You had to laugh, some of them looked worn out and they’d only been ‘out on the street’ for one night.
Nic was having the time of his life, all night company, places to eat and toilets open twenty four hours. Buildings open to all, light and life and most of all, everyone being nice to each other. Nobody cared who you were or where you came from, which was very different from nobody caring.
He had been given a wrist band, but had no intention of going to see the Queen. He wouldn’t have minded meeting her when she was still alive, some of her family were nearly as dysfunctional as his so she wouldn’t judge.
Nic had a fair idea what was going on at Westminster from chatting to others. Airport security, well he wasn’t carrying anything suspicious that would beep, but they would be on the lookout for suspicious looking people. Anyway, he was content to stay this side of the river. Others had come on their own, some people happy to share with new friends food they had brought or nipped from the queue to buy.
At regular intervals Nic would slip away for a ‘comfort break’ and discarding his wrist band, wend his way by a circuitous route to the back of the queue again and new friends. What a night, he saw the lights on the River Thames with new eyes, taking on the enthusiasm of those new to the city.
At Operation London Bridge Control Room human eyes looked at banks of screens while their colleagues, the digital detectives, scanned images with state of the art face recognition and other skills.
‘Screen six, near the end of the queue, got a loiterer… suspect coming back again, what’s his game… contact officers in that sector.’
Nic thought he was pretty anonymous, an observer, so he was startled to confront the smiling face of a man in a suit with a microphone.
‘We’re live on BBC television, can I ask what made you decide to come tonight?’
‘Oh um yes, I’m a local, so no trouble…’
‘It’s chilly tonight, but you were still happy to leave home comforts?’
Nic was just about to relate another made up life when he spotted them behind the reporter, two police officers and as he turned slightly, two more behind him. Now what on earth should he do…
‘No home comforts mate, I’m homeless, like lots of others and nobody has given us a mention… and if I get arrested nobody is going to care, except perhaps millions of viewers…’
When we got married and moved into our police flat I knew I never wanted to be without my own home again. We didn’t own it, but home only needs to be where you are settled safely, not necessarily owned. Home also fans out to your own street, town and country, but our own tiny spot in the world is unique for most of us who rent or own only one home. An Englishman’s home truly is his castle and you don’t have to be English to want your own castle. In the five years previous to our wedding I had lived with grandparents, aunt and uncle, been a lodger with two very different families, stayed in a motel and experienced institutional living. Now a few days after my 24th birthday ( which seems very young now ) I had my own kitchen and window box – oh and not forgetting a new husband as well!
In the natural order of things, in times of peace, houses outlive their owners. The new house my grandfather bought in the 1930’s for his young family is still standing, extended and improved like most suburban houses and home to other families over the years. With the death of my uncle that first family are all gone. Google reveals that the Victorian terrace I was born in is still standing and looking much the same from the outside. My parents rented the top half and when they said we were going to buy our own house, when I was six, I couldn’t understand it as we already had a home. The house they bought is also still standing. If you come from landed gentry or royalty your home may well have stood for many centuries and may stand for centuries to come.
When we see whole towns wiped out by fire, flood or hurricane we may see survivors and be glad for them that they still have their families. But it is still devastating to lose everything, your home and your town. If we lose loved ones our home is still more than bricks and mortar, it is a sanctuary and a place full of memories.
Watching the terrible invasion and attacks on Ukraine, millions of us felt a connection because they were people who had ordinary lives like us and in the space of a few days lost their homes or had to leave them. The fact that millions of people in the world are homeless or live in slums and refugee camps does not make the suffering of the Ukrainians less. Rightly or wrongly there seems to be a real possibility to help them until they can return that we can’t realistically do for the whole wide world. Close neighbours such as Poland have come up trumps with their welcome while in the United Kingdom we are hampered by post Brexit bureaucracy.
