“Going out of my mind…” – a short story


Accidents can happen.

Sometimes they’re your fault, sometimes they’re not.

The accident I was in was not. Late at night driving home from work, a car came speeding out of a side street and T-boned my car.

It could have been worse, though the person who said it had a quite different definition of the word worse than I did.

To start with, I lost three months of my life in a coma, and even when I surfaced, it took another month to realize what had happened. Then came two months of working out my recovery plan.

If that wasn’t trial enough, what someone else might describe as the ‘last straw that broke the camel’s back’, my wife of 22 years decided to send me a text that morning, what was six months in hospital, to the day.

“I’m sorry, Joe, but enough is enough. I cannot visit you anymore, and for the sake of both our sanity, I think it’s time to draw a line in the sand. I know what happened isn’t your fault but given the prognosis, I don’t think I can cope with the situation. I need time to think about what will happen next and to do so, I’ll be going home to spend some time with family. Once again, I’m so sorry not to be doing this in person. I’ll let you know what I decide in due course. In the meantime, you have my best wishes for your recovery.”

In other words, goodbye. Her family lived in England, about 12,000 miles away in another hemisphere, and the likelihood of her returning was remote. We had meant to visit them, and had, in fact, booked the tickets shortly before the accident. I guess she couldn’t wait any longer.

My usual nurse came in for the first visit on this shift. She had become the familiar face on my journey, the one who made it worth waking up every morning.

“You look a little down in the dumps this morning. What’s up?”

She knew it couldn’t be for medical reasons because the doctor just yesterday had remarked how remarkable my recovery had been in the last week or so. Even I had been surprised given all the previous negative reports.

“Ever broken up by text?”

“What do you mean?”

“Frances has decided she no longer wants to be involved. I can’t say I blame her, she has put her whole life on hold because of this.”

“That’s surprising. She’s never shown any disappointment.”

“Six months have been a long time for everyone. We were supposed to be going home so she could see her family. Maybe that’s what it’s all about.”

I gave her the phone and she read the message.

Then she handed it back. “That’s goodbye, Tom. I’m sorry. And no, I’ve never had a breakup by text, but I guess there could always be a first time.”

She spent the next ten minutes going through the morning ritual, then said, “I’ve heard there’s a new doctor coming to visit you. Whatever has happened in the last few days had tongues wagging, and you might just become the next modern miracle. Fame and fortune await.”

“Just being able to walk again will be miracle enough.”

That had been the worst of it. The prognosis that it was likely I’d never be able to walk again, or work, and the changes to our lives that would cause. I knew Frances was bitterly disappointed that she might become the spouse who had to spend the rest of her life looking after, and though she had said it didn’t matter, that she would be there for me, deep down I knew a commitment like that took more internal fortitude than she had.

She ran her own business, managed three children into adulthood, and had a life other than what we had together. When I was fit and able, and nothing got in the way, it had worked. Stopping everything to cater to my problems had severely curtailed her life. Something had to give, and it had.

But, as I said, I didn’t blame her. She had tried, putting in a brave face day after day but once the daily visits slipped to every other day, to once a week, I knew then the ship was heading towards the rocks.

This morning it foundered.

I pondered the situation for an hour before I sent a reply. “I believe you have made the right decision. It’s time to call it, go home and take some time to consider what to do next is right. In normal circumstances, we would not be considering any of this, but these are not normal circumstances. But, just in case you are worried about the effect of all of this on me, don’t. I will get over it, whatever the result is, and what you need to do first and foremost is to concentrate on what is best for you. If that means drawing a line on this relationship, so be it. All I want for you is for you to be happy, and clearly, having to contend with this, and everything else on your plate, is not helping. I am glad we had what time we had together and will cherish the memories forever, and I will always love you, no matter what you decide.”

It was heartfelt, and I meant it. But life was not going to be the same without her.

I’d dozed off after sending the message, and only woke again when my usual doctor came into the room on his morning rounds, the usual entourage of doctors and interns in tow. I’d been a great case for sparking endless debate on the best route for my recovery among those fresh out of medical school. Some ideas were radical, others pie in the sky, but one that seemed implausible had got a hearing, and then the go-ahead, mainly because there was little else that apparently could be done.

That doctor, and now another I hadn’t seen before was standing in the front row, rather than at the back.

The doctor in charge went through the basics of the case, as he did every day, mainly because the entourage changed daily. Then, he deferred to the radical doctor as I decided to call her.

She went through the details of a discovery she had made, and the recommendation she’d made as a possible road to recovery, one which involved several radical operations which had been undertaken by the elderly man standing beside her. When I first met him, I thought he was an escaped patient from the psychiatric ward, not the pre-eminent back surgeon reputed to be the miracle worker himself.

It seemed, based on the latest x-rays that a miracle had occurred, but whether it was or not would be known for another week. Then, if all went well, I would be able to get out of bed, and, at the very least, be able to stand on my own. In the meantime, I had endless sessions of physio in the lead-up to the big event. Six months in bed had taken its toll on everything, and the week’s work was going to correct some of that.

It meant there was hope, and despite what I said and thought, hope was what I needed.

There had been ups and downs before this, fuelled by a morning when I woke up and found I could wriggle my toes. It was after the second operation, and I thought, given the number of pain killers, it had been my imagination.

When I mentioned it, there was some initial excitement, and, yes, it was true, I wasn’t going out of my mind, it was real. The downside was, I couldn’t move anything else, and other than an encouraging sign, as the days passed, and nothing more happened, the faces got longer.

Then, the physiotherapist moved in and started working on the areas that should be coming back to life. I felt little, maybe the pain killers again, until the next, and perhaps the last operation. I managed to lift my left leg a fraction of an inch.

But we’d been here before, and I wasn’t going to hold my breath.

Annabel, the daughter that lived on the other side of the country, finally arrived to visit me. I had thought, not being so far away she might have come earlier, but a few phone calls had sorted out her absence. Firstly, there was not much use visiting a coma patient, second, she was in a delicate stage of her professional career and a break might be the end of it, and thirdly, she accepted that I didn’t want to see her until I was much better.

She was not very happy about it, but it was a costly venture for her, in terms of time, being away from a young family, and just getting there.

Now, the time had come. She had a conference to attend, and I was happy to play second fiddle.

After the hugs and a few tears, she settled in the uncomfortable bedside chair.

“You don’t look very different than the last time I saw you,” she said.

“Hospitals have perfected the art of hiding the worst of it, but it’s true. The swelling had receded, the physios have revived the muscles, and I have a little movement again.”

“The injuries are not permanent?”

“Oh, they’re permanent but not as bad as first thought.”

“Pity my mother isn’t here.”

“She was, day after day, through the darkest period. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. But your mother is an independent woman, and she has always been free to do what she wants, and I would not have had it any other way.”

“But deserting you in the middle of all this…”

“It’s been very debilitating on her. I can understand her reasons, and so should you. She will still be your mother no matter what happens to us.”

There had been a number of phone calls, from each of the children, decrying her actions after she had sent a text message to each of them telling them what she was doing. She had not told them she was leaving, in so many words, but leaving the door ajar, perhaps to allay their fears she was deserting them too. Annabel had been furious. The other two, not so much.

“And this latest development?”

I had also told her about the miracle worker, and the possibilities, without trying to get hopes up.

“On a scale of one to ten, it’s a three. We’ve been here before, so I’m going to save the excitement for when it happens, if it happens.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

It was a question I’d asked myself a number of times, one that I didn’t want an answer to. Hope was staving it off, each day a new day of discovery, and a day closer to the idea I might walk again. I had to believe it would happen, if not the next day, the next week, month, year, that it would eventually happen.

For now, all I had to do was stand on my own two feet.

It was ironic, in a way, that simple statement. ‘Stand on your own two feet’. Right then, it seemed so near, and yet, at the same time, so far away.

I didn’t answer that question, but did what I usually did with visitors, run a distraction and talk about everything else. This visit was no exception. I had a lot of catching up to do.

It’s odd how some call the day of momentous events D-Day because to me nothing would be more momentous than the invasion of France during the second world war.

Others were not quite of the same opinion. It was going to be a momentous day.

It started the same as any other.

The morning routine when the duty nurse came to do the checks. Then the physio, now a permanent fixture mid-morning, just after the tea lady arrived. Deliberate, I thought, to deprive me of my tea break, and some unbelievably delicious coconut cookies.

Then the routine changed, and the escort arrived to take me down to the room where the physio had set up an obstacle course. It looked like one, and I’d told him so when I first saw it, and he had said by the time he was finished with me, I’d be able to go from start to finish without breaking a sweat.

In my mind perhaps, but not with this broken body. I didn’t say that because I was meant to be positive.

An entourage arrived for the main event. I would have been happier to fail in front of the doctor, the miracle worker, and the physio, but it seemed everyone wanted a front-row seat. If it worked, the physio confided in me, there was fame and fortune being mentioned in Lancet, which was a prestigious medical journal.

Expectations were running high.

The physio had gone through the program at least a hundred times, and the previous day we had got to the point where I was sitting on the side of the bed. We’d tried this ordinary maneuver several times, previously without success under my own steam but this morning, for some reason it was different.

I was able to sit up, and then, with a struggle move my legs part of the way, and with a little help for the rest.

What was encouraging, was being able to swing my legs a short distance. It was those simple things that everyone could do without thinking, that had seemed impossible not a month before, that got people excited. I didn’t know how I felt other than I missed those simple things.

Then the moment had arrived. Hushed silence.

There was a structure in place. All I had to do was pull myself across, at the same time sliding off the bed and into a standing position. There was a safety harness attached so that if my grip slipped it would prevent me from falling.

It was probably not the time to tell them the pain in my lower back was getting worse.

So, like I’d been instructed, and going one step further than the day before, I reached out, grabbed the bars, and pulled myself up and over, at the same time, sliding off the side of the bed. I could feel the tug of the safety harness which told me I had left the safety of the bed, and was in mid motion.

I could feel my legs straightening, and then very softly landing on the floor, the safety harness letting my body drop down slowly.

The pain increased exponentially as the weight came down onto my legs, but my body had stopped moving. I could not feel the tightness of the harness, but a rather odd sensation in my legs.

All that time I had been concentrating so hard that I had heard nothing, not even the encouraging words from the physio.

Until I realized, from the noise around me, that it had worked. I was standing on my own two feet, albeit a little shakily.

And I heard the physio say, in his inimitable way, “Today you just landed on the moon. Tomorrow, it’s going to be one small step for mankind. Well done.”

© Charles Heath 2021

How could that possibly happen… – A short story

I had hoped by the time I was promoted to assistant manager it might mean something other than long hours and an increase in pay.

It didn’t.

But unlike others who had taken the job, and eventually become jaded and left, I stayed. Something I realized that others seemed to either ignore or just didn’t understand, this was a company that rewarded loyalty.

It was why there were quite a few who had served 30 years or more. They might not reach the top job, but they certainly well looked after.

I had a long way to go, having been there only 8 years, and according to some, on a fast track. I was not sure how I would describe this so-called ‘fast track’ other than being in the right place at the right time and making a judicial selection.

When it was my turn to be promoted, I had a choice of a plum department, or one most of my contemporaries had passed over. At the time, the words of my previous manager sprang to mind, that being a manager for the most sought after department or the least sought after, came with exactly the same privileges.

And, he was right. I took the least sought after, much to their disdain and disapproval. One year on, that disapproval had turned almost to envy; that was when the Assistant Managers were granted a new privilege, tea, and lunch in the executive dining room.

“So, what’s it like?” John asked, when our group met on a Friday night, this the first after the privilege was granted.

He had been one of the three, including me, who had the opportunity to take the role. Both he and Alistair had both declined, prepared to wait for a more prestigious department. It hadn’t happened to them yet.

“The same as the staff dining room, only smaller. Except, I guess, the waitstaff and butler. They come and serve you when you have to go to them in the staff room. They’re the same staff, by the way, except for the butler.”

I could see the awe, or was it envy, in their eyes. “but it’s not that great. The Assistant Managers all sit at one end of the table, and we’re not part of the main group, so no sharing of information I’m afraid. And the meals are the same, just served on fancier crockery.”

