Writing about writing a book – a novel twist

I have decided to write about the process for me to write a book, working on the book at the same time.  The character writing the book is fictional and bears no relation to me, well, mostly not.

You will join me on the rollercoaster.

It will be appearing a bit at a time over the coming months, with the first instalment below.

Day One

I woke to a day where the sun was shining through the crack in the curtains.  It was not so much the brightness, but the fact it was moving, the gentle breeze moving the curtains and creating a strobing effect.

It was the first day of the rest of my life.

I was about to start the next Pulitzer Prize for literature.  Or something like that.

For so many years now my life had been weighed down by the monotony of a job I hated, a life that was going nowhere, and the pursuit of that no existent fortune that I believed was the answer to all my problems.

Those prayers to the great God Money were never heeded.

So, contrary to the well-meaning advice everyone gave me, I ignored them all, sold off the albatross around my neck, a house with a gigantic mortgage attached, and moved into a small but comfortable garret in a picturesque part of town.

It was called a ‘renovators’ delight.  What did it matter the wallpaper was peeling the paint fading and the carpet had seen better days.

It was mine.

Whether or not in the coming days, weeks, or months, I was a ‘renovator’ would be interesting.

My wife, Anne, had often said I wouldn’t know which end of the hammer to use.

Oh, and did I tell you, I moved on from her, or probably it was the other way around.  I’d let her down one too many times, she said, and found someone else more ‘reliable’.

Good for her, my brother had always said she deserved someone better, and it surprised me the marriage lasted as long as it did.  I still loved her, I always would.

I sprung out of bed and opened the curtains.  Spread out in front of me was a blue sky, bright sunshine casting its glow over the park and gardens opposite.

On my darkest days, I used to sit on a bench and watch the ducks swimming in the pond.  I wanted a carefree life like they had, and that was my dream.

Now I was living the dream.

Or would be till the money ran out.

I had enough for a year.

The second bedroom was the writing room.  The walls were lined with shelves, books by my favourite authors, books on writing, all dog-eared and well-read.

The typewriter was sitting on the desk waiting for the first words to be written.

I had a computer, but I was not going to use it for the second draft.

I had a supply of writing pads.  Like the great authors, I was going to write the first draft by hand, revise, and then type it.

I was going to be old school.

 

I sat down, picked up a pen, and scratched my head.

I began writing, ‘It was a dark and stormy night’.

That was a far as I got.

Maybe this was going to be harder than I thought.

Perhaps after coffee and toast …

 

© Charles Heath 2016-2019

The cinema of my dreams – I never wanted to go to Africa – Episode 20

Our hero knows he’s in serious trouble.

The problem is, there are familiar faces and a question of who is a friend and who is foe made all the more difficult because of the enemy, if it was the enemy, simply because it didn’t look or sound or act like the enemy.

Now, it appears, his problems stem from another operation he participated in.

Lallo gave me a minute or two to read what amounted to two lines, that my co-operation was expected, and to be given.  It wasn’t exactly addressed to me personally, but a blanket authorization to interview anyone involved in that operation.

I handed the letter back, but not before I noticed it had been unfolded and refolded several times as if it had been used before.  Had Lallo already interrogated Treen, the only other survivor?

Lallo’s first question: “Do you know who was responsible for organising that operation?”

It was rather an odd question, asking a Sergeant who was assigned at the last minute.

“Look, at the time I was assigned to non-combat duties, not as an on-call commando.  I was a late replacement for the member of the team who had to withdraw due to an accident. I was simply ordered to join the team at the airfield.  Given the results, I’m hoping whoever it was that organized and authorized that operation got the bollicking they deserved.”

I had been annoyed at the time, but I’d got over it.  In keeping with a lot of the operations I’d been involved with; very few had a successful outcome, but usually with fewer casualties.

He gave me a sidelong glance, close to an admonishment.  “Just stick to the facts when answering questions.  The other survivor was Lieutenant Treen, correct?”

Not a happy man was the Lieutenant.  Not happy that the operation was changed at the last minute or the fact the odds had been stacked against us, and not happy I’d been flown in as a replacement what he regarded as his personal group.

“Yes.”

“Are you aware he requested an investigation into that operation?”

It came as no surprise.  On the flight over, he had expressed more than one concern about the lack of intelligence and what the real situation was like on the ground.

“No.”

“Were you aware that a week ago Lieutenant Treen was found dead in his quarters, from an apparent suicide?”

Treen if anything was a soldier’s soldier, and the last man to contemplate suicide for any reason.  Surviving, just, that botched operation would not be a catalyst for such an event for such a man.

“No.”

“Odd then, don’t you think, you are nearly sent to your death the day after?”

If that was the case, and on the face of it, it seemed so, that wasn’t the only oddity about this whole affair.  I remembered the date of the General’s letter, the one telling me to be co-operative. It was the day before Treen’s suicide.

I didn’t think it was a coincidence?

It was quite clear someone didn’t want the General or whoever Lallo was working for, to question the last two survivors.

The question now was: what did we know, or what they thought we knew that was so important, that silencing us was necessary.

And would ‘they’ try again?

© Charles Heath 2019-2022

The cinema of my dreams – I never wanted to go to Africa – Episode 19

Our hero knows he’s in serious trouble.

