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I Dream of Lavender

I Dream of Lavender

 

Harry thought, for an instant, that he’d been attacked.

One second he was wondering whether to select the Cranberry or whether to treat himself to some of the Huntsman’s, and the next he was flat on his back, looking up at a rainbow coloured sea of bodies, all with the same anxious ‘O’ in the middle of their faces.

He assumed he’d been hit with a hammer, the pain had been so sudden and so intense. He had no idea why anyone would choose to wallop a pensioner in the cheese aisle in Waitrose, but then, you read about such unprovoked attacks in the tabloids almost every day.

Harry tried to stand, but was conscious of being held down on the cold floor. Something warm but rough was shoved under his head, and then taken away again as his good Samaritan obviously wondered whether that was the ‘right thing’ to do.

He thought he heard a distant siren. Shame flooded over him. Again he tried to struggle to his feet, but the crowd, now apparently being shooed away by someone in a business suit, was still too close, milling about like sheep in a pen.

He grew strangely comfortable, there, on the floor. A warmth crept through his body and he moved his legs to get into a better position to sleep. It had been a long time since he’d slept well. At least three years – since Edna…

Another man, dressed in green, took charge and bent over Harry, forcing him into wakefulness again. Harry knew he was speaking to him but his words drifted in and out of his consciousness. Harry was upset. He felt he wasn’t being terribly helpful, but part of him just didn’t care at this precise time. It was all terribly strange. Harry didn’t like people who were deliberately rude to others.

The next two days passed in a blur for Harry.

It was lunchtime on the third day that he finally began to make sense of the comings and goings on the ward. Mornings were busy, afternoons, not so much. Visitors would come in, in ones and twos (usually ones – an elderly gent or lady making their slow way up the length of the ward to sit by a bed and hold a flaccid hand for an hour, a hard toffee clacking as it knocked against dentures passing for conversation) and then depart again, creaking back out of the doors until the same routine would be repeated next day.

No visitors for him though.

Edna had never been blessed with children and though, for a while, it had been a topic they avoided, over time they grew to accept it and the empty place in their lives was filled, for the next 15 years, by a bouncy black and white collie they called ‘Bob’ after the cartoon character of the time.

When Edna had gone, leaving his life and his bed, he had thought his heart would break, and lived in the full expectation of death for the next six months. When it didn’t claim him he reckoned there must be a reason he was obliged to soldier on, and settled down to his new, quieter life. His one indulgence, apart from a wedge of a tasty cheese every week, was a fresh bunch of lavender, to be displayed on the sideboard in the hall by the door, its scent the last thing that he smelled when he left the house and the first thing to greet him whenever he opened the door. It had been Edna’s favourite flower and the deep, heavy bouquet was completely and utterly linked to her in his mind.

The ward was run by Nurse Stevens, a stickler for attention with a heart of gold. She seemed to have a nursing trainee called Pamela constantly in her not inconsiderable wake. Harry liked to watch the two women working; Stevens in charge and the younger Pamela simply and efficiently in awe. Other women (and one man) moved in and out of Harry’s line of sight from time to time but it was Stevens and Pamela that were the constants. He wondered if they ever slept.

During the long, low-lit nights when Harry sometimes lay awake counting the minutes before the early morning shift was due to come on duty, he fancied he could hear Stevens humming gently over by the nurses’ station, and from time to time, Pamela would walk by, see his eyes glittering in the semi-light, and ask him if he wanted a cup of tea. The tea was generally cool, and served in a closed mug with a straw, testament to the current poor muscle tone in his hands. Often he simply shook his head, preferring to lie and watch the world go by.

It was during one of these nights that he heard the dog. A sharp clatter of canine claws on the lino. A retriever, golden and sleek, passed the bottom of his bed and settled by the bedside of the man to his left.

Harry hadn’t paid much attention to his neighbour. The man seemed to sleep a great deal, and when he was awake he didn’t seem interested in anyone or anything. Harry watched as the dog raised its big head and then eased itself on to its back legs, using its muzzle to root around the sheets for the man’s hand. When it found the slender fingers, its long pink tongue coiled around them until the fingers responded, first tentatively, then with enthusiasm, fondling the velvet muzzle, searching the head, exploring the dog’s face.

The man moaned and dragged himself up on to an elbow.

“Chancer!” he said, tears sparking from his eyes. The dog responded immediately, it’s huge tail flapping from side to side enthusiastically. Its front paws were scrabbling over the man’s body now, and he was hugging the beast to his chest, pressing his head into its neck. Chancer pulled free and dropped to the floor. It turned to the door. Harry watched as the man snatched at the creature’s collar to prevent it leaving.

