Tuesday, 10 September 2013


One day, two croutons washed up on dry land at the edge of the primordial soup.

'It's our big chance. Let's escape this liquid environment,' said the first crouton.

'Where shall we go?' asked the other.

'The world is our yet-to-evolve marine bivalve mollusc,' replied the first. 'How about that way?'

'But we have no means of locomotion.'

'Let's improvise.'

But it was too late. The other crouton had rejoined his fellows in the swamp, happy to live out his dwindling days free of adventure.

The first crouton sighed inwardly and joined his companion.

Friday, 23 August 2013


‘Does your boyfriend, I mean, partner smoke?’ he asks, trying, but failing, to make the question seem as casual as possible. He’s already clocked that her fingers are bare of adornments, a promising sign. She takes a puff of her cigarette, and replies without looking at him.

‘No’. Another puff.

‘I don’t have a boyfriend.’

There are two kinds of smokers, social smokers and proper smokers. Paul is firmly in the former camp, smoking only with a drink, usually somebody else's cigarettes. Paul's colleagues are surprised when he starts taking smoking breaks all of a sudden. But Paul has spotted Maria, although he doesn't yet know her name. She works for a different company in the same building. He tries to get a feel for the timings of her cigarette breaks. She’s usually with a colleague. A stern-looking woman with too much make-up and a rather severe fringe. On these occasions, Paul tries to look cool, pretending to text while trying to catch snippets of her conversation, She’s a Northerner; Lancashire probably. This is the first time he's managed to catch her alone.

And this is how it starts for Paul and Maria; standing, smoking, shivering and stamping in the cold, outside an office block in London, EC4. The City, but only just. The pub names reflect the area's history – 'The Printer's Devil','The Cartoonist' – but the printing presses and the newspapers are long gone. It's all accountancy and law firms now.

Paul’s dad had been a proper smoker, smoking in the street, smoking in bed, smoking at breakfast - drinking tea and tapping his ash into the empty shell of the boiled egg he’d just consumed. He’d died in his sleep at 52 with the Golden Virginia and Rizlas within easy reach. Paul had taken up smoking half-heartedly at university to fit in with the middle-class kids with their endless supplies of Marlboro Lights. Even now, he has the good sense never to smoke in front of his mother; it would break her heart. Whenever he lights up, he is transported back to dad's funeral. I hope you have the good sense never to smoke, he hears his mother saying. Don’t die young and leave a family behind like your dad. Mum, I promise. Mum, I promise.

'Let's use the self-service. That one's free.'

'I don't like them.'

'Come on. Why queue? We've only got a few things for the picnic.' Paul snatches the basket and heads for the free berth. She presses the button to start the process.

'Unexpected item in the bagging area.'

'What the ...' Maria says, puzzled. 'I haven't even put anything through yet.'

'See,' he says. 'I told you it would end in tears.'

'You liar. It was your idea.' She punches him in the arm.

'It's probably those plastic bags. Move them. I'll call the guy over.'

'Wait; what's this? It looks like a jewellery box. The last person must have left it; did you see them?'


'I'd better hand it in to customer services. You watch the shopping.'

'Why do I need to watch it? We haven't even paid for it yet.'

'Just watch it. I'm not going around again. It took you long enough to choose the cheese the first time.'

'Kraft slices or Dairylea slices. You have to weigh up the pros and cons.'

'Stay there. I'm taking it over.'

'You're going nowhere until we see what it is.'

'It might be valuable.'

'It is.'

'What do you know about jew...'

'I bought it,' he interrupts. 'It's yours.'

'Unexpected item in the bagging area.'

'You'd better pick it up. You're drawing attention to us.' She lifts it up gingerly between her thumb and forefinger.

'Open it.' She obeys.

'It's beautiful.'

He takes a deep breath.

'Will you?'

She laughs. 'Say it.'

'Will you … pack the shopping?'

She punches him again.

, I bloody will. Let's get to the park before it closes.'

'We'll need this.' He pulls a bottle of champagne from behind his back.'

'Got any glasses?'


They're walking along the sea-front, what they used to call a promenade. It's cold, it's windy.

They stand at the railings that stop drunks falling from the streets down the stone steps onto the beach. They're wrapped in heavy coats, their gloved hands holding onto the railings to maintain their positions against the swirling gale. They huddle together for warmth, yes, but also to show the world they're a couple. Above them, birds rise and swoop, squabbling over items of food picked up from the floor; chips, dropped burgers, discarded kebabs.

