head with curling horns, Dulla a sheep’s head and she would wear her husband’s stag’s head with antlers, as she was now head of the house. He had died defending the village’s rear gate, next to where their round house was positioned, as it was their family’s duty to keep the gate and watch out for invaders from the east.  They always came from the east, walking silently out of the woods, axes by their sides, often with the rising sun at their backs.

The village of 30 dwellings was surrounded by a ditch and earth bank, with two wooden gates at east and west. The men had been building a series of wooden platforms on top of the bank, on either side of the gates to give better defensive positions.  Tristan took his sentry duties very seriously, and would roll out of bed at dawn to patrol his new lookout position.  Attacks by their hostile neighbours were becoming more frequent.

That evening the villagers gathered in the central area where the Druid waited to address them:

“Tonight we celebrate the festival of Sah-wen to mark the end of our year, and make ready for the long winter. The harvest is stored and animals fattened.  Now we ask to be favoured by our gods and pay homage to those who have died this year, and summon them to walk amongst us, before they pass to the spirit world.”

Dulla led their elderly ewe and Tristan carried a basket of vegetables to the Druid’s assistants, who received them and placed all the offerings in a wooden box on a raised platform, around the feet of a bound captive, who chanted in his own dialect, expecting death. Tree branches and faggots of twigs prepared by the children, were arranged around the sacrificial cluster of objects.  The moon had risen over the woods as the grey Druid raised his arms and a hush fell on the group.

“Almighty Brea, protector of the people, accept our offerings to you at Sah-wen, and favour the new year. Watch over us through the long winter nights.  We offer these sacrifices to you so you may bless the crops in the fields and the fruit on the vine.”  He started a low chant that was taken up by the villagers, who held hands and swayed as the sacred bonfire was lit.  Animals cried out in terror and fowl flapped their wings in a desperate attempt to escape the flames.  Their sacrifice would ensure the safety and prosperity of the village for another year.

As the sacred bonfire burned low, the head of each household took a burning branch from the Druid’s hand, and returned to their home to re-light the family hearth. Each family group followed the torch-bearer in tight-knit groups, looking out for the spirits of the dead who might be roaming the compound.  Their animal costumes disguised them from the ghosts, who would roam mournfully before melting away into the night air once the hearth fires were re-kindled.

Elissa led her children through the dark doorway of their house and lit the hearth fire from the torch. The wood crackled and spat embers out as light and warmth were restored to their home.  Their meals had been laid out before the ceremony, and now they turned their attentions to the dining table.  A cold breeze made her shiver and she gasped as she saw the plate of food that had been set out at the head of the table was now empty.

“Look Mum!” Dulla cried, “Daddy’s been to visit us again!”

The Seesaw Sea of Fate

RED IS SUPPOSED to make you thirsty.  So say the psychologists, Stephen Joyce thought dryly as he surveyed the flock wallpaper on the wall of the pub.  Old and dirty, it had an unloved look about it.  The walls between the cream chipped paint sash windows had framed prints of scenes from Old London.  The one nearest him had a Victorian gent in a top hat promenading along a pavement with a parasol-touting lady on his arm.  Glancing at his smart phone, he checked the time again – a quarter past two.  Sean was late.

Pub pic1

It was Sean who had proposed that they meet up for a pub crawl on his birthday.  They had used to work together from the late 80s to the mid-90s on Fleet Street when he was a young reporter on the Daily Mail and Sean Malone was a printer in the dungeons of Associated Newspapers.  By the mid-90s the golden age of newspaper publishing on Fleet Street had come to an end, with Associated moving west to Kensington as the financial sector spread its tentacles outwards from the City to meet the legal firms clustered around the Inner Temple, squeezing out the wheezing alcoholic newspaper men.  Both Stephen and Sean left the company at that time and moved on to pastures new.  They had kept in touch, but now only met a couple of times a year as their lives moved on divergent courses.

He was in one of his favourite City pubs, the Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte Street in the heart of Fitzrovia, once the bohemian centre of literary inspiration from the Romantic Poets right through to twentieth century figures including Dylan Thomas, George Orwell and Anthony Burgess.  Yes, inspiration in the bottom of a glass.  How many of the great poetic and prose works of English literature were inspired by beer, wine and high spirits?  His musings were ended by the bustling figure of Sean, who brought a draught of cold air with him as he burst through the side door.  “Sorry I’m late, Northern Line, you know.  Anyway, great to see yer and happy birthday!”  He shook Stephen firmly by the hand.  “What are yer having?”

They settled into a corner booth and started to chatter like a couple of excited teenagers.  Now both in their mid-40s, they had not lost the timeless pleasure of sitting in a pub, sipping on a pint and enjoying the company of a friend.  Sean’s Irish accent was as strong as ever, despite having lived in London for over twenty years.  “Oi’ve been workin’ for a printing firm up in Kilburn, not far from my digs.  It’s not as well paid as Associated but it’s walking distance from where I live, and has the best pubs in North London.”  He took a long draught from his pint of Guinness.  “What have you been up to?”

Stephen described his ups and downs.  He had left Associated after completing his training as a news reporter and went to work for Reuters News Agency.  This had enabled him to travel to some of the worst war zones on earth – Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.   He had lived in tents and army barracks and reported on the lives of soldiers in the field, as well as on the wars themselves.  He had come to understand the utter futility of these stage-managed conflicts, and seen the shattered lives and despair absent from the steralised war rooms in London and Washington.  He now worked as a home-based freelance feature writer, from his cluttered office in a cosy flat in Islington.  He had also found the time to get married to his girlfriend and fellow reporter, Julia, and they had a six-year-old son, James.

