The front door resisted his push. He needed to take it off its hinges and plane it again. Weird how it kept swelling. Bob wondered how big it would get if the frame wasn’t in place to constrain it. For a moment he was amused by the idea of giant doors, bursting from the houses in this street and taking over the world.
The handles of his carrier bags began biting into his cold fingers, so he gave a shove with his shoulder and the wooden panels shook and rattled their way inwards and bounced against a rubber stop on the wall.
The hallway was stifling. He and Faith had an ongoing battle with the central heating. Each time he turned it down a couple of degrees, Faith, when she noticed, would return it to its original setting.
They moved to this small bungalow when Bob retired from his job as a council operative – a posh name for a workman. During the last years of his employment he spent his days driving a pick-up truck full of tar and grit along the county’s streets, filling in potholes. Every day he would jump from his cab, onto the road, shovel stuff into great gaping fissures that needed more than he could give, tamp the surface and pull himself back into his seat, shrugging his shoulders in response to irate gestures from frustrated residents, who seemed to think it was his fault that the hole would be back in a couple of months.
When his knees and back could no longer take the impact of landing on the road, the council offered him an administrative job, but he had never been great with figures and writing, so he took early retirement. He and Faith sold their 1950s semi in south London and moved up the country to be nearer the grand-kids. The money they earned from the North South Divide provided a nice little pot to subsidise their pension.
His back ached. It hurt most of the time these days but he was stoical. You couldn’t give in to these things. You had to live life – never stop until your last breath. Well, that was his feeling, anyway; Faith was different. At the death of each celebrity from their youth, she would intone, ‘There goes another one. It might be me next.’
She must know she had years in her. She was inviting his reassurance but Bob’s response would be to head straight to his computer to search for a bargain holiday, or weekend, or even a night out, anything to prove that he could plan a future, for them both. He refused to pander to her insecurity, whatever it was.
The house was quiet.
‘Hello? I’m back.’
Silence met him. Strange, she hadn’t said she was going out.
Ahead and to his left the sitting room door was ajar, and beyond the gap, in front of a velour armchair, the dry, pale heels of a pair of bare feet rested on the Axminster, their yellowing toenails pointed at the ceiling.
Bob released the shopping from his numb fingers and ignored the sound of breaking glass as the bags landed on the parquet. His anxious feet hobbled into the room, where for a heartbeat, he struggled to comprehend what he saw. His wife lay, fingers linked on her stomach and elbows at her sides, wearing a vacant expression, her eyes open and staring.
Bob dropped to his knees beside her and lowered his face to hers, feeling for her breath on his cheek. Blood pounded in his ears.
Faith blinked and swiveled her eyes to meet his, then the corners of her mouth lifted into a smile.
‘Hello Love. I didn’t hear you.’
He swallowed. ‘You gave me a scare.’
‘Did I? Sorry.’ She remained where she lay. ‘I’ve been on the internet.’
‘Have you?’ He reduced the proximity of their faces.
‘Yes.’ She wiggled her hips from side to side and something made a papery rustle. ‘What do you think?’
‘What?’ Fear-induced irritation rocketed from Bob’s creaking knees, up through his chest to his pounding head. His voice soared an octave. ‘What the fuck,. She winced at the word he so rarely used, so he said it again, ‘The FUCK are you on about?’
Her face took on the look of a parent with a recalcitrant child. ‘Stand up and tell me if you think it fits,’ she instructed.
Bob took a huge breath that made his chest hurt. He had given up smoking when he was in his early twenties but still he wheezed, now and then. It was probably the change of temperature. He grabbed the top of the coffee table and hauled himself to his feet, with a grimace. Faith was so lithe and fit, compared to him.
She lay on her back, smiling beatifically up at him as he pressed his palms into his back, and studied his wife. There was something underneath her, framing her body.
‘I ordered it from Amazon yesterday and it came this morning. Wonderful service. I didn’t know you could buy do-it-yourself ones. It’ll save a fortune when the time comes.’
His head swung slowly from side to side in disbelief, while his eyes remained on her face. Oblivious, she went on, ‘They send a template, just like a sewing pattern. You simply choose the size that fits then key in the code number on their website, and they send you a flat-pack. You can paint it any colour you like. I was thinking I might get creative: pale pink with roses or something.’
He had to remind himself why he loved her. Sometimes he thought she might be from a different planet. As he stared in outrage at the woman who had partnered him for the past 50 years, a pain blasted his insides. He clutched his chest and bent double. Faith frowned and sat up. ‘Bob! Are you OK?’
Her voice echoed in his ears but he found himself unable to respond, the agony was everywhere.