'What are those?' Maria says, pointing.


'I know that. What kind?'

'The big ones are herring gulls; they're the bombers. The smaller ones are the fighters, black-headed gulls.'

'Their heads are white.'

'They go brown in the summer.'



'Not black?'


'Why the name, then?'

'I don't know. I didn't choose it.' They look at the ocean together. There is no clear horizon. Somewhere in the distance, the grey sea and the grey sky muddy into each other like a watercolour painting. For a few moments, they listen to the noise of the wind and the waves and the gulls and the crows. Eventually she speaks again overwhelmed by insatiable curiosity, love of life.

‘Is the tide coming in or going out, do you think?’

‘It’s always coming in. We've just borrowed the land from the ocean; with every incoming tide, the sea takes back what it's given with interest.’

‘What are you on about?’

‘Global warming’

‘Oh, that.’

‘The polar ice-caps are melting. Sea-levels are rising everywhere. Buildings are toppling off cliffs. We can't build walls everywhere. Where's Noah when you need him?’

'Noah-dea!' They laugh.

‘We’ll be OK though, won't we?’ she asks.

‘I suppose so. But what about our children and our children’s children?’

‘Since you brought the subject up …’

‘Global warming?’

‘No; children. I’ve got something to tell you.’ She squeezes his gloved fingers. He doesn't know what to say. His first thought is how to tell his friends. Nobody should want to bring a child into this world, he's always told them.

'Shall we go back to the hotel?' he asks.

'No. Let's stay a little longer.'

'I wondered why you'd stopped smoking.'

'Well, now you know.'

'Do you want me to stop?'

'No need.'

'It would be better.'

'Honestly, I don't mind.'

'I'll stop.'


'Shall we go back to the hotel?'

'If you want.'

'What do you want?'

'To stay.'

'We'll stay, then. A baby.'


'A baby.'

'I've got to dash,' Maria says. 'Meeting at nine, and I'll be late tonight. We've got the auditors in and I've been nominated to count the tea-bags.'

'What time?'

'Eight-ish I should imagine. You'll have to feed yourself. Think you can manage?'

'Of course. I've got an A-level in Home Economics.'

'No, you haven't.'

'No I haven't. Where are those pizza leaflets?'

She pecks him on the cheek.

'Don't forget this,' Paul adds, handing her the shoulder bag containing her precious laptop.

'What's this?' she asks, flicking a metal disc on the strap. 'Baby on Board?'

'A present from me to my lovely fat wife. No need to thank me. I was going to put it on your coat, but I wanted to survive till the weekend. Apparently it cost three hundred quid – the coat, not the badge.'

'I'm not even showing, though.' She patted her stomach.

'I know. That's why you need the badge, so people will give you a seat.'

'I don't want a seat.'

'But he does.' Paul points.


'Or she.'

'Shall we find out?'

'No, I'd prefer a surprise.'

Paul is just about to protest and say that you can't possibly be surprised when there are only two possible outcomes with roughly equal chances, that if you toss a coin you can hardly be surprised when it comes up heads, but he thinks better of it. He opens the door and watches her disappear down the path and turn right towards the station. He'd be making the same journey an hour later.

"All London underground lines have a good service."

I'll be the judge of that, he thinks. It's nearly six. Baker Street station, Paul's interchange, is packed with stony-faced commuters weaving their way mechanically through clumps of mislaid tourists. Paul never ceases to be astonished by the popularity of Madam Tussauds; Spaniards and Italians queuing to see plastic models of Prince William when he had hair, Michael Jackson when he was black, Michael Jackson when he was alive, David Beckham, David Cameron. Why is the overtaking lane on roads on the right, but on escalators on the left? No wonder people are confused. Paul arrives on the northbound Bakerloo line platform. Stonebridge Park train due in three minutes. Result, he thinks; no change at Queen's Park. He makes his way to where the second carriage will stop. It's hardly worth it, but he sits down and opens New Scientist. He glances up at the scoreboard as he calls it – still three minutes. Strange.

He stares back along the platform into the tunnel as if his impatience can draw forth a train. He looks for the familiar pair of headlights emerging from the dark, listens for the rattle of the rails, waits for the gust of wind heralding the approach, but still three minutes is stubbornly indicated. He goes back to his magazine.