Whatever obstacles are put in the way doesn’t alter the fact that many people in Britain have volunteered to take people into their own homes and that is a gift far greater than money. To share your home with distant relatives and strangers for an unknown amount of time is not a decision to take lightly. Supposing they never leave, don’t speak any English, don’t fit in with your routine… Many of us will applaud others while being secretly relieved we can’t because we only have one bathroom, have a full house already, need space when family come to stay…
When we were first married a friend of ours, mainly through his own fault, was jobless and homeless and came to stay with us for a few days… yes you guessed, we thought he would never leave and in the end lied that relatives from Australia were coming to stay! We have had Australian relatives living with us without problems and my son and daughter-in-law are well on track to buying their own house and moving out soon. Would I have some Ukrainians or any homeless once I’m on my own? Well there is the question of only one bathroom and family needing to stay when they visit…
Cassie felt deflated, empty, tired. She tried to summon up the positivity that had kept her going since March, but a new year was not going to bring a new start for anyone. It was no consolation that more of England had joined them in Tier 4, lockdown in all but name. She knew she was lucky to have a job and a home, didn’t have to do home schooling or shop for elderly parents, but the positives she had nurtured this year seemed to be fading away.
Christmas Day had been good, as if her presence had made it easier for Sam and his long lost son to talk, telling her things about their lives that they hadn’t told each other. She had found herself smiling several times; Christmas 2019 spent alone and this Christmas spent with a homeless man and a runaway teenager. Now her little house seemed too quiet, though she had been glad enough of the peace on Christmas night after the two of them and the dog had clumped off on their way.
She would be more than happy to have them as regular visitors, but Christmas had been one day of freedom for Britons; now it was back to having no visitors, no visiting. Even her regular walks with Sam and his dog had ceased; the new rule was meet only one person outside your household, outside and Sam’s long walks were now with his son. Though James had done well getting the MPJ building as suitable as possible for his clients, it was a roof over their heads, not a home for a father and son. Sam was keeping Lucas out and about as much as possible, desperate to keep him from getting bored or depressed and doing a reverse runaway back to Scotland and the comforts of his step father’s highland estate.
Cassie could no longer visit the MPJ homeless project, even with the careful Covid regime James had set up. He was all too aware, as he never ceased to point out, how vulnerable some of his little group of homeless were, nor did he want any possibility of the project being blamed for an increase in cases in the town.
She was still working from home, management were pleased with her team, but would they all keep their jobs in the long term with the double blow of Covid and Brexit? Work was hard, not at all the easy lounging in pyjamas outsiders might imagine. Supervising her team was difficult; she was propping some of them up, carrying them. The continual ups and downs of what she assumed was normal busy parenthood, doubled in stress with parents worried every time a child coughed or felt a bit hot; Covid tests, waiting for results, keeping children home in isolation, whole classes being sent home because one child had a positive test, schools closed with teachers ill…
She was jolted out of her glum mood when her mobile buzzed, she was surprised to see it was James calling, wanting to Facetime and get some advice. How long since they had chatted on line? She was never sure if he had been disappointed that their spring on line friendship had not developed into anything more, when they got the chance to meet up for real. But now she was pathetically grateful for the chance to have a chat on this lonely New Year’s Eve.
March seems so long ago now, but we first met Cassie in a queue for the chemist…
Cassie though it ironic that she had spent last Christmas Day alone and now when everyone else was facing Christmas alone she was having two guests for Christmas lunch, three if you counted the dog. When she had invited Sam the rule had been three households for five days, but Boris had changed all that on Saturday. They were still in Tier 2 so she didn’t think they were breaking any rules; Christmas Day only and no overnight stays, but she hadn’t bargained for Sam’s long lost son turning up. Even in pre Covid days this would have been quite a drama. But there was no question of him being sent back to Scotland, would he even be allowed back in? Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister, did not want anyone entering or leaving Scotland. Sam had insisted Lucas ring his mother, so she could call off the frantic search round their huge highland estate, but more to ensure future prospects for cooperation.
Sam was thrilled with the turn of events, he felt he had a connection already with his sixteen year old son. Cassie could not see things in such a positive light, Sam was a long way from being able to provide a stable home for a teenager who still had two years of school ahead, but it was not her place to say anything. Of more immediate concern was meeting Lucas. As an only child brought up by her aunt and sent to a girls’ school she knew nothing about teenage boys. Doris next door had reassured her all she had to do was treat him like a normal human being and perhaps he would be interested in her geckos.
