The A to Z Challenge – V is for – “Very well, I’ll tell you the truth”

From the age of 23, my life had been a complete work of fiction, and I have been so wrapped up in that web of lies that I no longer knew what was true and what wasn’t.

23 years and 1 day to be exact, the day after my birthday.  It was the last thing I remembered about who I might have been.

Before a truck nearly wiped me out, destroyed my car, and very neatly me with it.

My survival had been described as a miracle, a triumph for the bionic engineers who got a subject to implant their technology, overcoming the bans for creating and installing such technology in humans by simply not telling anyone.

It was why, when I work up, I was in a small room buried a long way from the surface of the planet, a sort of Frankenstein’s secret laboratory.

But I didn’t know any of this, not for a long time, not till things started to go wrong.

All I knew was what I was told, and that was that I was very lucky to be alive, that I had the best team of surgeons, and they had quite literally glued me back together.

Judging by the number of bandages, I could believe them.  It took six months for all of the operations to be completed, and another few for the skin grafts and physical healing.

Not only they were impressed by the way I had recovered, but when I finally got to look at the new me, it was as if nothing had ever happened.  Certainly, this time around, I was much better looking, physically fit, and tired, but mentally, I was still on a knife-edge.

That accident replayed in my head at least once every day, and that would probably never leave me.  There were other jumbled memories in my head that I couldn’t make sense of, of people who looked like aliens, to be in what might call a laboratory.

And then one recurring, of a woman who might have been an angel or a doctor, or both.  She never spoke, just remained by my side nearly all the time, sitting there observing me.

It felt strange, but it was not uncomfortable.  And it was hard to tell if the memories were real or just my imagination because since I’d woken and returned to what they called the real world I had not seen her again.

I never understood what the expression red-letter day meant, other than in the current context, it was to be the day they sent me home.

There were moments when I never thought I’d see home again, and then moments where I knew no one would recognize me.

The reality is they wouldn’t.  In saving me, they completely reconstructed me, from the face down.  When I first looked in the mirror my face was bandages.  Then I’d was scarred and almost bloody pulp.  In the end, staring back at me was the face of someone I didn’t know.

It was the price of being saved, but somewhere behind the tonal inflection of the plastic surgeon was the real reason for the transformation, and perhaps it didn’t have to be that way.

But I was grateful and didn’t want to rock the boat. It just makes it that little bit more difficult to consider re-joining the world.

I’d been escorted to a large lounge that overlooked a snow-covered mountain range, where the sky was blue and the sun shone brightly, giving the whole scene a sort of shimmering effect.

A touch of the glass that separated outside from in was very, very cold to the touch.  Was this a secret hideaway in the Swiss mountains, and had I been in a secret laboratory?

Or was this another planet?

Was it the drugs they’d been going me every day making me like this, unsure, uncertain, unsettled, and afraid?

I’d been brought to the room and left there, and for a half-hour I alternately sat, made coffee, stood and admired the scenery, checked all of the books in the bookcase, the bottles of alcohol in the bar, then sat again, trying to dispel the nerves.

Then the door opened, the one I tried and found locked, and to my surprise, the angel walked in, looking more beautiful than ever.

I watched her walk across the room, mesmerized.

She stopped in front of me, smiled, then sat in the chair opposite, or rather not so much sit as curl up into the contours of the seat, feet tucked under her, and arm outstretched across the back, almost as if she was inviting me to snuggle into her.

“How are you this morning Matthew?”

Her voice was equally mesmerizing, and I would be happy to listen to her reading a book or the definition of rocket science.

“Very well.”

“It’s been a long road, sometimes difficult, sometimes almost impossible, but we got there in the end.  You are, according to the doctors, fully recovered, and it’s time for you to leave.”

“About that…”

“You have questions, I suspect, and a lot of them.  They will be answered, all in good time.  But for the present, we will not be casting you out to fend for yourself.  I will be coming with you, your intermediary so to speak while you reassimilate.  Of course, you cannot go back to the life you had before, that life, that person no longer exists.  For all intents and purposes, you had died on the operating table after the accident.”

“That was not what I understood.”

What I had understood was very hazy, after they had brought me to the facility.  Bits and pieces of that night, of the accident, and the aftermath, of being in the hospital, and what I thought was me looking down at me on an operating table, being declared dead.

And then being whisked away in an ambulance to somewhere else where there were more doctors and nurses, and a man in a suit saying ‘sign this if you want to live.

I was not sure what I signed, then, but now, it was to save my life, but at what cost?

“Things are not always as they seem.  You have been treated with largely experimental treatments that otherwise could not be performed on people within the current medical regime.  Your life, however, was never in any danger, and, as you can see, you have recovered remarkably.  All we ask is that you accept the responsibility of being one of the few that have been granted a second life.  I am also another such person, and it will be my honor to help you through what can be a difficult stage, reintegration.  You are, for all intents and purposes, Andrew Tavener, but as he is no longer alive, your name will be Mathew Welles.  I was once Mary Ballen, I’m now Felicity Welkinshaw.  Names are only a part of who you are now.”

It was beginning to sound like I was one of a select group.  That Felicity was like me, and she accepted who she was, now.  Perhaps things were not so bad, a good job, and a girl like Felicity as a friend, perhaps that was only a small price to pay.

Except…

“So, I cannot go back to where I lived, where I worked, see those people I once knew, friends, family?”

“Not as Andrew, no.  But, when we believe you can manage it, you will be able to see those people but only as an outsider who has forged a relationship with all or any of them.  However, there is one exception, Wendy.  You cannot see her, not even accidentally meet her.  For that reason, your new life will be as a new junior executive for the company that oversees the medical research that you have been treated, in England.  It is for the best, and you will come to realize that.”

I shrugged.  It could be worse.  But there was something else on my mind.  Something borne out of a lot of fractured memories, after coming to the facility.

“This is going to sound very freakish, but I have to ask.  Am I still human?”

Those odd memories, I thought I was being ‘assembled’.

“Yes, though a number of what may seem like robotic changes have been made, what we regard as the next step in human evolution.  Now, I think it’s time for our going away party.  Everyone will be there.”

She stood, and held out her hand.

I took it and had an immediate tingling sensation, such a human reaction.

Followed by a single memory that came back right at that moment, a snippet of a conversation I’d overheard.

“He’s the best god-damned robot we’ve made to date, even better than Felicity, and that’s saying something.”

And the face of the man was the first one I saw as I entered the room.

Why did I notice him? 

Because I looked exactly like him.


© Charles Heath 2022

The A to Z Challenge – Q is for “Quirky relatives”

One of the recurring memories I have of my childhood was the annual pilgrimage to Grand Marais, Minnesota, located on the North Shore of Lake Superior.

It was the place where my father grew up, along with three brothers and a sister, and where his parents had been born, lived, and eventually died.

The other memory, that his parents never came to visit us, we always had to go to them.  That, and the fact my mother hated them, that animosity borne out of an event at their wedding that no one ever spoke about.

Not until a long, long time later, after my father had passed away.

We stopped going when I turned eighteen, though I don’t think that was the reason.  Mt grandparents hadn’t died or gone anywhere, it was just the week before our pilgrimage was to begin, my father announced there would be no more visits.

You could see the relief on our mother’s face, much less ours because they were, to put it mildly, quirky.  Steven, the youngest brother put it more succinctly, weird and creepy.

Perhaps it had been the house, a large sprawling two-story mansion that had been added to over the years, and reputed to have thirteen bedrooms.  Thirteen.

They had a butler, a housekeeper, a chauffeur, and several housemaids.  Odd, because I got the impression my grandfather didn’t work, and yet they were, reputedly, very wealthy.  Equally odd, then, that wealth didn’t extend to my father.

Which, in the final analysis, was probably the reason why we stopped going.  He had been cut out of the will.

Of course, none of this would have reached my consciousness if I had not received an email from one of the sones of my fathers, brother, and uncle who had never visited us, I’d seen probably three times in my life, and who had lived with his parents in the mansion.

I’d not seen, or heard of any children of any of the other brothers, or sisters, so this was a first, and aroused my curiosity.  I had thought that our part of the family had been exorcised from all their collective memories.

Apparently not.

And, that curiosity would soon go into overdrive because with the email came an invitation to come and stay, and meet the other members of the family. 

I had a sister, Molly, and called her once I got the email, and she said she had one too.

Was she going?  Hell yes.  It, for her, was going to be the unearthing of all the secrets.

What secrets, I asked, knowing full well there had been a few, but she had simply said I’d have to wait and see.

The drive brought back a lot of memories, and unconsciously I found myself listening to the same songs we did when Dad droves us.

Molly had come to my place, and we drove there together.  In itself, it was a good reason for us to reunite after so long being apart.  It was even more profound considering we did not live all that far apart, it was just life and family that got in the way.

She, like myself, found herself reliving the annual pilgrimages, her memories being hazier than mine, but that was because she was a lot younger.

She had been the one to leave home first, finding our restrictive parents unbearable.  My departure took longer because my mother had implored me to stay, and not leave her with ‘that unbearable man’.

That final few miles from the outskirts of town, past the waterline, then inland was hushed with anticipation.  I last remembered the house, although forbidding, as impeccably maintained, with gardens, I was sure, that featured in ‘Architectural Digest’.

