STORIES

Early  One  Morning

Just as the sun was rising, Mr. Robin stirred.  He sensed the dense dark of night was fading into shades and shapes of misty grey.  It was in the dead of winter, and normally the time when he and his fellows would fly south to warmer climes; but this year the others had left without him.  His faithful companion for many years had perished in the early spring of that year.  For many years they had roosted together in the same woods and mated to hatch lots of little chicks, but this year was different.

This spring was colder than usual, and they were pleased and surprised to discover an old woodpecker’s nest half way up a tree trunk; the base of the tree was sprinkled with thousands of tiny wood chips, which the woodpeckers had pecked out when making their nest.  The resultant hole was tiny and quite deep down into the centre of the tree.  After making sure it was abandoned they moved in and set up home, building a nest from the little wood chips that the previous owners had scattered around.  They built a wonderfully warm nest and soon felt secure enough to lay a clutch of eggs, which quickly hatched into a nest-full of hungry, noisy little chicks.

However, Mr. Robin was kept very busy foraging for enough food to keep the youngsters quiet and the noise they made attracted the attentions of a hungry rat.  He scurried up the tree and squeezed his head through the hole; the rat knew if he could get his head through the rest of his body could be pushed in also.  Unfortunately Robin’s mate was feeding her fledglings at the time and was quickly dispatched by the rat, who then devoured the little chicks, one by one.

So, this year, without his mate Robin was loathe to join the yearly migration, and sadly watched as other flocks of swallows and songbirds headed off for Africa.  They left at dusk, aiming to fly at night to avoid the predators, and rest during the day; they could easily find their way, because special cells in their retinas gave them a sense of the earth’s magnetic flux.  Robin and the rest could see the pulsing eddy currents, sensing them flow, like waves caressing the oceans.

Yet somehow he sensed this year was different; he knew the cycles of the seasons, and each year was just another phase in his life, which he had learned to relate to.  But this year he had watched the rooks building their winter nests low down in the trees: this was a bad sign; whereas normally in a good year they would build high up in the treetops, they knew when the Winter would be windy and would sacrifice their vantage spots high up, for the shelter of the lower branches.  Robin watched all this in apprehension, because he could see that this year their nests were low; very low.

But now the dark horizon had softened with the long pale glimmer of yet another day.  An new start to another cycle of another day and a fresh opportunity to join in the gathering dawn chorus, all around him.  Up and down the woods the trees echoed with the songs of thrushes and the whistle of blackbirds, but all paled against the melody of a robin.  For such a small creature his song was strong and distant and at times he would sing for hours, draining all his strength, for over the years instinct and habit had trained him to welcome the great golden ball that lit up the sky.  He knew it would take away the terrors of the night, and fill his world with light and heat and the joy of life itself.

But today was different; it had rained most of the night and a fierce gale had arisen.  He had roosted in his favorite spot, high up on a simple twig to foil the squirrels, and always facing east to greet the new cycle of a new day.  The wind was dropping as gentle white flakes of snow began to fall.  Overnight the rain had iced up his feathers in the wind chill, but he knew the great white ball would thaw him out as it slowly rose above the horizon.  The trouble was now the wind had dropped, and the flakes of snow were settling on top of his frozen feathers.  Now he desperately wanted to greet the great orange ball that would grow bigger and brighter to warm up his freezing body, which was getting colder by the minute.

Yet today the cycle seemed different; a layer of frost had crusted his eyelids, making it difficult for him to see properly.  He could also sense his little legs were iced solid onto the branch and now when he tried to flap his wings nothing happened.  His tiny heart beat even faster, but the layer of ice on his wings had now been covered with a delicate blanket of snow, and he realized he was stuck fast to the tree.  His vain struggles to move resulted in what he thought was the twig snapping, but he soon realized it was his leg and not the branch that had broken.

He still had hope, for the great golden ball was rising fast, and he could see through his glazed eyes that it was getting brighter by the minute; so he sang along with the rest to welcome the great Sun-God that gave all things life.  He gave thanks in his song for another day, another start, another chance.

There was little heat in the sun that morning and the only thing that seemed to thaw out was his little red bib, which shone iridescent in tune with the changing light of the great Sun-God.  He was now frozen solid, half blind, and balancing on a broken leg; he was also hungry and very tired, but nothing halted his unrelenting song of praise and hope.