As Faith’s agile body leapt from the floor, Bob’s unresponsive one dropped like the shopping in the hallway, straight onto the coffin template.
When Rob looked back, he realised that his childhood was scattered with ice cream moments. His dad loved ice cream. Often they would all be in the sunny garden, himself, his brother Mike, Mum and Dad. Dad in shorts, Mum in a mini skirt, not too short, although he was of the opinion that the skirt was too brief for his mum’s slightly chunky legs. But everyone had worn miniskirts in those days.
Lying on his back with the spiky lawn making his arms itch, and the sun’s heat penetrating the pores on his face, his lunch time hunger sated by tomato sandwiches (who ate tomato sandwiches these days?) when a tune, slightly off key, would float from the road. That call, five notes to four beats, ding do-o-ng dee-ding dong, announcing the arrival of a clotted cream and strawberry coloured van at the kerb somewhere along his road.
His dad would leap to his feet, eyes gleaming. “Who’s for an ice cream then?” He would grin, knowing they would all shout, “Me! Me!”
There wasn’t much choice. A block of vanilla between two rectangles of wafer, a cornet, not with the soft, whippy ice cream you get today, but a scoop pressed into the cone, choc-ices and lollies, some with ice cream in the middle, splits they were called. Rob didn’t think there was much else to choose from, but it didn’t matter, they would each have their favourite. Rob would usually choose a choc-ice and get in a terrible mess; he was slow at ice cream; it was so cold. Once, his dad had brought him his choc-ice in a sort of rectangular cornet, that had been easier but he hadn’t really liked the soggy wafer.
Wherever they went, when Dad was with them, there would be an ice cream moment. On the front at Brighton, where Nan and Gramps lived, Dad would spot a kiosk from miles away, “Who’s for an ice cream then?” he would ask.
Hiking through the Devon countryside, Rob and Mike moaning “How much further?” or “Are we nearly home?” Dad would cheerfully remind them that they were nearly at a village and then the familiar words,
“Who’s for an ice cream then?”
It was after tea one day when Rob was about ten – so Mike must have been eight. They were all round the kitchen table having Neapolitan ice cream, apart from Mum, who was trying to cut down, she was putting on weight she told them. Rob had carefully dissected his ice cream into thirds and had eaten the strawberry bit and the vanilla bit, saving the chocolate section until last.
His mum and dad were sitting opposite them and as Rob slid the first delectable spoonful of chocolate ice into his mouth, his dad put down his spoon. “Boys, Mummy and I have a bit of news, quite a surprise really.” Rob was concentrating on his dessert but his dad ploughed on. “Mummy, well we, all of us, are going to have a baby.”
Rob’s attention left his melting dessert and he jerked his eyes to the grinning face of his father and the calmer, happy face of his mum. Was that the last time he remembers his dad smiling? He must have smiled on other occasions as they all waited for the interminable months to pass, but as mum’s girth grew and dad worked, and painted the nursery, and tidied up the garden all on his own with instructions from Mum, they were so busy, there was no time for ice cream moments.
Everyone was excited? Would it be a boy or a girl, what would they call it? Would it look like its brothers?
Rob tried not to think about the baby’s conception; surely only young people had sex, not old ones like Mum and Dad, who must have been, well getting on for forty. The idea of his parents doing “It” disgusted him and he shied away from it.
To complicate matters at that time Rob was about to move up to the big school. Uniform had to be bought so his mother, her ankles swelling in the heat, puffed through town with Rob and Mike in tow, then took up too much room in the tiny school uniform shop. A hideous purple blazer was purchased and a purple and yellow tie. The blazer nearly reached his knees. Room for growth his mother explained to the sales assistant.
In town, buying the uniform, that was when everything had changed. Mum was in a hurry, she wanted to get home for a cup of tea and to put her feet up. Rob and Mike lingered and pressed their noses up to the window of the model shop. There were ships, soldiers and aeroplanes, all made up and painted. Rob loved those Airfix kits; if he ever got money for his birthday this shop was where he headed, to buy a complicated kit and a selection of enamel paints in tiny paint tins. Mum called to the boys to hurry up, and reluctantly they headed towards her waiting bulk, standing at the kerb of the busy high street.
Suddenly there was a screech of brakes and a loud bang and then his mum was lying on the pavement with blood trickling from her nostrils. The memory is like a snapshot, she is on her back, her bump is like a mountain, her legs are at an odd angle. There is a mess of vehicles, one part way up the kerb, one skewed across the road, and a bus, its front caved in and all the passengers craning to see what has happened. He doesn’t want to go near; he is afraid of what he will find, but Michael is running, speeding ahead and screaming “Mummy!” Rob hangs back as a crowd gathers. Someone runs to the telephone box on the corner. Rob keeps his distance. Mummy is hidden from view now but he can hear Mike’s wail, “Mummy, Mummy, wake up. Rob imagines the boy shaking his mother while she lies, senseless on the cold slabs, wimpering now, “Mummy. Mummy.”