“Then nothing to write home about?” Will was one of those who they also thought to be on a ‘fast track’. I was still trying to see how my ‘fast track’ was actually that fast.

“Put it this way, the extra pay doesn’t offset the long hours because you get overtime, I don’t, so on a good week, you’d all be earning more than me. Without responsibility, if anything goes wrong. I think that’s why Assistant Managers were created, to take the blame when anything goes wrong.”

That had been the hardest pill to swallow. Until I got the role, I hadn’t realized what it really involved. Nor had the others, and it was not something we could whinge about. My first-day introductory speech from Tomkins, my Manager, was all about taking responsibility, and how I was there to make his life easier. It was a speech he made a few times because he’d been Manager for the last 16 years, much the same as the others, and promotion if ever, would come when they died.

And Manager’s rarely died, because of their Assistant Managers.

“How old is Tomkins now?” Bert, a relative newcomer to our group, asked. He was still in the ‘in awe’ phase.

“About the same as Father Time,” I said. “But the reality is, no one knows, except perhaps for the personnel manager.” O looked over at Wally, the Personnel Department’s Assistant Manager. “Any chance of you telling us?”

“No. You know I can’t.”

“But you know?” I asked.

“Of course, but you know the rules. That’s confidential information. Not like what you are the custodian of, information everyone needs.”

Which, of course, was true. Communication and Secretarial Services had no secrets, except for twice a year when the company Bord of Directors met, and we were responsible for all the documents used at their meetings. Then, and only then, was I privy to all the secrets, including promotions. And be asked ‘What’s happening?’.

“Just be content to know that he’s as old as the hills, as most of them. It seems to me that one of the pre-requisites for managership is that you have been employed here for 30 years.”

Not all, though, I’d noticed, but there wasn’t one under the age of fifty.

And so it would go, the Friday night lament, those ‘in’ the executive, and those who were not quite there yet.
It seemed prophetic, in a sense, that we had been talking about Mangers and their ages. By a quirk of fate, some weeks before, that I learned of Tomkins’s currents state of health via a call on his office phone. At the time he was out, where, he had not told me, but by his the I believed it was something serious, so serious he didn’t want me, or anyone else, to know about it.

That phone call was from his wife, Eleanor, whom I’d met on a number of occasions when she came to take him home from work. I liked her, and couldn’t help but notice she was his exact opposite, Tomkins, silent and at times morose, and Eleanor, the life of the party. I could imagine her being a handful in her younger days, and it was a stark reminder of that old saying ‘opposites attract’.

She was concerned and asked me if he had returned from the specialist. I simply said he had but was elsewhere, and promised to get him to call her when he returned. Then I made a quick call around to see where he was and found that he was in Personnel. I left an innocuous message on his desk, and then let my imagination run wild.

At least for a day or so, the time it took for me to realize that it was probably nothing, the lethargy he’d been showing, gone.

I’d put it out of my mind until my cell phone rang, and it was from the Personnel Manager. On a Sunday, no less. In the few seconds before I answered it, I’d made the assumption that Tomkins’s secretive visits to the specialist meant he needed time off for a routine operation.

Greetings over, O’Reilly, the Personnel Manager, cut straight to the chase, “For your personal information, and not to be repeated, Tomkins will be out of action for about two months, and as that is longer than the standard period, you will become Acting Manager. We’ll talk more about this Tuesday morning.” Monday was a holiday.

All Assistant Managers knew the rules. Any absence of a manager for longer than a month, promotion to Acting Manager. Anything less, you sat in the office, but no change in title. There was one more rule, that in the event of the death of a manager, the assistant manager was immediately promoted to Manager. This had only happened once before. 70 years ago. If a manager retired, then the position of Manager was thrown open to anyone in the organization.

It was an intriguing moment in time.

Tuesday came, and as usual, I went into the office, with only one thought in mind, let the staff in the department know what was happening, of course, the moment I was given the approval to do so by Personnel.

Not a minute after I sat down, the phone rang. I picked it up, gave my name and greeting. It was met with a rather excitable voice of the Assistant Manager, Personnel, “I just got word from on high, you’ve been promoted to manager. How could that possibly happen…”

Then a moment later, as realization set in, “Unless…”

—-

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

“Going out of my mind…” – a short story


Accidents can happen.

Sometimes they’re your fault, sometimes they’re not.

The accident I was in was not. Late at night driving home from work, a car came speeding out of a side street and T-boned my car.

It could have been worse, though the person who said it had a quite different definition of the word worse than I did.

To start with, I lost three months of my life in a coma, and even when I surfaced, it took another month to realize what had happened. Then came two months of working out my recovery plan.

If that wasn’t trial enough, what someone else might describe as the ‘last straw that broke the camel’s back’, my wife of 22 years decided to send me a text that morning, what was six months in hospital, to the day.

“I’m sorry, Joe, but enough is enough. I cannot visit you anymore, and for the sake of both our sanity, I think it’s time to draw a line in the sand. I know what happened isn’t your fault but given the prognosis, I don’t think I can cope with the situation. I need time to think about what will happen next and to do so, I’ll be going home to spend some time with family. Once again, I’m so sorry not to be doing this in person. I’ll let you know what I decide in due course. In the meantime, you have my best wishes for your recovery.”

In other words, goodbye. Her family lived in England, about 12,000 miles away in another hemisphere, and the likelihood of her returning was remote. We had meant to visit them, and had, in fact, booked the tickets shortly before the accident. I guess she couldn’t wait any longer.

My usual nurse came in for the first visit on this shift. She had become the familiar face on my journey, the one who made it worth waking up every morning.

“You look a little down in the dumps this morning. What’s up?”

She knew it couldn’t be for medical reasons because the doctor just yesterday had remarked how remarkable my recovery had been in the last week or so. Even I had been surprised given all the previous negative reports.

“Ever broken up by text?”

“What do you mean?”

“Frances has decided she no longer wants to be involved. I can’t say I blame her, she has put her whole life on hold because of this.”

“That’s surprising. She’s never shown any disappointment.”

“Six months have been a long time for everyone. We were supposed to be going home so she could see her family. Maybe that’s what it’s all about.”

I gave her the phone and she read the message.

Then she handed it back. “That’s goodbye, Tom. I’m sorry. And no, I’ve never had a breakup by text, but I guess there could always be a first time.”

She spent the next ten minutes going through the morning ritual, then said, “I’ve heard there’s a new doctor coming to visit you. Whatever has happened in the last few days had tongues wagging, and you might just become the next modern miracle. Fame and fortune await.”

“Just being able to walk again will be miracle enough.”

That had been the worst of it. The prognosis that it was likely I’d never be able to walk again, or work, and the changes to our lives that would cause. I knew Frances was bitterly disappointed that she might become the spouse who had to spend the rest of her life looking after, and though she had said it didn’t matter, that she would be there for me, deep down I knew a commitment like that took more internal fortitude than she had.

She ran her own business, managed three children into adulthood, and had a life other than what we had together. When I was fit and able, and nothing got in the way, it had worked. Stopping everything to cater to my problems had severely curtailed her life. Something had to give, and it had.

But, as I said, I didn’t blame her. She had tried, putting in a brave face day after day but once the daily visits slipped to every other day, to once a week, I knew then the ship was heading towards the rocks.

This morning it foundered.

I pondered the situation for an hour before I sent a reply. “I believe you have made the right decision. It’s time to call it, go home and take some time to consider what to do next is right. In normal circumstances, we would not be considering any of this, but these are not normal circumstances. But, just in case you are worried about the effect of all of this on me, don’t. I will get over it, whatever the result is, and what you need to do first and foremost is to concentrate on what is best for you. If that means drawing a line on this relationship, so be it. All I want for you is for you to be happy, and clearly, having to contend with this, and everything else on your plate, is not helping. I am glad we had what time we had together and will cherish the memories forever, and I will always love you, no matter what you decide.”

It was heartfelt, and I meant it. But life was not going to be the same without her.

I’d dozed off after sending the message, and only woke again when my usual doctor came into the room on his morning rounds, the usual entourage of doctors and interns in tow. I’d been a great case for sparking endless debate on the best route for my recovery among those fresh out of medical school. Some ideas were radical, others pie in the sky, but one that seemed implausible had got a hearing, and then the go-ahead, mainly because there was little else that apparently could be done.

That doctor, and now another I hadn’t seen before was standing in the front row, rather than at the back.

The doctor in charge went through the basics of the case, as he did every day, mainly because the entourage changed daily. Then, he deferred to the radical doctor as I decided to call her.

She went through the details of a discovery she had made, and the recommendation she’d made as a possible road to recovery, one which involved several radical operations which had been undertaken by the elderly man standing beside her. When I first met him, I thought he was an escaped patient from the psychiatric ward, not the pre-eminent back surgeon reputed to be the miracle worker himself.

It seemed, based on the latest x-rays that a miracle had occurred, but whether it was or not would be known for another week. Then, if all went well, I would be able to get out of bed, and, at the very least, be able to stand on my own. In the meantime, I had endless sessions of physio in the lead-up to the big event. Six months in bed had taken its toll on everything, and the week’s work was going to correct some of that.

It meant there was hope, and despite what I said and thought, hope was what I needed.

There had been ups and downs before this, fuelled by a morning when I woke up and found I could wriggle my toes. It was after the second operation, and I thought, given the number of pain killers, it had been my imagination.

When I mentioned it, there was some initial excitement, and, yes, it was true, I wasn’t going out of my mind, it was real. The downside was, I couldn’t move anything else, and other than an encouraging sign, as the days passed, and nothing more happened, the faces got longer.

Then, the physiotherapist moved in and started working on the areas that should be coming back to life. I felt little, maybe the pain killers again, until the next, and perhaps the last operation. I managed to lift my left leg a fraction of an inch.

But we’d been here before, and I wasn’t going to hold my breath.

Annabel, the daughter that lived on the other side of the country, finally arrived to visit me. I had thought, not being so far away she might have come earlier, but a few phone calls had sorted out her absence. Firstly, there was not much use visiting a coma patient, second, she was in a delicate stage of her professional career and a break might be the end of it, and thirdly, she accepted that I didn’t want to see her until I was much better.

She was not very happy about it, but it was a costly venture for her, in terms of time, being away from a young family, and just getting there.

Now, the time had come. She had a conference to attend, and I was happy to play second fiddle.

After the hugs and a few tears, she settled in the uncomfortable bedside chair.

“You don’t look very different than the last time I saw you,” she said.

“Hospitals have perfected the art of hiding the worst of it, but it’s true. The swelling had receded, the physios have revived the muscles, and I have a little movement again.”

“The injuries are not permanent?”

“Oh, they’re permanent but not as bad as first thought.”

“Pity my mother isn’t here.”

“She was, day after day, through the darkest period. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. But your mother is an independent woman, and she has always been free to do what she wants, and I would not have had it any other way.”

“But deserting you in the middle of all this…”

“It’s been very debilitating on her. I can understand her reasons, and so should you. She will still be your mother no matter what happens to us.”

There had been a number of phone calls, from each of the children, decrying her actions after she had sent a text message to each of them telling them what she was doing. She had not told them she was leaving, in so many words, but leaving the door ajar, perhaps to allay their fears she was deserting them too. Annabel had been furious. The other two, not so much.

“And this latest development?”

I had also told her about the miracle worker, and the possibilities, without trying to get hopes up.

“On a scale of one to ten, it’s a three. We’ve been here before, so I’m going to save the excitement for when it happens, if it happens.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

It was a question I’d asked myself a number of times, one that I didn’t want an answer to. Hope was staving it off, each day a new day of discovery, and a day closer to the idea I might walk again. I had to believe it would happen, if not the next day, the next week, month, year, that it would eventually happen.

For now, all I had to do was stand on my own two feet.

It was ironic, in a way, that simple statement. ‘Stand on your own two feet’. Right then, it seemed so near, and yet, at the same time, so far away.

I didn’t answer that question, but did what I usually did with visitors, run a distraction and talk about everything else. This visit was no exception. I had a lot of catching up to do.

