Fabian? It’s your mother. I know it comes up on your screen, but you do have to be careful who you’re talking to in your job. Yes, dead or alive and I am very much alive. Sorry I missed your Sunday night slot, but I was watching something good on television. But the good news is I have got the hang of BBC Sounds on my iPad and I managed to listen just now. Yes of course, I tell all my friends to listen in to Fabian’s Fantoms at midnight. Marcia wants to know if they’re all true, I told her you never fake the stories. Last night was true wasn’t it? I can’t believe they let you in to number ten…. Number Ten Downing Street… But you were, I listened to it.
Waterworks Cottage in Cumbria? My hearing’s not that bad, it was definitely you talking from Downing Street, nobody else could imitate your voice and I am hardly likely to forget you and the new Prime Minister in the Cabinet Room talking to all those dead Prime Ministers, Chancellors and Home Secretaries…. No not Richie Sunak, the one after that… hmm I was surprised we had yet another new PM, transgender too, or was it non-binary, what was their name, they had just changed it.
I am not playing a Halloween joke, the state of the planet is not a joke, no wonder those past great statesmen decided to manifest themselves and knock some sense into our leaders. Okay, if you don’t believe me look up BBC Sounds for yourself. I shall too, now I am beginning to wonder if I am going mad.
Here it is; episode 666 of Fabian’s Fantoms. Fabian joins the new Prime Minister to investigate their claims that 10 Downing Street is haunted by previous incumbents, broadcast live on Sunday night. Fabian, are you there, are you alright, you sound strange. Read further?
..Sunday night 29th October 2023, but that doesn’t make sense, just a mistake… Broadcast again on Tuesday midnight, 31st October 2023 as a tribute to Fabian Falstaff who died suddenly on Monday morning 30th October 2023.
Exchanges with strangers used to be mostly about the weather; now as you pass someone walking by the river they are likely to look up from their phone and say ‘Chancellor’s gone’ or ‘She’s resigned then.’ In the queue at the supermarket you will not hear ‘Why can’t they open another till’ but ‘…talk about revolving doors’ or ‘Well, we’ve got another Prime Minister.’
Revolving doors or the usual wooden black door, Number 10 Downing Street must be the most watched door in the country, perhaps in the whole world. If you see a long shot down the short street, or a news camera pans round, you will see banks of cameras and reporters on the other side. One thing you don’t need to remember if you are Prime Minister is your door keys, but you do need to remember other things; slippers off, high heels on, speech notes, the lectern ( each Prime Minister apparently has their own ) and an overnight bag just in case you aren’t allowed back in.
There are many other doors under surveillance by the press. Any MP or minister likely to be resigning, sacked, promoted or reinstated will have the press outside their home. We can watch on breakfast television as they go out jogging or set off for parliament or Downing Street on their bikes or in their cars. One of the many reasons I have never gone into politics is that I would trip as I jogged away, wobble off my bike, or the car wouldn’t start in front of all those cameras. I also have enough trouble getting out of the front door under no pressure, having gone back upstairs at least three times and unlocked the door at least twice for something I’ve forgotten. Our great leaders may not be any good at running the country, but they do know how to get out of their front doors. They do not fiddle around with the door wide open tying up their trainers or pat their pockets ( in the case of the ladies, rummage around in their handbags in panic ) checking they have door keys, car keys, phone, wallet, loose change for the Big Issue man. Nor do they slide out backwards, crouching, trying to make sure the new puppy does not escape. They do not have to drag reluctant children with them who have to be dropped off at school on the way.
It would keep the press on their toes if, just as they asked a pertinent question such as ‘Will you still have a job at the end of today Minister?’ he or she pressed their palm to their forehead and fumbled with their keys to dash back indoors because they had forgotten their briefcase, to feed the cat, go to the loo, lock the back door… Or perhaps they would start to give a newsworthy answer just as their loved one came to the door with hugs and smoochy kisses to wish them luck and say they will still love them, even when they are no longer a Minister.
It sounded perfect, John’s dream job and a move to the countryside. Polly did not want to go, though she cheered up a little when we explained she didn’t have to leave her toys behind.