Rob sat down suddenly on the pavement. A lady came to him and asked if he was related to Mummy and Mike. He nodded, his eyes still fixed on the backs of the crowd. She sat down beside him, right there on the pavement, and put her arm round him. He didn’t want her to do that but he didn’t know how to tell her. The cold of the stone seeped into his small buttocks and the rough fabric of the lady’s coat irritated his cheek. She had a different smell from anyone in his family, of sickly perfume and something powdery.
An ambulance arrived. It looked like an ice cream van but there was no ding-dong-de-ding-do-o-ong. The crowd muttered and moved as uniformed men descended into their midst. A police car turned up next, and two tall officers elbowed their way between the huddled shoulders of the crowd.
Then Rob was home, he can’t remember getting there, Daddy was on the settee weeping, with Mike clinging to him. Rob hung back, shocked by the sight of his father crying; he hadn’t known then that men could cry. In the hospital there was a new baby, but Mummy had gone for ever.
Rob looks back over the years. He and Mike are in their 50s now and that baby, Laurie, he is in his 40s. It was Laurie who made things right again though, in another ice cream moment. Dad was at the sink, washing up the plates from their sausages. Laurie was in his high chair and they were eating a new flavour, raspberry ripple. Rob was trying not to compare the raspberry streaks with the blood trickling down his mother’s face on that awful day. As if to distract him Laurie blew a raspberry. The toddler’s face was a mess of ice cream and the bubbles he blew were white but did resemble a raspberry. Look Dad,” Mike cried. “Laurie’s blown a raspberry ripple”.
Dad turned wearily from the sink and looked at the baby, then he laughed. He laughed again and then Bob and Mike joined in. Laurie looked pleased with himself and blew another raspberry ripple. Bob didn’t know why they laughed so much. Maybe it was the joy of hearing Dad laugh again after so many months. It was in that ice cream moment that Rob knew everything would be alright.
Marion parked the car by the hedge. In the back, her dog, Maurice, lumbered to his feet, ears alert and tongue alternately lolling, and lapping his black muzzle. He was, like Marion, in his middle years but unlike his mistress, still longed to run, and chase a ball.
They visited this disused chalk quarry almost every day. In early summer it was a mass of rare flowers and plants. Butterflies danced between orchids and vetch, and Damsel Flies hovered low on the hard-mud tracks that circumnavigated and crisscrossed the flat piece of land that lay between sloping, chalk-bald sides, rimmed at their upper edges by sparse woodland and beyond, on one side, a road.
Now, in late summer, Marion had thought that autumn was upon them. The evenings had cooled, were cold even, and the balmy days, sitting with Keith, gin in hand, watching House Martins plunging grubs into the tiny bills under next door’s eves, were ended for the year. Now, however, a humid and intense heat from a late August sun, had brought forth more butterflies and a brief opportunity for outdoor living.
A grass hopper fizzed from the verge as she slammed shut her door and lifted the tailgate to release Maurice. She caught up a chucker with a slime flattened tennis ball clenched in its yellow, plastic jaws, and closed and locked the car.
The dog strained to be released, wheezing against the noose of lead. There were no other cars nearby and apart from birdsong there was a heavy silence on this bank holiday Monday afternoon. This area was a dog-walker’s paradise and one got to know regulars, some well enough to nod and say, ‘lovely day’ to, others, who became friends.
Marion made the dog sit, and pulled off his lead, then launched the ball over the gate and down into the grass. She needed both hands to negotiate the uneven ground and the drop into the chalk meadow. Maurice leapt away, found the ball, sniffed around in the willow herb and clover then cocked his leg on a clump of grass before trotting back to meet her, tail waving and tongue lolling from his huge smile. He dropped the ball at her feet and began to run before she had even picked it up.
She raised her arm to throw. This would be their pattern as they paced twice round the circumference. She would walk, throw and shout, he would sniff, shit and pee.
They turned to the right to join the main track and Marion took in a deep breath. The smells of a dying summer rose from the ground: decaying vegetation, fragrant last-minute flowers and burgeoning blackberries and elderberries. She had stored blackberries, steeped in gin, in a dark cupboard under the stairs. The liquor would be perfect by Christmas. She pushed the thought of Christmas from her mind. Not in this sunshine.