“You’re going nowhere,” he told it. “Not without me. Sit!” Chancer sat.

The old guy dragged his scrawny body out of the smooth sheets and placed his bare feet on the cold lino. He grasped the leather collar firmly and made a forward movement with his hand.

“Home!” The command was firm and Chancer bounded to his feet. The man had to trot to keep up initially, but the dog quickly fell in with his pace. They made it past the nurses’ station without drawing attention, and Harry watched as the ward doors swung closed behind them. He was still smiling as he fell asleep.

Next morning when he awoke, the first thing he did was check to see if his neighbour had come back yet, but the curtains were drawn round the bed. He dozed off again. When he woke next, the bed was occupied by a different man, younger and livelier. That afternoon, Harry got his first visitor.

It was Edna. He was surprised when she walked into the ward, but his happiness knew no bounds. She looked exactly the same as she had when she left the house that last time, the yellow top with the flowers and the brown skirt. Her dark red coat was open and she was carrying the brown shopper she always took on a Tuesday.

“Hello Harry,” she said, her smile spreading across her face like sunshine over a garden.

He thought she had the kindest eyes he had ever seen, and he felt a tear roll down his face at the sight of the woman he had loved for nearly sixty years.

“Edna,” he said. “You’ve come back.”

“Only for a short time, Harry. Just to see how you are. Are they treating you well?”

He tried to lift his hand to stroke her face, but he couldn’t. “Well,” he said. “They’re kind, they’re gentle. They seem to know what they’re doing. How are you?”

“I’m fine Harry. Better than fine. I miss you.”

“Then come back.”

“You know I can’t.”

She reached into her pocket and pulled out a tissue. She leaned over, releasing the lavender smell he loved so much, and wiped his face.

“I need to go now, my love.” She murmured, breathing a gentle kiss onto his forehead. “Come and see me again,” he urged, trying to grab her arm, but unable to muster the energy or the strength to close his fingers.

“I’ll see you again soon, I promise.”

He watched through a veil of tears as she left the ward as quietly as she’d come in. For the rest of the day he was inconsolable. He cried on and off for hours and even Pamela’s ministrations could not stem the flood.

In the early evening, Stevens came to his bed, made copious notes on his papers, smiled and left.

Late that night he was awakened by a man singing.

“I’ve got a coupon. A jolly little coupon, I’ve got a coupon to last me all my days. A coat and a vest, and as for the rest, my coupon will see me through always.”

Digger Harris. Harry strained to look but the darkness was unrelenting. There was a light in the hall outside, and he thought he could make out a helmet moving around, the corridor light glancing off the dull metal, but his logical mind pulled him back.

Digger was long gone. A shell in 1942 had robbed the world of that mine of dreadful puns and worse singing.

“Son of Digger then,” Harry thought, as he drifted off again.

Next morning, during rounds, Harry woke to find a vase of flowers by his bed. A collection of hyacinths in a faux crystal vase was now perched on his bedside cabinet. Their scent was pleasant and happily distinguishable in among the more clinical ward odours.

Stevens was watching him from her place at the nurses’ station. He tried to smile his thanks, but had a feeling that his face was as crooked as a bent three-penny, and wondered what she would make of the grimace.

She resumed writing and he fell asleep again.

He woke from time to time, once when a new nurse was clumsy when she changed a tube towards the bottom of his bed, and another time when a doctor’s hand poked and prodded his back. He felt the stethoscope, but couldn’t make out what was being said. He was tired. He needed a good sleep, and he just wished they would leave him alone.

The ward was its usual hive of activity, all the more so today because he thought he picked up the word ‘consultant’ being whispered in reverential tones, and he understood they were being visited from on high.

He tried to laugh as Nurse Steven popped the plants into the bottom shelf of his bedside unit and winked at him before heading off again, and he made an attempt to lie still and behave properly when the consultant, a small man in a business suit with a bevy of white coated doctors hanging on his every word, swung by the bed, turned his back on Harry to talk to the others, replaced the notes over the foot of the bed and then sailed on serenely to his next patient, taking the hushed entourage with him.

Harry felt another nap coming on and hoped his snoring would not disturb the efficient ambience of the ward. Edna was forever complaining about his snoring, and used to waken him regularly with a gentle poke in his ribs. As she had aged, and her hearing had lost its keenness, the digs had lessened, and finally, when she was able to take her hearing aid out at night, had disappeared entirely. Harry had no doubt that he continued to snore. There was just no one around to hear him anymore.