“So what’s the plan?” Stephen asked his friend.  “Oi thought we would go ‘round the pubs in this area and end up in the Tattershall Castle – y’know, the boat on the river by the Embankment.”  He grinned as he raised his glass and had a mischievous twinkle in his eye.  “Oh yeah, I remember many a boozy night on the floating pub on the river – good call,” Stephen laughed and they clinked glasses in a toast to old times.  “Drink up, let’s move on,” Sean said as he downed his pint and grabbed his coat.  Outside they turned north up Charlotte Street, crossing over the road and round the corner into Charlotte Place and into the Duke of York. “Ahh, one of my favourite pubs”, Stephen said, “A decent pint of bitter and the place where Anthony Burgess was alleged to have found inspiration for A Clockwork Orange, following an altercation with some knife-wielding thugs.”

They found elbow room at the bar and stood supping their pints.  “Have you tried writing a book yerself?”  Sean inquired.  “Well, actually, I have copious notes from my war correspondent days and it is in the back of my mind to write up an account.  But you can’t separate the politics from what happens on the ground.  War is what happens when the political process breaks down.  Getting stuck into the motives and machinations of self-serving political leaders like Bush and Blair kind of puts me off from starting.”  They drank quietly for a couple of minutes.  “Come on, let’s move on.”  They drank up and wandered down Rathbone Street to the Marquis of Granby.  They entered the grand old pub, with pictures of prize fighters adorning the walls.  Sean said, “Now it’s my turn to tell you something about this pub.  It was here that the rules of boxing were first thought up by the Marquis of Queensbury and his high society friends.  A gentlemen’s sport, fought by poor men for money.”

Stephen was not to be outdone and added; “Literary figures also drank here, including Eric Blair, who wrote as George Orwell.  He worked for the BBC, just ‘round the corner, during the Second World War, helping the war effort with propaganda programmes and where he no doubt got his ideas for Animal Farm and 1984.  This pub inspires me, Sean.  To think that one of the great English novels – 1984 – may have been dreamed up in here, that Orwell rubbed shoulders with working class men having a pint after work, and sketched in his mind the character of Winston Smith.  That TV programme – Room 101 – is based on 1984. It was the place where political prisoners, including the unfortunate Winston Smith, met their fate.  ‘A boot stamping on a human face forever’ was Orwell’s bleak description of what happened in Room 101.  The fact that they’ve made light entertainment out of it cracks me up.”

“Never read it,” Sean said in a nonchalant manner.  It was as if the entire works of English literature was nothing more than a colossal waste of paper.  He tried to move the conversation back to sport.  “The only English literature I’m interested in is the form on the horses in the Saturday paper.  This is more of a sporting pub, with the pictures of boxers on the walls.  You got any interest in sport?”  Stephen paid for the beers and sipped the frothy top of his pint.  “Only the fortunes of Arsenal.  I used to go up to the old Highbury Stadium and stand on the North Bank.  Those were the days – the Adams, Bould, Winterburn, Dixon back four, and David Seaman in goal.  Those ugly buggers scared off all attackers.  No wonder Arsenal boasted the meanest defence and the most humourless manager in George Graham.  I like the current manager, Arsène Wenger, but somehow I can’t summon the enthusiasm to go to the new Emirates Stadium.  I hear the ticket prices are astronomical.”  “Yeah,” Sean chipped in, “I only watch the horses in the bookies and the footy in the pub.”

From there they stopped in The Wheat Sheaf on Rathbone Place, a narrow pub which used to be a coaching inn in days gone by.  “This was the pub in which Dylan Thomas met his wife-to-be, Caitlin.”  Stephen had not given up trying to educate his Irish friend.  “She was with another man, but Dylan chatted her up and started seeing her.  After a whirlwind romance they got married and lived happily until Dylan’s early death from the demon drink.”  “Sounds like a man after my own heart,” Sean chuckled.  Stephen continued: “I brought Julia here for a drink one time and told her the same story, about Dylan Thomas.  She surprised me by reciting a few lines from his poem Under Milk Wood.  I can still remember it:

The only sea I saw

Was the seesaw sea

With you riding on it

Lie down, lie easy

Let me shipwreck in your thighs.

I knew from that moment that I was in love – I was destined to marry her.”

IT WAS A CHILLY, blustery October day and it was already getting dark at 4:30pm as they headed towards Oxford Street.  Stephen, whose 44th birthday it was, had already had four pints to Sean’s three, and he was starting to rock from side to side, like a ship caught in a heavy sea swell.  “Whoops! I’m rolling on the seesaw sea!” he cried as he stepped back onto the pavement as a Boris Bike sped by, splashing some rain water onto his shoes.  It was crowded with shoppers, and he turned to see Sean dodging his way past a group of five or six Muslim women, clad in black from head to foot, who hurried by, not replying to his “Oops, sorry!” as he nearly walked into them.  “Bejesus, they can’t even acknowledge you,” he muttered under his breath; “London used to be a friendly place.”  They navigated their way past black cabs and red buses to the south side of Oxford Street and headed towards Soho Square.

As they hurried down Dean Street into the heart of Soho, Stephen decided to have some fun with his friend; “You’re a fine one to comment on the multicultural society – you Paddies are everywhere!”  Sean let out a loud guffaw and replied, “Come on, the Brits and Irish are practically cousins.  We’re all from the same wet and windswept islands off the north coast of Europe.  London’s now full of  those who tink they can bypass hundreds of years of development by taking a short plane ride or bunking through the channel tunnel just so they can get subsidised housing, free education and healthcare.  They’re spoiling it for the rest of us.”

They pushed through the door of the next pub on their journey, the Coach and Horses on Greek Street.  A busy pub with an upstairs restaurant frequented by actors, actresses, playwrights and theatre workers.  Sean muscled his way to the bar and ordered the round.  Stephen had been reflecting quietly and said, “You know, London has a long history of absorbing waves of immigrants, going back hundreds of years.  But there’s something not right about what’s happening now.  In the paper this morning it said that there are already over 600,000 unemployed migrants from EU countries.  Add that to the millions from Commonwealth countries and you wonder if this island will sink under the weight.”  “Yeah, and they won’t even talk to us.  Integration my arse”, Sean added as he supped his pint.

