Escaping the Shadows Part Two

The second installment of a twenty part Sunday Serial. Hal has an outing with his father which he hopes will propel his prospects towards a more meaningful life.

A step along the road

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The day I want to tell you about started in the most peculiar way. It had a singular ending to boot, but more of that later.

My father woke me early one September morning. It was dark outside and I took a while to discern that he was looking at me with high excitement and a degree of expectation.

“Look lively, Hal. Today you will join me as we go to the cattle fair!” he said.

At the age of thirteen, I was delighted to be making the journey to market for the first time. It was a sign of my growing maturity and also I felt my father was placing trust in me. I had been a keen student of our small herd of cattle, particularly as we were trying to produce greater amounts of beef from them. I could – and would – talk to anyone near and still enough about the ideas of breeding by selecting the right stock to achieve this. Ned grew rather vexed whenever I attempted to discuss cattle with him; although he was able to present an interminable discourse about horses at the slightest excuse.

This was my first foray into the practical world of actually choosing the livestock with which I could prove my theories about selective cattle breeding. My father and I mounted a horse each and headed towards the east, where the sun was beginning to spread a glow along the horizon. I was excited to see the world beyond our farm; it was not something I had done a lot. My excitement grew as we travelled further, making our way along the lanes in the inky dark.

It was a chilly morning, with the signs of hoar frost on the brown leaves. We spoke in hushed voices, my father insisting that we remain quiet. My ignorance at that stage meant I was unable to say with any certainty why we should be quiet, instead believing we might be showing consideration for those still in bed. I was to learn more about the real reason in due course.

Finally, our destination appeared before us, although it had fully become morning by that time. The town we were headed towards stood out proud. The church and grandest civic buildings stood out atop the hill the town was built upon. However, we were not going all the way into the town. The fair was held by the marshes at the foot of the hill and it was to the fairground that we made our way. Finally, the last trees fell away and I could see our destination.

Across the flat area of grass, there was a patchwork of pens made up by hurdles, arranged just so across the centre of the allotted space. This was full of cattle, from large bulls to impudent young bullocks. But whatever the age, quality or requested price of the beasts, they all added to the noise and to the overpowering smell. My father was watching me with a small smile on his face.

“Do you think you will be able to find me a prime bull amongst that, boy?” he asked.

“I would hope so,” I told him, my eyes roving the seemingly limitless pens in front of us.

“Let us eat first, then do business,” he said. We made our way to one of the nearby stalls to eat a pie and drink some ale.

My day was spent in various degrees of delight as we wandered the stalls. I delighted in the raucous, bustling atmosphere and revelled in the rather unrefined way in which everything was conducted. Many could not show any self-discipline when it came to the ale and their stumblings and babblings amused my youthful self greatly. I am now immune to the antics of the inebriated as, alas, I see many wretches leave my hostelry insensible by the end of the night. 

I grow weary and wish I had the vitality of those youthful days once more.

Our business concluded, and a bull selected, we began the slow plod back on our faithful horses. Whether it was the ale or fatigue, our progress was much louder down the lanes on our return journey. The shadows began to lengthen as we passed each mile. Soon, they began to predominate and it was eerily misty. A chill settled in around my kidneys.

He was out in front of us, near enough to touch, before either of us had seen him. He was dressed as if he should be a fine gentleman, save his mask and the pistol he waved. 

“Stand and Deliver!” he cried.

My father showed pale even through the dusk light. His eyes flickered between the man on horseback in front of us and me. I discerned that he felt guilty and also deduced why had been so quiet on our outward journey. He had been wary of alerting highwaymen or robbers along the way. The indiscretion of our noisy return passage became apparent to me now. My heart pounded in my ears and for my part, I knew it was all I could do to sit still and not turn and flee.

“I am sorry, sir,” my father said. “We have little. We have been to the fair and our money is gone.”

“Perhaps I might find a little if I were to search you for purses or jewellery?” the highwayman countered. “Or if I cannot steal anything of value I might accept a life as reasonable reparation.”

He calmly levelled his weapon, pointing the muzzle directly at my father.

The word escaped me before I knew I was speaking.

“No!”

