“The End of the Road”, a short story

From the days of wandering the remote country towns of New South Wales in Australia.

 

The End of the Road

 

The man who had said that we would never make the distance was right.

It had been my idea to go ‘troppo’, forsake everything, hop on a motorbike and go around Australia.  I was, at that stage fed up with everything and, catching Harry in one of his low spots, he decided there and then he would join me.

For the first few days, we believed we were stark staring mad and talked about calling it quits, but perseverance made all the difference.  After two months we were glad we had the resolve to keep going, and in that time we had managed to see more of the Australian countryside than we’d seen all our lives.

That was until this particular morning when we arrived in Berrigum, what could have been called a one-horse town.  It consisted of one hotel, one general store (that sold everything from toothpicks to petrol) and an agricultural machinery depot.  It also had a station and some wheat silos, and this appeared to be the only reason for a town in this particular spot in the middle of nowhere.

And it was the railway station that interested Harry, who was, by this time, getting a little homesick and fed up with his motorbike.

After coughing and spluttering for the last week it had finally died, and the five-mile walk to Berrigum had not helped either his temper, or his disposition, and had only served to firm his resolve to return home.

It was hot but not unbearably so, unlike a hot summer’s day in the city, and even worse still in public transport.  For miles around as we tramped those five miles all we could see was acres and acres of wheat, but no sign of life.  It was the same when we reached the town.  It appeared all the people were either hiding or had left.  Harry suspected the latter given the state of the road, and the buildings, more or less the epitome of a ghost town.

Standing at the end of what could have been called the main street with only our own dust for company, one look took in the whole town.  In a car, one wouldn’t have given it a second look, if one had time to give it a first.  I didn’t remember seeing neither any speed restriction signs nor signpost advertising a town ahead.

And since no amount of argument could sway him from his resolve, the first objective was to get a train timetable, if such a thing existed, and make arrangements for Harry’s return.

The station was as deserted as the town itself, and a quick glance in the stationmaster’s office showed no sign of life.

Leaving the bikes on the platform outside the office, we headed for the hotel for both a drink and make enquiries about rail services.  Being a hot day and the morning’s tramp somewhat hot and dusty, we were looking forward to a cold glass (or two) of beer.

The hotel looked as though it was a hundred years old though there was no doubting a few relentless summers would reduce it to the same state.  It was as bad inside as out, though the temperature was several degrees lower, and we could sit down in what appeared to be the main bar.  We were the only occupants and still to find any sign of life.  Overhead, two fans were struggling to move the hot air around.

More than once Harry reckoned it was a ghost town and I was beginning to believe him when, after five minutes, no one arrived.

After ten, we stood, ready to leave, only to stop halfway out of our chairs when a voice behind us said, “Surely you’re not going back out there without refreshment?”

“I was beginning to think the town was deserted,” I said.

“It is during the day, but when the sun goes down…”

I didn’t ask.  We followed him to the bar where he had stationed himself behind the counter.  “The name is Jack.”  He stretched out his hand towards us.  “We don’t bother with last names here.”

“Bill,” I said, shaking it, and nodding to Harry, “Harry.”

Harry nodded and shook his hand too.

“The first one’s on the house.”  He poured three glasses and put ours in front of us.  “Cheers.”

In all cases, it went down without touching the sides (as they say) and he poured a second, at the same time asking, “What brings you to our little corner of the earth?”

“Just passing through,” I said, “Or at least for me.”

“And you?”  Jack looked at Harry.

“I can’t hack the pace.  I can truthfully say I have thoroughly enjoyed the trip so far, except for a few mishaps, but for me, it’s time to get back to the big smoke.  My ‘do your own thing’ has run out of momentum.  Do you know if there is a train that goes anywhere important?”

The publican looked at him almost pityingly.  “Important, eh?”  He rubbed his chin feigning thought.  “You make it sound like you are in purgatory.”

“Aren’t we?”

I suppose one could hardly blame Harry for his attitude.  After all, at the beginning, he had numerous accidents, caught a virus that stayed with him (and a couple of torrential downpours had done little to help it), and now his motorbike had finally died.  No wonder his humour was at an all-time low.