It’s odd how some call the day of momentous events D-Day because to me nothing would be more momentous than the invasion of France during the second world war.

Others were not quite of the same opinion. It was going to be a momentous day.

It started the same as any other.

The morning routine when the duty nurse came to do the checks. Then the physio, now a permanent fixture mid-morning, just after the tea lady arrived. Deliberate, I thought, to deprive me of my tea break, and some unbelievably delicious coconut cookies.

Then the routine changed, and the escort arrived to take me down to the room where the physio had set up an obstacle course. It looked like one, and I’d told him so when I first saw it, and he had said by the time he was finished with me, I’d be able to go from start to finish without breaking a sweat.

In my mind perhaps, but not with this broken body. I didn’t say that because I was meant to be positive.

An entourage arrived for the main event. I would have been happier to fail in front of the doctor, the miracle worker, and the physio, but it seemed everyone wanted a front-row seat. If it worked, the physio confided in me, there was fame and fortune being mentioned in Lancet, which was a prestigious medical journal.

Expectations were running high.

The physio had gone through the program at least a hundred times, and the previous day we had got to the point where I was sitting on the side of the bed. We’d tried this ordinary maneuver several times, previously without success under my own steam but this morning, for some reason it was different.

I was able to sit up, and then, with a struggle move my legs part of the way, and with a little help for the rest.

What was encouraging, was being able to swing my legs a short distance. It was those simple things that everyone could do without thinking, that had seemed impossible not a month before, that got people excited. I didn’t know how I felt other than I missed those simple things.

Then the moment had arrived. Hushed silence.

There was a structure in place. All I had to do was pull myself across, at the same time sliding off the bed and into a standing position. There was a safety harness attached so that if my grip slipped it would prevent me from falling.

It was probably not the time to tell them the pain in my lower back was getting worse.

So, like I’d been instructed, and going one step further than the day before, I reached out, grabbed the bars, and pulled myself up and over, at the same time, sliding off the side of the bed. I could feel the tug of the safety harness which told me I had left the safety of the bed, and was in mid motion.

I could feel my legs straightening, and then very softly landing on the floor, the safety harness letting my body drop down slowly.

The pain increased exponentially as the weight came down onto my legs, but my body had stopped moving. I could not feel the tightness of the harness, but a rather odd sensation in my legs.

All that time I had been concentrating so hard that I had heard nothing, not even the encouraging words from the physio.

Until I realized, from the noise around me, that it had worked. I was standing on my own two feet, albeit a little shakily.

And I heard the physio say, in his inimitable way, “Today you just landed on the moon. Tomorrow, it’s going to be one small step for mankind. Well done.”

© Charles Heath 2021

How could that possibly happen… – A short story

I had hoped by the time I was promoted to assistant manager it might mean something other than long hours and an increase in pay.

It didn’t.

But unlike others who had taken the job, and eventually become jaded and left, I stayed. Something I realized that others seemed to either ignore or just didn’t understand, this was a company that rewarded loyalty.

It was why there were quite a few who had served 30 years or more. They might not reach the top job, but they certainly well looked after.

I had a long way to go, having been there only 8 years, and according to some, on a fast track. I was not sure how I would describe this so-called ‘fast track’ other than being in the right place at the right time and making a judicial selection.

When it was my turn to be promoted, I had a choice of a plum department, or one most of my contemporaries had passed over. At the time, the words of my previous manager sprang to mind, that being a manager for the most sought after department or the least sought after, came with exactly the same privileges.

And, he was right. I took the least sought after, much to their disdain and disapproval. One year on, that disapproval had turned almost to envy; that was when the Assistant Managers were granted a new privilege, tea, and lunch in the executive dining room.

“So, what’s it like?” John asked, when our group met on a Friday night, this the first after the privilege was granted.

He had been one of the three, including me, who had the opportunity to take the role. Both he and Alistair had both declined, prepared to wait for a more prestigious department. It hadn’t happened to them yet.

“The same as the staff dining room, only smaller. Except, I guess, the waitstaff and butler. They come and serve you when you have to go to them in the staff room. They’re the same staff, by the way, except for the butler.”

I could see the awe, or was it envy, in their eyes. “but it’s not that great. The Assistant Managers all sit at one end of the table, and we’re not part of the main group, so no sharing of information I’m afraid. And the meals are the same, just served on fancier crockery.”

“Then nothing to write home about?” Will was one of those who they also thought to be on a ‘fast track’. I was still trying to see how my ‘fast track’ was actually that fast.

“Put it this way, the extra pay doesn’t offset the long hours because you get overtime, I don’t, so on a good week, you’d all be earning more than me. Without responsibility, if anything goes wrong. I think that’s why Assistant Managers were created, to take the blame when anything goes wrong.”

That had been the hardest pill to swallow. Until I got the role, I hadn’t realized what it really involved. Nor had the others, and it was not something we could whinge about. My first-day introductory speech from Tomkins, my Manager, was all about taking responsibility, and how I was there to make his life easier. It was a speech he made a few times because he’d been Manager for the last 16 years, much the same as the others, and promotion if ever, would come when they died.

And Manager’s rarely died, because of their Assistant Managers.

“How old is Tomkins now?” Bert, a relative newcomer to our group, asked. He was still in the ‘in awe’ phase.

“About the same as Father Time,” I said. “But the reality is, no one knows, except perhaps for the personnel manager.” O looked over at Wally, the Personnel Department’s Assistant Manager. “Any chance of you telling us?”

“No. You know I can’t.”

“But you know?” I asked.

“Of course, but you know the rules. That’s confidential information. Not like what you are the custodian of, information everyone needs.”

Which, of course, was true. Communication and Secretarial Services had no secrets, except for twice a year when the company Bord of Directors met, and we were responsible for all the documents used at their meetings. Then, and only then, was I privy to all the secrets, including promotions. And be asked ‘What’s happening?’.

“Just be content to know that he’s as old as the hills, as most of them. It seems to me that one of the pre-requisites for managership is that you have been employed here for 30 years.”

Not all, though, I’d noticed, but there wasn’t one under the age of fifty.

And so it would go, the Friday night lament, those ‘in’ the executive, and those who were not quite there yet.
It seemed prophetic, in a sense, that we had been talking about Mangers and their ages. By a quirk of fate, some weeks before, that I learned of Tomkins’s currents state of health via a call on his office phone. At the time he was out, where, he had not told me, but by his the I believed it was something serious, so serious he didn’t want me, or anyone else, to know about it.

That phone call was from his wife, Eleanor, whom I’d met on a number of occasions when she came to take him home from work. I liked her, and couldn’t help but notice she was his exact opposite, Tomkins, silent and at times morose, and Eleanor, the life of the party. I could imagine her being a handful in her younger days, and it was a stark reminder of that old saying ‘opposites attract’.

She was concerned and asked me if he had returned from the specialist. I simply said he had but was elsewhere, and promised to get him to call her when he returned. Then I made a quick call around to see where he was and found that he was in Personnel. I left an innocuous message on his desk, and then let my imagination run wild.

At least for a day or so, the time it took for me to realize that it was probably nothing, the lethargy he’d been showing, gone.

I’d put it out of my mind until my cell phone rang, and it was from the Personnel Manager. On a Sunday, no less. In the few seconds before I answered it, I’d made the assumption that Tomkins’s secretive visits to the specialist meant he needed time off for a routine operation.

Greetings over, O’Reilly, the Personnel Manager, cut straight to the chase, “For your personal information, and not to be repeated, Tomkins will be out of action for about two months, and as that is longer than the standard period, you will become Acting Manager. We’ll talk more about this Tuesday morning.” Monday was a holiday.

All Assistant Managers knew the rules. Any absence of a manager for longer than a month, promotion to Acting Manager. Anything less, you sat in the office, but no change in title. There was one more rule, that in the event of the death of a manager, the assistant manager was immediately promoted to Manager. This had only happened once before. 70 years ago. If a manager retired, then the position of Manager was thrown open to anyone in the organization.

It was an intriguing moment in time.

Tuesday came, and as usual, I went into the office, with only one thought in mind, let the staff in the department know what was happening, of course, the moment I was given the approval to do so by Personnel.

Not a minute after I sat down, the phone rang. I picked it up, gave my name and greeting. It was met with a rather excitable voice of the Assistant Manager, Personnel, “I just got word from on high, you’ve been promoted to manager. How could that possibly happen…”

Then a moment later, as realization set in, “Unless…”

—-

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

The A to Z Challenge – V is for “Very clear about this…”


Kane was in a very difficult position.

It was not for the first time, but this time was significant because he had basically agreed in principle to vote for both sides.

And, when he realized what had happened, he had, depending on how you looked at it, been tricked.

Not good for someone who was well respected by both sides, and whose vote would count towards picking up those who were undecided.

That was just pointed out to him by Amy, his personnel assistant, the moment he arrived back in the office.

He leaned back in his chair and stared at a point just past her head, a copy of a painting by one of the old masters, still an object of beauty.

“So, when did Cheney change sides?” He asked, dragging his attention back to the problem in hand.

He suddenly realized what had happened, and it was a well thought out scheme.  Cheney had always been on board with the Board’s recommendation until he accepted Kane’s invitation to come to a meeting that would attempt to explain why the board’s recommendation was wrong.

He should have been skeptical of Cheney’s sudden change of mind, and then of the discussions he had attended with Cheney’s allies, with the objective of changing their minds too.  In fact, he had left with the impression he had persuaded them, saying, in essence, they should all vote against.

Seeing Cheney that morning with the leader of the group agreeing to vote for the motion, should have set off alarm bells.  The phone call from Williams, the head of the group voting for the board’s recommendation, saying he was pleased that Kane had finally seen ‘the light’ as he called it, had been interesting, to say the least, especially when he mentioned in passing, how very much the board appreciated Kane’s confidence in them.

He had done no such thing.

Instead, Cheney had put him on the spot, and his words were now being taken out of context.

“This morning.  I just got word from Ellie, who told me he had a breakfast meeting with Jacobs and Meadows. She said he came back looking very pleased with himself.”

Jacobs was the chairman of the board and Meadows was the CEO who was pushing the new plan, which would break up, and sell-off, or disband, the underperforming divisions of the company.  By having Meadows in attendance, Jacobs could basically offer Cheney anything he wanted.

And top of his list was my division.

“Yes, and I think we can guess why.  He wants this division.  Of course, if they gave it to him, it would not be the magic bullet he thinks it will be.  Nor would it line the shareholders, and therefore the board members pockets as it has in the past.”

“Is this situation the proverbial double-edged sword?”

“It depends.  I doubt you could quit out of dissatisfaction with a crappy board decision.  I doubt anyone could in the current financial climate.  But you won’t have to worry.  It might mean going back to the pool for a while if you don’t want to work with Cheney.”

“No problem there.  Ellie had already told me my days are numbered.”

Understandable.  Ellie and Amy had put themselves forward for the role of Jake’s personal assistant, and Ellie had tried very hard to convince him Amy was not suitable for a variety of reasons, none of which he found valid, and appointed her.  Ellie was not one who forgot or forgave easily.

Although he didn’t like denigrating anyone, he had said more than once to Amy, both Ellie and Cheney suited each other.  Neither cared who or what they destroyed to get what they wanted.

“Then it looks like you and I are heading for the scrap heap.”

“Sounds like an excuse for a long lunch.”  She smiled.  For a woman who was about to lose a dream job, she was in remarkably good spirits.

“Ask me again in an hour.  I have a few things to do.”

“Call in some favors, maybe?”

People didn’t rise in a company over several decades without making friends, making enemies, and stumbling over information which may or may not be used depending on circumstances at the time.  He had a few interesting tidbits in his arsenal, but whether he would use them or not wasn’t uppermost in his mind.

“We’ll have to see.”

Jake watched her leave, and, not for the first time, he wondered what life with her might be like.  He had never married, but had, for a number of years had a more or less relationship with the Chairman’s daughter, before she broke it off.  He suspected the Chairman had instigated it given the number of times she had tried to contact him since parting.