Stephen decided to change the subject: “Now, let me tell you something about this pub.  The journalist and barroom raconteur Jeffrey Bernard used to drink here, and it is where playwright Keith Waterhouse got his inspiration to write the play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. It is set in this very pub, where Jeffrey awakes in the early hours of the morning and emerges from under a table to reflect on his life-long association with booze.  In fact he died from alcohol-related complications shortly after the play opened.  Like I said before.  There is a strong relationship between booze and English literature.”

Sean put his empty pint glass down on the bar and said: “Sounds like the sort of play I should see.  OK, we’ve done literature, immigration, politics, religion and sport.  Let’s take a break and get something to eat.  How about we go over the road into Chinatown for a Chinese?”  Stephen nodded and they made their way across Shaftesbury Avenue and through the archway into Chinatown, walking along Gerrard Street and into the Four Seasons restaurant.  The ground floor was full of diners, and they were ushered up a rickety wooden staircase where they were seated at a large round table with other recent arrivals.  “Service is rubbish but the aromatic duck is to die for,” Sean whispered.  Stephen briefly scanning the menu, before Sean leaned over and pointed to the ‘Set Menu for Two’.  “That’ll do,” Sean said, ordering two pints of lager from the tiny waiter.  Stephen opened up a new subject: “You haven’t told me if you’re seeing anyone at the moment?”

“Erm, no, not at the moment.  I’m between relationships,” he smiled.  “I had a girlfriend, Molly, until a couple of months ago.  She’s from County Clare, and works behind the bar in The Jolly Miller.  It didn’t work out – she worked long hours on evenings and weekends; it was impossible to get a date, and I became jealous of all the lads chatting her up.  I bet you’re loving it, being a husband and daddy.”

“Yeah, it’s great and it has given me new purpose and direction in my life.  You can’t go on being young, free and single forever.”

“Don’t know about that,” Sean said, “London’s the place to be if you’re single.  There’s plenty of distractions here.”

They laughed and joked as they rolled their duck pancakes, and tucked into bowls of fried rice and things swimming in monosodium glutamate.  Sean insisted on paying as it was his friend’s birthday and he had invited him out.  “You’re a bad lad Sean, but it’s good to see you again.  I remember our drinking days around Fleet Street and Blackfriars.  We were young then – work hard and play hard, spending whatever we earned in the pubs.  This is a timely reminder that it’s all still here. Life goes on; it’s just that the punters get younger.  Let’s head on to that pub next to Charing Cross Station and then down the alleyway to the Embankment and onto the Tattershall Castle.”

Sean took his opportunity to say what was on his mind.  “Steve, you couldn’t help me out could yer?  I hate to ask, but I need a job – do you have any contacts in the production side of things?”  Stephen eyed him cautiously, feeling he had been ambushed.  The alcohol had made him slow to engage his brain and think of a reply.  “I can’t think of anything offhand.  Let me give it some thought over the next few days.”  There was a slightly awkward and embarrassing silence, broken by Sean, “Yeah, of course, sorry to ask, but yer know how it is.”

“No problem mate, that’s what friends are for.  I’ll help if I can.”

They walked out into the well-lit narrow street and turned their coat collars up against the wind and rain.  Theatre-goers hurried by, smartly dressed in their evening wear, on a special night out.  They returned to small talk about the people they had worked with and the nights out they had had.  Time changes things, the intervening years had taken them in different directions with differing fortunes.  The excitement and energy of youth had given way to a more circumspect and practical view of life.  ‘For one night only!’ a neon sign shouted above a theatre.  Stephen pointed to it and said; “One night only for me, my friend – I hardly get out these days.  I’m really enjoying this nostalgic stagger across London!”

The Tattershall Castle swayed gently at its mooring next to the Embankment riverside walk.  The old iron boat had been colourfully painted in blue and yellow, and they had to duck their heads as they went below decks to the cosy bar.  It gave the sense of being somewhere away from the city, the illusion of travelling to faraway places.  They were both pretty drunk by now and Stephen in particular was feeling the effect.  “I think this’ll be my last, I’m as pissed as the proverbial newt.”  Sean eyed some attractive office workers giggling across the bar as they moved to a standing-only table.

“I feel the sudden need for a fag,” he said.  “You haven’t smoked at all this evening, I thought you’d given up,” Stephen said.  “Ah well, you know, after a few pints I still get the urge.  I’ll just go up on deck for a quick smoke.  See you in a bit.”  Stephen smiled as his friend bounced off the wood panelled walls and followed an equally-drunk woman up the stairs.  He fished out his mobile phone and checked his mail, replying to a message from his wife.

He was distracted by shouts, screams and a splash coming from the deck.  Most of the drinkers responded and ran up the stairs.  Stephen followed.  A distraught, inebriated woman was pointing into the river, and Stephen saw his friend Sean, bobbing up and down, arms flailing as he struggled to keep his head above the murky water of the Thames.  Stephen ran along the deck and pulled a plastic life ring from the railing, throwing it to his friend.  “Here!  Grab hold of this!”

They managed to coax him around the bow of the boat and hauled him out onto the pontoon.  “Are you alright, mate?  What happened?”  Stephen was sobering up fast in the cool night air.  Sean looked up at him and rolled over, vomiting brown river water mixed with Chinese noodles.  “Come on, let’s get you home.”  Stephen managed to get him to his feet and got him to put his coat on – at least that was dry.  “We’d better get a taxi back to my place.”  Sean just groaned.