Now as she looked at the time and checked the oven she wondered if Sam had heard the latest news; at one minute past midnight on Boxing Day they were going to enter Tier 4. Any positivity she had felt about the pandemic or her own little life seemed to be fast fading in recent weeks, a new strain of Covid, worrying statistics…
The doorbell rang and as she opened it she was taken aback to see a broad shouldered young man taller than Sam, standing behind him.
‘Cassie, this is Lucas.’
For some reason she had imagined a smaller version of Sam, pale, quiet and nervous, an unhappy runaway; so she was further surprised when he greeted her enthusiastically in a booming baritone Scottish accent.
‘Lunch smells nice.’
‘It’s just a little pork joint,’ Cassie apologised ‘I’ve never cooked a turkey in my life.’
‘That’s okay, didn’t Sa…. my father tell you I am vegetarian?’
Cassie was worried about James; even though their town was still a medium risk area his mental health felt like a high risk area. She bit into the tender flakes of haddock; Friday evening fish and chips was one of her Covid comforts; the pandemic had come down to appreciating the simple things. Five of them, plus Sam’s dog, sat well spaced out in the staff canteen of the MPJ building; few staff had used the canteen since March, but this week it had been well used. Sam had honed his cooking skills catering for the small group of fellow homeless folk sheltering at MPJ and it had been his idea to provide meals this half term for children entitled to free school meals and at risk of hunger every holiday. James had been reluctant to agree, but the MPJ bosses had seen a further opportunity to be seen as part of the community and not fat cats. James had been reassured that he would not have to meet any real children. He had the perfect excuse to steer clear of the whole operation as he was still frantically busy coordinating who was coming in to work at the offices and who was working from home. There was still an international company to run in the midst of pandemic uncertainty that seemed never ending.
But it was not work stress that was taking its toll on James. Though their homeless project could not be described as wildly successful, he had proved the homeless could be housed in empty or near empty office blocks. But an office block was not home; the man who had lost his home to divorce and lived with his mother during lock down wanted his own comfortable place. Cassie didn’t blame him, she was thankful to be working at home and thankful she had her own house. She had no intention of sharing it, at least not with James. If there had been a spark earlier, when they could only talk on line, she now knew a relationship was not what she wanted; there was a limit to how much she could help him, it was up to him to work out how to move on. As for Cassie herself, Covid had been a positive experience, discovering new strengths, making new contacts, happy to have James and Sam as friends. Doubts about her actual job, what she really wanted to do with her life, were now put aside as she helped with the homeless. Being Sam’s assistant cook for the children’s meals had made her feel she was really contributing to society, part of the Covid Community.
When they had finished eating and debriefing the week’s project it was time for Sam to walk the dog and for Cassie to cycle home, not quite so pleasant now the clocks had gone back. They stepped outside into a dark, wet and windy evening. She wheeled her bike to the park with Sam and despite the weather they were so busy talking they reached the other side of the park without her mounting her bike. He had important news. While James was now in a bad place Sam was in a far better place. Cassie had no idea what the dark years had been like after his wife left and took their little boy, but he was determined to make the future positive.
‘It’s strange that Covid has made it easier getting in touch. I suppose his mother knows there is no chance of us meeting up, no chance of me getting up to the wilds of Scotland. Well I guess she reasons that if he finds out how little his real father has to offer, he will appreciate his stepfather.’
‘But you have got a lot to offer, sounds like her second husband only knows about deer and salmon fishing, he can’t help with on line science lessons like you can.’
‘Yes I really think my son might be taking after me, he knows enough to understand what an excellent job I had, or should have had. But I’m glad I was up front with him about what happened; I think it appeals to his teenage rebellious streak that he has a father who has to sell the Big Issue and run a dog walking business.’
‘Socialist leanings perhaps, young people can see how Covid has revealed terrible inequalities and it’s not his fault if he’s been given everything and has never had to worry about food or money.’
‘As long as he doesn’t try and do anything stupid like run away. I told him to knuckle down and study now, not use Covid as an excuse, if he wants to get somewhere. The world is going to need scientists more than ever.’