He loved his little life, and the least he could do was offer thanks to the great Sun-God, that he sensed gave life to all things.  But he also sensed, that this day, this cycle was different; even though the wind was blowing he seemed to be running out of breath.  He continued with his song, for what else could he do, except feel sorry for himself, and what was the point of that; it was not in his nature to waste time.  He knew that the cycles changed all the time, sometimes for the better, but often for the worst, so he accepted that this was just the way of the world, and of the great Sun-God that governed all life.

So he sang his heart out, just as he had for every day of every year of his little life.  He sang along with the rest, even though he was now on his own, without his mate; but he sensed that in the end this happened to all Life-forms.  He realized this when out scavenging for grubs and insects; his ears could detect the motion of worms, buried deep in the earth, but sometimes digging among the leaves he would find a spider, which made no effort to escape.  These ones tasted different; they tasted bad, and he sensed they had entered another phase of the cycle; and that, sooner or later, he too would reach that same state.  He knew there were good phases and bad phases, and you never knew what was coming next.

Robin now realized that nothing in the woods ever really lasted.  Only the constant cycle of the great Sun-God, that travelled slowly across the sky every day, could be relied upon to stay constant.  That was the only thing he could depend on with certainty, and it proved to him that something greater existed in life, and it let him realize he was still alive, and that was why he loved it so much.  He now knew this was indeed a strange and different day; a fresh cycle of which he had no experience.  Because the crusting of ice on his broken foot still remained firm, he began to realize that he would never again sail through the skies and soar with the winds; nevermore would his song be spread over hills and dales.  Now, he felt, he must say goodbye to the woods where he had lived for over a dozen seasons.

Some were good, some bad; but every one was different.  Some had given great pleasure and some great pain, but that was the way of things.  But every new day offered the chance of a fresh start, and opportunities for change; to alter the phase he was currently going through, even slightly, because he also had the gift of choice; free will.  Sometimes, like now, he desperately wanted to change things, but was helpless to do so, but most of the time he was content, and happy, just to be alive.

Yet, even in this fresh wind, his little lungs were gasping for more air, and he now heard his song slowly changing.  He sensed it was slowing down.  This normally happened when the great golden ball had crossed right over the sky, like it did every day of every season, leaving the woods shadowy and restless.  That was when he would sing his lullaby to the great Sun-God; a slower, quieter, more graceful tune of thanks for yet another day, in the great cycle.  Now he was puzzled as to why he was singing his lullaby now, for the great red ball was still rising.  The snow had stopped falling and the wind had ceased and he now felt the heat of the sun beginning to reach him, but he also sensed a strange peace settle over him and sensing this kind of thing happened to all creatures eventually, did not fight it.  He realized that everything had a certain time to exist and an even more certain time to leave, and he felt this might be his time to go into another unknown cycle.

Still, he felt he must utter a final song and filled his tiny lungs for one final tune of thanks; his little beak moved, but no sound came forth; this cycle really was different, very different: so he slowly shut his eyes, realizing there would be no more seasons for him any more, and settled down to await the next phase which he felt was very close.  He now felt tired; very very tired.  He was cold and in pain and all alone, but still grateful, for he could still see the bright light of the Sun-God shining through his crusted eye-lids, and just before he went to sleep he knew he would never be completely alone, for something else would always exist, and this gave him peace and comfort.  He settled down, ready to sleep, knowing this would be a long long sleep, but as he did fall asleep, he gave silent thanks to the light in his eyes that had given him so much hope and so much life and so much love.

REQUIEM FOR THE UNREQUITED

It seemed like the start of an Indian Summer as I made my way through the park, noisy with children.  Dusk was falling with the leaves as I shuffled towards the cemetery which adjoined the park.  I often went there in search of quiet and solitude when I felt troubled, and invariably found it offered me the peace I needed.

As I passed the little cafeteria, I thought I noticed a familiar face; as I approached, I recognised a very old friend.  He was perched alone at a corner table, and I was delighted to see a grin of recognition break across his grizzled walnut face.  We greeted each other with great enthusiasm, and over a cup of tea, I told him how happy I was to see him again, because I had heard, on the grapevine, that he had died in the hard winter of last year.  He explained that as a gentleman of the road, his lifestyle carried many perils and hardships, and in fact, last winter, he had suffered exposure during the heavy snows. ‘But,’ he explained with a gleam in his eye, ‘reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.’  He went on to tell me some of his recent exploits, which I always found amazing and thrilling to listen to.  For many years, even as children, we would listen in awe and wonder to Jim’s stories, which would leave the taste of envy and adventure in our young minds

On this occasion, however, Jim remarked that it was obvious to him that I was preoccupied and in no mood to listen to his yarns.  Like a father-confessor, he gently probed my troubled mind, and slowly drew a picture of my problem.