The problem is, there are familiar faces and a question of who is a friend and who is foe made all the more difficult because of the enemy, if it was the enemy, simply because it didn’t look or sound or act like the enemy.

Now, it appears, his problems stem from another operation he participated in.

It didn’t take much effort to come to the only viable explanation of why a buried operation had been brought back to life.

Colonel Bamfield.

And it didn’t take much more effort to realise that operation had been one of his, not that any of us knew that at the time, but for whatever reason, it had gone badly and now he was looking for answers.

Answers to what though?

It was a simple extraction; two operatives had their cover blown and were in hiding.  A seven-man team in two choppers, get in, collect them, and get out.  Seven men were overkill, but they were important operatives with vital intelligence.

I was a last minute addition to the team, replacing one of the sergeants who had been injured in an accident.  It was a tight-knit team and I was not made to feel welcome.  It was the usual fate of outsiders and it didn’t bother me.

It was their leader that did.  Lieutenant Treen.  But that came later, all it was, at first, was a sense of unease with his informal manner of command, and somewhat edgy disposition.

When I landed at the airfield, I was met by the other Sergeant, Mason, and taken to the briefing, which had been delayed until my arrival.  Treen was there, pacing up and down like a caged tiger.  It was apparent there were still some details still being worked on.  Being so close to wheels up, I was not surprised at the tension among the group.

A Captain, a man named Worsefell, conducted the briefing, and it was patchy.  Not the worst I’d been to, but it appeared the situation on the ground had changed considerably in the last 12 hours, necessitating a change in plans.

 The operative had managed to get cover in an old abandoned building.  That was fine until a group of enemy soldiers arrived and set up camp in the field not 100 yards from their position.  Now, it was not possible to leave without being seen, day or night.

We now had to either distract or remove the enemy soldiers, an enemy we had no numbers or how heavily armed they were because our source on the ground had gone quiet.  To me, it was possible the source had been captured, and if that was the case, it was also possible the enemy knew we were coming.  But according to the Captain, this particular source had gone quiet before, in similar circumstances, so my suggestion was ignored.

Instead, the consensus was to go in and make an assessment on the ground.  It meant we had to land further away, and have a long journey by foot with all the problems that might involve, and then return.  That was the plan.  The Captain had left it in Treen’s hands.

And Treen was not one to back away from a fight, not even when it was clear to everyone in that room, with or without the necessary intelligence, that the odds were stacked against success.

I looked at Lallo who was waiting for an answer.  “I guess the brass didn’t know what to do with me, sir.”

My use of the word sir was noted.

“Be that as it may, I have a few questions about that operation.”

“I’m afraid it’s classified, and I’m under oath not to speak about it.”

Lallo took out a piece of folded paper from the inside pocket of his uniform jacket unfolded it and passed it to me.

From the very General who had ordered my silence.

© Charles Heath 2019-2022

The cinema of my dreams – I always wanted to see the planets – Episode 36

A Russian ship?

The navigator had left the object on screen allowing it to materialize as we got closer. 

I had to marvel at the magnification the scientists had managed to produce for the scanners on this vessel, the first of a new class, and based on our experiences, no doubt later ships would have less of the quirks we had found so far.

Not that any were serious, or if they were, that common sense and prior experience couldn’t resolve.  It was the reason why we had this chief engineer.

He had retired and was happily spending the rest of his life with the woman who had put up with all those absent years, until she died suddenly, and left him without purpose.

This ship had changed that.

I could see the outline of the distant ship and although it might not follow a standard design, it showed all the signs of coming from our planet.

Was that because we had no idea what a ship might look like from another planet or alien race?  I still wanted to believe there were other life forms out there, but how much of that was hoping they looked like us?

“The system still cannot identify what type of ship it is, sir, but it doesn’t look alien.”

It didn’t, now that it was much clearer.

“Would you know if it was?”

“No, sir.  Not really.  Time to intercept, just under fifteen minutes.  If they are intending to intercept.”

Number one just came out of the elevator and onto the bridge.  He wasn’t rostered for this time, but I suspect he had been watching the drama unfold in his cabin.

“Suggest we go to code Red, just in case their intentions are not friendly.”

We had a weekly meeting of department heads to discuss what we would do in an alien encounter, other than shoot first, and talk later, usually the military first response to any problem.

Some ground rules were implemented, one of which was to keep fingers off the triggers of our weapons, until we had justification.  It was noted we had no idea what kind of weapons they would have, or how good our shield systems would be, that would come after the first encounter.

But we did know the ship could withstand any attack from an earth-origin attack, from the nuclear bomb to cutting edge lasers.  It was a little more problematic for the humans though.

“Agreed.”

Code Red, our highest alert, meant that Number one and I could not be in the same place, for obvious reasons.  He would go down the attack room, where the bridge systems were replicated, along with an array of other units.  It would be from there where a relation, or attack, would be managed.

And no, the lights in the bridge did not turn red, just dimmed.  The only indication was a red bar running across the top of the viewing screen, on which the oncoming vessel was now clearly visible.

“It’s from earth, the scanners have identified the propulsion system, and from the scan analysis, it appears to be more advanced than just about everything back home.”

“The infamous Russian ship, do you think?”

“Doesn’t have to be.  Anyone with enough money could have financed the project, though it would be hard to hide something like that.  The question has to be, what’s it doing this far out, and, for all intents and purposes, returning.”