After a shower and with a hot mug of coffee in his hand, Sean sheepishly apologised to Stephen’s wife, Julia.  She tutted and fussed, blaming her wayward husband for what she assumed was a drunken prank that got out of hand.  “Come on Sean, tell us what happened, and get me out of jail!”

Sean groaned and said; “Stephen’s not to blame, Julia.  In fact he wasn’t there, as I was on the top deck, flirting with a woman who I’d just bummed a fag off.  Well, I leaned backwards on the rail, and it opened like a gate, and before I knew it I was falling down into the river.”

“Oh my God!  You must have been terrified!”  Julia said, shocked.

“Yeah, my life flashed before me, and it wasn’t a pretty sight!  Anyway, now I know what the Thames tastes like, and I won’t be bottling it.”

Stephen suddenly sprung to life: “That’s it!  I think I’ve got a job for you!  Honey, you remember your friend who works for the bottled water company?”

“Yes, you mean Lucy at the Essex Spring Water Company…what about her?”

“Well, she said they were looking for someone to organise their publicity leaflets and advertising materials…well, young Sean here is a publishing guru and is looking for a new job.  It could be a perfect match!”

Sean brightened up and managed a smile: “Wow, a job referral is almost worth taking a swim in the Thames for.  That’s the only thing missing from my CV.”

“What’s that?”  Julia asked.

“Good contacts and word of mouth recommendation – that’s the only way to get a job in this unfriendly, divided and deeply suspicious city.  Another coffee?”

The Colnbrook Caper

This short story is taken from ‘Thames Valley Tales’, a collection of 15 stories, now available on Amazon:


THE GENTLE SEA swell lapped on the shiny white hull, nice in Nice, nice in Nice.  Rami Raja leaned on the polished chrome railing and surveyed the bay, smug in the knowledge that his yacht, the sleek and fast Arianna, was the best and most expensive within sight.  In the Bay of Nice he was the Big Dog, and other yacht owners waved enviously at him.

He sauntered with the gentle swaying motion back to his tablet and sipped ice tea, in a bubble of contentment, not disturbed in any way by the squawking gulls, dive-bombing the scraps thrown on the lower deck by his chef.  Although technically on holiday with his wife and daughter, he always spent the first hour after breakfast checking the financial markets, before calling his CEO at his business, Travel Cash Limited, in Colnbrook, near Heathrow Airport, to discuss the day’s objectives.

The Arianna, a Class B type-luxury yacht, was his indulgence – his reward, for the successful management and growth of his now international travel cash business.  The yacht cost a cool two million pounds and was built to order by Italian firm Benetti.  Sixty-five metres long with three decks, six luxury cabins, swimming pool and helipad, it was the ultimate status symbol for the Travel Cash millionaire boss.

On the upper deck his beautiful daughter, Jasmine, wearing a yellow bikini, rubbed sun oil onto her slim bronzed limbs, as she casually surveyed the walkers on La Promenade des Anglais, swimmers splashing in the surf and sunbathers on the crescent-shaped beach.  Ahh, so nice to be in Nice, she thought to herself.  Maybe I’ll stop playing Miss Casual and take up the offer from one of Daddy’s friends to appear in a Bollywood movie.  A brief walk-on part could help launch my career as a model.

Rami, resplendent in palm tree motif Bermuda shorts, looked up from his tablet.  Now he could relax.  The Travel Cash share price was up, following a slight dip, and he was assured by his stockbroker that it would continue to trade strongly following good quarterly turnover and profit figures.  Money makes money.  As long as travellers needed to change currencies, he was assured of a cast iron income from his chain of bureaux.

EIGHT HUNDRED MILES north, in Colnbrook village, on the north bank of the River Thames just west of London, David Willis put on his cycling helmet and surveyed the grey morning sky as he pushed his bicycle out of the front door of the worn brick terraced house he shared with two others.  It was drizzling lightly, not enough to put him off cycling.  He would change out of his cycling gear and into dry clothes in the locker room at work.  He worked as an Order Checker at Travel Cash in Hounslow, West London, fairly close to Heathrow Airport where most of their customers were based.  He was a temp, modestly paid at £9.00 an hour and with no job security.  In fact, his employers preferred a steady turnover of staff – it was a soulless moneymaking operation and people were just cogs in the cash-counting machine.

Travel Cash was based in a large warehouse, occupying a block in a grey, featureless business park about two miles from Heathrow.  It was an ugly breeze block building with blacked-out windows and thin metal roof sheets.  The building was surrounded by a three-metre-high wire mesh fence, with electric fencing around the top.  Outside the fence were concrete bollards at intervals of two metres, designed to stop the most determined ram raiders.

David pushed his bike through the security checkpoint.  He was eyed suspiciously by the guards as he swiped his ID badge.  No friendly “Hi, how are you?”  These guys never smiled.  Funny, he thought – Eastern European guards protecting Indian money from British employees.  There was an absence of trust when money was involved.  This lack of trust deepened when tribal factors were added in.  He locked his bike in the shed provided and walked through the revolving front door into the high-ceilinged reception area.  At least here there was a friendly face – fake-boobed Sheila, the morning shift receptionist, gave him a warm smile: “Hi Dave, how are you today?”

“Just fine Sheila, and you?” “I’m OK”.  She smiled at him and he had to restrain himself from staring at her ample cleavage.  I wonder how much they cost?  I could park my bike in there.  He continued moving through the lobby during this brief exchange, to the door marked Staff Locker Room.  As he got changed, his eyes were again drawn to a notice on the staff noticeboard.  ‘Computer Equipment and Printers for Sale’.  It had been up for a week and had got him thinking.  He didn’t need a computer as he already had one at home, but he was drawn to the offer and a mischievous possibility.

His workspace was in a large open-plan office with a dozen desks, each with an Order Checker.  In the corner of the room there was a large cage in which boxes were piled high.  Each box was labelled with a major currency and contained bundles of cash.  A small, sweaty Indian man called Randeep delivered bundles of currency to each Order Checker on demand, with a small trolley he wheeled around the floor space.  The Order Checkers would receive an order for foreign exchange, usually from a travel bureau, by email on their computers.