That door had closed. As for Amy, she had a husband who was a member of the armed services and had been killed in Afghanistan.  She had weathered that event and finally come out the other side of some very dark days, some of which he had witnessed personally, and tried to help where he could.  But was she up to dipping her foot into the dating thing.  He wasn’t prepared to ask.  Not yet.

He sighed and picked up the phone.  It was time to call Jacobs.  It was the day I knew he would be in his office, not at the factory site where we all were housed, but in the top floor of a prestigious building in the city, twenty miles away  You could call it an ivory tower, but the board did oversee the functioning of seven different and diversified companies.

Some time ago they had called for ideas on how to integrate a lot of the similar processes of those diversified companies, but in the end, they had paid a ‘crony’ a million dollars for an unworkable plan, and it had not gone any further.  Now, the conglomerate was bleeding cash, someone had come up with a new, knee jerk, plan.

Jacobs was surprised to hear from him.

“I was told,” he said, “everyone is now on board.”

“They probably are.  It’s just that it is no longer a problem for me.  You’ll have my resignation on your desk by close of business.”

That statement was met with silence.  Stunned, or was it smug satisfaction.  He had always viewed Kane as a thorn in his side.

“Is that really necessary?”

“I think you know why, and whatever the plan was, it has backfired.  I don’t need the job, nor do I need the aggravation of scheming and plotting.”

“I think you’re making a mistake, but let’s be very clear about this, you leave, there’s no coming back. If I were you, I would consider my position very carefully.”

Interesting reaction.  The only conclusion from his reaction was that the thorn was now removed.

I expected just such a reaction.

Now, for the next job.  Kane went down to the factory floor and called in all the production managers.  Like himself, he knew most of them didn’t really have to stay, some could retire, some could go into business by themselves, most could walk into another job, even a better job, the next day.

Kane left that meeting a half-hour later, telling them the decision to stay and work under Cheney, a man none of them liked, was their decision but he was moving on.

He called Amy, asked if she had sent his resignation letter, which she had, and to pick the restaurant for lunch, the more expensive the better, and that he would pick her up outside the front of the office block.

For Kane, it was the 107th day of what he called the rest of his life.  He was woken by the sun streaming in through the window of his hotel room.  He had reached Singapore and had been told that Raffles Hotel was the place to stay.

He agreed.  Old but new, the place just reeked of nostalgia.

The figure beside him stirred, opened her eyes, and smiled.

“Good morning, Amy.”

“It is a good morning, isn’t it Kane?”

Over lunch that fateful day 107 days ago, he took the chance of asking her if she would be interested in dating him.  Nothing heavy, no strings, he would understand if she thought it inappropriate.

She didn’t think it was inappropriate, just wanted to know why it had taken him so long.

The had got married in Rome, 42 days ago, in a quaint little church, and after a week, moved to Venice for the honeymoon.  They hadn’t set a limit on how long it should be.  There was no reason to go back.

Of course, just when it’s least expected, the phone would ring.  His cell phone.  It was the first time in months.

“Hello?”

He was surprised it was Jacobs.  He’d followed the fortunes of the company he had abruptly left, as it tried to implement the plan that Cheney and his ‘friends of the board’ had voted for.  One problem after another; in three months the stock value of the parent company had lost 90% of its value.  As Kane had expected, every one of his management team resigned the day after, knowing full well, once Cheney was installed as manager, the transition would fail.

Now, faced with hostile shareholders, a corporate watchdog investigation, someone had to turn around the company’s fortunes or it would slide into liquidation before the week was out.

“It seems that we have serious problems implementing the restructure.  We have made some mistakes, but I think if I could tell the receivers that we have a plan and you would be heading up a new management team, we could save the company and all of the employees.”

The 2,500 left.  They should have left well alone, and the whole 8,000 that had been there the day Kane left would still be employed.

The Board and upper management would do well out of the company going under.  The staff, well, they always lost.

“I’m sorry to hear that.  Now, if you don’t mind, I have business to attend to.  Goodbye.”

I turned the phone off and put it back on the bedside table.

“Who was that?”

“Someone from another lifetime.  Now, where were we?”

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

The A to Z Challenge – V is for “Very clear about this…”


Kane was in a very difficult position.

It was not for the first time, but this time was significant because he had basically agreed in principle to vote for both sides.

And, when he realized what had happened, he had, depending on how you looked at it, been tricked.

Not good for someone who was well respected by both sides, and whose vote would count towards picking up those who were undecided.

That was just pointed out to him by Amy, his personnel assistant, the moment he arrived back in the office.

He leaned back in his chair and stared at a point just past her head, a copy of a painting by one of the old masters, still an object of beauty.

“So, when did Cheney change sides?” He asked, dragging his attention back to the problem in hand.

He suddenly realized what had happened, and it was a well thought out scheme.  Cheney had always been on board with the Board’s recommendation until he accepted Kane’s invitation to come to a meeting that would attempt to explain why the board’s recommendation was wrong.

He should have been skeptical of Cheney’s sudden change of mind, and then of the discussions he had attended with Cheney’s allies, with the objective of changing their minds too.  In fact, he had left with the impression he had persuaded them, saying, in essence, they should all vote against.

Seeing Cheney that morning with the leader of the group agreeing to vote for the motion, should have set off alarm bells.  The phone call from Williams, the head of the group voting for the board’s recommendation, saying he was pleased that Kane had finally seen ‘the light’ as he called it, had been interesting, to say the least, especially when he mentioned in passing, how very much the board appreciated Kane’s confidence in them.

He had done no such thing.

Instead, Cheney had put him on the spot, and his words were now being taken out of context.

“This morning.  I just got word from Ellie, who told me he had a breakfast meeting with Jacobs and Meadows. She said he came back looking very pleased with himself.”

Jacobs was the chairman of the board and Meadows was the CEO who was pushing the new plan, which would break up, and sell-off, or disband, the underperforming divisions of the company.  By having Meadows in attendance, Jacobs could basically offer Cheney anything he wanted.

And top of his list was my division.

“Yes, and I think we can guess why.  He wants this division.  Of course, if they gave it to him, it would not be the magic bullet he thinks it will be.  Nor would it line the shareholders, and therefore the board members pockets as it has in the past.”

“Is this situation the proverbial double-edged sword?”

“It depends.  I doubt you could quit out of dissatisfaction with a crappy board decision.  I doubt anyone could in the current financial climate.  But you won’t have to worry.  It might mean going back to the pool for a while if you don’t want to work with Cheney.”

“No problem there.  Ellie had already told me my days are numbered.”

Understandable.  Ellie and Amy had put themselves forward for the role of Jake’s personal assistant, and Ellie had tried very hard to convince him Amy was not suitable for a variety of reasons, none of which he found valid, and appointed her.  Ellie was not one who forgot or forgave easily.

Although he didn’t like denigrating anyone, he had said more than once to Amy, both Ellie and Cheney suited each other.  Neither cared who or what they destroyed to get what they wanted.

“Then it looks like you and I are heading for the scrap heap.”

“Sounds like an excuse for a long lunch.”  She smiled.  For a woman who was about to lose a dream job, she was in remarkably good spirits.

“Ask me again in an hour.  I have a few things to do.”

“Call in some favors, maybe?”

People didn’t rise in a company over several decades without making friends, making enemies, and stumbling over information which may or may not be used depending on circumstances at the time.  He had a few interesting tidbits in his arsenal, but whether he would use them or not wasn’t uppermost in his mind.

“We’ll have to see.”

Jake watched her leave, and, not for the first time, he wondered what life with her might be like.  He had never married, but had, for a number of years had a more or less relationship with the Chairman’s daughter, before she broke it off.  He suspected the Chairman had instigated it given the number of times she had tried to contact him since parting.

That door had closed. As for Amy, she had a husband who was a member of the armed services and had been killed in Afghanistan.  She had weathered that event and finally come out the other side of some very dark days, some of which he had witnessed personally, and tried to help where he could.  But was she up to dipping her foot into the dating thing.  He wasn’t prepared to ask.  Not yet.

He sighed and picked up the phone.  It was time to call Jacobs.  It was the day I knew he would be in his office, not at the factory site where we all were housed, but in the top floor of a prestigious building in the city, twenty miles away  You could call it an ivory tower, but the board did oversee the functioning of seven different and diversified companies.

Some time ago they had called for ideas on how to integrate a lot of the similar processes of those diversified companies, but in the end, they had paid a ‘crony’ a million dollars for an unworkable plan, and it had not gone any further.  Now, the conglomerate was bleeding cash, someone had come up with a new, knee jerk, plan.

Jacobs was surprised to hear from him.

“I was told,” he said, “everyone is now on board.”

“They probably are.  It’s just that it is no longer a problem for me.  You’ll have my resignation on your desk by close of business.”

That statement was met with silence.  Stunned, or was it smug satisfaction.  He had always viewed Kane as a thorn in his side.

“Is that really necessary?”

“I think you know why, and whatever the plan was, it has backfired.  I don’t need the job, nor do I need the aggravation of scheming and plotting.”

“I think you’re making a mistake, but let’s be very clear about this, you leave, there’s no coming back. If I were you, I would consider my position very carefully.”

Interesting reaction.  The only conclusion from his reaction was that the thorn was now removed.

I expected just such a reaction.

Now, for the next job.  Kane went down to the factory floor and called in all the production managers.  Like himself, he knew most of them didn’t really have to stay, some could retire, some could go into business by themselves, most could walk into another job, even a better job, the next day.

Kane left that meeting a half-hour later, telling them the decision to stay and work under Cheney, a man none of them liked, was their decision but he was moving on.

He called Amy, asked if she had sent his resignation letter, which she had, and to pick the restaurant for lunch, the more expensive the better, and that he would pick her up outside the front of the office block.

For Kane, it was the 107th day of what he called the rest of his life.  He was woken by the sun streaming in through the window of his hotel room.  He had reached Singapore and had been told that Raffles Hotel was the place to stay.

He agreed.  Old but new, the place just reeked of nostalgia.

The figure beside him stirred, opened her eyes, and smiled.

“Good morning, Amy.”

“It is a good morning, isn’t it Kane?”

Over lunch that fateful day 107 days ago, he took the chance of asking her if she would be interested in dating him.  Nothing heavy, no strings, he would understand if she thought it inappropriate.

She didn’t think it was inappropriate, just wanted to know why it had taken him so long.

The had got married in Rome, 42 days ago, in a quaint little church, and after a week, moved to Venice for the honeymoon.  They hadn’t set a limit on how long it should be.  There was no reason to go back.

Of course, just when it’s least expected, the phone would ring.  His cell phone.  It was the first time in months.

“Hello?”

He was surprised it was Jacobs.  He’d followed the fortunes of the company he had abruptly left, as it tried to implement the plan that Cheney and his ‘friends of the board’ had voted for.  One problem after another; in three months the stock value of the parent company had lost 90% of its value.  As Kane had expected, every one of his management team resigned the day after, knowing full well, once Cheney was installed as manager, the transition would fail.

Now, faced with hostile shareholders, a corporate watchdog investigation, someone had to turn around the company’s fortunes or it would slide into liquidation before the week was out.

“It seems that we have serious problems implementing the restructure.  We have made some mistakes, but I think if I could tell the receivers that we have a plan and you would be heading up a new management team, we could save the company and all of the employees.”

The 2,500 left.  They should have left well alone, and the whole 8,000 that had been there the day Kane left would still be employed.

The Board and upper management would do well out of the company going under.  The staff, well, they always lost.

“I’m sorry to hear that.  Now, if you don’t mind, I have business to attend to.  Goodbye.”

I turned the phone off and put it back on the bedside table.

“Who was that?”

“Someone from another lifetime.  Now, where were we?”

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

An alternate A to Z Challenge – T is for – “This is getting interesting…”


The story below was the one that was supposed to be published under T, but the month got away from me and I was not able to get most of what I wanted to do done.

After all, it was the A to Z as well as NaNoWriMo for April, and the notion I could write 26 short stories and complete a 50,000 word novel at the same time…

What was I thinking?

Anyway, I had the bones of the story written, I just needed time to finish it. So, here it is, as will for the next few days, stories for U, V, W, X, Y and Z.