“We’re assuming again.  Perhaps they were just going to the outer edge of our known galaxy so that they could say they were the first.”

There had always been that great space rivalry between the Russians and the Americans.  Later, the Europeans and the Chinese had also thrown their hats in the ring, and it was possible this ship could be Chinese.  They too had a burning desire to be the first, and there’d be no surprise if we found a Chinese or Russian flag on the first liveable planet outside our solar system.

But, right now, that was all ahead of us. At this moment, it was a little disconcerting to discover we would not be the first outside our known galaxy.

© Charles Heath 2021-2022

The cinema of my dreams – I never wanted to go to Africa – Episode 11

It’s still a battle of wits, but our hero knows he’s in serious trouble.

The problem is, there are familiar faces and a question of who is a friend and who is foe made all the more difficult because the enemy if it is the enemy, doesn’t look or sound or act like the enemy.
Old friends, new tricks.

Genial tone, trying to win my confidence.  I wasn’t going to ask, but wait for an explanation.  Asking would be like leaving the door ajar.

He sat after pulling the chair closer to the table and put his clasped hands on the table.

“This is a secret military operation known only to very few, apart from the team that is in situ.  Commander Breeman has been, against very specific direct orders, trying to find out what we are doing here.”  He stopped.

I think this was the moment I was supposed to ask, what was going on here.

If it was secret, then I didn’t want to know, and he was not going to tell me anyway.

I just looked attentive.

“You have been caught up in a jurisdictional issue.  It’s not hard to assume that you were sent here, with the pilot of that helicopter, to do an off the book search for this camp.  That, in itself, would be impossible, but the flyover coincided with a provedore run.  Just plain bad luck.”

For Joe, the pilot, it was.  Or not, if he had been given specific verbal orders, making it out to be a training run.  And the odds of me being on board at the same time, given my association with Breeman?

One coincidence too many.

And if it was as the man before had said, they knew everything, then Bamfield would know of my connection to her.

“You said you had no idea where you were when you were shot down?”

Time, I guess, to speak.  “No, I didn’t.  The desert looks all the same to me.”

“You will forgive me if I say I find that hard to believe.  I know you are better than that, Alan.  Who sent you out here?”

“I was along for the ride.  Standard operating procedure.  A helo goes up, someone like me has to be on board in case of trouble.  More conventional trouble than rockets.”

“But you specifically?”

“I don’t make the rosters, I just go where they tell me.”

Bamfield frowned.  I think he’d finally noticed I was not addressing him as ‘sir’.  Until I knew what side he was on, I considered myself a prisoner of war.

 

© Charles Heath 2019

The cinema of my dreams – I never wanted to go to Africa – Episode 10

It’s still a battle of wits, but our hero knows he’s in serious trouble.

The problem is, there are familiar faces and a question of who is a friend and who is foe made all the more difficult because the enemy if it is the enemy, doesn’t look or sound or act like the enemy.

Nor does it help when his old mentor walks through the door.

 

I don’t like surprises.  This dislike had started with a surprise birthday party about 10 years ago and since then I’ve assiduously tried to avoid them.

Of course, there are also surprises you have no control over, and I liked them even less.

Bluff and bravado would only carry me so far.  These people whoever they were would not accept that I knew nothing about what had just happened.

Which I didn’t.

It was not the A interrogation team with a chest full of torture tools and dressed in hazmat suits, but when the harbinger of my fate walked into the room, it was something a lot scarier.

A man I knew well or thought I did until he walked in the door, I had the utmost respected for.

Colonel Bamfield.  My first Commanding Officer, the man who cut me some slack, and made me into a soldier.

Now, all I had was questions, but I was on the wrong side of the table.

The first, what the hell was going on here?

My first inclination was to stand and salute a superior officer, but he was not wearing the uniform, not the proper uniform I was used to seeing him in.  My second inclination was to ask him what he was doing in that room with me, but I didn’t.

Speak when spoken to, and don’t volunteer information.

He too tried the silent treatment, or maybe it was that he was as surprised to see me as I was to see him.

Then, still standing behind the table, looking down on me, he said, “That was some jump you made from a moving helicopter.”  Was there a touch of admiration in his tone?

“Life or death.  Anyone one else is that situation would do the same.”

“Less than you’d think.”

Establishing camaraderie.  Or trying to.  I waited for the next question.

It wasn’t a question but a statement, “We have a problem Alan, and it’s not just with you.”

 

© Charles Heath 2019

The cinema of my dreams – I always wanted to write a war story – Episode 1

It’s the story that was inspired by the Castello di Briolio, which had small aspirations when first conceived, but now it’s reached a point where we need to fill in a few blanks at the start.

“You have got the guards set up on the back wall,” I asked Jackerby, the officer in charge of the rearguards.

“Can you see them?” he said in a tone that dripped sarcasm.

I didn’t like Jackerby, he seemed far too sure of himself and his men, and so far, we hadn’t had to rely on them.

But I expected that time was coming, and sooner than both of us wanted to believe.

“No.”

“Then no one else will either.  Trust me; no one will be coming over the back wall.”

That was a matter of opinion, and, in my assessment of the fortifications, and the security precautions, the only way the enemy could attack us, was from the sky.