It was one of unrequited love.  Something, Jim told me, from which he himself had suffered from many times in the past.  Speaking from experience, he told me the best way to exorcise such a dilemma was to pour out one’s innermost feelings to a trusted friend, and suggested that in his situation my secret would be safe.  What I had to do, he explained, was to describe in detail the lady in question, and my approach to her.  He suggested that I start my narrative with a frank appraisal of my attitude to life in general.

Well, like yourself, I explained, I am very much a rebel at heart; I do not follow the dictates of society or the rituals of tradition, but merely live from day to day.  I strive for little sparks of perfection in a world of weakness and compromise.  Sometimes I get desperate, but in my quiet desperation I can be very strong or I can be very weak, but I do my own thinking and I set my own standards.  As you know, that makes me pretty average, except for one thing; since we last met, I have become a crippled soul, for recently I got badly burned, in fact almost devoured, in the white hot flame of unrequited love.  Nowadays I don’t do much; I accomplish even less, but what I do, I do with feeling and with fervour, as though life itself were a terminal cancer.  I forgive but I cannot forget.  From one day to the next I may find hope and happiness, but when I lie alone at night I know I may be suddenly overwhelmed by a tremendous crushing despair and sense of loss.  I have some friends who still love me and others who admire me or even envy me, but none know my dark secret; this stigma that sucks the blossom dry.  As a rational creature, aware of my environment, I strive for happiness, but now feel that perfection on this earth is an illusion.  I guess, at best, a blend of peace may be woven from the fibres of compromise and human nature, for we all have to live, if not with ourselves, with an imperfect world.

Nowadays, I no longer expect peace, or love, or even pity.  Time has taught me to accept the ironic injustice of Fate, and I thank God for any childish faith I have left, and the humility it has left me, I now seek the slow acceptance of something which even now I do not completely comprehend.  It is a while now since we parted, and I have never seen her since; yet I live in pure fear of a chance encounter: for she may still have that terrible beauty in her eye, and I know that just one look would cause the embers within me to spark in memory again and slowly devour my soul.

Such perfection in my eye never had reason to walk amidst mere mortals, especially in my world, where I knew that the nature of man did not deserve, and could only destroy, such perfect beauty.  In my haste, I presumed to possess this angel in body and mind.  In truth, her perfection armoured her against the corrupt nature of the world, and those mortals who jostled in it for her affection and attention.

Life was once a joyous game of chance, but now, after her passing, just the mere sound of her name brings an overwhelming sadness, and I feel no longer young; I grow sceptical, and revert to the cynicism of age.  Time does not heal, and life does not erase.  My pain does not grow; yet neither does it fade.  Even on occasion, I am faced with a choking sorrow which I hide like an ugly scar, until circumstance cruelly strips me naked, to hobble about with my crippled spirit ablaze.

No longer can I hope for love or peace or pity.  My anger and frustration smoulder like a slumbering volcano, and the force of my feeling lies waiting to vent its rage to the gods, for their insane, senseless injustice.  Even today, so strong is my conviction that here at last was my soul-mate of a lifetime, that I sensed she was more divine than human; I built my pedestal for a Goddess carved in flesh.  Now, today, no woman, no child, and no amount of money could ever hope to compensate me for my loss, my loneliness and my suffering.

I have in my short life known great physical pain that racks my body.   I have known the psychedelic pain of a tortured mind, but the pain of unrequited love burns the soul like a cancerous fire, devouring truth and reason and virtue.  My crippling deformity is not one you learn to live with because it shocks with the suddenness of a summer shower: a knife of pain; a catching of breath, and total mindless confusion.

Amongst friends her name may be casually mentioned.  It may even be another about whom they talk, and suddenly I cannot hear because of a bell booming in my brain and ringing in my ears.  Then my careful panache crumbles away as the fragile shield of my armour slowly peels away to leave me staring naked at my failure and my loss.