The email I received said:

“Go to Newark airport, go to the United booking desk and give them your name. Take proof of identity. Pack for five days, light.”

It was going to be, supposedly, a magical mystery tour. I read in a travel magazine, that a company offered five day inclusive trips to anywhere. You do not get the destination, just what to take. Then, just be prepared for anything.

I paid the money and waited, until last evening when the email came.

I was ready.

When I presented my credentials as requested, I found myself going to Venice, Italy, a place I had never been before.

When I looked it up, it said it took about 10 hours to get there with one stop in between. Enough time to read up on the many places to go and see, though according to the instructions, everything had been arranged in advance.

I could also take the time to brush up my schoolboy Italian.

When I got off the plane at Marco Polo airport, in Venice, it was mid-morning, but an hour or so was lost going through immigration and customs. A water taxi was waiting to take me to a hotel where I would receive further instructions. I was hoping it would on or overlooking the Grand Canal.

At the airport I wondered if there was going to be anyone else on this trip, or whether I would be doing it alone. I’d read sometimes likeminded people were put together for a shared experience.

We had to agree and then fill out an extensive profile so they could appropriately match people. Sometimes, people joined at different times along the way, you just never knew what was going to happen.

That random unpredictability was just what I needed having just gone through a breakup after a long period of peacefulness and stability, and frankly, I would not have chosen this type of tour if I had not.

It was a pleasant half hour or so winding our way through the canals, having paid the driver extra to take long route. I’d not been in Venice before, but I had read about it, and while some of the negative comments were true, it didn’t diminish the place in my eyes.

And the hotel, on its own island overlooking the main canal was stylish and elegant, and my room exactly where I’d hoped it would be. I think I spent the next hour just looking out at the city, and the boats going by, like a freeway or turnpike, a never-ending stream of traffic.

A knock on the door interrupted what might have been described as a reverie, by one of the concierge staff delivering an envelope with my name on it.

Perhaps more instructions.

“Tomorrow will be a free day in Venice. See attached suggested itinerary for ideas on what to do. Then, the following day you will be travelling from Venice to Florence by train departing Santa Maria Novella at 10:20 am.”

I looked at the list of suggested places to visit and a day would not be enough, but I could always come back. I’d always assumed this trip would give me some idea of what was on offer, and that if it was great, I could always come back.

A second reading of the instructions picked up something I’d almost missed. A dining party in the hotel where others like myself, with similar arrangements to mine might attend. It was underlined that it was not mandatory to attend, only if you wanted to.

The only provisor was that you do not talk about where you were going, only about yourselves, an opportunity to meet others and not dine alone. It was an interesting idea. All we had to do was give our name and the time of the booking.

I would think about it.

I arrived at the entrance to the restaurant at five minutes to eight, after a long deliberation on the merits of whether I wanted to see the other travellers.

At first, I thought what the point would be if you couldn’t talk about where you were going, but, after more thought, I wondered what it was that motivated those people who had also opted for a leap into the unknown.

These were not adventure holidays as such, just someone else planning the itinerary so you didn’t have to.

I gave the maitre’d my name and he escorted me to a table set for ten, of which four people were already seated. Were they expecting ten? Would anyone not turn up?

We exchanged greetings and I sat. Two men, two women, sitting together. My first thought, two couples, but I would not make any assumptions.

One of the women spoke first, “My name is Marina Delosa. I assume you are another intrepid traveller?”

“Ben Davis. I’m not so sure about the intrepid part, just lazy, I think, because I’m not very good at arranging my own travel.”

“I think you might say that applies to all of us,” she said.

The others introduced themselves as Angela and Harry Benson, and David Wilson.

“We were quite pleased they chose to start our tour in Italy. I have always wanted to visit Venice, so the travel Gods must be smiling on us,” Harry said.

“I must say I was surprised. I guess it’s one of the benefits of this type of travel, not knowing where you’re going to end up. I think my secret wish was to come here, too, or at least Italy. I think I have a relative or two that came from here.”

“That might be said for all of us,” Marina said. “One part Italian, one part Irish, and not quite sure what the other parts are.”

Another intrepid adventurer arrived at the table, another woman. She was older than the rest of us, but I would not think by more than ten years. She had the same look of trepidation I had felt before coming. And, at a guess, recently divorced, or separated.

“Anne Lebroski,” she said, leaving a seat between her and I. It was an interesting move. I had deliberately not tried to distance myself.

Only six of a possible ten arrived, and it turned out to be a very good evening. Whilst all of us had that battle within not to talk about where we were going, it seemed to force the issue of talking more about where we had been previously, and what we did with our lives.

And as quickly as it had begun it was over and everyone kept the conversation going until the elevator dropped us off, each to a different floor, as if we were deliberately being kept apart. Of course, it was simply my overactive imagination conjuring up different scenarios, perhaps in an effort to make a simple holiday seem more exciting

Suddenly, once back in my room, a great tiredness came over me and I barely made it into bed. Would we all run into each other the next morning over breakfast? It was a thought that kept me awake for all of a few minutes before slipping into an uneasy sleep.

When I woke up, I was confused and disorientated.

In those initial few seconds, and through the blurry eyes of just having woken, what I saw was unfamiliar.

I was definitely not in my room at home.

It took a few more seconds, in fact, almost a minute, before I realised that I was not at home. It was a hotel room, and quite unusual, light seeping through the thick curtains that covered what had to be a window.

Was in morning, afternoon, or evening? It had to be morning.

And, what was I doing in a hotel room?

When some of the fog had cleared away, I slipped out from under the sheet, and crossed over to the desk on the other side of the room. I pulled the curtain aside slightly and more light came in, splashing across the desk. On it was a piece of paper, a receipt, with the name Hilton Molino Stucky, Venice on it.

What was I doing in Venice?

I pulled the curtains further aside and looked out the window. It overlooked a body of water, and right then, a very large cruise liner was passing by. A very, very large cruise ship.

Then, behind me I heard a noise and turned.

There was someone else in the bed, a head appeared from under the sheet and looked over at me. A woman, messy blonde hair and a familiar face.

I didn’t remember coming to Venice or travelling with anyone. I was sorely tempted to say, “Who are you?” but stifled it. Instead, I asked, in what was a croaky voice, “What happened last night?”

The woman looked surprised. “You don’t remember?”

“To be honest, I’m having a hard time remembering where I am, let alone what I was doing?”

“Well, for starters, you were drinking copious quantities of champagne, which you well know you should not because of what it does to you.”

OK, that had a semblance of truth about it, not that I remember drinking champagne, but what it does to me. Exactly what was happening now. Last time, well, I couldn’t remember, but it wasn’t good.

Still, I didn’t know who this woman was, but I had enough sense to play along. The taste in my mouth reminded me of drinking too much wine, which was what I used to do.

“This much is true. When…” There I stopped, realising how it might sound.

Another look, not of surprise, but disdain perhaps?

“You don’t remember my arriving last night. Nor, I’m willing to bet, inviting me here. You rang two days ago, said you just arrived in Venice, and knowing I was on assignment in Rome, called me, asking if I wanted to come and see you, stay a day or two.”

It was not something I would have done, but for the simple reason I didn’t know anyone in Rome to call. But, oddly, she looked familiar. “Marina?” I said, almost under my breath.

The smile returned. “You do remember.”

“Barely, along with dinner the other night, with some other people. Tourists?”

“Yes. Two days ago, you said you’d asked some travel agents to pick your destination, and it ended up in Venice, along with several others. We’re supposed to be going to Florence this morning, but I was hesitant waking you in case you weren’t feeling well.”

Well, that part was true. I wasn’t. And that reference to Florence, it seemed likely. There was another piece of paper on the desk, an itinerary which said I was travelling to Florence by train.
I looked at the clock beside the bed.

6:17 am.

I looked at the itinerary, and the train was at 11 am.

The itinerary had two names on it. Ben and Marina Davis. I knew I was Ben, but I didn’t remember anything about having a wife, or friend, named Marina. More of the fog had lifted in my brain, and every instinct was telling me to play along. I don’t know why that message popped into my head at that exact moment, but it did.

“We’ve got five hours before the train leaves. I suspect it might be a good idea to start getting ready. I’ll call down for coffee, and, bearing in mind I’ve lost all sense of orientation and not exactly sure of everything going around me, as you say I should not be drinking wine in copious quantities, I’ll toss you the phone so you can order whatever you want. Sorry, but for the moment, I’ve forgotten everything.”

Let her counter that, or also play along. Her expression told me she was thinking about what I said, but then shrugged. “You don’t remember asking me, do you?”

“I do remember something, and it involves you because you are very familiar to me, so don’t be too upset. I am glad you’re here, because I was simply dreading travelling in Italy by myself, and you are almost a native. There, I knew there was a perfectly good reason why you’re here.”

She didn’t look quite so sure. “I’ll be in the bathroom,” she said. “Coffee will be fine. I think I had too much to drink last night too.”

After she disappeared into the bathroom and closed the door, odd, I thought, for a woman who had slept in the same bed as I, I called down for coffee and croissants. By that time, I was feeling better, and the queasy stomach was subsiding.

Twenty minutes later there was a knock on the door.

Room service.

“Ben.”

I did remember the person outside the door, dressed as the room service waiter. “Alan.”

“They took the bait?”

“Obviously. Too much booze…”

“Slipped you a mickey. Be careful. These two don’t play by the rules. Luigi is downstairs pacing like a cat ready to pounce. Thin short guy in a cheap black suit, pink shirt and grey tie.” Alan shook his head. “No dress sense whatsoever.”

“I don’t remember much.”

“Nothing happened, don’t worry. Had eyes on you the whole time like we promised. Now, you’ve a train to catch. Just be careful.”

He brought the tray in and put it on the desk.

Marina chose that moment to open the door.

“Room service,” I said. “Coffee for two. There’s a croissant too if you want one.”

“Sir,” Alan muttered, and headed for the door, remembering at the last second to produce a form for me to sign.

Then he was gone.

Fog cleared, everything came back in a rush. She was still standing in the doorway, the only think between her and modest, a large white towel wrapped around her. Beautiful but deadly, Alan had said.

Let the games commence.

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

The A to Z Challenge – S is for “Since when did you care?”


Don’t get me wrong, I loved my brothers and sister, but I can now only take them in small doses.

You know how it is growing up, always fighting for your own space, having to live with their idiosyncrasies, getting blamed for stuff you never did.

I never got to have a room of my own, always sharing with the other middle brother, James, whereas the eldest brother had his own room, and by necessity, our youngest sister.

They too got the first-class education where James and I were shuffled off to trade school, which James always said was a hop, step and jump from prison.

Coincidentally, James and I were the first to leave home as soon as it was possible. WE had to earn a living and pay rent, whereas the other two were being nurtured through school, and life.

It was the school of hard knocks for us.

Over the years we all drifted in and out of each other’s lives. We also drifted, at one time or another all over the world, and later, all over the country.

Because of this, only seminal events brought us back together, and even then, those moments were few and fleeting, and not looked upon with fondness. We were not the typical family.

When the time came for each to marry, at varying times of our lives, each would be there at the event. Keeping up with each other was a task for social media, and there we learned of children, divorces, affairs, and disasters.

But there was one defining event that finally shook up our collective trees of life; the death of our parents. Whilst none of the children were particularly close, it seemed to fall upon Janine, the daughter, to look after them.

And, when they were killed unexpectedly in a car crash, it was she who delivered the bad news, and issue the invitation to return home for the funerals.

It was sad, yes, but not as much as it should be for a child. For me, I had spent years hating them for perceived wrongs perpetrated, not getting the same treatment as eldest and youngest siblings, not getting the financial support when requested, and not getting a visit, even if it was only once a year.

So, when I read about their deaths, it saddened me, but I hadn’t seen them for a half dozen years, and had almost forgotten they existed. Yes, I should have made more of an effort to go see them, introduce them to their grandchildren, but I didn’t.

It was a completely different situation with Sally’s parents. There were a close-knit family who, whilst also had the monetary and space constraints as we had, and with more members of the family to contend with, they seemed to make it work without fear or favouritism.