This vision as we approached was so different than the last, in the last vestiges of the evening, a dark forbidding place still, only a lot more sinister.  The gardens had been abandoned long ago, and everything was overgrown.

The fountain out front, the centerpiece of the gardens, was buried and gone.

The house had also fallen into disrepair, and I was surprised the local authorities hadn’t condemned it.

I parked the car in the driveway, and we sat there, staring at it.

“That motel back down the road is looking good,” Molly said.

The invitation also included staying in one of the thirteen rooms.

“Depends on how many ghosts there are.”

“The motel or here?”

I shrugged.  “I guess we’d better get to the front door before it’s dark, just in case.”

Closer to the stairs leading up to a veranda, I could see the different shades of timber when rotten planks had been replaced.  We made it to the front door, Molly hanging on to me just in case.

I pulled a ring dangling from a chain and heard a gong go off inside the house.  A minute passed, two, then the door creaked open, and an old man in a dinner suit was standing there.  “Mr. Garry, and Miss Molly, I presume.

He stood to one side before we answered, and we went in.

The inside was utterly different from the outside, having been renovated recently, much brighter than I remembered from the endless wood paneling.  The old man ushered us into a large lounge room, on one side a huge log fire was burning, and around the walls, where there wasn’t a bookshelf full of books were family paintings.

“It’s like a mausoleum,” Molly said.

I recognized a lot of those faces in the paintings, including one of our father and mother together, probably not long after they were married.  The men of that family all looked the same, except when it came to me, I looked more like my mother.

“Much better than it used to be.”

“I don’t remember much.”

To one side there was a large staircase that you could go up one side and down the other, and as children, we used to run up and down, and generally be annoying.  Sliding down the banister was strictly forbidden, until after everyone went to bed.

I was half expecting to see the old man come from the depths of the house, but instead, a man that I could easily mistake as my father came through from the rear, where, I remembered, there was a room before the kitchens.

“Garry, I presume.  And Molly.  My God, it’s been too long.”

A shake of the hand for me, and a hug for Molly. 

“David, or Jerry?”

“David.  You remember.  We used to run amok in this place.”  He grinned.

He was the wild one, and all I did was follow.  There were about seven of us, in the end, before we stopped coming.

“The others will be here tomorrow, and they’re dying to meet you.  My dad was the last man standing, and he left the place to me, not that it was much by that time.  I’ve spent years doing it up, but there’s a long way to go before it returns to its former glory.  By the way, there are no ghosts in the bedrooms, and they are modernized with their own bathroom.  I saw you out in the car before, looking horrified.  Just a word to the wise, that motel does have ghosts.  The jury is out on whether grandfather still roams the hallways, but I guess that’s something you’ll find out tonight.  He was a horrid man by all accounts.  Sorry, my wife says I babble when I’m nervous.”

“He does.”  A woman, a few years older than Molly came out from the back.”

“Angelina?”

“You remember me.”  She smiled.

I remembered her, had for a long time because back then, she was the first girl I thought I was madly in love with.  The fact she was a cousin didn’t seem to matter.  She just ignored me anyway.

And her beauty had not diminished over the years.  “How could anyone forget you?”

“Yes, I had that effect on boys, didn’t I?  It’s good to see you again.”

We both scored a hug, and yes, being close to her again did increase my heart rate just a little.

“Come,” David said, “sit and we’ll have a drink.  Have you eaten?”

“Not for a while.”

“Then we were about to have a bite, I’m sure there’s plenty for everyone.  Sit, and we’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“No wife, husband?”

“Yes on both accounts, but we would never bring them here.  This family is difficult enough for us let alone outsiders.  The rest of the group, well, you’ll see, are just plain quirky relatives.  If you ever saw the Addams Family, TV series or movies, well, they’d fit right in here.  But you’ll see.  More on that soon.”

He and Angelina disappeared outback and silence fell over the room.

“Why do I get the feeling we might be murdered in our beds tonight?”

It was beginning to look like that was a possibility.

When David returned with the old man, Angelina, and what looked to be a maid with food and drinks, we sat down again, turning our fears of being murdered into a severe frightening of ghosts.

The old man was enough to think ghosts were alive in the house.  It couldn’t possibly be the butler from the last time I saw him because he would have to be about 120 years old.

When all of us were settled, David began.

“There is another reason why I asked both of you here, along with all the others, by the way, there are around ten of us.  Your father never told you the truth, or perhaps anything, of the situation when he stopped coming to visit his parents, did he?”

“He just said it was a difference of opinion, that his father would never see reason, didn’t like my mother or her family and gave up trying to be civil.”

“It was worse than that, he told him that if he didn’t give up your mother, he would cut him off from the family fortune, which eventually he did.  It’s probably why you found life a little tougher for a few years.”

That was one way of putting it, we were taken out of our private schools and had just about all our leisure activities curtailed, and the worst, no more holidays.  Mother even had to get a job, which disappointed her family, but they were not as rich as my father’s family was, so couldn’t help us financially.

“It was difficult.”

“Well, the good news is, your grandmother, our grandmother, was not as quirky or pedantic as her husband and never forgot the service your father did for her when he could.  In that regard, she has left a bequest to both you and your sister, Molly.  It’s been a long, hard battle to get it through the system, but it’s finally sorted.”

“I liked grandmother more than grandfather,” Molly said.

“Most of us did.  He was a rebel himself, going against his family, a very interesting bunch themselves.  Our quirkiness probably came from them, the last of the relatively unknown banking and railroad tycoons more famous in the 19th century than today where we are relatively forgotten.  It is of course a blessing in disguise.  But you ask, what is that quirkiness worth?”

“Not much I would imagine, after all this time.  Our father taught us the value of money, so it’ll be nice to have some extra.”

“Some extra.”  He smiled.  “It’s about 125 million dollars, each.  Enough I would say that you can now afford some quirks of your own.”


© Charles Heath 2022

The A to Z Challenge – M is for – “Murder at the mansion”

My great grandfather used to say the mark of a man was not how wealthy or wise he was, but by how much respect he garnered.

Well, my great grandfather was wealthy, wise, and also respected … by everyone but his children.

It was an interesting tale, oft-told by my father over the dinner table, when we, his children, would bemoan the fact that he was too hard on us.

Like my great grandfather, our father had also made something of himself, took every opportunity afforded him, and made it a success.

Yes, there were failures, like how our mother couldn’t handle the success and virtually abandoned us because of him, like our first stepmother, who hated children, and for a while, virtually turned him against us, setbacks that were eventually overcome.

To the outside world, we always said everything turned out all right, but the reality of it was completely the opposite.  Appearances were just that, appearances.

My eldest brother, John, was out the door as soon as he could escape, and into the military, and from that moment we never really saw him.

Then there was me, Toby, with a name I hated, stuck at home to weather the endless storms, and to look after my youngest sister Ginny, who really didn’t have a care in the world.

I don’t think I ever got to have a childhood.

And lastly, my younger sister, Melanie, the tearaway tomboy troublemaker, a devil in disguise, that was responsible for ten nannies in twelve years.

We were as disparate and different as any group of siblings could get, and that was all because of how, in the end, our father finished up exactly like the man he often disparaged, our great grandfather.

Wealthy, yes, wise, the jury was still out in that one, and respected, yes, by everyone but his children.

And, now, I was looking at the body of the man I called my father, sprawled out on the floor, and it was quite plain to see he was dead.

There was no mistaking the bullet hole in his head, Or the puddle of blood emanating from the back of his head.

Someone, obviously, hated him more than we did.

I was surprisingly calm in the face of such a calamity, faring better than Ginny, who was the first to discover him.

She was once subject to bouts of hysteria, and that it had not happened in these circumstances was, in a sense disconcerting.  She had reason to hate him more than the rest of us, the reasons for which I had only learned the night before.

She was sitting on the floor, not ten feet from the body, staring at what she had described as the devil incarnate.  She had every reason to kill him, in fact, I had wanted to myself when she told me.

And when confronted him and demanded to know the truth, he had laughed at me, telling me that it was just a figment of her imagination.

I had to call the police, but before that, I needed to have a clear idea of where everyone was. 

It was a weekend where, for the first time in twenty years, all four siblings were home.  It was ostensibly for an announcement regarding the family, read how my father was going to bequeath his worldly possessions in the event of his death.

And I suspect, to tell us about the fact he was dying, the running battle he had with cancer finally getting a stranglehold in his body, and that he had about six weeks to three months left.

Not that he had said anything, I had received an anonymous email from his doctor telling me, that he didn’t believe we should not be kept in the dark.  But it was not the news I’d shared with the others, hoping the man himself would.

That secret had died with him.

John and Melanie had both yet to put in an appearance.  It had been a late night, and we had all ended up in John’s room, drinking shots of whiskey and talking about how different our lives had been, and how it had been too long apart.

I’d been very drunk at the end and barely made it back to my room before collapsing on the bed.  I had no idea what happened to the others.

Ginny didn’t drink, or so she said, but the few drinks she had, had no effect on her.  She had Bern in a dark mood and no wonder.  She had left all of us in utter silence, devastated at the revelation our father was a monster, the reason why our mother left, unable to do anything to stop him.

She should have taken Ginny with her, but she didn’t, probably saving Melanie from a similar fate.

Threats against his life flew thick and fast, and the once made by John actuary sent a shiver down my spine.  He was the only one experienced in killing, and I could totally believe he could kill in cold blood and not even blink.