'There are severe delays on the Bakerloo line due to police action at Paddington. Customers are advised to travel by alternative routes.'

People begin to leave the platform. Paul is determined to tough it out, knowing that in the past he has accepted these announcements on trust, taken a circuitous route home only to find the service has been restored the second he has left the platform. I’m just going to sit here and read my magazine, he decides.

'There are severe delays on the Bakerloo line due to a person under a train at Paddington.'

This is part of life in London. In the good old days, suicide used to be a solitary activity. Put your head in the oven while your husband is at work. Non-toxic North Sea gas has put an end to that game. Or wash a bottle of paracetamol down with a bottle of whiskey. Not now. In this day and age, to kill yourself properly, it is essential to paralyse London’s transport infrastructure. Not only that, it has to be during rush hour. This isn’t a cry for help but a cry for attention even if you're not around to enjoy your five minutes of infamy. Like the bastard who murders his own family before ‘turning the gun on himself’. Why doesn’t he just kill himself first?

'The Bakerloo line is suspended between Piccadilly Circus and Queens Park. Tickets will be accepted on alternative routes and London buses.' Paul gives up his silent vigil and ascends to the failing daylight above ground and the unpleasant prospect of the number 18 bus.

Why isn't she home yet? It's nearly ten. He tries her phone again but still it goes straight over to voicemail. He hopes she's not stuck on a train broken down in a tunnel somewhere. He hopes, at least, she has a seat. He goes to the window in the hope of hastening her arrival by his presence, even though this tactic stinks of watched pots. The street, for once is silent. It is a cold, cloudless night. He peers out past the houses and the trees and the city into the night sky. There is Polaris the constant, the Plough with its seven points, Orion the hunter. These names, and others, he has known since childhood. Beyond the familiar stars is the enormity of the universe. It is hard to believe that the tiny points of light that puncture the blackness here and there are gigantic nuclear reactors, some many times the size of our own sun. How serene and still they look, he thinks, yet they blaze with uncontrollable fury. He knows too, but finds it equally hard to comprehend, that the light from some of these stars he is seeing has set off on its journey millions, perhaps billions, of years ago and that, in some cases, the stars from which the light has originated has long since exhausted its fuel and been extinguished by the suffocating vacuum of space. Paul is a worrier, he worries for the fate of the universe, the fate of the planet, and now for the fate of the small child whose heart beats quickly but faintly inside the womb of his beloved wife.

His gaze drops downwards to earth from heaven. The street is still deserted. On the chilly breeze, the noises of the city can just be made out; police sirens, car engines, dogs barking, raised voices, bins being put out. He returns to his seat as the familiar theme tune of 'Question Time' begins. Ten minutes later, the slogans and sound bites of the faceless politicians have sent him to sleep.

She is banging at the front door. She must have left her keys at work. He checks the clock as he springs up from his sleep. Half-past one. He stumbles down the stairs. At last. He yanks open the

door. Two police officers, a man and a woman. British Transport Police. They are not smiling.

She checks her watch, and grins. She'll be home before him. Instead of counting her teabags, the auditors have gone to the other site to count toilet rolls. She looks at the scoreboard, as Paul calls it. Harrow and Wealdstone train in one minute. Result, she thinks; no change at Queen's Park. She sees the lights, hears the rails, feels the air from the tunnel, then an arm reaches out towards her and pulls hard at the bag holding her laptop. They've picked on the wrong person. With two hands she pulls back just as hard. Surprised by the resistance, the thief lets go and dissolves into the crowd, but she is falling, falling, falling with nothing to hold onto, nothing to save her.

'Please stand clear of the doors and let the passengers off first.'

'What shall I do with this, sarge?'

'What is it, constable?'

'A badge. Baby on board.'


'What shall I do with it, sarge'

'Bag it up with the other stuff.'

'Do you mind if I smoke, officer?'

'It's your house, sir.'

'Our house. Damn, I'm out of cigarettes. I don't suppose you ..'

'No, sir. I could send someone.'

'Thanks. It would help.'