When she walked into a room, I would sometimes start laughing such was my joy, and sometimes I could scarcely breathe when she was around.  In the past when I could talk to her I would mention the plans and certainty of our future.  Where our children would become the blended beauty of all the best in us that God and nature might perfect, to where a child would be the physical perfection of our total spiritual harmony.  I envisaged a love so strong, so pure, that no two hearts in history would have ever tasted life, like we would live, and love, like we would share.

A sanctity that would dare surpass time and tradition to where single precious moments would transcend all the every-day ecstasies of normal people in a normal world.  Where just a glance would offer peace and hope and trust, and where every word would utter the promise of heaven.  Afterwards I realised that instinct had warned me that I would never again taste such love if I failed to seize it at that point in time.

A love like mine was so rarefied and pure that I knew full well it could touch me only once in a single lifetime, even if I lived a million years or died a million deaths.

On reflection I sometimes think things would have been different had I not neglected some point, or omitted some trivial detail in our relationship.  Like suddenly I am a diver on the seabed.  I am using the last of my air and a blunt knife to prise open an oyster, that I can see contains an enormous black pearl.  It is within my grasp yet a million miles away.  A sharper knife, a little more air, a smoother sea. Who knows?  Or I am alone in the desert; my truck has just run out of petrol and I have no water left.  I am returning from the wilderness with a magnificent diamond which I have found at the risk of going too far, staying too long.  Now I am faced with a situation where I am offered life and love.  I greedily accept only to find myself pushed by their weight over the abyss.  Falling, I cannot let go.  Though they drag me down I keep thinking I might land on a ledge, grasp a tree, sprout wings.

When I think of the purity of what happened I cannot believe that fate would offer me the world in a moment, let me grasp it to my bosom, so that I possess it totally, if only for an instant, and then viciously wrench it from my grasp, as though I had received it with indifference and ingratitude.  Would she not give me time to consider; to consider the dark dangerous depths into which I was plunging, throwing all reason to the wind, wearing only a desperate shell of primeval instinct.  Would she not in her infinite wisdom and grace warn me of the risk to my soul if I gave myself so selflessly, so completely, with such total commitment.

I sometimes feel that I was in love with love itself.  But then again I had no fantasy.  Instead I had a fantastic reality to receive and return my love.  She was everything I had ever wanted. I loved everything about her.  To me she had no fault, no weakness, no blemish.

I have always set high standards but this creature fulfilled and excelled them.  She so satisfied my spirit and intellect that for her I ransomed my heart and soul.  I lost and now, alas, she is no longer in my world; and yet I still see her.  She lives in everything I see; she breathes in the flowers; she whispers in the wind.

As I was talking I felt Jim’s finger tapping gently on my clenched fist.  ‘Relax, my boy,’ he said.  ‘Slow down and listen, for there is something I must tell you.  When I was your age I felt very bitter and cynical that goodwill on earth flourished only at Christmas, and that mankind would revert to cruel indifference once the festive season had passed.  For many years this took away the spiritual joy of Christmas, until it was explained to me how miraculous it was that the whole world could find goodness in its heart and love for God together in harmony for even a few days a year.  This is the real miracle.  Remember, God would not make a perfect world where man would have no cause to turn to him; he would only make a world full of suffering and injustice, because mankind would then be forced to it’s knees, in need of Him.

You must realise that it does not matter when or where you met, how you felt, or what you did or did not do; try and realise the only thing that matters, and what you have to live for now, is the moment, for certainly there is nothing else.

As we stand frozen in time, nothing else exists and all we possess is the promise of a dream.  The world should be for you a much better place, realising as you do that creatures such as her, do on occasion, pass gently through it.  Each and every individual is susceptible to love.  No creature is immune to kindness, and we all search for our true ideal, for we know it is not only a natural calling but also the noblest to which we may aspire.  Most of us tire of the search and compromise, for we know that life itself is indeed a compromise.  I have always believed that if you become the object of some strong affection, rightly or wrongly, you must react with respect and humility.  Charity and sacrifice are the highest virtues we can aspire to, and as hate cannot dwell with love, neither can true love exist without them.  Perhaps the reason destiny struck was because she realised your worship of this angel was so potent that eventually it would have surely consumed you both.  You placed her in Heaven beside God.  You set her on a level no mortal had a right to aspire to, and had you totally possessed her, your fragile sanity would have crumpled to madness had she died or deserted as other mortals do, in little lives like ours.  But God in his wisdom never gave you that choice.  Instead He thrust faith and loneliness into your empty hands; He made you feel grateful that you could still see and hear and breathe!’