Had he?

“Fuck!”

Great timing.  John just walked into the room, still in his pajamas and looking disheveled, as if he had just fought off a pack of bears.

“This your doing?”

“What?  No.  Saying and doing are two different things, Toby.”  He looked down at Ginny.  “Ask her, she had more reason than any of us.”

I was going to, but she seemed in a catatonic state.

“No.  I did not, and believe me, I’ve wanted to for many years.”

Ginny, obviously not in a catatonic state.

“Have you called the police,” he asked.

“Not yet.”

“Good.  Let’s think about this first.  Any sign of a breaking?”

I checked the French windows behind the desk and they were intact and locked.  The room, other than the body on the floor was as it always was.

Not a book or paper out of place.  The desk was clear.  Usually, there was a computer and cell phone on it.

“His laptop is missing.  A robbery gone bad?”

“Robbers don’t usually carry guns, let alone be able to shoot so accurately.”  He was standing over the body making strange body movements, then, “whoever shot him was behind the desk.  He must have heard something and came to investigate.”

If it was any time up to the fifty shots of whiskey, we would have heard a gun going off.

“Silencer?” I said.

“I’m a light sleeper, so I would have heard it.  Others too. It screams premeditation.  Robbers don’t bring guns with suppressors.  If it was a case of being caught unawares, that shot could have gone anywhere.  No, whoever was in her was looking for, maybe found, something, and may have made enough noise to get his attention with the intention of killing him.”

“Holy Mary mother of God!”

Melanie just arrived, riveted to the spot, just inside the door.

“I take it you didn’t do it?” John said to her.

“Me?  You have to be joking.  I wouldn’t know what end of the gun to use.”

Not true, I thought, Melanie was in the gun club at her exclusive school and won various awards for pistol shooting, and we’ll as an expert clay pigeon shooter to boot.  But it was school days, a long time ago.

I looked at her pointedly, and I think she realized what my glare implied.

“I think it’s time we called the police,” I said.

“Can’t we just dig a hole and bring him out there somewhere and pretend he’s gone away?”

“A thought, but not practical, unless one of us did it and we need to hide the evidence.  Anyone going to own up?”

No one spoke.

“Good.  Just remember from this point on, if you have any deep dark secrets, they won’t be for much longer.  We will be the prime suspects.  Leaving isn’t an option.”

“Let the chips fall where they may.  At least the bastard got what he deserved.

I pulled out my phone.

“Last chance.”

John was looking resolute.  Melanie was in a state of shock.  Ginnie went back to being almost catatonic.  I don’t know what I felt, sad, maybe, but with all that had come before, perhaps a sense of relief.

I dialled the number.

“Daisy.  No, I’m alright.  We have a bit of a problem here.  Someone has shot and killed my father.  I think you’d better get here.”

“Right.  Don’t touch anything and keep the scene clear.  I’ll be there as soon as possible.”

I disconnected the call and put the phone back in my pocket. 

At that same moment, I had a great overwhelming feeling that one of them did it.  I couldn’t see how anyone from the outside could or would.

As John said, let the child fall where they may.

“OK.  Daisy wants us out of the room.  Let’s go.”  I said, helping Ginnie up from the floor

“Daisy?  She that girl you were pining over back in elementary school?” John muttered.

“Married her too.  Deputy sheriff now, so be a good boy.  And don’t think our relationship will make this any easier.”

As I closed the door to the office and turned the key in the lock, I could hear the sirens in the distance.

The die, as the saying goes, was cast.


© Charles Heath 2022

The A to Z Challenge – I is for – “If you had but one wish”

It was one of those moments.

Across a crowded dance floor, your eyes meet, and then that tingling sensation down your spine.

A girl who could be a princess, who might be a princess in any other lifetime, and a girl who might just outshine Annabel.

And then the moment is gone, and I could not be sure if it really happened.

“You seem preoccupied.”  The almost whispered voice beside me belonged to Annabel, who had mysteriously disappeared and as mysteriously reappeared by my side.

“Just checking who are the pretenders and who are the aspirants.”

Annabel and her parents had a thing about people, who had money, who didn’t, who aspired to be part of society, and those who thought they were.  It was a complication I didn’t need.

“Does it matter?”

Interesting observation, who was this girl, and what have you done with Annabel?  I turned slightly to observe what some might call my girlfriend, but I was never quite sure what I was to her.  Perfect in almost everything, I noticed one slight flaw, no two, a smudge in her make and hastily applied lipstick.

Did it have something to do with her mysterious disappearance?

“Perhaps not.  We can be gracious no matter what the circumstances.”  A moment, closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, as if preparing for a death-defying leap into an abyss.  Then, with an enthusiasm I certainly didn’t feel myself, she said, “Let’s mingle.”

Being with Annabel could be an experience in itself, the way she carried herself, the way she radiated warmth and humility, and then sometimes when in high dudgeon, you wanted to be anywhere else.  Today, she shone.  I could see the write-up in the social pages of tomorrow’s newspaper, exactly where she wanted to be.  Relevant.

I knew the drill, as consort, to be one pace back and one to the side, being aloof but not aloof, on hand to provide the comment that complimented Annabel’s narrative.

I had suggested that we might take to the dance floor, once around the floor to make an impression, but Annabel, being 3 inches shorter than me in heels, was reluctant.  Not because she couldn’t dance, well, that’s not exactly true, it wasn’t one of her strong points, but there were more pressing things to do.  She didn’t say what they were.

To her equals she was all smiles and politeness, to the aspirants she was gracious, to the pretenders, short but sweet.  In political parlance, we would be pressing the flesh.  In any political arena, I suspect, she would excel.

Then, suddenly, we chanced upon Mr. And Mrs. Upton, and their son Roderick.  I’d seen them once before, at Annabel’s parent’s house when I had been invited to dinner and had noticed, in front of him she was quite animated.  This time her expression changed, and it was one I’d seen before, one I thought was exclusively for me.

I was wrong.

Although that look disappeared as quickly as it came, and she had reverted to the usual greeting, she did take Roderick’s hand when she was re-introduced, and while to all others it seemed like the second time she had met him, I could see it was not.

He looked uncomfortable, and, as he made a slight movement, I could see a smudge of makeup on his lower jaw, and lipstick on his collar, in a place that would not normally be seen.  It was simply a quirk of fate.

By the time I’d processed what I’d seen, we were meeting the next person.

The princess.

“Miss Annabel McCallister, I presume?”

Annabel, suddenly, seemed flustered.  She usually knew everyone at these affairs, to the extent I thought she had a bio specially researched for her, but the princess apparently was not on the list.

“You have me at a disadvantage.  Whom might you be?”  The tone was slightly brittle, the cheeks slightly reddened, and she was annoyed and embarrassed.  Someone’s head will roll for this.

“Frances Williams, or the Boston Williams.”  An offered hand, taken and then released.  When Frances saw her puzzled look, she added, “I belong to the distant branch who live across the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.  Crumbling castles, and once upon a time, tea plantations.”

And then I committed the ultimate crime, I spoke.  “Surely you do not live in a crumbling castle?”

Annabel scowled, Frances laughed, “Oh, no.  Daddy’s spending a few million to fill the cracks so it isn’t as draughty.”

Interview killed stone dead.  “It was a pleasure to meet you, Frances.  Perhaps our paths might cross again.”  In which I read, I hope they do not.

Frances was a girl who could play Annabel at her own game, and quite likely she would win.

We did the obligatory waltz, her strongest dance, and it was one of fluid motion and great concentration, in order to shrug off the Frances factor.  After that, she said she needed a few moments to get some air, and it was probably perverse of me to think that finally, someone had bested her.

I had no interest in further mingling and found a quiet corner in which to view the proceedings and contemplate where the princess had disappeared to.

Apparently not as far away as I thought.  “You saw it, didn’t you?”

I guess I could feign ignorance, but the princess was all-knowing and all-seeing, and now beside me, close enough for another tingling sensation in my spine from the timbre of her voice.

“A tryst with Roderick, I suspect.”

“Handsome lad, cheeky grin, just enough nervousness that someone would suspect they’d been shagging.”

I turned to look at the amused expression.  “Who are you, really.  You’re definitely not one of the Boston Williams.”

“No.  They’re too stuffy for me.  My real name is Cherie, not French, but I can speak it if you like?”

“Probably not.  Mine is schoolboy at best.  How did you get in here?”

“A rather enterprising waiter, and a hundred dollar note.  Most of these twits wouldn’t know the real thing even if they fell over it.”

“An attention-seeking journalist then?”  She would not be the first, to try to see how the so-called other half lives.

“Perish the thought.  I just love these affairs, the people, the atmosphere, the food, and the drink.  And meeting people like you, a contradiction in every sense.  You don’t want to be here, and yet here you are.  You don’t want to be with her, and yet you are.  Duty?  Obligation?”

“All of the above.”

“And now you know she’s having a dalliance.”

“What rich and famous couple are monogamous?  You read the papers, its musical beds.  It comes down to how much pride you want to swallow for the sake of family, business, and appearances.”

She shook her head.  “That’s not you.  Humor me, come to the Cafe Delacrat tomorrow, 10:00 am.  We’ll chat.”

I took Annabel home, and it was like nothing had happened, and she was not seeing anyone else.  The girl, if nothing else, was a consummate actress, and had I not seen the evidence, I would still think I was the only person for her.  But she was inordinately happy, and I had not been able to do that for her for a long time. 