For a moment I thought the publican was going to tell Harry what he thought of him, but then he smiled and the tension passed.  “Perhaps to a city fellow like you it might be,” he said.  “The mail train which has a passenger carriage comes through once a week, and, my good man, you’re in luck.  Today’s the day.”

“Good.  How do I get a ticket?”

“You’d have to see the Station Master.”

“And where might he be at the moment?  We were at the station a while back and there was no sign of life.”

“Nor will there be until the train comes.  Meanwhile, there’s time enough for lunch.  I’m sure you will stay?”  He looked questioningly at us.

I looked at Harry, who nodded.

“Why not.”

 

Over lunch, we talked.

I remember not so long ago when I had to attend a large number of lunches where the talk was of business, or, if anything, mostly about subjects that I had no interest in.  It was always some posh restaurant, time seemed important, the atmosphere never really relaxed, and to get into a relaxed state it took a large amount of alcohol to deaden the despair and distaste of that one had to fete in order to secure their business.

How different it was here.

We talked about the country, and, after seeing as much of it, and worked on it as we had to fund our odyssey, we could talk about it authoritatively.  And, most of all, it was interesting.

The atmosphere too was entirely different than it had been in the city.  Out here the people were always friendly, people always willing to stop and talk, particularly farmers; share a drink or some food.

There was none of this carefree purposefulness in the city, and more than once I’d thought of the fact one could travel in the same train with the same people for year after year and still not know any of them.  It was the same at work.  Even after five years I still hadn’t known three-quarters of the office staff, and most of them probably didn’t want to know me.  Harry was virtually the only real friend I’d had at work.

But here, in ‘the middle of nowhere’ as Harry had called it, I felt as though I’d known the publican all of my life instead of the few short hours.

 

Some hours later and after much argument, where Jack and I tried to talk Harry into staying (Jack said he knew someone who could fix anything including Harry’s bike), Harry remained unconvinced and resolute.  Jack, to round off the occasion (we were the first real guests from outside he had had in a week) provided another on-the-house ale and then saw us to the station.  “After all”, he had said, “I’ve nothing else to do at the moment.”

By that time the station was showing a little more life than it had before.  A station assistant, moving several parcels with a hand trolley, slowly ambled towards the end of the platform.

And whether it could be called a platform was a debatable point.  It was a gravel and grass affair that looked more like part of cutting through a hill than a station.

At the station, Jack portentously announced he was also the stationmaster and would be only too happy to take care of Harry’s requirements.  It would be, he added, “the first passenger ticket sold for several months.”  Certainly, the ticket he handed Harry bore witness to that.  It had yellowed with age.

One would have thought with the imminent arrival of the train there would be more people, but no.  The only event had been the station assistant’s stroll to the end of the platform and back.  Now both he and Jack had disappeared into the office and we were left alone on the platform.  Very little in the whole town stirred, nor had it the whole time we’d been there.

“Well,” I said to break the silence.  “I’m sorry to see you going through with it.  I thought I might have been able to talk you out of it…”  I shrugged, leaving the sentence unfinished.

“I’m sorry to be going too, but a body can take only so much bad luck, and God knows that’s all I’ve had.”

“Yes.”  I couldn’t think of much else to say.  “But it’s been good to have your company these last few months.”

“And you.  When do you think you’ll get back?”

“When I get sick of it I suppose.”

“Look us up then when you get back.”

“I will.”

Thankfully the appearance of the train in the distance broke off the conversation.  I had begun to think of what it was going to be like out on the road with no one to talk to but myself.  The thought was a little depressing and I tried not to let it show.

We said little else until the train pulled in, three flat cars, seven enclosed wagons, a passenger carriage and the guard’s van.  The train stopped with only part of the passenger carriage and the guard’s van at the station.

The guard took aboard the parcels the station assistant had left for him earlier, and then put those that were for Berrigum on the trolley.

I shook Harry’s hand and said I’d see him around.  Then he, the motorbike, and the guard were aboard and the train was off, disappearing slowly into the afternoon haze.

The station assistant then repeated his amble to the end of the platform to collect the hand trolley.

“Staying or moving on.”  Jack had come up behind me and gave me a bit of a start.