It was spoken softly, almost a whisper. But it was enough to cause the highwayman to turn smoothly, almost as if he were dancing at a ball. He seemed to take enjoyment from aiming at me instead.

“Please…” my father began.

But he was interrupted by another figure, coming up close behind us. The darkness had masked his progress, the mist had dulled any noise he had made. But now he was close, the singing of his voice, fuelled by many an ale, and the clank of money in his purse was clear enough to hear.

The highwayman lowered his pistol, a broad and joyful grin across his face.

“Begone,” he said, jerking his head down the lane. “I think I have a more profitable way to spend my time.”

“Thank you, sir,” my father said and we spurred our horses on away from the scene. Whether the masked man heard his thanks or not, I cannot tell. The road was empty and only the slightest stirring from a nearby thicket revealed the villain’s whereabouts.

We rode on for a mile in silence, only speaking thereafter in hushed tones. Once the fear had subsided, I was rather ashamed to realise that I admired the highwayman. His bold manner, his dashing appearance but most of all his power had all impressed me greatly.

Quite rightly, I did not let any of this become known by my poor, shaken father, but instead resolved to keep it hidden. 

My path, I decided, lay in the far safer world of our farm, especially the cattle.

If you missed it, please follow the link to enjoy Part One.

Parcels of Joy

Rain pelted down, finding the tiniest crack in my boots’ waterproofing. The dog dug a bedraggled, disembodied bird wing (that he has been obsessing over for the last few weeks) out of the undergrowth, defying my desperate whistles. Nearby, a bull glowered at me, resenting my intrusion into his  space. A headache sprouted behind my left eye.

Over the rain-wrinkled dyke, there was a white flash, followed by a splash. The tern resurfaced and climbed into the air again. Wheeling on elegant, slight wings, and with a keen eye for the fish just below the surface, the bird busied itself further along the dyke.

A flurry of different wings. Broad, pure white, laconic. A great white egret beat a dignified, almost reluctant, retreat. It landed near a pool, peering at me with a haughty, disgruntled air. It stalked away behind the reeds, its long bill leaving behind just a glimmer of yellow to illuminate the marsh.

The clouds lifted, the number of raindrops diminished. There was a glimmer of gentle, watery sunlight. The dog returned to my side without the wing, looked hopefully at me and asked for a treat.

It was simple, really. The wet feet, my soggy jeans and the impudence of dog and bull were irrelevant. The parcels of joy, the things that happened by accident and not by design, were what really mattered.

I stood in the sunshine, relishing the peace and the joy. I was happy and grateful.

Don’t Tell Me to Calm Down

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Over on the Fiction Trials website last week, the #SwiftFicFriday prompt set by Kat Avila for week 122 was ‘Don’t Tell Me to Calm Down’.

You can read all the entries here: https://fictiontrials.wordpress.com/2022/05/13/swiftficfriday-week-122-prompt/

This was my entry:

“Calm down!”

“Don’t tell me to calm down!”

Erin looked at Davidson with contempt in her eyes. Only a fool would stand underneath the ruins of an ancient castle in the dead of night and urge someone to stay calm. They were in the crypt for crying out loud!

“Calm down!” Davidson repeated.

Erin realised she was fidgeting, making jerky, involuntary movements constantly.

“Don’t tell me to calm down,” she repeated. 

Her faltering tone was clear even to her. Davidson looked at her, eyes wide with concern. Something scurried across the dark floor behind Erin.

“Fear feeds them, you know,” Davidson whispered. His voice betrayed how much effort was required for him to sound rational.

Erin sighed. Davidson always managed to patronise her. She knew the effect of fear on the crypt’s mysterious inhabitants. She thought of the detail packed into her thesis, the hours of research she had carried out in dark, deserted buildings like this one.

“Maybe I won’t be able to calm down,” she hissed.

“But, you must!” he told her. “Please say you can calm down. I should never have brought you.” 

“I know,” she said. “My heart, my breathing, my mind are all completely out of control.”

“You must, you simply must,” he gabbled. “Get control of yourself! They will come, they will come! Calm down, calm down, cal-“

A dark shape loomed out the shadows. It absorbed Davidson’s form, leaving a pile of clothes and electrical equipment on the stone floor as the only signs that Davidson had ever existed.