When he next drifted clear of sleep, the flowers were back, replaced at some point in the day. Pity it wasn’t lavender. He smiled, breathed in the cloying scent, and slept again.

He heard the clatter of the tea dishes as the ward was cleared in preparation for the night shift coming on, and the busy questioning of the nurses as they exchanged the ‘hand-over’ notes. A catheter here. A bolus there. The words didn’t mean much to Harry, but the nurses made notes on their pads, nodded in the right places and looked towards a prone figure as a name or update in condition was mentioned. Stevens and Pamela were on again. He was glad. There was something comforting about having them around, and he’d grown fond of the women.

Harry watched as the lights on the ward were turned down low in preparation for another night. He was lonely and tired. He felt another tear trickle down his face and wished Edna were here to kiss it away.

Instead, Stevens walked up to him and used a tissue to catch the droplet. He hadn’t noticed her easing him into a different position so that he would not get bed sores, and then tucking the starched sheets around him.

He looked up at her large, kindly face, and was embarrassed as another drop forced its way between his lashes and out onto his wrinkled face. She smiled and gently scooped that one up too. Then she took a stem of pink hyacinth and placed it gently on his pillow. She stroked his hair and stood upright again, then quietly pulled the curtains on each side of his bed, affording him some peace and privacy to sleep.

He was not surprised when she checked him again a short time later, rearranged his limbs and smoothed the bedclothes.

A little later again, he felt the weight by his feet, and wondered why she was leaning so heavily on his legs.

Then he heard a strange, urgent whine. Opening his eyes he was astonished to see, not the blue eyes of the diligent nurse, but a quite different set of amber eyes staring intently at him.

He sat upright in bed, shucking the neatly arranged sheets off his chest and using his fluttery hands to push himself into a more upright position.

“BOB!”

The collie, almost completely black with a white flash on his chest and over his nose fairly danced on the bed, turning tight, excited circles by Harry’s feet.

The man laughed with delight, and grabbed at the glossy coat as it slinked first in, then out, of his grasp.

“Bob! You’re going to get me into so much trouble with Nurse Stevens there!”

Bob didn’t appear to care, and thrust his face up into Harry’s, breaking all the hospital hygiene rules in an instant, licking and pawing and licking again, as much of Harry’s hands and face as he could reach.

Harry held the dog close to his chest. More tears escaped him – this time tears of complete joy.

“Bob. I’m so glad it’s you. Come on, lad. Let’s go for walkies.”

The dog bounded off the bed and Harry swung his legs out, tentative at first, then faster as he felt the strength flood into them. Bob half crouched, bracing his front legs, tail wagging, and Harry laughed. “Still a clown I see,” Harry whispered, and bent down to lay a kiss on the dark fur.

“Let’s go then.” He smiled, and skittered along the floor, racing to keep up as the happy dog galloped on ahead.

He was not aware when Nurse Stevens next checked him, reaching into the sheets to feel for a pulse in his cold arm, and then checking to see if she could detect the one that ought to have been in his neck.

She stroked the hair again, and pressed the button at the side of the bed. She lifted the short sprig of lavender from his pillow and replaced it in the vase. She frowned as she looked at the flowers. A glorious swelling of lavender was crammed into the vase, its strong, peaceful scent lingering round the bed. She understood that the sense of smell was reckoned to be the last sense to go when someone is in his final stages. She always tried to give the gentlemen something nice to take away the smell of the ward, even though she would never know whether they noticed or not.

She pulled the curtain round the bottom of the bed, a last act of courtesy.

“Goodnight, Mr Lawrence.” She whispered, as she walked over to the nurses’ station, to write up the notes.

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Heart of Blackness – A Dundee Apocalypse

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HEART OF BLACKNESS

by Jacky Cowper

Edinburgh.

Bright in the sunshine and dull as ditch-water in the long and cold winter. I sat at the side of my crumpled bed nursing the hangover to end all hangovers.

It must have been that seventh jaegerbomb. I always have one too many.

The dreams had been particularly vivid last night – strange writhing forms in strange streets and stranger sounds all around.

Shit. I must have been in Murrayfield again.

I thought about the toilet – had a vague memory where in my one bedroom flat it was. Hoped I wouldn’t mistake the drying cupboard again.

