Search This Blog

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

New year - 2015

Wishing you all a happy, healthy and prosperous new year.

Happy - without rancour or hate...

Healthy - life can be difficult enough at times without ill health...

Prosperous - not in monetary riches, but in the richness of relationships...











Monday, 29 December 2014

Christmas with the Crooked Cats - 'The End is Nigh'

Crooked Cat is a UK publisher who has produced many popular and best-selling books in a variety of genres – romance, thriller, crime, fantasy, young adult and horror – in e-book and paperback formats.

Christmas with Crooked Cats began on 29 November and runs through into 5 January 2015. On their Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/groups/737252102990447/
– you can access seasonal poetry, short stories and articles penned by a host of Crooked Cat authors.

So, to continue celebrating the season of Christmas with Crooked Cats, here is another timely story:

Wikipedia commons - Ethiopia


THE END IS NIGH

 
I really feared for my life for a second as they pressed towards me.’

A short story for Christmas – set in the future

  

Nik Morton

 
All the churches in the world were full. And the synagogues. And the mosques.

As an atheist I wasn’t surprised that all this prayer wasn’t working. Unfortunately, nothing else was, either. Science had no explanation.

For five years now there hadn’t been a single baby born. Not one.

Plants and flowers no longer bloomed. They didn’t die, they just never blossomed into flower, their leaves a dull grey. The fruit industry was moribund as the trees bore no fruit.

Some people said it was all caused by the massive leaching of hormones and chemicals into the water-table, some reckoned it was due to the many holes in the ozone layer, while others believed it was as a result of those three volcanoes exploding six Christmases back, their dark foreboding smoke obscuring the sun for over six months. Maybe it was due to the earth passing through the massive tail of a comet five years ago. Nobody knew for sure. International environmental terrorists didn’t help, either, blowing up all the oil refineries. Their smoke added to the nuclear winter of the volcanoes.

Most of the so-called civilised world relied on electricity and that was produced by burning finite resources such as oil and coal. Minor advances had been made with wind-, solar- and wave-power, but not nearly enough to support our vast cities.

In fact, all the big cities now had their own lugubrious characters walking the streets with sandwich boards proclaiming that ‘The End is nigh!’ Religious fanatics had a field day.

All this played havoc with my business. My name’s Ambrose King and I’d lived up to my name as I was now king of the air-waves, having established the biggest and best global media company in the world using solar-powered wireless technologies.

Whispers came to me via the internet connections, when they worked. It had happened several times before. False alarms, hoaxes and rumours. The story about the boy crying wolf came to mind. Still, I was idle, rich and curious. I was one of the lucky people with a private aircraft and the fuel to keep it going.

As the jet took off at night, the better to conceal my activities, I glimpsed a light through the over-arching murk that stained the heavens. Just a star in the sky. But it seemed brighter than Venus or Sirius and we weren’t due to be close to Mars again for many years yet. Probably a satellite – or a trick reflection caught in the thick glass of the window. I didn’t believe in UFOs.

It was dawn though the sky was a depressing grey, the sun barely penetrating the eerie miasma of dust and pollution in the air. As my jet flew over Palestine I glanced out the window. There were thousands of people clustered outside the small village and the streets were crammed. Television crews were trying to make their way through.
 
A few minutes later, after landing at the airport, I paid a small ransom to hire a helicopter. When we got back to that small village, another aircraft was already hovering over the flat roof-tops, its side emblazoned with GLBL-4 my TV crew, I thought with pride. Just outside the village was an oasis of date palm trees, which looked sad and forlorn, the leaves grey.

The pilots acknowledged each other and slowly, as my chopper hovered, I was lowered in a cradle into the jostling crowd.

I’m a big chap, about six-foot-six and manage to keep in trim, yet I really feared for my life for a second as they pressed towards me. But they were just curious. I seemed to tower over most of them. I was surprised how calm everyone seemed. I’d never seen a crowd so serene before. They all seemed to be waiting.
 
Kidding themselves, I thought. This was bound to be another false alarm.
 