Erin looked down at the small bundle on the floor.

“Don’t tell me to calm down!”

Erin turned and strode out of the crypt.

Escaping the Shadows Part One

Confession

I have learnt that it is an error to predict a man’s destination from his starting point in life. 

I am known as Henry Hatfield. I am a man of honour and renown here in Grantham. Coaches stop with regularity at my inn and the passengers are treated royally. My fellow citizens hold me in the highest esteem  so much so that I have held civic office for many years. They consider me a pillar of this community and I am told how Grantham is grateful for my service, as well as for the travellers I bring and my well-stocked cellar. You would have thought my path to such renown was straight and true.

Yet I can assure you, I have secrets. The least of these is that my name is a falsehood. I have little regard for the name Henry, having always preferred Hal. As for Hatfield, that is no more my real name than if I were to add ‘Sir’ as my title. My real name, that will remain a mystery. The name Hatfield is one I have chosen in order to maintain some anonymity. You yearn to ask why such secrecy is necessary. I can only answer by telling you my whole story. I am an old man now, my remaining time on Earth is not necessarily going to be that long. Think of this as a deathbed confession, if you will indulge me.

I was born far from here, in Essex. I was the third son, with little prospect of a worthwhile inheritance. My father was proud to call himself a yeoman and kept a large house with servants. He also farmed as a source of income. He owned his land and employed farmworkers, another fact of which he was proud. As the farm was so important to him, he was eternally seeking ways to yield a greater harvest or to increase the price our livestock might fetch at market. He put great store by traditional farming methods where he could. But he had sense enough to know there were changes coming.

My childhood was all you might think a childhood might be for the third son and fourth youngest offspring. It was fairly benign, however, I was grateful for the shelter of my gentle sister Beth on many an occasion. However, this protection was usually required for some boyish prank or misdemeanour. Apart from falling out of a horse-chestnut tree one day, I gave my parents little to be concerned about. Indeed, it would have been a surprise if they had even noticed my existence most of the time. My mother was busy managing the household, my father was occupied with the farm. Their lives were full enough as it was.

Our farm was a little island of freehold land, surrounded by the farms worked by tenants of the local lord of the manor. Lord Wick was the chief landowner. It was he who represented the parish in Parliament. He too had three sons, the youngest of which were soldiers. The eldest son lived in London, forging links with the world and doing trade with whomever he could. This was an embarrassment to the Lord; trade money was not well regarded in their set. However, it kept the estate profitable, so it was tolerated.

It is always summer when I reminisce about the eldest son and his family visiting. It was then that my regular playfellow and I would be joined by the third member of our band of rascals. Ordinarily, Ned, who was my close ally and the blacksmith’s son, would roam the lanes with me, seeking fun and mischief wherever we could find it. But it is only when Emma joined us that we seemed to be able to transcend the sum of our parts.

One day that springs to mind is a hot day in the summer of 1758 that we met just outside the forge. Ned had been given leave to by his father to spend time with us, all his chores being done. We must have looked a pair of rascals, each of us dirtier than we ought to be. However, Emma, when she appeared, could not have been a greater contrast. Her clothes, even down to her delicate shoes, were of the purest white. She told us she was under strict instruction to avoid getting dirty then bade us follow her. She set off towards the river, through tenants’ fields and finally into the rushes on the bank. Only her white lace parasol was visible as she held it aloft to show us her path.

Finally, we boys were able to catch up with her. She stood on the river bank, pointing a delicate finger along the course of the narrow waterway.

“The storm we had yesternight brought these down,” she said.

My eyes followed her finger and I saw then that a stand of willows had been felled by the wind, each lying across the river.

“My father has ordered for them to be cleared,” Emma continued. “But not before we have had our fun with them!”

With that, she danced down the bank to the first of the fallen trees. With light steps and perfect balance, she skipped across the springy trunk until she was on the other side.

“Come along!” she called, her face beaming.