I got to my feet. At least I think I did. I could have crawled. The image in the mirror on the back of the bedroom door was frightening. My old ‘I love Yugoslavia’ t shirt was grimy. The stains suspicious. Was that blood? Then I remembered the can of Barr’s raspberryade I’d swigged when I got home in an effort to rehydrate myself overnight. Yes. That worked. The stains weren’t so scary now. But I’d have to do a washing today. I punched the mirror in frustration. Shit. Shit. Damnation. Shit and buggery. My hand!

I keep forgetting I broke my mirror and replaced it with a metal one. That was another bloody shellac nail pinging off into the furthest reaches of the room.

I decided to go back to bed, but as I was trying to figure out which bit was duvet and which bit was fitted undersheet (it really wasn’t obvious), there was a loud, firm rap at the door.

I pulled what I hoped was duvet and wrapped it round my entire body. Using bits of furniture for support I made my way through to the living room and into the wee vestibule behind the front door. I couldn’t see who was there because the six foot three man who had fitted the spy lens didn’t take five foot two bauchles into consideration. Answering the door was always a marvellous mystery tour.

I flung it open. It was Harry Ford. My neighbour. A wizened 78 year old whose main claim to fame was that he still had all his own teeth. No mean feat by that age, I can tell you. I’ll likely be on saps by 60 myself.

“You left your phone on the landing again.” he said. Damn. I must have put it in the recycling box again while I tried to work the door lock using both hands and possibly a foot.

“You’ve got a call.”

Now I could place the strange music that I could hear. Robbie Williams singing Angels. And there was me thinking I was hallucinating.

“Thanks Harry.”

“You look like shite by the way.” He added helpfully. “You need a cauld shower. That’s what we used to do in the army. Cauld showers. They fair blaw the cobwebs aff.”

I looked at him in what I hoped was a menacing way. “Jist say what you mean, eh? Dinna sugarcoat it y’hear.”

“Nae probs.”

I looked at the caller display. Mother. Shit. What was wrong now?

Cautiously I thumbed the wee green phone and the display darkened.

“Hello?” I asked. “Anybody there?”

There was an eternity of scratching on the other end. She likely had it upside down again.

“Mum? What’s up?”

“Ah there you are.” The voice on the other end was sharpened to a rusty point after years of players kingsized. “Yer awfy faint.”

“Mum, have you got your hearing aid in?”

“Of course I have. Do you think I’m some kind of idiot? Ach, hang on. This bloody thing is upside down again. Why can’t they make a phone that looks like a phone?”

“Mum, you’re on the landline.”

“And what is THAT supposed to mean?”

“Look mum, let’s not get into this now. What’s up. What are you calling for?”

“It’s Ailsa. She didna come home this morn. I need you to find her.”

My sister’s precocious seventeen year old niece. She’d started as a bubbling bobble head of golden curls and a winning smile, but through the years had changed into a willowy heartbreaker with waist length golden waves and blue eyes that could slay at 50 feet.

“Isn’t she in Dundee?” I asked.

“Yes, mum replied, but your brother is in Glasgow on a job for his firm and your sister is in a right state. You need to come and find her.”

I looked round at the trashed flat and thought about the washing.

“Ok,” I said. “I’ll be there on the 12 o’clock train.

On the journey courtesy of Scotrail, I sorted things through in my mind and called my sister.

She was, as my mother had warned, in a right state.

“She’s never done this before.” she wailed.

“Yes she has,” I said. “There was that night she was with Carly and the other time she stayed over at Benita’s house.”

“But I’ve called both of them.”she wailed. “And they said she went to a party on the Blackie.”

The Blackie. Blackness Road. A subdivision of a long road that meanders through the Hawkie (The Hawkhill) and out towards Menzieshill. A mass of flats, shops and businesses. She could disappear into that jungle for long enough.

“Did they no go with her?”

“No,” says sister dearest. “She met Malkie Blair from the school and went off with him. They didna want to intrude.”

“Ok dokey, then. It’s a start.”

I arrived in my old home town and just breathed in the air for a while, getting my bearings. Then I coughed heartily.

I turned left from the station and set off up towards the High Street and on to the Blackie.

I waited round for a taxi or a bus but eventually flagged down the only vehicle I could see – a pedicab being driven by a largish guy called Grant. At least that’s what his badge said.

I climbed into the back and settled my dowp into the plastic seat. Wondered briefly if I was going to be kidnapped.  “Dae ye need a blanker fir yer knee?” He asked helpfully, thrusting a dirty looking scrap of cloth that looked like he lay on it when he was fixing his chain.

“Naw, no thanks. I’m good.”

“Well if ye chinge yer mind it’s jist below the seat.”

I watched as he tucked it into a modified supermarket basket cunningly attached to the bottom of the bike seat by what looked like a bent coat hanger. That explained the muck then.