She had only recently met each of my siblings in person, simply because of the fact we were getting older, and reasons for coming together more urgent, well, for the others, anyway. And that Sally had put her foot down and demanded we make an effort to see them.

“So, you are going to the funeral, all of us this time I hope.” I had just shown her the missive sent by my sister, Janine, proclaiming the sad news, not being surprised yet again at the coldness that ran between the members of my family.

She had been disappointed at my indifference, even when I explained the circumstances, and how that coldness had begun and festered throughout our lives. For one who had never been in that situation, it was hard to explain, or understand. Not when comparing it to her own situation.

“If you want.” I was going to make the excuse that my work would not allow the time off, but that would only be because of me, not them. I had used it before, and Sally had realised eventually what I was doing. It wouldn’t work this time.

“We should. They were, after all, your parents, and like it or not, they did give you your start in life. I’ve no doubt they did the best they could.”

Sally always saw the best in people, though with my parents, they did leave her somewhat perplexed at times. The same went for Jeremy, the eldest brother, and his indifference. He was our father reincarnated, and his wife, Lucy, was very much like our mother, perpetually suffering from disdain.

“You had to be there,” was all I would say in my defence.

It was a statement I used often to explain away their indifference. I wanted to believe they had done the best they could, but they could have done better. I hesitate to use the word selfish, but they had been, putting their needs before us.

Even in death, I could still feel the resentment.

“Do you want me to make the arrangements?” She always did, and if she had not, perhaps she might never meet my parents, or my brothers and sister.

“That might be best. You know what I’m like.”

I didn’t hear her reply, but I knew what it would be. A frown and muttering under her breath. She knew what I was like, and still married me, much to the disdain of my eldest brother, Jeremy, who had said to her, a day before the wedding, she still had time to change her mind.

He hadn’t endeared himself that day, or any of the days since.

For Alison and Ben, the two children that were never going to be anything like my siblings, it was an adventure. We rarely travelled far from home for holidays. Preferring to spend it with Sally’s parents at their summer house, big enough to fit everyone, what I would have called a boarding house. It was near a lake and was the closest thing to a summer camp as I would get.

Going over in the plane, Sally had banished me to an aisle seat one row behind them. I suspect that was to give me some mental preparation time, but more likely to consider the lecture she’d given me at the airport about me being more proactive in being nice to my family.

It was time to stop playing the forgotten child routine, and to start behaving like I had a family and simply accept them despite their idiosyncrasies. She was right, of course, as she always was, and todays, of all days, it made me wonder what is was she saw in me.

Off the plane, the first surprise was waiting in arrivals. Sally. Holding a sign much like a chauffeur would. Apparently, she had arranged transport. The second surprise was Sally and Janine together, like they were old friends. I was guessing Sally and Janine had had long conversations over the funeral arrangements.

She also liked Janine, even though she lived in a different world. Janine had never married, had a job that paid squillions of dollars, and lived in a mansion, one my children described as a castle, it had so many rooms.

Then, after the hugs, and the smiles, she saw me, the wet blanket.

“Tom.”

“Janine.”

“You can give me a hug you know.”

I could feel Sally’s eyes burning a hole in me. Hug it was. It was a first, and oddly, rather than consider it was waste of time, it gave me a strange set of emotions.

Then the moment passed.

“You look well.”

“That you can thank Sally for. Left to my own devices, I’d probably be a basket case now.”

“Who’s to say you not, still.” Sally gave me the critical eye, and it was a warning shot across the bows. Behave or else.

We followed Janine out of the terminal building to a parking lot where limousines were parked. She had got us a stretched limousine. Wherever we were going, it was going to be in style.

Sally told me at some point that when she had suggested we stay in a hotel, Janine would not hear of it. She said she lived in what was tantamount to a mausoleum, and there was plenty of room for us. And the rest of the family.

It seemed that she had been very successful in inventing something that everyone needed, and, when she described it, it made sense. Holding the patent and licensing people to manufacture it had made her very wealthy indeed.

Somehow, I’d missed that aspect of her life, though my impression of her, with her education and cleverness, she earned squillions. I was practically right.

What was also explained to me, because I had remarked on how well Sally and Janine got along, and that couldn’t have developed in the last few days while arranging thw funeral visit, it transpired the two had met once of twice when Sally was over this side of the country for seminars, and the two regularly emailed each other.

No sense, Sally said, for her to shun my sister as I had.

Once it might had annoyed me that she would do something like that, but it made sense that Sally would want to know Janine, at the very least, better despite how I painted her. She may have tried with the other two, but I knew Jeremy would strike out the first time she spoke to him, and James was hard enough for anyone to find, let alone his family. I’d tried, and he had disappeared. Not even Janine knew, at that moment in time, where he was.

Jeremy, unfortunately, we would see later.

It was also apparent that once we reached the mausoleum, that I was supposed to go and have a chat with Janine, family stuff she said, and Sally was happy to move into, and unpack, then get the cook to make the children a meal.

We went into a room that Janine called her office.

It was a large wood panelled room with a lot of shelving and a huge number of books. My only remark, that she could not have read them all. It was a little churlish and elicited a grimace.

Janine was not going to put up with my nonsense and was well aware of my attitude from discussions with Sally. It led to her first statement, soon after we sat in very comfortable leather chairs, in front of a window that looked out over a rose garden.

I was counting staff by then, a housekeeper, a cook, a young woman who was there as a waitress, a maid who showed Sally and the children to their rooms upstairs, and outside two gardeners. It was no surprise then the limousine was hers, and the man who drove it, ger chauffeur.

She lived a very different lifestyle than I did.

“I can see that look on your face where you are judging me, and you shouldn’t. You might think you were badly done by, but I’ll let you into a secret, you got the better deal. Not that I’ll defend Jeremy, but in my case, I had a hell of a lot of expectation dumped on my shoulders. You got to swan off and live your life without a care in the world, and I can see you have made all the right decisions, and got everything I could only have hoped for. I have no husband, nor boyfriend, and any I did didn’t last long because my focus was on work and success, instead of happiness. So, yes I have a big house and a lot of money, and people running around doing my bidding, but I have no one to share it with, and no one to pass it onto.”

“Yet.” It was a noble speech, and I’m sure she felt the loneliness of it all. I was going to say she had a choice, just as I had, but somehow it didn’t seem appropriate.

Certainly, I didn’t feel the same way about her as I had before I came of this odyssey, and that in itself may for some be something of a revelation. That hug she had given me at the airport, and the feelings it conveys almost confused me, and most likely would have frightened me if I had not had Sally.

For some reason, now, it was going to be impossible to have the same feelings, or feelings of resentment, I once had.

“There are things you need to know, Tom. The first is that I am not long for this earth. I have about a year, two at the most, the news of which I received about an hour after the police called to tell my our parents had been killed in a car crash.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

It was bad news for anyone to learn, but on top of the news of our parents, I couldn’t imagine what that was like.

“The second is that our mother had been diagnosed with the same condition, about two years ago, and didn’t tell anyone. Maybe she thought she was protecting me from the possibility it would happen to me, but we both know she was selfish and inconsiderate at the best of times. Believe me when I tell you we had some incredible rows over the years. And no, I was not a daddy’s girl so I got no support or help in dealing with her truculence.”

I could just imagine our mother giving Janine hell. And in that same thought, how sad it was to have saddled Janine with all of that responsibility. I knew Jeremy hadn’t been any sort of help in regard to both parents, and James was not to be found. I really had no excuse, and I had to admit that some of my father’s selfishness had rubbed off on me too.

“You should have told me, or told Sally to tell me.”

“You would not have been in a receptive frame of mind, not then. But now, I can see you’ve turned a corner, just being here. You could have declined to come, I know now of the hurt our mother and father in particular had inflicted on both you and James, because in their declining years, they eventually turned on both Jeremy and I. Jeremy didn’t cope very well, and did what you did, just went away, leaving me to deal with it. I’m not blaming you, not do I blame you for leaving, I truly understand why. It’s just a pity we didn’t have conversation years ago, because now we’re going to miss on so much in the little time we do have.”

The pity of it was there was nothing I could do now to get that back. But going forward, I was not sure what I could do to make it up to her. And I said as much, and it sounded a lot better in my head than out loud.

“Well, there is something you can do. It’s a funny story, though I believe you will not get a laugh out of it. The third thing is that I am the executor of their wills. Against my advice, and probably something our mother was not fully cognisant of, was a desire for my father to take her on one last road trip. The doctors had decreed due to her worsening condition she would have to go into managed care. He took her to Las Vegas, of all places. The thing is the day they left, mother decided to play this jackpot poker machine, and won the jackpot. I didn’t discover this until the Casino rang me, though how they got my phone number is still a mystery, to tell they hadn’t cashed the check. They were on the road out of Vegas when a truck hit them head on. It wasn’t really an accident, according to the police. They said the truck driver said our father had driven straight at him. I have no reason to disbelieve him.

“He deliberately wanted them both to die?”

“Yes. He had said more than once that he didn’t want to live without her, so I think it was his plan to spend a few days together while she was still cognizant, and then end it. I have no doubt she knew what he was planning to do, and had agreed it was the best way to end the pain and suffering.”

It certainly sounded something he would do. They never regarded the feelings of anyone else in any of the decisions they made. I was going to make a comment, but it seemed moot. They were dead now, and they had gone out on their own terms.

“The truck driver?” I had to spare a thought for him, because they would not have.

“Relatively unharmed, just shaken. And the shock that someone would do that. I met him and apologised, but it seemed not enough recompense for the suffering they caused him. Anyway, I asked the police if they had found a check in the remnants of the car, but given the state of it, it was not surprising they didn’t so I asked the casino to cancel it and write a new one.”

She reached out and picked up a folder on the table between he chairs, and took out a slip of paper and handed it to me.

A check made out to our parents.

For eighty-seven million dollars, and change.

I looked at her, quite literally astonished. “This is ridiculous.”

“What it is, is a sign from the heavens that will give me an opportunity I might not have been granted otherwise. I want you to come home, and spend the last months of my life here with me, and make up for the time we have lost. I know both you and Sally have jobs back home, but that check, your share of it, will make the decision a little easier to make.”

“Does Sally know about this?”

“Only that I’m going to die sooner rather than later, and that she was waiting until you came here before talking to you about what to do. She said it would be better coming from me, not her, because of how things are in the family. I’ll be honest with you, Tom, I was prepared to come to you to plead my case before our parents did what they did because there’s no one else I would want to spend what precious little time I have left.”

I knew now why I’d felt such intense feelings earlier at the airport. It had been a sixth sense, that something was terribly wrong. And she was right, what time she had should be spent with family, those values I had come to terms with being with Sally. It was the right thing to do, but it was not wholly my decision. There were ramifications of uprooting our lives back home, including the sacrifices Sally would have to make.

“Have you told Jeremy?”

“God, no. He’d be a total ass about it, saying I was trying to steal the limelight and making it all about me. We can tell him when it’s too late for him to make any comment at all.”

“And James?”

“We’ll find him. I have resources available that you can only imagine exist.”

I believed her.

“Then I guess I should go and find Sally and see what she has to say about it. And I guess I should apologise for being such an ass all these years.”

“No need. In a way I envy you, always have.”

“You have no reason to. I never made anything of myself, not like you have.”

“You’re wrong if you think that. You have an amazing partner, two beautiful children, and you have provided for them, and look after them in a manner in which I can only dream about. It’s not about money, or possessions, or anything like what you see I have, because when it comes down to it, all that matters is the people around you. That, unfortunately, was the legacy our parents gave us and it was wrong.”

She stood, “Let us not dwell on the past, but brace ourselves for the impending crash landing of the one and only Jeremy. I have some very good champagne chilling at the bar, and we’re going to need fortification, if not Dutch courage before the monster arrives.”

© Charles Heath 2021

An alternate A to Z Challenge – T is for – “This is getting interesting…”


The story below was the one that was supposed to be published under T, but the month got away from me and I was not able to get most of what I wanted to do done.