Perhaps it was time to move on.

I nearly decided to stay in bed and not go to the Cafe Delacrat, but the thought of seeing the princess once more was the compelling argument to go. 

When I got there, a few minutes before the hour, she was not there, and I thought to myself, I had been tricked.  That thought magnified when it came to a few minutes after when the waiter brought out the latte.  The coffee aroma was good, so it would not be a wasted visit.

And, like the princess she was, she arrived late.  Dressed in a yellow summery dress with flowers, red shoes and handbag, and the obligatory scarf and sunglasses, she looked movie star stunning.  She sat down, and the waiter was there before she finished squirming into the seat.

“I’ll have what he’s having.”

“Latte.”  He probably knew, but I wasn’t leaving anything to chance.

“I didn’t see you arrive, otherwise…”

“Very few people do.”

“By the way, you look amazing.”

“What?  This old thing.  It’s been sitting in the back of the closet since I last visited San Gimignano.  Have you traveled?”

“Yes.”

“Man of few words.  Compliments women.  Apologetic.  That girl is not for you.”

“And you might be?”  I was wondering what her motives were.

“Me?  No.  Too old, a bit of a lush, certainly not monogamous, and frankly, you could do a lot better.  In fact, you deserve better.”

“Then…”

She was watching the other side of the road, the front entrance to a rather pricy hotel in fact, as a taxi stopped and two passengers got out.  When it drove off, I could see a man and a woman, and when I looked closer, I saw it was Annabel and Roderick, holding hands and looking very much in love, as they literally bounced into the hotel.  No baggage, 10:00 am, no prizes for guessing why they were there.

“How did you know?”

She shrugged.  “I know she is not the one for you.  So, if you had but one wish, who would you wish for?  I’m sure, over time, there has been a girl who stole your heart.  We all have one, in my case, probably two, or three.”

Who was this woman, my fairy godmother?”

Yes, she inspired me to think, and closed my eyes to go back to a time in university when I ran into this amazing girl who spent far too much time helping others than to worry about herself.  We spent a lot of time together, and yet we were not together in that sense, as much as I wanted to be.  I sense though it was not the time or the place for her, and, after two years, she simply disappeared.

“Miranda Moore.”

I hadn’t realized I’d said her name out loud.

“Yes?”

I opened my eyes and looked up to see the very girl, a few years older but no less attractive than she was then, apparently a waitress at that cafe.

“Peter?”

“Miranda?  Wow.  I’ve been looking for you, high and low.  What happened?”

“My mother died and I had to go home.  It’s been a few years of hell, but, like you say, wow.  Looking for me, you say?”

“High and low.”

“And now you’ve found me?”

“I’m not letting you disappear on me again.  Can we…”

“I finish at noon.  Come back then, and I’m yours.  God, it’s so nice to see you again.”


© Charles Heath 2022

The A to Z Challenge – I is for – “If you had but one wish”

It was one of those moments.

Across a crowded dance floor, your eyes meet, and then that tingling sensation down your spine.

A girl who could be a princess, who might be a princess in any other lifetime, and a girl who might just outshine Annabel.

And then the moment is gone, and I could not be sure if it really happened.

“You seem preoccupied.”  The almost whispered voice beside me belonged to Annabel, who had mysteriously disappeared and as mysteriously reappeared by my side.

“Just checking who are the pretenders and who are the aspirants.”

Annabel and her parents had a thing about people, who had money, who didn’t, who aspired to be part of society, and those who thought they were.  It was a complication I didn’t need.

“Does it matter?”

Interesting observation, who was this girl, and what have you done with Annabel?  I turned slightly to observe what some might call my girlfriend, but I was never quite sure what I was to her.  Perfect in almost everything, I noticed one slight flaw, no two, a smudge in her make and hastily applied lipstick.

Did it have something to do with her mysterious disappearance?

“Perhaps not.  We can be gracious no matter what the circumstances.”  A moment, closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, as if preparing for a death-defying leap into an abyss.  Then, with an enthusiasm I certainly didn’t feel myself, she said, “Let’s mingle.”

Being with Annabel could be an experience in itself, the way she carried herself, the way she radiated warmth and humility, and then sometimes when in high dudgeon, you wanted to be anywhere else.  Today, she shone.  I could see the write-up in the social pages of tomorrow’s newspaper, exactly where she wanted to be.  Relevant.

I knew the drill, as consort, to be one pace back and one to the side, being aloof but not aloof, on hand to provide the comment that complimented Annabel’s narrative.

I had suggested that we might take to the dance floor, once around the floor to make an impression, but Annabel, being 3 inches shorter than me in heels, was reluctant.  Not because she couldn’t dance, well, that’s not exactly true, it wasn’t one of her strong points, but there were more pressing things to do.  She didn’t say what they were.

To her equals she was all smiles and politeness, to the aspirants she was gracious, to the pretenders, short but sweet.  In political parlance, we would be pressing the flesh.  In any political arena, I suspect, she would excel.

Then, suddenly, we chanced upon Mr. And Mrs. Upton, and their son Roderick.  I’d seen them once before, at Annabel’s parent’s house when I had been invited to dinner and had noticed, in front of him she was quite animated.  This time her expression changed, and it was one I’d seen before, one I thought was exclusively for me.

I was wrong.

Although that look disappeared as quickly as it came, and she had reverted to the usual greeting, she did take Roderick’s hand when she was re-introduced, and while to all others it seemed like the second time she had met him, I could see it was not.

He looked uncomfortable, and, as he made a slight movement, I could see a smudge of makeup on his lower jaw, and lipstick on his collar, in a place that would not normally be seen.  It was simply a quirk of fate.

By the time I’d processed what I’d seen, we were meeting the next person.

The princess.

“Miss Annabel McCallister, I presume?”

Annabel, suddenly, seemed flustered.  She usually knew everyone at these affairs, to the extent I thought she had a bio specially researched for her, but the princess apparently was not on the list.

“You have me at a disadvantage.  Whom might you be?”  The tone was slightly brittle, the cheeks slightly reddened, and she was annoyed and embarrassed.  Someone’s head will roll for this.

“Frances Williams, or the Boston Williams.”  An offered hand, taken and then released.  When Frances saw her puzzled look, she added, “I belong to the distant branch who live across the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.  Crumbling castles, and once upon a time, tea plantations.”

And then I committed the ultimate crime, I spoke.  “Surely you do not live in a crumbling castle?”

Annabel scowled, Frances laughed, “Oh, no.  Daddy’s spending a few million to fill the cracks so it isn’t as draughty.”

Interview killed stone dead.  “It was a pleasure to meet you, Frances.  Perhaps our paths might cross again.”  In which I read, I hope they do not.

Frances was a girl who could play Annabel at her own game, and quite likely she would win.

We did the obligatory waltz, her strongest dance, and it was one of fluid motion and great concentration, in order to shrug off the Frances factor.  After that, she said she needed a few moments to get some air, and it was probably perverse of me to think that finally, someone had bested her.

I had no interest in further mingling and found a quiet corner in which to view the proceedings and contemplate where the princess had disappeared to.

Apparently not as far away as I thought.  “You saw it, didn’t you?”

I guess I could feign ignorance, but the princess was all-knowing and all-seeing, and now beside me, close enough for another tingling sensation in my spine from the timbre of her voice.

“A tryst with Roderick, I suspect.”

“Handsome lad, cheeky grin, just enough nervousness that someone would suspect they’d been shagging.”

I turned to look at the amused expression.  “Who are you, really.  You’re definitely not one of the Boston Williams.”

“No.  They’re too stuffy for me.  My real name is Cherie, not French, but I can speak it if you like?”

“Probably not.  Mine is schoolboy at best.  How did you get in here?”

“A rather enterprising waiter, and a hundred dollar note.  Most of these twits wouldn’t know the real thing even if they fell over it.”

“An attention-seeking journalist then?”  She would not be the first, to try to see how the so-called other half lives.

“Perish the thought.  I just love these affairs, the people, the atmosphere, the food, and the drink.  And meeting people like you, a contradiction in every sense.  You don’t want to be here, and yet here you are.  You don’t want to be with her, and yet you are.  Duty?  Obligation?”

“All of the above.”

“And now you know she’s having a dalliance.”

“What rich and famous couple are monogamous?  You read the papers, its musical beds.  It comes down to how much pride you want to swallow for the sake of family, business, and appearances.”

She shook her head.  “That’s not you.  Humor me, come to the Cafe Delacrat tomorrow, 10:00 am.  We’ll chat.”

I took Annabel home, and it was like nothing had happened, and she was not seeing anyone else.  The girl, if nothing else, was a consummate actress, and had I not seen the evidence, I would still think I was the only person for her.  But she was inordinately happy, and I had not been able to do that for her for a long time. 

Perhaps it was time to move on.

I nearly decided to stay in bed and not go to the Cafe Delacrat, but the thought of seeing the princess once more was the compelling argument to go. 

When I got there, a few minutes before the hour, she was not there, and I thought to myself, I had been tricked.  That thought magnified when it came to a few minutes after when the waiter brought out the latte.  The coffee aroma was good, so it would not be a wasted visit.