Sam always had the radio on when he was in the hotel room, just to own a radio and have somewhere to plug it in was a luxury. It was more than entertainment, he was catching up with what had been going on in the rest of the world while he had ‘been away’. By the evenings he was physically tired, but his mind could not rest, he did not want to be alone with his thoughts. Science programmes, current affairs, the arts, he lapped them all up; he was interested in everything, like he used to be in the old life. Perhaps he would have been a polymath by now, talking on intelligent programmes instead of just listening in.
Her voice caught him off guard, was it her, yes, the presenter repeated her name. Sam tuned into what she was saying.
No, I had never thought of being a writer, too busy living life, just an ordinary wife and mother, then my marriage broke up.
Broke up, like dropping a glass on a tiled floor, broke up… she had left him, taken the child… left him for no reason he had ever figured out.
It was just me and my little boy, it was hard, but after a while I realised I was happy, I could survive on my own, not just survive, make something of my life.
Sam felt his chest tighten; had she ever been happy, was that not a life they had? He was happy, she made him happy, Lucas made them both happy. He had everything, the new research project, promoted to senior lecturer, getting the mortgage for the little house that was the home of her dreams; when had her dreams changed? She was still talking, bright and confident, a mature woman now of course. He felt the physical blow of being left all over again.
…when Lucas started at the village school in Scotland I started writing and trying to run the smallholding I had inherited with the cottage…
And that is a story in itself and inspired one of your novels?
Yes, I was tracked down by the programme Heir Hunters and I wanted to find out more about this fourth three times removed cousin who was a recluse.
Sam found himself almost smiling, you couldn’t make it up, his suburban London ex wife in the wilds of Scotland, maybe she had made it up … but then anger flashed through him, his son should not have been living in a dilapidated cottage hundreds of miles away, no wonder he had lost touch completely.
Now your fifth novel comes as people question why so few people own so much of the land in Scotland, your heroine comes from London on holiday to the highlands and ends up marrying the local laird. What gave you that inspiration?
I must emphasise that it is not autobiographical, my own laird Duncan is nothing like the haughty landowner in my novel. And actually Duncan and I are writing a book together about rewilding and good husbandry.
So your life now is very different from your dreary life in suburban London?
Yes I have the big family I always wanted, with Lucas, Duncan’s three and our son and the twins…isolating has been like a family holiday for the nine of us, teens and pre teens all getting along together.
Sam switched the radio off. She had everything and he had nothing. He had lost everything in the divorce and he wasn’t even sure how, house and son gone, his own mother never forgiving him for letting her grandson be taken. But he must not descend into darkness again, think first. He turned on his lap top, the other vital possession the Big Issue had furnished him with, navigating the internet was still awkward for him. She must have been famous, just entering her name, or rather his name that she published under, produced results. Up popped her author website and a colourful blog about her highland life. Thousands of followers, perhaps he was the only one in the country who had not heard of her books. He tried to stay calm, at least in the interview she had not denigrated him, not even mentioned him, was that worse?
He needed to talk about this, not internalise, that’s what the counsellor told them when they had the ‘help’ during lock down. Most of them only put up with the do-gooders’ waffling to keep their hotel room, but some of it was helpful and he knew he had rights, a right to contact his son. But he had to stay off the streets and build some sort of life, even then it was unlikely his son would want anything to do with him. There would be no sleep for him tonight, but tomorrow he would tell his story for the first time.
Cassie sat admiring the vivarium, glad she had chosen the largest most elegant home for her two geckos. It was an anniversary of sorts, a year since they had arrived to complete her new home. They made a soothing break from the computer screen, from work, from the whole Covid business, living their simple lives unaware of the pandemic. Four months since life had changed for everyone, some more than others. Cassie really had little to complain about, life was changing in little ways for her. Doris next door’s family were back in the country, about to come out of quarantine. Cassie had ordered a much larger supermarket delivery for her yesterday, now she would relax and let Doris’ son take some responsibility, not that Doris was any trouble. Cassie was glad of someone to chat to outside of work.