Ned and I needed no further invitation. We took our turns, on that tree and along the trunks of its fallen brothers. Such was our exertion, when I fell, and fall I did, the dunking in the river was sweet relief. The air was still heavy and close, the sunshine still hazy. The river, swelled by the recent rain was a huge relief. I daresay that both Ned and I grew rather reckless, for scarcely a moment went by when there was not a cry from one or other of us, followed by a hearty splash.

What remains most vivid about that far off day was that Emma remained as pristine as the moment we had met her outside the forge. Her white dress, her lace parasol and her delicate shoes may well have been only within the four walls of her family home for all the wear they showed. Meanwhile, Ned and I looked half drowned and we had to stop the game for a while, just so we could dry off before we went home. Both of us feared a scolding should we return in that condition.

However wonderful our childhood, there is always an end to it. Emma and her family visited from London less often and there were rumours of travels across Europe. Meanwhile, Ned was called upon more to help in the forge.

I was left alone, searching for a role for myself, as the curse of being the third son raised its head once more. I could scarcely have predicted the route I was to take to find that role.

Breaking News…

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So, the time is upon us. I can finally announce the launch of a new weekly serial, which will have a new installment published every Friday.

This will be a story over twenty parts, amounting to a novella length story. Hopefully, it will be a story to absorb and interest readers until its resolution in September.

To give you a flavour of what it is all about, here’s a taster of the tale as well as some of the main characters you will meet over the course of the next few months.

Let’s start with some acknowledgements. The Story began to take shape when I read an article by the excellent Essex historian Stephen Nunn. He was invaluable in getting the details correct, mainly due to the precision in his article, but also for finding the original copy for me when I forgot some of the details.

The story is based on a real event from the late eighteenth century. However, I have blurred a few historic events and movements to fit the narrative, so if you spot an historical error make sure to blame the right Stephen – me!

It was fascinating to learn about the changes in society which abounded in England at this time in history. Changes in social mobility, methods of agriculture and the attitudes to travel all caught my eye as I researched. With so much change taking place, it was fun to thrust characters into the middle of the maelstrom that was British society at that time.

To finish with, here is a pen portrait of each character:

Hal The youngest son of a land-owning farmer, Hal is aware that he has little prospect of making an impact on his own terms. Having identified this problem, Ned sets out to do something about that in the most unconventional way.

Emma The grandaughter of Lord Wick, a childhood friend of Hal’s. She has been abroad for some time. Upon her return, she exacerbates Hal’s sense of dismay about his prospects, and stirs up deeper emotions in him.

Ned Another childhood friend, the son of the local blacksmith. He is enterprising, practical and hard-working.

Beth Hal’s loyal, caring sister. She is always looking out for Hal and is often the source of sound and timely advice. However, Hal is not always ready to listen.

Here’s hoping you enjoy reading about Hal and his adventures over the next few months!

The Crown part Three

Barney stepped into the dark room his young companion had indicated.

His footsteps sounded muffled. As he looked down, despite the gloom, he could make out the thick layer of dust that lay on the floor. A glance around the cavernous space allowed Barney to orientate himself.

Once he had stepped through the doorway, he had entered a vast, windowless space. There were crumbled walls scattered around the void, as if lots of small rooms had been built within the vast chamber at one time. Barney could not escape the feeling that these smaller rooms had once been cells. He had walked into a dungeon.

He edged further forward, wishing he could hear his footsteps; at least he might be able to gauge how far he had progressed through the dark room. Instead the dull thud of his footsteps reminded him of the sound of falling axes, each thump condemning the guilty to their fate. He perservered, making slow progress. Turning back was not an option – behind him was The Duke and his certain wrath.

At last, he reached what appeared to be the exact centre of the room. One cell remained. It was made with bricks which were now stained by running water and overrun by lichens and moss. On one side was a barred door. Barney approached from that side squinting into the gloom to see if this last cell contained any prisoner. Within the cell a smoking candle created a faint glow – just enough to reveal a cloaked, hunched figure. The figure looked up, appearing to regard Barney rather like a snake watching its prey. The boy faltered, one hand raised to the crown balancing on his head. Then, the figure raised a spectral arm and a pale finger crooked three times to gesture that Barney should approach.

“So,” came the croaky voice. “You came.”