Something attracted her gaze. There was a figure, maybe more than one, sitting or lying on the sloping ground on the far side of the quarry. How lovely. A picnic on this beautiful day. She threw the tennis ball again and directed her feet on their usual route, towards the diners and round the edge of the field.
As she drew closer, she realised that there were two figures, a courting couple. She dismissed the quaint phrase. These two were very definitely not courting. She drew closer, undeterred by the intimacy of their actions, this was, after all, her regular route, and the pair seemed oblivious to her presence. The scene was tender. There was certainly a girl although all Marion could see of her were a pair of smooth plump legs extending either side of the kneeling, fully clothed back and buttocks of a young man. The girl’s legs terminated in a pair of white trainers. The boy stooped towards her, his movements tender and unhurried. His push-bike lay beside him on the ground. Now, this close, Marion couldn’t, in all decency, look. She threw the ball again and walked on past, staring at a pair of orange butterflies that settled on the ground in front of her and took off a moment later, at the approach of her well booted feet. She wondered at the audacity of the act she had just passed. The young people had placed themselves in clear view of the gate and the road. They could have lain in the woodland, just beyond, but had chosen instead the glorious warmth of the afternoon to make their love.
In her menopausal, dried up state, Marion felt no lust, neither did she feel disgust, only a sense of loss. Nostalgia drew her back. Marion had once lain under the sun, half distracted by the sound of a distant tractor, half by her lover’s caress. Precious brushes of tongue, lips, fingertips. Savouring each miniscule, unhurried, electric movement. Was that so long ago? It was another life. Not better, just different.
She strode on, feeling a little puffed and promising herself a healthy meal this evening.
On her second circuit, she took a diagonal path, avoiding the couple, wondering if they had consummated their act. Two more cars were parked by the gate now and heads bobbed along various footpaths.
Back at the car, Maurice slumped on the floor, slobbering wet spots onto her rolled up coat. She started the engine and manoeuvred the small car round a CRV that had almost blocked her in.
At home she parked on the drive behind Keith’s BMW, and released Maurice, who plodded to the door, desperate for water. This late sun had given the lawn an extra spurt of growth and she hoped that Keith would notice before she had to press him to mow it.
She opened the front door.
‘Good walk?’ Her husband’s voice reached her from the office, his hideaway, her excuse to watch Casualty, alone with only a box of chocolates for company. She stuck her head into the room.
‘Lovely. There are still butterflies. So peaceful. Not a soul about.’ She smiled at him. ‘Cup of tea?’
Backforth House is an unlikely care home that hides at the end of a residential road, its side butting against a scrubby, rubbishy mound of railway embankment. From the pavement, if you ignore the gawking residents, it is exactly like the rest of the Victorian, terraced street: three houses knocked inappropriately into one, higgledy-piggledy home.
Margaret Lewis, a stalwart volunteer, tries with her mid-life hearing, to catch what’s being said in the lounge as she passes, dragged towards a window in the next room by Caroline, a beloved resident. This excited woman-child wants to share something impossible to articulate. As Margaret’s portly body sweeps past an anxiously huddled group of staff she can catch only a few grave words from Matron, but the words are enough to fill her with dread.
‘The bank has refused’
Margaret’s head lags behind, her neck craning and her arms stretched to their limit, while her legs run the course of Caroline’s desired route, but she can catch no more. Eventually, captor and captive, arrive at a tall sash window. Its frames are bolted together to prevent any ‘unfortunate’ accidents, and layers of paint almost obliterate the crack that once allowed the top and bottom to slide independently and give the stuffy room access to fragrant, fresh air.
Grunting, Caroline presses her forehead to the glass, putting her arm round Margaret’s neck to force her attention to the view. With her cheek uncomfortably distorted against Caroline’s shoulder Margaret contemplates the garden and thinks, not for the first time, how regrettable is the state of it. She’s been hatching a plan to recruit her two best friends, Celia and Marion, to tidy it up. There are some lovely trees and shrubs; it would only take a couple of weekends’ solid work to make it right then they could all sit out there on sunny days. The residents would love that, especially Caroline.
Caroline’s greatest interest, apart from an insatiable desire to steal other people’s food, is to watch the birds that swoop in the air, or peck and bob in the garden. On outings, Caroline’s attention must be diverted from the sky or progress is almost impossible.
The object of current exuberance is a Raven. It sits on a waving branch a few feet from the window. Suddenly Caroline releases Margaret and launches herself back into the lounge, galloping round the room excitedly. Margaret straightens her hair and blouse while the raven takes off in alarm.
If the ravens leave….