I’m not sure what I expected, I should have realised a secret research station would have a fence round it, a strong fence, an ugly fence that jarred with the surrounding landscape. When John said we would be living in the old lighthouse he forgot to mention it was inside the fence.
We had moved in such a hurry, John was caught up in the excitement of being head hunted and my head was in such a whirl I had not queried why they wanted him so urgently. My penniless sister was delighted to leave home and move into our house with her boyfriend and look after the cat.
The turning on to the private gravel road was not easy to find, but that added to the excitement of our journey. Bye Bye West London suburb, hello West Country. We weren’t even sure if we were in Devon, Cornwall or Somerset, but I didn’t care as autumn trees gave way to beautiful rugged moorland. The gravel road soon gave way to a bumpy track, but we knew we were going the right way as there were signs with large red writing at frequent intervals.
THIS AREA IS COVERED BY CCTV
IF YOU DO NOT HAVE CLEARANCE TURN AROUND NOW
IF YOU ARE LOST PHONE THIS NUMBER IMMEDIATELY AND AWAIT INSTRUCTIONS
SECURITY PASSES NEEDED IN 100 YARDS
Perhaps I should have asked John what they actually did at the research station and what he was going to do. I fumbled in my bag for my phone, I wanted to send pictures of the signs and impress everyone back home. When John realised what I was doing he nearly ran the car off the track.
‘I told you we had to leave phones at home.’
‘We wouldn’t have found our way here without my smart phone.’
‘I thought you were following the map I gave you.’
‘Map, how am I supposed to read that paper map.’
‘You’ll have to surrender your phone at the gate.’
‘You are joking, how am I supposed to live without it and how can Polly play her games?’
‘I thought you were looking forward to getting away from it all?’
‘That’s beside the point; what do they actually do here that is so secret?’
‘The whole point of secret research is that it is secret and the last people you tell are wives and little daughters.’
At last we reached a double set of huge gates with actual sentry boxes, it was rather exciting and I sneaked out my phone hoping I could get one quick shot of the guard, but a uniformed arm suddenly shot through the open window and grabbed my phone. Luckily Polly was asleep and missed this scary moment.
The decommissioned lighthouse was not as romantic as I had imagined, though inside it was quite homely. We could just about glimpse the sea from the tiny top window, no wonder it had not been a success as a lighthouse.
‘Unicorn doesn’t like this place Mummy.’
‘He’ll get used to it Polly, unicorns are very brave.’
‘Mummy’s right, tomorrow we can all go exploring.’
There was an inner fence around the research buildings and more security gates, there was enough land for a good walk, but I wanted to see the sea, take Polly down to the beach. John was as flummoxed as me. First thing to do was find some of John’s colleagues, discover who else lived here and where the shops were.
All my questions were met with loud guffaws from a chap who looked more like a trawlerman than a research scientist.
‘Shops… you did bring plenty of supplies? Beach… don’t you let your little one anywhere near the cliff edge. Nursery, pre school… well there are a couple of other kiddies around, but you best be asking Maggie.’
The soothing distant sounds of the sea on our first night were replaced by howling winds on the second. I didn’t know how John could sleep so soundly. I tip toed out to check on Polly. For a moment my blood ran cold, yes that saying is true. Polly was not in her bed, nor was Unicorn. With relief I saw her at the round window, face pressed against the glass, Unicorn had his horn squashed against the window.
‘Polly, you’ll get cold, come back to bed.’
‘Mummy, Mummy, Unicorn likes it here now, he’s got a new friend, come and look, please.’
I could see nothing but total darkness outside, the wind was even louder.
‘Oh, he’s gone, I hope he hasn’t flown away. Unicorn wants us to go outside and find him.’
‘No Polly we can’t go outside, it’s night time.’
‘Unicorn says he only comes out at night.’
‘Did you see an owl?’
‘No Mummy, don’t be silly, come outside and you will get a big surprise.’
We were supposed to be having adventures and on such a well guarded sight there could be no dangers lurking. Out we crept; Polly was not at all scared of the dark, even though she couldn’t sleep without a night light at home. I saw the glow first and assumed it was security coming round with torches and hoped we wouldn’t get told off.
‘Mummy, there he is.’
Her hand gripped mine, but she was shaking with excitement not fear and pulling me towards the impossible sight.
