As I was going to St Ives, I met a man with seven wives

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The prompt which inspired this piece was to take the first line of a nursery rhyme and take it somewhere a little darker.

Panting and out of breath, I stowed my overnight case in the luggage rack on the 15.06 to Penzance and made my way to my reserved seat. I’d been able to get a table, a four-way, rather than two-way unfortunately, and having planned to get out my laptop and work for the duration, I examined my fellow table-sharers with some dismay. They were all mothers, each with a small child on their lap. The table-top, which they hastily attempted to tidy up a bit, looked like a bomb had hit it. There were bags, jackets, bottles, wipes and bits of chewed rusk all over it. Just as I was considering whether it would be OK to ask if I could borrow those wipes to clean my section of the table, one of the little people started to retch. Sighing, I decided to stow my laptop bag in the overhead rack too. Whilst the bank were paranoid about security, I could keep an eye on it from my seat and I wasn’t sure it would survive the over five hours to St Erth with three frazzled mothers, their babies and accompanying detritus.

I rummaged in my bag and was grateful to find an old paperback which I could read. As I was opening the cover, I noticed stuff being handed over to my group of mothers from across the aisle. I took a look and was horrified to discover another four mothers each with a child on their laps, with a table that made mine look pretty reasonable. Worse, they seemed to know each other. How the hell had I managed to book my seat amongst a group of seven mothers on some sort of outing?

Sighing – again – I opened my book and tried to ignore the carnage and chatter which surrounded me. I was wishing fervently I’d brought my iPod with a set of noise-cancelling headphones, when a man stopped and greeted the mothers. If I thought it’d been noisy before, I was startled by the utter cacophony of noise which poured forth from those seven women and seven babies. One by one, he was handed a baby to pet, pat, cuddle or chat to. Each mother demanded his personal attention for some minor requirement or other. Whilst all this was going on, I realised he could be my escape. Coughing, I managed to attract his attention and offered to exchange seats with him so he could travel with his “erm friends”. He smiled, a rather watery affair, but declined. I pressed my offer again, stressing that it would be no trouble at all. Again, he smiled and shook his head. I made one final attempt, expressing that he would be doing me a huge favour as I needed to work and simply could not in these circumstances. This time his smile was genuine “why do you think I booked a separate seat, in a different carriage?”

Stunned, I sat back and tried to get into my paperback. Seething with annoyance and frustration, concentration was always going to be difficult, but the inane noise of my travelling companions was even worse. When the guard came through the carriage checking tickets, I asked for his understanding in allocating me another seat. Unfortunately, he also gave me that selfsame same watery smile and shook his head “train’s fully booked”. Undeterred, I asked which carriage the buffet was in, but he lowered his eyes before muttering “no buffet car today”.

As I listened to the chatter, it became clear that my fellow travellers were continuing on to St Ives, as was I, the twenty minutes to change platforms at St Erth being manageable even with their burdens and bundles. I decided to give in and introduced myself “I’m Clare and I work in marketing” I said holding out my hand. They took my hand one at a time to introduce themselves and their child: “Toni – Antonia really” held Terry on her lap, whilst “Amelia and this is John” were next. Both had very sticky hands and so I was grateful to “Claudia – here have a wipe for your hand – and this is my daughter, Chloe”. The four across the aisle simply waved “Jenny and this is Adam”, “Audrey and I’m sorry about my grizzling son, Jeremy”, “Tilly with Trudie” and finally “Dot and Michael”.