In a tearoom in town, three middle-aged widows, Margaret amongst them, are taking tea.
‘Bloody bureaucracy.’ Marion stretches a slender arm for the teapot and drains the last of it into her cup. She opens her mouth, revealing a set of cream coloured teeth which she deploys to remove a large chunk from her slice of Victoria sponge. She chews crossly.
Margaret would have liked a cup of tea too – and a cake. Marion is so lucky, she can eat whatever she likes. Margaret screws round in her seat hoping to catch the eye of a waitress. Why do they always look the other way when you want them?
She returns her attention to her companions.
‘Well, there’s not much we can do. If the bank won’t lend them the money then that’s it. End of story.’
‘How much do they need?’ Marion sucks crumbs from her fingertips with lips that put Margaret in mind of the bit of a balloon that shrivels round the knot.
‘£150,000, I believe.’
The small tea room clatters and murmurs. Margaret tries again to find a waitress. Her neck begins to ache and she turns back again, massaging it.
‘D’you think we could raise it?’
‘I’ve always wanted to do a sky dive.’ The two women stare at the third member of their trio.
‘A sky dive, Celia; with your condition?’
Margaret takes a worried breath. Powerful emotions usually invoke in catalectic Celia, the instant collapse of her supporting muscles, as though someone has pushed up her base. A sky dive would probably have the same effect; if the narcolepsy didn’t get her first.
Celia’s face begins to droop.
‘I’ve got her.’ Marion leaps to the back of Celia’s chair and catches her friend by the armpits. ‘I’ve got you Celia, don’t worry.’ She leans closer to Celia’s ear,
While they wait for Celia to recover, Margaret thinks about the residents in Backforth House. Apart from Caroline, her favourite because she is so funny and happy in her own little world, there’s plump Michael who won’t speak to anyone but shouts at the television, and Louise who sits and rocks in a corner, her hands clenched in perpetual prayer. None of them are visited by families; the only people to care about them are the staff, and Margaret.
Margaret started going to the home when her daughter Charlotte was offered a place there. Charlotte was born 30 years ago with every complication imaginable. When they realised they couldn’t give Charlotte everything she needed, Margaret and her husband, Gerald, dejectedly visited dozens of unsuitable care homes across the county and beyond. As soon as they stepped into Backforth House, though, they knew it was the right place.
Gerald and Charlotte are both gone now but Margaret still visits. Backforth House is her second home and the residents and staff, her family.
‘I don’t think a sky dive would raise enough money, anyway. We need a campaign, something to invoke indignation across the country,’ she says.
‘We cd wite soo Bill Gates.’ Celia is coming round, sluggishly.
‘Is it his sort of thing? I’ll check on the internet when I get home.’ Marion is a bit of a whiz on the computer, if somewhat gungho.
‘Let’s sleep on it.’ Margaret doesn’t hold out much hope.
The phone is ringing. Margaret drags herself from profound slumber and fumbles for her glasses.
‘Hello?’ She squints at the clock: 2.30am.
‘Maggy, it’s Marion.’
‘Marion. It’s 2.30. What’s wrong?’ Margaret’s voice is husky with sleep.
‘Nothing, nothing,’ the voice is impatient, ‘I’ve had an idea.’
Margaret yawns. ‘Couldn’t it wait ’til morning?’ She reaches for her water and knocks it over – damn, and pulls out a handful of tissues to dab at the puddle.
‘Let’s rob the bank. You know? The one that refused the money.’
Margaret’s hand freezes in mid-air,
‘Don’t be ridiculous. We can’t do that.’
‘Yes – we can. Who would suspect three middle-aged, middle class ladies of robbing a bank?
‘Go back to sleep, Marion, you’re bonkers.’
Celia is slumped over Marion’s kitchen table.
‘Look, how could she rob a bank? You just suggested it and she’s gone!’ Margaret ducks her head at Celia.
‘Well, we’ll need someone to drive the getaway vehicle.’
‘No, Marion. If it’s to be done, we’ll have to do it alone.’ What is she saying?
‘So you’ll do it?’
Margaret pictures Caroline, galloping round the room. ‘Maybe.’
Marion becomes business-like. ‘I’ve thought of everything. We’re going to need disguises, built-up shoes, replica guns and recording equipment. Oh, and we need to steal a car.’
In the drive of a suburban house somewhere far from home, Margaret is shivering beside a darkly gleaming Ford Mondeo.
‘How on earth do you know all this Marion?’ she whispers.
It is pitch dark. 2am again as a matter of fact. The two women are dressed in black. Short, wide Margaret sports a natty black track suit and bobble hat while tall, slender Celia manages to be elegant even in criminal camouflage.