After a fond goodbye, I left the old man sitting quietly as I had found him, alone at the corner table, with the leaves swirling round him, as I made my way along the path to the small graveyard.  Nowadays it was only used for paupers’ burials, and as such was very peaceful.

I reached it as the day surrendered to the dusk, and paused for a moment on a bench to gather my thoughts.  Now that I had spoken to my friend I felt the crushing weight of the world ease its burden on my shoulders.  My empty mind filled with the sounds of life, and my dulled senses slowly came alive.  I realised I was listening to the song of a blackbird as it rang out in the still quiet of the evening.  It was then I smelt the fresh flowers on a nearby grave; I ambled over to admire them, and noticed in wonder the freshly carved stone that proclaimed it’s tribute to ‘gentleman Jim….Knight of the Road, who lived and died in the hand of Nature.’  It was dated last winter; the winter of the heavy snows.

J. A. Rooney ©

The Saga of Willy Steinbex

It had been a long day and Willy Steinbex was strolling on the common.  Dusk was gathering as he watched the proud young mothers strutting about with their clean prams and fresh young babies.

To Willy it was a parade ground; the lovers issuing unspoken challenges: the furtive twitching and turning of the old men asleep on the benches: the leaves racing and swirling, surging with the changing wind.

For Willy, it had been a hard, yet not very rewarding day, serving in his tiny delicatessen under the beauty parlour in the High Street.  So noisy and smelly, he thought; and sadly remembered the day he decided to leave home to make his fortune in the big country.

Suddenly the wind rose and a whirlpool of leaves swirled round his feet, and then it hit him.  He was beaten.  All along he had thought he was a winner.  His ambitions seemed to materialize slowly but surely, but now, at fifty-four, as he watched the leaves spiral into a crescendo, he saw his dreams fade and he wept as he admitted defeat.

After he had finished the first bottle of cheap wine in his room beneath the shop, a powerful combination of anger, fear and frustration, even hate, made him reach a fateful decision.  He would have what he wanted.  The money, the freedom, the sunny carefree life he idolised in the travel agencies.  He must be prepared for a last do-or-die effort before giving up completely.

He frantically racked his brain for a solution, but it was a fruitless task, and in the small hours of the morning when the city was peaceful, Willy Steinbex fell asleep.

Next morning as he sat facing the crowds, and idly watching the rain melt on his shop window, he was rudely awakened from a reverie of bikini-clad girls frolicking on a golden beach, by the grunt of a customer waiting to be served.  “Half pound of garlic sausage, if you have a minute.”

It was that bloated Scotsman again.  The one who came in every Thursday at a quarter past three after calling at the bank opposite to collect his firm’s wages.  At least Willy supposed it was wages, for every Thursday at precisely three-fifteen for the past three months or so, Willy had watched the stout man execute the obnoxious routine of extracting himself intact from his van, present his identity-card to the side door of the bank, and after locking his case in the back of the van, drive straight across the road to collect his garlic sausage.

The last bottle had resigned itself to Willy’s system before this blustery mound of humanity thrust his bulk through the shell of Willy’s fantasies.  It was probably the pungent odour of it on Willy’s breath which caused the customer to mutter a derogatory remark about Willy’s drinking habits.

And it was probably this insult together with the startling upheaval of a personality which to Willy had seemed so taciturn and resigned, even epitomising the perfect customer, which caused Willy to sustain a momentary cataleptic fit and drop the garlic sausage.

Whereupon the fat man with amazing agility bent down and retrieved it before Willy recovered enough to scramble round the counter to apologise.  But the fat man was oblivious to Willy’s explanations and marched out.  With despair Willy shut the door and turned to retrieve his ego in the wine, when he noticed a red folder on the floor.  Of course, his suspicions were confirmed when he recognised it as the identity card used by the Scotsman to get into the bank after hours.  This was the very card he had so often seen him present to the clerk who checked him at the side entrance to the bank.  Fate, thought Willy, the Gods are with me tonight.

It was a new Willy Steinbex who closed shop and retired with his empty wine bottle to the cellar, gaining hope and confidence with every beat of the ancient grandfather clock, whose presence segregated the silence with monotonous reliability.