After all, it was the A to Z as well as NaNoWriMo for April, and the notion I could write 26 short stories and complete a 50,000 word novel at the same time…

What was I thinking?

Anyway, I had the bones of the story written, I just needed time to finish it. So, here it is, as will for the next few days, stories for U, V, W, X, Y and Z.

The email I received said:

“Go to Newark airport, go to the United booking desk and give them your name. Take proof of identity. Pack for five days, light.”

It was going to be, supposedly, a magical mystery tour. I read in a travel magazine, that a company offered five day inclusive trips to anywhere. You do not get the destination, just what to take. Then, just be prepared for anything.

I paid the money and waited, until last evening when the email came.

I was ready.

When I presented my credentials as requested, I found myself going to Venice, Italy, a place I had never been before.

When I looked it up, it said it took about 10 hours to get there with one stop in between. Enough time to read up on the many places to go and see, though according to the instructions, everything had been arranged in advance.

I could also take the time to brush up my schoolboy Italian.

When I got off the plane at Marco Polo airport, in Venice, it was mid-morning, but an hour or so was lost going through immigration and customs. A water taxi was waiting to take me to a hotel where I would receive further instructions. I was hoping it would on or overlooking the Grand Canal.

At the airport I wondered if there was going to be anyone else on this trip, or whether I would be doing it alone. I’d read sometimes likeminded people were put together for a shared experience.

We had to agree and then fill out an extensive profile so they could appropriately match people. Sometimes, people joined at different times along the way, you just never knew what was going to happen.

That random unpredictability was just what I needed having just gone through a breakup after a long period of peacefulness and stability, and frankly, I would not have chosen this type of tour if I had not.

It was a pleasant half hour or so winding our way through the canals, having paid the driver extra to take long route. I’d not been in Venice before, but I had read about it, and while some of the negative comments were true, it didn’t diminish the place in my eyes.

And the hotel, on its own island overlooking the main canal was stylish and elegant, and my room exactly where I’d hoped it would be. I think I spent the next hour just looking out at the city, and the boats going by, like a freeway or turnpike, a never-ending stream of traffic.

A knock on the door interrupted what might have been described as a reverie, by one of the concierge staff delivering an envelope with my name on it.

Perhaps more instructions.

“Tomorrow will be a free day in Venice. See attached suggested itinerary for ideas on what to do. Then, the following day you will be travelling from Venice to Florence by train departing Santa Maria Novella at 10:20 am.”

I looked at the list of suggested places to visit and a day would not be enough, but I could always come back. I’d always assumed this trip would give me some idea of what was on offer, and that if it was great, I could always come back.

A second reading of the instructions picked up something I’d almost missed. A dining party in the hotel where others like myself, with similar arrangements to mine might attend. It was underlined that it was not mandatory to attend, only if you wanted to.

The only provisor was that you do not talk about where you were going, only about yourselves, an opportunity to meet others and not dine alone. It was an interesting idea. All we had to do was give our name and the time of the booking.

I would think about it.

I arrived at the entrance to the restaurant at five minutes to eight, after a long deliberation on the merits of whether I wanted to see the other travellers.

At first, I thought what the point would be if you couldn’t talk about where you were going, but, after more thought, I wondered what it was that motivated those people who had also opted for a leap into the unknown.

These were not adventure holidays as such, just someone else planning the itinerary so you didn’t have to.

I gave the maitre’d my name and he escorted me to a table set for ten, of which four people were already seated. Were they expecting ten? Would anyone not turn up?

We exchanged greetings and I sat. Two men, two women, sitting together. My first thought, two couples, but I would not make any assumptions.

One of the women spoke first, “My name is Marina Delosa. I assume you are another intrepid traveller?”

“Ben Davis. I’m not so sure about the intrepid part, just lazy, I think, because I’m not very good at arranging my own travel.”

“I think you might say that applies to all of us,” she said.

The others introduced themselves as Angela and Harry Benson, and David Wilson.

“We were quite pleased they chose to start our tour in Italy. I have always wanted to visit Venice, so the travel Gods must be smiling on us,” Harry said.

“I must say I was surprised. I guess it’s one of the benefits of this type of travel, not knowing where you’re going to end up. I think my secret wish was to come here, too, or at least Italy. I think I have a relative or two that came from here.”

“That might be said for all of us,” Marina said. “One part Italian, one part Irish, and not quite sure what the other parts are.”

Another intrepid adventurer arrived at the table, another woman. She was older than the rest of us, but I would not think by more than ten years. She had the same look of trepidation I had felt before coming. And, at a guess, recently divorced, or separated.

“Anne Lebroski,” she said, leaving a seat between her and I. It was an interesting move. I had deliberately not tried to distance myself.

Only six of a possible ten arrived, and it turned out to be a very good evening. Whilst all of us had that battle within not to talk about where we were going, it seemed to force the issue of talking more about where we had been previously, and what we did with our lives.

And as quickly as it had begun it was over and everyone kept the conversation going until the elevator dropped us off, each to a different floor, as if we were deliberately being kept apart. Of course, it was simply my overactive imagination conjuring up different scenarios, perhaps in an effort to make a simple holiday seem more exciting

Suddenly, once back in my room, a great tiredness came over me and I barely made it into bed. Would we all run into each other the next morning over breakfast? It was a thought that kept me awake for all of a few minutes before slipping into an uneasy sleep.

When I woke up, I was confused and disorientated.

In those initial few seconds, and through the blurry eyes of just having woken, what I saw was unfamiliar.

I was definitely not in my room at home.

It took a few more seconds, in fact, almost a minute, before I realised that I was not at home. It was a hotel room, and quite unusual, light seeping through the thick curtains that covered what had to be a window.

Was in morning, afternoon, or evening? It had to be morning.

And, what was I doing in a hotel room?

When some of the fog had cleared away, I slipped out from under the sheet, and crossed over to the desk on the other side of the room. I pulled the curtain aside slightly and more light came in, splashing across the desk. On it was a piece of paper, a receipt, with the name Hilton Molino Stucky, Venice on it.

What was I doing in Venice?

I pulled the curtains further aside and looked out the window. It overlooked a body of water, and right then, a very large cruise liner was passing by. A very, very large cruise ship.

Then, behind me I heard a noise and turned.

There was someone else in the bed, a head appeared from under the sheet and looked over at me. A woman, messy blonde hair and a familiar face.

I didn’t remember coming to Venice or travelling with anyone. I was sorely tempted to say, “Who are you?” but stifled it. Instead, I asked, in what was a croaky voice, “What happened last night?”

The woman looked surprised. “You don’t remember?”

“To be honest, I’m having a hard time remembering where I am, let alone what I was doing?”

“Well, for starters, you were drinking copious quantities of champagne, which you well know you should not because of what it does to you.”

OK, that had a semblance of truth about it, not that I remember drinking champagne, but what it does to me. Exactly what was happening now. Last time, well, I couldn’t remember, but it wasn’t good.

Still, I didn’t know who this woman was, but I had enough sense to play along. The taste in my mouth reminded me of drinking too much wine, which was what I used to do.

“This much is true. When…” There I stopped, realising how it might sound.

Another look, not of surprise, but disdain perhaps?

“You don’t remember my arriving last night. Nor, I’m willing to bet, inviting me here. You rang two days ago, said you just arrived in Venice, and knowing I was on assignment in Rome, called me, asking if I wanted to come and see you, stay a day or two.”

It was not something I would have done, but for the simple reason I didn’t know anyone in Rome to call. But, oddly, she looked familiar. “Marina?” I said, almost under my breath.

The smile returned. “You do remember.”

“Barely, along with dinner the other night, with some other people. Tourists?”

“Yes. Two days ago, you said you’d asked some travel agents to pick your destination, and it ended up in Venice, along with several others. We’re supposed to be going to Florence this morning, but I was hesitant waking you in case you weren’t feeling well.”

Well, that part was true. I wasn’t. And that reference to Florence, it seemed likely. There was another piece of paper on the desk, an itinerary which said I was travelling to Florence by train.
I looked at the clock beside the bed.

6:17 am.

I looked at the itinerary, and the train was at 11 am.

The itinerary had two names on it. Ben and Marina Davis. I knew I was Ben, but I didn’t remember anything about having a wife, or friend, named Marina. More of the fog had lifted in my brain, and every instinct was telling me to play along. I don’t know why that message popped into my head at that exact moment, but it did.

“We’ve got five hours before the train leaves. I suspect it might be a good idea to start getting ready. I’ll call down for coffee, and, bearing in mind I’ve lost all sense of orientation and not exactly sure of everything going around me, as you say I should not be drinking wine in copious quantities, I’ll toss you the phone so you can order whatever you want. Sorry, but for the moment, I’ve forgotten everything.”

Let her counter that, or also play along. Her expression told me she was thinking about what I said, but then shrugged. “You don’t remember asking me, do you?”

“I do remember something, and it involves you because you are very familiar to me, so don’t be too upset. I am glad you’re here, because I was simply dreading travelling in Italy by myself, and you are almost a native. There, I knew there was a perfectly good reason why you’re here.”

She didn’t look quite so sure. “I’ll be in the bathroom,” she said. “Coffee will be fine. I think I had too much to drink last night too.”

After she disappeared into the bathroom and closed the door, odd, I thought, for a woman who had slept in the same bed as I, I called down for coffee and croissants. By that time, I was feeling better, and the queasy stomach was subsiding.

Twenty minutes later there was a knock on the door.

Room service.

“Ben.”

I did remember the person outside the door, dressed as the room service waiter. “Alan.”

“They took the bait?”

“Obviously. Too much booze…”

“Slipped you a mickey. Be careful. These two don’t play by the rules. Luigi is downstairs pacing like a cat ready to pounce. Thin short guy in a cheap black suit, pink shirt and grey tie.” Alan shook his head. “No dress sense whatsoever.”

“I don’t remember much.”

“Nothing happened, don’t worry. Had eyes on you the whole time like we promised. Now, you’ve a train to catch. Just be careful.”

He brought the tray in and put it on the desk.

Marina chose that moment to open the door.

“Room service,” I said. “Coffee for two. There’s a croissant too if you want one.”

“Sir,” Alan muttered, and headed for the door, remembering at the last second to produce a form for me to sign.

Then he was gone.

Fog cleared, everything came back in a rush. She was still standing in the doorway, the only think between her and modest, a large white towel wrapped around her. Beautiful but deadly, Alan had said.

Let the games commence.

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

The A to Z Challenge – S is for “Since when did you care?”


Don’t get me wrong, I loved my brothers and sister, but I can now only take them in small doses.

You know how it is growing up, always fighting for your own space, having to live with their idiosyncrasies, getting blamed for stuff you never did.

I never got to have a room of my own, always sharing with the other middle brother, James, whereas the eldest brother had his own room, and by necessity, our youngest sister.

They too got the first-class education where James and I were shuffled off to trade school, which James always said was a hop, step and jump from prison.

Coincidentally, James and I were the first to leave home as soon as it was possible. WE had to earn a living and pay rent, whereas the other two were being nurtured through school, and life.

It was the school of hard knocks for us.

Over the years we all drifted in and out of each other’s lives. We also drifted, at one time or another all over the world, and later, all over the country.

Because of this, only seminal events brought us back together, and even then, those moments were few and fleeting, and not looked upon with fondness. We were not the typical family.

When the time came for each to marry, at varying times of our lives, each would be there at the event. Keeping up with each other was a task for social media, and there we learned of children, divorces, affairs, and disasters.

But there was one defining event that finally shook up our collective trees of life; the death of our parents. Whilst none of the children were particularly close, it seemed to fall upon Janine, the daughter, to look after them.

And, when they were killed unexpectedly in a car crash, it was she who delivered the bad news, and issue the invitation to return home for the funerals.

It was sad, yes, but not as much as it should be for a child. For me, I had spent years hating them for perceived wrongs perpetrated, not getting the same treatment as eldest and youngest siblings, not getting the financial support when requested, and not getting a visit, even if it was only once a year.

So, when I read about their deaths, it saddened me, but I hadn’t seen them for a half dozen years, and had almost forgotten they existed. Yes, I should have made more of an effort to go see them, introduce them to their grandchildren, but I didn’t.