Even by July’s standards, it was hot. The air was thick and clammy and clung like an unwanted overcoat. In these conditions, the metropolis was not the place to be. Tempers boiled over and punches were thrown, but members of the constabulary had little or no energy to for blowing their whistles, writing in notebooks or wrestling with miscreants. A general air of low-level lawlessness prevailed, but it would take a break in the weather for the situation to improve.

Mr Dalston Kingsland of Rochester Mansions, Belgravia sweated in his stiff collar and prayed for some business that would call him away to the countryside; for a few days at least, long enough to clear the grime from his pores and revive his withering spirits. He sat down to a tray of tea, toast and marmalade and sorted the day’s post in descending order of promise as was his habit

‘That will be all, Mrs Richmond,’ nodded the detective, looking over his reading glasses at the plump housekeeper, with the letter opener poised to make its first expert incision.

‘Will you be dining here tonight, sir?’ asked Mrs Richmond as she pulled the door behind herself.

‘No, I’ll be taking supper at the club.’ When he wasn’t working on a case, Kingsland invariably dined out, in the hope that some matter of interest would bring itself to his attention. His hopes on this score were rarely fulfilled; indeed he considered most of his fellow club members to be ‘narrow-minded bores’ in spite of the fact that they occupied some of most elevated positions in society – Members of Parliament, judges, surgeons and senior police officers.

Kingsland began to open his letters. As usual, there were expressions of gratitude for jewels recovered, mysteries solved and fraudsters unmasked which he sorted into one pile that he used as references. Another pile consisted of invitations to speak at this or that academy or society on some aspect of criminal investigation or detective work. There was only one personal letter, from his mother, telling him how hot it was. His powers of deduction had certainly not come from her side of the family. Kingsland paused before opening the final envelope. His name and address were clearly written in the hand of a woman, but the cursive script tailed off at the end of each line suggesting that the letter has been dashed off in somewhat of a hurry.

Before slicing open the lilac envelope, Kingsland lit his pipe and took a good, long puff then put it aside. His fingertips tingled as he twiddled the letter opener between his thumb and index finger, then he plunged in.


Three hours later, Kingsland was standing on the concourse of Waterloo Station with a ticket for deepest Hampshire in his pocket. With seconds to spare, his long legs stepped lightly onto the 11:40 stopper to Southampton and he took his seat in first-class. Kingsland paid no attention to the changing landscape outside his window as the greys of the city transformed into the greens of the countryside; his mind was focussed on the task in hand, solving the case of the strange disappearance of Lord Kilburn.


‘I’m so glad you could come, Mr Kingsland,’ gushed Lady Kilburn. ‘I was worried you’d be deep undercover working on some case vital to our national security.’

            ‘Well, usually …’

            ‘You’re here, anyway. Do you know Harold?’

            ‘Only by reputation, your ladyship.’ That reputation was as a notorious player of the roulette tables of Europe.

            ‘Call me Elizabeth, Mr Kingsland. I’ll never get used to this “ladyship” business. My own origins are quite humble, as you probably know.’ She blushed. Kingsland was well aware that Lizzie Acton had been a dancer who’d captured the eye and the heart of the young Harold Kilburn. It was a surprise to the society columns that the relationship had led to marriage, but the marriage had lasted some eighteen years so far, outlasting the unions of many of the sceptics.

            ‘Would you mind if I freshened up first, and then you can fill me in on the details of your husband’s recent movements?’

            ‘Of course,’ said the lady delicately pulling a nearby cord for service. ‘I’ll show you to your room. Even in this house, it’s been hard to find a room immune from the sun’s cruel rays of late. I’ve been bathing in the lake to cool down every afternoon.’ She bowed her head, and departed the drawing room with a graceful sweep.


Refreshed and cleansed by a tepid bath, Kingsland perched on the end of his bed and went through the ritual of lighting his pipe. A vast bay window looked out over the extensive grounds of one of England’s finest stately homes; there were avenues of cypress and poplar, ornamental ponds, areas of wilderness and, in the distance, a lake surrounded by willows. Kingsland could see that the gardens were suffering in the heat, the lawns yellowing, the leaves of many trees prematurely brown. For all its lifelessness, Kingsland found the view across Hampshire infinitely preferable to that of dusty Belgravia.


Kingsland took his place at the dinner table opposite Lady Kilburn, immaculate in a full-length dress of turquoise with her jet black hair in loose ringlets falling over her elegant shoulders topped off by an antique tiara.