Perched above it hung a decrepit shotgun; an antique device which had been de-commissioned and this was to play a decisive part in Willy’s plans as he sat in front of the fire drifting in and out of sleep.  Escape and reality, he thought.  If you got enough of one it equalled the other.

It was at ten minutes past three the following Thursday when Willy complete with bowler and briefcase, presented himself to the bespectacled clerk opening the bank door grill.  Thrusting the authorization card in his face, Willy waited thankful that as yet he had had no call to speak.

A click of locks told him all was well, and as he pulled his scarf round his face he quickly extracted the chair leg he had hidden in his coat and as the door opened pushed the clerk inside to hit him a quick blow to the head.

As the clerk crumpled to the floor, a babble of voices arose, and their owners quickly appeared, only to halt at the sight of Willy with the clerk’s keys in one hand and a shotgun in the other.  He slowly shut the door and advanced.  Still not a word.  It was as if a play was in progress and he had already rehearsed it.

As he entered the Manager’s office, having made everyone else lie on the floor, he prodded the Manager towards the safe which luckily enough was open.

He stuffed the notes into his briefcase and rejoiced that there had been no need to request the safe to be opened, as he feared his accent would narrow down the inevitable list of suspects.

It took Willy less than ten seconds to fill the brief briefcase, and he was out of the bank in another ten.  He slammed the door and walked swiftly across the busy street in the direction of his shop when the alarm bell rang.  Fighting back an impulse to run he soon reached the corner and ran down the steps to the safety of his shop.

Through the Venetian blinds he saw a crowd gather outside the bank, and sweated profusely as a police car drew up on the scene.  But he had expected this.  He had expected everything, and nothing had gone wrong.  He was safe.  He had not spoken.  No hero had thrown an inkwell at him.  He had not had to harm anyone; except the clerk: but he had expected that too, which was why he had brought along the chair leg.

But he hadn’t even counted the money yet, and now as he babbled drunkenly at the crisp fivers he watched the chair leg burn and crackle in the dim light.  It was after midnight by the time he recovered enough to remember the shotgun.  Evidence, he thought, better destroy it.  Pity, had it quite a few years, he thought, and remembered when he had lived in the country and gone duck shooting at weekends.  Happier days, he thought.  Never mind, plenty more to come.  Who says money can’t buy happiness?

He decided against throwing away the shotgun.  Someone might find it and connect it with the robbery.  They drag rivers to find murder weapons these days.  But why worry, he hadn’t murdered anyone.  He finally decided to bury it in the floor of the cellar.  He was exhausted when he’d finished and had just enough energy left to crawl into bed.  Thank God I don’t have to get up for work in the morning, he thought, I needn’t ever work again.  Forty thousand pounds, at least.  I can lie in every time I like.

Still, to be on the safe side, better stick to routine.  Open the shop as usual, just to be completely safe, for they’re bound to question people in the area.

Next morning he rose early to unlock his shop door.  While fumbling with the bottom bolt, his eye caught the morning paper and he read in horror, ‘Bank clerk murdered in robbery’  He tore open the paper to find the clerk had died of a cerebral haemorrhage.  I didn’t hit him that hard, thought Willy.  At least it  certainly didn’t seem hard.  I only wanted to knock him out.  He read on to find that Sergeant Steve Donahue would be moving in from the Yard to take over investigations.  Donahue had a formidable record in solving cases of homicide and fraud, and to the general public personified their image of a good cop.

Willy decided to persevere with his duties for the day, despite this recent setback, and was rewarded with the view of endless police cars arriving and departing while relays of anonymous people scuttled in and out of the bank.

In the afternoon he decided he would close early and go uptown to collect some travel brochures.  He got home late armed with a complete array of world cruise folders and guides.  He laid them on the mantelpiece while he had dinner and thought how they would pass the time away while the excitement died down.  Until then I must play it very cool and normal, even to the point of depositing my till-money on Fridays.  That would mean having to face Manchester, the chief clerk, and even the Manager.  What if they recognise me, he thought.  Impossible, nobody got a close look, and what with my scarf and hat, my own mother wouldn’t have known me.  The days passed quicker than he expected and Friday came round with its usual routine.  At midday Willy went to the bank with his deposit.  He signed the receipt, remarked about the raid, and offered his condolences.