“Where to?”

“Blackness Road.”

His heart fell. That’d be a bit uphill pedalling then.

“And if we could get there before three that’d be grand….”

Grant set off, his thighs pumping the pedals of the bike hard but making surprisingly little in the way of forward motion. If I was getting kidnapped it was in slow motion and I could probably safely do a Hollywood roll out of the back and not even get a bruise.

Spray from the road flew up and I had to move to one side to avoid it. Fortunately the blanket took the brunt of it. We moved slowly through the streets, almost meandering.

The natives looked at us with a mixture of curiosity and amusement as we passed. It was entirely possible they had never seen a pedicab before.

“Grant,” I said. “You look like a young guy with your finger on the pulse.”

“Whit?” he puffed.

“You look like you know what’s going on round here.”

Grant signalled with his hand and pulled in to the side of the street. He was red faced and panting.

“Sorry missus,” he gasped. “I canna pedal and talk at the same time. Whit is it ye want?”

“A party.”

“Naw, it’s the wrang time of day for a party.” he said.

“No, I mean, I’m looking for information about where there was a big party in Blackness last night.”

“Aw right.” he said, his voice starting to return to something resembling a human again.

“Maybe,” he said. “I took a lassie out to a place in Kelso Street last night about 9pm – or 21 hundred, as we say in the personal transport business.”

“Can you take me there please?”

“Aye, no bother.” he smiled. “But no talking ’til we get there.”

I returned his smile.We had an understanding.

Kelso Street was a nice looking line of detached houses in their own gardens. Grant let me off at a red door and didn’t manage to make his escape before I told him to stay put.

Blackness was definitely on the up.

The door was answered by a beautiful young woman in a bikini. “Are you here for the tanning?” she asked, opening the door and inviting me in.

The front room contained about six young ladies in various stages of undress, highlights and extensions, and a put-upon looking older woman with a sinister looking narrow black tent in one corner.

The girls were passing round glasses of Aldi’s best plonk.

I declined the one offered to me. I was on business, after all. And frankly, my hangover had not gone away. It was just hiding.

“Not the tanning,” I said. “I’m looking for my neice, Ailsa Craigs. She was at a big party in the Blackie last night and she hasn’t come home. Her mum is going ape. Any of you guys know her or where she might be?”

The girls looked at each other and then the one who had answered the door spoke up.

“Aye, I know Ailsa. She’ll be fine. She was here for a while but she went to a karaoke session in one o’ the flats. I think Malkie lives there.”

“What number could that be?”

They conferred again, and poured out more fizz.

“I think it’s number 85.” There was a general nodding in agreement.

“85 it is then. Thanks doll.”

“No problem,” the girls said almost in unison.

Then they turned back to their tanning session.

Grant was having a fag in the street when I came back out. “Should you really be smoking with a job like yours?” I asked him, trying not to sound like his mother.

“Well,” he says. “The way I see it is that smoking is unhealthy, but cycling is very healthy, so I kind of think one cancels out the other and I’m just left even.”

I frowned. I was fairly sure that wasn’t really how it worked, but never mind.

“To the flats now, Grant, please. Number 85.”

He groaned a little. More uphill.

He was game. I’ll give him that.  Within ten minutes we were making a sedate but steady pace onwards up the road.

Number 85 appeared on the left and he stopped. From the colour of his face, I was seriously trying to remember my ABC first aid course.

I was just about to hit the ‘service’ button when strange music made me stop and hold off. It seemed to be coming from round the back somewhere.

The greenies were enclosed in a six foot high brieze block wall. I walked along, following the music. I could see through the decorative stonework that there was a gathering on people round the back of number 85.

Music and dancing. And there, in the middle, like some kind of living Godess, was Ailsa.

She sat on the raised up wall of a flower bed, holding court. She had a white ox eye daisy behind one ear. Apparently the party was still going on.

I put my foot into the decorative bricks and pulled myself up. I managed to swing one leg over the top of the wall, planning to drop, panther-like into the midst of the revellers but my lace caught in the stonework and I fell into the garden into the middle of the party in a heap that I hoped looked more dignified than I suspected it might.

Fortunately a young man  with a can of cider broke my fall. At first he thought he’d pulled an angel, but when he realised I was older than his mother, he panicked and tried to run.

At that moment, Ailsa spotted me.

“That’s my auntie Karen, Jimmy.” She laughed, her voice tinkled like fairy bells in snow. “Bring her over here.”