‘OK, just a small hole – here.’ Ignoring her co-conspiritor’s question, Marion dips her head to aim the beam of her head torch onto the spot, and places the tip of her drill just below the door lock. The tool shrieks in the night silence and Margaret looks around wildly, but all is peaceful.
‘And pull the handle.’ Marion’s voice is calm as the car door opens revealing deep shadows within. ‘That worked.’ She draws a can of stuff from her rucksack and passes it to Margaret. ‘Spray this on the number plates; it’ll make them unreadable by cameras.’
With a pounding pulse Margaret obeys, while Marion climbs into the driver’s seat and begins to fumble behind the dashboard. As Margaret climbs in beside her the engine thrums into life.
‘The wonders of the internet,’ Marion’s face breaks into a wicked grin.
Cruising along empty roads Margaret starts to laugh. Marion explodes into giggles and they snort hysterically for several minutes.
‘Stop!’ Marion begs, ‘I’m going to wet myself!’
‘Don’t do that, you’ll leave forensic evidence on the seat.’
They hoot again and continue to giggle on and off until they get to Celia’s house. The garage is open and they roll in, pull the door closed from inside and step into Celia’s hallway via the adjoining entrance.
Celia is in the lotus position in the middle of the kitchen floor. She stops her humming for a moment.
‘Please don’t tell me about it. Is the car in the garage? Ommmmm’
‘OK, good night.’ Celia resumes the hum; her eyes are closed.
Margaret and Marion start along the hall.
As they reach the front door Celia calls after them.
‘Night,’ then, after a slight pause, ‘I did want to do a sky dive though. Ommmmmm.’
Bank clerk William Child, known ironically as Billy the Kid, is hungry. A cheese and pickle sandwich and bag of salt and vinegar crisps await his attention in the staff room downstairs.
His two fellow cashiers are hauling bags of recently delivered coins and notes downstairs to the vault, while Billy counts the cash in his till.
There’s movement at the front door and Billy raises his eyes. A couple of slightly weird looking men have entered. Billy’s stomach gurgles like a faulty radiator, and he tries not to think of food.
One of the men, wide, with long legs and a bushy beard, approaches the till with a shambling bearing. Billy smiles unenthusiastically as the fellow’s hirsute visage looms before him through the glass.
‘Reach for the sta-a-ars.’ The voice of Woody, from Toy Story, escapes from somewhere about the body of the bearded man and to Billy’s further alarm and disbelief, a gun appears from deep within the enormous coat, it’s nozzle directed at his head.
A loud bang causes Billy’s heart to pump and his arms to shoot, without argument, towards the ceiling. Once he is sure that he is alive, though, he observes with a mixture of relief and trepidation that the explosive noise has come from the slamming front door. Billy’s errant stomach rumbles again and his bladder is suddenly unbearably full.
There’s an alarm button under his counter but Billy, his arms still aloft, has no intention of pressing it.
The bearded man holds up a large holdall and gestures to Billy to take it. Billy lowers his hands to unlock his security window, and shakily takes the bag.
An American man’s voice, later he will earn that is the voice of Rythm and Blues singer, Johnny Gill, announces, ‘One hundred and fifty thousand.’
‘You want £150,000?’
The man nods.
The second man jiggles from foot to foot beside the closed front door.
Billy begins, in accordance with his training, to load the smallest denominations into the bag first. The gun waves threateningly and Billy’s hand shoots to the £50 notes.
‘I’m not sure how much I’ve got in here,’ he wavers.
The American voice repeats, ‘One hundred and fifty thousand.’
‘OK, OK.’ He loads in fifties, twenties, tens and fives. There is actually quite a lot of cash in his till because Mason’s, the jeweller, and Partridges mini-market, have just paid in. Behind him the remains of the Securicor delivery sits waiting for his colleagues to return. The gun points to a bag of notes and Billy adds it to the haul and passes the bag of loot towards the gloved hands of the strange man.
The second man opens the door and they both hobble out. As they leave Billy could swear he hears the voice of Tommy Cooper saying,
‘Thank you very much.’
Billy’s colleagues come clumping noisily up the stairs, discussing football. Billy presses the alarm.
A few moments later, two middle-aged ladies emerge from the gents in Victoria Park. They giggle a bit, looking embarrassed that they have gone in the wrong loo. A young man twinkles at them sympathetically then forgets them in his urgency.
The sound of sirens comes from the High Street but the ladies, who have arrived in a blue Mondeo, climb into a Fiat Cinquecento and drive demurely away.