‘I want to ride him, Unicorn wants a ride, can I go flying… come on Mummy, pleeese…’
Her hand slipped out of mine as she clung onto her cuddly Unicorn and darted towards the creature glowing in the dark. Its horn glowed pink, his flowing mane was rainbow colours… I almost laughed to see a racehorse size version of Polly’s cuddly unicorn, but unlike Polly’s toy this was a replica of the dream figure she wanted for Christmas, a winged unicorn. Finer than any plastic figure, he was magnificent, but what was I thinking, this wasn’t real, I must be dreaming. As I shook my head and tried to wake up I saw Polly was seated on his back, still clutching her cuddly toy.
Look Mummy we’re flying, bye bye Mummy…’
Gracefully the creature soared into the sky and was soon a tiny dot. I rushed back inside, I must have been sleep walking. Once I saw Polly safely asleep in bed then I would know it was a dream and how Polly and John would laugh in the morning when I told them my dream.
Polly’s bed was empty and cuddly Unicorn was gone.
You know I can’t tell anyone, how many times have we had this conversation?
But these are strange times and you need someone to talk to, like Me. I bet Mama used to tell Papa a few snippets of her weekly audience.
No of course she did not, you know my Darling Mama took her holy vows and traditions seriously.
But you wouldn’t know would you, if she had told him he would never have let her down by giving the game away. So couldn’t you just tell me what you said to her? Just a little bit…
I said ‘Dear Oh Dear.’
That’s what they overheard you saying the other day.
It’s pretty much what I have said every time I have met the wretched woman. I did say more, but I’m sorry my Darling Cam Cams, you are never going to know. However, you can help me with my speech, I think it’s time I addressed the country again.
Yes, yes, you must… such a pity you can’t …well you would make a better job than the lot of them running the country.
I agree and perhaps… no no, I don’t want to be beheaded.
But that was only the first Charles, the second one they were jolly glad to have back again and so they will support you.
But he was only thirty, much younger even than Wills; I’m getting too old for all this business and I certainly didn’t think I would have to break in another Prime Minister so soon… unless I don’t have to because I abolish the office, just temporarily… oh damn it, why not go the whole hog and dismiss Parliament. Come on, let’s get that speech written; have you got your mobile handy? Call the BBC.
It didn’t help that Uncle Brian was six foot four and an ex rugby player. The fact that he had a glorious bass voice that sent ladies aflutter was a distinct disadvantage. Perhaps if it had not been the annual family Halloween party we would have taken Brian more seriously. Uncle Brian had always been a joker, so we were used to his larger than life pranks.
When we were young we always went to Uncle Brian and Aunty May’s summer barbeques, but when he and his rugby mates had had a good few bevvies and the ribald jokes started we were quickly rounded up for home time. Once, when we had Granny squashed in the back seat as well, I said ‘Mum, is Uncle Brian very rich?’
Dad laughed. ‘You must be joking.’
‘So why do his friends say he’s well endowed?’
Granny let out a sort of choking sound and Mum shushed me.
The Halloween party was one social occasion my husband did not try to avoid, he said you never knew what was going to happen when my family got together. He certainly wasn’t disappointed this year.
It wasn’t actually Halloween yet, but any time in October was good enough and it was my cousin’s turn to have it at their place. Just about everyone had turned up except Uncle Brian and Aunty May. The children ran around dressed as pumpkins and skeletons and the adults caught up with the gossip. We were just murmuring that Brian and May were a bit late when the door bell rang and we heard Brian’s loud voice in the hall. When he walked into the sitting room, strangely the first thing I noticed, he had shaved his beard off. The second thing I noticed, he was dressed as a woman; completely, from his high heels to his coiffured hair and perfect make up.
He stood poised elegantly as the room fell silent, we waited for him to laugh, then the children started giggling, but Brian wasn’t laughing. My cousin grinned. ‘Daad it’s not fancy dress, that was last year.’
‘It’s not fancy dress, from now on I’m Bryony.’
‘Ha ha,’ said his brother ‘next thing you’ll be telling us you’re gay.’
‘Not gay, just in the wrong body, always have been, now the real me has come out.’
‘You mean this isn’t one of your jokes…’ said his daughter tremulously.