Work, Zoom, MPJ, company policies, James’ plan… she stretched her back, rotated her shoulders… now the school holidays were underway tensions were high. She did not envy James’ task organising ‘the new norm’; some to continue working at home, others to alternate weeks, some to come in just one day a week. The trouble was, no one was sure which of the options they would be doing or when it would start.
Despite promising each other they would not talk about work, when James at last persuaded her to come for the ferry ride and lunch at the waterside pub, they had and what else was there to talk about? She didn’t want to hear any more about his mother or sister and certainly not about his ex wife, but she had enjoyed the outing, well the twenty minute ferry ride at least. Seeing those cruise liners moored up, going nowhere, James claimed to have inside knowledge of the cruise industry, but made her laugh. ‘Who would want to go on holiday in a floating petri dish, even in peacetime they always have that norovirus going round. Pay all that money to see nothing but your cabin and not be able to eat.’ When they discussed what type of holidays they enjoyed they both agreed Cassie’s sounded much more fun. James’ ex would only stay in decent hotels that did not allow children, decent seemed to mean hotels they could not afford.
After lunch James had walked her round to his mother’s house for a little socially distanced chat in her lovely garden. Cassie liked Vivienne, as she suspected, the woman looked younger and was livelier than one would believe when James was talking about her. They stuck to gardening topics, Cassie determined to keep the conversation light, however curious his mother might be about their relationship.
And still Cassie had her little castle all to herself, had not told James where she lived, implied there was some dark reason in her past, rather than not wanting to risk letting another boring chap get his feet under her table. But life was not bad at the moment. This afternoon she would go for a walk with Sam, accompanying him on his dog walking business. It had become a regular feature of their lives, good for her mental health as much as it was for Sam’s. The aim of MPJ’s helping the homeless project, now called Moving On, was to keep people like Sam feeling connected. Cassie was the first to admit he was the easiest of the group to have a connection with and they worked as a team. She had somehow found herself in charge of the project, James had thought her insane to allow herself to be put upon and she certainly would have been out of her depth without Sam’s support and help. But it worked both ways; he was managing to stay on at the hotel, paying his own way, with the grant quietly passed on by MPJ.
She hadn’t exactly told James about Sam and the time she spent with him, after all they were just a couple of friends in their forties enjoying a walk in the park, a walk and a chat about all sorts of things, he was probably the cleverest man she had ever met. How he came to be homeless was a mystery and none of her business, nor did it seem to matter. Everything was different in 2020.
A second anthology from the author of ‘Dark and Milk,’ including recent prize winning short stories. As you would expect, some tales are light, others very dark and you will not know which are which until it is too late! Visit places you may or may not find on a map, discover the Hambourne Chronicles and meet people who may not be what they seem.
Cassie was feeling more positive than she had for a while as she saw James approaching on his bicycle for their rendezvous at the austere offices of their employer MPJ. It was not because the pubs were opening tomorrow, something to be avoided, or because she believed the pandemic was over, it was not; but her mind was open to new possibilities.
‘How was the ferry James?’
‘Great, it’s so windy out there on the water this morning, I love it like that, blowing the virus away; only a few of us on the boat anyway.’ He laughed. ‘Less than a week of the ferry back on duty and they have taken away my hire car.’
Cassie couldn’t help feeling a little pleased that once again they were safely separated by the water and a limited ferry timetable. Their several meetings at the offices had been good, making life seem a little more normal, but would it be awkward now she had declined to join his bubble? Would he try and change her mind after she admitted on Facetime last night that Doris next door did not want Cassie to create a bubble for her. Doris’ son and family were now 85% sure they would be over from the USA for their delayed annual holiday and Doris was hoping they would quarantine with her, be her bubble.
James keyed them in at the side door, ushering Cassie in first and keeping a safe distance. At the desk the lone security chap looked glad to see them.
‘How many in today?’ asked James.
‘Three, no sign of the boss yet.’
They walked up the stairs; even if they had wanted to use the lift James had put several bands of yellow tape across the lift doors. The corridor was silent and Cassie stifled a giggle.
‘Why are we whispering.’
‘Strange isn’t it, I didn’t realise how noisy this place was when it was full. Coffee first? That machine must be the only thing still working at MPJ.’
It was still a bit awkward – just standing there a few feet apart. He was smiling at her.