Just as he was leaving, he spotted the Manager.  Willy’s heart leapt as he saw recognition enter the man’s eyes, but he simply bid him good-day and walked on.  Outside in the fresh air, Willy breathed deeply and offered a silent prayer.  The man hadn’t recognised him.  He was completely in the clear.  On his way home he wondered about the Manager’s claim that fifty thousand had been stolen, while Wily himself had only counted forty.

It was after six that evening when he heard the door bell and answered it only to find Sergeant Donahue standing in the doorway.  “Just a few enquiries, sir” he said.  “I see your shop front offers a good view of the bank.  Did you notice anything unusual last week?”  Willy, getting over the initial shock, invited him in while Donahue continued.  “ I know you’re a customer of the bank. For I remember seeing you there today.”  He continued speaking while Willy offered him a cup of tea.  It was as he was drinking it that he noticed the travel folders.  They appeared crisp and shiny.  “Going away, sir?”  he asked innocently.  “ No, can’t afford to,!” said Willy, I always keep them there, to remind me of my travels in the war.”

What’s he lying for, thought Donahue; they’re new, there’s no dust on them and this basement is a very dusty place.

It was while looking for dust that he noticed a vague outline on the wall, and the more he looked the more convinced he became that it resembled a gun.  My God, it must be him.  No, crazy.  Still, Stevie boy, you know some of these old guys.  Desperate for a last fling in life.  He must have sawn the barrel off in this room, thought Donahue.  “ Got away with fifty thousand” he said to keep the conversation moving, while looking around for more evidence.  He spotted some iron filings beside the table and on leaving put his tea cup on the table.

“ Sorry,” he said, purposely dropping his cigarette on the floor beside the filings.  He bent down to pick it up and managed to catch a filing in his thumb nail.  “Do hope I haven’t troubled you, sir, and thanks again for your help”, he said on leaving.  “ No trouble at all, goodnight” said Willy, and returned to relax and read his folders.

But Donahue was back inside an hour.  The filing had been sent to the forensic science laboratory and had matched the grains of metal on the Manager’s jacket where Willy had prodded him with the gun.

It was early morning before they found the gun which was buried in fresh concrete and the money hidden behind the gas fire.  Donahue sent for the wagon which arrived about 8 o’clock.  As they bundled Willy, the gun, and the money into the back, the local bank Manager was opening the bank.  I must get some travel folders, he thought to himself, while watching the police drive Willy away.  That extra ten thousand is going to be very useful.  Very useful indeed.

J. A. Rooney         ©

Round the Bend

It was raining; a cold hard rain that picked relentlessly at the screen as he drove deeper into the darkness.

He was feeling snug and secure in the warmth of the heater, and with the soft music from the radio a slow sense of invulnerability swept over him.

It was not yet midnight, the witching hour, and he was miles from anywhere driving to his annual Lodge Dinner.  He had made the convention a priority in his social calendar ever since the war and every year, except last, he would go back and they would all talk of Rimini and the campaign.  All except one or two.  Each year took its toll; and they would talk of that also; their platoon suffered casualties in peace as they had in war, but they still fought on, he thought.  This, he knew, was the one battle they were all going to lose, and not together, on the field, in heroic pain; but alone, cold and desperate, in some little room in the back of nowhere.

Still, he mustn’t get depressed; there were moments; like now, when he felt good and had something to look forward to.  The sleet had turned to a fine flaky snow that flew from out the night in a blind effort to mount its way round the windscreen; but the wipers fingered hollow segments that ever threatened to close and shut out the world.

He glanced at the car clock; he had been driving for over two hours, and now it seemed like a slow motion dream, conjuring about him a cocoon of isolation.  He had often heard of the hypnotic effect of snow and so decided to pull over and rest for a spell.

How long he slept he wasn’t sure for the clock was still and silent when he awoke.  He swore softly as he realized he had left the heater on, but his anger faded to fear as the empty click of the starter told him he was stranded for the battery was now completely flat!  He realized he would now have to walk for help as the car, like most recent models, had no starting handle fixture.

He got out and made a vain effort to shift the car for snow had built up round the wheels and was impossible to budge.  He decided to walk the remaining few miles to the Inn.  God knows why the boys picked this place for the annual get-together.  He remembered Chalky once saying it was because of the privacy or something.