And that was, given the current situation the enemy was in, practically impossible.  But, as my old commander used to say, ‘This is war, anything is possible, and when you least expect it.’

I’d survived four years of it, and didn’t want to be one of those who didn’t make it to the end.  For that reason, I trusted no one, particularly people who said ‘trust me’.

I glanced along the back wall again, just to make sure, but it didn’t make me feel any safer.

“I’ll be in the command post if you need me, and it has a clear view of anything coming.”

“Excellent,” I said, trying to sound more confident than I felt.

We were in an old castle, though not strictly speaking a real castle, built only a few hundred years ago.  It was an enemy stronghold up until a month ago when, acting on advice from the local resistance that the enemy strength had dropped as they had begun to retreat, a strike force came and liberated it.

And, given its strategic position between the front line and the sea, it became a gateway for anyone who wanted to escape the Germans and what was left of the Italians.

That also included departing boffins from the Reich, looking to bargain their way to a new home in England or the US.

To oversee that operation was a Colonel called Johansson, along with a dozen or so specialist soldiers, and the operation had been running smoothly.

Then came an attempted incursion, where a group of enemy soldiers who were fighting to the end, made a brave attempt to take the castle back.,  They failed, because of a twelfth-hour arrival of a Major called Jackerby, and a small motley crew of men.

When I read the report after the battle, it seemed odd.

As a result of his help, Jackerby was recruited by Johansson, in circumstances that seemed a little too coincidental for my liking.  Johansson was too easygoing for me, and although he had not made a mistake, yet, I felt sure one was going to happen on my watch.

I came later, sent by Command to ‘lend assistance where possible’ to the operation, assistance the good Colonel took no pains to tell command he didn’t need.  But they didn’t give him a choice.

Except…

On my way there, my driver and I had almost reached the castle when we were caught in a roadside bomb.  The driver was killed, and I’d been saved by a dog, one we had found on the side of the road, badly in need of water, and food.

I had brought him with me.  The thought of doing so, at the time, had been on the end of a single idea, a dog could not betray me, men and women could.  And the fact its name was Jack seemed to me to be rather poetic, if not somewhat ironic in the circumstances.

There was a communication in my pocket, one I’d received earlier in the afternoon, sent in a one-time code no one but I could decode.

A warning of a second attempt on the castle by the enemy, but for reasons unknown.

Tonight.

Jack and I were in the guard tower at the southwestern corner of the castle.  It overlooked the valley and gave a clear view of anyone or anything coming from that quadrant.  If I was going to retake the castle, that’s where I’d launch an attack from.

Of course, if it came by air, you’d expect to hear it.

I didn’t, but Jack did.  He suddenly stood and made a small moaning noise, as if he knew quiet communication was needed.  The stiffness in his body told me there was danger lurking.

Then I saw it, just as I came out of the guardhouse onto the gravel path, the moonlight shining of very large wings, and for a moment it didn’t make sense until I realized it was a glider.

Silent.  It passed, and behind I could see parachutes, then the sound of boots on the gravel walkways just down from the tower.  A precision flight and precision landing of a dozen stormtroopers.

And Jackerby’s guards were nowhere to be seen.

© Charles Heath 2018-2022

The cinema of my dreams – It all started in Venice – Episode 1

When you least expect it

I was minding my own business, as the saying goes.

Having made my mark on the world, I had retired from a world that I hardly recognized as what had once been.

Pandemics, political games, countries on the brink of disaster, and what could be called a world gone mad seemed to be the new normal, though it was hard to say what the old normal was.

So, I let all flow on past me, like water under the bridge, much the same that I was now standing on, overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice, the second to last whistle-stop on what had been a long respite from the real world.

I’d also been lamenting the death of the only woman I’d ever loved and for a long time the only thing that made sense.

She was with me always, in life and in death, reminding me that she would not want me to simply give up on life.  Sometimes those words fell on deaf ears, but today was a good day.

She had always loved Venice and we always came for the Carnival, but this was the first year I’d missed it.  It would not be the same without her.

After a while I moved on, over the bridge, heading back to the apartment, one of several in the major cities we traveled to often, Paris, London, Istanbul, and Vienna to name a few.

I stopped at a Cafe, one we often did when Violetta was alive, and the owner served me himself.  It was, coincidentally, where Violetta and I first met, a story in itself

Then it was back home.

There were certain instincts I had, acquired when I lived in another world, and one was telling me something was not right.

I looked up and down the street but everything seemed normal.  It was part of the city where cars were permitted, though I chose not to have one.

I shrugged.  Perhaps my instincts were wrong, after all, it had been a long time since I’d needed them.

As I approached the front door to the building, I could see a man come from the opposite side of the street, heading towards the same doorway.  He’d timed it to arrive at the same time.

Normally it wouldn’t bother me, but he did not look like a resident or a visitor.

“Mr. Wallace?”

As I went to put the key in the lock, he called out, his timing not quite getting him to the front door.  Perhaps that was because I’d quickened my pace.

I was going to ignore him, but something told me not to.  He seemed familiar.

I turned, just as he reached me.

“Mr. Wallace?”

“Who wants to Know?”

“Alfie Simkins.  Who I work for is irrelevant, but we need to have a short discussion.”

OK, the irrelevant reference told me everything I needed to know.  It was my past, coming back to haunt me.

“About what?”

“Nothing I would care to utter in the street.”