‘I like this, having a proper chat, I know it’s not every girl’s… wom… lady’s idea of a date. That’s what I like about you Cassie, up for anything. I love the way you aren’t worried about what you wear and don’t fuss about makeup and stuff.’
Cassie wondered how to take his remarks, she couldn’t imagine him doing very well on the dating scene, but obviously she wouldn’t either.
‘Has anything new been decided about work? The parents in my group are going round the bend. The children are going back to school next week, but it’s only for two days a week, then in two weeks it will be the holidays.’
‘So what do parents usually do in the holidays?’
‘Don’t ask me, what does you sister do with her two?
‘They are too far away for my mother to help out, they take some time off for the family holiday, that’s up in the air this year… the rest of the time, holiday clubs I think.’
‘All grandparents can’t be isolating, they can’t all be old and have health issues.’
‘The younger grandparents probably have jobs, or did have. Anyway, the boss still thinks we’re all doing a wonderful job working from home and wants as few coming back here as possible till we’re absolutely sure it’s safe.’
‘You can’t blame him after losing his daughter and that girl in my department, but it’s never going to be a hundred per cent safe in any work place, safe anywhere for sure.’
‘He’s changed a lot,’ said James ‘those who have known him a long time say he’s changed completely. Now we not only have to treat all the staff as family, we have to look after the homeless as well.’
‘I know, I got the email, I volunteered.’
‘I didn’t volunteer, it’s been dumped on me, have to work out the logistics of using this nearly empty building to make sure nobody in this city goes back on the streets.’
‘Isn’t that the future of offices, that’s what everyone is saying, but what do the homeless want? That’s what I’m going to find out at this ‘People in the Park’ thing this afternoon.’
‘Oh that, don’t you go taking in strangers Cassie.’
‘Is that likely, I’m afraid I’m not that much of a do-gooder, my home is my castle.’
‘Don’t I know it’ said James.
Cassie smiled to herself as she cycled to the park. Poor James, she was still managing to avoid telling him where she lived, but would she feel home owner guilt as she met up with these homeless people?
Luckily some overly sincere volunteer was facilitating the little gathering in the park, a couple of other MPJ people and five men and women and a dog. Cassie didn’t think of herself as good with people, but this little straggle of folk must be feeling even more nervous. She found herself drawn to the chap with the shaggy dog, Sam he introduced himself. The others were happy to let him do the talking, he was engaging and had good ideas. He needed a haircut, but so did everybody till the barbers reopened tomorrow; Sam didn’t match the homeless stereotype. Staying in a hotel obviously helped and perhaps he was recently homeless without ‘complex issues’. The more he talked the more fascinated Cassie was, how could such a chap have ended up with nothing in the world except a rescued dog? But what he said was true, how would putting these people in an empty office building help if they didn’t have jobs to regain their self respect. Where would the jobs come from in a post Covid recession.
When they broke up from their carefully distanced circle, agreeing to meet next week, Cassie felt she was at least part of something new and positive, even if she couldn’t see how it would work out. She felt a cold nose on her hand.
‘Sorry Miss, Sheba doesn’t understand social distancing.’
‘Oh er, call me Cassie please Sam, I like dogs, or at least I’ve never had one… I have got a pair of geckos.’
‘Really, how about that, I used to have some strange pets when I was a kid.’
Sam’s route around the park, with Sheba glad to be on the move, was the same path back to where Cassie had locked her bike. He walked parallel with her, keeping to the edge of the path, a safe distance, but smiling and chatting. Yes, Cassie felt she was part of something new and positive.
It was the dog she recognised first and even then she wasn’t sure it was him, without his red vest and his hair much longer. Vivienne was busy with the secateurs in the front garden, glad of the breeze and cooling of the weather. If she didn’t call out he would cross over to the corner and the moment would be lost.
He turned and looked, would he even recognise her out of context?
‘Wednesdays, noon, I always bought my Big Issue when I came out of the library after my class.’
‘Of course, how are you, fine by the look of it, me too.’