They were all facing the door to a ramshackle building – apparently, the place had been bombed and part-bulldozed by Israelis a matter of two weeks ago during yet another desperate expression of intifada from the deprived villagers. The Arabic word intifada has several meanings, such as the shaking off or shivering of fear or illness or waking from sleep, and I thought I had seen it all before in our news reports, but I was wrong today.
 
There was no anger or desperation in the eyes of the men and women gathered here. I made my way unmolested to the door.

To one side of the door was half an oil drum, filled with dry soil and drooping grey foliage.

A scarred one-eyed man in stained robes pressed his shoulder to the wooden door and opened it for me. I ducked under the adobe lintel.
 
A variety of smells assailed my nostrils. Not what I’d expected, though. There was incense, myrrh and something else I’d known only once before, when I visited a convent. An odour of sanctity. Fanciful, I know, but I couldn’t describe it any other way. The aroma permeated my body, bathing me in a tingling sense of well-being.
 
The interior was Spartan yet quite clean, the earthen floor swept and hard. Colourful rugs had been spread and on these sat several women and two men garbed in richly embroidered robes. Behind them, a mouse-grey blanket hung down from the rafters; I could hear movement on the other side of it.
 
‘At last you have come, Mr King,’ said the Negro as he stood to greet me with a large pink outstretched hand. He was as big as me, with gentle shining eyes.

As I shook his hand I said, ‘You’re expecting me?’
 
He nodded. ‘News travels fast, even in these strange times.’ He grinned, showing huge white teeth. ‘Thanks to your global network, of course.’

‘Of course,’ I answered, bemused.

‘I am King Kassahun Ayele of Ethiopia,’ he said and gestured to the other man who rose to his feet. He was of Asian extraction, I reckoned. ‘This is the King of Thailand, Surakiat Chatusiphithak.’
 
‘Just call me Sura,’ the Thai king said, taking my hand.
 
Perhaps it should have clicked then, but it didn’t. I had little time to think, anyway, as we all turned our heads to the drab cloth screen on hearing a baby’s wail rising out of the corner of the room.

It was like a storm washing over us. I felt my face suffuse with blood and for a fraction of a second the skin round my eyes and on my cheeks seemed to be pulled back as if I was facing into a harsh yet warm wind. Our clothes rustled and the dimness of our surroundings suddenly brightened. Colour assaulted our eyes.
 
Outside the faint murmuring changed into a prolonged almost physical gasp of awe.

The powers of recuperation of the baby’s mother were great, it seemed. She stepped out from behind the now golden screen, the baby’s pink cheek pressed to her left breast. She wore simple white robes and a deep blue scarf covered her head, casting a shadow over her features. Out of the shadow her eyes glowed luminous and I could see that the flesh under them was puffed with lack of sleep. Yet she looked radiant and happy. After all, she was the first woman in the world to give birth in five years.
 
King Sura unclasped his embroidered cloak and draped it over the mother’s shoulders as she walked slowly across the room to the front door. King Ayele joined them and helped support her.

My throat was constricted and my heart was hammering as I followed the mother and child and the two kings outside.
 
Everywhere I looked, people were kneeling. A powerful silence had descended on everyone.

Then I noticed the foliage in the oil-drum by the door: it had regained a new lease of life, its shoots were green and it had already blossomed with the intricate beautiful star-shapes of blue and white passion flowers.
 
My heart pounded as I glanced towards the oasis and noticed the palm trees were shaking in a slight breeze, their fronds now bright green and vibrant. And there were clusters of dates under the fronds where none had been before.
 
The sky had cleared and was a gorgeous cloudless blue. The star I’d barely glimpsed on taking off was fully visible now, glinting.
 
And the sun glared bright and warm on this December morning. This was a morning of promise for the future.
 
Maybe this time we might get it right. As I realised I was kneeling alongside the two kings, I knew that I was no longer an atheist. I prayed that this second coming would give us all a second chance.

***

Originally published in The Coastal Press, December 2007.

Copyright Nik Morton, 2014

 
If you liked this story, you might also like my collection of crime tales (some poignant, some humorous), Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat (2013), which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’.  He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.

Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback and as an e-book.





Also available:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Ddigital-text&field-keywords=nik%20morton
 


Saturday, 27 December 2014

Saturday Story - 'The Proper Thing to Do'


THE PROPER THING TO DO


Nik Morton 

 

 

“Swimming here in the dark is nothing like I’m used to in the North Sea back home, Miss. But at least I can swim, not like those poor devils... I’m a soldier, just like them. Soldiers have little need to swim, I suppose. My father taught my brothers and sister too. Seaside people should know how to save themselves, he said. God rest his soul, he was right enough.

“Everything happened so fast, didn’t it? One minute I was asleep, the next we was called up on deck and fell in.

“Two o’clock in the middle of the night it was.

“Heaven knows, we was used to the ship’s odd hours and strange goings-on, what with their bells clanging and lookouts calling. And we’d had our fair share of musters and drills on our way out. We’re soldiers, after all, off to fight them Xhosa tribesmen in the Kaffir War. Many of us haven’t fired a weapon in anger but we’re ready to fight. I’ll be seventeen next month.

“Rumour spreads quick on a ship – worse even than barracks. We heard the ship had hit some hidden rock not on the charts. A bit of bad luck, Miss.

“I wish you could have met Sam, my pal. Worked on a farm before joining up. He had a feeling for animals, like. He asked the officers to do something about the horses, they was frantic, whinnying and kicking.

“Give Sam his due, he was persuasive. Sam got them to blindfold the poor creatures so they wouldn’t panic and then they cut the horses loose and carefully dropped them over the side. Good swimmer, a horse, Miss. Even with a man on its back.

“God, it was awful, watching the sharks attack them horses! Sam was terrible distraught. Sorry, Miss, me blaspheming like that, my Ma would give me a right rollicking if she could hear me now. Soldiers tend to swear a bit, but we usually minds our Ps and Qs near ladies like yourself, Miss.

“The ship’s captain ordered the lowering of the cutters. You probably know that. But did you notice some fittings didn’t work? The shackle, tackle, whatever was rusted something horrible. Whoever was responsible for those boats being fit to use would have been on a charge in quick time if he was in the Army, I can tell you. They tried hammers, swords, anything to free the boats. I think the ship had eight, but I see only three got off.

“I was certain glad you and the other ladies was given a cutter to get away in, with the children.

“Seems right to me, for them to let the women and children on the boats first. Everybody seemed orderly, no pushing and shoving. Not one soul begrudged you and the rest the privilege.

“Truth be known, Miss, I was scared, watching your boats pull away.

“The ship’s captain gave the order to abandon ship, to swim for the cutters. Our last chance, you see. But then up pipes our Colonel, his face twisted with a strange kind of emotion and he says we shouldn’t do that, ‘cos we’d swamp your boats. He didn’t order us, mind, just asked, most reasonable and un-officer-like.

“He said, ‘Do not do this. I ask you to stand fast.’ In only a few seconds his officers repeated his words and, as the deck tilted, we all seemed to agree it was the best thing to do and stood firm. We reckoned we was all in this together. All in the same boat, like. A joke, that.

“Don’t cry, Miss.

“We lined up in ranks, regiment by regiment. Proud we was, even though many of us wore only under-garments and no shoes. 

“I shook hands with Chalky White, Spider Webb and Sam standing next to me. Sam was grieving over the poor horses. We told him some probably got away, but he was really upset. We tried cheering him up – a bit difficult, under the circumstances.

“One man shouted, ‘God Bless you all’. I think he was calling out to you here in the boats. But in the main, there was no shouting, no wailing and no cries of help.

“Don’t cry, Miss.

“We all stood firm. For the sake of the women and children. It was the proper thing to do.

“From here you must have seen the ship break its back on the reef. That was a horrible moment. My heart lurched as much as the ship. We all staggered and some of our ranks lost their footing and fell overboard. Bits of wood and metal and even paddle-wheel flew everywhere. I saw the ship’s captain crushed by a falling mast.