I gave him one of those long hard stares, the one known to unnerve even the hardest of opponents, but he didn’t flinch.

I knew his sort, and he was the last person I wanted to talk to.  But just to make sure he was who he was intimating he was…

“Who sent you?”

“Rodby.”

And there it was.  That blast from the past, a name I had hoped I’d never hear again.

I opened the door and he followed me in, then up the elevator to the third floor.  At the time I could not afford the top floor, but it was comfortable enough, even if the view was somewhat limited.

He’d barely made it through the door before I asked, “I need some proof…”

“That I’m not an assassin, he said you’d require it.  Two words, Alan McWhirter.”

There was a name I hadn’t heard in a long time, almost twenty years, my original name, lost after becoming so many different people.  There had been times when I hardly knew who I was myself.

Now it was only a matter of what Rodby wanted, usually the impossible.

“How is he?  He must be about a hundred years old by now.”  He was close to that when I first met him, oh so long ago.

“Still comes into the office every day, still sharp as a tack as they say.”

The man would never die or lose his marbles.

“So, what’s this about?”

“A recording a surveillance team made and which they thought held no significance.”

“But Rodby did.”

“One of the analysts, you might remember her, Wendy Tucker, thought it might be relevant so she raised a flag.”

I did remember her, and by now she would be as old as I was and probably the only surviving member of the old team.  But my memories of her were for other reasons.

“Yes, and I’m surprised she’s still there.”

“She heard your name, and another, but perhaps I should play the recording and then comment on it.”

He put his phone on the bench and played it.

A male voice accented, eastern European I thought, spoke first.  “I’m told you knew a man named Egan Watts.”

“There’s a name I never expected to hear again.”  A female voice and one I thought I recognized.

“Then you did know him?”

“Briefly, and not all that well.  He and I went to an industry function once after we met in rather unusual circumstances, but whatever it was, it didn’t last long.  He put work before anything else, so we parted.”

“Amicably?”

“Yes.  For a while after we crossed paths, had dinner, you know.”

It had been a time when I’d been in recovery and retraining and had time for such a relationship.  Nothing permanent, but just fun.  She hadn’t been looking for anything permanent either.

“So you would know him now?”

“God no.  It’s been a long time, and last I heard, he was married and traveling the world.”

“His wife died.  Now he’s in Venice.  We’d like you to pick up where you left off.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” she said.  “Chances are he’s moved on and forgotten all about me.”

“Be that as it may, this isn’t a request.  We ask you to do, or there will be consequences.”

Silence, perhaps a moment to reflect on exactly what those consequences might be, then, “What for?”

“That’s none of your concern.  All you are required to do is rekindle your relationship.  How you do it is your business, but you better go and pack for a long stay.”

Juliet Ambrose. 

I remembered the voice, and the distinctiveness of its soft Irish accent, almost mesmerizing.

She had been one of the doctors supervising my recovery and she seemed to be out of sorts, so I’d asked her out to dinner, and talk if she wanted to.  She didn’t, but one thing led to another…

That’s where Alfie stopped the recording.

“Good to know then,” I said, ” it’s time to leave Venice and move on.”  The expression on Alfie’s face told me that was not what was going to happen.  “Or…”

“The man in the conversation is Larry Pomisor, a key figure in the Waterville organization.”

That said, it all came back to me in a flood.  An assignment that specifically targeted Larry’s brother Andre, and how spectacularly it failed.  Andre had been killed, which was the mission objective, but so had his wife and children, which was not, and Larry had sworn to find his killer.

Apparently, he now had.

“Then if he regards me as the perpetrator, then you and Rodby both know Larry is going to honor a promise he made.  Surely this is all Rodby needs to put him behind bars.”  I knew Rodby could not have Larry ‘removed’ like he could once.

“It’s not that straightforward.  If we were to go in with what we know, it would burn our source, so for the time being Rodby wants you to play along, find out what he intends to do, and we’ll swoop in and round them all up.”

The man had enthusiasm, I’ll give him that, but no idea what might happen if it all went wrong; that there will be a lot of pain and suffering involved.  Larry was not a man to miss hitting the first time.

“All good intentions I’m sure, but both of you seem to forget I don’t work for him, or the government, anymore.”

“He never rescinded your file.  As far as anyone knows you’re still on the active list.  It’s just for a short time until we make all the connections.  Clearly, while the girl is courting you nothing is going to happen, and we’ll have eyes on all the major players.  All he’s asking is for you to play a role.”

It seemed to me my whole life had been one long screenplay.  And it was never that simple.

“If I say no?”

“Then I’m sure he’ll arrive on your doorstep and personally ask you to return the favor”

Yes, I’d expected that.  He may have agreed very reluctantly to my retirement, but it had always come with a caveat.

“Just this once then.”  There would be no getting around it.

“Of course.  I assume that we have permission to install eyes and ears here?”

An inconvenience, but necessary.  I nodded.  “But I am considering going to Paris, and then to New York.  She might ask to come with me.”

“Wouldn’t you simply stay put and make them come to you?  Besides, why would you take anyone actively assisting in a plan to kill you anywhere?”

Good point.  “Perhaps we’ll see what happens,  I have to get back home sometime.”

“Then give us the addresses and we’ll take care of the rest.  Oh, and the plane.  Just in case.”