And, like the princess she was, she arrived late.  Dressed in a yellow summery dress with flowers, red shoes and handbag, and the obligatory scarf and sunglasses, she looked movie star stunning.  She sat down, and the waiter was there before she finished squirming into the seat.

“I’ll have what he’s having.”

“Latte.”  He probably knew, but I wasn’t leaving anything to chance.

“I didn’t see you arrive, otherwise…”

“Very few people do.”

“By the way, you look amazing.”

“What?  This old thing.  It’s been sitting in the back of the closet since I last visited San Gimignano.  Have you traveled?”

“Yes.”

“Man of few words.  Compliments women.  Apologetic.  That girl is not for you.”

“And you might be?”  I was wondering what her motives were.

“Me?  No.  Too old, a bit of a lush, certainly not monogamous, and frankly, you could do a lot better.  In fact, you deserve better.”

“Then…”

She was watching the other side of the road, the front entrance to a rather pricy hotel in fact, as a taxi stopped and two passengers got out.  When it drove off, I could see a man and a woman, and when I looked closer, I saw it was Annabel and Roderick, holding hands and looking very much in love, as they literally bounced into the hotel.  No baggage, 10:00 am, no prizes for guessing why they were there.

“How did you know?”

She shrugged.  “I know she is not the one for you.  So, if you had but one wish, who would you wish for?  I’m sure, over time, there has been a girl who stole your heart.  We all have one, in my case, probably two, or three.”

Who was this woman, my fairy godmother?”

Yes, she inspired me to think, and closed my eyes to go back to a time in university when I ran into this amazing girl who spent far too much time helping others than to worry about herself.  We spent a lot of time together, and yet we were not together in that sense, as much as I wanted to be.  I sense though it was not the time or the place for her, and, after two years, she simply disappeared.

“Miranda Moore.”

I hadn’t realized I’d said her name out loud.

“Yes?”

I opened my eyes and looked up to see the very girl, a few years older but no less attractive than she was then, apparently a waitress at that cafe.

“Peter?”

“Miranda?  Wow.  I’ve been looking for you, high and low.  What happened?”

“My mother died and I had to go home.  It’s been a few years of hell, but, like you say, wow.  Looking for me, you say?”

“High and low.”

“And now you’ve found me?”

“I’m not letting you disappear on me again.  Can we…”

“I finish at noon.  Come back then, and I’m yours.  God, it’s so nice to see you again.”


© Charles Heath 2022

The A to Z Challenge – H is for – “Have you any idea…?”

Most children, when they turn 18, or 21, get a car as a present for their birthday.  In fact, I had been hoping, in my case, they would buy me a Ferrari, or at the very least, an Alfa Romeo, blue to match my older sister’s red.

Hope is a horrible thing to hang on to.

Instead, I got a seat at the table.

Not an actual seat but joined the other 7 family members that comprised the management group for the family-run business.  One would retire to make way for new blood, as they called it.

“This is how it works and has done for a hundred years.  In your case, you will be replacing Grandma Gwen.  You will be given an area to manage, and you will be expected to work hard, and set an example to your employees.  There will be no partying, no staying home when you feel like it, and definitely no getting into trouble.  And for the first three years, you will sit, be quiet, listen and learn.  One day, down the track, you will become the CEO.”

“If we’re still in business.”  It didn’t take much to see that the company was struggling, as indeed many others were in the same industry, cheap imports and changing tastes taking a huge toll.

But we had been making exclusive and distinctive furniture for a long, long time, and discerning people who wanted a reminder of an elegant past still bought it.  Part of my training, before I got that seat, was to learn the trade, and like all members of my family, could build a chair from start to finish.

It was part of the mantra, lead by example.

On the second day in my new role as manager, I arrived at the office, grandma Gwen was throwing the last of 50 years’ worth of stuff into three large boxes.

It was no surprise that she was resentful at being ousted to make way for me, not that she needed the money, but because even approaching 90, the last thing she wanted to do was retire.

I got the cold stare when she saw me, and, on her way out, a parting shot, “Don’t get comfortable, sonny, they’ll be closing the doors in three months, even sooner.  Your father hasn’t a clue how to run the place.”

Out on the factory floor, the eight specialist workers didn’t exactly give her the goodbye I expected, showing that she didn’t have their respect.  The foreman, Gary, the man who had shown me the intricacies of the work, opened and closed the door for her, shrugged, and headed back to the office.

The others went back to work.

When he came into the office, his expression changed from disappointment to amusement.  He had said, years ago when I was very young, I’d be sitting in that office one.

Now I was there, though the chair, plush and comfortable when new about 50 years ago, was now as old and tired as the office’s previous owner, was hardly a selling point for the job.

“Told you you’d be sitting in that chair one day.  That day is here.”

“Maybe not for long, though.”

“Don’t pay no mind to Gwenny.  She and your father never got along.  She wanted to sell the business 20 years ago when it was worth something, but your Dad wanted to keep the worker’s jobs.  It’ll be a different story in a few years, once we’ve all gone.  No one wants to be an artisan anymore.  And wires, it’s all about furniture in boxes, all veneer and plastic, and a two tear life.”

“Shouldn’t we get a slice of the veneer and plastic market?”

“Can’t beat the overseas factories at their own game.  The trick is to diversify, but to do that we’d need to retool, and repurpose factory space and that costs money, big money.”

With all that stuff I learned at University, economics, management, and design, it might have been better to have taken the medical path, but I had been convinced to lay the groundwork to take over the company one day.

Back then, it wasn’t a possibility the company would not go on forever.  It seemed odd to me that my father hadn’t said anything about the situation Gary knew so well.  Did he not listen to those who knew most?

“So, what’s the solution?”

“That depends on you.”

This was not the job I signed up for.

What did I know about furniture?

It didn’t matter.

It was about manufacturing in a world economy, and the point was, that we could not compete.  Like the car industry, there was nothing but foreign imports and rebadged imported items made overseas.

So what was my role?

I was sure that every conclusion I had come to, everyone else around the table was painfully aware of too.  A short discussion with my elder sister confirmed it.

It was like being aboard the Titanic and watching it sink firsthand.

That seat at the table was in an ancient wood-paneled room with a huge table that seated 24, a table and matching chairs reputedly hand made by the first owner of the company, my so-many times great grandfather, Erich.

The room reeked of wood polish, the mustiness of age, and a deep vein of tradition.  Paintings on the walls were of every CEO the company had, and the first time I was in that room was the unveiling of my father’s portrait.

It was like stepping into a time warp.

Alison, my father’s PA was just finishing up setting the table for the meeting that morning.  She had Bern around for a long time, so long I could remember her when I was a child.

She looked over as I stepped into the room.

“You’re just a little early.”

“Just making sure I know where I’m going.”

“Are you nervous?”

“No.  It won’t be much different from sitting down to a family dinner, only a few less than normal, and I suspect there won’t be too many anecdotes.”

“It can be quite serious, but your father prefers to keep it light, and short.  Your grandfather on the other hand loved to torture the numbers with long-winded speeches and religious tracts.”

Small mercy then.

“Where do I sit?”

“Down the end in the listen and don’t speak seat.  It’s where all new members sit for the first year.”

That was twice I’d been told.

There were eight family members, the seven others I knew well, some better than others.  I’d seen arguments, words said that were better unsaid, accusations, and compliments.  I’d seen them at their best and at their worst.

It would be interesting to see how they got along in this room.

It started with an introduction and mild applause at my anointment to the ‘board’.

Then the captain of the Titanic my father as the current CEO, read out the agenda.

No icebergs expected, just plain sailing.

I sat, and I listened.  It was easy to see why it was plain sailing.  The family had made its wealth generations ago when our products were in high demand, and we had been living off the wealth generated by astute investment managers.

But even so, the business could not keep going the way it was without being an ever-decreasing drain on resources.

We needed a plan for the future.

“Now, if there’s no more business…”  My father looked around the table, his expression telling everyone there was no more business, and stopped at me.

Was that my cue?

“I’m sorry, but I can’t sit here and pretend this place isn’t going to hell in a handbasket.”

“It may or it may not be, but that is none of your concern.”

The tone more than suggested that I should stop, right now.  Of course, if I had the sense expected of me I would have, but if I was going to make a contribution, I might as well start now.

“Do you have any idea what’s going on here?  We need a plan for the future, we need to be doing something.”

All eyes were on me.

I’d never seen my father so angry.  At that moment I thought I’d pushed it a little too hard.  To be honest I don’t know what came over me.

He glared at me for a full minute.  Then as if a thought came to me that moment, there was a slight change in expression.

“Then, I have a proposition for you.  I want you to work on this plan you say we need to have, what you think will be best for the company, and the family, for everyone, for the future.  I believe everyone here will agree on something, as you say, that needs to be done.”

There were nods all around the table.

Then, looking directly at me, he said, “if there is nothing else.  Good.  Our business is done.”


© Charles Heath 2022

The A to Z Challenge – G is for – “Got a moment to myself”

Here’s the thing … good guys come last

It’s as simple as that.

The thing is, we had all been taken in, and no one, well, there was one person who had an inkling, but I didn’t take her seriously, simply because it was the girl who cried wolf once too often.

And, consequently, the ramifications could have been very serious.

Was that the price for deciding to take people at face value, that we would eventually discover their true nature before it was too late?

I’d lived in a house full of people who trusted no one, and who was always prepared to believe the worst in people.

My parents trusted no one and consequently suffered relatively lonely lives.