He had trudged in silent solitude for some thirty minutes and had forsaken hope of a lift when he heard the crunching swish of a car coming up behind him.  It was an old red station wagon.  He frantically waved his arms for it to stop but the car cruised slowly past him.  He was tempted to run after it or shout some remark at the driver when the car slowed and stopped just down the road.  Was the driver playing games with him?  But no, the rear door swung open, so he ran up and jumped in, exhausted.

He muttered his thanks and lay back in the rear seat.  He did not notice the driver’s face but the fellow seemed to be soaked to the skin and in no mood for small talk.  He was just getting his breath back when he realized he was being driven very fast; too fast for comfort, considering the condition of the road; which didn’t even seem to be salted.  He was about to ask the driver to slow down when they approached a hill.  The car took it quite slowly to the top but he sensed danger as it picked up speed going down the other side.  When he saw the bend at the foot of the hill he choked with fear, and found the metallic taste of it rise in his throat.  His mind went numb and he froze in a state of shock.  He realized the car would never make it and would plunge over the parapet and into the river.

As they swept into the bend itself, everything went very quiet for a moment and it seemed as if some giant hand had taken hold of the car and guided it round the deadly corner; there was no screech of tyres, but of course he reasoned there was a cushion of snow on the road.  He was still trembling when the car stopped just further on and he quickly jumped out without a word of thanks.  He was afraid to speak in case his anger got the better of him.  He entered the Inn and was soon lost in a swarm of greetings that surrounded him.

Swallowing a couple of Scotches, he told the boys about the car and the miraculous way it had manoeuvred the bend.  When he finished, and by this time everyone was staring silently at him, he looked at the assembled company and asked “Where’s Harry, then?”  “You don’t know yet”, said Chalky, “for you weren’t here last year, but Harry was killed on the very bend you spoke of, when his old red station wagon went into the river!”

J. A. Rooney         ©

The Tree

The rain lashed down.  It was two in the morning.  He did not have to look at the clock.  He knew what time it was.

It was not the rain that kept him awake, and it was not the cold, but he knew something was stopping him sleep.  Just as it had for the last few weeks, ever since the big storm when the old tree was struck with lightning.

Tonight he had taken two sleeping pills, but they were only making him dizzy for he felt wide awake.  He looked at his wife.  Her nights had also been restless, but she seemed fast asleep tonight.  He thought of the big tree that had cracked, and split from end to end.  They had noticed at the time what appeared to be the outline of a head, where the lightning burn had left its mark; but now all that remained of the tree were the withered roots, for the rest had been taken away soon after.

Was it this memory that kept him awake?  He looked again at his wife: she was fast asleep and he could hear the baby snore from its cot in the other room.

He was glad the child had its own room for it seemed more content as it was seldom disturbed.  Until lately, that is, for lately he had found himself getting out of bed and going to the child’s room.  He did not know why, but he knew he could not rest until he had taken the baby back to bed with him for the rest of the night.  So he went to the child’s room and gently lifted her, bringing her back to his bed.  The child did not awake, or even stir.

Sometimes like tonight the child would not wake and as he looked at his wife he wondered why they both still slept, for the thunder now seemed very close.

Perhaps she had taken some of his tablets for he knew lately her nerves had got worse as she was still irritated by his insistence to have the baby sleep with them.  Why – she would ask – wake the child up when she is fast asleep and bring her into a cold bed.  As the weeks passed she had grown more resigned but he knew is was a constant worry to them both.

But tonight she never stirred.  He turned the light out, and felt a deep sense of relief as he held his child close.  Now he felt sleepy and exhausted.  It was always the same.  He knew now he could sleep.  He knew that now, not even the thunder could keep him awake.  He felt himself drifting off and very soon sank into a deep warm sleep.

It seemed only minutes before he was suddenly awoken by an enormous crash in the other room.  He sat up in bed stunned.  His wife held the child safe in her arms and they switched on the lights.  He thought the wardrobe must have fallen over. He rushed out of the room and dashed into the child’s bedroom where he froze in horror.

There was a gaping hole in the roof; debris littered the room, and a smell of burning told him lightning had struck the house.

His wife was trembling beside him as they stared at the child’s cot.  It was still smouldering where the lightning had struck it, just where the child had lain a few moments before, and as they stared at the remains neither of them could deny that the burn marks resembled a tree.  A forked tree.  Like the one in the garden.

J. A. Rooney         ©