“Those of us left, we were steady, even then. We linked arms and tried to stand fast as the deck under our feet sloped and the water started to rise.

“The water was up to our chests. It wasn’t really cold, but we was shivering. Afraid of the end, I suppose.

“Bits of luggage must have burst out of the hole in the hold, because suddenly out of nowhere some of the bags hit us – it was like being hit with a medicine-ball – and it broke our grip on each other.

“I thought I was going to drown, praying with half a mind while frantically swimming up to the surface where I trod water, spluttering and coughing.

“Somehow, I found a floating case and clung on to it and looked back in time to see some of my chums still standing firm as the water washed over their heads. Sam and Chalky...

“Firm to the end, they was. Done their duty, as they was asked.

“Please don’t cry, Miss. They did the right thing.

“I feel horrible, leaving them to their watery grave.

“So with a heavy heart I swam to your cutter a bare ten minutes ago, Miss; yet it seems an age...

“It’s awful crowded here in this little boat, but I’m grateful there’s room for a little chap like me.

“I can’t stop shivering. Talking like this helps stop my teeth chattering. But the water isn’t so cold. It’s shock, I expect.

“Look, Miss, there’s a soldier drowning over there. I know him. He’s a pretty fair sergeant in our regiment. If we can steer the cutter towards him. He’s a father with six kiddies. It would be a crying shame to leave him.

“Here, I’ll give a hand on the oar.

“My parents were so proud of me when I was in the passing out parade, in my spanking new uniform. My father took the sickness a few weeks later, but we all reckon he died happy knowing I had a secure future in the Army.

“It takes it out of you, this rowing lark. I’m fair puffed... I thought I was fit. Nearly there... Let’s hope he can hold on, he looks in a bad way...

“Tell my Ma if anything happens, what I’ve just said, please, Miss. The lads did the proper thing. She still has my brothers Walter and Eric and sister Lillian. She mustn’t grieve. I’m a soldier, after all, and she could lose me at any time...”
***

After saying that and extracting a reluctant promise from me, Private Eddie Ross reached over the gunwale of the cutter and grabbed hold of the hand of the father of six.

Before I knew what he was intending, he scrambled over the side into the sea and helped heave the drowning man into the boat. All this sudden activity made the vessel wobble but the small craft did not take in any water, thank God.

Eddie hung on and assured me he would be all right, he could swim, unlike the man he had saved.

            But he was mistaken. There are no sharks in the North Sea where he swam as a youngster. He had forgotten about them, as had I, otherwise I might not have let him give up his place so readily. One moment he was hanging on there, talking about family in the seaside resort of Whitley Bay, the next moment he was dragged under the surface, gone forever.

            These, then, Mrs Ross, are your brave son’s last words on that fateful day in February, 1852, when Her Majesty’s Ship ‘Birkenhead’ was lost at sea off the coast of South Africa with over four hundred lives. Some twenty-five women and twenty-nine children were saved. I hope his words bring you some small consolation.

I know that my thoughts will always hark back to that tragic day when so many brave men selflessly gave up their hopes and dreams for us women and our children.
A great tradition was born that day, I feel sure.

***
 Based on a true event, 1852
 
Previously published in Costa TV Times, 2010
Copyright Nik Morton, 2014
 
 
So, if you liked this story, you might like my collection of crime tales, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat (2013), which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’.  He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.
Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback and as an e-book.
 
 
 

Friday, 26 December 2014

FFB - City

This is one of the sci-fi classics, required reading for anyone with a love of science fiction and worlds of wonder. Published in 1952, it was subsequently re-published a number of times.

It may be ostensibly about a world now populated by dogs and robots, but, as Simak says in his 1976 Foreword, he could not see such an ideal world peopled by humans, for when he wrote these interconnected tales (1946 on) he was disillusioned; and though mellower in 1976 he still stood by that harsh stance.

Read as either an indictment or as fantasy/SF, these nine stories are memorable and moving. If it’s a long time since they cast their magic, then reacquaint yourself, the magic’s still there. If you haven’t entered City yet, then enjoy the visit.


Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Happy Christmas

I would like to thank all readers for viewing my blog this year. I appreciate it!


Wishing you a happy Christmas. 
 
And ...


...pray for peace on earth...
 
Best wishes, Nik

Writing Research – Book review - The Last Assassin

This was Daniel Easterman’s debut novel (1984) and it’s impressive as well as being chillingly prophetic. Set in the period 1977-1980, it covers the fall of the Shah of Iran and the Islamic Revolution’s take-over of the country. Easterman (a penname) is an expert on Iran and Islam, so I was curious about this book, since I’d written a novel set in Iran in 1978 (The Tehran Text, due from Crooked Cat early 2015); naturally, I wanted to be sure my efforts were not in error or contradictory. Having read the book, there may be errors in mine of which I’m unaware, but happily none seem glaring, and I seemed to have captured the fraught period leading up to the Shah being deposed. And, into the bargain, I’d read an enjoyable book too!

 
CIA field agent Peter Randall works with the Shah’s hated secret police, SAVAK, and witnessed torture and worse. The Shah was pro-West and his organs of repression ruthlessly crushed dissent; this anti-Communist stance suited the West, though it was uncomfortable for Randall. Following a SAVAK raid on a secret Islamic cell, Randall discovers some mysterious papers. Before he can get them deciphered, deaths occur close to him and he finds himself on the run.

The style is mostly ‘tell’ and the point of view is omniscient, much like Frederick Forsyth, but neither detracts from the page-turning ability of Easterman’s tale. It is all too believable; here might be the seeds of the Islamic fundamentalist obsession to destroy everything Western. Rational and logical thinking have no place for jihadists; compassion is weakness; love is reserved only for their god. Easterman gets into the mind-set of radical believers and their evil controllers. 

Maybe this book is thirty years old, but it still resonates today, considering the rising threat of the so-called Islamic State.  

***
 
The Tehran Text is the sequel to The Prague Papers, an e-book that is now available!

 
 
Czechoslovakia, 1975.
Tana is a spy - and she’s psychic. Orphaned in the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War, she was adopted by a naval officer and his wife. Now she works for the British Secret Intelligence Service. Czechoslovakia’s people are still kicking against the Soviet invasion. Tana is called in to restore morale and repair the underground network. But there’s a traitor at work.
And she learns about a secret Soviet complex in the Sumava Mountains. Unknown to her there’s a top secret establishment in Kazakhstan, where Yakunin, one of their gifted psychics, has detected her presence in Czechoslovakia.
When Tana infiltrates the Sumava complex, she’s captured! A desperate mission is mounted to either get her out or to silence her - before she breaks under interrogation.
The Tana Standish series: 1 - The Prague Papers

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Prague-Papers-Tana-Standish-ebook/dp/B00Q3GHEKE/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1419408350&sr=1-1&keywords=nik+morton

http://www.amazon.com/Prague-Papers-Tana-Standish-ebook/dp/B00Q3GHEKE/ref=sr_1_6?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1419373126&sr=1-6&keywords=nik+morton

 
 
 

Saturday, 20 December 2014

'The Trilby Hat' - part 2 (conclusion)


 
THE TRILBY HAT

 

[Part 2 of 2]

 

Nik Morton

 
All around stark blasts deafened Alfred. Flashes of light and flames sprouted everywhere. Black smoke mushroomed into the wintry night sky.

            Still giddy, he regained his feet. A sickly knowing feeling in the pit of his stomach gave strength to his ageing legs. Ignoring the dull ache of a bruised hip and shoulder, he rushed back to the ruin.

            An ARP warden and a couple of neighbours were already sifting through the rubble, even though the dust cloud hadn't settled yet.

            Mercifully the houses on either side had been spared, only their windows shattered, a few roof slates dislodged.

            Alfred stood, unable to move, and his mouth felt very dry. Somewhere a fire bell clanged, and another.

            A fractured water-main gushed high, sparkling in the torch-light.