Vivienne was relieved, she had always felt slightly guilty at not offering him a home, a room at least, not that he was homeless exactly, but it sounded pretty grim the room he had in some place where you might get your stuff stolen and they were always being threatened with eviction. She could imagine James and Julia’s reaction if she had taken in a complete stranger and one wouldn’t know for sure if they were honest and then they might never leave. That was one good thing about the pandemic. All In, councils had to get everyone off the street, so she didn’t need to feel guilty about any homeless people, especially when she discovered she could subscribe to the Big Issue, get it through the post. The money still to go to Big Issue sellers who now needed help with mental health issues and loneliness and boredom, stuck in hotel rooms…. What would she say to Sam… thank goodness for dogs, always a conversation starter, Sheba, a shaggy friendly rescued dog.
‘She’s got a foster family, couldn’t have her in that hotel they put me up in. Now I’m allowed out I take her for a walk every day, access visit’ he laughed.
‘Sheba probably gets out more than me, I’ve got my divorced son living with me, polices my every move, though I guess he was right, the virus is so scary.’
Vivienne felt she had provided an explanation why the spare room could not be offered to Sam; even though there was now the worry about the homeless being put back out when hotels were back in business. The mention of divorce also made her feel more comfortable, her family, her life, was not cosily perfect; James could very well have ended up in the same position as Sam, they were much the same age, though it was hard to tell. She had no idea what Sam’s circumstances were, she didn’t like to intrude, he had his dignity and she could look up to him standing as a working person, not like walking past and trying not to look down at a bundle in the doorway.
‘What’s it like, the hotel?’
‘My own television, comfortable bed, three meals a day, some of the other guests though… I’m glad to get out and about, bit too hot the past few days…’
Vivienne looked at the over insulated dog, panting even in the cool breeze.
‘Would she like a drink?’
‘No, we’re right, Sheba’s been kitted out by the RSPCA’ he rummaged in his bag, produced a bottle of water and unfolded a dish. ‘New lead as well.’
She looked up the road, conscious that James was likely to come bowling down the road on his bike, back from his work break and daily exercise.
‘Well I must be going, I hope the library opens soon, maybe I’ll be back on my patch in July, before Sheba gets too soft and used to her foster home.’
He stepped out and crossed the road, narrowly missing James on his bike.
‘Who on earth was that Mother?’
‘My Big Issue man, you remember, I told you about him.’
‘Wednesdays, near the library, anyway at least he’s okay, for the moment, staying in a hotel.’
‘Nice to be some, you’re as bad as Cassie, she’s worried about her Big Issue girl, but you should be careful, how did he know where you lived?’
‘He didn’t, just coincidence, the dog’s foster home must be near here. It would be a shame if the poor dog didn’t want to go out on the streets, now she has enjoyed home comforts.’
‘Never mind the dog, the point is it could be dodgy, you don’t know him…’
‘I’m sure he’s not a burglar and he knows I’m not living alone,’ she decided to change the subject ‘anyway, talking of living alone, how’s Cassie, you haven’t said how the bubble idea is going.’
‘She’s not sure, thought she ought to ask that old lady next door to her if she wanted to be in her bubble, have her in for meals, make her feel less isolated.’
‘Oh that’s kind of her.’
‘Cassie already does enough, getting her shopping and stuff, anyway I shall find out this afternoon. I have to go in to the office again, all my plans up in the air now two metres distance has suddenly changed to one metre. Cassie has a few ideas, suggested chatting over the coffee machine. I can sign her in for half an hour.’
‘Well I suppose that will make a change from talking on line.’
Vivienne thought Cassie sounded like someone she would like and certainly an improvement on her first daughter-in-law, but what Cassie thought of James was another matter.
A short story featuring one of the briefer cases for the camper van detective in my new novel.
At The Seaside Nobody Hears You Scream
Debbie spotted the camper van as she walked across Riverside car park in her lunch hour, it was a handy short cut between the shops and the library. She read the poster in the window and imagined the private detective inside as a slightly seedy, middle aged man thrown out by his wife. But perhaps he could solve their library mystery. When the serious young man welcomed her she was worried he would consider their case flippant, but it seemed unlikely a private investigator operating out of a car park would be taken seriously by people with important cases to solve. She sat down on the narrow bench seat as he placed two mugs of coffee on the pull down table between them.