The voice was impossible to age because it sounded so immeasurably old. Neither could Barney discern whether its owner was male or female.

Silence returned.

Barney felt as though he was being minutely inspected, although the shadow created by the hooded figure’s cloak made it so hard to be sure.

“Well, aren’t you in a lot of trouble? Your life is at the whim of The Duke.”

” Can you help me?” Barney asked.

“Oh no,” the dessicated voice replied with a dry and mirthless chuckle. “No-one can help you now!”

Hope is Like Soap

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“Hope is like soap,” the old guy in the bar said.

He was sitting at a dark corner table with a pile of foam-flecked empty glasses in front of him. At first, I thought his beard was dark in colour. When I turned to speak to him, I noticed it was just unkempt, the dirt and grime diguising the original colour.

“Sorry?”

He wiped his mouth with a greasy sleeve, then repeated, “Hope is like soap. You try and grasp it but the tighter you hold on, the more it slips away.”

He sat back and took a gulp from his latest pint of beer; there was a dark liquid in his glass that was excepionally brown and heavy. It put me in mind of sump oil.

“You could be right,” I replied. Instinctively, I felt that a hard luck story was imminent. In order to avoid it, I turned on my stool  looking back at my sparkling gin and tonic.

“I used to have it,” he went on, oblivious to my lack of attention. “Hope, I mean. Then, everyone and everything went wrong. This back is full of stab wounds. This heart is in pieces.”

I knew without looking that he would be gesturing at his chest and between his shoulder blades. Once more, I chose not to look, there was too much weirdness about the guy. I agitated my glass, letting the ice tinkle and the slice of lemon spin around with abandon. I was quite pleased that playing with my glass prevented me from hearing him.

Taking another sip, I looked wistfully at the empty stool next to me. It was where Sam should be. I sighed. What a night to choose to go out alone. It wasn’t as if Sam had anything important on either, just wasting the night watching TV.

I sent a text, “Hey, missing you. Wanna come and drink with me?”

When I checked back, the old guy had gone. The pile of glasses were still there, though. In fact, there seemed to be even more empties there than when I had first looked. It was odd not seeing him there any more; we had bonded just slightly. I thought he might have said a few more words before he left. Even a few thousand more. Suddenly, I felt even more alone than before. Picking up my phone, I checked to see if Sam had messaged. Nothing.

A few more sips and I had an empty glass. I ordered another. Between drinking that and checking my phone for Sam’s reply, I began to get a bit down. I decided to call Sam.

I dialled and it went straight to voicemail.

“Hey, it’s me. You don’t know what fun you are missing here. There was this old guy but he has gone now, but he was so odd. Anyway, the stool next to me is empty, they do that beer you like, so come down. Or at least call me. Or text me.”

A few more sips, the tinkle of ice became more annoying than either pleasant or joyful, the lemon bitter and cloying.

I dialled again.

“Sam? Are you there, Sam? Sam….”

Without knowing what I was doing, I found myself getting off the stool. My feet took me across the sticky floor and I found myself in that dark corner. Unbidden, the barman brought over a pint glass full of the dark beer. I was about to decline it but the bitter flavour drew me in and I sipped from the glass. This was what I drank now.

I remained in the dark corner, losing track of time. All that mattered were the glasses of dark, thick and bitter beer. There never seemed to be an end to them and no-one ever asked me to leave or even to pay.

One evening, a fresh faced customer perched on a nearby stool. I registered that there was a horrified glance in my direction. Then, I heard myself speak.

“Hope is like soap.”

The Crown Part Two

Barney sat on the throne, his chin in his hands and his face morose.

The crown remained stuck fast to his head, obstinate and refusing to move He worried about what was going to happen next, after the Duke discovered what had happened.

The Duke would not thank him for turning upon the eve of his coronation and deposing him before the event. And an unhappy Duke was not worth thinking about. He had arranged for heads to be removed for much less.

The sun plunged below the horizon and the evening sky turned a visceral red. Barney looked at it accusingly and sighed. It seemed even the stars could predict his fate. It was all very well that he had a free charmed crown, a ring of gold all poised to select the next monarch, but he rather wished there was an enchanted sword to accompany it.