The boy obeyed. I reckoned if Ailsa ever went in to the Law, she could make a whole lot of money representing seriously bad people.

She chucked him under the chin and patted his head. “Thanks Jimmy.” Jimmy accepted the slight touch with undisguised gratitude and left to join the party again.

“Your mother is worried sick about you. Why did you not go home?”

She looked surprised. “Why would I go home? The party’s not finished yet. As you can see….”

“I’m here to take you home. Come with me.” I took her hand and began to move towards the door. I was damned if I was going over the wall again.

“Wait,” she said. “I’m waiting.”

There was a hush as a young man walked in to the back garden. The crowd of revellers parted to let him through. Someone pushed a flower into his hair and I watched as they closed in behind him.

“Six margheritas, three meat feasts and one vegetable supreme, plus your free bottle of coke.”

He held the large cardboard boxes aloft.

Someone shrieked, and the crowd fell upon him like a single crazed beast.

A young woman brought Ailsa a large slice of margherita pizza and she nibbled it delicately. “Now I can go,” she said.

Grant wasn’t sure whether to be happy or sad. He had two people to pull now – but at least it was downhill. And the added bonus was that he had Ailsa in the back.

I gave him a hefty tip and waited with Ailsa for her mum to come and pick her up from the High Street.

It was getting dark by the time I got back into the train for home. I watched as the city retreated and the lights reflected in the Tay as we pulled over the bridge.

Job done.

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The 80’s on Trial

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The headlines in the UK at the moment are frightening. Icon after icon from the 70’s and 80’s is being hauled up before the courts accused of sexual assault, touching and sometimes even rape.

The offences in almost all cases, were described as ‘historic’ in other words, they took place around 30 years ago. But why does it feel that it is MY youth and growing up that is actually on trial?

That was around the time I worked in a large office, first in Dundee and then in Edinburgh. There was nothing exceptional about them – a bunch of people of varying ages all working and often playing together and producing a newspaper every week.

We were colleagues and we were (usually) friends. There was the occasional office romance but we were adults and we all knew that good terms were needed as we all had to work together, and it worked.

There was, what would definitely be classified now as sexual harassment, in abundance.

We touched each other. We massaged each others shoulders. We made rude jokes in front of each other. We tested limits – on one occasion I found a 4X magazine in my drawer with some fairly explicit images. Clearly a reaction was being waited for, so I took it out, flicked through it and dismissed it with a brief and scathing, “Nah, mine are bigger.” Then I chucked it to the side.

I remember one Valentine’s Day popping a red rose (man, these are expensive!) into a colleagues desk drawer because he complained that no one ever gave men flowers at Valentine.

We slapped each others bottoms. We stroked each others hair sometimes for fun and sometimes  if a colleague was upset. Occasionally we even hugged, especially in times of distress. We drank together at lunchtimes and partied together in the evenings. We sometimes went to disco’s together in the evening. No one took offence, because it was all part of the way offices ran in these days. Ok. It’ll bring that in a little. I am a journalist and it was the way newspaper offices worked. I can’t speak for insurance companies or other businesses.

In fact in many ways it gave me a really good insight into how to deal with men who got a bit ‘fresh’. It didn’t scare me. It didn’t worry me. It certainly didn’t make me feel that I had been assaulted or sexually traumatised in any way. I gave as good as I got.

Can there really be anyone who worked in office environments around that time who didn’t indulge in a bit of office banter or a bit of touchy feely nonsense? Are you wondering now whether someone from your dim and distant past will turn round and accuse you of harassment any day now? It has crossed my mind.

My only defence is that there were no power differences involved. We were colleagues on pretty much the same level. No one really had authority over anyone else – and we were all grown up enough to stop if our behaviour made anyone uncomfortable. But we all enjoyed it. It was fun. It helped make the office a fun place to work.

I’m sorry if that offends you, but it did.

In the same way that I don’t really feel any responsibility for the horrors of the slave trade and don’t feel any great need to apologise on behalf of my ancestors (who were farm labourers and almost certainly never had any contact with slaves either), I feel it is unfair to judge the behaviour of the 70’s and 80’s in the light of today’s much more restrained and politically correct accepted norms of working life.

I’m absolutely not excusing rape. Really, rape is a crime that is vicious, cold, horrifying and an extreme abuse of power.

But sexual assault – touching shoulders, slapping bottoms, slipping a hand around a colleague’s waist? In the 70’s that wasn’t classed as sexual assault. It shouldn’t be judged to be so today.

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Massacre of the Innocents

Christmas. I hate it.