‘Mr. Channing, this case may sound unimportant, that is why we have not reported to the police.’
‘Many small events take on an importance only in retrospect; you must have reason to be concerned.’
‘When events went beyond the library we became worried, but it started several weeks ago. Books went missing; according to the computer they were on the shelves, but neither we nor library members could find them. Days later they would turn up; slipped amongst the DVDs, next to the public computers, even in our office or tea room.’
‘What sort of books?’
‘Always Agatha Christie, that’s what made it creepy, someone obsessed with murder or just a practical joker?’
Debbie saw Mr. Channing was taking her seriously, perhaps too seriously. She smiled ‘Some of our regular library members were not happy. …a big library and I can’t even get an Agatha Christie novel, suppose she’s not politically correct…’
‘Describe your library.’
‘A rambling Victorian building, two and a half floors, lots of rooms, nooks and crannies, easy I guess for things to happen… there were the fires.’
The private detective sat up straight. ‘Surely those would need to be reported?’
‘Tiny fires, the first in the waste paper basket in our office, luckily a quick thinking visitor dashed in and put it out before the smoke alarm went off. But we couldn’t think how it started, it’s not like the days when staff smoked in the office. Then strangely it happened again, in the tea room bin. I smelt smoke, poured the kettle over; it must have started only a few seconds before.’
‘Have you noticed anyone strange hanging around?’
‘Half our visitors are strange… I mean they might be perceived that way. This is a big town, we welcome everyone. It’s somewhere warm and free to pass the time, people with learning difficulties or mental health issues,’ she glanced up at his framed psychology degree ‘or the unemployed… some look shifty, think everyone is staring at them.’
‘Okay, a very busy library, visitors wandering around, plenty of places to lurk unseen…’
‘And then there are the chocolates, left in our office, or on the shelves, but this week three of us found a box on our doorstep when we got home…’
The young man’s expression alarmed Debbie.
‘Why didn’t you say before, you’re rightly worried that someone is following staff. I’ll take you on, expect to see me wandering around the library, but do not acknowledge me. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to call the police if something…’
‘We could hardly dial 999 to say someone gave us chocolates’ she laughed nervously.
The library staff were fascinated by their private investigator, he revealed nothing of himself and blended in with library users.
For a week events continued, flowers appeared, the young detective showed staff a picture on his mobile phone, a young man with dark features.
‘Oh, that’s the chap who put the fire out.’
‘He’s not a member?’
‘No, you have to prove you are a local resident, we tried to explain to him… is he homeless?’
‘…and stateless. Calls himself Dave, he is mentally frail, but harmless. He has nothing to prove who he is; brought on a very long journey from a village as a young boy. He could have been born anywhere from the Balkans to Afghanistan. He loves the library and the staff, hence the ‘presents’, the fires… attention seeking. I have found a charity that can help him.’
‘But why Agatha Christie?’
‘His grandfather loved Agatha Christie, the most widely translated author in the world. Dave remembered how he cherished the books. It was all the old man knew about England, when he told the boy where he was going. Reading them was Dave’s only link with the past.’
‘So he didn’t want other readers taking them away!’
Later, the staff realised Mr. Channing had asked for no fee, curious, Debbie set off once again across Riverside car park, but the camper van was gone.
Toby had spent a week trailing around the Middle England town, from the bus station to all night MacDonalds, 24 hour supermarkets and of course the library. Toby even found himself sharing a changing room at the swimming pool with ‘Dave’. Finally he got to talk to him at the Salvation Army, letting them believe he was also homeless and as a young single man unlikely to get help from the authorities. The suspect was as lonely as himself, as lost as Anna, but ‘Dave’ was not missing, because he did not exist, did not have a sister to go and visit or a mother to ring him up. Toby had certainly learnt a lot about real homelessness and if The Salvation Army officers had suspected he wasn’t genuine they had kept it to themselves, for it was Toby who had managed to draw ‘Dave’ out of himself. He hoped the young man would take the help offered by a specialist charity organisation. The library staff had loved the story and promised no authorities would hear about the events at the library.