            Hardly aware of what he was doing, Alfred knelt by the debris where the front of the house had been. "Here!" he cried out to the frantic helpers. "They were here!" And he started heaving bricks to one side, gashing his knees and hands in his haste, heedless of the cold.

            The ARP warden who shouted the warning earlier was soon panting by his side. "They won't have known what happened, mate. It'll've been over quick. A direct hit, you see?"

            Two hours later Alfred collapsed, exhausted, after they unearthed the battered Christmas tree. Miraculously, the fairy survived intact. The ARP carried him to the doorstep next door. There, a kindly neighbour gave him a chipped metal mug of sweet tea.

            Now, shakily, he got to his feet and shuffled over to identify them. His whole family, wiped out. He would never forget the joyous look on little Connie's face, he thought, gripping his trilby hat tight.

***

            Paul  Reeman was on his way home when he heard scuffling in the dark. He flashed the beam of his torch across the nearby waste-land and relaxed. It was only a fox.

            Then he picked out the shape of a battered hat and he recalled the incident earlier with old Alfred. Could this be his trilby? It looked the same colour. But it was so timeworn, and crumpled.

            The hat felt dry though cold and it was reasonably clean. It hadn't been lying here long, then. The label was faded but he could just make out GRANDA and LOVE. Might as well call round on my way home, he decided, and tucked it inside his overcoat.

            The dawn light was streaming down the deserted street as Paul walked up to the door. A few curtains twitched in the neighbouring terraced houses even at this hour. He rang once, his eyes drawn to the flaking paintwork.

            The door opened. A musty smell greeted him, of untended dust, of age. Alfred stood shivering in his worsted trousers, shirt sleeves and braces. In the weak hall light Paul noticed a bruise under the old man's left eye. "You all right?"

            Alfred nodded, eyes questioning.

            "I think I recognised those louts," Paul continued. "Would you come to an identity parade?"

            Alfred's three remaining teeth shone as he smiled. "Yes, it'll be a bloody great pleasure." He hesitated on the doorstep. "It was good of you to call. Erm, come in."

            "No, I can't stop. I'm expected home," Paul explained. He rummaged inside his coat. "Is this yours?" he asked awkwardly, handing over the aged trilby hat.

            The expression on Alfred's face had Paul worried for a moment. Then the old man seemed to collect himself. "You've made me very happy, constable." Tears gathered around his weak grey eyes.

            Feeling uncomfortable all of a sudden, Paul backed away and bid Alfred good-morning.

            "Merry Christmas!" Alfred called after him. "Merry Christmas."

            Paul waved. He couldn't understand it. It was as though he had bestowed some wondrous gift on Alfred. Then he remembered the label in the hat. Granda and Love. Indeed, it was sometimes easy to forget in this material world, Christmas was not only a time for giving but also a time for remembering.

            "Merry Christmas!" Paul replied.

 

 
***
'The Trilby Hat' was originally broadcast on British Forces Radio, Malta, read by Reverend Ray Jones, November 1975. For the time transition, the production team used incidental music which proved effective. I jiggled the date-time for the printed version some years later…

Published in The Portsmouth Post, 2003.

Copyright Nik Morton, 1975, 2003, 2014.

Note: The hat's name derives from the stage adaptation of George du Maurier's 1894 novel Trilby; a hat of this style was worn in the first London production of the play. In the book the heroine is Trilby O'Ferrall; she is strongly influenced by a Jewish rogue, Svengali. The book has been republished under the title of Svengali; it was one of the first best-sellers in modern literature.
 
***

If you liked this short story, you might like my collection Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat Publishing, featuring Leon Cazador, private eye in 22 cases.


Saturday story - 'The Trilby Hat'

Here’s a Christmas story in two parts; it was read on the radio… I’ll explain about it at the end, tomorrow.

Wikipedia commons

THE TRILBY HAT 
 
[Part 1 of 2]

Nik Morton 

 

It was a snow-laden Christmas Eve. Police Constable Paul Reeman was approaching the end of his shift and glad of it as he rounded the corner of Fenchurch Street.