I shook my head.  I guess I could say goodbye to privacy for the next few weeks.

© Charles Heath 2022

I’m trying to write a period piece

Televison is a great recorder of the past, and most channels, and especially cable tv have great libraries of films that go back more than a hundred years.

And, whilst it’s possible that modern day films and television series can try to recapture the past, the English as an exception being very good at it, often it is impossible to capture it correctly.

But, if you have a film shot in the moment, then you have a visual record of what life, and what was once part of our world before you in all it’s dated glory. The pity of it is that, then, we never appreciated it.

After all, in those particular times, who had the time to figuratively stop and smell the roses. Back then as life was going on, we were all tied up with just trying to get through each day.

Years later, often on reflection, we try to remember the old days, and, maybe, remember some of what it was like, but the chances are that change came far too rapidly, and often too radical, that it erases what we thought we knew existed before.

My grandmothers house is a case in point. In it’s place is a multi lane super highway, and there’s nothing left to remind us, or anyone of it, just some old sepia photographs.

I was reminded of how volatile history really is when watching an old documentary, in black and white, and how the city I grew up in used to look.

Then, even though it seemed large to me then, it was a smaller city, with suburbs that stretched about ten or so miles in every direction, and the outer suburbs were where people moved to get a larger block, and countrified atmosphere.

Now, those outer suburbs are no longer spacious properties, the acreage subdivided and the old owners now much richer for a decision made with profit not being the motivator, and the current suburban sprawl is now out to forty or fifty miles.

The reason for the distance is no longer the thought of open spaces and cleaner air, the reason for moving now is that land further out is cheaper, and can make buying that first house more affordable.

This is where I tip my hat to the writers of historical fiction. I myself am writing a story based in the 1970s, and its difficult to find what is and isn’t time specific.

If only I had a dollar for every time I went to write the character pulling out his or her mobile phone.

What I’ve found is the necessity to research, and this has amounted to finding old films, documentaries of the day, and a more fascinating source of information, the newspapers of the day.

The latter especially has provoked a lot of memories and a lot of stuff I thought I’d forgotten, some of it by choice, but others that were poignant.

Yes, and don’t get me started on the distractions.

If only I’d started this project earlier…

An excerpt from “The Devil You Don’t”

Available on Amazon Kindle here:  https://amzn.to/2Xyh1ow

By the time I returned to the Savoie, the rain had finally stopped, and there was a streak of blue sky to offer some hope the day would improve.

The ship was not crowded, the possibility of bad weather perhaps holding back potential passengers.  Of those I saw, a number of them would be aboard for the lunch by Phillippe Chevrier.  I thought about it, but the Concierge had told me about several restaurants in Yvoire and had given me a hand-drawn map of the village.  I think he came from the area because he spoke with the pride and knowledge of a resident.

I was looking down from the upper deck observing the last of the boarding passengers when I saw a woman, notable for her red coat and matching shoes, making a last-minute dash to get on board just before the gangway was removed.  In fact, her ungainly manner of boarding had also captured a few of the other passenger’s attention.  Now they would have something else to talk about, other than the possibility of further rain.

I saw her smile at the deckhand, but he did not smile back.  He was not impressed with her bravado, perhaps because of possible injury.  He looked at her ticket then nodded dismissively, and went back to his duties in getting the ship underway.  I was going to check the departure time, but I, like the other passengers, had my attention diverted to the woman in red.

From what I could see there was something about her.  It struck me when the light caught her as she turned to look down the deck, giving me a perfect profile.  I was going to say she looked foreign, but here, as in almost anywhere in Europe, that described just about everyone.  Perhaps I was just comparing her to Phillipa, so definitively British, whereas this woman was very definitely not.

She was perhaps in her 30’s, slim or perhaps the word I’d use was lissom, and had the look and manner of a model.  I say that because Phillipa had dragged me to most of the showings, whether in Milan, Rome, New York, London, or Paris.  The clothes were familiar, and in the back of my mind, I had a feeling I’d seen her before.

Or perhaps, to me, all models looked the same.

She looked up in my direction, and before I could divert my eyes, she locked on.  I could feel her gaze boring into me, and then it was gone as if she had been looking straight through me.  I remained out on deck as the ship got underway, watching her disappear inside the cabin.  My curiosity was piqued, so I decided to keep an eye out for her.

I could feel the coolness of the air as the ship picked up speed, not that it was going to be very fast.  With stops, the trip would take nearly two hours to get to my destination.  It would turn back almost immediately, but I was going to stay until the evening when it returned at about half eight.  It would give me enough time to sample the local fare, and take a tour of the medieval village.

Few other passengers ventured out on the deck, most staying inside or going to lunch.  After a short time, I came back down to the main deck and headed forward.  I wanted to clear my head by concentrating on the movement of the vessel through the water, breathing in the crisp, clean air, and let the peacefulness of the surroundings envelope me.

It didn’t work.

I knew it wouldn’t be long before I started thinking about why things hadn’t worked, and what part I played in it.  And the usual question that came to mind when something didn’t work out.  What was wrong with me?

I usually blamed it on my upbringing.

I had one of those so-called privileged lives, a nanny till I was old enough to go to boarding school, then sent to the best schools in the land.  There I learned everything I needed to be the son of a Duke, or, as my father called it in one of his lighter moments, nobility in waiting.