I asked how they knew each other and saw them look at each other, as if deciding who was going to answer. Dot seemed to get the nod and she said “we’re all married to Matthew”. They must’ve thought I was some sort of idiot, for I’m sure I just gaped. Pulling myself together, I asked “what the man who was here earlier?” to which Dot inclined her head. Sitting back with shock, I regarded them all again. Toni was a very pretty blonde with long, fine hair whilst Amelia was a brunette with thick long locks. Claudia had coffee-coloured skin and crinkly hair, Jenny’s hair was short – gamine I think that style is called – and rather mousy in colour. Audrey had a red-ish bob, Dot had celtic colouring and her hair could only be described as ginger. Each of the children seemed to share their mother’s colouring, there didn’t appear to be much of Matthew in any of them, although what little recall I had of him was that he was rather wishy-washy looking. Not wanting to freak anyone out with my negative reaction, I got chatting about ordinary stuff – the weather, their interests, hobbies, backgrounds, where they came from, why they’d been in London – and the whole story slowly unveiled.

Each of them came from difficult, dangerous or dysfunctional families and had run away to London. There Matthew had found them and offered each a refuge, if they would take part in an experiment. His family had very weak genes and needed desperately to breed outside of the usual social circle to strengthen the line. In addition, Matthew was gay and his parents risked the line ending with him. But he was prepared to agree to artificial insemination. Each girl had been given a full medical and genetic work-up and so long as they passed both, Matthew would marry them to secure their future and the future of their child. Clearly they’d been picked to cover the full spectrum of physical looks. They’d just been in London for the same medical and genetic work-up to be carried out on the children. Should any issues be uncovered, this would alter the order of inheritance but, for now, Matthew had decidedly done his duty in providing an heir and a spare.

They stressed that Matthew was kind and made no great demands on them. Each had the opportunity to study – initially via home tutors and in later times, via the Open University – to enable them to live a life independent of him in the future. Matthew had provided each with their own little worker’s cottage on the family estate – ownership, not tenancy – which they could sell when their child was fully grown-up. Each would also have a small stipend to cover modest living costs, although all the costs of their children would be borne by the family.

They all seemed happy – or content at least – although the earlier competition for Matthew’s attention made me think there could be difficulties ahead. It also just felt … wrong. Yes, this was an opportunity which each of these girls would never get otherwise, but it felt like advantage was being taken of their poor situation by a person, or was that people, who were fortunate in having position and money.

I said goodbye to them all at St Ives, as they piled into the two liveried mini-buses which waited to transport them to their homes. Matthew, I noticed, travelled in a separate car, with a rather handsome young man in the driving seat.

 

© Debra Carey, 2017

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#second thoughts: “The Eagle has Landed”: how much fiction and how much fact?

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I read a lot of action stories and thrillers growing up – Jack Higgins’ “The Eagle has Landed” being amongst them. Of course I went on to watch the film starring Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall and a host of British acting royalty. I remember it as a rollicking good read, a lively story which presented Germans as like everyone else – some good, some bad, some compassionate and honourable, some not. Oddly, the main point (the kidnapping of Churchill) entirely escaped my mind until I decided to take another look at it

A trip to the North Norfolk coast with my historian boyfriend resulted in his suggestion that I do some historical reading on the area: “World War II Stories: Where the Eagle Landed” by Peter Harding. This triggered a re-visiting of the Higgins tale and a conversation about how much of the story was fiction and how much was fact. On a re-read of the Higgins book, he states in his foreword that the book is 50% fiction and 50% fact, but that it’s up to the reader to work out which is which.

So, which bits are true? Well, despite significant research, Harding could only find evidence of one – albeit brief – incursion onto British soil. On the evening of Saturday, 27th July 1940, an E-boat shore party was harried by the Royal Navy as they returned aboard. Left behind in their haste was a cap and various food wrappers, which were picked up the next morning by a 16-year old lad. He hid his prize away in his parents attic, selling the cap at an auction only after their death in the 1970s. This incident, which took place on Sizewell beach in Suffolk, seems unlikely to be the only one – and there are other similar stories, although none with substantiating evidence.