DollarsThese order sheets were printed out, then bundles of cash were requested from Randeep who would deliver them to the appropriate desk.  The Order Checkers would then count out the exact amount ordered, less commission, and the bundles were banded together with elastic bands, put into large envelopes with the order slip and the details written on in black marker pens.  The packages were then put into a chute, similar to laundry chutes in old hotels, where they tumbled down one floor to the Despatch Area, where they were wheeled in big blue bins to waiting security vans for delivery.

There were no security guards in the room where David worked, only CCTV.  The guards were guarding the entrance and exits to the building, checking people in and out.  During the morning shift David processed on average six orders per hour – about one every ten minutes.  By lunchtime he had handled US dollars, euros, yen, yuan, Turkish lira, Thai baht, Indian rupees, South African rands and Canadian dollars.  Big orders were quite common, maybe two or three a day with a value of over three million pounds.

The largest order he had ever processed was for five million euros (£4,237,288 on the invoice) and it was surprisingly small in size and weight.  He received twenty bundles of 500 euro notes, 500 notes to a bundle.  The 500 euro note was by far the highest value note at that time.  He picked up one of the bundles and could easily hold it in his hand.  It was about two inches high and weighed no more than 300 grams.  Hmmm, he thought, if I could figure out a way to get twenty of these bundles out of the building I’d be four and a quarter million pounds richer.  Without a doubt this was a life-changing amount.

He had never stolen anything in his life, and generally conformed to the British norm of respecting other’s property and accumulating stuff.  He was a dutiful worker and consumer, paying taxes and supporting the system whilst being patronised by politicians.  Could he possibly break out?  Could he make the quantum leap from this dull but safe life to one of a criminal on the run?

At the end of his shift he got changed and wheeled his bike out through the security hut.  He had his backpack searched by a bored-looking guard.  No words were spoken, and he still had to swipe his ID card to open the outer steel doors.  There could be no carrying bundles of cash out of this place.  At home that evening, he got a screwdriver and took off the back of his PC hard drive tower unit to see how much space was inside.  Actually, quite a lot of space.  Particularly if you remove the cards on which circuits, switches and wires were mounted, there was an empty cavity behind it.  He got some old newspapers and made up some bundles of similar size to the ones he had handled earlier that day.  He was able to fit twenty bundles into the cavity and then replace the circuit board.  It was a bit of a squeeze, but it fitted, and if the back was taken off there was no sign of the paper bundles.

HE DECIDED TO ease his rising anxiety with a pint at his local pub – The Ostrich in Colnbrook High Street.  It was quiet on this mid-week night, and the friendly publican, Steve, was happy for someone to chat to.  David picked up a booklet on the history of the area, and Steve drew his attention to the chapter on this very pub.

“This pub has a long history, dating back to medieval times when it was a hospice for the sick of the parish.  It was known as the ‘Ospice, which gave way to the ‘Osbridge Inn’ when it became a popular resting place for travellers going to and from London.  This road outside, Colnbrook High Street, is actually a part of the old Roman Road, now the A4, that runs due west to Bath.  Travellers have been passing this way for close to two thousand years.  Some years later the name was further corrupted to ‘The Ostrich Inn’.”

David, happy for the distraction, sipped his pint of beer and skimmed over the section on the pub.  He stopped at the mention of the word ‘murder’.

“What’s this about murder?  Does the old inn have a dark past?”

Steve brightened up:  “Oh yes!  This place gained an infamous reputation.  During the eighteenth century, when highwaymen roamed the road from here to Reading, this was a popular stopping point for weary travellers on horseback.  The landlord was a man called Jarman, and he made a good living with his wife providing a room and a hot meal for the night.  They had also earned a reputation for their delicious pork pies.

“One evening, a merchant from Reading arrived, one Thomas Cole, and he handed over his pouch of coins to the landlady for safekeeping, as was the way.  He was given the best and warmest room – the one above the kitchen, and tucked into his dinner of pies and ale.  That night the evil and conniving couple carried out their plan.  They prepared a large vat of boiling oil and then crept upstairs to see if their guest was sleeping.  Satisfied that he was in a deep sleep, they tipped up the bed, and slid his body through an open hatch in the floor, right into the vat of boiling oil.  The poor merchant was killed instantly.  They then removed his body, quartered it and cooked it in an oven, ready to be mixed with other ingredients for their delicious pork pies!”

“How ghastly!” David said.  “To think such a horrific murder was committed here, not far from where I’m sitting.”

“Well, the local sheriff was alerted when the dead man’s horse escaped from the stable and made its way home, and an investigation into his disappearance took place.  Other travellers had also mysteriously disappeared, and Jarman, fearing their discovery, fled into the Windsor woods.  He was tracked down by the sheriff’s men and confessed to as many as twenty such murders of travellers with his wife, who cooked and served them up in their famously tasty pork pies!”

David was suitably impressed with this gruesome story: “I’ll have another pint, but I think I’ll pass on the bar food!”  They both laughed and David was grateful to have his mind taken off his predicament.  Was this a warning tale that criminals eventually get caught?  He decided to sleep on it, but knew if he went ahead, he would have to make sure it was the perfect crime – and a one-off – never to be repeated.



Arthur King and the Holy Grail

The Cornwall County Fair was in full swing, a twirl of colourful distractions, as Arthur and his mates strode purposefully through the throng of laughter.  Their destination was the Holy Grail marquee and their aim was to win one of four tickets to try out the new computer game, being unveiled here, today, for the very first time.  They had slept in tents at a makeshift campsite on a grassy meadow beside the rippling waters of the River Camel.  Arthur had not slept well, his imagination no doubt influenced by a local farmer telling them that the place where they camped, Slaughter Bridge, was so named because it was the site of a battle that had taken place way back in the Dark Ages.  He had dreamed of an ancient king, of knights in shining armour, of swords, shields and helmets littering the blood soaked meadow.  Since morning the visions had continued to invade his conscious mind.