“Staying I guess, until tomorrow or maybe later.”

“I had heard one of the farm hands is leaving tomorrow heading back to Sydney.  There could be a vacancy.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I said.

“I could put in a word for you.”

“Thanks.”

Jack just grinned and we headed for the hotel.

 

© Charles Heath 2016-2019

“Sunday in New York”, it’s a bumpy road to love

“Sunday in New York” is ultimately a story about trust, and what happens when a marriage is stretched to its limits.

When Harry Steele attends a lunch with his manager, Barclay, to discuss a promotion that any junior executive would accept in a heartbeat, it is the fact his wife, Alison, who previously professed her reservations about Barclay, also agreed to attend, that casts a small element of doubt in his mind.

From that moment, his life, in the company, in deciding what to do, his marriage, his very life, spirals out of control.

There is no one big factor that can prove Harry’s worst fears, that his marriage is over, just a number of small, interconnecting events, when piled on top of each other, points to a cataclysmic end to everything he had believed in.

Trust is lost firstly in his best friend and mentor, Andy, who only hints of impending disaster, Sasha, a woman whom he saved, and who appears to have motives of her own, and then in his wife, Alison, as he discovered piece by piece damning evidence she is about to leave him for another man.

Can we trust what we see with our eyes or trust what we hear?

Haven’t we all jumped to conclusions at least once in our lives?

Can Alison, a woman whose self-belief and confidence is about to be put to the ultimate test, find a way of proving their relationship is as strong as it has ever been?

As they say in the classics, read on!

Purchase:

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Searching for locations: Aratiatia Dam, Taupo, New Zealand

Aratiatia Dam water release, Taupo

The Aratiatia Dam, rapids, and hydroelectric power station are located on the Waikato River, New Zealand’s longest river.  It is about 16km from Taupo, and 6km from Huka falls, and there is a walking track, for the fit, of course, between the two water attractions.

This happens three or four times every day, depending on the season, and lasts about 15 minutes.  Water is released at the rate of about 80,000 liters a second, so it is quite a lot of water being sent through the rapids.

There are a number of viewing points, the most popular being from the bridge, where I took these photos, and 5 minutes down the walking track to the ridgeline where you can get an overview of the river.

This is looking towards the rapids, as the catchment leading to the rapids starts to fill

The pool is almost full and the excess is starting its journey towards the rapids

Now full, the rapids are at capacity as up to 80,000 liters a second are heading down a 28-meter drop heading towards the hydroelectric power station.

And once full at the bottom, there is a jet boat ride available for a closer view of the water, and a few thrills to go with it.

“Echoes From The Past”, a past buried, but not deep enough


What happens when your past finally catches up with you?

Christmas is just around the corner, a time to be with family. For Will Mason, an orphan since he was fourteen, it is a time for reflection on what his life could have been, and what it could be.

Until a chance encounter brings back to life the reasons for his twenty years of self-imposed exile from a life only normal people could have. From that moment Will’s life slowly starts to unravel and it’s obvious to him it’s time to move on.

This time, however, there is more at stake.

Will has broken his number one rule, don’t get involved.

With his nemesis, Eddie Jamieson, suddenly within reach, and a blossoming relationship with an office colleague, Maria, about to change everything, Will has to make a choice. Quietly leave, or finally, make a stand.

But as Will soon discovers, when other people are involved there is going to be terrible consequences no matter what choice he makes.

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In a word: Dry

We all know what this means, without moisture, in other words not wet.

It could also mean dull factually, as in reading some non-fiction books, and quite often those prescribed as mandatory reading at school.

You could also have a dry sense of humour, where you have to be on your game to understand, or get, the humour.

It could also describe boredom by saying that it’s like watching paint dry.

For those who like a bit of a tipple, the last place you want to go is a dry bar, where no alcohol is served.

Perhaps this should be mandatory for weddings and funerals, places where feelings often run very high and do not need the stimulus of half a dozen double Scotches.

And speaking of alcohol and cider in particular, you can have it sweet, dry, or draft. Many people prefer dry, sometimes the drier the better, especially wine, and oddly martinis.

Aside from whether they are shaken or stirred.

But the most fascinating version of dry is dry cleaning. Just how can you ‘dry’ clean clothes?