My sister, Davina, was not so bad but underlying every decision that was to do with people, she would have them investigated within an inch of their lives, and that too, had been very costly for her, especially when they found out.  It ended three marriages and estranged two of her three children.

As for me, I made the decision not to be like them, and it had served me well.  By and large, everyone I knew and had dealings with was fine.  But even with this happy-go-lucky attitude, I still found it difficult to find what one might call the woman of my dreams.

That’s why, when Helen appeared one night at a party I’d only just decided to go to at the last minute, I thought my luck had changed.

How do you ‘run into’ the one?  Was it an accidental bump, excuse me, and then a lingering look as she sashays off, or is it reaching for the same glass of champagne, with the consequent touching of hands?

There are an infinite variety of ‘first’ moments, moments that left lingering thoughts of ‘who was that woman?”

There is that thought, could it have been a contrivance to get my attention?  If it was, it did.

It was a large banquet hall, and there were plenty of places to hide, and I wasn’t particularly interested in staying until our paths crossed.  But was my curiosity enough to make a move?

To begin with, it was not.

I shrugged it off as a one-off moment, something to remember from an unremarkable gala that proved, once I arrived, why I had been hesitating in the first place.

Old people displaying their wealth, young people flirting with the rich and famous.  I was, perhaps, a little rich, but definitely not famous, hence the reason why a bevy of eligible girls was not beating a path to my door.

There were three others of my ilk there who fitted that bill and willingly took the heat for me.  One, Augustus, last name unpronounceable, had that Latin, dark, sultry look going, sauntered over after he had witnessed the ‘meeting’.

“I see you’ve met Helen?”

“She stole my drink.”

“All part of the plan, Ian.  She just tossed away another of the pretenders, and if you play your cards right, you might be the next.”

“Pretender?”

His smirk was imprinted on his face and never changed, amused, or annoyed.  “You know you can be such a prat sometimes.”

It had been said, more than once.  “Do I want to play my cards right?”

“She is interested in a mysterious way.  I asked her out, but she seemed disinterested, and as you know, I only ask once.  Aside from that, we want to know who she is, really.”

“And you think she’ll tell me?”

“You’re not a player, Ian, and have that perfect aloofness thing going, one that can drive a certain type of girl crazy.  I think she’s one of them.”

“Then how do I find her?”

He shook his head.  “That’s not how this will be played.  She has to come to you.  Aloof, remember, Ian, aloof.  Now, I must be off.  Say hello to Davina for me will you?”

He’d seen her crossing the room and had no interest in sparring with her.  For some reason, she just didn’t like him.  Or was that because he spurned her?  I never could get an answer from her.

Aloof.

I could do aloof, though I was not sure how that would seem interesting to a woman like her.

Aside from my belief that as beautiful as her would be remotely interested in me, aside perhaps from the family wealth that one day I would inheritance s point Davina took great pains to remind me.

And that was something I wasn’t looking forward to.

There was an art to mingling at these affairs, on one hand, the obligatory meet and greet of our contemporaries, deference to our peers, letting them know we were upholding the proper values, and respect as was warranted by our position, and on the other, a casual greeting to those who were on the fringe of our society.

I’d learn the lessons from Davina when she deemed it I was ready, but the truth is, no matter what age you are, you’re never ready for this.

There was a third category, those that came up to you, wishing to make an acquaintance, whether it was for publicity, or for prestige, it was impossible to tell, then and there, sometimes it was a matter of reading the social pages to find out how your name gad been taken in vain.

I preferred not to talk to any of them unless it was absolutely necessary.

Or someone you knew brought them to you, which then, out of deference to them, sometimes put you on the spot.

Nnn chose that path, selecting another person who was known to me, Alison Burkwater, a rare, unbiased reporter, to slip in under the radar.

Not realizing I was the eventual target, I watched them stroll through the crowded floor, stopping momentarily for an introduction, or a polite exchange, Alison gathering information for her next article before they headed in my direction.

I was with one of my father’s oldest friends, Jacob, his wife, Mary, and one of their three daughters, Amy, whom I knew would be pleased if we were together, but fate seemed to keep us apart.

I watched Helen, almost entranced by the fluid motion she moved, reminding me of a cat just before it pounced on unsuspecting prey until she was standing in front of me, unaware that Alison was speaking.

“This is Helen Dunbar, over from England, checking us Americans out as the British do.”

She then introduced each of us, leaving me till last, deliberately.

Each had a comment, or a question, so when it came to me, I asked, “Holiday or business?”

In my experience, they usually said both, but if she was here, it was business, making contacts, getting a feel for the market.  Perhaps even at this age, I’d become cynical

“Both.”

Suspicion confirmed.  “But I hear you are an unofficial tour guide, and I am in need of someone to show me this great city.”

Flattery, no doubt.  And a smile from Alison, a nod to the time when she had written a bad piece about the city, and I took the trouble to prove otherwise.

To one side I heard Jacob excuse himself, and the others left with him.  Alison’s job done, she left us together.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Davina deep in conversation with the family’s head of security.

Davina had so little faith in me.

“Perhaps that might be a topic we could discuss over coffee later?”

“Tonight?”

“Unless you’re otherwise engaged?”

“No.”

There was a slight exodus from the main hall, an indication that unusual for a gala like this, there would be dancing.  It was a pet pastime of the host, an orchestra had been commissioned, and it was to be a nod to the old days.

“Do you dance,” I asked?

“It was part of my finishing school curriculum that nearly finished me in more ways than one.  Long story, but yes.”

“Would you like to lead a poor boy around the floor and make him look good?”

She smiled.  “I know you are pulling my leg, but I’ll bite.”  She held out her hand, “Take me away before I change my mind “

Dancing was a social etiquette that was forced on me, and I was, for a long time, dreadful at it.  It was only in my last year of middle school that a girl by the name of Wendy Whiles took the nervous bumbler with two left feet onto something that might make Fred Astaire proud.

She also introduced me to other more interesting things teenagers did, albeit in the comfort of a very expensive hotel suite, rather than in the back of a car.  I thought I’d loved her, but she was not interested in wealth and fame, and I didn’t blame her, though I still insisted someone paid her a large sum of money to break off whatever we didn’t have going.

All her lessons paid off, and I found myself almost floating on air as we waltzed around the floor deftly avoiding the others brave enough to take to the dance floor.

“Do you do this often,” she asked, not long into the routine.

“No.”

“You dance well.”

“Only when I’m not talking.   Arthur Murray didn’t include how to handle chatty girls on the dance floor.”

Any other girl I was sure would have been insulted.  I could be like that sometimes.  I called it being blunt.

“A new experience then.”

“Can’t count and talk at the same time?”

“And yet you dance so well.”

“Flattery will get you only so far.”

We finished in silence, and I thought I had ruined my opportunity, though for what was questionable.  I should have been content to dance with one of the most beautiful girls at the ball.

She took my hand as we left the dance floor and headed toward the bar.  That walk felt natural, holding hands, and the feeling there was a connection between us.  She had not forced it, I had not looked for it, it had just happened.

She drank club soda.  She said she didn’t drink alcohol, and it seemed logical.  She was effervescent enough without any aids, unlike some of my friends who needed drugs and copious quantities of alcohol to get into a ‘groove’.  I could take it or leave it and did the latter.

We picked a quiet corner.

“Why are you really here?” I asked.  Start with the hard questions first.

“Sometime told me about this rich, handsome, bored young man who hates galas, and the mating rituals that go with them.”

“And yet here you are?”

“Secretly,” she whispered, “my real name is Rapunzel, I escaped from a tower, and am here to rescue anyone who needs rescuing.  Do you need rescuing?”

I did, but I did not want to incur Davina’s wrath.  And then I thought about the possibility, that she might just be bait for something more sinister.  It was improbable, but Davina had impressed on me that there were a lot of nasty people in the world, and sometimes it was hard to see through the facades.

If she was evil, then it came beautifully gift wrapped.

“Rescue does involve a rather full-on security detail as well, and, the filling out of paperwork that would take till dawn to do.”

“I assume then, that weedy little man pretending to have a quiet drink over there is one of them.”

She nodded in his direction, and I recognized him instantly.  “Warren.  Dangerous as a cut snake.  Even I keep my distance from him.”

Another glance, impassive expression, it would be interesting what she was thinking at that moment.

“So, what do you do for fun?”

“An occasional waltz with the most beautiful girl at the gala.”

“And…?”

“My life is ruled by responsibility.  If you’re looking for fun, there are six other very eligible young men here that will be happy to fete you, and indulge your wildest dreams?”

“Aren’t you the least bit curious?”  There was an invitation there, for what, I suspect would be whatever I wanted, but Davina’s voice was well and truly planted in my head.  If it’s too good to be true…

I smiled wanly and finished my drink.  “That is a luxury that I can only dream about.  Thank you for the few brief moments of possibilities.”

Not an hour later, from a distance, I saw two men in civilian suits escorting her out of the building.  There was no disguising their true identities, ex-military, or military police.

Odd for a girl that looked like her to be involved with such people.

A few minutes later Davina appeared beside me.  “I could have told you that girl was trouble.”

“Looking at her, I thought the exact opposite.”

“You need to be more careful.”

“Warren was there.  I’m sure he could handle her.  I made sure I was in a position where if trouble came it would have to pass him, and I have the taser in my pocket.  What was her crime.”