Waves crashed on the granite cliffs, gulls circled, buffeted by the wind.  He looked out over the stormy sea, not seeing where the grey skies met the maelstrom, an all powerful force of Nature, pounding against the World of Man; relentless and eternal, before us and after, unbeatable, untamed, supreme.  Kingdoms may rise and fall, but the power of Nature is an ever present force and must be respected.  Behind the walls of Tintagel Castle he felt safe and secure, but soon must ride out to do battle.  He felt uneasy – a sense of foreboding.  king_arthur_wallpaperKnights who had deserted him, led by his own kin, were coming for him.  There could only be one King, and it was his head that wore the crown.  He must defeat his own son in battle and reform the Knights of the Round Table.  He must ride out in the morning and face down those who were once his loyal followers.  It would not be a pleasant business.  It was beyond talking.  He was determined to end it once and for all.

Dozens of computer gaming geeks jostled at the entrance to the Camelot Marquee, anxious to get inside for the two o’clock launch by legendary game designer, Marvin Ambrose.  The stale and rancid air caused Arthur and his friends to gag as they pushed their way to the front.

“Oy!  Stop your pushing!” someone said.

Arthur just glared and squeezed past.  He would not be deflected from his mission.  Four computer terminals with stools were behind a roped off area, and outside a generator hummed a self-satisfied tune.  Marvin suddenly appeared, as if by magic, resplendent in a flowing white robe, and the group of predominantly young men applauded enthusiastically.

“Dear friends, you are here because you are the few true followers of my games.  You have successfully decoded the clues I placed in my last game, ‘Arthur’s Test’, that have led you to this very place at this time.”  A sweep of the arm fired up the PCs and the words ‘Quest for the Holy Grail’ appeared on all four screens.  The youths leaned forward to see and sporadic hand clapping and ‘oooing’ and ‘ahhing’ broke out.  He held up his hands for silence.

“Dear gamers, today I am launching my latest game, which contains recently developed features as yet unknown in the industry.  I want to select four worthy players from amongst you to be the first to battle through four levels to achieve the ultimate prize of finding the Holy Grail.”

Arthur and his pals were enthralled; hanging on the older man’s every word.  His keen grey eyes moved over the rank of eager faces and he held up his hands again for calm.

“I will ask you all a question, and if you think you know the answer, put your hand up, but do not shout out.  The question is: In my previous game, ‘Arthur’s Test’, what was the name of the damsel in distress whom Arthur had to rescue from a fire breathing dragon in level five?”

The mighty King rode out in regal pomp and majesty, his banners displayed at the head of a small army.  His heart was heavy as he reflected on the origins of the feud that had torn his Court apart – the secret love between his Queen, Guinevere, and his mightiest knight, Launcelot.  He had no choice but to condemn her, but his authority had been undermined by Launcelot’s rescue and elopement with her.  How he missed them both – his beautiful wife and best friend – now his sworn enemies.  There could be no reconciliation.  His bitterness and unhappiness had been exploited by his ambitious son, born out of wedlock and brought up to hate him by his sorceress mother, Morgana le Fey.  He had been bewitched into fathering this malignant son by his own half sister.  A tangled web of deceit and betrayal had led to this day – a day of reckoning.

A dozen players shot their hands up, including Arthur, and the crowd surged forward.  Marvin appealed for calm, and two security guards appeared by his side.

“Can those twelve hands please come down to the front.  Alright.  Now, whisper the answer to my glamorous assistant.”  An attractive blond haired young woman had also appeared, dressed in a long flowing medieval gown of green with gold trim.  Starting at the end farthest from Arthur, she bent forward to hear the whispered word and either tapped the shoulder for ‘Yes’ or shook her head for ‘No’.  When Arthur’s turn came, he whispered, ‘Demelza’.  She smiled at him and tapped his shoulder.  The twelve had become eight.  Marvin beamed happily and said; “We have eight loyal and worthy players who have correctly named the damsel in distress as Demelza; also the name of my glamorous assistant!”  She bowed to thunderous applause.

“But now, dear friends, we must halve their number to just four brave knights who will take on the quest for the Holy Grail.”

Demelza produced a velvet draw-string bag and handed it to Marvin.  He rooted around inside and removed some balls.  “Dear friends, we must take on a game of chance and be guided by the hand of fate in making our selection.  In this bag are eight balls.  Four are red, and four are gold.  Our seven young men and one lady;” he said, nodding to a blushing young woman in the group, “will draw for the privilege of playing the game.  A gold ball will give you a seat at a terminal!”

Arthur was second from last in line, and had to wait anxiously as six others drew balls.  When it came to his turn, only two balls remained – one of which was gold.  “My moment of destiny,” he murmured as he swirled his hand around, feeling the two balls, whilst holding eye contact with his hero.  He extracted a ball and held it out, as if having drawn a sword from a stone.  Marvin smiled at him, and then shook his head sorrowfully at the eighth gamer.  “Sorry my friend, the last ball must be red.”

In this meadow, beside the River Camel, at a ford called Camlann, the two opposing armies faced each other.  A thick mist enveloped the opposing forces, and they moved slowly forward until they could make out the outline of their foe, like ghosts emerging from the fog.  A cry went up and they charged.  Bitter fighting ensued, with many men slain by their own side as confusion reigned in the thick mist that hung ominously all around them.  Cries and shouts became fewer as men died of their wounds, until only the mighty King remained with one Knight standing, the loyal Sir Bedivere, facing their only surviving opponent, Mordred.  The King bade his loyal knight to stand aside as he fought in mortal combat with his own son, neither holding back nor showing any signs of weakness.  Finally, the King struck down his foe, but in delivering the death blow, was himself fatally wounded.