Had this been five or six hundred years ago, I would need to have sword and jousting skills, or if it had been a few hundred years later a keen military mind.  If nothing else I could ride a horse, and go on hunts, or did until they became not the thing to do.

I learned six languages, and everything I needed to become a diplomat in the far-flung British Empire, except the Empire had become the Commonwealth, and then, when no-one was looking, Britain’s influence in the world finally disappeared.  I was a man without a cause, without a vocation, and no place to go.

Computers were the new vogue and I had an aptitude for programming.  I guess that went hand in hand with mathematics, which although I hated the subject, I excelled in.  Both I and another noble outcast used to toss ideas around in school, but when it came to the end of our education, he chose to enter the public service, and I took a few of those ideas we had mulled over and turned them into a company.

About a year ago, I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse.  There were so many zeroes on the end of it I just said yes, put the money into a very grateful bank, and was still trying to come to terms with it.

Sadly, I still had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life.  My parents had asked me to come back home and help manage the estate, and I did for a few weeks.  It was as long as it took for my parents to drive me insane.

Back in the city, I spent a few months looking for a mundane job, but there were very few that suited the qualifications I had, and the rest, I think I intimidated the interviewer simply because of who I was.  In that time I’d also featured on the cover of the Economist, and through my well-meaning accountant, started involving myself with various charities, earning the title ‘philanthropist’.

And despite all of this exposure, even making one of those ubiquitous ‘eligible bachelor’ lists, I still could not find ‘the one’, the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.  Phillipa seemed to fit the bill, but in time she proved to be a troubled soul with ‘Daddy’ issues.  I knew that in building a relationship compromise was necessary, but with her, in the end, everything was a compromise and what had happened was always going to be the end result.

It was perhaps a by-product of the whole nobility thing.  There was a certain expectation I had to fulfill, to my peers, contemporaries, parents and family, and those who either liked or hated what it represented.  The problem was, I didn’t feel like I belonged.  Not like my friend from schooldays, and now obscure acquaintance, Sebastian.  He had been elevated to his Dukedom early when his father died when he was in his twenties.  He had managed to fade from the limelight and was rarely mentioned either in the papers or the gossip columns.  He was one of the lucky ones.

I had managed to keep a similarly low profile until I met Phillipa.  From that moment, my obscurity disappeared.  It was, I could see now, part of a plan put in place by Phillipa’s father, a man who hogged the limelight with his daughter, to raise the profile of the family name and through it their businesses.  He was nothing if not the consummate self-advertisement.

Perhaps I was supposed to be the last piece of the puzzle, the attachment to the establishment, that link with a class of people he would not normally get in the front door.  There was nothing refined about him or his family, and more than once I’d noticed my contemporaries cringe at the mention of his name, or any reference of my association with him.

Yet could I truthfully say I really wanted to go back to the obscurity I had before Phillipa?  For all her faults, there were times when she had been fun to be with, particularly when I first met her when she had a certain air of unpredictability.  That had slowly disappeared as she became part of her father’s plan for the future.  She just failed to see how much he was using her.

Or perhaps, over time, I had become cynical.

I thought about calling her.  It was one of those moments of weakness when I felt alone, more alone than usual.

I diverted my attention back to my surroundings and the shoreline.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the woman in the red coat, making a move.  The red coat was like a beacon, a sort of fire engine red.  It was not the sort of coat most of the women I knew would wear, but on her, it looked terrific.  In fact, her sublime beauty was the one other attribute that was distinctly noticeable, along with the fact her hair was short, rather than long, and jet black.

I had to wrench my attention away from her.

A few minutes later several other passengers came out of the cabin for a walk around the deck, perhaps to get some exercise, perhaps checking up on me, or perhaps I was being paranoid.  I waited till they passed on their way forward, and I turned and headed aft.

I watched the wake sluicing out from under the stern for a few minutes, before retracing my steps to the front of the ship and there I stood against the railing, watching the bow carve its way through the water.  It was almost mesmerizing.  There, I emptied my mind of thoughts about Phillipa, and thoughts about the woman in the red coat.

Until a female voice behind me said, “Having a bad day?”

I started, caught by surprise, and slowly turned.  The woman in the red coat had somehow got very close me without my realizing it.  How did she do that?  I was so surprised I couldn’t answer immediately.

“I do hope you are not contemplating jumping.  I hear the water is very cold.”

Closer up, I could see what I’d missed when I saw her on the main deck.  There was a slight hint of Chinese, or Oriental, in her particularly around the eyes, and of her hair which was jet black.  An ancestor twice or more removed had left their mark, not in a dominant way, but more subtle, and easily missed except from a very short distance away, like now.

Other than that, she was quite possibly Eastern European, perhaps Russian, though that covered a lot of territory.  The incongruity of it was that she spoke with an American accent, and fluent enough for me to believe English was her first language.

Usually, I could ‘read’ people, but she was a clean slate.  Her expression was one of amusement, but with cold eyes.  My first thought, then, was to be careful.

“No.  Not yet.”  I coughed to clear my throat because I could hardly speak.  And blushed, because that was what I did when confronted by a woman, beautiful or otherwise.

The amusement gave way to a hint of a smile that brightened her demeanor as a little warmth reached her eyes.  “So that’s a maybe.  Should I change into my lifesaving gear, just in case?”