Would that be what they call an oxymoron?

“The Things We Do For Love” – Coming soon

Is love the metaphorical equivalent to ‘walking the plank’; a dive into uncharted waters?

For Henry the only romance he was interested in was a life at sea, and when away from it, he strived to find sanctuary from his family and perhaps life itself.  It takes him to a small village by the sea, s place he never expected to find another just like him, Michelle, whom he soon discovers is as mysterious as she is beautiful.

Henry had long since given up the notion of finding romance, and Michelle couldn’t get involved for reasons she could never explain, but in the end both acknowledge that something happened the moment they first met.  

Plans were made, plans were revised, and hopes were shattered.

A chance encounter causes Michelle’s past to catch up with her, and whatever hope she had of having a normal life with Henry, or anyone else, is gone.  To keep him alive she has to destroy her blossoming relationship, an act that breaks her heart and shatters his.

But can love conquer all?

It takes a few words of encouragement from an unlikely source to send Henry and his friend Radly on an odyssey into the darkest corners of the red light district in a race against time to find and rescue the woman he finally realizes is the love of his life.

The cover, at the moment, looks like this:

lovecoverfinal1

NaNoWriMo Day 30 + 14

Yes, this project is still moving through the water, albeit very slowly, but progress is being made.

For the moment we are out of the snow storms and freezing cold, and meandering through a much more temperate part of the realm.

It’s a time to discover that people fear the unknown. My father once told me of soldiers in the second world war, their orders were to shoot first and ask questions later.

Has that changed much in any war? Or street battle between rival organisations or gangs?

These days it’s guns wreaking the damage, but back in the past, the old, old, old, old days it was swords, lances, bows and arrows, maces, and a few other interesting but painful implements.

To save the realm, these disaffected people need to be brought back into the fold, but decades, even centuries had festered the ill feelings between the others makes it nigh on impossible.

Sound like something going on right under our noses?

For those keeping an eye on the word count, this session, 3,842 words for a running total of 129,742.

“Strangers We’ve Become”, a sequel to “What Sets Us Apart”

Stranger’s We’ve Become, a sequel to What Sets Us Apart.

The blurb:

Is she or isn’t she, that is the question!

Susan has returned to David, but he is having difficulty dealing with the changes. Her time in captivity has changed her markedly, so much so that David decides to give her some time and space to re-adjust back into normal life.

But doubts about whether he chose the real Susan remain.

In the meantime, David has to deal with Susan’s new security chief, the discovery of her rebuilding a palace in Russia, evidence of an affair, and several attempts on his life. And, once again, David is drawn into another of Predergast’s games, one that could ultimately prove fatal.

From being reunited with the enigmatic Alisha, a strange visit to Susan’s country estate, to Russia and back, to a rescue mission in Nigeria, David soon discovers those whom he thought he could trust each has their own agenda, one that apparently doesn’t include him.

The Cover:

strangerscover9

Coming soon

 

“Do you believe in g..g..ghosts…?”, a short story

Inside the old building, it was very quiet and almost cold.

Strange, perhaps, because outside the temperature was bordering on the record hottest day ever, nearly 45 degrees centigrade.

The people who’d built this building nearly a hundred years before must have known how to keep that heat at bay, using sandstone.

Back then, the sandstone would have looked very impressive, but now after many years of being closed off and left abandoned, the outside was stained by modern-day pollutants giving it a black streaky look, and inside layers of dust, easily stirred up as we walked slowly into the main foyer.

It was huge, the roof, ornate, with four huge chandelier lights hanging down, and wood paneling, giving way to a long counter with brass serving cages highlighting its former use; a bank.

In its day it would have conveyed the power and wealth so that its customers could trust the money to. Of course, that was before the global economy, online banking, and a raft of the new and different institutions all vying for that same money.

Then it was a simple choice of a few, now it was a few thousand.

“How many years had this been closed up?” I asked.

“Close to twenty, maybe twenty-five. It was supposed to be pulled down, but someone got it on the heritage list, and that put an end to it. “

Phil was the history nut. He’s spent a month looking into the building, finding construction plans, and correspondence dating back to before and during the construction.