‘Will His Lordship be joining us?’ Kingsland asked pointedly, scrutinising the face opposite for any sign of weakness.

‘Whatever can you mean, Mr Kingsland?’ Once again she was blushing. ‘That’s why you’re here, Mr Kingsland … to find Harold.’

‘In that task, I believe I have succeeded.’ Kingsland grabbed the wrist of the servant topping up his glass of claret. ‘Sit down next to me, Lord Kilburn, and explain why you have dragged me away from London on this fool’s errand. You can take off those spectacles too. There is no curvature to the lens so you will find them quite useless.’

‘When did you first suspect, Kingsland?’ asked the erstwhile waiter, flopping into a vacant chair next to the sleuth.

‘You picked me up from the station earlier in the garb of a coachman. Although your handling of the team was quite excellent, your odour was not that of a man who habitually keeps the company of horses.’


‘So, why have you brought me here, and where are the real servants? I’ll wager a pipeful of best Virginian tobacco that the answers to these two questions are related.’

‘Indeed, Mr Kingsland.  We – my dear wife and I - feared that you would not come to Hampshire if the real reason for our summons was known to you. All our servants have abandoned the estate and left us to our own devices because of the ghost.’

‘I hold no truck with the supernatural, your lordship. If there is mischief afoot, then the culprit resides in the world of flesh, not that of the spirit.’

‘So, you will help rid us of our ghost, Mr Kingsland?’ asked the lady hopefully, reaching out her slender hand to hold her husband’s. The detective made no instant reply. If word got around London that the great Dalston Kingsland had turned ghost hunter, his reputation might never recover. On the other hand, he could stroll around the gardens here, free from the nuisance of footpads and beggars and take shade from the oppressive sun in the leafy avenues. Eventually, the detective replied.

‘What form does this ghost take? Have either of you seen it yourselves?’ The couple looked at each other as if deciding who should speak.

‘A blinding white light and a strange noise.’ It was the lady who spoke. ‘I have seen and heard it twice. On both occasions, it came upon the house in the dead of night.’

‘I have only witnessed the phenomenon once’ added the gentleman. ‘I believe it is the ghost of my grandfather, who was killed in a duel down by the lake. His pistol had been tampered with.’


Kingsland could not sleep; even here in the countryside, the humidity was unbearable. At some time in the early hours, he dressed and made his way down to the lake. The moon was almost full. Bending down on the bank of the lake, he observed what appeared to be scorch marks. Suddenly, a light appeared next to the moon, nearer but brighter. It grew in intensity and proximity until Kingsland found himself being drawn upwards into the belly of some craft that hovered above. Overwhelmed by the light, the sensation and the fear, Kingsland passed out briefly but was aware of a metal door swishing shut behind him.


As he came to his senses, Kingsland became aware of silver-suited creatures busying themselves on various instrument panels. Through a porthole he could see Hampshire, England, Europe disappear into the distance, yet he had no feeling of motion. One of the creatures approached him and spoke in English.

‘Do you have any idea what this is?’ it intoned, showing him a metal rod about eighteen inches in length.

‘An anal probe?’ Kingsland prepared for the worst. The creature flicked a button and a small flame appeared at the end of the rod.

‘Happy birthday, old man,’ said the creature and a large cake was brought forward with its candles unlit.

‘You sly old dog,’ laughed Kingsland, as the creature revealed himself to be Dr Camden, Kingsland’s oldest friend and occasional assistant. ‘Where are we going?’

‘Somewhere cool,’ replied the doctor.


Abraham grabs the vibrating mobile, and looks at the screen: GOD. He presses the screen to accept the call.



'God. How's it going?'


'Listen. I want you to do me a favour.'

'Sure. Go on.'

'I want you to sacrifice Isaac.'

'Sacrifice?' Abraham looks across the room; Isaac is on the PlayStation.


A gunshot rings out followed by a dull thud.

'Abraham, what the hell was that?'

'I shot Isaac.'

'Is he ...'

'Dead? I'd say so.'

'But I was only testing you. You weren't supposed to actually kill him.'

'Really? Are you pulling my leg?'


'But you said ...'

'I know what I said, but ... '

'Gotta go, mate. I promised I'd drop Sarah off at her yoga class. Laters.'

'OK. See ya.'

'Oh, wait a sec. Did I pass the test?'

'Flying colours, Abe.'