            Then he saw them. Two youths. Faces partly covered by woollen scarves, they were leaning threateningly over an old man in a snow-heaped gutter. Paul broke into an unsteady run, careful lest he slipped on ice. It looked like Alfred Munro, the loner.

            Wisps of breath gushing out of his mouth, Paul lifted the cold whistle to his blue lips.

            The two muggers froze at the shrill noise.

            "The filth!" one of them yelled.

            Paul was barely yards from them when his boots slipped. Although he retained his balance, the few seconds delay gave the two thugs time to scurry off.

            He was tempted to follow, but Alfred seemed in a bad way. There was no blood or obvious injury, but the old man was sobbing.

            "It's all right, Alfred," he said. "They've run off." He helped the frail old man up.

            Alfred wiped his blood-shot eyes. "I - I'm all right," he wheezed, "But - it's my hat - they stole my trilby."

            Thinking back, Paul did recall one of the youths had worn a hat. They must have been baiting Alfred. He flushed hotly. "I'll see what I can do," Paul promised, not holding out much hope.

            But Alfred didn't seem to hear. "Must get it back… You see, I've had it nigh on fifty-two years.  Christmas..."

***

            The war was in its fifth Christmas. Alfred gazed at the 1943 calendar with its popular scene of skating on the Thames in the days of Queen Bess. He thought about Liz, his wife, who died six years ago. Thank God she missed this terrible war.

            He looked around the cosy room: utility furniture, an embroidered pouffĂ©, a whicker basket sewing box and a well-placed chintz-covered suite that concealed the thread-bare carpet's many patches, whilst the dining table stood cluttered with the remains of their frugal evening meal.

            The tiny coal fire flickered warmly in the tiled fire-place, its firelight reflected from the far corner where stood the proud Christmas tree, a battered fairy perched precariously on top; sparkling tinsel was draped over the branches. The tub, tightly packed with fresh black soil was wrapped with brown paper, which had been painted by Connie, his grand-daughter.

            The other decorations were sparse, but for all that the festive season shone from wherever Alfred looked.

            There was a gaiety, a family warmth, an atmosphere here that no war could possibly destroy.

            Beyond the shielding hills of their small Hampshire town, air-raid sirens wailed.

            Alan, his son-in-law stopped playing with Connie on the hearth-rug. "They seem closer tonight, Pop," he said.

            Denise, his daughter, paused from her knitting and her troubled eyes sought Alfred.

            He forced a smile of reassurance. "We've nothing worth bombing." Accepting this, they returned to their own amusements, whilst Alfred smiled contentedly to himself and looked at his daughter.

            She's grown into a fine woman, he thought. Liz would have been proud of her. A full- no, a comely - figure, married so young, with her mother's auburn hair and hazel eyes aglow in the firelight. But she possessed his stubbornness.

            And the memories flooded back. With an effort he blinked them away.

            Yes, and Alan made a good husband. Denise was lucky to have Alan home, in a reserved occupation in the dockyard. Alan stood by her side, his thick spectacles reflecting the fairy lights.

            He just had to look at young Connie there, the best of both of them already noticeable in her. Precocious, certainly, with a will of her own at times, but a little darling with it. He spoiled her unashamedly. And Denise scolded him, but she didn't mind, not really. Surely all grand-fathers are the same.

            In a few more hours they would be opening their gifts. But he couldn't face that yet; it still sorely reminded him of Liz and how they used to dote over Denise... Perhaps next year the wound would have healed sufficiently, though of course never completely; he didn't want to forget her, just to deaden the hurt at times like this.

            Reluctantly he rose from his comfortable chair. "Denise." He cleared his throat. "Denise, I think I'll be off now. It's getting late for me - and for you, Connie - Father Christmas will want to climb down the chimney soon..."

            Connie giggled excitedly at mention of Santa.

            Denise bundled her knitting into an embroidered bag. "As you wish, Dad." She helped him on with his great-coat.

            "Granda!" Connie shouted, crushing herself against his legs. "You can't go yet. You haven't had your present."