“None apparently.  Some high-ranking Generals’ daughter out for a lark.  Now come back and talk to Amy.”


© Charles Heath 2022

The A to Z Challenge – D is for – “Did you hear that?”

It started with a phone call, a phone call that I never expected to get.

I was one of those people who went through life, almost invisible.  It was not what I wanted, it just happened.

I was not the sociable sort, at school I tended to spend my time studying and then being labeled a nerd, I didn’t make friends, except for those who wanted help with their homework.

Few friends in elementary school, fewer in middle school, and none in college, that is no one that you could call a true friend.  They were more acquaintances that were there for the help I could give them, but no one that would invite me to parties, or to just hang out.

That continues on into university. Except there were several new acquainted that were a little more than that, though not quite BFFs.

There was one, in particular, Anna, who was one of the study group, the one who needed the most help, someone who had been wavering on returning after the first year.

My trouble was that I liked her more than she liked me, my opinion of course, based on what I called the indifference factor, but perhaps I had more expectations than she did

She was doing uni because it was expected of her, not because she wanted to be there.  She could take it or leave it, and the last time I spoke to her, she was going to leave.

And when she left to go back home, it was the last time I expected to see or hear from her.

Until that phone call.

“What are you doing this weekend?”

A dumb question, nothing of course, but I wouldn’t tell her that.  I was still in shock that Anna would call me, for anything other than school, if at all.

“Not a lot.”

“Good.  How would you like to housesit with me?”

House sit?  Surely she had a dozen others who would do anything for her.  She was that popular and well-liked.  And would probably be far more amusing than I ever could be.

“If you like.  I had no idea you did house minding.”

“I don’t, but an aunt is going away for the weekend, and she wants someone to look after the cat.  I hope you like cats.  And gardens.  It has a nice garden.”

Cats I could take or leave.  Gardens, it was probably a birdbath, two beds of roses, a large tree with a seat under it, and neighbors peering over the fence.

But it was a weekend somewhere else other than my little room, and Anna would be there.  Maybe I could try to get past my shyness and actually talk to her.

“OK.  I’m in.  Do I need to bring anything?”

“No.  I’ll send you the address and see you there at 5 pm. Friday.”

Why did I get the feeling I was being set up?

That feeling of impending doing followed me down the path from the front gate to the front door.

Far from the house being a small thatch cottage, based on the address she gave me, it turned out to be a three-story manor house with a large outhouse that looked to be once a stable and coach house

It seemed far too large to be a house for one person.

When I rang the doorbell, I expected a butler to answer the door, but it was Anna herself.

“Nice place,” I said.

“Too large and too hard to maintain.  Were trying to convince her that she would be better off in something smaller.  But you should see the back.”

Based on the front garden which could happily grace the front cover of any country living magazine, I couldn’t wait.

She let me pass and closed the door behind us.  It sounded like the vault was closing and there would be no damage until the timer released the locks.

Inside, the whole place reeked of heritage and antiques, and the personality of its owner.  The walls had paintings, table tops had old magazines, the seats worn leather, and worn carpet squares covered floorboards that creaked when you walked on them.

At the end of a long corridor was the kitchen at the end if the house, after passing several sitting and dining rooms.  It was a very large house and raised a very important question.

She had not mentioned any family or relatives with anything like the wealth this house exuded.  In fact, she had often implied that she was just an ordinary person.

This was anything but ordinary.

I caught up with her on the back patio, just off a large sunroom, to view what had to be an acre or more of manicured laws, garden beds, and trees.  All it was missing was a maze.

“Do you actually have a secret life?”

“I was always told not to advertise our wealth.”

“Isn’t showing me this, a form of advertising?  After all, I’m apparently from the wrong side of the tracks.”

“I trust you.”

“But you don’t know me, or anything about me.”

“Why do you think you’re here?”

If I wanted to make an educated guess, my first thought was to set me up for something, for the very reason she was aloof, and people like her, and those she kept company with, were not people like me associated with.

I was surprised not to see the two girls I’d once nicknamed ‘the dynamic duo’, Melissa and Winona, with her.  Maybe they would turn up later.

My second thought, the most improbable reason, was that she wanted to get to know me, but, why choose a place like this?  To make me feel small, grateful, impressed? Ten minutes in a Cafe was all she needed to find out what she needed to know about me.

An alarm bell went off when I asked her where I could get a drink of water, and she said, the kitchen, but didn’t really know where it was. I got an instant bad feeling.

That was followed by a bang that I thought came from the rear of the house.

“Did you hear that?” I asked.

“You hear all sorts of noises in places like these.”

If she wasn’t worried, neither was I.

Then the door chime rang.

“You expecting more visitors?”  My internal fear factor was rising exponentially.

“No, but I’d better find out who it is, just in case.”

I shrugged and headed towards where she indicated the kitchen was, the rear of the house, what I would call an educated guess

After I found the kitchen, not technically at the rear, I returned to find my worst fears had come true.  Not only the dynamic duo but also their boyfriends, Chad and Lester, two of the worst bullies from school days.

“Well, look who it is.”  Chad was particularly menacing.

A glance to the side, it was hard to tell if Anna was looking pleased or neutral, but she wasn’t surprised. I glanced in Anna’s direction and all I got was a tilt of her head.

“Shouldn’t you be down the country club trying to prove you’re a new version of your drunken bully of a father?”

His smile turned into a very angry look.  “Don’t go there, Scanlon.”

“Why are you here then?”

I expected to hear Anna had invited them.  Instead, “we’re here to make sure Anna doesn’t make a mistake.”

“I don’t need your help or advice Chad.  In fact, you should leave.”

None of the four looked like they had any intention of leaving.  “Not until we’ve impressed upon both of you, the error of your ways.  We thought you were smarter than this or did Scanlon force himself on you?”

She shook her head, not necessarily in anger, but more in despair.  “I don’t know where you get your ideas from Chad, but you are very much mistaken.  So, I will only say this once more, Chad,” she added quietly, “otherwise you will find yourself in a world of pain.  Leave now while you still can.”

Chad, being Chad, was the master of ceremonies, puffed up as he had been in the schoolyard when he was about the unleash his gang on some poor misguided fool, usually me, or one of three others.  But it was Melissa who spoke instead, “You go teach Scanlon a lesson outside by the pool while we have a talk to Anna.”

Lester took the cue, came over, and grabbed me by the shoulder.  I thought about trying to shrug him off, but Chad was across the room before I could initiate anything.  Best to leave calmly and sort it out outside.

I gave Anna a last look, but she was wearing her poker face.  Had she set this up?  It seemed as though she hadn’t, but then, it didn’t look like she was worried about the dynamic duo.

I shrugged.

Intentional or not, Chad and Lester were about to learn a very valuable lesson, and revenge, at least on them, was going to be sweet.

©  Charles Heath 2022

The A to Z Challenge – D is for – “Did you hear that?”

It started with a phone call, a phone call that I never expected to get.

I was one of those people who went through life, almost invisible.  It was not what I wanted, it just happened.

I was not the sociable sort, at school I tended to spend my time studying and then being labeled a nerd, I didn’t make friends, except for those who wanted help with their homework.

Few friends in elementary school, fewer in middle school, and none in college, that is no one that you could call a true friend.  They were more acquaintances that were there for the help I could give them, but no one that would invite me to parties, or to just hang out.

That continues on into university. Except there were several new acquainted that were a little more than that, though not quite BFFs.

There was one, in particular, Anna, who was one of the study group, the one who needed the most help, someone who had been wavering on returning after the first year.

My trouble was that I liked her more than she liked me, my opinion of course, based on what I called the indifference factor, but perhaps I had more expectations than she did

She was doing uni because it was expected of her, not because she wanted to be there.  She could take it or leave it, and the last time I spoke to her, she was going to leave.

And when she left to go back home, it was the last time I expected to see or hear from her.

Until that phone call.

“What are you doing this weekend?”

A dumb question, nothing of course, but I wouldn’t tell her that.  I was still in shock that Anna would call me, for anything other than school, if at all.

“Not a lot.”

“Good.  How would you like to housesit with me?”

House sit?  Surely she had a dozen others who would do anything for her.  She was that popular and well-liked.  And would probably be far more amusing than I ever could be.

“If you like.  I had no idea you did house minding.”

“I don’t, but an aunt is going away for the weekend, and she wants someone to look after the cat.  I hope you like cats.  And gardens.  It has a nice garden.”

Cats I could take or leave.  Gardens, it was probably a birdbath, two beds of roses, a large tree with a seat under it, and neighbors peering over the fence.

But it was a weekend somewhere else other than my little room, and Anna would be there.  Maybe I could try to get past my shyness and actually talk to her.

“OK.  I’m in.  Do I need to bring anything?”

“No.  I’ll send you the address and see you there at 5 pm. Friday.”

Why did I get the feeling I was being set up?

That feeling of impending doing followed me down the path from the front gate to the front door.

Far from the house being a small thatch cottage, based on the address she gave me, it turned out to be a three-story manor house with a large outhouse that looked to be once a stable and coach house

It seemed far too large to be a house for one person.

When I rang the doorbell, I expected a butler to answer the door, but it was Anna herself.

“Nice place,” I said.

“Too large and too hard to maintain.  Were trying to convince her that she would be better off in something smaller.  But you should see the back.”