‘Nope, no joke, but I’m still your Dad, nothing’s changed.’
I risked a glance at my husband who was relishing every moment and opened his mouth to speak.
‘Have you had it chop…’
I dug him in the ribs and jumped up before he could say any more. I had heard all the programmes, read the magazine articles, I was well up on the LGBTQ scene, I knew what to say. I clasped Uncle Brian’s hand.
‘Well done, if this is what you want, we can go shopping for clothes together and we’ll support you all the way.’
I paused waiting for him to let out a loud guffaw and say ‘I really fooled you all this time’ but he didn’t.
Then someone else piped up.
‘So where’s Aunty May, just realised she isn’t here.’
‘Ah, erm, well she wasn’t feeling at all well and sends her apologies… Anyway isn’t it time for some food and I must sit down, my feet are killing me.’
You could cut the darkness with a knife, feel it’s heaviness. Once the land rover had driven out of sight there was no light. This was the night my ancestors knew; when the last embers had died and the lard lamp guttered. There was no moon and no starlight penetrated the forest canopy.
I knew I was only yards from the track we had just driven along, but my sense of direction had deserted me, though I had not turned or moved a step. I reached in my pocket for my phone, though I knew it was not there. A warm coat and a bottle of water the only concessions to basic needs. Minutes ago, what lay ahead seemed so easy; use my other senses, feel my tread, listen to the sounds of nature and walk in a straight line the way I had been sent… keep going until the first glimpse of dawn or the village lights, whichever came first.
But if I set off in the wrong direction I would not find anywhere or anyone and they would not find me.
I should have timed how long it took to reach this spot from the edge of the track, but I had no means of telling the time, I had not even a sense of how many minutes I had stood on this spot. Should I start walking, then after an indeterminate interval stop if I did not feel the soft autumn carpet change to the gravel track?
Was my heart really beating so loudly I could hear it? I reached out my hands and felt solid tree trunk. Perhaps I should curl up in its roots and wait till sunrise, but then they would find me if they returned. I needed to find the village we had passed. A bleakness descended on me that I had never known before, a loneliness that was complete. I had no god to call on and I could not reach out to the seething mass of humanity that I so often wanted to get away from. My soul was stripped bare and I was found wanting, I was not capable of existing as an individual.
Foolishly I started running in sheer panic and found myself flung to the ground by The Green Man. Spitting leaves out of my mouth a glimmer of sense returned; it was not the spirit of the woods, merely a tree root that had tripped me. Relief was replaced by pain then despair at my own foolishness; why had I been talked into joining a boot camp that promised to clear my brain and cure my addiction to screen time?
‘CLOSED – Closed due to illness… the one evening we finally get to try the trendy micro brewery and it’s closed.’
‘Shall we settle for The George?’
‘No way, they’re showing the football’ said Lucy. ‘Can’t we go back to yours Sal, grab a bottle of wine and order a takeaway.’
‘No, Alan’s got his mates round for a few beers to watch the match, that’s why I wanted to come out in the first place. Shall we go round yours Tam?’
‘Sorry, Milly’s invited her new boyfriend, promised we would be out till at least ten.’
‘Okay Lucy, let’s go to yours, Ed’s away, no problem.’
‘No, No… you can’t possibly come round mine, everything’s totally upside down.’
‘Ha ha, I find that hard to believe, your immaculate house always puts me and Tam to shame.’
‘It can’t possibly be as bad as the state I left mine in this morning’ said Tam. ‘Come on, we can pick up a couple of bottles at the Co Op on the way and ring up for a pizza.’
‘Okay, if you don’t believe me, you are going to be in for a shock.’
‘Yay, it is Shocktober, we’re ready for anything as long as we have wine, one white, one pink, one red.’
The closer we got to Lucy’s corner the more worried she looked, there seemed to be a lot of traffic around and as we got nearer to her little road there were lots of people walking in the same direction. I was about to say Oh, I hope there’s nothing wrong… when we turned the corner and got a shock Tam and I certainly weren’t expecting.
Lucy’s immaculate house, with its new blue cladding, was upside down, literally. A crowd was gathering, staring in awe at the house balancing on its roof. From the crowd a woman was emerging with a microphone.