            Alfred patted his coat-pockets, each filled with a package from Denise and Alan to open first thing tomorrow morning before his return here for lunch. "But I have. I wouldn't forget these."

            Connie shook her head vigorously. "No, Granda! No, you haven't had mine!"

            Alfred noticed a puzzled look between Denise and Alan. Apparently, then, their daughter had kept her secret well.

            Perhaps their neighbour had bought the present. With great ceremony his grand-daughter walked to the under-stairs cupboard and tossed out two gas-masks in cardboard boxes then handed over a large brown-paper parcel. It seemed to be a gift-wrapped boot-box.

            "Thank you, darling," he said and he leaned forward to kiss her.

            But she backed away, lips pouted. "Aren't you going to open it now, Granda?"

            "But it isn't Christmas yet." He pointed to the mantel clock. "A few hours to midnight, you see?"

            "Please, Granda," she pleaded, face slightly pulled.

            "Well... all right, but only if you promise to stop making faces."

            She stopped almost at once, changing her grimace into a mischievous smile.

            Slowly and carefully he unwrapped the gift.

            "Hurry, Granda."

            It was an old boot-box. He lifted the lid and the sight took his breath away. Nestling amidst a bed of tissue paper was a brown trilby hat, its brim slightly bent so it would fit into the confines of the box.

            "Put it on, Granda!"

            He swallowed hard but the lump in his throat persisted. Alan and Denise smiled.

            Removing the hat reverently from the box, he knelt in front of her. "No, you put it on for me, Connie."

            She almost knocked him over as she dashed to do just that.

            As it finally sat snuggly, a perfect fit, he held Connie at arm's-length and asked if she thought it suited him.

            "Oh, yes! You look just like a Granda. Really important."

            And they all laughed.

            Then he suddenly lifted her high, almost touching her head to the ceiling. Connie shrieked happily.

            Presently, he lowered her and kissed her flushed cheeks.

            "Well, merry Christmas, everybody," he wished them as he walked to the door with Connie's small hand in his. He carefully wrapped his long woolly scarf round his neck, criss-crossed his chest then buttoned up his great-coat. "I must go now, Connie."

            Denise opened the front door.

            The cold air made them all gasp. The snow still fell silently, lending a bright peaceful glow to the otherwise drab street.

            "I'll keep this hat always. I promise," he said.

            Connie's little chest swelled and her smile seemed to fill the doorway. Alan held his daughter back. "Merry Christmas, Granda!" she said.

            Shivering in the cold air, Denise whispered, "Is the hat all right, Dad?" He nodded. She then whispered, "It was a gift to Alan from his poor Mum, but he doesn't like hats... We didn't know Connie'd planned this - "

            "It's all right, love. It's a smashing present. Now, go back in, it's cold out here. I'll see you tomorrow for Christmas dinner..."

            Quickly he stepped onto the crisp snow. Flakes whisped onto his shoulders and the brim of his new hat. He waved. "Merry Christmas!"  His voice echoed through the snow-filled night.

            Far-off could be heard the crump of bombs and ack-ack, but not here.

            At that moment a whistle shrilled. An ARP warden came running up the street. "Put that light out!" he called.

            Turning, Alfred noticed the hall light on and his family silhouetted in the doorway. Hurriedly waving, they closed the door and the house darkened.

            Further over to the east he spotted searchlights. The snow was like dust in a light-beam. Tracer and ack-ack blossomed, more reminiscent of Guy Fawkes than Christmas Eve.

            He then took off his hat and wiped the snow-deposits away. It was a beautiful hat. Really good quality and hard-wearing. Yes, it would last for years.

            The sudden whistling alerted him first. A terrible coldness clutched his heart. The bomb cluster was close and there wasn't an air-raid shelter near.

            He froze fearfully to the spot, panic weakening his limbs.

            Seconds later, the explosion's impact reached him, blinding yellow and red, the shock waves throwing him painfully to the sludge on the road.

 

To be concluded tomorrow

***

If you liked this short story, you might like my collection Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat Publishing, featuring Leon Cazador, private eye in 22 cases.