Based on the front garden which could happily grace the front cover of any country living magazine, I couldn’t wait.

She let me pass and closed the door behind us.  It sounded like the vault was closing and there would be no damage until the timer released the locks.

Inside, the whole place reeked of heritage and antiques, and the personality of its owner.  The walls had paintings, table tops had old magazines, the seats worn leather, and worn carpet squares covered floorboards that creaked when you walked on them.

At the end of a long corridor was the kitchen at the end if the house, after passing several sitting and dining rooms.  It was a very large house and raised a very important question.

She had not mentioned any family or relatives with anything like the wealth this house exuded.  In fact, she had often implied that she was just an ordinary person.

This was anything but ordinary.

I caught up with her on the back patio, just off a large sunroom, to view what had to be an acre or more of manicured laws, garden beds, and trees.  All it was missing was a maze.

“Do you actually have a secret life?”

“I was always told not to advertise our wealth.”

“Isn’t showing me this, a form of advertising?  After all, I’m apparently from the wrong side of the tracks.”

“I trust you.”

“But you don’t know me, or anything about me.”

“Why do you think you’re here?”

If I wanted to make an educated guess, my first thought was to set me up for something, for the very reason she was aloof, and people like her, and those she kept company with, were not people like me associated with.

I was surprised not to see the two girls I’d once nicknamed ‘the dynamic duo’, Melissa and Winona, with her.  Maybe they would turn up later.

My second thought, the most improbable reason, was that she wanted to get to know me, but, why choose a place like this?  To make me feel small, grateful, impressed? Ten minutes in a Cafe was all she needed to find out what she needed to know about me.

An alarm bell went off when I asked her where I could get a drink of water, and she said, the kitchen, but didn’t really know where it was. I got an instant bad feeling.

That was followed by a bang that I thought came from the rear of the house.

“Did you hear that?” I asked.

“You hear all sorts of noises in places like these.”

If she wasn’t worried, neither was I.

Then the door chime rang.

“You expecting more visitors?”  My internal fear factor was rising exponentially.

“No, but I’d better find out who it is, just in case.”

I shrugged and headed towards where she indicated the kitchen was, the rear of the house, what I would call an educated guess

After I found the kitchen, not technically at the rear, I returned to find my worst fears had come true.  Not only the dynamic duo but also their boyfriends, Chad and Lester, two of the worst bullies from school days.

“Well, look who it is.”  Chad was particularly menacing.

A glance to the side, it was hard to tell if Anna was looking pleased or neutral, but she wasn’t surprised. I glanced in Anna’s direction and all I got was a tilt of her head.

“Shouldn’t you be down the country club trying to prove you’re a new version of your drunken bully of a father?”

His smile turned into a very angry look.  “Don’t go there, Scanlon.”

“Why are you here then?”

I expected to hear Anna had invited them.  Instead, “we’re here to make sure Anna doesn’t make a mistake.”

“I don’t need your help or advice Chad.  In fact, you should leave.”

None of the four looked like they had any intention of leaving.  “Not until we’ve impressed upon both of you, the error of your ways.  We thought you were smarter than this or did Scanlon force himself on you?”

She shook her head, not necessarily in anger, but more in despair.  “I don’t know where you get your ideas from Chad, but you are very much mistaken.  So, I will only say this once more, Chad,” she added quietly, “otherwise you will find yourself in a world of pain.  Leave now while you still can.”

Chad, being Chad, was the master of ceremonies, puffed up as he had been in the schoolyard when he was about the unleash his gang on some poor misguided fool, usually me, or one of three others.  But it was Melissa who spoke instead, “You go teach Scanlon a lesson outside by the pool while we have a talk to Anna.”

Lester took the cue, came over, and grabbed me by the shoulder.  I thought about trying to shrug him off, but Chad was across the room before I could initiate anything.  Best to leave calmly and sort it out outside.

I gave Anna a last look, but she was wearing her poker face.  Had she set this up?  It seemed as though she hadn’t, but then, it didn’t look like she was worried about the dynamic duo.

I shrugged.

Intentional or not, Chad and Lester were about to learn a very valuable lesson, and revenge, at least on them, was going to be sweet.

©  Charles Heath 2022

The A to Z Challenge – B is for – “Be careful what you wish for”

Everyone always wants to change their circumstances, particularly if you are among those who are not so well off.

My father always said, whenever we complained about not having enough money to go on holiday, or buy something we needed, that there was always someone worse off than we were.

As a child, I could hardly believe that was true when it looked like everyone else had everything they wanted.

As an adult, I promised myself that I would never be in those circumstances, that I would always have enough money.

And, of course, what you want, what you would like, and what really happens are very different outcomes, and no matter how much planning, or how many contingencies plans you have in place, a single event can wreck everything.

When you open the front door and see policemen, two thoughts cross your mind.  The first, they’re at the wrong place, the second, that something awful has just happened.

“George Williamson?”

It was the second.

“May we come inside?”

As I stood to one side, a thousand thoughts went through my mind until it settled on one, something had happened to Jane.

As she did on every Wednesday morning, she got up early, I made her breakfast, she kissed the tones and told them she would be back the next day, then headed for the airport for her weekly visit to hear office. 

When we had to move, her company agreed to let her work from home, and it was an arrangement that worked well, she was only missing for two days a week, and a week when the annual accounting was done.

She was due back this morning.

Instead, I had to police officers in my lounge room, looking very somber.

“Something has happened to Jane, hasn’t it.”  I almost couldn’t bring myself to say it.

The policewoman spoke.  It was like they had drawn straws and she got the short one.

“I’m very sorry to say your wife was involved in an accident this morning, on her way to the Atlanta airport.  We have just been informed she passed away.”

It was one of those moments when there were no words.  In fact, I was not sure what I felt in that moment other than a great sadness.

“How?” 

“We understand a car ran a red light, hit the limousine.  Had she been on the other side…”

Not much consolation in speculation.

“Do you have someone you can call; do you need us to arrange for support…”

“I have a sister, I’ll call her.  Thank you for coming and telling me, I guess this is not what you want to be doing at this time of the morning.”

“Part of the job, sir.”

I ushered them to the door and after reassuring them I would be OK, and getting out the phone to call my sister, they left.

The shock of it hadn’t set in.  As I closed the door, my thoughts turned to the twins, now at school.  They adored their mother and would be expecting her to pick them up from school.

I would have to get them before news of her death reached them.  These days, with the internet, someone would find out and it would be better to hear it from me.

“George?”

My sister, Eileen.  She had been amazed that I would find a girl like Jane let alone marry her.  She had always expected me to be the philandering bachelor.

“Something very bad has happened?”

“Jane?”

“Killed in a car crash this morning in Atlanta.  The police were just here.”

“Oh my God, George.  The girls.”

“I know.  I have to get to them.  Can you be here when I get home?  They’ll need you.”

“Sure.  On my way.”

Next call, the girl’s school.  I called the head Master and explained the situation, and he immediately had them brought to his office.

When I arrived, I put on my best ‘this is a happy day’ face and went in, mustering all of the courage I had to not look like something bad had happened.

The girls, of course, thought that their mother had arrived home early and come to get them.  She had done it before.

They were only mildly disappointed to see me.

“Mommy not here?”

“Sorry, you have to tolerate me for a while.  We have to go home and you’ve been given a day pass.”

Knowing how much they preferred not to be at school, the diversion worked.

The headmaster gave me a wan look as we left.

I fielded a hundred questions on the way home, all of which centered around what surprise Mom had in store for them, and the fact it had to be monumental since they had to go home early.

All the tome I was trying to think of a way to let them down gently, but there wasn’t one.  Being blunt wasn’t the way either, they deserved the truth.

As soon as they saw Eileen, I could see the hesitation and a note of trepidation.  Usually, Eileen came over when Jane was going to have an extended stay away.

“I need you two to go into the lounge and sit down.  I’ll be then in a minute.”

“Is mommy’s not coming home today?”

They knew something was wrong.

“I’ll be in in a minute and will explain everything.”

At least Eileen had to foresight not to show any sign of the distress I knew she must be feeling.

When the girls had gone into the room she gave me the teary-eyed look, and a hug.

“You must be devastated.”

“It hasn’t sunk in.  I’m still expecting her to walk in the door, and this is all a bad mistake.”

“The girls…”

“This is one time I hate the idea of being a father.”

“Then I’m glad you called me.  You could not break this alone.  They are going to be devastated.”

Everyone who knew her would be.

Once again I had to find the courage to keep it together, but at least I had support.

It went better than I expected.  At first, they thought it was an elaborate prank, though I was not sure how they could think that.

Then, when they realized it was true, they, like I was when I first heard the news, were in shock, and barely able to comprehend the reality of it.

I did remember saying at one point, “I wish she was still alive, and that she would walk back through that door…” but not able to finish.

So, we just sat there, in silence, the rest of the world passing by, going about its business.

Until there was another knock on the door.

I was going to ignore it, but a nod from Eileen got me off the seat.

Perhaps the police were back to tell me it was all a big mistake, and it was someone else who’d died.

I opened the door…

…and neatly had a heart attack.

“Jane?”

A wish come true?  Standing before me was a woman who looked exactly like Jane, down to the last detail, including the unmanageable whisp of hair.

“You must be George.  No, not Jane, Jill, the banished evil twin.  Now, where is she?”

©  Charles Heath 2022