A door opened and Barney instinctively cowered on the throne.

“What are you doing?”

The voice was high-pitched and sounded both young and completely harmless. Barney risked opening his eyes and looking towards the source of the voice, A thin-faced pale boy stood in front of him, a look which matched curiosity and bewilderment written across his face. Then, the look became one of sneering disdain.

“You are just one of the servants,” the boy said. “Why on Earth do you have the crown on your head? The Duke will not be happy with you at all. In fact, he will be really angry.”

“I cannot get it off,” Barney groaned.

“Tell me what it was doing on your head in the first place , servant.”

Barney was unable to think of a sufficiently good answer. The urge to have the crown on his head, even for a moment, seemed so foolish that l he was regressing, becoming a small boy again.

“I said, tell me.”

“I just had an urge to put it on. I had finished polishing it and that was my instinct. Now, it will not come off. I have tried and my master has tried.”

The boy closed the distance between himself and Barney. Without warning, he put a hand on the crown and tugged. Barney grunted as his head was pulled down and around. His neck was bent and stretched. Once more, the crown was impossible to move.

“Come with me,” the boy said.

He led Barney out of the throne room and along a series of passageways. Barney felt that each corridor was darker and narrower than the last. Twice they descended spiral staircases, going further and further beneath the ground.

Finally, the boy halted at an archway.

“You must go on by yourself from here,” he told Barney.

“What for?”

“To seek answers,” the boy said. “To discover your destiny.”

Barney looked into the dark room that lay beyond. He thought of the warm bowl of broth that awaited him in the kitchen, a bowl he might be enjoying by a warm, cheery fire rather than contemplating his fate by this unnerving room.

He quashed the fear, took a deep breath and stepped towards his fate.

Heron

I always delight in seeing a heron on the marshes. Here’s what it is like when I do…

I watch his slow, heavy progress. His lugubrious manner and his grey streaks make him look bereft. Occasionally, I try to imagine his cares but I feel they may be too vast for me to comprehend. Gradually, his plodding progress comes to a halt, next to the dyke.

He peers, unmoving, his shoulders hunched against the light drizzle that has slunk in with the tide. Across the water, around the marsh, he surveys all, as if his watching and his will might conjure something of interest.

Finding nothing, he creeps along the bank, each foot carefully placed while he continues to look out for a prize spot. I will there to be something that might lighten his load, something that might him shine. I want to see him as being streaked with silver, not with grey. I want to see him stand tall and proud, not hunched. I want him to be able to find whatever it is that he seeks.

Still nothing.

There is a virtual sigh, another dawdling walk along the bank and another endless bout of hunched staring.

The drizzle continues, drops rolling down both our necks. Please let him be contented now. My heart aches for him. The raindrops might well double as my teardrops; the pathos of this ancient species, along with the greying, morose specimen in front of me, is starting to bring me down.

Still nothing.

He stalks off again, going behind some reeds and beyond my view. Perhaps he will return. I might even see him. He may even find what he wants. More likely, it will be more of the same: his gloomy walk and morose searching for whatever it is he wants to see.

Poor man.

I return to trying to catch a fish, my dagger-bill at the ready. This could take some time.

I hunch my shoulders and wait.

Wanda’s Garden

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In any other flat in Wanda’s block, the view from the window would be an expanse of grey concrete. It might be accompanied by a bike or perhaps some washing hung out to dry.

But on Wanda’s balcony, it is different.

Six months ago

“Hard luck,” her mum had said when the raffle prize was drawn.

Wanda wrinkled her nose, obviously disappointed. She had been keeping an eye on some boxes of biscuits or even a bottle of wine, hoping she would win those as her prize. Instead, Sheila, who always ran the raffles, had handed her a plastic plant pot with an apologetic grimace. For a moment, Wanda had thought it was just a pot full of soil.

Back in her seat, with her mum keeping a beady eye on the fate of the box of liquer chocolates, Wanda looked a little closer at her prize. Rather than just being the soil she was expecting, a little stem had forced itself out above the surface. Two small leaves, rounded but with jagged edges, hung limply from the top of the stem. There was something so delicate and vulnerable about the tiny plant that Wanda was suddenly gripped by a maternal, protective instinct.