Well, not in its entirety. I like the warmth of the house and the presents of course. But I hate the massacre and sacrifice of the babies that goes on around the festival. Sometimes the scenes of shocking carnage make me wonder if the whole festival is not more in honour of Herod’s paranoid horror-filled act than the birth of a child destined to be at the heart of one of the worlds great religions.

I speak of course, of the slaughter of the Christmas trees.

As I walked in to work this morning, I passed the pitiful remnants of so much promise sprawled on the pavements; shredded; broken; torn and tangled. Cast out and dumped by the bins, waiting for their small bodies to be thrown into the mouth of a large, angry chewing machine and ground up.

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But wait. They’re just trees., right? They aren’t ….what? Alive? Yes they are.

They’re also babies. Youngsters. Two feet high. Three feet high. Some have even been allowed to reach six feet high, beginning to feel the sun on their branches, feel birds land on them. Begin to reach for the sky, where their rightful place should be, among the largest living things on the planet.

But like baby sheep, or calves kept in crates for the revolting veal trade, they are simply teased into childhood then cut down, long before they have reached their prime. Ethical Christmas trees? Nonsense. There is nothing ethical about cutting down millions of baby trees every year, just to decorate their bodies and watch them die as you celebrate around them.

I’m sorry, but in this day and age where destruction of forests and our environment in general is taken almost as a human right, this growing of something just to kill it as a baby, is not acceptable. It’s just not.

You might hate man made or artificial trees. How that can possibly be worse than having a dead baby in the corner of your room is beyond me.

Real trees shed. That’s because they’re DEAD.

Let’s stop this foulness; this celebration of Herod and his singular contribution to the Christmas story. Say no to real Christmas trees. Say no, now.

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Sole Sisters

Thin Golden Strap Stiletto Sandals

Sole Sisters               

 by Jacky Cowper

“Nice shoes.”

She looked at me as if seeing me for the first time, in spite of the fact we’d been standing together waiting for a bus for nearly five minutes.

She took in my large DM’s and the stud in my nose. Her face told the story. I was an insect, a piece of dirt to be scraped off her delicate gold and bejeweled sandals.

Undaunted, I tried again.

“Are they fancy, one of these labels; a big name? Designer shoes?”

She checked her watch again. Took out her phone and shook it.

“There’s no signal down here.” I said. “It’s a blackspot.”

“Damn.” She said. Then she looked at me. “What’s your problem? Can’t you see I don’t want to speak to you?”

She rooted around in her equally delicate bag. No ciggies either. She was really having a bad night.

I stuck my hand into my pocket and pulled out a fresh pack of 20. Immediately I had her attention.

I drew one out of the packet, tapped it on my hand, flicked the lighter and lit up, drawing a lungful straight down. I held it inside for a few seconds and then let it drift out of my mouth and nostrils into the dark night. It hung there, caught in the flickering on/off of the streetlamp for a minute before dispersing into the air.

I made as if to notice her for the first time. “Want one?”

“Sure,” she said. “Thanks.”

She allowed me to offer her a light, cupping her hand around the flame as if holding a butterfly.

She sucked in the smoke, and blew it gently through her nostrils. They flared slightly as the heat raced through them.

Smoking together always brings about companionship, and her reluctance to speak to me was soon forgotten as we considered the chilly Edinburgh night. After another ten minutes, I didn’t need to look closely to see her shivering.

“Listen,” I said. “I only live a few minutes away. I was just being lazy taking the bus anyway. Come to my flat and call a taxi from there. I’ve got a landline.”

She looked doubtful, but after staring at the top of the road where the bus was due to appear, she nodded. “Ok.”

I led the way.

The pavement was uneven and she stumbled from time to time. Once she even reached out her hand and rested it on my shoulder. I felt it burn all the way through my jacket.

We reached the entrance to the close. She looked into the darkness through the arch and hesitated a little.

I stepped forward, showing her it was safe.

“Just watch your footing – there are bin bags all over the place at the back. “Folk round here aren’t too careful where they put their crap.”

She moved forward, her heels catching between the cobbles at the start of the old stair.

“It might be better if you take your sandals off.” I said. “You wouldn’t want to break a heel, would you?”

“Not likely,” she laughed. “These cost over £100!”  I felt cold slivers of sweat trace their way down my back and disappear into the waistband of my trousers. The little gemstones on the shoes caught a little of the feeble light coming from the street, and glinted like diamonds in the darkness.

She leaned on me as she bent over to remove them. The heels were thin, elegant, infinitely discreet, like her little feet. Clusters of green and red stones mixed with the solitaires winked at me. Then I felt her hand reach out, clutching the shoes.