It was a completely different situation with Sally’s parents. There were a close-knit family who, whilst also had the monetary and space constraints as we had, and with more members of the family to contend with, they seemed to make it work without fear or favouritism.

She had only recently met each of my siblings in person, simply because of the fact we were getting older, and reasons for coming together more urgent, well, for the others, anyway. And that Sally had put her foot down and demanded we make an effort to see them.

“So, you are going to the funeral, all of us this time I hope.” I had just shown her the missive sent by my sister, Janine, proclaiming the sad news, not being surprised yet again at the coldness that ran between the members of my family.

She had been disappointed at my indifference, even when I explained the circumstances, and how that coldness had begun and festered throughout our lives. For one who had never been in that situation, it was hard to explain, or understand. Not when comparing it to her own situation.

“If you want.” I was going to make the excuse that my work would not allow the time off, but that would only be because of me, not them. I had used it before, and Sally had realised eventually what I was doing. It wouldn’t work this time.

“We should. They were, after all, your parents, and like it or not, they did give you your start in life. I’ve no doubt they did the best they could.”

Sally always saw the best in people, though with my parents, they did leave her somewhat perplexed at times. The same went for Jeremy, the eldest brother, and his indifference. He was our father reincarnated, and his wife, Lucy, was very much like our mother, perpetually suffering from disdain.

“You had to be there,” was all I would say in my defence.

It was a statement I used often to explain away their indifference. I wanted to believe they had done the best they could, but they could have done better. I hesitate to use the word selfish, but they had been, putting their needs before us.

Even in death, I could still feel the resentment.

“Do you want me to make the arrangements?” She always did, and if she had not, perhaps she might never meet my parents, or my brothers and sister.

“That might be best. You know what I’m like.”

I didn’t hear her reply, but I knew what it would be. A frown and muttering under her breath. She knew what I was like, and still married me, much to the disdain of my eldest brother, Jeremy, who had said to her, a day before the wedding, she still had time to change her mind.

He hadn’t endeared himself that day, or any of the days since.

For Alison and Ben, the two children that were never going to be anything like my siblings, it was an adventure. We rarely travelled far from home for holidays. Preferring to spend it with Sally’s parents at their summer house, big enough to fit everyone, what I would have called a boarding house. It was near a lake and was the closest thing to a summer camp as I would get.

Going over in the plane, Sally had banished me to an aisle seat one row behind them. I suspect that was to give me some mental preparation time, but more likely to consider the lecture she’d given me at the airport about me being more proactive in being nice to my family.

It was time to stop playing the forgotten child routine, and to start behaving like I had a family and simply accept them despite their idiosyncrasies. She was right, of course, as she always was, and todays, of all days, it made me wonder what is was she saw in me.

Off the plane, the first surprise was waiting in arrivals. Sally. Holding a sign much like a chauffeur would. Apparently, she had arranged transport. The second surprise was Sally and Janine together, like they were old friends. I was guessing Sally and Janine had had long conversations over the funeral arrangements.

She also liked Janine, even though she lived in a different world. Janine had never married, had a job that paid squillions of dollars, and lived in a mansion, one my children described as a castle, it had so many rooms.

Then, after the hugs, and the smiles, she saw me, the wet blanket.

“Tom.”

“Janine.”

“You can give me a hug you know.”

I could feel Sally’s eyes burning a hole in me. Hug it was. It was a first, and oddly, rather than consider it was waste of time, it gave me a strange set of emotions.

Then the moment passed.

“You look well.”

“That you can thank Sally for. Left to my own devices, I’d probably be a basket case now.”

“Who’s to say you not, still.” Sally gave me the critical eye, and it was a warning shot across the bows. Behave or else.

We followed Janine out of the terminal building to a parking lot where limousines were parked. She had got us a stretched limousine. Wherever we were going, it was going to be in style.

Sally told me at some point that when she had suggested we stay in a hotel, Janine would not hear of it. She said she lived in what was tantamount to a mausoleum, and there was plenty of room for us. And the rest of the family.

It seemed that she had been very successful in inventing something that everyone needed, and, when she described it, it made sense. Holding the patent and licensing people to manufacture it had made her very wealthy indeed.

Somehow, I’d missed that aspect of her life, though my impression of her, with her education and cleverness, she earned squillions. I was practically right.

What was also explained to me, because I had remarked on how well Sally and Janine got along, and that couldn’t have developed in the last few days while arranging thw funeral visit, it transpired the two had met once of twice when Sally was over this side of the country for seminars, and the two regularly emailed each other.

No sense, Sally said, for her to shun my sister as I had.

Once it might had annoyed me that she would do something like that, but it made sense that Sally would want to know Janine, at the very least, better despite how I painted her. She may have tried with the other two, but I knew Jeremy would strike out the first time she spoke to him, and James was hard enough for anyone to find, let alone his family. I’d tried, and he had disappeared. Not even Janine knew, at that moment in time, where he was.

Jeremy, unfortunately, we would see later.

It was also apparent that once we reached the mausoleum, that I was supposed to go and have a chat with Janine, family stuff she said, and Sally was happy to move into, and unpack, then get the cook to make the children a meal.

We went into a room that Janine called her office.

It was a large wood panelled room with a lot of shelving and a huge number of books. My only remark, that she could not have read them all. It was a little churlish and elicited a grimace.

Janine was not going to put up with my nonsense and was well aware of my attitude from discussions with Sally. It led to her first statement, soon after we sat in very comfortable leather chairs, in front of a window that looked out over a rose garden.

I was counting staff by then, a housekeeper, a cook, a young woman who was there as a waitress, a maid who showed Sally and the children to their rooms upstairs, and outside two gardeners. It was no surprise then the limousine was hers, and the man who drove it, ger chauffeur.

She lived a very different lifestyle than I did.

“I can see that look on your face where you are judging me, and you shouldn’t. You might think you were badly done by, but I’ll let you into a secret, you got the better deal. Not that I’ll defend Jeremy, but in my case, I had a hell of a lot of expectation dumped on my shoulders. You got to swan off and live your life without a care in the world, and I can see you have made all the right decisions, and got everything I could only have hoped for. I have no husband, nor boyfriend, and any I did didn’t last long because my focus was on work and success, instead of happiness. So, yes I have a big house and a lot of money, and people running around doing my bidding, but I have no one to share it with, and no one to pass it onto.”

“Yet.” It was a noble speech, and I’m sure she felt the loneliness of it all. I was going to say she had a choice, just as I had, but somehow it didn’t seem appropriate.

Certainly, I didn’t feel the same way about her as I had before I came of this odyssey, and that in itself may for some be something of a revelation. That hug she had given me at the airport, and the feelings it conveys almost confused me, and most likely would have frightened me if I had not had Sally.

For some reason, now, it was going to be impossible to have the same feelings, or feelings of resentment, I once had.

“There are things you need to know, Tom. The first is that I am not long for this earth. I have about a year, two at the most, the news of which I received about an hour after the police called to tell my our parents had been killed in a car crash.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

It was bad news for anyone to learn, but on top of the news of our parents, I couldn’t imagine what that was like.

“The second is that our mother had been diagnosed with the same condition, about two years ago, and didn’t tell anyone. Maybe she thought she was protecting me from the possibility it would happen to me, but we both know she was selfish and inconsiderate at the best of times. Believe me when I tell you we had some incredible rows over the years. And no, I was not a daddy’s girl so I got no support or help in dealing with her truculence.”

I could just imagine our mother giving Janine hell. And in that same thought, how sad it was to have saddled Janine with all of that responsibility. I knew Jeremy hadn’t been any sort of help in regard to both parents, and James was not to be found. I really had no excuse, and I had to admit that some of my father’s selfishness had rubbed off on me too.

“You should have told me, or told Sally to tell me.”

“You would not have been in a receptive frame of mind, not then. But now, I can see you’ve turned a corner, just being here. You could have declined to come, I know now of the hurt our mother and father in particular had inflicted on both you and James, because in their declining years, they eventually turned on both Jeremy and I. Jeremy didn’t cope very well, and did what you did, just went away, leaving me to deal with it. I’m not blaming you, not do I blame you for leaving, I truly understand why. It’s just a pity we didn’t have conversation years ago, because now we’re going to miss on so much in the little time we do have.”

The pity of it was there was nothing I could do now to get that back. But going forward, I was not sure what I could do to make it up to her. And I said as much, and it sounded a lot better in my head than out loud.

“Well, there is something you can do. It’s a funny story, though I believe you will not get a laugh out of it. The third thing is that I am the executor of their wills. Against my advice, and probably something our mother was not fully cognisant of, was a desire for my father to take her on one last road trip. The doctors had decreed due to her worsening condition she would have to go into managed care. He took her to Las Vegas, of all places. The thing is the day they left, mother decided to play this jackpot poker machine, and won the jackpot. I didn’t discover this until the Casino rang me, though how they got my phone number is still a mystery, to tell they hadn’t cashed the check. They were on the road out of Vegas when a truck hit them head on. It wasn’t really an accident, according to the police. They said the truck driver said our father had driven straight at him. I have no reason to disbelieve him.

“He deliberately wanted them both to die?”

“Yes. He had said more than once that he didn’t want to live without her, so I think it was his plan to spend a few days together while she was still cognizant, and then end it. I have no doubt she knew what he was planning to do, and had agreed it was the best way to end the pain and suffering.”

It certainly sounded something he would do. They never regarded the feelings of anyone else in any of the decisions they made. I was going to make a comment, but it seemed moot. They were dead now, and they had gone out on their own terms.

“The truck driver?” I had to spare a thought for him, because they would not have.

“Relatively unharmed, just shaken. And the shock that someone would do that. I met him and apologised, but it seemed not enough recompense for the suffering they caused him. Anyway, I asked the police if they had found a check in the remnants of the car, but given the state of it, it was not surprising they didn’t so I asked the casino to cancel it and write a new one.”

She reached out and picked up a folder on the table between he chairs, and took out a slip of paper and handed it to me.

A check made out to our parents.

For eighty-seven million dollars, and change.

I looked at her, quite literally astonished. “This is ridiculous.”

“What it is, is a sign from the heavens that will give me an opportunity I might not have been granted otherwise. I want you to come home, and spend the last months of my life here with me, and make up for the time we have lost. I know both you and Sally have jobs back home, but that check, your share of it, will make the decision a little easier to make.”

“Does Sally know about this?”

“Only that I’m going to die sooner rather than later, and that she was waiting until you came here before talking to you about what to do. She said it would be better coming from me, not her, because of how things are in the family. I’ll be honest with you, Tom, I was prepared to come to you to plead my case before our parents did what they did because there’s no one else I would want to spend what precious little time I have left.”

I knew now why I’d felt such intense feelings earlier at the airport. It had been a sixth sense, that something was terribly wrong. And she was right, what time she had should be spent with family, those values I had come to terms with being with Sally. It was the right thing to do, but it was not wholly my decision. There were ramifications of uprooting our lives back home, including the sacrifices Sally would have to make.

“Have you told Jeremy?”

“God, no. He’d be a total ass about it, saying I was trying to steal the limelight and making it all about me. We can tell him when it’s too late for him to make any comment at all.”

“And James?”

“We’ll find him. I have resources available that you can only imagine exist.”

I believed her.

“Then I guess I should go and find Sally and see what she has to say about it. And I guess I should apologise for being such an ass all these years.”

“No need. In a way I envy you, always have.”

“You have no reason to. I never made anything of myself, not like you have.”

“You’re wrong if you think that. You have an amazing partner, two beautiful children, and you have provided for them, and look after them in a manner in which I can only dream about. It’s not about money, or possessions, or anything like what you see I have, because when it comes down to it, all that matters is the people around you. That, unfortunately, was the legacy our parents gave us and it was wrong.”

She stood, “Let us not dwell on the past, but brace ourselves for the impending crash landing of the one and only Jeremy. I have some very good champagne chilling at the bar, and we’re going to need fortification, if not Dutch courage before the monster arrives.”

© Charles Heath 2021