“I am just getting some water,” she announced and nipped to the ladies. She pressed down on the cold water tap, careful to keep the plant away from the initial fierce gush. Once the water was just a dribble, she slipped the pot into the flow. She held it over the basin until the last peaty drips had fallen through the holes beneath the pot. Then, she made her way back to the hall, learning upon her arrival that pink ticket 187 had won a bowl of lavender pot pourri.

Crossing the hall to the table, she nearly bumped into a wiry, tanned man. He apologised, then his bushy grey eyebrows descended in concern as he looked at the pot in Wanda’s hands.

“That’s all right, your plant is fine. I was worried I had damaged it there. Nice little strawberry plant. It should do well if you pop it in a bigger pot on a balcony.”

Wanda thanked him. By the time she had sat down, she was actually rather pleased with her prize. The raffle prizes dwindled and soon it was time to leave. Wanda and her mum joined the shuffling mass of people heading out of the hall.

“There’s a bin there, love.”

“What for, Mum?”

“For your pot, what you won in the wossname. The raffle.”

“I am going to keep it, Mum,” Wanda said. “It’s a strawberry plant. It can grow on my balcony.”

“Ooh, you’ll have a garden, girl,” her mum laughed. “It will be like a royal tea party around yours, what with the strawberries and cream.”

For a moment, Wanda felt foolish, as if she was choosing to do something she should not do. However, her determination to nurture her prize took over and she resolved to do her best by the little plant.

Three Months ago

It took Wanda a while to realise how Vic coming over had been the start of everything changing.

Wanda liked Vic visiting the flat. He was good to talk to, he listened when her ex would have shouted her down. Vic made her laugh and brought a cake for them to share. It didn’t matter that the supermarket where he worked let him take it home for free because of the damaged box, it was the thought that counted.

Today, it was lemon drizzle, which really made Wanda happy.

Even though she liked Vic, trusted him even, she had insisted that he sat with his back to the door that led out to the balcony. Her strawberry plant had thrived, like the old man had told her. There were even some small, green fruit appearing. But Wanda still felt shy, like the plant was something she should not be doing; someone without a garden should not be growing strawberries. So, Wanda always concealed her balcony, and hid her little plant, from Vic.

“That’s when I decided that I wanted to work on the deli counter,” Vic was telling her. “So, I marched up to Mr Simpson and told him. He said…”

But the fate of Vic’s supermarket career was to remain unknown, at least for the next few minutes. It was at that point that the roundest pigeon Wanda had ever seen landed on the balcony. Naturally, it was interested in only one thing: the strawberries. Wanda watched in horror as the bird landed then began to waddle over to the small plant. It took a tentative peck at the nearest fruit. Without waiting to hear the end of Vic’s sentence, she dived past her startled guest, wrestled the door to the balcony open and shooed the pigeon away. The bird took off in a flurry of wings and startled coos.

Her relief at saving the strawberries was short-lived. She was aware of Vic’s presence behind her; he had seen her plant.

“Are you – okay, Wanda?” he asked.

“Yes, fine, I am sorry to have interrupted what you were telling me.”

He peered at the pot on the floor.

“Is that a strawberry plant?”

Wanda looked down, overcome by shyness, and answered, “Yes, it is. I know. You must think I am foolish for growing strawberries out here.”

“No,” he answered, a big smile on his face. “I think you are wonderful.”

He blushed.

Wanda blushed too. Her face was still facing down but she raised it a little, so he could see her smile.

“I meant for gardening. I think you are wonderful, for gardening.”

“Oh, Vic,” Wanda said. “Don’t spoil the mood, or you won’t get a strawberry.”

The present

If you were to go into Wanda’s flat today, you might not get any free supermarket cake. But Vic still brought a little something, every time he visited.

He brought plants.

All year round, Wanda’s balcony is alive with colour and awash with the scent of flowering plants. Of course, each of them is a present from Vic. He waters them when he gets home from work. Wanda says he’s a delight for her around the flat.

The strawberry crop was both delicious and marvellous.

Oh, and Vic really loves working on the deli counter.