“Here, would you take them for me?” she asked. “I’m having trouble with the cobbles.”

Somewhere off to the left, in one of the flats above us, a dog barked once, then there was a snarled human voice and all went quiet again.

She looked up, her hair caught for a moment in the light trickling down from the night sky.

She handed the shoes to me. I could feel the breath leave my body. They were divine. They were the sun, the moon and the stars all carefully whisked together and tied onto your feet with tiny golden straps that fastened round your ankle and over your toes.

She moved slightly ahead of me, her slender frame wobbling on the uneven ground.

“Over there, in the corner. That’s where the door is.” I called quietly.

She began to move carefully through the bin bags towards the door, almost hidden in the dark.

I laid the shoes down at the side of the dark close and jumped on her back.

She squawked as she went down, my left hand quickly clamped around her mouth and my right hand brought the knife out of my pocket and slid it across her slender throat. I felt her body buck under me, but she was fashionably thin and my weight on her back wore her down very quickly.

I held her head down, listening to the blood splash onto the plastic around us and breathing in the hot smell that seemed to fill the air completely.

It was quick.

She stopped moving even sooner than I’d hoped. I stayed still, hidden in the darkness, listening for any sounds that might indicate I’d been heard, breathing quietly in the stillness of the night.

Nothing. Not a car. Not a bus. Not even the clicking heels of a passer by or the muffled laughter of a couple as they bent into each other.

I eased myself back, onto my feet, dusted myself off.

I threw a couple of bags on top of the body and tucked her bare feet away under another bag. The bags were supposed to be deposited in a communal bin out on the street but no one in the stair ever bothered.

I stepped backwards and picked up the shoes. They’d been worth the wait, the plotting, the risk. They gleamed like diamonds in the dirt of my life.

I tucked them into my jacket and pushed the close door open, walking quietly up the stairs to my second story flat. I let myself in, turned on the lights and sat down.

I pulled the shoes out and laid them on the table in front of me. They glistened.

I smiled. Wiped them with my sleeve until every trace of dirt from the alley was gone. I held them close to my ample chest. I could smell the leather, feel the stones as I caressed them. They were mine now.

I stood up and picked them off the table. There would be plenty time for adoration later.

I walked over to my bedroom, opened the wardrobe door. I reached up to the shelf, pulled down the suitcase from the top.

I laid the case on my small single bed and opened it. Three pairs of encrusted sandals winked back at me. I eased them over, making room for the new member of their family. I looked at all my pretty things, laid out in a row. They were loved. They were all loved.

I hauled my boots off, looked at my toe sticking through the top of my sock.

I pulled the socks off too.

I picked up the blue sandals – my first acquisition, all the way from Aberdeen. I slipped the left one on, or at least as far as it would go. The sole said size 4 and I was an 8. God saw fit to grant me the love of delicate things, and the body of an all-in wrestler. I was a cosmic joke.

Blue sandals had been my first, a call girl. Too late she realized, when she got into the car, that the short fat guy was a short heavy woman. She might have lived if she’d just given me the shoes, but she fought for them. She was right to do so, of course. Who wouldn’t have fought for such beautiful objects?

They were well-worn, and they carried her scent for a week or so afterwards, but I didn’t mind. Now they had new companions. I ran my dumpy fingers across the blue shoes and the others in the case. The stones sharp and hard under my skin. I closed the suitcase, put away the memories of that Aberdeen night, the Dundee park, the Fife woodland.

The police arrived three days later. One of the neighbours had found the body – a bare foot sticking out had been a clue apparently.

It was just a regular questioning. Had I seen anything? No. Gosh officers, my rubbish bag is nearly ready to go out. I sat down as the shock hit me. I could have found it. The body. Was it a man or a woman?

A woman. So sad. Such an evil world. I shook my head in despair.

The police took in my big boots, my lumpy body. The short hair and the studs. They assumed the stupid expression that would naturally go with it. My feet were far, far too big to ever fit the small sandals that were missing.

I was an ugly sister for sure, not a Cinderella.

They thanked me and moved on to the drug-addled neighbour upstairs. I never heard from them again.

Why would I?

I had no connection with her. The tiny pieces of evidence they’d found on her body were from generic clothing. And it could have come from the bin bags anyway.

Every policeman knows that killers don’t dirty their own patch.

Except when they do.

That there’s no such thing as a completely random murder.

Except when there is.

That people are not killed for a pair of small golden sandals.

Except when they are.

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