Building methods, he said, that didn’t exist today and were far in advance of anything of its type for the period. It was the reason we were standing in the foyer now.

We were budding civil engineers, and the university had managed to organize a visit, at our own risk. The owner of the building had made sure we’d signed a health and safety waiver before granting access.

And the caretaker only took us as far as the front door. He gave us his cell number to call when we were finished. When we asked him why he didn’t want to come in with us, he didn’t say but it was clear to me he was afraid of something.

But neither of us believed in ghosts.

“You can see aspects of cathedrals in the design,” Phil said. ” You could quite easily turn this space into a church.”

“Or a very large wine cellar.” I brought a thermometer with me, and inside where we were standing it was the ideal temperature to store wine.

Behind the teller cages were four large iron doors to the vaults. They were huge, and once contained a large amount of cash, gold, and whatever else was deemed valuable.

They were all empty now, the shelves and floor had scattered pieces of bank stationery, and in a corner, several cardboard boxes, covered in even more dust.

Behind the vaults were offices, half-height with glass dividers, the desks and chairs still in place, and some with wooden filing cabinets drawers half-open.

Others had benches, and one, set in the corner, very large, and looked like the manager’s office. Unlike the other office which had linoleum tiles, this one had carpet. In a corner was a large mirror backed cabinet, with several half-empty bottles on it.

“Adds a whole new meaning to aged whiskey, don’t you think.” Phil looked at it but didn’t pick it up.

“I wonder why they left it,” I muttered. The place had the feel of having been left in a hurry, not taking everything with them.

I shivered, but it was not from the cold.

We went back to the foyer and the elevator lobby. They were fine examples of the sort of caged elevators that belonged in that time, and which there were very few working examples these days.

The elevators would have a driver, he would pull back an inner and outer door when the car arrived on a floor, and close both again when everyone was aboard.

Both cars were on the ground floor, with the shutter doors closed, and when I tried to open one, I found it had been welded shut. The other car was not sitting level with the floor and the reason for that, the cable that raised and lowered it was broken.

Restoring them would be a huge job and would not be in their original condition due to occupational health and safety issues.

The staircase wound around the elevator cage, going up to the mezzanine floor or down to the basement.

“Up or down?” He asked.

“Where do you want to go first?”

“Down. There’s supposed to be a large vault, probably where the safety deposit boxes are.”

And the restrooms I thought. Not that I was thinking of going.

As we descended the stairs it was like going down into a mine shaft, getting darker, and the rising odor of damp, and mustiness. I suspect it would have been the same back when it was first built being so close to the shoreline of the bay, not more than half a mile away.

The land this building and a number of others in a similar style, was built on was originally a swamp, and it was thought that the seawater still found its way this far inshore. But the foundations were incredibly strong and extensive which was why there’d been no shifting or cracking anywhere in the ten-story structure.

At the bottom, there was a huge arch, with built-in brass caging with two huge gates, both open. It was like the entrance to a mythical Aladdin’s cave.

There was also an indefinable aura coming from the depths of that room. That, and a movement of cold air. Curiously, the air down there was not musty but had a tinge of saltiness to it.

Was there a natural air freshener effect coming from somewhere within that vault.

“Are we going in?”

I checked my torch beam, still very bright. I pointed it into the blackness and after a minute checking, I said, “We’re here, so why not.”

We had to walk down a dozen steps then pass under through the open gates into the room. There was a second set of gates, the same as the first, about thirty feet from the first, and, in between, a number of cubicles where customers collected their boxes.

Beyond the second set of gates was a large circular reinforced safe door high enough for us to walk through.

This cavernous space stretched back quite a distance, and along the walls, rows, and rows of safety deposit boxes, some half hanging out of their housing, and a lot more stacked haphazardly on the floor.

I checked a few but they were all empty.

I shivered again. It felt like there was a presence in the room. I turned to ask Phil, but he wasn’t there. I hadn’t heard him walk away, and there were only two sets of footprints on the floor, his and mine, and both ended where I was standing.

It was as if he had disappeared into thin air.

I called out his name, and it echoed off the walls in the confined space. No answer from him.