It conjured up a rather interesting image in my mind until I reluctantly dismissed it.

“Perhaps I should move away from the edge,” I said, moving sideways until I was back on the main deck, a few feet further away.  Her eyes had followed me, and when I stopped she turned to face me again.  She did not move closer.

I realized then she had removed her beret and it was in her left side coat pocket.  “Thanks for your concern …?”

“Zoe.”

“Thanks for your concern, Zoe.  By the way, my name is John.”

She smiled again, perhaps in an attempt to put me at ease.  “I saw you earlier, you looked so sad, I thought …”

“I might throw myself overboard?”

“An idiotic notion I admit, but it is better to be safe than sorry.”

Then she tilted her head to one side then the other, looking intently at me.  “You seem to be familiar.  Do I know you?”

I tried to think of where I may have seen her before, but all I could remember was what I’d thought earlier when I first saw her; she was a model and had been at one of the showings.  If she was, it would be more likely she would remember Phillipa, not me.  Phillipa always had to sit in the front row.

“Probably not.”  I also didn’t mention the fact she may have seen my picture in the society pages of several tabloid newspapers because she didn’t look the sort of woman who needed a daily dose of the comings and goings, and, more often than not, scandal associated with so-called celebrities.

She gave me a look, one that told me she had just realized who I was.  “Yes, I remember now.  You made the front cover of the Economist.  You sold your company for a small fortune.”

Of course.  She was not the first who had recognized me from that cover.  It had raised my profile considerably, but not the Sternhaven’s.  That article had not mentioned Phillipa or her family.  I suspect Grandmother had something to do with that, and it was, now I thought about it, another nail in the coffin that was my relationship with Phillipa.

“I wouldn’t say it was a fortune, small or otherwise, just fortunate.”  Each time, I found myself playing down the wealth aspect of the business deal.

“Perhaps then, as the journalist wrote, you were lucky.  It is not, I think, a good time for internet-based companies.”

The latter statement was an interesting fact, one she read in the Financial Times which had made that exact comment recently.

“But I am boring you.”  She smiled again.  “I should be minding my own business and leaving you to your thoughts.  I am sorry.”

She turned to leave and took a few steps towards the main cabin.

“You’re not boring me,” I said, thinking I was letting my paranoia get the better of me.  It had been Sebastian on learning of my good fortune, who had warned me against ‘a certain element here and abroad’ whose sole aim would be to separate me from my money.  He was not very subtle when he described their methods.

But I knew he was right.  I should have let her walk away.

She stopped and turned around.  “You seem nothing like the man I read about in the Economist.”

A sudden and awful thought popped into my head.  Those words were part of a very familiar opening gambit.  “Are you a reporter?”

I was not sure if she looked surprised, or amused.  “Do I look like one?”

I silently cursed myself for speaking before thinking, and then immediately ignored my own admonishment.  “People rarely look like what they are.”

I saw the subtle shake of the head and expected her to take her leave.  Instead she astonished me.

“I fear we have got off on the wrong foot.  To be honest, I’m not usually this forward, but you seemed like you needed cheering up when probably the opposite is true.  Aside from the fact this excursion was probably a bad idea.  And,” she added with a little shrug, “perhaps I talk too much.”

I was not sure what I thought of her after that extraordinary admission. It was not something I would do, but it was an interesting way to approach someone and have them ignoring their natural instinct.  I would let Sebastian whisper in my ear for a little longer and see where this was going.

“Oddly enough, I was thinking the same thing.  I was supposed to be traveling with my prospective bride.  I think you can imagine how that turned out.”

“She’s not here?”

“No.”

“She’s in the cabin?”  Her eyes strayed in that direction for a moment then came back to me.  She seemed surprised I might be traveling with someone.

“No.  She is back in England, and the wedding is off.  So is the relationship.  She dumped me by text.”

OK, why was I sharing this humiliating piece of information with her?  I still couldn’t be sure she was not a reporter.

She motioned to an empty seat, back from the edge.  No walking the plank today.  She moved towards it and sat down.  She showed no signs of being cold, nor interested in the breeze upsetting her hair.  Phillipa would be having a tantrum about now, being kept outside, and freaking out over what the breeze might be doing to her appearance.

I wondered, if only for a few seconds if she used this approach with anyone else.  I guess I was a little different, a seemingly rich businessman alone on a ferry on Lake Geneva, contemplating the way his life had gone so completely off track.

She watched as I sat at the other end of the bench, leaving about a yard between us.  After I leaned back and made myself as comfortable as I could, she said, “I have also experienced something similar, though not by text message.  It is difficult, the first few days.”

“I saw it coming.”

“I did not.”  She frowned, a sort of lifeless expression taking over, perhaps brought on by the memory of what had happened to her.  “But it is done, and I moved on.  Was she the love of your life?”

OK, that was unexpected.

When I didn’t answer, she said, “I am sorry.  Sometimes I ask personal questions without realizing what I’m doing.  It is none of my business.”  She shivered.  “Perhaps we should go back inside.”

She stood, and held out her hand.  Should I take it and be drawn into her web?  I thought of Sebastian.  What would he do in this situation?

I took her hand in mine and let her pull me gently to my feet.  “Wise choice,” she said, looking up at the sky.

It just started to rain.

© Charles Heath 2015-2020

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