Lucy grabbed both of us, there was a horrible clanking as the wine bottles hit the pavement.
‘Quick, park, hole in fence, before neighbours recognise me’ mumbled Lucy.
Stumbling through a hedge, slipping on wet grass, this was not the girls’ night out we had hoped for.
‘Lucy, this isn’t your road, can’t be, it’s a film set, no other explanation’ I hissed.
‘If only it was a film set, I was hoping I had imagined the whole thing this morning’ gasped Lucy. ‘I lost the key to Ed’s mother’s house; I’m meant to be feeding the cats every evening while she’s away, locking them in safely for the night. I was in a right panic this morning, she’ll kill me if anything happens to her precious cats.’
‘Cats are the least of your problems’ said Tam.
‘I know that now, but this morning I said to myself, or perhaps I said it out loud
“I’m going to turn this place upside down till I find that wretched key.”
I went out the front to make sure I hadn’t dropped it on the driveway last night and when I turned to go back inside, the house was upside down.’
When I was lying on the couch having biopsies taken, the doctor said ‘Do you want to be treated at Bournemouth or Poole hospital?’ My immediate response was Poole, to her surprise. I explained that though I lived in Bournemouth and the hospital is nearer as the crow flies, my local buses both stop right outside Poole hospital, while Bournemouth hospital involves two buses, waiting and stress or perhaps one that only goes once an hour. After this discussion on buses it dawned on me she must have been certain, with all the tests I was having that morning at the Dorset Breast Screening Unit ( at Poole hospital ) , that I did have breast cancer.
I didn’t actually come back on the bus after my operation, but there were numerous routine visits and breast cancer patients are under the hospital for five years, so my decision was wise. Perhaps I should add that this bus journey does take an hour, which would horrify car drivers, but you can relax and catch up with blogs on your phone or people/passenger watch/eavesdrop. The hospital is also a short walk from the main town with shops? – well modern shopping is for another blog – museum, eateries and Poole Harbour, so if you have only been to the hospital for a quick blood test you can at least make an outing out of it.
I have been using buses since before I was born, everywhere I have lived, except for an Australian country town; so I have earned my bus pass. If you don’t drive, walking, cycling, buses and trains are essential and we non drivers are good for the environment, not that anyone thanks us. But I totally understand that lots of people have no reliable public transport or just think we are insane. The typical new bus passenger gets on board explaining to everyone that he doesn’t normally go on buses, but his car is at the garage getting fixed. He then looks round for an empty seat or the least weird looking person to sit next to. If, when you go on a bus for the first time, you have waited a long time at the bus stop, the driver is rude, there are some very odd people on board plus the local drunk, the bus is packed with noisy school children and you are squashed standing in the aisle I can understand that you would vow never to go on a bus again.
But part of the fun of buses is you can never be sure what will happen! Sometimes something worse happens, such as hearing that your local bus company has suddenly gone into liquidation… That happened to our yellow buses, just as they were celebrating their 120th birthday. Luckily for me we have another bus company, suitably called More Buses, already running my favourite blue bus, M2, going frequently back and forth between Southbourne and Poole bus station with heating, on board Wi Fi, phone chargers and electronic boards and speaker messages telling you which bus stop is coming up. They stepped into the breach within days ( far more efficiently than governments run countries ) offering jobs to yellow bus drivers and bringing in More buses from all over the place. This has made local trips interesting as buses of all colours and ages have turned up, so you have to be very careful to check the numbers. Don’t get on the green bus covered in pictures of trees and ponies and highlighting the delights of the New Forest and expect to go to this fantastic National Park if it says 1a on the front. There have also been drivers who have to ask the passengers which way they are supposed to be going.
Hey Ho, all part of the fun of buses and then there are the passengers, can you even be a writer if you don’t take buses? Hearing people’s life stories, missing your stop because you have got so involved in the phone conversation going on behind you. One early evening I got on the bus at Poole and a chap at the front had a homemade guitar, literally made of bits of wood nailed together and string tied on. It did actually make notes and he was telling everyone about it, in fact he talked non stop till he got off in Bournemouth, at times like these I love buses.
Do you go by bus? If so, have you had any strange trips?