Why unlikely to be the only one? Well, until 1941 when Rolls Royce made significant improvements to the engines on the Royal Navy’s MTBs (Motor Torpedo Boats), German E-boats ranged over the Channel effortlessly. Their superior design, coupled with the availability of a stealth motor meant they were able to approach shipping unheard. Their big diesel engines were only brought into service when speed rather than silence was of importance, enabling a rapid get-away. The east coast of Britain had been left especially vulnerable after the fall of France, Holland and Belgium. E-boats, which were to have a key role in Operation Sealion (Germany’s plan to invade Great Britain) were also ideal for scouting potential landing sites.

And that’s it, in terms of ‘boots on the ground’ to use modern phraseology.

But the rumours of invasion – or attempted invasion – were rife. One talked of huge numbers of burnt bodies washed up on the shores over the Channel – suggested to be the bodies of a failed German invasion force. Whilst the ‘mad scientists’ department of the War Office had investigated the possibility of using fire as a defensive force, this story was a fabrication, if one the British government were happy to deny with a nod and a wink. Why not allow Hitler’s forces to believe they had some such secret weapon, if it caused them to pause any invasion plan? A small hamlet not far from Sizewell called Shingle Street was also surrounded by strong rumour. All that Harding was able to confirm is that residents were evacuated at short notice and weapon testing did take place there sometime afterwards. But Shingle Street and burnt bodies ended up being linked in the highly active rumour mill in those early WWII days.

In Higgins’ novel, the operation to kidnap Churchill is inspired by a successful mission to rescue of Benito Mussolini. Mussolini’s rescue is historical fact. Any aircraft museum displaying a Storch will provide that history: how being the only aircraft capable of landing and taking off in tiny spaces, it was used to rescue Mussolini from the Campo Imperatore Hotel, in the Italian ski resort of Gran Sasso. Sole access to the hotel was via funicular, so around 100 Fallschirmjager glidered in to carry out the rescue, with the Storch flying in to take off the great man. I’ve seen a Storch take off and land and – even today – it is quite something to behold.

With hindsight we know Churchill was not kidnapped and there is no evidence that he had a body double – although it is acknowledged that he did have a voice double – Norman Shelley – who recorded some of his speeches for broadcast. Inspiration may have come from General Montgomery – the British general – who is known to have had a double. Additionally, Soviet sources suggested they’d foiled a plot by Otto Skorzeny to kidnap Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt at the Tehran Conference. Skorzeny insisted it was all soviet propoganda, but then he’d also claimed credit for the rescue of Mussolini, despite being simply an observer on the mission. In fact his desire to claim the glory could’ve caused it to fail – he climbed aboard the Storch on take-off, seriously overloading it. A calculated risk one could suppose; if it had crashed, he’d have died along with Mussolini so would not have to bear any consequences.

Inspiration for the use of a small invasion party likely came from another source: author Graham Greene’s short story “The Lieutenant Died Last”, written early in 1940 and subsequently made into the 1942 film “Went the Day Well”. This tells the fictitious story of the ‘Battle of Bramley End’ and bears considerable similarity to Higgins’ later tale. A group of soldiers arrive in a small village to carry out exercises (a fairly routine occurrence at the time) except they turn out to be German soldiers in disguise. The villagers eventually manage to get the word out and the worst is averted. The film ends with the words “this is the only bit of England they got” as an old man points to a churchyard grave. One hugely significant difference between the two stories is Higgins’ portrayal of the German soldiers as professional, but humane.

Near the film’s end, when the German invasion party are holed up in the church for their last stand, one of their number plays the the organ, until he’s shot and killed. This exact scenario featured in “Seven Men at Daybreak” by Alan Burgess, a book regarding the (unsuccessful) operation to kill General Heydrich by British-trained Czech commandos. Burgess’ book came out in 1960 and was made into a film “Operation Daybreak” which came out in 1975 – the year “The Eagle has Landed” was published.

In his closing (rounding up chapter), Higgins mentions seeing a photograph of Liam Devlin and recognising him as a well-known soldier of the republic. It is believed that Liam Devlin is based upon Frank Ryan, an IRA man who fought on the Republican side in Spain, was captured and spent time in Germany. He worked with the Germans to supply arms and finance to the IRA and died – still in Germany – in 1944.