“We have our four brave knights, and fittingly for this New Age, one is a lady!”  The crowd clapped as the four lucky winners were ushered behind the rope and allocated terminals.  “And now let me introduce the game,” Marvin said.  “They will all play the same game, each as a different knight, and will compete against each other for points on four tasks that lead to the Holy Grail.  After each level the knight with the fewest points will be eliminated.  The two finalists will fight their way through a maze and the winner will be the first to find the Holy Grail.  Now, log in and name your knight!”

Hunched forward with thumbs twitching manically, the four gamers set about fighting dragons, armies of the dead, competing in a jousting tournament and then through an enchanted forest.  After level three, just Arthur and Melanie were left.  After a brief respite for drinks, and amidst cheering on from their supporters, they started level four.  The tension in the marquee was palpable, as the game fans watched on a big screen.  The two remaining knights approached a heavily fortified castle and fought their way through a maze of corridors, dodging goblins and fighting dwarfs, before entering the chamber of the Holy Grail.  A glittering golden vessel stood on an altar, but the approach was beset with traps.  Arthur made a judgement call, and gallantly allowed his rival to go first.  When she fell through a trap door, he made his way to the magical cup and lifted it to the sound of trumpets and a choir of angels.  To rapturous applause, Arthur stood up and squinted shyly at the crowd, raising his hand in salutation.  He had won; he had found the Holy Grail – he was their champion.

Marvin presented him with a replica golden goblet, engraved with ‘Holy Grail Game Champion.’  Arthur felt this was the happiest moment of his life – a champion at the tender age of nineteen.  “Our winner, aptly named Arthur, not only wins a copy of the game and a console, but can also accompany us, if he wishes, to the O2 arena in London next week to give a demonstration of the game and take on other contestants.  Thank you all for coming, and remember the game is on sale from all major retailers from Monday!”

Arthur followed Marvin and the Damelza out of the marquee and into a caravan behind, where they relaxed and got acquainted.  Marvin had researched the Arthurian legend when developing his latest game, and now studied the shy but happy youth.

“A young man from Cornwall called Arthur, one thousand five hundred or more years ago, pulled a sword from a stone, and was proclaimed King, not far from where we are now sitting.  A Wizard called Merlin guided him and kept him safe from harm, believing that he was destined to be a great leader who would unite the People of the West against the invading forces of Saxons who were pillaging the land.”

He gleamed at his new protégé: “Maybe you, young Arthur King, have been chosen by fate to be a new leader for your generation.  You have a quick mind, exceptional hand-eye co-ordination and have smashed the previous high score on this game, set by our best games testers.  You have a bright future, my boy, if not leading armies in the field, then inspiring the youth of today in other ways.”

Demelza squeezed Arthur’s shoulders and he was already feeling accepted as one of the team.  “No promises, but you could have a future as a games tester.”  The old man winked at him: “’Arthur King and Marvin the Games Wizard’ has a ring to it, don’t you think?”

King-Arthur-ExcaliburThe noble Sir Bedivere carried his dying King to a nearby lake, and rowed him in a boat to an island where a healer received him.  On the way, the brave Knight assisted him to fulfil his final wish – to throw the mighty and magical sword, Excalibur, into the lake.  To the knight’s surprise, an arm emerged from the calm waters.  The Lady of the Lake received the sword, and King Arthur, mighty ruler of the West and hammer of the Saxon invaders, died soon after.


Arthur accepted the offer, and wandered off to tell his friends.  Maybe it could be the start of something – the possibility of a job as a games tester, or some other unknown destiny.  As they walked over Slaughter Bridge and back to their camp site, he did not tell his friends about the visions.  He had seen the dying King throw his sword and the arm of the Lady of the Lake rise to receive it.  A Golden Age had ended in that moment and the lands fell into a Dark Age as barbarian invaders swarmed over it, destroying all traces of learning and subjugating the people to their harsh pagan ways.  He felt a curious resolve to do the best he can in life and to stand up for what he believed to be right.  Legends live on for a reason and the deeds of mighty men continue to inspire those who come after.

Swans on Parade

Swans at Windsor

“I need a new gas boiler like I need a hole in the head.  Oh, I already have one of those.”  I leaned forward to show the startled Gas sales man on my doorstep the horrific open wound in the centre of my bald head.  I know it was unfair of me to cut short his sales pitch in this way, but what the hell.  I had been living with this deformity for a year and was now sick of it and wanted it gone.  Filled in.  Like with Polyfilla or plasticine.

I was sick of waking up each morning with an itchy head, and despite attempts to cover the hole with plasters, would always end up touching it and picking at the scabby fringe.  This would cause it to bleed and so the process of healing overnight only to be picked again in the morning continued, like the punishment of Prometheus – condemned by the Gods to have his liver torn out each morning by an eagle, only for it to heal each night as he writhed in eternal torment.

But my torment would soon be at an end.  My day of reckoning was now at hand.  Tomorrow morning I would present myself at my local hospital for an operation.  The Plastic Surgeon had tried to reassure me, but his words were full of ‘ifs’, ‘buts’ and ‘possibles’.  His previous attempt at a skin graft had not worked, leaving me with a hole and a deferred judgement until my strength had sufficiently recovered.  He had performed similar procedures before, and there was a fairly good chance of success.

“There are risks”, he had said, “Are you sure you want to go ahead?”

“Yes, I can’t live with this hole in my head any longer,” I had replied.

I pulled on my coat and headed for the door.  A walk in the winter sunshine was what I needed to calm me and steady my nerves.  The novelty of being able to put my finger into the hole and touch my skull had worn thin.  A bit like the surface of my skull – worn thin, where the radiotherapy had degraded the surface of the bone.  A Halloween act once a year, maybe, but the rest of the time an annoyance.