I went further into the room, thinking he might have ventured towards the end while my back was turned, but he hadn’t. Nor had he left because there were only footprints coming in, not going out.

I turned to retrace my steps and stopped suddenly. An old man, in clothes that didn’t belong to this era, was standing where Phil had last been.

He was looking at me, but not inclined to talk.

“Hello. I didn’t see you come down.”

Seconds later the figure dissolved in front of me and there was no one but me standing in the room.

“Joe.”

Phil, from behind me. I turned and there he was large as life.

“Where were you?”

“I’ve been here all the time. Who were you just talking to?”

“There was an old man, standing just over there,” I said pointing to somewhere between Phil and the entrance.

“I didn’t see anyone. Are you sure you’re not having me on?”

“No. He’s right behind you.” The old man had reappeared.

Phil shook his head, believing I was trying to fool him.

That changed when the man touched his shoulder, and Phil shrieked.

And almost ran out of the room. It took a few minutes for him to catch his breath and steady the palpitating heart.

“Are you real?” I asked, not quite sure what to say.

“To me, I am. To anyone else, let’s just say you are the first not got faint, or run away.”

“Are you a ghost?” Phil wasn’t exactly sure what he was saying.

“Apparently I am and will be until you find out who killed me “

Ok, so what was it called, stuck in the afterlife or limbo until closure?

“When?”

“25 years ago, just before the bank closed. It’s the reason why it’s empty now.”

“And you’re saying we find the killer and you get to leave?”

“Exactly. Now shoo. Go and find him.”

We looked at each other in surprise, or more like shock, then back to the man. Only he was no longer there.

“What the…” Phil sail. “It’s time to go.”

“What about the man and finding his killer?”

“What man? We saw nothing. We’re done here.”

I shrugged. Phil turned to leave, but only managed to take three steps before the gates at the entrance closed with a loud clang.

When he crossed the room to stand in front, he tried pulling them open.

“Locked,” he said. Flat, and without panic, he added, “I guess it looks like we have a murder to solve.”

© Charles Heath 2019-2020

The story behind the story – Echoes from the Past

The novel ‘Echoes from the past’ started out as a short story I wrote about 30 years ago, titled ‘The birthday’.

My idea was to take a normal person out of their comfort zone and led on a short but very frightening journey to a place where a surprise birthday party had been arranged.

Thus the very large man with a scar and a red tie was created.

So was the friend with the limousine who worked as a pilot.

So were the two women, Wendy and Angelina, who were Flight Attendants that the pilot friend asked to join the conspiracy.

I was going to rework the short story, then about ten pages long, into something a little more.

And like all re-writes, especially those I have anything to do with, it turned into a novel.

There was motivation.  I had told some colleagues at the place where I worked at the time that I liked writing, and they wanted a sample.  I was going to give them the re-worked short story.  Instead, I gave them ‘Echoes from the past’

Originally it was not set anywhere in particular.

But when considering a location, I had, at the time, recently been to New York in December, and visited Brooklyn and Queens, as well as a lot of New York itself.  We were there for New Years, and it was an experience I’ll never forget.

One evening we were out late, and finished up in Brooklyn Heights, near the waterfront, and there was rain and snow, it was cold and wet, and there were apartment buildings shimmering in the street light, and I thought, this is the place where my main character will live.

It had a very spooky atmosphere, the sort where ghosts would not be unexpected.  I felt more than one shiver go up and down my spine in the few minutes I was there.

I had taken notes, as I always do, of everywhere we went so I had a ready supply of locations I could use, changing the names in some cases.

Fifth Avenue near the Rockefeller center is amazing at first light, and late at night with the Seasonal decorations and lights.

The original main character was a shy and man of few friends, hence not expecting the surprise party.  I enhanced that shyness into purposely lonely because of an issue from his past that leaves him always looking over his shoulder and ready to move on at the slightest hint of trouble.  No friends, no relationships, just a very low profile.

Then I thought, what if he breaks the cardinal rule, and begins a relationship?

But it is also as much an exploration of a damaged soul, as it is the search for a normal life, without having any idea what normal was, and how the understanding of one person can sometimes make all the difference in what we may think or feel.

And, of course, I wanted a happy ending.

Except for the bad guys.

 

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