Why then does the story seem so real? Well, Higgins is a master story teller. The structure he’s used presents the story as truth, with the prologue and epilogue device (his opening and closing chapters flanking the story as bookends). He sets us up in the opening chapter and then provides a ‘factual’ round up in the closing one. It’s very simple and very effective. That and the writing skill involved in the artful blending of fact with fiction …

 

© Debra Carey, 2017

Fairies at the bottom of the garden

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It was practically inevitable that Amelia would see fairies.  From early on her parents had taught her to take notice of what was going on around her and to pay attention to small details. For example, when she was very little, they would hide her favourite sorting blocks.  Some would be in plain sight, but difficult to distinguish by virtue of being in front of something of a similar colour, or above little Amelia’s head height so that she could only see them by stepping back and looking at the room as a whole.  Others were partially obscured with just a little part sticking out, and the rest were fully hidden, but in some ways these would be the easiest to find, because they were there for the looking.  Later, there were little messages, some which would lead Amelia to little trinkets or books that she would be interested in others were simple declarations of love.  (For be in no doubt, her parents, if a little eccentric in their methods, loved their daughter deeply and wanted her to be able to drink in the whole world).

So it was that Amelia developed her abilities, and from there it was no surprise that she came to be able to spot fairies.  Fairies DO live at the bottom of the garden, but they’ve had thousands of years’ experience of staying out of the way of humans.  But even those who are most cunning at concealing themselves leave traces that are there for the observing.  It didn’t happen all at once, but Amelia would notice little things that were different from one day to the next.

One day she saw a twig that was safely out of the way of any small scuffling creatures and predatory breezes, and the next she noted that it had moved quite 10 centimetres from its little quiet spot.  Another time she was exploring the overgrown bottom of the garden and she found a little posy of flowers that really had no right to be there.  She was half tempted to think that her parents had put it there, but it had been hard enough for a slight child to reach this spot, let alone some galumphing adult.

And so little details built up into a picture, one, which by degrees, revealed a hole, and that hole began to take on a definite, fairy shape.  Amelia thought very hard.  She wondered if the fairies might be coaxed out by small gifts, like some small, timid creature.  She’d already decided they must be intelligent, because the things they did appeared to have purpose, but she wondered if they were clever.  She wondered if they might be observed from some sort of hide.

Amelia started to interact with the changes that she noticed.  For example, if she saw that a twig had been moved, she would move it back to where it had been, but replace it with something that she thought might be better, if she’d guessed the purpose right.  If she encountered another posy, she would leave a duplicate beside it.  She was a patient child, and she needed all her patience, because it took months before anything happened.

But it was worth it, because the day before her ninth birthday, she met her first fairy.  And then her life changed forever.

© David Jesson, 2017

You remember me?

I sat staring into my coffee.  The café was pretty busy, but I’d arrived after the post-school drop-off socialisers, and before the elevenses crowd (which usually kicks off about half ten) and snagged myself one of the larger two-seater tables.  And now I stared into my coffee like it held the secret of eternal life, or cold fusion, or some other alchemy.

“Hey there!”

An insistent voice broke into my reverie.  She looked like her voice should be really annoying, but the enthusiasm wasn’t overdone, there was genuine warmth, and it wasn’t squeaky. A musical contralto.

“It is you isn’t it?  We were at school together.”

I thought this unlikely – I would have remembered her, and I said so, but I invited her to take a seat.

“Do you mind?  That would great!” – a little flick of ash-blonde hair, perfectly waved – I’m doing the coffee-run and it’s going to be a while.  It’s so busy today.  Actually, I think I’m a bit later than normal, it was so hard to get away this morning for some reason.”

I let the chatter pass round me, making the appropriate noises, but making little effort to encourage the conversation.  She turned slightly in the chair in order to lean against the wall, pulling up one booted foot and hugging her leg.