Just over a year ago a lump had grown on my head.  I continued to work in my sales job, wearing a baseball cap to hide the offending lump from customers and give myself a better chance of making a sale.  Look normal, smile, keep calm and carry on.  The British way.

My GP was suitably excited, the way doctor’s get when presented with something unusual to break the monotony of coughs, colds and other mundane complaints.  My lump had grown to the size of an egg.  And so my journey into the world of the NHS began.  He sent me to a specialist who sent me for a biopsy at the hospital which revealed that the lump was a cancerous melanoma.  Oh My God…the ‘C’ word!  I had cancer.

I worked up until the day before the procedure, feeling fine.  The offending lump was duly removed, and I think I caught MRS or some other bug whilst in the hospital, as I fell ill and lost weight through loss of appetite.  The medication and radiotherapy didn’t help, making me feel tired.  Unfit for work, I moped around the house for several months.  In my twenty five year working life I had rarely taken time off for sickness and had never suffered an injury.  This was all new territory for me.

I walked in rueful reflection for ten minutes to the River Thames.  A family of swans drifted gracefully into view; father, mother and three juveniles with feathers a mix of white and grey.  Was this the same family I saw in the spring with six chicks?  The three strongest have survived.  Natural selection, the weak must die so the strong can live, but what about me?  We humans are the exceptions.  We are above Nature because we have found ways to cure disease, mend broken bones and prolong life.  I am about to subvert the natural order of things.  Twenty years ago I would most likely have died.

The sun came out from behind a cloud, lighting up a row of moored boats.  I drew myself up to my full height.  Shoulders back, I turn to my left and inspected the fleet.  Marching in line with the swans, I start swinging my arms and bowing regally to imagined fleet captains.  “The World has gone mad and we are beset on all sides by those who wish to harm us.  Prepare for battle, for we must fight to preserve our way of life!”  A startled family hurried by, thinking a madman must have escaped from the asylum.

Swinging my arms I marched away, and with a salute to the swans, crossed the road and headed home.  I felt bullish and determined.  Bring it on.  If I cannot have a reasonable quality of life, then I want no life at all.  I have prepared for this day, following a strict diet and exercising my body and mind.  I was strong enough for the trial ahead and wanted a resolution.  Hope springs eternal in the human heart.  I was ready.

The Windsor Long Walk


They were so loved up, bubble wrapped in their perfect world.  Arm in arm they gazed into each other’s eyes, abdicating all responsibility for possible collisions with a carousel of walkers, joggers, skaters, bending parents and careering toddlers, all enjoying a bright, crisp Valentine’s Day on the Windsor Long Walk.  They followed the straight, long, tarred pathway in the direction of the George Monument, leaving the imposing walls of Windsor Castle behind them.

Ben looked up.  The volume of noise around them had suddenly increased.  There was a group of loud American tourists hogging the middle of the path ahead, a scissor-legged roller skater swerved around them to his right.  The way to his left was blocked by a squawking couple, arms wind-milling in a public display of anger.  He held Annie firmly by the waist and manoeuvred her away from the mayhem.  “Do you thing the Queen watches all this from a castle window?” Ben quipped, drawing a giggle from her.

“Let’s find somewhere to sit,” she said; “my legs are a bit achy.”  They found a vacant bench and plonked themselves down.

“I don’t think I can make it all the way up to the Monument,” she sighed, whilst squeezing Ben’s arm tightly as if to make sure he didn’t run off.

“That’s OK, it’s like a ski slalom course out there.  I’m tired of dodging people.  Let’s watch them for a bit and then stroll back.”  The tourists shuffled off in the direction of the Castle, robotically following a tour guide with a raised umbrella.

Another loved-up couple sauntered by.  Ben said: “Look…they’re in love, just like us.”  He squeezed her shoulder and looked into her eyes, hopeful of a favourable response.

“Yes, isn’t it nice,” she replied, smiling sweetly, with an angelic but somehow detached air.  Her phone buzzed and she quickly checked the screen to see who had texted her.  She angled the phone away from Ben and hurriedly pushed it into her handbag.  He fidgeted and looked straight ahead.  A herd of red deer grazed in the distance.  Don’t make an issue of it.

The wind picked up and a mini tornado of crisp packets, chocolate wrappers and paper cups spun crazily towards them.  Annie shrieked and Ben turned to see a hooded youth run off with her handbag.  In his haste, he slammed into a dog walker and went tumbling to the ground, ankle caught up in the yelping dog’s lead.  “Help!  That man’s got my bag!” Annie pointed at the struggling figure on the ground.  A large Dad flopped on top of him, winding the much smaller youth, and soon a crowd had gathered around.

Annie and Ben pushed their way to the front, and the large Dad, now on his feet, was holding the wriggling youth with one hand and her handbag with the other.  “Is this yours?”  “Oh yes!  Thanks very much, you’re so brave!”  A small round of applause rippled through the crowd.  As if to magically solve the next problem, two Royal Parks Police officers arrived on the scene, mounted on large chestnut horses.  One of them dismounted and seemed satisfied with the various eye witness accounts, handcuffing the forlorn youth and leading him away.

Annie thanked the big man, who blushed and picked up his adoring daughter.  Daddy the hero.  Annie checked the contents of her handbag, and satisfied, took Ben by the arm and led him away.  “That was some speech, Ben,” she said happily.  “Just to let you know, the text messages are from my sister – our mum has a health problem.  There’s no one else for me – only you.  Of course I love you.”  The faced each other on the busy path, embraced and kissed.  A moment in time, two specs on the earth, as it moved slowly through space.  The pale winter sun inched fractionally across the wide blue sky as the carnival spun gaily around them.  They were just starting out on the Long Walk.