‘The thieving bastards! If you can’t trust a bank to give you the right money then who can you trust?’ Marion glares at the piles of cash lined up on the coffee table in Celia’s living room. They are £2,305 short.
‘Well, he did say he wasn’t sure how much he had.’ Margaret defended the young man, who had nice eyes and wavy hair that reminded her of Gerald when he was young.
‘Well I’m not robbing another bank!’ explodes Marion.
They are dressed in overalls. The harnesses weigh heavy on their backs.
Margaret is chanting a mantra to herself,
‘it’s safer than crossing the road. It’s safer than crossing the road.’
Three instructors wearing khaki siren suits, sit opposite them looking relaxed and amused.
‘OK, ladies, it’s time to get ready.’
Margaret pauses her chanting to swallow.
‘I can’t believe I’m doing this!’
‘Me neither.’ Marion nods down the tiny gangway. ‘Just look at her.’ Celia is slumped on her knees with her bottom in the air and her forehead resting on the floor. It’s been quite a battle to persuade the sky diving company to let Celia come along. The friends had to sign disclaimers and Marion flirted despicably with the paunchy and bespectacled manager.
The instructors stand up and Margaret and Marion follow suit. It feels wobbly underfoot. Margaret and Marion heave the drooping body of Celia upright and between them all they manage to strap her onto one of the men. Their harnesses are yanked and tightened, and Celia is attached to her solid and youthful professional.
Below them – very far below, the entire staff and residents of Backforth House can be seen in the bright sunshine. A tiny Caroline is galloping round the edge of the group with a nurse in pursuit. Flags wave and the faint sound of the brass band wafts up to them over the drone of the small plane.
‘Ready then? Marion is grinning at Margaret.
‘I can’t believe I’m actually…’
‘Shut up Maggy and jump. 1, 2, 3 Geronimo-o-o!’
I AM WONDER WOMAN
I am Wonder Woman. It’s a secret. Nobody knows but me. My family thinks I am the domestic help and my friends, well, they only get fleeting views of me as I fly around ‘Wondering’.
Let me set the scene. Picture me: a manic, middle-aged matriarch, glasses at nose tip, in a cluttered, kid-stroke-cat filled kitchen (that’s stroke as in punctuation not caress), ‘phone clamped between shoulder and ear, stirring a pot of something aromatic and discussing the finances of the local youth club. With diminishing hormones I battle with a large house, career driven husband, teenage and seven-year-old daughters, a string of hobbies and an enthusiastic involvement in village organisations.
…It was not always thus. I was once a child, in an orderly and happy home. My mother organised, arranged and cleaned with a huge amount of energy, love and personality. And she cooked. And she taught me to cook. Family life was punctuated by meals: home cooked, delicious, comforting, stodgy, mainly soft and absolutely enormous. Mother came from the war time school of thought: eat lots, don’t waste anything, the more cholesterol the better, boil the vegetables to a pulp and never cut the fat off the meat, it’s the best bit. Meals were accompanied by lively debate about the quality of the meat, the crispness of the crackling or the shortness of the pastry.
Food marked all occasions. Birthdays, wedding anniversaries and achievements of all kinds were celebrated with a feast. These ceremonies would comprise several courses cooked with and accompanied by quantities of butter, cream and alcohol. Outside the home some of our greatest treats were had in the company of my paternal Grandparents. Grandpa liked to live the high life. He and Grandma had foods we never had at home: Ruby red Ribena to drink, brown bread sandwiches spread with unsalted Dutch butter and filled with silky smooth smoked salmon from Harrods’ Food Hall, gleaming strawberries with sugar and cakes exploding with whipped cream. On their coffee table Grandma and Grandpa always had a fruit bowl topped with a bunch of sweet and juicy black grapes, a great treat. Surrounding the fruit bowl were little dishes of crystallised fruits and chocolates in which, after we left, were to be found my brother’s tooth marks, evidence of the centres that hadn’t matched his hopes.
My mother’s parents were less profligate. Nanna grew tomatoes and cucumbers in the greenhouse and I would often go with her into its tropical, leafy interior, fragrant with the smell of warm tomatoes, to pick the best cucumber for tea. We would laugh at the bendy ones and at the strangely shaped tomatoes with lumps and carbuncles which would later provide the ingredients for her home made tomato juice. Bampy was the outdoor gardener. He grew marrows, potatoes, carrots and runner beans which, again, we would ‘help’ to pick. Nanna’s meals were slowly cooked and delicious and I remember stewed leg of lamb with caper sauce and roast beef with drool inducing gravy.