“Are you sure you don’t remember me?  I have the strongest feeling we were in the same English class, or maybe it was Maths?”

“I’d be surprised if you remembered me, I was just one of the faces in the crowd.  I wasn’t good at sports, I wasn’t brainy, I wasn’t even the class clown!”

“No, but you have a nice smile, and that’s the sort of thing that brightens a dull class.”

“If it was dull, there wouldn’t be anything to smile about.”

“You seem determined to be curmudgeonly.” She gave me a mock frown.

“No, just argumentative,” I said with a smile.

“Oh, that’s my order – here” she took a pen and wrote quickly “my number – I’d love to catch up properly.  Best days of our lives and all that! Whoops – be careful!”  This last because, as she’d unfolded herself from her chair and was handing me the napkin that she’d written on, she’d somehow caught the edge of the table and set things clattering.  We calmed the crockery, neatened the napkins and settled the sugar.

“Sorry about that – see you soon!” She tossed that last over her shoulder as she whisked away in a subtle cloud of CK1, picking up a cardboard tray with four coffee cups.

I nodded to my partner, who was sat closer to the door.  I’d lied.  I did recognise her, and in actual fact we had met before, and I was a little bit hurt that she didn’t recognise me.  But I didn’t feel too bad.  The ability to pass unrecognised is like money in the bank in my profession, and it would have made this so much harder.  She had done it so neatly, that I hadn’t noticed her lifting my wallet and phone, even though I’d been looking for it.  Oh well.  One pick-pocket picked up.  What was next on the docket…?

©David Jesson, 2017

(530 Words)

 

It was chaos all round. All our technical guys were on sites doing time sensitive installs, the sales guys were on other sites doing a great job holding clients’ hands and investigating the problem before they talked it through with the technical guys whilst they walked around a car park, went to the loo, or drank a cup of tea. Luckily, I’d got one that was an easy fix. I just needed to get them to change over their software dongle.

So, I popped home and put on the suit before heading up to central London. Going into the Bank’s Reception, I announced “I’m here to see John Brown.” Taking a seat, I start to check my phone when I notice a guy walk in and hear “Hi”. I recognise the voice from our phone call and stand up to shake hands, when “whoa, I know this guy, don’t I?” He gave no indication of feeling the same, so I retreated behind the professional face and got on with the exchange.

Later, as I was explaining to John’s boss what was happening and why it had happened, I spotted John looking at me quizzically. Staying firmly behind that professional face, I concentrated on John’s boss and keeping him content. And finally he was. John suggested “coffee?” and I followed, expecting that we’d go into some sort of canteen. But no, we left the building and walked around the corner into a little independent coffee shop.

And that’s when he said it “Remember me?” I had to be honest and replied “Yes, but no” which made him chuckle and add “I always liked your sense of humour”.“Oh no, he couldn’t be, could he? Not someone I’d talked to on the internet? I surveyed him coolly. Bit too young for me to have approached him, had he been one of those young ‘uns chancing their arm and wanting a bit of a Mrs Robinson thing?”

And then he said “you’re Lady Hamilton aren’t you, from that dating site? I tried to chat you up but you were insistent that I was too young. Something about being too close to your daughter’s age.”“Sounds right” I admitted and wondered how quickly I could drink my black coffee and get out of there. “I met someone” he said smiling “after you’d given me that friendly slap. I got in touch with someone more my age.” “Oh dear, that does sound like something I’d do” I apologised, “forgive me, I can get a bit punchy online.” “No, no forgiveness necessary” John admitted, “just what I needed in fact. I’d have never gone near Sarah without it and she is just so damn perfect for me. That’s why I dragged you out here, to say thanks, thanks very much.”

He’s still a client. And happily married to Sarah. Their second child is on the way. We’ve never discussed it again. But we always exchange personal family news whenever we speak for work. It puzzles my colleagues no end.

©Debra Carey 2017

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