Meanwhile in the 21st Century, as you can imagine from the above, modern Wonder Woman does not have quite the physique of her 1940’s, comic strip namesake. Waging a battle between healthy eating and fine dining, my aim is to cook, in equal balance, delicious, healthy and quick meals. Delicious because food should always be delicious, even if it’s cheese on toast, healthy so that I may keep what is left of my figure and quick, to leave time for my many other interests: I write a blog, I paint and sing in a choir, I am Treasurer to the Youth Club and Editor of the Village magazine, I walk every day and I even have some friends! To give myself time for these activities I appear, unconsciously to have devised for myself some quite effective kitchen policies.
Kitchen policies one and two: Never do one thing when you can do six and always have home cooked food in the freezer. This may be why the kitchen is often an area of frenzied activity. As well as children, washing, emails, music practise, homework and philosophical debate there are often multiple cooking projects on the go. There may well be stock simmering in the slow cooker; the oven may be full of casserole to be portion up later for the freezer. There could be a huge pan of lamb curry or split pea dhal or a soup using up the left over vegetables, and dinner might be cooking as well.
I once had a friend whom I admired enormously for the relaxed and efficient way she ran her home. She and I had an outside catering business for a couple of years and she taught me a massive amount, but the thing that impressed me most was her freezer. In it were stacks of home baked sponge cake layers, about 20 of each flavour. If she was expecting a visitor she would simply select two matching disks: chocolate, Victoria, orange or lemon and whip up an appropriate filling. I dream of having a freezer filled with sponge cake layers but in fact mine is full of other home made goodies. I have tomato sauce, cooked rice, home made pastry, curry, stock, soup and other dishes ready prepared for a fast get away.
Kitchen policy number three: Don’t use a recipe book use your imagination and experience. A lifetime of cooking has left me with a bookcase full of recipe books which I hardly read. How much more exciting and creative it is to devise recipes. Lovely Fennel and Butternut squash soup; Fennel, slightly sweet and aniseedy combined with aromatic spices and smooth, sweet butternut squash. Delicious! The house will smell divine after roasting the spices and as family members come home from school or work you will be rewarded with their enthusiastic appreciation and anticipation of a feast to come.
Of course there must be a good stock to begin with: use a supermarket turkey drumstick roasted until brown or a left over chicken carcass and simmer for a about 4 hours with celery, leek, whole onion and carrot with bay leaves and black peppercorns. Take the lid off after 3 hours and reduce the liquid to a nice concentrated stock. Taste it to be sure you have the flavour right. The stock should be drained and then chilled to a jelly and the fat removed from the top. For the soup fry a teaspoon of cumin seeds and two of fennel seeds and the seeds from three cardamom pods in a little olive oil until they start to jump about or they are getting dark in colour. Throw in a diced onion and half a chopped chilli, with the pith and seeds removed and stir the vegetables over a medium heat until the onions are transparent and very slightly browned. Add a large chopped bulb of fennel and a big toe sized piece of peeled, grated root ginger. Season with plenty of salt and some black pepper and keep stirring for a few more minutes before pouring on about a litre of stock. Bring the soup to the boil and simmer, covered for about 20 minutes or until the vegetables are soft. Meanwhile bake a small sliced butternut squash, without the seeds, in the oven. When the flesh is soft and the edges are toffee coloured, remove it from the oven and set aside. Once the fennel and onion are tender add the butternut squash and puree the soup until smooth then pass it through a sieve to get rid of the bits of spice and any black bits of squash. Tip in a 400ml can of low fat coconut milk and bring back to a simmer. Serve your soup topped with the feathery leaves from the fennel bulb; yummy!
Back to the policies. Kitchen policy number four: Use the best ingredients you can afford. Local suppliers of fresh fruit and vegetables can be extremely good, especially of locally grown produce. I get mine delivered by a local organic supplier of boxes which also saves time and is quite exciting as I never know quite what I will get. Local isn’t always a byword for good though, especially for meat. Don’t forget that supermarkets now sell organic and farm reared meat and the quality is always consistent
Kitchen policy number five: Don’t be precious. If there is a gadget that will make it quicker or easier, then get it. A ‘liquidiser on a stick’ is invaluable for soup and I have something called a Sauciere which makes effortless Hollandaise sauce. Food doesn’t have to be prepared with a wooden spoon and a cook’s knife to be called home cooking.
And finally, here is the most important one of all. Kitchen policy number six: Don’t spend your whole life in the kitchen. When you’ve created your scrumptious food and everyone has polished it off, give the kids a craft project, give the old man a DIY job, kick the cupboard doors shut, set the dishwasher to spin, eat up, clean up, dress up and get out. After all, did you ever see Wonder Woman toiling in the kitchen wearing a pinny?